kitchen table math, the sequel: March of the pundits

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

March of the pundits

OK, I have just spent 5 minutes of my life listening to Fordham's weekly podcast.

suburban schools

Suburban schools are doing "fine" (or some such) teaching their white kids.
They are failing to teach their black kids.
Should we or should we not, as a matter of law, insist they teach their black kids, too?

Number one, how is this even a question?

Yes, I understand politics are involved: white parents, the middle class voter, blah blah blah.

What I don't understand: How is this even a question?

Suburban schools should teach all children attending suburban schools.

the white kids aren't doing "fine"

Number two, suburban schools are not doing fine teaching their white kids.

Suburban tutors and parents are doing fine teaching their white kids.

Scratch that.

Surburban tutors and parents are not doing fine, either. Many of us are merely hanging on, averting complete disaster.

This is why we have a Math War. We have a Math War because parents are aware they can't make up for the lousy math education their child is receiving at school.

If it were easy just to teach great math at home, we'd do it and forget about the math war. Or, rather, some of us would forget about the math war. I'd probably join the Math War for the same reason people climb Mt. Everest, because it's there. But that's me.

why don't we have a Spelling War?

If pundits wanted to know why "high-performing" schools are failing to teach disadvantaged students, which they apparently do not, they might ask themselves why we have a Math War in the first place.

Why don't we have, say, a Spelling War?

My own school has failed to teach C. how to spell. When I asked his 3rd grade teacher— a terrific teacher in every other respect, a woman who taught him 3rd grade fractions and made it stick—about his spelling, she laughed and said, "He's not very good, is he?"

Then she said she couldn't spell, either.

When we asked his 4th grade teacher, also an excellent teacher, she shared with us the method she'd ended up using to teach her own kids to spell. (As I recall, she had them write each spelling word 20 times.)

Then his 7th grade teacher told us: "I always tell the kids, if you can't write well nobody's going to care if you can spell,'" or something along those lines. (She, too, was a terrific teacher, an opinion I can probably document. C.'s grammar and usage in written work are very good for his age, and he didn't learn either at home.)

My email to the assistant superintendent in charge of instruction on the subject of a spelling curriculum for middle schoolers went unaddressed.

So: not only did my district not teach C. how to spell, my district routinely conveyed to us the attitude that if we wanted our child to spell, it was up to us.

Question: Do you see me waging a Spelling War here in my district?

Writing a blog about spelling?

Answer: No. You do not.

The reason I am not engaged in a Spelling War is that, as it happens, it has turned out to be possible to teach spelling here at home. I spent a couple of weeks of my life Googling the known universe, trying to figure out what spelling actually was and why people can't do it; I bought a couple of books on the subject, which I have yet to read beyond the first chapter; then I cruised the available textbooks and lit upon Megawords.

C. started the Megawords series in the beginning of 5th grade.*

He is now in 8th grade and is completing the 4th book in the series.

Last week I began testing him on all of the word lists contained in the first 3 books. Result: he's not bad.

"Not bad," in this context, is meaningful. Today his spelling errors are reasonable, as opposed to psychotic, which is what they were when he was 10.

For instance, when I asked him to spell badminton, he said b-a-d-m-i-t-t-e-n.

That is a correct guess.

I have now pulled out all of the words he missed from the first and second books (have yet to review Book 3), and will have him practice them sporadically as he works his way through Book 5. I'll do the same for Book 4 when we finish it this week.

It's clear now—even Ed says so—that by the time he graduates high school he will be proficient in spelling, or close enough.

This is why I am not engaged in a Spelling War. I think it's ridiculous my "high-performing," lavishly funded school district didn't teach my kid to spell.

I also know for a fact that some of the brainiest kids in the school can't spell worth a damn.

But I'm not having a Spelling War.

I'm having a Math War.

I'm having a Math War, not a Spelling War, because I can make up for lousy spelling instruction, but I can't make up for lousy math instruction.

Pundits appear to be singularly uninterested in the existence of a raging Math War across the land. If they spent 5 seconds paying attention to it, they'd realize their core premise where suburban schools are concerned is wrong.

