kitchen table math, the sequel

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The security mindset

From the site Mark linked to:
[S]ecurity also requires a particular mindset -- one I consider essential for success in this field. I'm not sure it can be taught, but it certainly can be encouraged. "This kind of thinking is not natural for most people. It's not natural for engineers. Good engineering involves thinking about how things can be made to work; the security mindset involves thinking about how things can be made to fail. It involves thinking like an attacker, an adversary or a criminal. You don't have to exploit the vulnerabilities you find, but if you don't see the world that way, you'll never notice most security problems." This is especially true if you want to design security systems and not just implement them. Remember Schneier's Law: "Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can't think of how to break it." The only way your designs are going to be trusted is if you've made a name for yourself breaking other people's designs.
So You Want to Be a Security Expert
This is pretty much the opposite of the mindset in my district.

Technology and discipline (and help desk)

Parents everywhere should be taking a look at their schools' Codes of Conduct, particularly where "technology" is concerned.

Ours are here.

Our Code specifies that "Electronic Media Crime" will be reported to the police.

As far as I can tell, searching the Code, "Electronic Media Crime" is the only form of misbehavior that automatically triggers a call to the police. Even bringing a gun to school, which carries the same penalty -- a one-year suspension -- doesn't seem to require police involvement.

The Code doesn't say what an "Electronic Media Crime" is, and I'm skeptical anyone explains it to the kids.

The district does require students and staff to sign an agreement called "Acceptable Use Form for Computers," but the form doesn't mention that police will be called if a child logs onto the system and does something he shouldn't. (So far it's always been boys.)

At this point, it's looking to me as if computers in schools are a real and present danger to adolescent boys.

Computers are dangerous because public schools don't seem to have real IT people, so the systems are wide open. At least, our system is open. I'm told, by more than one student, that the password for the WiFi system is the same as the password for the teacher section of the network. Lots of students have the password, and some of the teachers rely on kids as young as age 13 to help them with their computers.

I was talking to my California sister about this, and she pointed out that "Technology Directors" in schools aren't trained in IT. They're just teachers with an interest in computers. They don't know any more about network security than I do. (Is that true elsewhere?)

So we send kids to school in buildings where the network has limited security at best, and in a country where "unauthorized access" to a computer is a federal offense.

While you're checking your district's Code of Conduct, you should take a look at the regulations governing questioning of students. Here in New York, schools don't have to notify parents that they are questioning their child, no matter how serious the infraction.

So far I don't see a limit to the length of time school personnel can question students without parents present, either.

Does anyone know whether there are federal regulations requiring schools to secure their networks?

Or whether the doctrine of "negligent supervision" applies?

Florida Teen Charged With Computer Hacking After Changing Teacher's Computer Background To Gay Kiss Image

"Glued to the screen"

With two dozen third-graders using all these apps and programs, technical glitches are inevitable. One girl discovers that the camera on her device is not activated, something Mercaldi promises to fix.

Working on MobyMax, Angelica Moreira cannot call up the math quiz she wants. Other children try to help her, something the school encourages. “We teach the kids how to troubleshoot,” Jackson Avenue principal Janet Gonzalez says. “Some of the kids are teaching the teacher.”

In the meantime, Angelica selects new backgrounds for her tablet. “I do this a lot while I wait around,” she says. But even after her new wallpaper is in place, the quiz will not load. Eventually someone realizes that MobyMax is preventing Angelica from trying a second quiz too soon after taking the first.

Despite being so-called digital natives, the students vary in how expert they are on the iPads and how much they like them. “Some people know more than other people on the iPad and they get jealous,” says Joshua Parr. Joseph Parrino has had trouble with the iPad’s flat electronic keyboard — “my fingers slip,” he explains — and so has brought a plug-in keyboard from home. And several children say they prefer old-fashioned books to the digital alternative.

Glued to the screen: A third grade class where kids spend 75% of the day on iPads
by GAIL ROBINSON | June 18, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

The black magic of "technology"

If you haven't read Education Week's new article on education technology, you should. I'll try to get a post up excerpting it later.

Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach
Subtitle: Student-centered, technology-driven instruction remains elusive for most

"Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach" explains, as clearly as anything I've seen, why constructivists want mobile devices in the classroom.

Constructivists want mobile devices in the classroom because mobile devices create student-centered learning.

That's what they think.

And that's what is happening here.

For the administrators who run my district, aided and abetted by a 3-person board majority, "technology" is magic. Nothing matters more.

Nothing matters more because once you have mobile devices in the classroom, the teacher decamps to the back of the room, from whence she can survey students' Google docs.

In the wake of today's traumas, I've discovered yet another horrific aspect of our administrators'  "passion" for technology.

I've discovered a double standard where disciplinary actions are concerned.

