kitchen table math, the sequel

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Books are better

On NPR this morning:

The book also has fans from other unexpected quarters. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, pioneered advances like "parallel computation," yet he admires the brilliant design of the codex. "It's an inspiration of the very first order. ... It's made to fit human hands and human eyes and human laps in the way that computers are not," he says, wondering aloud why some are in such a rush to discard a technology that has endured for centuries. "It's not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn't been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. ... [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better."

As far as I can tell, the reason inferior technology wins inside schools isn't that "people" take it for granted. 

The reason is that tech companies sell to schools who force iPads and Chromebooks on families and taxpayers.

That's certainly been my experience here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Art Garfunkel, thinking in proportions

In the Telegraph:
[Art Garfunkel] also does a lot of mathematics, having read it as a student at Columbia. “I’m precise. I think in proportions. I play games with numbers and I proportionalise. I imagine we have now done 1/8th of our interview.” I check my watch.

He even took a job as a maths teacher at one point, in the Seventies, despite being a world famous pop star.

“I’d just got married and moved to Connecticut, and there was a nearby preparatory school and so I taught math there. It was a weird stage of my life, to leave Simon & Garfunkel at the height of our success and become a math teacher. I would talk them through a math problem and ask if anyone had any questions and they would say: “What were the Beatles like?”


When he drifts off back to the lifts, singing to himself again, I check my watch. Turns out his mental clock, when he guessed how far we were through the interview, was exactly right.

Art Garfunkel on Paul Simon: 'I created a monster'
By Nigel Farndale | 10:25PM BST 24 May 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How to Google stuff when you don't know anything

I've been joking with some of my friends about how exactly you would Google stuff when you don't know anything about the subject you're Googling.

Take history.

How do you Google history when you don't know any history?

What is your question?

"Did something bad happen one hundred years I should know about?"

Robert Shiller has a really bad idea

In the Times today:
Most people complete the majority of their formal education by their early 20s and expect to draw on it for the better part of a century. But a computer can learn in seconds most of the factual information that people get in high school and college, and there will be a great many generations of new computers and robots, improving at an exponential rate, before one long human lifetime has passed.

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with this problem. The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate. These two ideas are not necessarily in conflict.

What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers by Robert J. Shiller | May 22, 2015
Number 1: General, flexible, insight-bearing human learning in the sense of "critical thinking" does not exist, and you would know this if you troubled yourself to dip into the relevant research in cognitive science before writing an op-ed for the New York Times.

Number 2: We already know what type of education produces general-flexible-insight-bearing-human-learning, and that is liberal education, precisely the kind of education Shiller is argues we should abandon because computers. Liberal education gives students a broad foundation in history, literature, science, math, and the social sciences, which they can then draw upon for a lifetime. I am living proof. I'm still using my Wellesley/Dartmouth education in psychology to write books about the brain. I learned nothing about the brain in college, but I can write about the brain today because I learned some fundamentals of biology, math, and psychology.

Number 3: New computers and robots don't invent themselves. If students don't study computer science in college and graduate school, there aren't going to be any new generations of computers and robots.

Speaking of which, Ed attended the Masters graduation ceremony at NYU last week. Every student receiving a degree in math was Asian, and all seemed to be Asian-Asian, not Asian American. Same with computer science.

Number 4: Business-oriented...real world...creative entrepreneurial process.... This is exactly what public schools have now moved on to. (In my district, Common Core has been swallowed whole by Tony Wagner, and I see the same process elsewhere.)

Why spend another four years, not to mention many thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, doing more of the same in college? Surely 13 years of pretend entrepreneurialism is sufficient.

Which reminds me.

C. took a marketing course this semester.

I was excited. I wanted to learn what there is to learn about marketing, too, and I figured I would.


The course had no textbook, just case studies, which I never did manage to get my hands on. The class seems to have learned something about loss aversion, and also something about not dissing your initial contact at a hospital you're trying to sell major medical equipment to. Beyond that, nothing seems to have made much of an impression (which is not true with C.'s traditional liberal arts courses in history and literature).

As their final assignment for the course, students did a group project. C's group did theirs on tampons. (He was the only male in the group. So: tampons.)

The course did afford me one moment of joy.

C. came home and reported that the professor had given the class a marketing algorithm.

(Did I ever tell you that I taught C. to remember "algorithm" by having him recall "Al Gore has no rhythm"?)

The marketing class was mostly girls, and not one of them was having anything to do with the  algorithm. Not one. They wouldn't touch an algorithm with a 10-foot pole.

Not C.! Not only did C. deploy the algorithm--and with some alacrity, too--he was mildly scandalized by the fact that the rest of the class did not.

Also gratifying: C. seemed to have a pretty clear perception that There but for the grace of God go I. Sometimes having a mother who spends four years of her life reteaching the entire math curriculum at home comes in handy.

I've been savoring the moment ever since. My years of afterschooling didn't achieve what I wanted them to, but they did do what I needed them to. C. didn't make it to calculus (that's another whole story), but he is today a young adult who is on reasonably good terms with mathematics, and who will be able and willing to learn whatever math he needs to learn as an adult.

