Monday, July 28, 2008


So the Senator has weighed in on education:
"When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children." Some parents may opt for a better public school or a charter school; others for a private school. The point, said the Senator, is that "no entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity."
Since when does public money pay for a private choice? Since I include the federal government in his definition of "entrenched bureaucracy," I have to ask where does he get off saying that we should demand that schools with no accountability should be a choice over schools that his entrenched bureaucracy won't let go of? Charters are free of the rules and regulations that tie teachers’ hands in traditional public schools. How about we loosen some of those rules?

Where does choice fail?

(1) Who's the customer? If you take taxes from every person, regardless of whether they have children, then the taxpayer is the customer not the parent. If that money is sent to a public school then I can stand up in School Board meetings, Town Meetings, etc and have my say as to how that money is spent, or misspent. (New football stadium, anyone?) I can vote for or against that budget (and many towns around here did just that). I can run for the School Board and have an even more direct say. If you send my tax dollars to a charter, parochial, or other private school I cannot.

(2) "It's my money, dammit." I pay a couple thousand per year in property taxes (renters do too, it's just part of their rent). For that couple of thousand, I can have as many kids in the school system as my house will hold, whether my own, step-kids, adopted kids, foster kids, extended family. For just two kids, I would pay roughly 1/12th of their education costs in taxes every year. The trade-off is that I will pay until I die (minus the low-income exceptions built-in by my State). I figure I would break even after the 120th year of paying property taxes. I'll take that deal anytime.

(3) Taxes != tuition. I used to run a private school. We would typically figure out how much to charge someone based on income. Of course, we called the difference a "scholarship." When the tuition is listed at $15000, say, the real cost of educating a kid might be around $9000. If the kid is the last one, the costs might be as low as $3000. (It doesn't cost much if you can just slide him into classes without hiring a new teacher).

If a family can pay $5000, the scholarship has to be "$10000." The school collects $5000 and figures that $4000 can be scrounged from donations and sources (i.e., other tuitions), won't break the bank and the kid is a good one.

New calculation runs this way: family can pay $5000, voucher is $7500, therefore scholarship is "$2500." The school now is receiving $12500 for a kid whose education costs less than that. Raise your hand if you think that the schools are going to lower the family cost. Didn't think so either. All that vouchers really are is a giveaway to the private schools. I can tell you firsthand that every private school is quietly LOVING the voucher system.

(b) For those districts that negotiate set fees with a private school to be the local public school - those tuition fees are higher than the true cost of the education. We're talking $11000 per. That's guaranteed money. Do you realize how incredible that phrase is to a private school? And those fees are higher than you would have charged the family anyway. If you can get the star quarterback, that's even better. (This is how the local Catholic school competes athletically - skimming. Not too surprisingly, vouchers have become a hot issue around here. I wonder why?)

(4) Room. Take the five schools within this local area. The best one (if you can call it that) is already overcrowded to the point where the freshmen don't have lockers and sophomores have a lottery system. Where exactly are the "choosy" kids going to go?

(5) Driving. Again, take the five schools within this local area. The closest could be next door, obviously, but the farthest would be 15 miles away. Not a big deal here but take any part of this rural state besides the three larger cities and you'll find distances of 40 miles between schools. That means daily commutes of 1.5 hours. Not feasible.

(6) Expulsion. If the kid screws up, the charter school or private school can send him away - with much greater ease than local HS, which also has to take him back. True: local private school expelled the star football player (after the season) for swearing at the refs. By the time the next year came around, they offered him a spot again so he could come and play.

Sorry, Senator. I just don't agree with you.

Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds

July 25, 2008

Three years after the president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, got into trouble for questioning women’s “intrinsic aptitude” for science and engineering — and 16 years after the talking Barbie doll proclaimed that “math class is tough” — a study paid for by the National Science Foundation has found that girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests.

Although boys in high school performed better than girls in math 20 years ago, the researchers found, that is no longer the case. The reason, they said, is simple: Girls used to take fewer advanced math courses than boys, but now they are taking just as many.

“Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” said Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, a co-author of the study. “But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.”

The findings, reported in the July 25 issue of Science magazine, are based on math scores from seven million students in 10 states, tested in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys. (To their dismay, the researchers found that the tests in the 10 states did not include a single question requiring complex problem-solving, forcing them to use a national assessment test for that portion of their research.)

Janet Hyde, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the study, said the persistent stereotypes about girls and math had taken a toll.

“The stereotype that boys do better at math is still held widely by teachers and parents,” Dr. Hyde said. “And teachers and parents guide girls, giving them advice about what courses to take, what careers to pursue. I still hear anecdotes about guidance counselors steering girls away from engineering, telling them they won’t be able to do the math.”

Girls are still underrepresented in high school physics classes and, as noted by Dr. Summers, who resigned in 2006, in the highest levels of physics, chemistry and engineering, which require advanced math skills.

The study also analyzed the gender gap on the math section of the SAT. Rather than proving boys’ superior talent for math, the study found, the difference is probably attributable to a skewed pool of test takers. The SAT is taken primarily by seniors bound for college, and since more girls than boys go to college, about 100,000 more girls than boys take the test, including lower-achieving girls who bring down the girls’ average score.

On the ACT, another college entrance test, the study said, the gender gap in math scores disappeared in Colorado and Illinois after the states began requiring all students to take the test.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Myth of Fun and Interesting.

The kids line the hall, painting with tempera paint.
"What are you all doing?", I ask.
"Storyboards. You know, what we think of when we read the story."
The cynic in me wants to ask if it wouldn't be better to "write" about it. After all, it is a sophomore English class.

"Can we go outside?" "This isn't fun." "I enjoy your class, but I hate math." "Do we have to work today." "You're going to make us think today, aren't you? Can't we have a Friday Fun Day?"
"When have we ever had a Friday Fun Day? and yes, of course I'd like you to think today. Isn't that the point?"

Curriculum meeting.
"We should have more practice with basic skills at the middle school level."
"Oh, you mean drill and kill."
"No, I mean practice."
"You mean drill and kill."
Is it mean of me to say that I'm not surprised she never participated in a team sport? Is not a math teacher? Has never taught anyone over 12? Has no idea of why it would be nice to have students who were comfortable with fractions, decimals, PEMDAS, and so on? I can teach algebra. What kills me is when I have to explain to them how to add 1/2 and 1/3.

Read the Myth of Fun and Interesting over at d-ed reckoning.

I especially like this line:
"In other words, interest is the reward of learning, not the motivation for learning."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gee, ya think?

Rochester school board asks why kids saw social studies exam questions early
David Andreatta • Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle Staff writer
July 22, 2008

Backpedaling under pressure from its board, the Rochester School District announced Monday that it would investigate why thousands of seventh- and eighth-grade students were prepped for their final social studies exams last month with dozens of questions that appeared on the actual tests.