Talk about the answer being right under your nose.

what does an achievement gap in a high-performing district tell you?

When you look at a suburban school and you see the white kids "doing fine," and the black kids not doing fine, what does that tell you about the school's curriculum, pedagogy, and accountability?

It tells you the school doesn't trouble itself with accountability.

The school does what it does; if the kids learn, great; if they don't, they're disadvantaged and what can you expect?


the slow girl track

This reminds me of a story I've probably told before. It appears in Ed's new book (not sure if it's out yet—I'll check).

The book is a collection of essays by French historians talking about why they became French historians.

In one of the stories, a historian who his 40s maybe?....writes that as a kid, he was a math hotshot here in the U.S. Then he went to France on a student-exchange program, and the French school put him in "the slow girl track."

Meaning: the track was the slowest the school had to offer and it was filled with girls. The slow boy track was faster than the slow girl track.

He was in the slow girl track.

I say: let's pick a high-performing suburban school district, do a student-body swap with a high performing school in Singapore, and see what happens.

Our kids are gonna get stashed in the slow girl track.

That's assuming Singapore even has a slow girl track.

Which it probably doesn't.

the physicist

Speaking of which, I sat by a former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on my flight back from Illinois.

His daughter is now in graduate school, and he's still exercised about the low quality of U.S. public education.

He told me, flat out, that no parent can remediate a bad math education.** He'd said this repeatedly to his own school board, to no avail.

He had actually said, to his school board, "You have them sequestered here 6 hours a day and you're not teaching them anything."

This is a physicist and former head of the JPL.

Saying no parent can remediate a bad math program.

Reasonable conclusion: if the head of JPL can't remediate his daughter's lousy math education, I can't, either.

I wish our pundits would get a clue.

* The books are created to begin in 4th grade, continuing through 11th.
** I think he extended this to reading and writing, but I don't remember what he said specifically.

march of the pundits, part 1
speaking of pundits
march of the pundits, part 2

how to change the system
parents need a union

Independent George on the pundits and their ways
one is a nutjob, twenty five are powerful
first person



KathyIggy said...

My second grader can't spell either. She reads very well and comprehends well too. But the school encourages invented spelling in K and 1st and so she still uses that no matter what I've tried. I know the school thinks all of sudden the kids are just supposed to figure out how to spell. She can get 90-100% on weekly spelling tests but it doesn't carry over to anything else. The positive development is we have a more traditional 2nd grade teacher who's been teaching 33 years, compared to last year's 25 year-old, "student-led conference" woman. Of course, I have a totally different problem with Megan. She's a terrific speller (autism spectrum helps with that!) but comprehends at a 3rd grade level in 6th grade.

Anonymous said...

My school has also failed to teach C. how to spell.

Yup. Same here. Even the middle school just shrugs.

I think part of the reason is that they just don't write as much. The repetition isn't there. We copied in early grade school, they journal. We did little one page reports later on, they draw or paste in their books. It seems the only time they officially write is when it's Big Essay time.

I looked at the few things coming home from my son's school and it is a lot of the same thing: Project notebooks, fun poetry, and short answers. I know it's early, but I'm not holding out much hope after the results of the last few years.

His notebook looks better, though, due to the fact that I will now check it weekly. If I have to I will erase a whole page and make him do it again. Since he knows this he is doing much better.

concernedCTparent said...

One of the best teachers my daughter had so far was in first grade. It was a private school--Carden. That teacher, bless her heart, had very high expectations. One day my daughter (5 years old at the time) handed her something she had written, the teacher looked it over, smiled and said "we both know you can do so much better". She then crumpled the paper, threw it the wastebin and politely asked my daughter to start over. She did and the result was work that she was very proud of.

I know this because my daughter told me the day it happened. She wasn't devastated or emotionally scarred. She knew the teacher was right. A few weeks later at a conference, the teacher told me about this experience, and their stories matched down to the last detail.

That's setting the bar high and most children will give you what you expect. Aim low and accept the mediocre and that's exactly what you'll get. Aim high and demand excellence and you'll get that instead.

Doug Sundseth said...