Other famous people with really bad ideas:
Kofi Annan
David Brooks
The Daily
Barry Eichengreen
Reed Hastings
President Obama
Larry Summers

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Onward and upward

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss:

Superintendent vision for the district

I'll be adding to the page as I go along.

Because I really need to spend more time not writing my book.

"School's out forever"

In the Wall Street Journal today:

From the moment my children left school forever ten years ago, I felt a radiant, ineffable joy suffuse my very being. Far from being depressed or sad, I was elated. There was a simple reason for this: From that point onward, I would never again have to think about the kids and school. Never, ever, ever.

I would never have to go to the middle school office to find out why my child was doing so poorly in math. I would never have to ask the high-school principal why the French teacher didn’t seem to speak much French. I would never have to ask the grade-school principal why he rewrote my daughter’s sixth-grade graduation speech to include more references to his own prodigious sense of humor and caring disposition, and fewer jokes of her own.

I would never have to complain that the school had discontinued the WordMasters competition, the one activity at which my son truly excelled. I would never have to find out if my son was in any way responsible for a classmate damaging his wrist during recess. I would never again have to listen to my child, or anyone else’s, play the cello.

I would never have to attend a parent-teacher meeting to find out why my daughter’s history instructor was teaching the class that England’s King Edward II didn’t have a son. A son named Edward III. A son who took special pains to publicly hang the man who allegedly killed his dad—and let the body rot for a couple of days, just to show how ticked off he was about his father’s mistreatment. All of which my kids knew because their mother grew up 5 miles from the castle where Edward II was heinously butchered. Leaving behind Edward III. His son.

“The timeline gets confusing back then,” the teacher explained when we visited him. No, it doesn’t. In history, this thing happened and that thing didn’t. If you didn’t know that, your students got crummy AP scores. And then they didn’t get into the best college. My wife and I weren’t going out of our way to embarrass the teacher. It was just…well…first you’re wrong about Edward III, and then you’re wrong about Henry III, and before you know it, you’re wrong about Richard III. Who knows where it all could lead?

But now it no longer mattered. The ordeal had ended; the 18-year plague had run its course; the bitter cup had passed from my lips. I would never quaff from its putrid contents again. Good riddance.


From nursery school on, everything involving my children’s education was payback for an earlier mistake in parental judgment. A teacher told us that our little daughter wasn’t socially mature. Or emotionally mature. Or something. Giving her “the gift of time,” the teacher assured us, would mean that she would always be the oldest, and therefore the most confident, kid in class.

So we had her repeat the last year of nursery school. As it turned out, it also meant that she would be the smartest kid in class. And because of this, she would spend her entire school experience without a proper peer group, mostly bored out of her mind.

The fallout from this decision never stopped reverberating. My daughter disliked her first kindergarten teacher so much that we had to get her transferred to another class. She thought some of her middle school and high-school teachers were incompetent clowns. Some were. We had to arrange for her to jump from ninth-grade classes to 10th-grade ones, because the work was so dull. It was not a happy school experience.

On a more positive note, she ended up going to Harvard. Some might argue that holding her back a year and giving her the gift of time was what helped her get into Harvard. I disagree. We took bad advice because we didn’t know what we were doing at the time, and neither did the teacher. We were amateurs, which is a synonym for “parents.” If we had not held our daughter back a year, she would have gone to Harvard 12 months earlier.

It is famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be Parent of the Day forever. And so it was with us.

Not content with the one foolish decision to hold our daughter back, we did the exact same thing with my son, making him repeat kindergarten, at the behest of the professionals. This was a humiliating experience that enraged him, because it permanently separated him from his peer group. For the next 13 years, his best friends were always one year ahead of him.

He never forgave us, and I can’t think of any reason why he should. Yes, we thought we were making the right decision at the time, but so did George Armstrong Custer. The results were similar.

My wife and I never regretted sending our kids to public school. A lot of parents pulled their children out of the public schools when they got to sixth grade, with the rationale that they wouldn’t get a proper education otherwise. My daughter went to Harvard, and my son got a free ride to law school, in part because they had several truly outstanding teachers, so the argument that public school holds students back didn’t exactly hold form for them.

Still, public school was no picnic for our kids. Public schools are designed to handle the vast majority of students, but they aren’t so good with those at the top or those at the bottom. [editor's note: wrongA lot of my daughter’s teachers got fed up with her bellyaching about the insipid materials and the languid pace of learning, and would have preferred that we yank her out and send her to some precious private school.

That wasn’t going to happen. Public school is the great litmus test of democracy; if you don’t believe in public schools, you don’t believe in America. At least that’s what we believe. [editor's note: What?]

It was easier with my son than with my daughter, but only because he hated the very idea of school. Our daughter didn’t object to school per se; she just wanted it to be more challenging. Our son wanted school to go away, especially after we pulled the repeating-kindergarten stunt. He never complained that school was boring, that he hated his classes or that his teachers were dimwits. He just didn’t like school. Full stop. He’d rather play sports or videogames or stay at home watching movies and reading the books he wanted to read. He didn’t stop hating school until he went to college and got to major in classics.

