kitchen table math, the sequel: Alexander conference call

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Alexander conference call

The last two days have been me running around losing my mind trying to deal with about fifteen different sudden emergencies, but Alexander's office sent out a summary of the act, I read through it, and here are the questions I've prepared (note that I can't monopolize the call, since there are I believe eight of us). Sections from the summary are in quotation marks.

"Increasing research investment"

This makes me nervous for two non-fiscal reasons. First, governmentally funded research these days tends to become politicized to the point that the principles of science are abaonded in favor of pushing an agenda (global warming). Second, there has to be some way of screening applicants, other than the NSF or some other similar organization, so things like "Animals, Women and Weapons: Blurred Sexual Boundaries in the Discourse of Sport Hunting" don't get funded. What kind of mechanisms can be put into place to safeguard against these two potential problems?

"Strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and critical foreign languages, specifically"

Strengthening the skills of thousands of math and science teachers by establishing training and education programs at summer institutes hosted at the National Laboratories and by increasing support for the Teacher Institutes for the 21 Century program at NSF."

This is laudable, but it seems to be a band-aid on a bleeding artery. If math and science teachers need to have their skills strengthened, then there's a problem in the education schools. Why not address that problem? For example, most states do not require that teachers have a degree in the subject they're going to teach, and education schools often require few courses, often watered-down. Why not offer incentive to states to change their teacher certification laws so math teachers have math degrees? (Yes, I'm channeling Newt Gingrich here.)

And leading up to the next points, by leaving standards up to the states, NCLB has created incentive for states to fudge, if not lower, their standards. So:

"Creating partnerships between national laboratories and local high-need high schools to establish centers of excellence in math and science education."

Certainly commendable, but whose standard of excellence will we follow? How do we determine if a program has achieved a standard of excellence?

"Providing math now grants to improve math instruction in the elementary and middle grades and provide targeted help to struggling students so that all students can master grade-level mathematics standards."

So how do we determine if programs have improved, and what standards do we use to measure improvement?

Also, targeting ALL students is unrealistic. There always have been and always will be kids who have no interest in learning, and will not learn, for whatever reason. This is reality. NCLB makes the same naive error. ALL students will never come up to grade standards. I'm not saying let all of the students at the bottom of the curve go to the devil, but a number of those kids are not teachable. Any education program has to be realistic about that.

Finally -- and I'm no luddite, but have been using technology in classes since the 80s -- all this talk about "innovation" leaves me dubious. What "innovation" usually means these days in education is pour more money into computers and neat toys, and follow more pedagogical "theories" that the data demonstrate do not work.

Was that cynical?

8 comments:

Instructivist said...

"Strengthening the skills of thousands of math and science teachers by establishing training and education programs at summer institutes hosted at the National Laboratories and by increasing support for the Teacher Institutes for the 21 Century program at NSF."

If NSF is involved, then it's probably more constructivist mumbo-jumbo. This does not augur well for this new initiative. It looks like another expensive, pointless effort. If legislators are serious, they need to come to grips with the fuzzy math plague.

Training teachers properly (i.e. no fuzzy math crap) could be helpful. It is perhaps a necessary condition but by no means a sufficient condition. Anyone who has taught math to the disadvantaged in large urban areas knows that under present conditions (teaching a whole classroom of perhaps 30+ pupils) it is pretty much a hopeless enterprise. All these legislators, business folks and pundits have no clue what it is like and their recommendations usually miss the mark. Let them spend some time in the classroom for a reality check.

What I am advocating in settings in which the disadvantaged predominate, is intensive math support in real math (no fuzzy math crap!) during prep times. For this purpose classes need to be split up into smaller groups and grouped by ability and/or behavior. This is the only way to make a dent.

BeckyC said...

Was that cynical?

No. It sounds like you are going to do a great job trying to get them to define their words.

Thanks!

Tracy said...

NCLB does not make the naive error of assuming that all kids can come up to grade-level.

1% of students can be exempted at school district level from the grade-level tests. Alternative assessments can be used to assess the progress of these students.

A district can apply to the state department of education for a waiver from the 1% rule.

Instructivist said...

Some info on this Act: http://alexander.senate.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressReleases.Detail&PressRelease_Id=1109

Catherine Johnson said...

Strengthen is a HUGE word in edu-land

Our newly stated strategic plan says we intend to "strengthen" our K-12 literacy program

Well of course our K-12 literacy program is so bad we can barely be said even to HAVE a K-12 literacy program

But now we're going to strengthen it

(I should be clear: we have essentially no writing instruction, and people are chronically in a state of fury over this. The reading situation is more complex. We're using balanced literacy; we then teach reading to the LD kids by pulling them out of real subjects and practicing them on "reading" per se. We also have kids read not-very-good books that are far below grade level....so I can't say the reading program is great shakes, either. But the HUGE glaring problem is writing instruction.)

Which we intend to strengthen!

Catherine Johnson said...

What I am advocating in settings in which the disadvantaged predominate, is intensive math support in real math (no fuzzy math crap!) during prep times.

I don't follow -- "during prep times" means --- you teach extra classes during prep times?

Instructivist said...

The prep times refers to the free times classroom teachers get when their kids go to specials like art, music, gym...

The intensive math support that I envision should take place during these times.

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