Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Problem With Praise

Rutland Herald, Rutland, Vermont
Author says self-esteem kick is hobbling society
August 31, 2008
Staff Writer

Vermont psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath remembers when she first noticed people in their 20s and 30s reporting the same symptoms: They felt deficient or dissatisfied. Feared humiliation. Fell at times into depression, anxiety or addiction.

The therapist, seeking the cause, asked each about their childhoods. She found similarities — but not based on any shared disadvantage. Instead, all recalled parents who deemed them “special” and doled out gold stars and “good job!” praise for the simplest and smallest of actions.

Young-Eisendrath, a 61-year-old mother and grandmother, started thinking.

“I wondered if the restlessness, self-obsession and cynicism that I witnessed in youth and children had to do with the dying out of ‘traditional’ parenting, the kind that I grew up with, where the lines between the generations were clearly drawn and a hierarchy of power was always in place.”

And so she began to research and write her new book. “The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance” is her 256-page answer to the question of what’s ailing today’s seemingly well-off youth and how their troubles are affecting society.

The therapist only has to follow the news to find examples. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, for example, just announced that a tougher state law targeting teen speeders has reduced fatal crashes by 37 percent — and raised families’ demands for taxpayer-supported ticket-reconsideration hearings by 20 percent.

So what happens when today’s youth become tomorrow’s lawmakers, teachers, repairmen and nurses?

Young-Eisendrath, in practice for two decades, has read plenty of books about the problem of idealizing and indulging children. But other than the cocktail recipes in the strange-but-true mother’s guide “The Three-Martini Playdate,” she found little that was stirring up conversation about a solution. That’s why she spent a year interviewing young people, parents, school and social workers and mental health experts.

Her book, which Little, Brown and Company will release Tuesday, is reaping good reviews from fellow therapists like Michael Gurian, author of the national bestseller “The Wonder of Boys” (he calls it “groundbreaking”). Young-Eisendrath now hopes what she discovered will get everyone else talking.

Leading to failure

Drive 10 miles north from the Statehouse in Montpelier and you’ll reach the small town of Worcester, where, up a hidden, hillside road, Young-Eisendrath lives and works.

An Ohio native who moved to Vermont 12 years ago, she’s a psychologist (a social scientist of the brain and its behavior), a psychotherapist (a specialist who treats mental issues) and, specifically, a Jungian analyst (a practitioner of pioneer C.G. Jung’s ideas for studying the unconscious).

And that’s just the start. Young-Eisendrath is a consultant for leadership development at Norwich University and a clinical associate professor at the University of Vermont. She also has written or edited more than a dozen books that have been translated into 20 languages, with titles including “The Resilient Spirit: Transforming Suffering Into Insight and Renewal” and “You’re Not What I Expected: Love After the Romance Has Ended.”

Her latest work wasn’t sparked by her own scholarship, however, but by the suffering of others. She saw many young people growing up in nurturing households, only to tailspin when they traded the nest for the real world. Some felt entitled yet self-conscious and confused. Others felt stifling pressure to be exceptional. Still others felt hopeless or helpless because they couldn’t have or be what they imagined.

Some clinical psychologists, watching such youth reel through a revolving door of jobs and relationships, figured it was simply “attention deficit” or the effects of television, computer games and other fast-forward culture. But Young-Eisendrath wasn’t convinced. And so she started investigating.

Her first finding: The nation is reeling from a “tectonic cultural shift” in child-rearing techniques. Parents in the first half of the 20th century based their teachings on the “golden rule” of respect. But over the past 40 years, families have heard lots of hype about the importance of self-esteem and the need to strengthen it with praise.

Many took this beyond a gold star on a chore chart. Young-Eisendrath interviewed one grandmother who complained that her daughter threw a party to celebrate her toddler’s toilet training.

“Today’s parents tend to offer too much approval and enthusiasm for their children’s very existence, disrupting the child’s growing ability to discern the truth about her own effects and actions,” the therapist writes in her book. “Instead of helping our children learn how to work, love and share in their families and communities, we taught them to focus on their own achievements and expectations for success.”

And that, she found, is leading to failure.

‘Not about blame’

Young-Eisendrath, whose blended family includes six grown children, reassures parents that she empathizes.

“I want to be very clear here,” she says in an interview. “This is not a book about blame.”

Instead, she’s hoping to help people recognize and rectify their mistakes.

“I believe that never before has it been so confusing and destabilizing to be a parent. And never before have we had a generation of such confused and unhappy young adults whose lives seem desirable from the outside. Something has gone drastically wrong.”

How can praise and protection harm a child? Young-Eisendrath says a constant diet of “junk praise” for basics like sitting up straight can spark an unhealthy hunger for admiration or approval. And parents who “helicopter” over high school and college students deny youth the opportunity to learn how to make personal judgments.

“Over time, children can actually lose confidence in their own capacity to assess themselves if their parents overpraise, and this leaves them — teens especially — very susceptible to peer pressure and pop culture.”

This trend isn’t confined to MTV or shopping malls. Young-Eisendrath writes: “As much as I love and embrace the culture of my adopted state (I’ve been here 12 years), I have discovered a kind of specialness here too: a type of perfectionism about food, exercise and creativity in family life that can lead to the trap of believing that life can be controlled in order to do everything ‘just right.’”

Perfectionism, she says, can prevent people from being realistic, flexible and modest. Consider the young man she tags with the pseudonym “Andrew.” Attractive, artistic and athletic, the Ivy League graduate is nonetheless so insecure with work and relationships he has spent the past six years on antidepressants.

“Andrew had for many years felt unclear about how to guide himself and do what would be expected of an adult,” she writes. “Andrew felt that he failed if he didn’t produce something spectacular after just a few months, even weeks, in a new endeavor.”

He isn’t alone.

Worries at home, work

Young-Eisendrath cites statistics that show only about 2 percent of Americans born before 1915 experienced a major depressive episode even though they lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. In comparison, the rate for today’s young people has risen to 15 to 20 percent.

“Today’s families are raising our future,” she says. “And many of them are in trouble.”

The therapist points to over-the-top examples like Paris Hilton, “who is famous mostly for being famous.” But she also tells the story of a freshman at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester who sniffed during dorm orientation: “Sharing a bathroom? This is so not going to work.”

In another instance from the same school, a mother phoned a college official to say her child was calling home with complaints. The parent asked what she should do.

The reply: “Don’t answer the phone.”

(Students should learn to speak for themselves, the official explained before taking his own advice and quitting after too much parental interference.)

Young-Eisendrath says coddling can spawn problems when students enter the workplace — especially for youth unaccustomed to the low wages and menial tasks of entry-level jobs.

“If our parents were afraid to act as authority figures,” she writes, “we may be left with a premature belief in the excellence of our own judgments and overstep boundaries with those who are more experienced — only to feel ashamed and defeated when we are criticized for it.”

Young people can stumble in personal relationships, too.

“The normal disillusionments of romance — when faults and difficulties make a potential partner seem ugly or inferior and power struggles abound — are frightening,” she continues. “Gen Me’ers tend to run the other way. They assume that they’ve chosen the wrong person. The fact is they’d have to stick around longer in order to find out.”

In the book’s most extreme example of too much freedom, the therapist recalls the 2001 murders of two Dartmouth professors. The two Vermont teenagers convicted of the crime attended the grade K-12 Chelsea School, which had relaxed its rules in hopes that students, free of adult intrusion, would discover, develop and “become themselves.”

Young-Eisendrath is careful not to blame any parent or teacher. But she points to the opinion of Chelsea psychiatrist Andy Pomerantz. Seven years ago he told the New York Times: “Sometimes people do very bad things — it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with our community.” Now, upon reflection, he’s quoted in the book as saying his town failed the boys because it never addressed their arrogance with proper discipline and restraint.

‘Know how to help’

So how can parents, schools and communities raise respectful, responsible children? Young-Eisendrath draws her answers not only from psychology and psychotherapy but also from the world’s religious traditions, starting with her 37-year practice of Buddhism.

The therapist says children, rather than listening to a constant chorus of “good job,” need to learn how to assess and be accountable for themselves.