An infraction involving technology is punished far more harshly than the same infraction involving paper.

Swipe a set of teacher notes from the teacher's desk and you get detention.

Swipe the same set of notes from the district computer system after having been given the system password by a district technology advocate and you get two hours of interrogation without your parents present and a year's suspension from school. And the police sent to your house.

Because technology.

And see: help desk

Help desk - & another black mark on "technology"

If you are so inclined, could you and anyone else you know like these two Facebook posts?

Della Lenz, Irvington, NY

Thanks -- I appreciate it.

These are the 3 posts I've written about this situation:

Passwords on Post-its (superseded by next post...)

More in a second post

Thursday, June 11, 2015

AoPS is hiring

I know people on KTM have mentioned Art of Problem Solving before. Just a quick note to let y'all know that they are actively recruiting people to work in their office in San Diego and are trying to add several full-time people to the AoPS school. You can see the job descriptions here.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"There was no committee"

Here in my district (woe is me), we seem to have dodged the Chinese language instruction bullet.

I don't know why.

Maybe our central administrators, neither of whom is particularly interested in academics (the super cares about fields; the curriculum director is "passionate" about technology) decided the ruckus that would ensue when they swapped out French for Rosetta-Stone Chinese wasn't worth the trouble.

Or maybe they just haven't gotten around to it yet.

In any event, I've just come across a terrific article on English v. Chinese as lingua franca:
English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing their dissertations in English rather than in Finnish or Dutch. But at undergraduate as well as graduate and professional levels, more and more non-English-speaking countries are making the decision to use what they are calling English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI).

Nothing about the dialect of the southern region of the island of Great Britain makes it especially suited to a global role. In fact, choosing English, with its maddeningly stupid spelling quirks (Finnish has none), and its nearly 200 irregular verbs (Swahili has none), and its phonology replete with brutally complex consonant clusters (Hawaiian has none), looks like a choice made by a committee of idiots.

But it was not. Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.

The burgeoning of English is pushing ever-larger numbers of small minority languages into extinction, and many linguists lament that. There are two sides to the issue, though. It saddens us linguists that so many grammatically fascinating and diverse languages in so many language families should be dying out, yet who are we to tell an African father, proud of raising his children to speak a multinational lingua franca like Swahili or English, rather than the local dialect of his traditional village, that he is wrong?


Personally, I would never have proposed making English a global language for education or anything else, and I think my life has been rendered poorer by the fact that because I speak English natively I have never been forced by circumstances to develop real fluency in a foreign language. But nobody placed me on the committee to decide on the global language for education. There was no committee.
And here is Victor Mair, writing at Language Log:
As to why Mandarin is very unlikely ever to displace English as the world language, it's the writing system, my friends.

"Chineasy? Not" "Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese. Chinese characters are hard."]

Now, if ever a true digraphia were to develop in China, Mandarin might have a fighting chance.

"Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia" (see also here and here).

But I doubt that will ever happen. It seems that most Chinese people would sooner learn English than use Romanization to write Mandarin.
Actually, I've heard exactly the opposite.

A year ago, I talked to a high school graduate who had just spent a year in China.

He told me smartphones are causing the Chinese to switch to the Romanization system the phones use. Just because it's there, on the phone, and they use it all the time.

Is that true?

Does anyone know?


Commas, up and down

Ben Yagoda on commas coming and going:
An interesting Slate piece a few months back by Matthew J.X. Malady noted many Twitter users’ disdain for commas. It’s not just a matter of being frugal with punctuation in order to fit a thought into 140 characters. Punctuational minimalism has emerged as one of the hallmarks of casual online style—social media, texting, commenting, message boards. One inescapable example, which I’ve previously discussed, is the sea change in email greeting from “Hi, Name” to “Hi Name.” This is by no means exclusively the province of kids and illiterates....(Exceptions to the minimalism rule are ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, which have spread online like Asian carp in a predator-free freshwater ecosystem.)

Skilled Twitter users drop commas, in particular, to punch up the comedy. Malady quoted a tweet by the writer Jen Doll on a day that Gmail went down for almost an hour: “I guess all those losers outside skiing or like at the movies or whatever missed out on this exciting adventure we just had.”


In certain quarters, the trend, if anything, is more commas. Dropping the suspense, the quarters I refer to are the offices of The New Yorker, the soon-to-be-90-year-old magazine that is the veritable St. Peter’s Basilica of the comma. For The New Yorker, using this punctuation mark in all generally accepted and even optional spots, including after the penultimate item in a series, goes without saying. The magazine’s secret sauce in generating commas is its extreme strict constructionist view of nonessential (also known as nondefining) elements in a sentence. Consider: “By the time Blockbuster got around to offering its own online subscription service, in 2004, it was too late.” Virtually everybody else would leave out the commas after “service.” The New Yorker insists on it, the logic being that otherwise, the writer would be implying that Blockbuster offered its own online subscription service in years other than 2004.