My kids hated cant and they hated lies. They hated the bloodless, inanimate way history was taught to them. At dinner every night, they would pump me for the real truth about history, not the dreary, politically correct twaddle they were taught in school.

They wanted to hear about the Holy Innocents, about St. Lucy, about the Golden Horde, about the time a young French archer fatally wounded Richard the Lionhearted, and on his deathbed Richard the Lionhearted said, “Don’t do anything nasty to that feisty little kid,” and his generals said “OK.” And then, about five minutes after King Richard died, they flayed the kid alive.

They wanted to hear about Alexander the Great, Lady Godiva, Judas Iscariot, Erwin Rommel and unexpected nuances in Apache torture methods. They didn’t want to hear that the Iroquois lived in longhouses and respected women and had a governmental structure that exerted a profound influence on Thomas Jefferson. They wanted to hear about what the Iroquois did to their French Jesuit captives. [editor's note: yes, well, the reason your kids could hear about what the Iroquois did to their French Jesuit captives at the dinner table is that they had parents who didn't go to public schools & thus knew what a Jesuit was]

There were other problems along the way. Personal problems. When my son was around 14, he suddenly became very morose and angry. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that a kid at school was giving him a hard time and had attacked him with a particularly nasty turn of phrase.

My son was big; his tormentor was not. I asked him if he was afraid of the boy, and he said no. I told him to go to school the next day, grab the boy by the throat, jam him into an empty locker and say that he would knock all his teeth down his throat if he ever bothered him again.

“But I’ll get suspended if I do that,” he protested.

“Oh. I see. You’ll get suspended, and you’ll have to spend a few days at home watching television. Where’s the downside there?” [editor's note: yup, that was pretty much our attitude]

My son got a funny look on his face. He stopped being morose. He stopped being angry. He never told me what happened the next day at school. But I think that cheap punk got jammed right into a locker.

My wife was mortified when she heard about the advice I’d given my son. It seemed so crude, primeval. But it worked. As I explained to her at the time, we were both just doing the best we could with the resources available to us. We were making this stuff up as we went along.


There is a central paradox about being a parent and trying to get your kids to profit from their school experiences. You go into it hoping that your children will be happy, all the while knowing that your own school experience was mostly miserable. You think you can make things better for your children, because surely things have changed since you were young—no more nuns with thick, fearsome rulers, no more priests who get a kick out of slapping boys’ faces—but in the end you can’t save your kids from the inevitable.

The greatest American novel is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s about a kid who hates school. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is about a kid who hates school. “The Catcher in the Rye” is about a kid who hates school, “A Separate Peace” is about a kid who hates school, and so are scores of other books.

School seems to be an almost universally unpleasant experience. You can try to sugarcoat it, yes, but you know from personal experience that school is horrid. There you are with all that imagination and energy, and yet you’re trapped inside all day reading books you don’t want to be reading and learning things you don’t want to be learning from teachers who often don’t want to be teaching.

Then one day it’s all over, and your children leave—and you and your spouse find yourselves staring at each other from either side of an empty nest. And there’s only one thing you can think to say to each other: Thank God that’s over.

Mr. Queenan writes the weekly Moving Targets column. This essay is adapted from “The Dadly Virtues,” recently published by the Templeton Press.

Another year, another school board election

Needless to say, I cannot resist a school board election.

Letter to the editor:

At the September 23, 2013 meeting of the Board of Education, Superintendent Kris Harrison briefed the board on his plan for the district.

His plan is drawn from Tony Wagner’s 2008 opinion piece, “Rigor Redefined,” available here.

Wagner believes the world is changing so rapidly that by the time today’s children reach adulthood, most of the knowledge they learned in school will be obsolete.

Thus the school’s traditional mission of imparting knowledge to a new generation should be subordinated to a new mission: helping students master seven “21st century skills” Wagner claims to have identified. (Wagner spends the second half of his essay denigrating Advanced Placement classes and their teachers.)

Two years later, the superintendent has acted on at least five of Wagner’s seven “skills.” This has had the effect of actually increasing the need for tutors, because teaching knowledge is not the district’s priority. Teaching “21st century skills” is. That’s why we now have flipped classrooms, learning stations in 6th-grade math, children sitting in pods peering at iPads and Chromebooks, guidance counselors ordered not to help students draw up lists of colleges, and a Shark Tank project in the middle school. (The last two innovations fall under skill number 4: “Initiative and Entrepreneurialism.”)

What unifies Wagner’s list of seven “skills” is the absence of knowledge, and that’s the first problem. Cognitive scientists have spent years trying to explain that knowledge stored in long-term memory is different from knowledge stored on Google. To think critically, you need the former. When you think without knowledge, all you’re doing is taking your clichés for a walk.