“Accurate self-esteem includes a knowledge of our weaknesses and limitations,” she writes. “It allows us to acknowledge when we need the help of others, as well as what we can do independently and well.”

(“You should be able to complain straightforwardly about your kid,” she adds, “because your kid causes you a lot of trouble in addition to bringing you joy.”)

Young-Eisendrath says chores can teach children about generosity and discipline, while adversity offers lessons in patience and diligence. Citing her own upbringing, she explains how she was expected to work at home (she was an only child), school (she was valedictorian) and a 20-hour-a-week job (her paycheck helped fund her working-class household).

“Until you really know what suffering is,” she says, “you do not know how to help.”

But many parents not only shield their children from responsibility but also sweep up their mistakes. That, the author says, is a bigger blunder.

“Excessive parental problem-solving actually prevents children from having real experiences of decision making, failing and cleaning up their own messes,” she writes. “Overpraising and running interference weaken the legs that our children need to stand on when they leave home.”

The therapist stresses that parents can still protect.

“This doesn’t mean parents should throw their children to the wolves,” she says, “but rather they should be sure that their children learn how to fight the wolves for themselves before leaving home.”

Children should be able to learn from their missteps, she believes.

“Instead of thinking in terms of protecting them from negative outcomes or feelings, parents should think in terms of allowing them to experience and then express the consequences of what they tried,” she writes. “Your job is not to be your child’s best friend, but rather to prepare him to have a fulfilling life of his own.”

And reap all the intangible rewards.

Book Exerpts:

“Keep in mind the spirit of generosity and gratitude when you teach your child to do chores. The reason for chores is to help your child become responsible for others’ welfare as well as his own.

Find chores that are truly important (for example, caring for a pet or plant) and age-appropriate.

Be specific and detailed in showing your child how to do the chore, watch over him for a while, and then let the task be up to your child. Of course, remain in the background as a safety net (don’t let the cat die of malnourishment if your son doesn’t feed it), but don’t take over the responsibility either.

Your child should actually feel the negative consequences of not performing a chore or doing it poorly.

There is nothing that increases resilience in children more than feeling they are able to perform important tasks and can be depended upon.”

And challenges:

“When an age-appropriate problem or difficulty presents itself in your child’s life, encourage her to jump in and attempt to solve it.

If things work out well, let her reward come directly from the situation, not mostly from your praise.

If things go badly, or not as she would wish, allow her to engage with the negative feelings and outcomes, while supporting her by being confident (“I really believe that you can get through this.”) Conveying directly or indirectly that she’s strong enough to weather the storm helps her develop a healthier psychological immune system.

Counsel your child against believing that her happiness will come mostly from external things — her appearance, grades, athletic successes — because it won’t.”

— From “The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. The $25.99 hardcover, published by Little, Brown and Company, can be purchased or ordered at most bookstores.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Running Man Redux

We had our first runners the other day. Yup, second day of school and they're walking down the street to the mall, instead of showing up to Basic Algebra.

The AP pops in and asks if I'm missing anyone. I reply in the affirmative and she says "They were spotted heading uptown." Of course, now I'm thinking to myself, "Then why did you ask me if I was missing anyone if you already knew that they were gone? Is this your idea of a clever trap or something? Yes, I'm awake, yes I took roll, yes the class just started 2 minutes ago, so I'm not worried about missing kids yet. They're usually in her office complaining about stupid things so we've gotten used to latecomers everyday."


A MythBuster adds to the Education Myths

On the CuriousCat, MythBuster Adam Savage is quoted as having 3 Ways to Fix U.S. Science Education. While I applaud his willingness to get into the fray, I have to wonder if this isn't a prime example of how we got into this mess in the first place.

Take Adam Savage's well-meaning ideas ( I'll discuss them in a moment. ) and couple them with the head of Intel who calls for ed reform, STEM innovation. ( The headline continues: "Craig Barrett ralies (sic) educators at the 2008 Intel Developer Forum" ), blend in a healthy dose of NCLB and parents who KNOW how to teach because they homeschooled their 3rd grader, and mix in the local coroner/ policeman who thinks that forensics is cool and "why wouldn't you want to have kids investigating crimes?" What you invariably get is scientific mishmash and bad education.

None of these folks has actually looked at how kids learn material. None has had to be responsible for a kid knowing enough Biology to join the AP class the next year. None has the experience of guiding twenty-five 14-year-olds through a physical science course. From afar, education is easy. Every "new" idea hatched by these folks is "obviously workable" and a "great new idea" because these reformers are using vague memories of their own educations from 20, 30 or more years ago.

If these guys are so gung-ho on research abilities IN students, how about running some actual research ON students? Find out if "hands-on, get your hands dirty" science education is truly the best for all students, or some (and which ones), or none?

Instead of simply proclaiming an "obvious truth," Adam Savage could conduct experiments using proper methods (control groups, double blind, the works) and show THAT on MythBusters.

The head of Intel could order that all new hires be required to submit clear and accurate accounts of their educations, the teaching styles used, and grades earned, and then correlate the data with later success in the company. Of course, that sample would be extremely limited, but if the data would be interesting nonetheless.

The governors who spend less/more on education could insist their states do some actual comparisons between schools and teachers, between curriculae, between those schools who offer forensics or not, those who require 4 years of science to graduate and those who don't, those who lecture a lot and those who only do hands-on discovery, maybe even between those on a block schedule and those who aren't. Instead of bloviating about scores, how about finding out some possible reasons?

Again, Adam Savage:
1) Let students get their hands dirty.
It’s really difficult to absorb things just by being told about them—I know I don’t learn well that way. If students could get their hands dirty in science class they’d be more likely to internalize information. You can lecture about the surface tension of water, but it’s not as effective as conducting an experiment with a needle and a single beam balance. Jamie and I are in touch with a lot of teachers from industrial engineering programs, and one of them told us he thinks our show has helped shift the emphasis from the strictly theoretical to a more hands-on approach.

So Adam doesn't think he "learn(s) well that way." No offense, dude, but how do you know? Did you take the course twice and compare the results? Did you control for teacher quality and classroom setting? You think students are "more likely to internalize information" without any idea that it's true or not, or whether the information they internalize is correct. I think it's great to get in the lab. I don't think kids can discover in a couple of months what took the human race centuries to discover. They need to be taught. Sometimes hands-on isn't the best way to learn -
"students who were taught abstract math concepts fared better in experiments than those taught with real-world examples, such as story problems. Adding extraneous details makes it hard for students to extract the basic mathematical concepts and apply them to new problems. We're really making it difficult for students because we are distracting them from the underlying math," said Jennifer Kaminski, a research scientist at Ohio State University. (from reuters).

Does this apply to science, too? I think it does. The real world is messy. Students have a hard time understanding the nugget of information in the mass of data. You also get erroneous interpretations - reasonable ones are the hardest to correct later. It's not fair to expect that students can deal with all of these mistakes and internalize what we consider necessary for a good scientific education. Remember the old ideas of the flight of a cannonball, developed in the "lab" over centuries? The flight was assumed to be nearly straight, then dropping off suddenly. It wasn't until recently that it was matched to a parabolic curve.

Experiments should be used to confirm teaching, not used as a substitute for it.

2. Yes, spend more money on science.

Spend money, yes. Waste money on "show-off" technology, no. The chemistry lab needs equipment but doesn't need to replace everything to buy the latest electronic whizmo and gizmo. Get your sensors and CBL equipment, but just the ones you need for teaching the classes you have.

Get reasonable equipment. You don't need a DNA analyzer in each school. If this $25,000 piece of equipment is at all important to the teaching of AP Biology, the state should be buying it and making it available for every school within 50 miles. Scheduling as opposed to budgeting. What's the ROI on that analyzer? A small part of the school year of one course for 30 AP Biology students - most of whom passed the AP test. That piece of equipment was "bragging rights" more than educationally necessary.

3. Celebrate mistakes.
A good scientist will tell you that being wrong can be just as interesting as being right. The same holds for our show.

Sorry, Adam. These aren't good scientists or engineers. Some of them might actually want to become such, but many would rather ignore science and be a mechanic or a DJ or a snowboarder. They're kids with parental pressure, adolescent and social pressure, college and academic pressure. They're learning how to drive. They're learning what kind of a student they are and how to balance work, school, sports, dating, and all the other things that get in the way.