District officials had initially defended the practice of sharing exam questions with students in advance, calling it a legitimate form of test preparation. But that prompted Board of Education members and the teachers union to call for an investigation of the matter and the district's testing review protocol.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. You will never have 100% of your students succeed at anything. Threats, money, bribes, "rewards", 2014 be damned. If any school shows dramatic and sudden improvement then you have one of three things:
  1. School cheated.
  2. Students cheated.
  3. Test is too easy.
People generally don't cheat on tests that don't count to them. That means students don't bother but teachers might. "A legitimate form of test preparation," my butt. Not even a good CYA.

Rochester school board asks why kids saw social studies exam questions early

David Andreatta • Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle Staff writer with lots of reader comments
July 22, 2008

Backpedaling under pressure from its board, the Rochester School District announced Monday that it would investigate why thousands of seventh- and eighth-grade students were prepped for their final social studies exams last month with dozens of questions that appeared on the actual tests.

District officials had initially defended the practice of sharing exam questions with students in advance, calling it a legitimate form of test preparation. But that prompted Board of Education members and the teachers union to call for an investigation of the matter and the district's testing review protocol.

Marilynn Patterson-Grant, the deputy superintendent for instruction, acknowledged in a statement Monday that the matter warranted examination.

"This issue illustrates the need for a critical examination of our current practices and policies around student assessments, and for a system of accountability at all levels and across all subject areas," Patterson-Grant said.

"The (district) will launch an immediate investigation of the development and administration of the seventh- and eighth-grade social studies assessments and review materials, and take appropriate action."

The investigation came after the controversial test-prep method and the district's defense were first reported in the Democrat and Chronicle on Sunday and as Board of Education commissioners demanded action.

"I obviously want to get the full story on exactly what went down," said school board President Malik Evans, who called for an investigation earlier in the day.

"The Board of Education takes the integrity of student assessments and protocols very seriously."

Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is on his honeymoon and could not be reached for comment. He is expected to return at the end of the month.

The disclosed multiple-choice questions and their answers were printed in review materials produced by Paul Lampe, the district's director of social studies, who also approved the exams.

The reviews included all 40 multiple-choice questions on the eighth-grade exam and 24 of the 40 on the seventh-grade test. The questions were each worth one point, and the exams were each worth 100 points. The exams accounted for 25 percent of the students' final grades in the courses.

Lampe previously said he had intended to scramble the review questions and their answers, which appeared in the same sequence in the reviews as on the tests, but he defended introducing students to the questions beforehand.

His response did not satisfy school board Vice President Van Henri White, who called the stance "a mistake at best, and at worst a serious error in academic judgment."

"The problem with that response is that even the scrambling of questions and answers doesn't ensure that our children are anything but good memorizers," White said. "I want reassurances going forward that everyone views these tests, high-stakes or low-stakes, as being honest."

District officials could not say how many of the 4,329 students who took the exams were prepped with the review materials, which were intended to be presented in class by teachers using a slide show produced with PowerPoint software.

The study guides were not meant to be taken home by students, and it is unclear how many students, if any, were given hard copies of the slide show.

Some board members expressed concern that the district's initial apparent indifference to the matter suggested that similar forms of test preparation are ubiquitous.

"My concern is whether this is more widespread and what it says about the cultural malaise that the district suffers from," said board member Thomas Brennan.

"If it is more widespread, I think people should lose their jobs over this."

The district requires seventh- and eighth-graders to take exams in four subject areas: English, math, science and social studies.

Because only the English and math exams are used to determine whether students should be promoted to the next grade, invalidating the social studies exams wouldn't affect students.

The passing rate for the social studies exam was 50 percent in the seventh grade, up 6 percentage points from last year, and 56 percent in the eighth grade, an increase of 5 percentage points from a year ago.

"The district has to get to the bottom of this, determine what happened, and announce what measure they have taken to ensure that it won't happen again," said Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. "I think the credibility of the district is at stake."

Discipline in the Touchy-Feely Nation

I ran across the following article reposted here for reference and I had to laugh.
So she made one visit to a middle school class a year ago. She watched one student get disciplined (maybe - she has no idea what happened in that VP's office) and now she's an expert? When are we going to learn?

Ms. Steiny claims that the "kinder, gentler, more supportive strategies" will be an improvement but can't seem to mention any of them, or how they might have made a difference in the one discipline situation she witnessed. She doesn't take any time to demonstrate even a hypothetical. All she has is "factory-model", "die-press discipline", "circumstances, relationships and feelings don't matter" and "retribution."

Not much of an argument, if you ask me.

I especially like the principal who, having tested this in middle school, is now confidently applying it to the high school because everyone knows the two groups of people are identical and will respond in the same ways. I can even hear the rationales later ... "Of course this is working. We don't have nearly as many detentions or suspensions as we used to." (Because they banned them?)

Ms. Steiny will be happy, too, because the school will be "safer". Why? Because they only track detentions, suspension and "hard numbers." The problems will still occur but since detentions and suspensions are no longer listed in Admin Plus, the school will be considered a happier and safer place. Information Works! will have lots of happy and safe little zeroes to report on their happy and safe little website.

Old method: someone punches your kid = suspension.
New method: someone punches your kid = talking-to in a supportive way.

I'd enjoy hearing that explanation to the parents. "He's got a tough life." "So do we. Why are you letting him punch my kid?"

Life goes on. and so does school reform.

Factory-model discipline leaves many troubled students behind

Julia Steiny / Providence (RI) Journal
July 20, 2008

A bit over a year ago, I shadowed an 8th-grader in her urban middle school, from the early morning rush into homeroom to the end of her last class. We were only a few minutes into the first class when she poked me and pointed to a boy who was up, moving about, chatting up other kids.

She whispered, “He’s in a group home and he’ll never last. He’ll get kicked out before the bell.” The boy wore a T-shirt with a big skull and cross-bones, as if he himself were rat poison and the shirt his product warning.

The students were supposed to be writing answers to questions about a short story, so the teacher nudged the restless boy back to his work. He would settle momentarily, only to be up again as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. He energized another shirker who had been sitting stone still and staring forward. When I asked why the stone-still boy wasn’t doing his work, the teacher sighed and said he was taking it easy on the kid because the boy had just suffered a very low blow in his life.

Eventually the two boys caused enough disruption that the group-home boy was sent to the principal’s office. “See?” said my eighth-grade sidekick, pleased to be right.

So every time this troubled boy came to school, he was quickly packed off to the vice principal’s office to be disciplined for being disruptive. Granted, he can’t be allowed to disrupt the class. But traditional secondary schools have very limited, punitive tools for dealing with wrongdoing. A good portion of any vice principal’s job is to enforce the school’s code of conduct. The code holds rule-breakers accountable for misbehavior by prescribing negative conditioning — suspension, detention, having privileges taken away — to discourage the offender from repeating the bad behavior.

In general, students who start getting punished, keep getting punished. Punishment does nothing to reengage the kids with the school’s community. If anything, it further turns the kid off from school.

