kitchen table math, the sequel

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Speaking of millennials

Which I was ....

Education Week reports that a new set of dismal international comparisons--of millenials, this time--is coming out next week. I can't tell whether the test is good, but, then again, I'd just as soon U.S. high school graduates not score lower than high school graduates in every country except France no matter how possibly lousy the test.



Here are 3 sample math questions.

Down the rabbit hole:
It's far from the first study to suggest American students are falling behind their international peers. But the analysis of U.S. millennials—those born after 1980, ages 16 to 34 during the study—specifically highlights that the skills gap goes beyond young people who are typically seen as more "at-risk," like immigrants and high school dropouts.


The ETS study, to be released this week, compares millennials in 22 industrialized countries, including the United States, who took part in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, in 2012, the last time it was given. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the school-based Program for International Student Assessment, also runs the PIAAC, which is given directly to adults in their homes. Unlike the PISA, which measures academic content skills, the PIAAC measures practical, career-oriented literacy and numeracy skills, and, as of 2012, "problem-solving in technology-rich environments."


Across the board, young Americans fared poorly compared to those in the other countries studied. They tied for last, with Italy and Spain, in math skills. In problem-solving, they again performed at the bottom of the pack, with Ireland, Poland, and the Slovak Republic. U.S. millennials also had lower literacy scores than peers in 15 out of 22 countries, tied with a few, and outperformed only peers in Italy and Spain.


. . . the skills gaps persisted among students who are least likely to be considered academically at risk. Those who performed in the top 10 percent of all Americans in their age group still performed worse than the top performers in 15 other countries, including Germany and the Republic of Korea.

While a higher proportion of U.S. millennials versus those in other countries had earned a college degree, those with a four-year degree in the United States still showed lower math skills than those with college degrees in any country studied but Poland and Spain.* Moreover, the percentages of Americans who demonstrated the lowest-level math skills increased from 2003 to 2012, regardless of what level of education they had achieved.


Even those with a master's or doctoral degree demonstrated lower numeracy skills than their counterparts in all but a few countries. The average U.S. math score for millennials with a postbaccalaureate degree, 308, was not only below the average for countries studied who are in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but was below the average score for young adults with just a bachelor's degree in several countries, and near the score for top-performing students with less than a bachelor's degree in a few countries.


American millennials with a high school diploma or less performed lower than those with a secondary credential in every country but France.


. . . in the United States, native-born millennials showed a greater decline in skills from the 2003 to 2012 cohorts than did their immigrant peers.


Racial and ethnic performance gaps continued, with 12 percent of white and Asian young adults in America showing advanced levels of math skill, versus only 3 percent of Hispanic and 1 percent of black millennials. Yet on average, OECD countries had about 15 percent of all millennials performing at an advanced level, and white and Asian students in the United States performed below their counterparts in most other countries studied.

From the department of unintentional irony:
While a higher proportion of U.S. millennials versus those in other countries had earned a college degree, those with a four-year degree in the United States still showed lower math skills than those with college degrees in any country studied but Poland and Spain.
If a higher proportion of U.S. millennials finish college, then you would expect college-educated U.S. millennials as a group to have a lower average math score than college-educated millennials elsewhere. [Copy edit courtesy of Glen]

I wonder how the numeracy skills of U.S. education reporters stack up compared to those of education reporters in France and Spain.

Parents should pay attention to the Fed

Since the crash, I've become a Fed watcher.

I don't like what I see.

I'd been thinking for a while now that I want to start alerting ktm readers to the Fed's importance in our children's lives, but that idea, along with a hundred other things I've been thinking I want to do, has been languishing in the want-to-do queue.

Then this afternoon a quick trip to Marcus Nunes' historinhas blog spurred me to action.

So here it is.

Compare and contrast:
Many Fed officials want to start raising short-term interest rates before the economy reaches a point of full employment.

Nobody Knows Nairu, and That’s a Problem for the Fed By JON HILSENRATH | WSJ | 2/13/2015

This, too:

The reason Fed officials want to raise rates before everyone who is looking for a job finds one is that the Federal Reserve "fights inflation" by keeping people out of work. Keeping people out of work keeps wages down, et voilà. Inflation fought.

By law, of course, the Federal Reserve is required to promote "maximum employment."

But the Federal Reserve has never promoted "maximum employment" in the sense of full employment, "full" being the proper synonym for "maximum."

Instead, members of the FOMC interpret "maximum" to mean 'whatever we say it means.' Typically, they see maximum employment as being 5% unemployment. That's 5% at a minimum, mind you. Their estimates of the proper level of joblessness have ranged as high as >6%.

If members of the FOMC see unemployment falling below 5%, they "tighten."

Tightening works 100% of the time. The Federal Reserve can always, without fail, stop growth in employment.

How do Fed officials decide how low is too low?

Beats me.

They don't appear to consult history (the U.S. had full employment with stable inflation in the 1960s); they don't appear to consult the experience of other nations (Japan's unemployment rate has fallen to 3.5% and we're still reading tragic stories about low inflation there); and they seem to have learned nothing from the fact that their past opinions re:maximum employment have been wrong time and time again. (Have they ever been right?)