Why shouldn't we simply teach?

Is Grammar dead?

American Digest:

File under: "I try to become more cynical every day, but lately it's hard to keep up."

Can't add much to that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How big is the Mersenne Prime?

Speculation about the latest Mersenne Prime:  How many digits? 
Casting Out Nines plotted the numbers and made a guess of 10.5 million digits.
God Plays Dice likes 14.5 million digits instead.
Now you can play too!

Here's my graph of the known Mersenne Primes.  Where do you think the next one will be?

But wait ... what if we eliminate the first few and concentrate on the later numbers:
And, possibly, more insight with this one:
What you are seeing is the M(p) in pink and lines for 11M, 12M, 13M, 14M

I'm liking the 10.5 million or 11 million guess.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I love this woman.

Of course, our school would never allow this sort of irresponsibility.

Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone
By LENORE SKENAZY | April 1, 2008

I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale's (the original one) a couple weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first floor handbags as I sashayed out the door.

Bye-bye! Have fun!

And he did. He came home on the subway and bus by himself.

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn't strike me as that daring, either. Isn't New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It's not like we're living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn't want to lose it. And no, I didn't trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn't do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, "Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead."

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It's not. It's debilitating — for us and for them.

And yet —

"How would you have felt if he didn't come home?" a New Jersey mom of four, Vicki Garfinkle, asked.

Guess what, Ms. Garfinkle: I'd have been devastated. But would that just prove that no mom should ever let her child ride the subway alone?

No. It would just be one more awful but extremely rare example of random violence, the kind that hyper parents cite as proof that every day in every way our children are more and more vulnerable.

"Carlie Brucia — I don't know if you're familiar with that case or not, but she was in Florida and she did a cut-through about a mile from her house … and midday, at 11 in the morning, she was abducted by a guy who violated her several times, killed her, and left her behind a church."

That's the story that the head of, Katharine Francis, immediately told me when I asked her what she thought of my son getting around on his own. She runs a company that makes wallet-sized copies of a child's photo and fingerprints, just in case.

Well of course I know the story of Carlie Brucia. That's the problem. We all know that story — and the one about the Mormon girl in Utah and the one about the little girl in Spain — and because we do, we all run those tapes in our heads when we think of leaving our kids on their own. We even run a tape of how we'd look on Larry King.

"I do not want to be the one on TV explaining my daughter's disappearance," a father, Garth Chouteau, said when we were talking about the subway issue.

These days, when a kid dies, the world — i.e., cable TV — blames the parents. It's simple as that. And yet, Trevor Butterworth, a spokesman for the research center, said, "The statistics show that this is an incredibly rare event, and you can't protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning."

Justice Department data actually show the number of children abducted by strangers has been going down over the years. So why not let your kids get home from school by themselves?

"Parents are in the grip of anxiety and when you're anxious, you're totally warped," the author of "A Nation of Wimps," Hara Estroff Marano, said. We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats.

The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't.

Meantime, my son wants his next trip to be from Queens. In my day, I doubt that would have struck anyone as particularly brave. Now it seems like hitchhiking through Yemen.

Here's your MetroCard, kid. Go.*4

I just can't help it. The buzz of the year is Technology and "Teaching to the 21st Century Student" and "Digital Natives" and "Be a Guide-on-the-Side".

Apparently, we don't understand tech enough and we need to do more. That seems to be true for some of the lamest people on earth. I mean, of course, our elementary school teachers and paraeducators. I sat at a table with several today. After they spoke wondrously of the "Guide on the side" teaching style and how their 4th graders would be determining the curriculum this year, I wonder why the teachers aren't teaching. "You can be guides, but you also have to teach. You have to teach some basics, like the meaning of words or the times tables such as 3*4." With an absolutely straight face, our intrepid teacher said that kids could "look up that problem on Google. You know that Google will answer that question. Kids should be taught to look it up." She was so smug, thinking she had put one over on me. The six others at the table all nodded in agreement.

Thinking back on it, though, I agree with her. If a teacher says this, she should be completely ignored at all times. If a student has a question, he should look it up. This teacher's a flaming idiot.

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. I hate it, but it seems so appropriate too often.

Inservice is pathetic

Oh boy. We had Inservice today.

Everyone has pre-prepared name tags and we all got introduced and did the usual meet-and-greet. So far so good.

We're teachers so I guess it's video time. Superintendent can't make a proper speech, after all. Powerpoint meets YouTube. How 21st Century.

The video: Did you Know?

Now it's time to split up and discuss the video. All of us had different colors on our nametags. Isn't that clever? All the brown people go here and the light green people go there (not the dark green people – you're in the multipurpose room). Okay, let's read the list again. Red in the library. Not the library I'm pointing to, but the other one.

Every bad teacher stereotype is coming true before my eyes here.

After talking through some buzzwords and pretending that education is changing and that technology will solve everything (and where's my copy of Buzzword Bingo?)

Another video! This time by the local library. Of course, the laptop/projector wouldn't cooperate so the technology that will change the world and the way we teach needed two hard reboots and a flash player install by TWO tech people.

Since we might be getting bored waiting for the TWO tech people (ya think?), the local busybodies came up and told us about their anti-drug initiatives. Kids are doing this, this, this, and this. Sounds more like the adults in this town than the kids. I'm zoning out -- "Soaking hair scrunchies in gasoline and sniffing it." – What?!? I'm suddenly awake. Where was I? Someone's definitely high here. Whose kids are doing this? Are we just exaggerating for federal grant money, maybe? Couldn't we concentrate on what they ARE doing instead?

YAY!, the laptop works. So the library WHIZZ! BANG! presentation SHOWED! many kids DOING!!! things. Lots of THINGS, really! Like computers and games and projects !! and water fights and play!! It had snazzy MUSIC and if there had been PUNC!tuaTION! it would all have BEEN exclamation points !!!!!!

The video didn't show any kids reading though. Meaningful? I think so.

The reading grand prize is two tickets to a WWE slugfest. Now, raise hands. Who thinks the kids who read are also interested in the WWE?

Me neither.

Shows over! It's meeting time! Faculty meeting!

Let's review the Student Handbook, page by page. Didn't anybody proofread it? Grammatical mistakes in the paragraph about the National Honor Society – how precious. Sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers in the tardy policy – that'll be trouble. "Can't post student work without written permission from a parent?" What's with that? "We encourage the increased use of technology for improving the learning process for the 21st century student" ... as long as he doesn't want to use his iPod, cellphone, laptop, or other electronic contraband.

Whew. What a day. If it weren't for the stress of dealing with the statistical tomfoolery and pedagogy to make you gag, I would've enjoyed it.

Filed under Humor and Faculty Meetings, but that may be redundant.

Monday Blues and More of My Green

DENVER, Aug 23, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire via COMTEX/ -- The National Education Association will play a key role in getting Sen. Barack Obama elected the next president of the United States. NEA's $50 million election campaign strategy targets "swing states" -- including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and New Mexico. The campaign emphasizes targeting members, their spouses, and all other immediate family members of voting-age.

Any chance of spending this on some double-blind education research to determine the value (or not) of block scheduling, developing new edu-lingo, putting technology in the classroom, going back to basics, guide-on-side vs sage-on-stage teaching?

Didn't think so.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What is your name?

Some people test well.
Some have test anxiety.
Some just choose "C."
Some ARE smarter than the test.

CT Tax Revolt

August 23, 2008; Page A9

On June 30, the board of education and the town council in Enfield, Conn., convened to hear the results of a citizen cost-cutting committee. Among its other recommendations, the 17 residents recommended replacing some public school teachers with low-cost college interns, restricting the use of school vehicles, and increasing employee contributions to benefit plans.

These may seem modest steps toward fiscal responsibility -- but they are emblematic of a significant change in this very blue state: growing disenchantment with the price of government, especially of public education.