Fran Gallo, the superintendent in Central Falls, just replaced the high school’s code of conduct. She gave me a copy of the old one as a specimen of these common, but ineffective documents.

Central Falls’ middle school had already switched to kinder, gentler, more supportive strategies, because its objective is to keep the kids in school where they can be taught how to behave properly, while learning English and science. As a result of these strategies, both discipline and test scores are much improved. The high school will now follow suit.

Like most school codes, the old Central Falls document describes the offenses broadly, then prescribes consequences for first, second and third offenses with mathematical precision. It’s all laid out in an easy-to-use grid.

The group-home boy’s disruption would be categorized under “insubordination/disrespect,” 1 of the 39 infractions you’ll find on the Information Works! Web pages: ( ). For a first offense, the boy would get one or two hours of in-school detention. His second offense would trigger a call to the home, a day of “alternative learning” — a form of detention — and 15 days of revoked privileges, such as watching or participating in sports, or going to clubs or afterschool activities. The third offense would be a one- to three-day suspension out of school, 30 days of suspended privileges and sundry other unpleasantries.

This is die-press discipline, appropriate to a factory-model school. Circumstances, relationships and feelings don’t matter in schools modeled after the efficient manufacturing techniques at the turn of the last century. Most American public secondary schools are organized as factory-model schools. So if the kid is not cooperating with the demands of learning on the educational assembly line, automatic consequences result. It’s just mechanical. If you do X, the discipline die press will automatically clamp down on you with Y. If you do it again, you’ll get Z.

If you don’t turn in your homework so many times, you go to detention. If you skip detention, you get two detentions. If you skip enough detention, you’ll be suspended. InformationWorks! 2008 reports that Rhode Island middle-school kids were suspended for skipping detention 1,133 times, 4,013 times at the high schools. It doesn’t say how many days of school the kids missed.

At one Providence middle school the rate of suspensions is 200.2 per 100 kids, meaning that on average every 1 of the 1,163 kids in that school is suspended twice. (In fact, only 330 students were actually involved in any suspension.)

Die-press discipline is easy on the adults because no one has to bother to dig into what’s going on with the kid. And it relieves the school from facing the fact that some misbehavior is a result of tedious classes. Die-press discipline is considered to be fair because it applies to everyone equally, and everyone knows what the rules are ahead of time.

These codes of conduct go home with a letter that must be signed by the parents confirming that they read the rules and are warned of the consequences. Our adversarial, litigious society has taught parents to come in screaming about their rights when they feel their kid is singled out for punishment.

Actually, a sharp rap on the wrists does straighten out those students who have strong home support and a desire to be back in the good graces of a community they believe cares for them. But even these students resent their punishers and can start to resent school in the bargain. Punishment will produce some compliance, but always at a cost.

As for the “bad” kids, like our group-home boy, traditional school discipline techniques teach that the community, the school, doesn’t like him. If you do things our way, then maybe we’ll be nice to you. If not, we’re within our rights to be mean as snakes.

This is not discipline. This is retribution. It’s certainly not good teaching.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project.

Small Town Teaching

Or, Seeing your students in the paper, 5 years later ...

The highlights: in a restaurant at 5am, stole booze and a cash register (with $10 in change) then drank the booze and passed out in the kitchen. 0.17 BAC. Also stole jewelry from a local home a few days before.

felony burglary and misdemeanor petty larceny, petty larceny for jewelry
maximum penalty of more than 16 years behind bars and $2,500 in fines if convicted of the three charges.

I never had trouble with this kid, just not very motivated, not very likable or willing to be someone other than his history. He'd come in, do the minimum or less. Pass or fail, he didn't really care. Some kids are like that. He dropped out of my algebra 1 as I recall. Took it with another teacher. I'll have to look it up. 16 years seems a awfully long time for B&E, though.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pay for Play Thinking

Referencing this article on a proposed reward system in CA.
Original article: Sacramento (CA) Bee

Let's look at the arguments.
  1. You don't understand our genius - it's not really a bribe: "What we're really looking at is recognition and motivation and incentive to achieve."
  2. Don't you want to support the children: "It's a way to help kids do better in school," she said. "Isn't that what we all want?"
  3. It's free to you, someone else pays: Local businesses could be asked to donate prizes, such as tickets to movies, concerts, restaurants or sporting events.
  4. Feels good to listen to the kids: sparked by a suggestion from a statewide student council group.
  5. Throw in an attempt at a little guilt: Campuses and districts are ranked and judged by STAR scores, but not students.
  6. More attempts at feel good - quote a kid: "That would be cool," said John Franz, 15. "I think that most kids would rather be rewarded for doing something good than punished if they don't do good," said Emma DeAmicis, 15. (Correcting the grammar in the quote didn't occur to anyone?)
  7. Throw in some history that may or may not help your case but sounds insightful: years ago the state offered cash prizes to schools that excelled in testing. The plan backfired at some campuses, however, because pupils began demanding that bonus money be committed to a student activity in return for top effort, Wells said. "They came up with the bright idea of holding out for a good deal," he said. (Which proves this new plan will work, right?)
  8. We already do this so lets make it state-wide: current state law does not specifically ban nonmonetary incentives, so some districts [reward] with medals, homework passes, yearbook discounts, student-store dollars or other prizes. But ... districts do not routinely offer rewards. Her legislation would remove any ambiguity and provide clear support, though no public funding.
  9. Ending with the "it's really educational after all" ploy: some campuses in her Elk Grove district use STAR rewards as a vehicle for teaching about accountability and goal-setting.
Yep. It'll pass. That's too many silly reasons all at once for reason and logic to prevail. I guess I don't get it. I see problems.
  1. Fairness. The good students know they can pass, and that they'll get rewards. The weak students can't pass, and know they'll get screwed. How fair is that? When the rewards come out, everyone puts themselves into in one group or the other. There's no gray here. That's bad news because you've defeated many of those who might succeed later. I remember a comment from one of mine after a honor roll assembly "It's like they're saying 'Here are all the smart people in the school and none of them are you.'"
  2. Back-stabbing: If you have a limited number of prizes, then the back-stabbing gets vicious. Who is chosen for the prize? Is it a fair lottery and is any choice a fair one? I've seen this happen a lot: the administrator runs the program that randomly chooses, but doesn't like the result so he runs it again and again until the "right" people are "randomly" chosen. Of course, the more cynical ones don't bother choosing randomly.
  3. A reward implies that student effort is the only factor. Really? How about teacher quality? How about test prep? How about curriculum? I think my own school has a lousy math curriculum - it "matched the state standards" but not the SAT I or II or ACT and didn't build for calculus here or STEM majors in college. Is that the kids fault? (Yes, I'm trying to change it, but those who chose it are convinced it's effective, despite the 16% passing rate on testing this year. Oh well. I've spoken up about it, put in some new courses as electives but in the long run -- Sign my paycheck and you get to call the shots, too.)
  4. Education is it's own reward. Or, Bribes always backfire in the long run. I tell my students all the time, "If this isn't the education for you, change it. Consider a switch to the tech center. Don't take classes you can't stand. If you can't deal with me, then switch to one of the other teachers. We purposely set up the schedule so that's possible. This is your education - work with it. Learn what's fascinating." A reward switches that focus to the tangible. Children who start down this road then start needing all their rewards and incentives in tangible form. Remove the reward and the incentive is gone. Study Mythology because you want to, not because the teacher gives out M&Ms like the dog trainer at the fair.
  5. Oh, yes, it costs money: Claiming that local businesses will give the money is foolish. Sure, some will at the start, but soon the rewards are "medals, yearbook discounts, student-store dollars." Who do you think covers that? Additionally, after the first year, then someone (on the payroll and on company time) has to go around to all the businesses asking for those donations, then collecting them and holding them, then writing the "thank you" notes and paying for the signage to thank them in public, then distributing them to the winners. The costs of this "free" stuff is probably more than buying it outright, not that THAT's any more useful.