Last night, when my wife was checking my son's math homework, she noticed that my son had misspelled several words. (The problem involved writing down the explicit word problem implicit in the question.)

She told him that he had to go fix the spelling (and make it legible, which is a rant for a different time). His response? "But Mo-oo-om, my teacher doesn't care!"

Both of us immediately said, "I care; go fix it. And stop whining."

Of course, when correcting that homework we usually will say something like, "There are two errors on this side of the page. Find them and fix them." So I guess we're mean parents.

I'm OK with that. 8-)

On one hand, I'm glad that the math homework is math homework and not essays about favorite numbers. On the other, I'd really prefer that the teacher break out her inner ogre and require better performance.

concernedCTparent said...

I'd really prefer that the teacher break out her inner ogre and require better performance.

I'm all for that too!

Catherine Johnson said...

She can get 90-100% on weekly spelling tests but it doesn't carry over to anything else.

I think this is called "Friday spellers," right?

Do they give the kids thematic spelling lists each week they're supposed to have memorized by Friday?

(Thematic meaning they give them a list of words tied to that week's theme...)

Catherine Johnson said...

Much to discuss here, but I have to go watch 24 on TIVO.

(Go read "pissed of teacher's blog, btw -- wow!)

I'll post a link....

pissed off teacher

I think it may be time for the baby boom generation to riot in the streets.


Pissedoffteacher said...

My kids also went to schools that encouraged creative spelling. Parents were not supposed to spell words for them or do any corrections. I helped both of them. My daughter insisted on learning correctly and to this day (she's 27) is a great speller and writer. My son on other hand, fought me tooth and nail. He's a computer engineer, has done well in school, but still can't spell. I think if his earlier education had been more rigid, he would have been more proficient. There is no reason this bright boy can't spell.

le radical galoisien said...

"I think part of the reason is that they just don't write as much. The repetition isn't there. We copied in early grade school,"

Euggh .... write original essays, do dictation exercises, anything, but copying things out of a textbook.

I really don't think copying things improves your spelling. The best way to learn spelling is to associate digraphs and graphemes (units of letters) to semantic meanings and connotations, in addition to sounds.

Copying something out of a textbook is unlikely to encourage motif-building. (Each motif is personal, so the motifs I create for each word will be different for the next person.) I think it's the tying of the spelling to the semantics and not just the pronunciation that matters.

I've never studied for a spelling test. Ever. For some reason I found that I really didn't need to do it. The key (as I have come to believe) is assigning motifs and semantic associations to the letters and graphemes (like sh, gh, ie, ow, wr, ay, etc.) . You never forget.

At times I don't know the spelling of everything either. Someone can flash an infrequently-used Latin cognate and I will check online to see the dictionary, or it can work vice versa -- someone writes an infrequent word and I check Wiktionary, etc. for its pronunciation in IPA. But I only have to look at the spelling once. So in elementary school I only had to look at my spelling list once.

Anonymous said...


Well, now, you are definitely a different case, for sure.:) I imagine you would die from an exercise like that. But believe it or not, many kids just need to be writing and holding the pencil more.

My son was having trouble making letters and he's 13. He uses the computer whenever possible to avoid writing things out. His spelling is atrocious because his teachers so far don't hold him to any standard.

Copying sometimes takes the pressure off young children having to make sentences up(1st grade journaling, for instance). My then 6-year old's idea of journaling usually had the sentence "I had fun" in it on a daily basis. "I like to play" was another big one.

If the sentence didn't have those letters, he probably wasn't getting any practice writing them.

Copying would have forced him to write something else at the very least. But I don't mean only copying as a means for teaching young kids how to write. I just think it's a decent catch-all for a kid like mine.

Anonymous said...

Looking back over your comment, I see I need to clarify.

I think of copying as an exercise for very early grade school. First, maybe second grade. After that, dictation. But once you can write an essay, then you should be writing, IMHO.

I do remember one torturous episode in the 6th grade (late 60's) where this teacher would have us copy these long social studies questions and then answer them. She would always be conveniently out of the room when we got these painful assignments. I learned nothing about social studies that year.