Over the past two and a half decades, the student population in Connecticut has increased only 10%. Yet the cost of schooling more than doubled -- to $8.8 billion in 2006, up from $3.4 billion in 1981. Seventeen years ago, the state enacted an income tax with promises to cut other taxes. Instead, real-estate assessments soared, creating a massive income transfer from the private to the public sector, fueled in part by a state cost-sharing formula that uses taxes on residents in the suburbs to subsidize urban schools. Helping to soak up all that money were binding arbitration laws, skewed to give teacher unions an advantage in collective bargaining negotiations.

Money Pit by Corbis

The result is that the average teacher salary is now the highest in the nation -- $57,750 excluding benefits, according to the latest survey of the American Federation of Teachers. Meanwhile, the American Legislative Exchange Council reports that Connecticut is one of the 10 states with the heaviest property-tax burdens. According to a calculator on the Web site of the Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding, a local taxpayer group, even the smallest municipalities unnecessarily spent millions on school construction, much of it to meet a predicted increase in population that never materialized.

The calculator enables the resident of any town to compare the cost of constructing and staffing a new building (or addition) to the cost of simply subsidizing the overflow number of students to attend private, parochial or home schools. Says David Bohn, president of the group: "You could extend the subsidy to children already in such schools and still save hundreds of millions long term."

Now taxpayers find themselves caught between falling real estate values and ever increasing property taxes. And for what? The National Assessment of Educational Progress puts eighth-grade proficiency figures in the state at 37% for reading, 35% for math, 33% for science and 53% for writing.

Connecticut law does not allow a statewide referendum to curb school spending with a property-tax cap, as do ballot measures this year in Nevada and Florida. Nevertheless, most towns in Connecticut fold the school budget into the municipal budget, which can be voted on at a town meeting, or by annual referendum, or by a petition-inspired referendum, depending on the local rules. So citizens do have the ability to rein in public spending if they choose to act -- and that is what they are beginning to do.

This spring Avon, Farmington, Stonington and Ridgefield -- all affluent communities -- rejected the politicians' original spending plans. On June 17, the voters of suburban West Hartford, where public schools have often ranked among the best in the state, rejected the town budget by a lopsided 7,037 to 3,711. As of the end of June, a record 85 of Connecticut's 169 municipalities had or were planning budget referenda; and the median approved spending increase was 3.8%, lower than the 5% last year and 5.3% in 2006.

Limiting government at the state level is more difficult, thanks in part to a 1964 Supreme Court decision (Butterworth v. Dempsey) requiring that representation in state legislatures be based solely on population. By depriving rural regions of their traditional influence, urban Democrats and public sector unions have more influence. From 1970 until 2005, total state spending skyrocketed to $4,322 per capita from $863 in real dollars -- in spite of near-zero job growth and a decline in net population for every year except one in the decade between 1997 and 2006.

But at the local level, there are nearly as many Republican chief executives as Democrats, and both parties outside the big cities are relatively conservative on fiscal issues. This is leading to more than just budget defeats.

Mike Guarco, chairman of the finance board in Granby, has formed the Connecticut Municipal Consortium for Fiscal Responsibility, a bipartisan alliance of elected officials representing 117 of the state's towns. The group fights against binding arbitration, "prevailing wage" laws for public building projects, and burdensome state mandates (such as a requirement that all student suspensions be supervised in-house). These are the three largest cost drivers of K-12 education.

There are other ideas in the air. In Chester, First Selectman (Mayor) Tom Marsh proposes to pay students not to attend public school. He wants to give $1,500 a year to families who send a child to vocational school, $3,000 to families who homeschool, and to put $5,000 in a college scholarship fund for anyone transferring to a private high school.

Mr. Marsh also wants to give a full two-year community college scholarship worth $5,000 to students who graduate from public high school in three years. "If we can persuade families to consider options outside the system," he says, "we have the potential to save significantly long term."

With this gathering grass-roots rebellion -- and with the archbishop in Hartford advocating a tax credit for corporations that help poor students attend private schools -- the public education establishment is increasingly nervous. Last December, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Association of Public school Superintendents wrote an unprecedented joint letter to every school board and superintendent in the state criticizing Armand Fusco, the retired school superintendent who advises the citizen cost-cutting committee in Enfield.

Mr. Fusco has not backed away. He notes that even before the Enfield citizens' commission offered its recommendations, the very existence of the committee spurred the town council to reject a requested 3% increase in the school budget, and to forestall efforts to raise the property tax rate. For next year, Enfield has already adopted zero-based budgeting.

The time is coming, says Mr. Fusco, for all Connecticut schools to "distinguish between needs and wants."

Mr. Andrews is executive director of the Yankee Institute in Hartford, Conn.

Costs of School

Apparently Connecticut is considering a tax revolt over the costs of their schools:
Over the past two and a half decades, the student population in Connecticut has increased only 10%. Yet the cost of schooling more than doubled -- to $8.8 billion in 2006, up from $3.4 billion in 1981.
Sure, costs of education were lower nearly 30 years ago. If the readers of the WSJ simply compared their own academic experience to that of the present they'd see that this isn't so surprising.

Special Ed was non-existent in public schools - they sent them to private boarding schools. You had few elective choices - now you have many. You had a nurse who took care of your cuts and bruises - now she has far more on her plate. The couple counselors would talk about college or career choices - now you have the counselors, office staffs, SAP, SMILE, psychologists on retainer, sociologists, etc. Your teachers' certification requirements were simplistic - now the hurdles and hoops are far greater and the salaries rise accordingly. The principals were career teachers who earned more than their colleagues (hence the word Principal meaning "first") - now you have career administration who earn 3 to 4 times as much as the highest paid teacher and that's saying a lot. You had "tech" which consisted of a body shop with rudimentary (and fairly inexpensive) equipment - now you have CAD rooms with their own servers, CNC machines in both the wood and the metal shop, huge outlays in hardware and software. Then you had $2 teacher gradebook and a blackboard that had been installed 35 years earlier - now you computers all over the place, with whiteboards and smartboards and projectors and CBL lab equipment with electronic sensors and probes. (And it gets replaced every 3-5 years - called "upgrades."

The only real surprise is that the cost of education has only doubled in nearly twenty-seven years.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Just for the Humor Value

BMW M3 is more Economical than Prius

Anyone can teach, therefore Education is Broken

Well, at least he can multiply ...

Thomas Sowell has decided that everyone can teach:
When amateurs outperform professionals, there is something wrong with that profession.

If ordinary people, with no medical training, could perform surgery in their kitchens with steak knives, and get results that were better than those of surgeons in hospital operating rooms, the whole medical profession would be discredited.

Yet it is common for ordinary parents, with no training in education, to homeschool their children and consistently produce better academic results than those of children educated by teachers with Master’s degrees and in schools spending upwards of $10,000 a year per student — which is to say, more than a million dollars to educate ten kids from K through 12.
Sowell's use of a few particular people's success to claim that education is flawed misses the point that those people who succeed at homeschooling are probably the ONLY people who could have succeeded. The educational system isn't flawed because a relatively small portion of the population is different. Homeschool parents who succeed are not "ordinary people" but rather quite extraordinary.

It's necessary to point out that not every family has the
1) time available & monetary ability (one spouse not working)
2) the wide-ranging intellectual interests that go into education
3) the ability to teach.
4) the inclination to spend the time and money necessary.
5) the knowledge.

I heartily support homeschooling. If parents have the initiative and desire to jump through all of the state hoops and can play the legal game enough to satisfy the educrats, then I feel their kid's education will go well enough that I can say "They're your kids, do what you will." Whatever the reason, the choice to homeschool is big enough that the sample is limited to those who will probably succeed, rendering Sowell's argument silly. It doesn't even seem to matter how tough that first step is.

That first step, in my state at least, is a low one. There's a long history of rural homeschoolers here. They tend to rejoin the public schools for high school because of the specialized subjects and for athletics (Homeschoolers are allowed to play but it is easier if kiddo is right there.) Many of these have come into my class behind in their math skills, and desperately wrong about many things, but overall the old saying about teaching and teachers still holds true whether it's Mom, a tutor, or a middle-school teacher.

"Bad teaching has less of an effect on students than we fear; good teaching has less of an effect than we should wish." Wish I could remember who said it.

Learning Styles Don't Exist

Two videos, "Mini-Lectures" by Dam Willingham

Learning Styles Don't Exist

Brain based education: Fad or breakthrough

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Scoring a Paycheck.