Bill bets prizes would get kids to pass tests

By Jim Sanders - Sacramento (CA) Bee with lots of reader comments
July 21, 2008; MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

Want kids to score well on statewide tests?

Reward them.

Before they ask, "What's in it for me?" offer a prize for performance.

That's the thrust of a proposed state law passed this month by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"What we're really looking at is recognition and motivation and incentive to achieve," said Sen. Elaine Alquist, a Santa Clara Democrat who proposed the measure.

Senate Bill 1709 would authorize and encourage school districts to provide nonmonetary incentives to middle and high school students for achievement or improvement on standardized tests.

Critics wonder if the concept feeds a selfish, me-first attitude.

"At some point, students need to be taught that every good deed does not require reward," said Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Coupal, whose group has taken no formal position on SB 1709, said he is leery of rewarding children simply for doing their duty.

"It reminds me of providing incentive pay for police officers to stay in physical shape – I mean, that should be part of the package, shouldn't it?" Coupal said.

Alquist characterized the incentives as recognition, not compensation.

"It's a way to help kids do better in school," she said. "Isn't that what we all want?"

SB 1709 initially proposed a special mark on a student's diploma and a mini-vacation from classes – up to three days – at the end of the school year.

Alquist later dropped the three-day break. Her bill now encourages school districts to develop nonmonetary incentives by soliciting ideas from students.

Local businesses could be asked to donate prizes, such as tickets to movies, concerts, restaurants or sporting events.

"I think the possibilities are endless," Alquist said.

SB 1709 passed the Legislature largely along party lines, with most Republicans opposed.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position, nor have state teacher, administrator or school board groups.

Alquist's bill, sparked by a suggestion from a statewide student council group, presumes that many pupils don't take Standardized Testing and Reporting exams seriously because their grades and graduation are not affected.

Campuses and districts are ranked and judged by STAR scores, but not students.

Teenagers interviewed at McClatchy High School applauded the notion of prizes.

"That would be cool," said John Franz, 15.

"I think that most kids would rather be rewarded for doing something good than punished if they don't do good," said Emma DeAmicis, 15.

But Roger Fotuiaka, 14, said that offering prizes sounds like an attempt to "buy" cooperation.

Bob Wells, director of the Association of California School Administrators, noted that years ago the state offered cash prizes to schools that excelled in testing.

The plan backfired at some campuses, however, because pupils began demanding that bonus money be committed to a student activity in return for top effort, Wells said.

"They came up with the bright idea of holding out for a good deal," he said.

A legislative analysis of SB 1709 said current state law does not specifically ban nonmonetary incentives, so districts conceivably can offer them now – and some do, with medals, homework passes, yearbook discounts, student-store dollars or other prizes.

But Alquist said districts do not routinely offer rewards. Her legislation would remove any ambiguity and provide clear support, though no public funding.

Dave Gordon, head of the Sacramento County Office of Education, said that tangible prizes are "not inconsequential," but a better incentive might be to tie STAR scores to students' futures.

"Whatever we can do to make the tests more meaningful and have more consequences, I think that's a plus," Gordon said.

California State University uses scores from an ancillary exam, linked to STAR, to exempt high school students from remedial classes. Gordon said the concept should be expanded to community colleges.

State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell would like to see STAR scores used as college entrance exams, spokeswoman Hilary McLean said.

O'Connell has taken no position on SB 1709, however. He believes that school districts know students well and are best-equipped to decide whether to offer prizes, McLean said.

"We think there are upsides and downsides," she said.

A system that rewards improvement and achievement, for example, might leave out students who try very hard but have little success, she said.

John Montgomery, assistant superintendent of the Roseville Joint Union High School District, said he would like to see STAR testing occur toward the end of courses and count toward grades.

Montgomery is wary of awarding prizes, however, calling them "artificial motivations."

"They've worked, I've seen them work," he said. "But in terms of integrity, I'm not so certain that that's where we want to be."

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said offering prizes does nothing to address social or economic reasons for poor test scores.

For teenagers who purposely fail, gifts don't necessarily change attitudes, he said.

"I think a lot of it is a breakdown in the popular authority that teachers represent," he said. "Building that back up is going to require more than just handing out M&Ms."

But Associate Superintendent Christina Penna said some campuses in her Elk Grove district use STAR rewards as a vehicle for teaching about accountability and goal-setting.

Before testing, students evaluate past scores, set a performance goal and discuss strategies for improvement, she said.

"We try to make it a self-reflective exercise for students to do better," she said.
LiveScience has this in an article about customer satisfaction:
And when math is involved, most of us can't cope. For example: See if you can calculate the total savings in the setup: 20 percent off the original price plus an additional 25 percent off the sale price. How much is that item marked down? If you said 45 percent off, then you're math skills are as pitiful as the 85 percent of college students who also got this wrong in a study last year by researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Minnesota.

Is it just me or did that "you're" jump out at you, too? But, it's okay. I don't DO English.
Update: Got fixed! They apparently read the comments on their articles.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Too funny

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Civics isn't apparently taught anymore.

This Blurb from the NY Times education section caught my eye and I copy it here.
Texas: Bible Classes Approved
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; Published: July 19, 2008
The state’s Board of Education gave final approval to establishing Bible classes in public high schools, rejecting calls to draw specific teaching guidelines and warnings that such approval could lead to constitutional problems in the classroom. The Legislature passed a measure in 2007 allowing Bible courses to be offered as an elective. State officials are still waiting for an attorney general’s ruling on whether the classes must be offered to students or left to school districts to decide. Critics say the rule does not provide specific enough guidelines to help teachers and school districts know how to do that and avoid a First Amendment clash over freedom of religion. Mark Chancey, associate professor in religious studies at Southern Methodist University, has studied Bible classes already offered in about 25 districts. His study found most of the courses were explicitly devotional with almost exclusively Christian, usually Protestant, perspectives. It also found that most were taught by teachers who were not familiar with the issue of separation of church and state (emphasis mine).
I really couldn't care less what courses are offered in schools. If the kids want to take Bible classes as an elective, I'm not having an opinion one way or the other. But the teachers claim to not be familiar with the issue. WTF?