A second problem: Wagner’s piece was published before the crash. It was wrong then (as a few minutes on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website reveals), but it’s even further off base today. The 21st century Wagner imagined, with its happy, humming global society and its ever-increasing “abundance,” is not the 21st century we got. Our children got world recession and Charlie Hebdo.

But the most important problem is the fact that all of these changes are being made without the consent of the people. No member of the board has expressed enthusiasm for changing the mission of the school to the teaching of 21st century skills, yet three members of the board have allowed the superintendent to proceed.

I hope the next board will have the strength to change course.

Catherine Johnson

Monday, May 4, 2015

Wonderful letter to the editor re: U.S. math performance

Peter Meyer just sent me the link:
Re “Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?,” by Nicholas Kristof (column, April 26):

American kids aren’t inherently less intelligent than kids in Singapore, or so one hopes. That’s the good news. The explanation for the Americans’ continued dismal performance in math therefore lies elsewhere.

Having watched my kids navigate the local public schools for the past 11 years, I know that one of the problems is that educators still seem to be trying to figure out how to teach math. My daughters have been through the Singapore approach, with its traditional emphasis on mastery of number facts and arithmetic procedures; the reform approach, with its confusing inquiry-based philosophy; and now the “can’t we all just agree” Common Core standards approach. Why are we still trying to figure this out?

Math has been taught to children at least since ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, and those kids grew up to use their mathematical skills to build the Parthenon, aqueducts and pyramids, which are still standing. The math taught in K-12 hasn’t really changed much since Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton invented calculus in the 1600s, so one would think that educators have had enough time to figure out how to teach it.

How about if educators stop experimenting with our kids, adopt whatever approach the Finnish or Singapore schools use, and get on with it?



The writer is a professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington.

Our Students' Below-Average Math Abilities | New York Times | May 4, 2015
A say: go with Singapore.

Not Finland.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May 3rd deadline coming right up

20% discount on Debbie Stier's SAT Critical Reading course for kitchen table math people. Deadline for registering tomorrow night.

Meanwhile I am off to South Jersey to celebrate a bat mitzvah.

I had to write that down to commemorate the fact that I have apparently become a person who says "South Jersey"!

I have never in my life said, or thought, the words South Jersey.

Until this morning.

We've lived here 16 years now, so it's time.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I'm pretty sure 'The Glass Castle' isn't an exemplar text for Common Core

Another board meeting vignette.

The District was in an uproar over Common Core all last year, and every board meeting seemed to feature yet another Powerpoint explication of the Common Core "shifts."

The middle school presentation included samples of student work, and that was great. You could actually get a sense of how the school was interpreting Common Core, and of what the kids were being asked to do.

One of the work samples was a short student response paper using "evidence from the text" (the text in question being The Glass Castle) to support the point that "some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people."

That was the student's "theme statement." Some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people.

The student's response was well-written, so that was a pleasure to see.

But I was annoyed.

I hadn't read The Glass Castle, and I knew nothing about the book, but since I'd like our kids to be able to read something written before 1990 (and not just The Outsiders, which C. read in 4th grade and then again in 7th), I stood up during Public Comments & took everyone to task.

Why are they reading The Glass Castle, I said.

Why can't they read the classics?

Why can't they read the classics ever.

The school board had the same question.

After that, I decided it was time for me to finally read The Glass Castle myself. I'd been planning to read it for a while, and I figured now was the time.

So I did,

Another case of "always worse than you think." (Family motto.)

The Glass Castle turned out to be a terrific book. But it is radically not a book for 6th-grade students.

When I got to the part where the neighbor boy tries to rape the little 8-year old girl and the next day she has to look up the word 'rape' in the dictionary, I thought . . .

I don't know what I thought.

"Holy cow," maybe.

Me being me, my next thought was: doesn't this call for an email?

An email to somebody?

Somebody in charge?

Somebody in charge who would maybe put in a word for having the kids read Tom Sawyer or Red Badge of Courage or Call of the Wild or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or, really, just about any good book that does not include a scene in which Grandma Erma gropes and paws at her 9-year old grandson's crotch and the dad's reaction is "Brian's a man, he can take it."

I mulled the whole thing over for a couple of weeks. I was still reading the book, and practically every page brought something even more unmentionable than the page before, to the point where I was having trouble imagining what exactly I was going to say if I did write an email, especially given the fact that the people I would be writing to, or about, are people I like. (Our current middle school administrators are both menshes.)

Finally I decided somebody else was going to have to deal with it.

I doubt anyone in the middle school has actually read The Glass Castle, probably including the student who wrote about it. All of the evidence-from-the-text came from the book's opening pages.

The Glass Castle is an amazing book, magical. A magical book about child abuse. (As crazy as that sounds. It is a magical book about child abuse.)

"Some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people" isn't the half of it.

Did local control ever exist?

I went to a school board meeting two years ago, where the topic of the middle school English curriculum came up.

The English curriculum is a chronic source of woe and has been for as long as we've lived here, which is sixteen years now.