The NYT: Mixed Results on Paying City Students to Pass Tests
Offered up to $1,000 for scoring well on Advanced Placement exams, students at 31 New York City high schools took 345 more of the tests this year than last. But the number who passed declined slightly, raising questions about the effectiveness of increasingly popular pay-for-performance programs in schools here and across the country.
They're giving out $1000 bucks to anyone who works hard all year and learns a great deal of material, separating himself from the crowd. Seems kinda cheap-assed to me. This is New York! Make it $10,000 per passing score and really make a statement. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter don't do this well at what they do and they get paid in the millions per annum.

Of course, this is going to mess with their motivation until they can reset their internal justifications. "How much if I get into college? If I graduate college?" Sorry, kiddo, the money flow is in the other direction until you get a job.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Teacher Pay - Make Room, Baby!

Pencils Down tossed out this opinion the other day ...
It seems that many school districts are having a hard time attracting qualified math teachers. Gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be that those potential educators are having a hard time turning down the six figure salaries that Google or AT&T are offering them? I seriously doubt there's nearly that kind of disparity between professional historians and social studies teachers.
Well, I usually hate to rain on anyone's parade, but here I'll make an exception. I'm one of those math teachers (with degree in mechanical engineering) that he seems to be talking about. I probably could get a six-figure salary from one of those companies or from some automaker, but the type of mind that can handle a classroom and teach effectively is dramatically different from one that can sit in a cubicle all day churning out code.

I knew what I was getting into. Right out of college my offers from industry were twice those from education. I knew all that then and I accepted it. I know all that now and I still accept it. I reject the argument outright that STEM teachers should be paid more than other teachers. Sure, if you are tossing money at people, I'll take some but not because I am somehow magically better because of my courseload. If I do some work outside of my job description, okay, if you insist.

Who's to say that my math class is any more valuable to a student than the English class down the hall? (in general, of course. Specific teachers may suck. YMMV) Or the music class where the kid learns to play a couple of instruments? Or the art class where he comes out of his shell? Or the history class that ignites his love of the humanities? Or the French or Spanish or Latin class that broadens his worldview a bit? Are my tests and assignments in math harder to grade or is the work just distributed differently? (The latter, if you were wondering)

From where did this unholy focus on STEM and it's value gain so much traction? Whingeing teachers. STEM majors who don't particularly like teaching and would rather do something more befitting their obvious moral and intellectual superiority in the grand scheme of things. I have just one thing to say to these teachers.

Change jobs. I'm calling your bluff.

Go ahead. Get that $100,000 job with the tech company. If you can't because your internal view of your abilities is different from everyone else's, then shut up about being forced to accept a pretty decent job that pays well, has little true oversight and quick 'tenure', and allows for great vacations. (working vacations, true, but still ...) It's never going to land you a house in the Hamptons, but if you had 1% of the brains you claim to have, you would have known that before you signed up, went through the whole certification process, and did the application thing. Are you trying to tell me that someone can go through all that, remain clueless about the job's trials and rewards, and yet deserve some pity because he somehow is more worthy. NARF!

Learn to teach and enjoy it or get the hell out.

Many of my students have said they want to be teachers, some of them math teachers. They would be excellent replacements for the malcontents. Make room, baby!

Union Blues and My Green

My state (and many others) has an odd little rule on the books. If you are a teacher, and your local NEA union has so negotiated with your school board, then you have to pay union fees, whether you are a member of the NEA or not. In many schools, it's $450 for non-members and $550 for members. This is supposedly to pay for all the benefits that your local union has negotiated for you.

The union incurs no cost in negotiations except for an occasional lawyers fee - $1000 or so every couple of years when the contract is negotiated. The unpaid volunteers who form the negotiating committee cost, well, nothing. If your negotiating committee runs into difficulties - arbitration is never on the table because NEA doesn't want to pay their share of the cost. The coffee and doughnuts sure don't cost that much. There are no stipends for local head of union, etc. The "malpractice insurance" that is offered is available for something like $5 from the company, if you all bought in together. There is certainly no "strike fund" for the teachers. "Another NEA member will accompany you for advice if you are ever in trouble" really, just another teacher volunteer. If administration gets nastier and tries to fire you, the union will offer you help - a paralegal who doesn't return phone calls.

So where do those thousands of dollars go? Six-figure salaries at the union - check. Clerical assistants who make more than the highest-paid teacher in the state - check. Lobbying for legislation that has nothing to do with education such as abortion rights and gay marriage (and which are opposed by a large percentage of the teachers in this state) - check. Lobbying for legislation that DOES have an link to education, but isn't universally supported among teachers, such as the two vote rule for school budget overruns - check. Bloviating "on my behalf" for school and curricular reform that I don't agree with - check.

Oh yeah, I forgot ...
Seven unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have stepped in to help pay for the Democratic National Convention in Denver after the host committee announced in June it was $10 million short of its fundraising goals.
Nice to know that my union is representing me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Liquid Nitrogen

A gifted 15-year-old student from India had to be rushed to the hospital after drinking liquid nitrogen during a science class at Princeton University. The class was part of a program run by the Connecticut-based Summer Institute for the Gifted.

So a quick Google search brings us this:
Under normal atmospheric pressure, nitrogen can exist as a liquid between the temperatures of 63 K and 77.2 K (-346°F and -320.44°F). Since it is obtained from the atmosphere, liquid nitrogen is inexpensive and is rarely refrigerated. It is kept in insulated containers called Dewars and is allowed to boil away. Since it is boiling, most of the liquid nitrogen used in laboratories and in cryogenics shows is at a temperature of 77.2 K.

Not everyone took the smart pill this morning, it seems.

Now do all of you trusting first-year teachers understand why we old farts are always repeating "Never leave kids alone in your room." Even the "best ones" will invariably do something stupid at least once. God help the teacher who was in the room when our intrepid Gifted Student allowed his buddies to talk him into this.

"Yeah, it's cool. Just touch your tongue to the pole."

Great State of Texas strikes again - Part one

Although, to be fair, this is an idea embraced by a whole bunch of "experts".
AT A GLANCE: Grading changes
•Homework grades should be given only when the grades will "raise a student's average, not lower it."
•Teachers must accept overdue assignments, and their principal will decide whether students are to be penalized for missing deadlines.
•Students who flunk tests can retake the exam and keep the higher grade.
•Teachers cannot give a zero on an assignment unless they call parents and make "efforts to assist students in completing the work."
•High school teachers who fail more than 20 percent of their students will need to develop a professional improvement plan and will be monitored by their principals. For middle school the rate is 15 percent; for elementary it's 10 percent.
•Minimum score on report card is 50.
As a spur to accountability, I'm not sure that removing all of the accountability from the students and placing in the laps of the teacher is particularly intelligent. As I say often, it's the students' education, not the teachers', and the responsibility for learning is on the student. I will do my job, the students must do theirs. If there is only teacher accountability, then you have addressed only one-half of the problem.

I generally approve of making policy that applies district-wide, but only for "strategic" not for "tactical" policy. Make a consistent dress code. Make a consistent calendar. Decide that marking periods are 20% and mid-terms and finals, 10%.

In another part of the policy, there are specifications on the relative weight of homework, classwork, quizzes and tests. This is where it gets silly. It is too much on the micro-management scale akin to LBJ picking targets from Washington. All that will happen is that I will mis-label a quiz as a test or vice versa.

On the other hand, they do pay us well and "He who signs the paycheck makes the rules." That principal can change the grade without my consent, anyway. At least this is all now aboveboard.
Stupid, but aboveboard.

See this next post for more of my snarky commentary on this issue.

Great State of Texas strikes again - Part two

Let's take these bullets separately, shall we?

"Homework grades should be given only when the grades will "raise a student's average, not lower it."

This has two problems. First, if the overall grade is a 50 from two homeworks, then a 75 will raise the average and thus should be counted. If the student does well on the first test and raises his average to 80, does that teacher have to go back and remove the scores below 80? When he does, and the average rises to an 83, does the teacher remove all the homework scores below that? Secondly, if the number must always raise the grade, why not mandate the actual grade: 100 for anything handed in, even if it's a name on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. That will certainly improve scores.  Am I being disingenuous? Yup.  But don't expect me not to laugh when such a statement issues forth."... only when the grades will "raise a student's average, not lower it."  It's not an assessment if it can only improve things.  It's grade inflation, not learning.