Snarky questions alert !!
  1. How is it that anyone over the age of 4 is not familiar with this issue?
  2. These can't be teachers. Teachers have at least attended college. Where did they get these folks ???
  3. if Mark Chancey is an associate professor, why didn't his ears perk up at this and work it into his study? SMU usually has a good reputation for not being clueless.
  4. Four, why am I not surprised this is Texas?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bleah. Curriculum mapping ... again.

Curriculum mapping today. I'm so enthusiastic I could just spit.

Years ago, it began as a piece of paper that briefly said what material and concepts were happening when. This basically worked well. It was called a syllabus and it was "The Course." You used it to guide your teaching. Teachers talked to one another and compared notes. Life was good.

Then the State Frameworks arrived and all was "Wrong, wrong, wrong."

So a few brave souls from each department earned much summer stipend money and aligned everything with the State Frameworks. Each course had it's section in the Big Folder and things were good. Every chapter had it's place and every teacher could look up what happened when and why. (Few did -- the syllabus was still pretty useful -- but the point was that we could.) Life was good and students were taught.

Then the State decided they wanted to update things. "Frameworks BAD. New Standards GOOD." Yep, you got it. Time to change the Book.

So after many hours of work over another summer, the Book was aligned to State Standards and all was good. (We didn't actually change very much, just re-referenced the new sections to the appropriate spot in the Standards, but hey!) Every chapter had it's place and every teacher could look up what happened when and why. (Few did -- the syllabus was still pretty useful -- but the point was that we could.) Life was good and students were taught. The Book ruled.

Then, out of the darkest night, came the GLE's, the Grade Level Expectations. "The Standards are wrong, wrong, wrong. We must align to the GLE's. " Not even the dreaded teacher whine "We won't do it unless we get stipends" was enough to derail this latest round of editing super-goodness. Money was found because NCLB was threatening on the horizon.

But this time there was a new wrinkle. The Secretary had been ordered to make up a "Template" - in Excel because the Principal had no idea that you could make a table in Word. So the Book was transcribed into Excel. Anyone who knows Excel knows how badly this went.

Then the superintendent's office purchased licenses for an on-line system, $5 per student per year. Why did they charge for an online curriculum mapping system by the student? No one knows. It was so slow and cumbersome, no one ever used it. It could insert the particular GLE for you, if you were patient enough to click through all the tiny little plus-boxes and expand every branch of the tree each time you inserted a standard. After the inservice training, though, no one did.

So that initiative failed.

So we now have a new system, CLI. That's where we are today, transcribing our courses into a new on-line system. We have to write "essential questions" and indicate the content, skills, assessment, activities and resources. (You know, make something up.) "Can the students manipulate binomial and trinomial expressions and use algebraic representations for real-world situations?" As a bribe to get us to do it, we're paid an hourly stipend AND we get 3 graduate credits toward recertification.

Who says there's no waste in education?

How to massage data. ( KIPPing it real. )

Let me say at the start that I don't disagree with the KIPP schools. I believe they think they are doing the right thing with their students. I am not criticizing their methods or policies. I am focusing here on a statistic and the misuse of that statistic in making public school policy and curriculum decisions.

There's an interesting article in Newsweek, by John Alter, in which he says
"The irony is, we know what works to close the achievement gap. At the 60 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, more than 80 percent of 16,000 randomly selected low-income students go to college, four times the national average for poor kids."
That's an impressive statistic until you look around. "80%" applies only to the original couple hundred students, not the current population of 16,000, and even then the sample is skewed.

Even KIPP agrees ... from their website, "This national college matriculation percentage only includes students who attended the original two KIPP schools in Houston and New York. At this time, those are the only KIPP schools that have been in operation long enough for alumni to progress from eighth grade to college freshmen."

I get annoyed when facts like these are thrown into the public view where "education experts" (i.e. big mouth, no current teaching experience) and administrators (i.e., big mouth, no teaching experience) take them and make really bad decisions.

That line "We know what works to close the achievement gap" is very powerful to these people. I have had a principal say, "Longer school days work for KIPP and we should have that here." His proof was an Internet article similar to this one; it was enough for him.

This is not a double-blind study with treatment & control groups. No one is controlling for confounding factors. There is no analysis of correlation / causation. The sample size is small and biased, applying to the "randomly selected" (from out of KIPP schools, not the city as a whole) from a selective group (those who made it through 4 years +) chosen from yet another sub-group (those admitted to KIPP schools).

So, specific issues ...

(1) The students are not chosen randomly from the city population: they are screened by an application process. Before the program even has a chance to work or not, this weeds out many who won't succeed -- in KIPP or in college.

(2) It ignores those who might have attended successfully but didn't for other reasons -- such as an unwillingness to spend 10 hours a day doing heavy-duty drill and practice for standardized tests. "KIPP schools relentlessly focus on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures. " Again, I don't have a problem with KIPP here, just Alter's assumption that this is the gloriously perfect solution.

(3) It ignores all those who do not stay in college after the freshman orientation.

(4) The students have completed 5th through 8th in a KIPP program AND four years of high school. From KIPP "As for how we track students, we do this through the KIPP to College alumni program at both schools. The KIPP to College program aims to empower each middle school graduate to continue using the scholarly habits, knowledge, and skills learned at KIPP schools as they continue on the path to college (and beyond.)"

How about that? Anyone who isn't part of the "KIPP to College alumni program", isn't included in the statistic!
  • Can you imagine anyone going through eight years of this (see below for some more details of the program) while not having the proper attitude for college?
  • Can you imagine continuing KIPP to College program in high school if you have no intention of going to college all along?
Frankly, I'm amazed that number isn't closer to 95% if they're going to calculate it that way.

Remember how scientists get temperatures close to absolute zero? Conventional methods get you close but one of the final steps is this: you have a pool of atoms, some hot and some cold. Hot ones bounce higher and are shot off with a laser, leaving a cooler overall substance. After a while, it's not surprising that you can take averages of the remaining ones and claim a good success rate.

There are so many places and ways to leave that attrition is more common than graduation. There is no way to know whether KIPP is teaching particularly well, but it sure can winnow them out. The fact that a student has the parents, patience, willingness and dedication to tolerate the work and the schedule may be the reason that he or she goes to college. I would certainly think so. Whether the KIPP style of teaching is effective has not been introduced, studied or discussed.

Please don't assume that it will work for the rest of the educational system based on this data.

Some other information from the KIPP site ...
Time in school is 60% greater than that of a normal PHS and is a big factor: 7:25 a.m. til 5:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. on Friday.) Saturdays 9:15 a.m. til 1:05 p.m. Summer school.