Come to find out, parent unhappiness with the English curriculum goes back at least as far as 35 years. After I stood up and commented on the fact that we still do not have a required reading curriculum that includes the classics (here's what we do have), a member of the board said that his own mother had been unhappy about it, too.

That would have been around 1980.

When did public schools start hiring exclusively from ed schools?

Another year, another school board election

My district has been constructivizing itself for 16 years now, and people have yet to catch on.

Jeffrey Litt and the Icahn charter schools

Where have I been?

The speakers at this year's Fordham Prep Wall Street Forum were Gail Golden-Icahn (Vice President of Icahn Associates Holding LLC & Chairman Icahn Charter Schools); Jeffrey Litt (Superintendent of Icahn Charter Schools); and Julie Goodyear (Executive Director of the Foundation for a Greater Opportunity & Secretary of the Icahn Charter Schools).

(They were all incredible.)

Somehow, after all these years, I did not know that the Icahn charter schools were Core Knowledge schools.

Come to find out, the Icahn schools aren't just Core Knowledge schools, they are legendary Core Knowledge schools. Jeffrey Litt was the second principal in the country to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, and he did it in the South Bronx.

From the Core Knowledge blog:
When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:
The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.
Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:
The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.
Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Math students in other countries can do, plus a brain teaser

From Nicholas Kristoff's column in the Times today:

What is the sum of the three consecutive whole numbers with 2n as the middle number?

A. 6n+3

B. 6n

C. 6n-1

D. 6n-3

More than three-quarters of South Korean kids answered correctly (it is B). Only 37 percent of American kids were correct, lagging their peers from Iran, Indonesia and Ghana.


A piece of wood was 40 centimeters long. It was cut into 3 pieces. The lengths in centimeters are 2x -5, x +7 and x +6. What is the length of the longest piece?

Only 7 percent of American eighth graders got that one right (the answer is 15 centimeters). In contrast, 53 percent of Singaporean eighth graders answered correctly.


How many degrees does a minute hand of a clock turn through from 6:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the same day?

A. 680 degrees

B. 600 degrees

C. 540 degrees

D. 420 degrees

Only 22 percent of American eighth-graders correctly answered B, below Palestinians, Turks and Armenians.


Correlation isn't causation, but the absence of correlation is meaningful.

Fifteen years of constructivist mathematics programs adopted in virtually every public school in the country, fifteen years of teacher-training in authentic problem solving and guide-on-the-sidery, and here we are.

At a minimum, we can say that constructivist math has not been a blinding success.


Back to Kristoff, I love this brain teaser for some reason:

You’re in a dungeon with two doors. One leads to escape, the other to execution. There are only two other people in the room, one of whom always tells the truth, while the other always lies. You don’t know which is which, but they know that the other always lies or tells the truth. You can ask one of them one question, but, of course, you don’t know whether you’ll be speaking to the truth-teller or the liar. So what single question can you ask one of them that will enable you to figure out which door is which and make your escape?
Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Barry's book is out!!

Teaching Math in the 21st Century

I got my copy in the mail this week, opened it up to a random page, and instantly found a paragraph to post:
Well, OK, I like open response questions too, but I get rather tired of the "it's inauthentic if it's multiple choice" mentality. I took the math exam required in California to be certified to teach math in secondary schools. The multiple choice questions were not exactly easy; I would hesitate to call the exam "inauthentic." What I find inauthentic is the prevailing group-think which holds that judging math ability should be based on how well students in K-12 are able to apply prior knowledge to problems that are substantially different than what they have seen before. In the working world (which the education establishment tries to emulate by insisting that students be given "real-world" problems) most people employed in technical fields are expected to apply their skills to variants of well-studied problems. For those who need to solve problems of a substantially new nature, it takes weeks, months and years--they are certainly not confide to a two-to three-hour time limit.
I love that.

The real real world is so different from the real world constructivists imagine.

Speaking of which, my district is now committed to "instilling a culture of entrepreneurialism in our students."

Flipped classrooms, stations, and now pretend entrepreneurialism.

20% discount for KTM readers - Debbie's Critical Reading course

I'm copying the post I put up this morning at the Parents Forum.

So as not to bury the lede:

Discount: 20%
Coupon code: KTM20%off (case sensitive!)
Coupon expires: May 3, 2015

NOTE: Students can take the course whenever they wish. The coupon expires on May 3, but once students have used the coupon, there is no deadline for enrolling in the course.

SAT Critical Reading course

The Coupon Code applies to everything on the page & works the way Coupon Codes work on sites like The Gap & J.Crew.

Debbie's email:


Hi everyone -

Some of you will remember Debbie Stier, whose kids went through our schools, and who is the author of The Perfect Score Project: One Mother's Journey to Uncover the Secrets of the SAT.

(Debbie is one of my closest friends. I did a 'polish' of her book.)

Here's the New Yorker article about Debbie's experience & book.

In January, Debbie finally sat down and wrote a sequence of 28 critical reading lessons (partly because I bugged her to do it!), & so far her results are amazing.

She's also started tutoring via Skype.

Debbie's highest student score gain so far is 260 points.