They do what they do.

That is the long and the short of it: the Federal Reserve fights inflation by fighting full employment. That is why parents need to pay attention.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the employment-to-population ratio, which is abysmal, though a lot better than it was. (77.2% for workers aged 25-54, compared to 79.2% before the crash. The low point since the crash was 74.9% in 2011.)

I'm talking about unemployed people who want to be employed and are looking for work.

The Federal Reserve consciously and intentionally sets policy to ensure that 5% of those looking for work won't find it.

The Wage Growth Gap for Recent College Grads

The Fed's desire to "normalize" policy before we reach full employment bodes ill for the earning potential of millenials:
Median starting wages of recent college graduates have not kept pace with median earnings for all workers over the past six years. This type of gap in wage growth also appeared after the 2001 recession and closed only late in the subsequent labor market recovery. However the wage gap in the current recovery is substantially larger and has lasted longer than in the past. The larger gap represents slow growth in starting salaries for graduates, rather than a shift in types of jobs, and reflects continued weakness in the demand for labor overall.
Be sure to check out the charts.

On a related subject, a while back I mentioned that I'd been wondering why it is that, when I was a child, my father, a farmer in central Illinois, could raise four children and send us all to college on one income.

Now I know the answer to that question.

Two words: policy elites.

More on this anon.

UPDATE: Just saw this.
The Federal Reserve is not sounding like an institution that is ready to raise its benchmark interest rate in June.

Fed Appears to Hesitate on Raising Interest Rate

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Debbie Stier's 28-day critical reading intensive

This is amazing.

Some of you may remember our discussing why charter schools do so much better raising math scores than reading scores. (Be sure to read the comments thread.)

Ever since my summer at Morningside Academy, I've suspected that, where reading comprehension is concerned, pretty much everyone is on the wrong track. (Everyone but palisadesk, of course.)

More to the point, I don't really buy the argument that good reading comprehension, or good scores on reading comprehension tests, take years and years to develop because good reading scores are a matter of background knowledge that takes years and years to develop.

Having now taught freshman composition for a few years, and having used as many Morningside techniques as I've been able to, my sense is that struggling readers can improve pretty quickly.

But that's just an impression. I don't have before-and-after scores.

Then there's the SAT, where math scores are widely perceived to be moveable, but reading scores are not. Certainly not quickly.

So guess what?

A month ago Debbie finally took the plunge and created a 28-day "intensive"* course in SAT-type reading ---- and it works!

Students are raising their scores significantly in 28 days.

It's incredible. I thought it would work, and Debbie thought it would work, but then again .... 28 days? That's not a long time, 28 days. I don't think I'm putting words in Debbie's mouth when I say that while we both thought it would work, we were also harboring a sliver of doubt.

But the first batch of scores have come out, and the kids are doing great!

It's incredibly exciting.

If I still had a teenager at home, I would definitely sign him up. (Maybe Andrew, once we get through Katie Beal's GrammarTrainer ---- boy, I would love that ---)

28-day critical reading intensive

* I love "intensive"! I would never have thought of using that word myself & nor would Debbie -- a marketing person told her to call what she was doing "intensive." Brilliant. "28-day intensive" makes me want to take the course.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What would happen if parents had choice?

This question has come up in the comments thread of "If you want your children to sit in rows, you have to pay extra."

I strongly support choice, partly because Ed and I had sufficient income to exercise choice by, first, moving to a district we couldn't afford* (because we thought affluent suburbs had private school education at public school prices)** and, second, withdrawing our 'neurotypical' son from our public school and enrolling him in a Jesuit high school.

Choice number 2 was the best money we ever spent.

As a simple matter of fairness, I believe that if we had choice, other parents should have choice, too.

How school choice would turn out is another question, and I certainly agree with froggiemama that the prospect of public schools taking the path colleges and universities have taken (more, more amenities) gives me the willies.

On the other hand, we do have evidence from other Western countries that I think should be part of the conversation.

We also have evidence from Project Follow-Through, in which low-income parents chose Direct Instruction over progressive education (must rustle up the link - sorry it's not here).

My two favorite what-do-parents-want stories:
Which reminds me: I recall reading that the U.S. has the least free school system among Western countries . . . is that the case? I no longer remember where I picked that up.

In any event, it's definitely the case that a number of Western countries fund parochial schools (or fund parents who want to send their children to parochial schools).

Also germane to the discussion: Andrew Cuomo is supporting tax credits for school choice.
In his fifth State of the State speech, the governor also called for an education tax credit for donations to public schools or scholarship funds that aid students in parochial schools, a top priority of Timothy Cardinal Dolan.
Cuomo proposes sweeping education changes 
I'm ambivalent about Governor Cuomo, but he does seem like a pretty savvy political operator:
While the bill is supported by some 20 unions, who say that it would help the children of their members, the New York State teachers’ union staunchly opposes it, calling it a backdoor voucher program that directs tax dollars to private schools.