The student contract ...
"I will always work, think, and behave in the best way I know how, and I will do whatever it takes for me and my fellow students to learn. This also means that I will complete all my homework every night, I will call my teachers if I have a problem with the homework or a problem with coming to school, and I will raise my hand and ask questions in class if I do not understand something.
"I will always make myself available to parents and teachers, and address any concerns they might have. If I make a mistake, this means I will tell the truth to my teachers and accept responsibility for my actions.
"I will always behave so as to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals in the classroom. This also means that I will always listen to all my KIPP teammates and give everyone my respect.
"I will follow the KIPP dress code.
"I am responsible for my own behavior, and I will follow the teachers' directions.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New calculus course falling short

Early results from BYU teaching experiment show traditional methods may be better
By Brian Maffly
The Salt Lake Tribune

Last year, Brigham Young University professors taught experimental calculus courses with honors students to test an emerging and controversial way of teaching math. Instead of lecturing, Janet Walter and Hope Gerson, assistant professors in BYU's department of math education, had the students hash out math problems cooperatively.

They explored scenarios from the real world, such as calculating the volume of a region formed around an axis, with the hope of arriving at key math theorems on their own. The professors wanted to study how people learn math - that most abstract, yet essential of academic pursuits.

But some BYU faculty are questioning whether Gerson and Walter's students learned much calculus after they bombed on departmental exams. Even though they were teaching high-achievers in smaller classes, test scores were lower than BYU's overall averages and sunk as the experiment proceeded over the course of three semesters.

"At the end of the day, no matter how much they talk about it, they have to be able to solve the problems. That's where these programs break down," said Lynn Garner, who recently retired after nearly 40 years with BYU's math department. Garner, a former department chairman, authored the textbook that was used for all first-year calculus courses at the time of the experiment.

Gerson and Walter declined to be interviewed. There are metrics for success other than the exam results, but discussing their study prematurely would jeopardize its chance of being published, they said through a BYU spokesman. The scholars, however, did present preliminary findings at a San Diego conference this year.

A truly amazing statement ~ If the tests had shown improvement, they'd have yelled it from the rooftops. When the opposite occurred, it's a bad test.

Gerson and Walter contend there are multiple paths to solving a mathematical problem and students should be encouraged to chart their own way by exploring problems drawn from the real world.

"It sounds great, but it doesn't work," quipped David Wright, a veteran BYU math professor.

Gerson and Walter started their experimental calculus sections during winter semester of 2006 and continued them for the next two semesters. As a condition of approval, the professors used the same textbook as the other BYU calculus sections and administered the departmental final, worth 20 percent of students' grades, required of all 500 students taking calculus each year.

During the first two semesters of Gerson and Walter's experiment, their students' scores were a few points behind the overall averages and a few more behind the honors averages. But by the last section, known as Math 113 or Calculus 2, their scores were nearly 15 points off the overall average, translating to a D grade. In an e-mail to a State Board of Education member, the professors dismissed their students' poor test results because "there was little or no relation between the exam and the published learning outcomes for the course."

And when average scores are down 15 points ... Did any of them calculate the z-score for this??

But BYU math faculty contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune contend the departmental exam is tailored specifically to measure students' grasp of BYU's standard calculus curriculum.

According to Garner, the exam was instituted in the early 1990s in response to concerns from engineering and physics faculty who insisted that students coming into their programs should all have the same math preparation. Previously, the professors complained that students had divergent understanding of calculus.

"When [Gerson and Walter] proposed those sections, we said it was fine with us as long as they take the uniform final and use the same textbook," Garner said. "Their object was to study how students' attitudes changed during the course. They didn't drill the skills like they do in the other sections."


'Traditional' vs. 'Reformist' debate is nothing new

For the past decade, math instruction in America's schools has become a flash point in a contentious debate pitting "reformist" math educators, who rely on constructivist learning theories, against "traditional" math professors. The Alpine School District became a battleground in this debate several years ago with its embrace of constructivism, derided as "fuzzy math" by its critics.

Constructivists want to replace formulas and algorithms with inquiry-based approaches to learning math, while traditionalists want to stick to lecture-and-drill approaches. Recent research is mixed on constructivism, which has gained traction in math instruction in recent years. An April article published in Science by Ohio State University researchers cast doubt on the use of real-world problems, such as calculating when trains departing different stations will pass each other.

“The danger with teaching using this example is that many students only learn how to solve the problem with the trains,” said co-author Jennifer Kaminski, a research scientist with Ohio's Center for Cognitive Science, in an OSU press release. “If students are later given a problem using the same mathematical principles, but about rising water levels instead of trains, that knowledge just doesn't seem to transfer."

California to require every 8th-grader to take Algebra I class

"The Road to Hell" and all that. It's easy and simplistic. "We Have Spoken: Students Will Achieve."

I give it 3 years. In the first year, they'll test and realize 7 months later that it didn't work. They'll panic and re-jigger things, and it still won't work. They'll cheer themselves when a dozen schools manage to get all of their kids to pass, and quietly return to normal at the end of the 3rd year. And those schools who got 95% passing? I'd be looking VERRRY carefully at test administration.

By Dana Hull / San Jose (CA) Mercury News

California education officials set a high bar Wednesday: All eighth-grade students will be tested in algebra.

While the 8-1 vote from the state Board of Education was immediately applauded by several business groups, some educators warned it set unrealistic expectations since half the state's students are still struggling to master basic math skills.

The decision means that an intense ramp-up period is about to begin, as the state scrambles to hire and train more algebra teachers, align curriculum and get young students ready for more rigorous course work. The program could launch in as little as three years.

The move makes California the first state in the nation to require algebra at such an early level, signaling the state's determination to set high standards for its 6.3 million K-12 public school students.

"Algebra is the key that unlocks the world of science, innovation, engineering and technology," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement. "This is California's future."

By adopting an Algebra I test as the sole federal math assessment for eighth-graders, state education officials expect that all eighth-graders will ultimately take algebra classes. If they fail the test, students can still advance to the next grade.

The latest round of math wars arose earlier this year when the federal Department of Education found California out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind law when it came to testing students. Some eighth-grade students were tested in algebra, while others were tested in a lower-level general math.

The federal government told California to enroll all students in Algebra 1 within three years, or develop an alternate test that would include some Algebra 1 concepts.

State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell and his staff chose to develop a new eighth-grade math test that included some algebra. But many business leaders, education advocates and the governor objected, calling it "algebra lite." The state education board rejected O'Connell's plan.

"Algebra I is now the sole test of record for eighth-grade math," said state Board of Education President Ted Mitchell. "There is one set of standards, no matter what a student's ZIP code, race, ethnicity or income level. We're committed to creating a system in which they master skills for the 21st century."

Some critics say that pushing students into math courses they are not ready for could exacerbate California's dropout rate. And many question the time frame under which the new rules are being put into place.