Her student started with a Critical Reading score of 370. After 5 weeks of tutoring with Debbie, the student has reached 630, and it looks like she's going to improve on that.

The same student has also moved from 400 to 650 on Writing, and from 560 to 690 on Math. (Debbie is handling her math prep as well.)


These are fantastic results because almost nobody is able to move the needle on reading scores. Test prep & tutors can raise math scores, but not reading. (This is a big issue in charter schools, btw. Good charter schools work wonders in math, but their reading scores are just so-so.)

I have a theory about why Debbie's approach is working.

I think Debbie is teaching students a specific skill I hadn't realized was a specific skill until we started talking about it.

I think she is teaching students how to 'read things they can't read.'

She's teaching students to suss out the meaning of passages that weren't written for them, and for which they don't possess the necessary background knowledge or even the necessary vocabulary in many cases. (She uses essays from the New York Times—entire essays, not excerpts—which have very high vocabulary levels.)

Being able to 'read things you can't read'—articles and books that are over your head—is a major college requirement. In his first semester in college, our son Chris took John Sexton's course on religion and the public schools, for which the assigned reading was Supreme Court cases. Lots of Supreme Court cases.

Supreme Court justices and their clerks are fantastic writers, but still. You don't come out of high school knowing how to read a 100-page Supreme Court opinion.

(Fun fact: there were two students from Irvington in Sexton’s course – ! They both did well.)

Students need to graduate high school able to read well. That goes without saying.

But they also need tools for reading things they aren’t prepared to read, and that’s not really part of most schools’ curriculum.


One more thought about the SAT (and the ACT).

For me, reading-things-I-can't-read is a job requirement. Here's the kind of sentence I have to parse for the book I'm writing now:
Current models postulate that the basal ganglia modulate cerebral cortex indirectly via an inhibitory output to thalamus, bidirectionally controlled by direct- and indirect-pathway striatal projection neurons (dSPNs and iSPNs, respectively) 2, 3, 4.
If you're a neuroscientist, that sentence is easy to read.

If you're not, it's hard.

Over the years I've figured out ways to read 'hard things,' and I think that's what Debbie is teaching her students to do.

To a 16-year old, a lot of passages on the SAT are as difficult as the sentence above would be for most college graduates.


Anyway, I think Debbie's course is fantastic. Plus I've seen the results she's had with her own two children, so I know she's doing something right.

So .... 15% discount for Irvington Parents Forum 20% discount for ktm readers and their friends!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Project generation grows up and writes for The Onion

Oh God, Teacher Arranged Desks in Giant Circle

“I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but it can’t be good,” said a visibly shaken Katie Wahl, 11, who according to reports began steeling herself for whatever god-awful group project, class discussion, or sharing of personal experiences the sixth-grade teacher might have in store for them.

Group projects aren't fun?

Here's a thought experiment.

What happens when there are no grown-ups left who remember sitting in rows, reading textbooks, and completing homework assignments on their own, without their moms having to shlep them across town to meet with their team?

We'll still have constructivists inveighing against 19th century schools, but everyone's bad memories will be about hands-on learning in groups.

How will that work?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Helicopter parents of the world, unite!

Last night we all drove in to Manhattan for dinner at Debbie Stier's, where we finally met V. and her son R.

V. has been a frequent visitor to Kitchen Table Math, and has become a friend of Debbie's, so we were long overdue to meet in person.


There was a wonderful moment at the end of the evening that I'm posting because I think it will resonate with a lot of you.

V. had volunteered to drive us back to Westchester, sparking yet another a what-is-the-matter-with-us? momentWhy on Earth are we ferrying two autistic sons on the train, on the Shuttle, and on the subway when we could be driving instead? 

No common sense-y.

Anyway, V. had volunteered to drive us all home, and was out getting her car while the rest of us walked to the elevator.

Chris & R. were walking behind us, and Chris brought up something to do with whether or not R. was going to be spending the near future preparing for the SAT.

I heard R. say confidentially to Chris (my college-age son, for passers-by): "You saw my mom."

Meaning: "my mom is intensely on my case about everything to do with academic achievement, so the answer is 'yes.'"

He said this in a tone of .... was it pride?


I think it was both, and Chris obviously thought so, too, because he instantly tried to top R's story.

"I spent my whole childhood hiding from my mom because if she saw me she made me do math," he said. Then he repeated himself a couple of times for good measure.

He was defending my honor.

He'd done the same thing earlier in the evening when Ethan delivered a hilarious monologue about forcing his mother to "un-RSVP" him to an event he had no interest in attending and hadn't been consulted on before Debbie said 'yes' on his behalf. Ethan said he gets emails out of the blue telling him when he has to be somewhere his mother has decided he's going.

Chris said, "I never get emails like that."

"I never get emails telling me I'm going someplace I don't know about and don't want to go to."

Later on, I realized the boys were swapping war stories about their mothers. 

War stories and tall tales. My parents' generation told their kids stories about walking 5 miles to school. Apparently Chris & Ethan & R.'s generation, a certain segment of it, is going to tell their kids stories about their mother making them do math.