"Teachers must accept overdue assignments, and their principal will decide whether students are to be penalized for missing deadlines." 

While I can accept the idea of allowing the principal some say in the application of the lateness policy for some students, for he should know the reason for the absence and I might not, does it really make sense that the principal will be able to make those determinations for the 5-15% of the 4000 students who are late with their assignments in 6 classes a day? Seems like He might have something better to do with his time. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind the "$70,000 Special Assistant to the Principal for Academic Tardiness Penalization or Resolution" job.

And why should all teachers accept ALL overdue assignments? Is there no school website to post assignment deadlines and class work lists? Can the teachers not hand out long-term assignments weeks in advance? If I hand out a itemized list at the beginning of each chapter with instructions to record scores and grades (so students can keep track), am I being unreasonable to specify due dates? How far past the end of the marking period can late work be handed in (assuming that it raises the average, of course)? At what point does student accountability take hold here if there is no "drop-dead" deadline, ever?

"Students who flunk tests can retake the exam and keep the higher grade."
How many times? There are situations in my class when I will give students the option of retaking a test, especially if it is material they will need NEXT chapter. I make up an entirely new test. Students must go over the old one and make corrections before they are allowed to bother with the new one. "Have you made an improvement in what you know?" Otherwise, we are all wasting our time.  Since I have several versions of each test, this is easier for me than for new teachers - bless 'em if they can pull this off.

Additionally, I have no idea when these re-takes are supposed to happen. In class and lose another period, good student twiddling while bad student retakes test? Or after school? This would be my option but many schools ban that.

"Teachers cannot give a zero on an assignment unless they call parents and make 'efforts to assist students in completing the work.'"
Really? Even for work not handed in or the Name-on-blank-sheet work? How about for the "Hope you have a nice summer" and pictures of abstract figures answer that I got on an exam last year?

If the parents were so damn effective, why did they wait until 9th grade to get something going? Bottom line: it's the kids' education and education is not a spectator sport. Sure, we want parents involved and that's why we send out progress reports every two weeks and grade reports every quarter. The parents know what and how their kids are doing - my calling them and telling them each and every time isn't going to change anything. Besides, that would take an inordinate amount of time and I'd rather spend that time helping kids who want to improve. A good resolution to this is on-line gradebooks, but even they have problems - mostly with helicopter parents. 

As for that line "make efforts to assist students in completing the work." What do you think I've been doing? Writing on my blog all day?

Oh, yeah.  Good thing we haven't started school yet or that comment would have fallen really flat.

"High school teachers who fail more than 20 percent of their students will need to develop a professional improvement plan and will be monitored by their principals."

First off, principals should be aware anyway. That's their job. The idea of placing a teacher on probation for failing too many students is really silly, though. This bullet point will simply ensure that a lot of students will pass by 0.001 points - avoiding the penalty on the teacher. It will not magically enable them to have a chance in Algebra II.  Remember the lament "My day would be so much easier if I just gave everyone an A."

If Guidance places students in an Algebra I class, they should make sure that all of the kids COULD pass. They should be aware that progressing to Algebra II will require a passing grade in Algebra I and a certain knowledge of certain material. Otherwise, you are dooming them to failure (excuse me, barely passing another course).  If the policy also impacted on the Guidance counselor who scheduled them for the wrong class, that might make this more appropriate. If you fill an pre-calculus class with students who belong in basic math, who's at fault here? That's an exaggeration, of course, but it shows my point. Put the kids in the class that's appropriate and then you can lump more responsibility on me.

If you give me a class of ninth graders whose one common feature is having failed every major course in 7th and 8th grade, and are failing nearly every course again this year, don't be surprised if they fail mine, too. Sure, some will rise above their habits but many of them badly needed a wake-up call. "Sorry, I warned you all along and gave you how many progress reports? What did you expect?"  In basic math and beginning algebra, one of the assignments periodically is to calculate their own weighted average, and learn how to find "what they need to get a ..."

This drops us at the last one ... minimum 50 on a progress report. Grades should be based on what a kid knows and can do. It should not be based on "effort" and "Great to have in class" rubrics. I can fudge it a bit for late learners - I use the whole retest thing. I can base it on the later tests if the later work builds on the earlier work.

If I enter a Geometry grade on the report card, it should reflect how much Geometry the kid knows. Not how much the school would like him to know. Not how much he brown-nosed me. Not how loud and active he was, nor on how many questions he put his hand up for. The grade tells other people one thing: he knows roughly 65% of the material well. If you insist on a minimum 50, then you really should just mandate that everyone pass regardless and stop screwing around.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Root of all evil

Right on the Left Coast brought this opinion piece from The News ( August 9th to my attention:
People often misquote the Bible saying, "Money is the root of all evil." But the biblical verse actually states, "The love of money is the root of all evil." Money is not evil. Material goods are not evil. Marketing is not evil. The evil is when we replace a love of people with a love of things. The evil is when we base our self-worth on the worth of what we own. The evil is when we judge ourselves based on what we wear on our heads rather than what we have in our heads and in our hearts. Ultimately, our goodness is in us, not in our good.
Can't add much to that.

Algebra expansion - $3.1 Billion

Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer with lots of reader comments
August 13, 2008

SACRAMENTO -- California's schools will need an additional $3.1 billion annually - $2,100 more for every middle school student - to implement the governor's new eighth-grade algebra testing requirement, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Tuesday.
What a concept. First, it's silly to assume that 100% of eighth graders are ready for anything, not to mention algebra. From the Newsweek article on Teach For America,
Locke High School in Watts. At Locke, a school hemmed in by competing gangs, 2 percent of ninth graders are proficient in algebra; 11 percent read at grade level. Too many can't read at all.
so we're now going to accomplish state-wide algebra proficiency at the 8th grade level instead?

Second, spending that much only to realize that a large percentage of the students are not ready for algebra seems somewhat counter-productive.

Thirdly, that's a heck of a lot of money and I doubt that much of it is going to any teachers. I think it more likely that some testing company is scoring a big, fat juicy contract here (assuming the number isn't wildly inflated to score PR victory).

Most troublesome from my perspective, the unintended consequence will be that algebra 1 will have to be watered down to the level of the test that 90% of the kids COULD pass.

Of course, they could always set the passing score to 30 out of 90. That seems to be the way of the world these days.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Myths that cause students unnecessary stress.

Over at Study Hacks They've got a good essay on college workload and your major.

MYTH #1: Your Major Matters
MYTH #2: The Difficulty of Your Courses Matters
MYTH #3: Your Extracurricular Activities Matter
MYTH #4: Impressiveness is a Function of Hardness
MYTH #5: You Can Plan Your Future Career

I would extend this down to the high school level in many cases. Many students are burning themselves out trying to impress college admissions officers with their 32 extra-curriculars, 12 Honors courses and 6 AP courses, 1200 hours of community service.

Speaking mostly to the juniors and seniors who have electives to choose:

Chill, people. If you find you enjoy serving in the soup kitchen, then by all means do it and do it often and do it well. If it's just to satisfy some inane graduation requirement, then stop immediately after you have completed the requirement and go do something you like.

If you are joining honors classes to get out of the one-size-fits-all CP class with all the idiots, then make sure you don't become the idiot in the honors class. If you're willing to work at something too hard for you, that's okay as long as you understand that your grade isn't necessarily going to be very good -- it was never a reflection of you or your effort but rather a reflection of how much you understand. You might surprise yourself after all. If the AP class is the right fit for you academically, then go for it. Please don't take AP Calculus because it's the "impressive class".

I had four failing students in AP Calc. Two said they disliked math intensely. The two others hadn't gotten above 500 on the SAT math test, "I never do well in Math." My question to them all is "Why subject yourself to a course you don't like for the next 10 months?"

If you don't feel ready and don't want to practice and work enough to succeed, why bother? If you hate the math contest questions, if you don't like exploring math ideas and discovering things new to you mathematically, then why take the hardest math course in school?