"You need to lay the groundwork if you're going to make this kind of policy shift," said Santa Clara County schools chief Chuck Weis. "We need to invest in the teaching of mathematics at the lower grade levels."

Traditionally, high school students have taken Algebra I in the ninth grade. But in recent years, there has been a growing effort to shift Algebra I to the eighth grade. About 52 percent of all California eighth-graders now take Algebra I courses, up from only 16 percent at the beginning of the decade, according to EdVoice, a statewide education advocacy group.

But while more students are taking algebra earlier, not all of them are passing it.

"There's a big void at the middle-school level," said Pioneer High School math teacher Stephen McMahon. "We have a lot of students who take Algebra I in the eighth grade, and then they repeat it in ninth grade. A lot of students aren't ready for that level of math."

See also
How to screw up with data and
Once more into Eighth Grade Algebra.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

How to screw up with data

A recent principal had no idea of how math worked or should be taught, she just knew that our "scores weren't good enough." She bounced into an end-of-year faculty meeting with the graph at right (taken from a State publication). Essentially, she said, "The math teachers aren't pushing our kids enough. We can improve our scores by pushing the kids into more rigorous courses. I've talked with Guidance and we're scheduling next year's freshmen. We're 'STEPPING them up! Students who were recommended for pre-algebra will be in intro-algebra instead. Intro-Algebra is now pushed into College prep algebra. Those in intro-algebra this year can move into algebra II if they pass. Our scores will rise because this graph shows that students in more rigorous classes do better on the exam."

Wow. The graph shows the NEAP math scores attained by tenth-graders, sorted according to the math course they were taking. The idea our fearless leader was pushing was that artificially placing the kids up a course would raise their scores.

My comment that we should push them all the way into pre-calculus and do even better was not appreciated. All of us math teachers began trying to explain that it was rather natural that 10th graders in pre-calculus would do better than 10th graders in pre-algebra. We were told to "Get with the program." "Why are you obstructing progress?" "This chart is from the State DOE. It's based on real data." "We need to raise our scores."

The plan happened. Over the summer, the principal took the lists of freshmen and made placements based on a 1.5 year-old test instead of teacher recommendations. She put them into classes of 20 and decreed that these classes would stay together all day for all of their courses. Imagine that: 20 kids are well-placed together for math, science, English, history, and PE.

The eighth grade teachers were furious because they had done a lot of work placing these kids, holding meetings to best group them, examining tests across the board, and so on. They had done a typically bang-up job. ( We HS teachers were rarely surprised by an out-of-place student. Year after year, we knew what we were getting and the kids knew they were going into classes they were ready for. The parents knew the placements were good -- this was a small town and everyone had an older sibling who had Mrs. W., etc.) The MS teachers told the kids their classes for next year, everything was A-ok.

The kids showed up at HS in August and found they were STEPped. Lines of students formed at guidance trying to change schedules. They were all refused. Parents were told of the new plan, which mollified them somewhat. They thought their kids were really going to do better.

What really happened was that one math teacher had all of the freshmen classes and had lowered the expectations across the board. Hand in homework and be nice were the two primary criteria for passing. College prep algebra was reduced to the level of an introductory algebra; intro algebra had some algebra in it but not much. The school-wide algebra tests and exams were used but the scoring was wildly curved. (Sort of like the NY regents: 30 out of 95 was a typical passing score.) Grades went "up". Parents were happy.

Then these kids moved into 10th grade. Almost all of them did poorly. Their new teachers were accused of making the classes too difficult and of not teaching properly. We were told that maybe we should change to block scheduling (what?) or perhaps an integrated math program. We were told to "individualize your classes. Take each child from wherever she or he is and help them make improvement. We are not standardized here." It didn't matter if the kid didn't really know much algebra 1 because his next teacher was supposed to start where he was and build.

There were kids in Geometry who had never dealt with square roots except by punching a calculator. Algebra II kids who didn't know how to factor. Algebra I kids who couldn't reduce a simple fraction. We'd had all these problems before, of course, but never in these numbers.

Kids and parents were also not happy. "I had an A last year, now I'm getting a D" was the most common complaint. A few admitted that "Mr. C. didn't teach us much." "We never did 'graphing lines' or word problems. We went outside and calculated the slope of a mountain we were walking up. Actually, T. held up a protractor and we all used that number. We wrote about it in our journals." Notice that slope was 22 degrees, not (y2-y1)/(x2-x1). This was totally new to most. Not like the usual "Oh, I remember" but more of a "Huh? We never did that."

What data was used to see if the program worked? "The freshmen's grades this year were higher than last year's so it must be a good change. Their grades went down as sophomores so the other math teachers did a bad job."

Don't you just love education? Where else can a perfect storm of incompetence screw up so many kids?

Just to wrap up, a look at the cast of characters:

The principal who thought that all students could have finished Geometry by the end of the ninth grade and that 50% of the students could therefore take calculus as seniors. The principal who couldn't average 100 and 92 without a calculator.

The freshmen math teacher who is the head of the union and had been installed as department chair by that principal because he agreed with her. He's not allowed to teach Geometry, Pre-Calculus, or Calculus because the State says he doesn't have the credentials or ability. We didn't even like him teaching Algebra II because he did such a terrible job. Kids with math talent hated getting placed in his class.

The curriculum coordinator (a math phobe) who quit to become a principal at another school. This man felt that all kids can succeed in any course if the teacher individualizes the class. Apparently, when you put a "B" in algebra on a transcript, colleges magically know that you individualized the class at a basic math level.

The guidance counselor who had to quit because she needed to renew her credentials, which required that she pass the Praxis I math test. She couldn't. (You know the one: Which of the following is equal to a quarter of a million? (A) 40,000 (B) 250,000 (C) 2,500,000 (D) 1/4, 000, 000 (E) 4/1, 000, 000 ). The other two guidance counselors also left for better jobs where they didn't have to defend decisions they didn't make or agree with.

The other 5 math teachers: 3 quit, listing politics and bad administration as reasons. They're teaching at nearby schools. The remaining two stayed for other reasons, but were "this close" to quitting anyway.

How about that?

Once more into Eighth Grade Algebra

To California we go: the LA Times here and copied here (the Times archives it's articles).

Some years ago, California decided that all 8th graders should take algebra. While a wonderful concept theoretically, did anyone stop to think that not everyone is at the same level at the same time? Math is not like Literature. You need to understand the previous work before moving on to the following work. How has everyone forgotten this?

My theory is that the majority of teachers and education reformers are liberal arts majors. They just don't know what they're talking about when it comes to teaching math or developing appropriate math education policy.

Elementary teachers, by and large, "don't do math" and have very little sense of the topic. The middle school teachers, for the most part, are general education type folks with only a small percentage having a STEM background. Narrow your list down to MS math teachers and you still don't have just math people. You can find English majors who have covered a basic math course for a year or two. or three. You have those who can't teach Geometry or Algebra II in the high school and have drifted down to the level they can teach.