Cuomo’s Education Agenda Sets Battle Lines With Teachers’ Unions
* Almost sufficient income
** Reality turned out to be exactly the opposite: public school education at private school prices.

Carmen Fariña's grandson has a tutor

She cited her experience with her 10-year-old grandson, who she said worshiped the high school boy her daughter had hired to tutor him. “Charlie goes like this” — she mimicked an expression of rapt attention — “every time Abe walks into the room,” she said. (Ms. Fariña’s frequent references to her grandson have become a running joke among principals.)
Chancellor Carmen Fariña Changes New York City Schools’ Course
American parents spend $7 billion annually on tutoring, in some cases as much as $400 an hour, to reassure themselves that they are giving their children every advantage in the academic rat race, and research on the impact of tutoring backs them up.
Closing the Math Gap for Boys
I was talking recently to a member of the school board here, who told me s/he didn't mind hiring tutors, but s/he did mind hiring tutors for "basic education."

That makes two members of our school board, that I know of, who pay tutors to teach their children at home. (Last year the then-board president told the administration, on camera, that he had hired a math tutor for his daughter.)

I don't know whether the other three members of the board employ tutors. I'm guessing two of them do. If they haven't hired tutors already, they will, because everyone does.

Our current superintendent's take on the matter: the reason Irvington parents hire tutors is "culture."

That's what his predecessor thought, too.

Her observation -- this is close to a direct quotation -- was "Everyone knows Westchester parents hire tutors because they push their children to get ahead."

I always get my back up, hearing this.

What is it about my culture that makes me waste money on tutors, exactly?

And how is my culture any business of yours, anyway?

And why am I, the parent with the supposedly wonky culture, the focus of analysis?

I don't think I know a single parent, in my district, whose children went through all 13 years of K-12 without tutors, and all but one hired tutors because their children were having trouble, not because their children were at the top of their class but the parents wanted more.

Just one parent I know arguably fell into the "culture" category, but even that parent wasn't hiring tutors because of her culture. Pushing her kids to get ahead because of her culture, yes. Hiring tutors to do the job, no. Hiring tutors was simple realism. She had worked in the schools herself, and was matter of fact about their failings. Rely on your public school for the basics, she told me; for anything beyond the basics, hire a tutor.

That's not culture.

That's survival of the fittest. Her household had assessed the situation they found themselves in, and they had adapted.

My question is: when did this happen?

When did it become taken for granted that kids--all kids--have trouble learning at school, and the solution is for parents to hire tutors?

Echoing my board member, I don't actually mind if (some) parents are hiring tutors just so long as the superintendent minds and is working to reduce the need for tutors.

But he doesn't and he isn't.

Ditto for Carmen Farina, apparently.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Question: When can you trust your intuition?

Answer: When you possess knowledge stored in long-term memory, not on Google.

I'm semi-beavering away on the writing exercises for Ed's textbook (with Katie Beals) and on Eric Hollander's & my book on the compulsive-impulsive dimension, which has meant long stretches away from Kitchen Table Math (frustrating!)

Trying to organize my collection of articles on the basal ganglia, the orbitofrontal cortex, associative learning, OCD, ADHD, addiction, impulsivity, compulsivity, the cognitive unconscious, intuition, cognitive biases, cognitive heuristics, Go/NoGo (I'll stop here), I came across this:
When should I trust my gut? Linking domain expertise to intuitive decision-making effectiveness
Erik Dane, Kevin W. Rockmann, Michael G. Pratt
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119*2012) 187-194

ABSTRACT: Despite a growing body of scholarship on the concept of intuition, there is a scarcity of empirical research spotlighting the circumstances in which intuitive decision making is effective relative to analytical decision making. Seeking to address this deficiency, we conducted two laboratory studies assessing the link between domain expertise (low versus high) and intuitive decision-making effectiveness. . . . Across both studies, and consistent with our overarching hypothesis, we found that the effectiveness of intuition relative to analysis is amplified at a high level of domain expertise. Taken together, our results demonstrate the importance of domain expertise in intuitive decision making and carry a number of theoretical and practical implications.


While theory suggests that people may perform well using intuition . . . , we expect that the benefits of intuition are most likely to be realized by certain individuals -- those who have acquired a substantial degree of expertise in the focal domain (Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Klein, 1998; Salas et al., 2010). Domain experts are well equipped to capitalize on the potential benefits of intuition because they possess rich bodies of domain knowledge that foster the rapid and sophisticated associative processes that produce accurate intuitions (Dane & Pratt, 2007). Although little work has demonstrated just how much expertise must be accrued before the benefits of intuition begin to take hold, the benefits of intuition are generally most evident - and most striking - among those who have engaged in intense, repetitive practice for a number of years, or even decades (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005; Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Simon, 1987).

By the same token, we expect that intuition is likely a poor or misguided decision-making approach for those with very little domain expertise (i.e., domain novices). On this point, research suggests that the intuitions of domain novices are generally based on relatively simple, context-insensitive heuristics (Dane & Pratt, 2007; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). These intuitions tend to be biased and thus inaccurate (Bazerman, 2006; Hammong, Keeney, & Raiffa 1998).