Some people count sheep to get to sleep. I lie in bed reading New Yorkers on my Kindle, counting the commas. Normally, six or seven in a sentence is a number that allows me to close my eyes and drift off. Imagine my surprise, a couple of months ago, when I came upon this, in a review of a book about William Burroughs.
The biography, after its eventful start, becomes rather like an odyssey by subway in the confines of Burroughs’s self-absorption, with connecting stops in New York, where he lived, in the late nineteen-seventies, on the Bowery, in the locker room of a former Y.M.C.A., and, returning to the Midwest, in the congenial university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his last sixteen years, and where he died, of a heart attack, in 1997, at the age of eighty-three.
That’s right. Sixteen commas. I had the feeling that the magazine’s editors were having a laugh among themselves, which I was lucky enough to share in.

I think so much about New Yorker commas that sometimes my head gets all in a spin, especially when pondering what I call the prepositional-phrase conundrum. It comes up in a series of prepositional phrases (as in Burroughs’s New York and Kansas experiences, above) or with verb-prepositional-phrase constructions, in cases where the verb is not preceded by a subordinate conjunction, such as the two “where”s in the Burroughs example. Consider these fairly recent quotes from the magazine:
  1. “It first appeared in 1959, in Paris, as ‘The Naked Lunch’ (with the definite article), in an Olympia Press paperback edition, in company with ‘Lolita,’ ‘The Ginger Man,’ and ‘Sexus.’”
  2. “Brigham’s Allentown and Pittsburgh clinics finally closed, in 2012.”
  3. Robert Frost “was born in 1874 in San Francisco, where his father, William Frost, a newspaperman from primeval New England stock, had taken a job.”
No. 1 (also from the Burroughs review) omits a comma after “appeared.” Presumably that’s because “in 1959″ is considered an essential element, as is “in 1974″ in example No. 3. But why? There was only one year that Naked Lunch first appeared, as there was only one year Robert Frost was born. And sure enough, in example No. 2, recognizing there was only one year that the clinics finally closed, the magazine’s copy desk kept or put in the comma.

But down that road leads madness. Abraham Lincoln died just one time, but even The New Yorker would never print the sentence, “Lincoln died, in 1865.”

Or, would it?

The Commas Suit Ya by Ben Yagoda 4/29/2014
I've been thinking about New Yorker commas ever since reading an excerpt from Mary Norris's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a book I'm going to be buying as soon as I finish writing mine.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Math in the real world

Excerpt from:
Multiple Numeric Competencies: When a Number Is Not Just a Number
by Ellen Peters & Par Bjalkebring
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
May 2015, Vol. 108, No. 5, 802–822
Jeff is a friend of one of the authors and a highly skilled carpenter who claims he is “no good at math.” He excels, however, at estimating the angles, lengths, and areas that are critical to his craft. Ruth, a smart and personable woman in her 70s, broke down crying while attempting to answer questions about numeric data in a Medicare insurance choice experiment. She explained through tears that she was “not a numbers person” and that her husband always did such tasks for them until his death 2 years prior. Numbers were fraught with emotion for her. Individuals like Jeff and Ruth are common. Although students often ask why they should learn math and whether it will ever be useful, Jeff and Ruth provide examples of the importance of everyday math, belief in one’s numeric ability, and (in Jeff’s case) how compensatory numeric skills might exist.

Making good choices in life often involves understanding and using numeric information (Hibbard, Peters, Slovic, Finucane, & Tusler, 2001; Thaler & Sunstein, 2003; Woloshin, Schwarz, & Welch, 2004). Choosing the best health insurance involves calculating likely annual costs from monthly premiums, deductibles, and office and pharmacy copayments. Making an informed decision about a medical treatment or screening option requires understanding risk and benefit information (including their probabilistic nature). Such numeric data are provided to facilitate informed choices, but numbers can be confusing and difficult for even the most motivated and skilled individuals, and these issues are exacerbated among the less numerate. In the present article, we explore the value of explicitly considering multiple measures of numeric competence—objective numeracy, subjective numeracy, and the mapping of symbolic numbers. We review their likely interrelations, test their possible dissociable roles in evaluations and decision processes, and consider future directions in personality and social-psychological processes.
I find the image of a woman in her 70s crying over math profoundly sad.

I guess that's what I was trying to say about my years reteaching math at home--about not getting what I wanted, but getting what I needed instead. (scroll down to end of post)

After all the crying shouting over math around here during the middle years, I'm pretty sure I managed to raise a child who does not, at this point, define himself as "no good at math."

It wasn't easy.

But it was definitely fun.

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 clich├ęs 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!