The Amsco salesman told me a joke some years ago: "I know the first name of almost every middle school math and science teacher on the East Coast," he said. When I looked at him askance, he laughed, "Coach."

The high school teachers are competent in their fields, but only a tenth of them teach math. I'm not even going to try and pretend that all HS math teachers are competent. The upshot is that virtually no one understands the teaching of math and yet everyone has opinions. Only a tiny portion of the total teaching cohort has ever taught a HS math course. Unfortunately for the math students, schools tend to be a democracy and those who know get out-voted by their principals, school boards, guidance personnel, do-gooders, loud and pushy parents, fellow teachers, and the like.

To be fair, math teachers should probably push back far harder than they do. We do tend to be quiet and just "go along to get along" sometimes.

From the LA Times: Testing for Algebra

July 9, 2008

California has made great strides toward teaching algebra in the eighth grade. Six years ago, fewer than a third of eighth-graders took the course that's considered the linchpin to college-prep mathematics. Now, more than half do.

But the state is caught between the rigid mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act and its own lofty academic ambitions. The federal act requires the state's proficiency exams to test whatever the standard is, and the state'sstandard is for all eight-graders to take algebra. What to do about the 48% who take lower-level math?

The answer to be considered by the state Board of Education this week is to give those students a new, tougher test with a sprinkling of algebra questions, while algebra students would continue to take the full algebra test. That makes the feds happy. That makes the state Department of Education happy. The only problem is that this is unsound education.

Though we support standardized testing as a way to measure the progress of schools, testing students on material they haven't learned is the educational tail wagging the dog. Teachers will throw a few simple algebra concepts into a curriculum in which they make no sense in the hopes of a better score; it's the proverbial "teaching to the test" in its worst form.

The state already has inducements in place to prod schools toward eighth-grade algebra, which has led to the progress so far. But the eighth-grade algebra standard is not a requirement, and though there's a movement afoot to make it one, that would be a mistake. Math demands progressively sophisticated skills. Students have to master Step 1 before they can successfully attempt Step 2, and the public schools have long allowed students to move on to the next step while they're still shaky on the previous one. That's why algebra remains the single biggest obstacle to high school graduation.

The problem begins long before middle school; in fact, one of the major factors is failure to master multiplication tables. The state needs to think out its curriculum before it starts testing students on it.

California has adopted materials for an algebra-readiness course for middle schools, but it will be years before the curriculum is fully in place. Let's not lose sight of the real goal here, which is to ensure that students learn math -- not just take it, or pass it, but actually learn it. Better for lagging students to be prepared properly for algebra in ninth grade than for them to take it early, only to fail, and fail again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Innovation, or not.

Alexander Russo had this to say:

Squared-Off Milk Jugs -- For Education

6a00d834515f0569e200e5537dc4d288338What if someone took one of the most commonplace objects in education -- pencils, say, or reams of paper -- and found a way to produce and distribute them at much greater cost and energy use? (sic) That's what's apparently just happened in the grocery store industry, where a new kind of squared-off gallon milk jug (pictured) is saving production, storage, and distribution costs -- even if it's not so easy to use at first (NYT).

The closest thing I can think of in education might be open-source software, which lowers purchase and licensing costs for basic software. Whiteboards seem like they're not much less expensive than blackboards. Ditto for newfangled artificial turf. But maybe I'm missing something. Ideas?

This kind of short-sightedness is fairly common in education. It's not that he's really missing so much as not looking at other parts of the package.

Open Source software is wonderful. I use it and it works well - as well as the commercial stuff. The problem is that I tend to be ahead of the curve. Most teachers aren't.

If you allow teachers to find OSS and install and maintain it, you will have 15% who do a good job and get good software and put it to proper use in the educational setting. You'll have 50% or so flailing around, grabbing half-baked projects from three or four sources, messing up the implementation or just not making very good use of it. You'll have the remainder installing ad-supported malware or worse.

If IT is in charge of securing, promoting, installing, and training, then you will never have OSS in schools except for the rare case. The IT guys don't have the same needs and priorities as the teachers. For them, and for the training staff, having an identical install on every school machine is worth the expense and most of the time that means Commercial Software that is also on the typical home machine as well. Better to have MSOffice on every machine than to try and train up OO on this crowd.

Compatibility is a big thing, since teachers share a lot of things. If it requires a lot of conversion, most won't bother. If Word can't open the Works file or the ClarisWorks file or the WordPerfect file, then the file won't be opened.

It is amazing how little most teachers are able to teach themselves and how much we whine and complain when faced with anything out of the ordinary. Every new update is met with enough wailing that you'd expect to find blood spilling on the floor. Don't even think about changing the grading program. I know of teachers who wouldn't even enter grades into the parent-accessible on-line gradebook until the last day of a marking period, and then only a final grade. Why? They didn't like it.

Now imagine the IT guy trying to switch everyone to OpenOffice. "We need training." "My files won't import." "How do you open a file?" "Where is Excel." "Why did you change; the old program was so much better." I can't see IT bothering.

Gadgets and gimmicks are a slightly different story in education. Everyone wants the latest and most expensive, even if they need "at least three days of training in order to learn the Smartboard." Because teachers generally don't learn on their own time, the school has to hire subs to cover classes while teachers learn simple tasks. It's okay, apparently, because the students "have work to do."

Bottom Line: The students can learn from a worksheet without a teacher present but the teachers can't. Makes sense to someone.

Whiteboards are cheaper than blackboards if you are buying one or the other and outfitting a room for the first time. Blackboards are cheaper if they are already there. I reject ripping out decent blackboards to install whiteboards for just "modernization". Ditto for Smartboards. In fact, the stupidest thing to do IMNSHO, is to replace boards. Simply add the new to another part of the wall. There is nothing quite like having 4 good blackboards and a whiteboard/ smartboard. Then again, I teach math.

So what about the great boondoggle of our age, astro-turf? Please. Schools have main fields for several sports, practice fields, little spaces in between where the track kids do sprints and it's all one big stretch of grass and easy to maintain. Mow it regularly and seed it and fill some holes judiciously and you're good to go for years. If the puddles get too big, drag the goals and the bleachers 20 yards laterally and viola!, a new field.

Enter the astro-turf gadget. It's expensive and it's only on the main field. Which then has to been maintained with sweepers, repair kits and 6 different sets of lines in a rainbow of colors (because fairness dictates that boys' and girls' teams all get access to the good facilities) plus a bunch of other expenses not mentioned in the installation guide or in the brochure thrown at the school board. And don't forget the rest of the fields are still in use ... you don't really save much on those costs.

Why is this good? Because one field of the ten around your building never looks muddy. That's the only reason.

What's the big kicker? Artificial turf needs replacement every 10 years, leading to a annualized cost of $40 to $60k. Hardly a good use of money in my book. Better to use that on the care and maintenance of 10x as much grass.