Larry Bird used to shoot 300 jump shots per day in his practice sessions. He did the practice because he enjoyed the process, enjoyed the game. If you don't have that enjoyment, then every bit of practice is a chore, every problem is a dreaded task.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy taking a math contest and enjoy the epiphany of the solution, then the time and practice and work is no longer a chore but a joy. I can't tell you what subject that will be for you or where that place is for you. Only you can find it.

If it isn't my math class, then pick something you DO like. I am not going to be offended if you choose art or metal shop or Latin. This is the last time your education is free. Take anything you like and then take more. Why should you take a difficult class that might make you think? Because you CAN and because you like it. A few years from now, you'll be charged $750 for the same class -- take it now for free.

If you find that you only enjoy sitting around watching soaps or playing video games or chatting with IM buddies, then you might want to reconsider how you'll fare in college with far more free time to do such things. Do you have any interests academically or are you following the YMGTC brainwashing that so many are saddled with? Are you truly ready?

You're not choosing my education here, people, nor your parents', the school counselor's, your older math-whiz brother's. It's yours.


"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice.
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where -" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"- so long as I get somewhere."
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk far enough."
Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

"In Spanish there is a word for which I can't find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. Everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition, it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it."
J. Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Dangerous Idea.

Taken from Jay Matthews' article:
"Engaging Minds: Motivation and Learning in America's Schools" by David A. Goslin
Goslin says learning would benefit if we dispensed with the notion that every teacher, school or district should pick the textbooks and teaching methods they like best. He prefers a national curriculum and nationally certified teaching methods based on research on what works, and what doesn't.

You mean that I'm not the bringer of all wisdom? I can't just decide to switch topics and teach what I want and how I want? The heresy. The humanity of it all. Why would anyone want to find what works and tell teachers about it? We know everything because we've been to college and have been teaching for six months.
I recall with fondness the 9th grade teacher who told me that she wanted to teach Flannery O'Connor's "Good Man is Hard to Find" because she read it in college and thought it was an exceptional book. Yep, you read that right.

The Thinking Behind Critical Thinking Courses

I've been saying this for years. You need to know what you are thinking about before you can think about it. You need to know how to make a sentence before the paragraph and before the essay. You need basic math skills before you can understand algebra. You need the algebra knowledge before you can apply the algebra knowledge to "real-world" situations. You learn and practice the bunt BEFORE you try to use it in a game-critical situation.

By Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008; 6:10 AM

Looking for a way to improve your mind and make some money? Check out the latest "critical thinking" courses. Many come up on a Google search. Many promise better grades and higher test scores. Without much effort, you can create your own course and tap into this hot topic.
The only thing is, it turns out such programs don't work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators. A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations.

Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject--facts, concepts and trends--before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

"The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)," Willingham says. "Thus, if you remind a student to 'look at an issue from multiple perspectives' often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn't know much about an issue, he can't think about it from multiple perspectives." (emphasis mine)

Willingham is a kind and patient scholar who occasionally emails me when I stray too far from reality in my columns on learning. Now, with his upcoming book "Why Don't Students Like School? -- A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom," everyone can get a dose of his clear prose and practical wisdom.

Our quick-fix embrace of critical thinking shows how susceptible we are to nostrums that don't make much sense. Even I, alleged foe of press-agentry, have occasionally tossed those two words into a sentence just to look fashionable. I will try to do that less often, knowing that it will disappoint Professor Willingham after he has gone to so much trouble to explain why this is bad.

It is small comfort, but I am not alone in my sloppiness. Willingham notes that the National Center on Education and the Economy, the American Diploma Project and the Aspen Institute have all called for more instruction in critical thinking, without explaining how difficult this is to do well.

The College Board revamped the SAT in part to assess students' critical thinking, and the ACT offers a critical thinking test for college students, even though any such test will only show how students think critically about whatever is being tested. A good critical thinker in physics will be unable to apply those same skills in biology if she doesn't know much about that subject.

The celebrated 1983 report "A Nation At Risk" by the National Commission on Excellence in Education was referring to critical thinking when it decried the lack of "'higher-order' intellectual skills" in 17 year olds. That led to much hand-wringing. By 1990, Willingham says, "most states had initiatives designed to encourage educators to teach critical thinking, and one of the most widely used programs, Tactics for Thinking, sold 70,000 teacher guides."
Researchers have tried to assess the benefits of these programs, without much success. "The evidence shows that such programs primarily improve students' thinking with the sort of problems they practiced in the program--not with other types of problems," Willingham says. "More generally, it's doubtful that a program that effectively teaches students to think critically in a variety of situations will ever be developed."

Critical thinking programs seem very sophisticated. Some go on for three years, with one or two lessons a week. Evaluations of their success, Willingham notes, suffer from having no peer review, being very short-term, having no control groups, using improperly constructed control groups or making no effort to see if the students being evaluated can transfer their new abilities to materials that differ from those in the program. (emphasis mine)
Typical education research.

Willingham, like any good educator, still hopes for enlightenment even in his slowest students, like me. He provides tips for teachers who want to give critical thinking instruction a try: avoid expensive special programs, teach critical thinking only after students have absorbed sufficient content and don't reserve such lessons just for advanced students.

Willingham's own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well. His new book is full of surprises. Did you know, for instance, that the mind is not designed for thinking? His analysis should be a lesson for both the young and us not-so-young. We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.

Laptops distributed to Farmington middle schoolers

By G. Jeff Golden / Farmington (NM) Daily Times

Hundreds of middle school students and their parents crowded into Piedra Vista High School on Monday afternoon to receive free laptops, courtesy of Farmington Municipal Schools.

This is the first year the Farmington Learning Initiative, an ambitious program that provides Apple MacBooks for all district middle school students, is being instituted.

The computers are being distributed from 4-7 p.m. every evening through Thursday. Each Farmington middle school has its own scheduled day. Students from Hermosa received their laptops Monday, while Mesa View goes today, Heights on Wednesday and Tibbett's on Thursday.

Most of the Hermosa students visibly were excited Monday, incessantly fidgeting with the laptop carrying cases they were presented prior to an hour-long orientation presentation. They couldn't put their hands on their precious new possessions until after the speech, which detailed how the computer operates, standard maintenance and the liability of all parties involved.

"It's awesome," Alvin Begay, a Hermosa student, succintly said.

"I think it's really cool," echoed fellow student Mikayla Valdez.

The Apple MacBooks come equipped with a 160 gigabyte hard drive, 2 gigabytes of RAM, a wireless internet adapter and a built-in camera. There are many programs pre-installed, all educational, from internet browsers to e-mail applications to multimedia software.

Students can't delete or install any software.

Though the students were teeming with delight, some parents had concerns.

"At first I was kind of scared. I like it, I was just worried about the security. But I think it's going to be a good thing," said parent Irene Salazar, mother of rising eight-grader Nicholas Salazar. "It'll also teach them some responsibility."

Robert Emerson, assistant superintendent of technology, assessment and accountability, and Charles Thacker, chief technology officer, spearheaded the initiative and were the speakers during the orientation sessions. They are making security a priority.

Every laptop has a StopTheft tag and an electronic tracking system. The StopTheft tag is glued on to the computer and leaves a tattoo identifying the item as stolen if removed. And only Farmington Municipal Schools students can log-in to access the computers. Thieves would not be able to use, conceal or sell a stolen MacBook.

"We are working to create a system where these laptops become paper weights if stolen," Thacker said.

Another chief concern was students' Internet accessibility. Rather than give middle schoolers free reign over their travels on the Internet, or restricting them completely, the laptops use content filters. Farmington Municipal Schools gets federal funding as a reward for installing content filters. The blocks will be in place no matter where the student accesses the Internet, whether it's at school or in New York City.

"No content filter is perfect...we adjust as much as we can," Thacker said.

Laptops damaged or lost on a school campus are paid for completely by the school district; those lost or damaged at home can only result in a maximum penalty of $100 to the parents.

Students are expected to bring their laptops to school, fully charged, every day. As more textbooks are published online, print editions will be weeded out.