Why does no one ever seem to notice this aspect of helicopter parenting?

We hear that helicopter parents are terrible parents, destructive to their children and debilitating in every way.

From time to time we also hear a grudging concession that some helicopter parents seem to produce reasonably accomplished kids who are none the worse for wear.

But we never hear, at least I have never heard, that helicopter parents are fun.

We never hear that the family math wars and the SAT battles and the (occasional) shouting matches that are such a vivid part of life with a helicopter parent are moments their children are going to remember and cherish.

Remember, cherish, and tell their own children about.

If your child's curriculum is Google, this may be why

Google 'makes people think they are smarter than they are'

In a series of experiments, participants who had searched for information on the internet believed they were far more knowledgeable about a subject that those who had learned by normal routes, such as reading a book or talking to a tutor. Internet users also believed their brains were sharper.

"The Internet is such a powerful environment, where you can enter any question, and you basically have access to the world's knowledge at your fingertips," said lead researcher Matthew Fisher, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University.

"It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source. When people are truly on their own, they may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the Internet."
It sometimes feels as if my entire district is now about SEARCH.

And not just SEARCH, but search ON THE INTERNET.

(That can't possibly be right, but that's the way it feels.)

Meanwhile actual books are all but disappearing. The high school kids still have textbooks, but a mom I know tells me that her daughter, who is a good student, never opens hers. She just lugs them back and forth from home to school and back.

Here's my latest intervention on the homefront re: technology: Families looking for technology detox

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Real World Math Problem

FAFSA's EFC is based on your gross before-tax income (including IRA and 401K contributions) and your excess assets. You are expected to save some of your after-tax income to pay for your child's education. During the year, you cut back and save as much as you can. However, when you fill out the FAFSA form, this after-marginal-tax bracket money is sitting in a non-retirement account and is used to increase your EFC. However, if you get a tax refund that comes in late, then it's not sitting in your account and you do not have to report it. Likewise, if you get a bonus (which is income) that comes in on July 1 and you use it to pay for college, it will not be sitting in your account when you fill out FAFSA following year.

One college accounts for this for student income because the percentages are high, but the comment was that this was "small" for parents. My son's college uses 8% after taxes and we're not talking about a meal at IHOP.

The no one right answer math question is: "What's up with that?"

Also, if you take IRA money out to pay for college, then that's added to your income and used in next year's EFC. Score one for Roth.

What's up with that number two?

In our case, our tax refund came in after FAFSA and before CSS Profile. I think I will take out a whole lot more in taxes and not file electronically.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Greetings from the midbrain! and housekeeping and email

Parachuting into my own blog for the first time in (days? weeks?) —I see Le Radical Galoisien is back!


Anyway, I've not been here because I'm there, in the basement of the brain, prowling the basal ganglia. The book's deadline has now been moved to September 1, thank heavens, but it's still going to be a race to the finish, or a slog. A guillotine deadline, as an editor of mine once said, and not happily.

Making matters worse, in the closing moments of 2014 I made a commitment, as my sole resolution for 2015, to clear out my office. Not just my office, but my family room and living room, too, which had become holding areas for office spill-over.

I am clearing out my office, as well as my family and living rooms. The latter two now have nary a file or folder insight. Success.

As of this morning I have scanned, filed, stored, and/or discarded 670 items. (Yes, I'm counting.)

The subset of those 670 items that has been scanned, filed, and/or stored has also been duly recorded on Workflowy, giving me a fighting chance of locating any one of them again when I need it.

(M. said to me the other day: "You should write down where you put things." I said: "I do.")

As it turns out, writing a book about the basal ganglia and decluttering 16 years of office accumulation at the same time was a crackpot idea, not to put too fine a point on it. Fortunately, because I'm writing a book about the basal ganglia (about the frontostriatal circuit, actually) I now know why writing a book about the basal ganglia and clearing out 16 years of office accumulation at the same time is insane:
[L]ots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important. Why would anyone want to add to their daily weight of information processing by trying to multitask?
Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain by Daniel Levitin
Clearing away 670 items requires six hundred and seventy decisions, each one of them momentous as far as my brain is concerned.

I can't even begin to estimate how many separate decisions writing a book about the frontostriatal circuit requires. Every sentence in and of itself requires multiple decisions, since most of my sentences go through multiple revisions. That's just for starters.

Which brings me to the next issue:
In discussing information overload with Fortune 500 leaders, top scientists, writers, students, and small business owners, email comes up again and again as a problem. It’s not a philosophical objection to email itself, it’s the mind-numbing number of emails that come in. When the 10-year-old son of my neuroscience colleague Jeff Mogil (head of the Pain Genetics lab at McGill University) was asked what his father does for a living, he responded, “He answers emails.”
Several months ago (in the fall? the summer?) my Outlook calendar and email program blew up again. This has been going forever, along with multiple crashes of my not-remotely-ancient iMac, entailing multiple trips to the Genius Bar and, finally, a long-distance relationship with kindly Brad, who lives and works on the Apple mothership.