Members of the Student Technology Assistant Team will be available 30 minutes prior to school and 30 minutes after the final bell rings, as well as during school hours, to solve any issues.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Credit Recovery

What do schools do with the laziest students? Online courses are one answer. "Learn at your own pace" and "21st Century Student" and "We're just trying to teach him at his own level" are tossed out defensively.

I was standing at the end-of-year picnic when the kid came by with a physical science test. The guidance counselor said he had to pass it in order to get credit. The answer he had given was apparently wrong on this one question. I looked at it - badly written, very vague, but not too hard if you were clear on the concept.

Here's the kicker, though. He had taken this same test before and he was angry at the online teacher for getting this MC question wrong. Kid didn't feel the teacher had explained things well. Maybe, maybe not. This kid was no "house afire" intellectually and wasn't trying to learn anything.

In between explanations of Newton's 3rd Law, I asked about the test. He'd taken it before. Same test. Same 30 MC questions. After getting the explanation from me, he corrected the paper. Since the guidance counselor was standing there with us, I naturally figured that he was going to retake the test. Nope. That correction and the others he did over the next 30 minutes with help from anyone they could find had apparently filled in the "learning" checkbox. The new grade, with my answers, was the one that stuck. (perhaps I misspelled that: the one that STUNK)

How about that?

MC questions for every test. Taken over time, allowing for book review or blatant cheating. Retake with the same questions when you can look back at the old answers and narrow down the possibilities. Course taken at your own pace. This is even worse, in my mind, than the kid falling asleep in class and failing, but having an administrative override. At least that acknowledges that the kid hadn't done anything.

"Preparing him for life?" "Teaching to the 21st century student?"

My butt.

The quote from the Washington Post, which is what set off this rant and reminded me of that kid at the picnic: “Bria was struggling on a world history quiz, the same 10-question, multiple-choice quiz she had taken five times.”

RFR - Parents concerned with latest math curriculum

Here's the timeline. First, test students randomly with little idea of the actual goals. Base the test generally on things kids should know ("which kids" is never really delineated - those going to calculus their senior year or those going to the tech center for cabinet making). Make sure the kids don't care about it by claiming the test doesn't count. Raise a big stink about the resulting scores.

Then, this year, introduce the new curriculum. Following that, change the testing so that we don't have a real baseline to judge whether this is an improvement or not. Only choose schools that got lucky so you can claim success. If too many schools fail, claim that you need more time for the teachers to "learn" the curriculum.

Five years from now, change to block scheduling. Repeat "reform" rhetoric and process.

By LAURA DIAMOND / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia parents were outraged after thousands of students failed statewide math exams in May.

Now with the start of a new school year, parents fear for their children as the state expands the new math curriculum to high schools.

For more information on Georgia's new math curriculum, go to:

Fayette County parent Wendy Ashabranner worries how her son will handle this new math when he starts at Fayette County High on Monday. He was among the 38 percent of the state's eighth-graders who failed the state's new, redesigned math exam, which was based on harder material.

While parents and teachers expected some students to struggle with the new math, they were shocked by the high failure rates.

"It's a trust factor, and I'm very leery of trusting the state," she said. "I know they're hoping these new standards will work, but what if it backfires? It's our kids who will pay the price. Why are they using our kids as guinea pigs?"

New curriculum

After years of criticism that the state's math curriculum was too weak, the Georgia Department of Education drastically changed the way students learn the subject. Officials adopted an "integrated" design, which weaves elements of algebra, geometry and statistics into a single math class, rather than teaching each separately. Elementary-school students use more hands-on activities to learn about numbers, geometry, multiplication and division. Middle school students learn some of the algebra previously taught in high school.

State schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said the new curriculum will better prepare students for college and jobs.

Some parents were so bothered by the changes they formed Georgia Parents for Math. They accuse the state of not providing enough training or classroom resources. They say more emphasis should be placed on math theory and basic concepts.

More parents joined the battle, anxious because failing math in high school would make it difficult for their children to graduate and almost impossible to get into a top college.

Meeting standards

The state began rewriting its curriculum for all subjects about five years ago after education groups, teachers and parents complained the old standards were too vague and broad and caused Georgia's poor performance on national exams.

The new standards were developed by teachers, college professors and curriculum specialists. The math follows the integrated approach used in Japan and other countries. For example, Georgia's high school freshmen will take "Mathematics I: Algebra/Geometry/Statistics" while they used to take just algebra or just geometry.

Martha Reichrath, deputy superintendent for the state Education Department, said the new lessons explain why students need math, whether to determine business profits or find the surface area of an object.

"We have not come up with some foreign math," Reichrath said. "It is an enriched math. Our students will do better with this math. I do believe we will be the national leader in math."

Georgia is the only state using a pure integrated math. The new standards have received high marks from different education and business groups.

But will it work?

"Is Georgia right? It's too early to tell," said Francis "Skip" Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Maryland and a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

Fennell said other states are struggling with how to teach math. Students must understand fractions, decimals and other prerequisites before they can master algebra, which is considered a gatekeeper to success in college and the work force, he said.

Georgia's math does not provide enough of the basic concepts students need, said Tammy Lucas, a founding member of Georgia Parents for Math. The group has about 500 members from across the state.

Time of adjustment

The state's new system requires math teachers to act more as facilitators, meaning they lecture less and use fewer drills. Students must demonstrate what they know and show how they reached their answers.

Teachers say the new method is an adjustment.

"These math standards are new to us, too," said Annette Muhammad, a math teacher at Washington High in Atlanta. "There will be days when we all want to pull our hair out. But we're going to work hard to make sure we get this right."

Teachers have attended training sessions this summer to learn the new material. State officials say test scores will improve as teachers get used to it.

Those promises provide little consolation to the students who are the first to get the new curriculum.

"You can tell when your teachers are doing something new and they don't like it or don't understand it," said Evan Champion, Ashabranner's son. "I hope they spend more time explaining the units more carefully and take more time answering our questions instead of saying, 'We don't have time,' and then moving on to the next unit."

More for parents, too

The ninth-grade math course has six units, so teachers will have enough time to spend on each, said Janet Davis, the state's program manager for math.

Schools can offer a math support course that students take in addition to the regular math class, Davis said. Students would take this class instead of an elective, such as band or art.

Some parents say all the changes mean they must pay closer attention to their child's assignments.

"We'll be talking about what she did in math every night, and I'm going to monitor everything she's doing," said Eddie Bruce, a Cartersville father whose daughter just started ninth grade. "If you're a parent, you're worried about math."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Redshirting kindergarteners and HS dropout.

A new study by economists David Deming and Susan Dynarski -- delaying children's entrance into kindergarten may affect graduation rates:
Forty years ago, 96% of six-year-old children were enrolled in first grade or above. As of 2005, the figure was just 84%. The school attendance rate of six-year-olds has not decreased; rather, they are increasingly likely to be enrolled in kindergarten rather than first grade. This paper documents this historical shift. We show that only about a quarter of the change can be proximately explained by changes in school entry laws; the rest reflects "academic redshirting," the practice of enrolling a child in a grade lower than the one for which he is eligible. We show that the decreased grade attainment of six-year-olds reverberates well beyond the kindergarten classroom. Recent stagnation in the high school and college completion rates of young people is partly explained by their later start in primary school. The relatively late start of boys in primary school explains a small but significant portion of the rising gender gaps in high school graduation and college completion. Increases in the age of legal school entry intensify socioeconomic differences in educational attainment, since lower-income children are at greater risk of dropping out of school when they reach the legal age of school exit.
Hadn't thought of it that way before. Weak students in my lower level class who are 10th grade and 16 years old (and fairly mature in terms of body size and ability to do manual labor) are saying "Two more years? Screw it. I don't need an education, I already have a job." Those in 11th grade can talk themselves into "It's only one more year."

Students who are stronger academically or better off socioeconomically are less likely to go here. I'd like to see some real data that tried to answer this part of the question. What is the cause and is there something we can do or even should do about it?

I think the later entry into first grade for testing reasons (if the kid is a year older, he will do better) has been pushed for any number of reasons. Principals and ed experts push the idea so as to raise test scores of the district. Parents do it for socialization ("He's just not ready") or for athletic reasons ("so tiger can be the best") or for personal reasons ("I can't let him go yet.)

Funny how the law of unintended consequences seems to always hold true.