Each repair of my iMac took another bite out of Outlook, and I am now at the point where I can't retrieve anything from Outlook, not even addresses.

I can fix it, I'm sure, and I would if I had even one single synapse free to devote to the task.

But I don't. Not one.

So: if you've sent me an email and I haven't answered, that's why. I'm now mired in indecision over whether to simply set up another gmail address and post it here on the blog, or post the gmail address I've been using for family and local friends and use that for everything, or what.

I don't have any synapses to devote to that decision, either.

(While I'm on the subject of ancillary gmail addresses, should I set one up to sell the books I no longer want on Amazon? A tall-ish stack of books is sitting on the floor beside my desk, awaiting further action.)

I need more synapses.

OK, back to work  miss you all and will try to be present more often  !

Friday, March 6, 2015

On the Singaporean and American classroom environments

I am not entirely happy with the Singaporean education system, for various social, economic and political reasons. Intellectual dissent on the education system in Singapore, I suppose, is like intellectual dissent anywhere -- restricted to discussions in coffeeshops, blogs and online mailing lists, present in environments not unlike this blog. Yet, Americans seem to have the leg up sometimes. For one, Americans have a tradition of organised dissent actually accomplishing something. To Singaporeans, public dissent might evoke a general reaction like, "Ayah, you just sour grapes complaining lah," given our tradition of making public hullaballoos over small things like when a vendor rips us off for two dollars. the "underground" vibe seems more energetic

A "cynical" approach to things taught about National Education

Yet, Singapore's system does have its merits. I am not happy with the American education system either


With all the talk about Singapore Math, tracking/differentiated instruction, group work and classroom rigour, I just thought I'd chip in from the perspective of a student who used to study in the Singaporean education system, before comparing what I perceive to be the American classroom environment, having experienced both the elementary school classroom and the high school classroom in America.

Firstly, a few caveats. My examples of course will be very anecdotal, and there will be things that would be specific to the schools I attended, the socioeconomic background of the student bodies, and hardly least of all, my opinion of my peers, and so forth. I expect this to colour my accounts. But I also think there are biases and hidden variables worth talking about often glossed over by the "adults" when they talk about the educational strategies of both systems. (A small digression: despite being an 18-year-old first-year college student, I still don't regard myself as an adult.) Having also been to other schools and having friends in other schools in each stage of life, etc., and since a few things universal to each system become apparent through popular culture and national gossip, official procedures that everyone goes through, national competitions and the like, I still think it's valid to make some extrapolations.

After all, when reporters, teachers on exchange programmes, educational certification inspectors, researchers, et al. visit schools and classrooms, I think it's safe to say you often don't get an exactly candid picture of what actually goes on. And while we ridicule at the type of learning that occurs in group work, and discuss in haughty academic reports the statistical p-value probability that "effective group work" occurred purely by random, how does one objectively discuss the impacts of things that resist quantification and are hard to detect from test scores, like "school culture", "peer support", "friendship", or "chilling effect"?

Now, I am neither content with Singapore or the United States' education systems

My primary school math curriculum in Singapore also employed group work, etc. I believe with the abolishment of the EM3 system (and I believe the entire EM system as a whole), math tracking doesn't exist anymore in Singapore as it once did. I am happy with this development. Essentially the majority of the pupils at each level will study the same curriculum with more or less the same pace.

Of course, after they graduate primary school, they'll be sorted into the Special / Express streams (differs only by whether you take a more advanced second language or not), Normal (Academic), Normal (Technical) streams, etc. Of course, secondary schools no longer have the GEP either, though they have the new Integrated Programme for those who get into IP schools and fulfill the entry requirements. (IP programmes, including implementations of the International Baccalaureat, often don't work out exactly as was planned on paper. I still have a major problem with the IP programmes' detection/admission of otherwise qualified students, and the fact that a mugging (exam-focussed) culture predominates over any intellectual one.

But of course, back to the primary school classroom first.

Caveat: I went to a fairly comfortable primary school [for P5 and P6; I was brought up in American elementary school in the American equivalent of Singapore K2 to P5). That is, my school fees were basically were 30 SGD (20 USD) every 3 months, while the government subsidised the rest, my classmates were mainly lower middle to mid-upper middle class (at one extreme), etc. I've heard stories happen in the "neighbourhood schools" with regard to work ethic, behaviour and so forth. I'm curious to know if our neighbourhood schools also have successful educational strategies on an international level, just that they enjoy less prestige and dare I say it, performance, than higher-ranked schools. I believe that if you make an analogy between primary school rankings to American college rankings, if Raffles Institution is the equivalent of Harvard, my primary school would have been like Penn State or something. The neighbourhood schools would of course be the local unis and stuff.

BUT anyway, after all these caveats, we didn't really differentiate kids based on academic ability into different classrooms that much, and I would say we enjoyed a fairly rigourous math curriculum. Of course, you always had the discussions over which class was the "best class", often determined by what kind of kids were in them. 6F / 5A