kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/7/07 - 10/14/07

Saturday, October 13, 2007

email to the principal, part two

Sat Oct 13, 2007 12:21 am

Dear Mr. Witazek:

We would greatly appreciate being supplied with copies of all of the brochures made available to middle school students at today’s Health Fair.

Thank you very much.

Catherine J. & Ed Berenson


On 10/13/07 8:24 AM, "Joseph Witazek" wrote:

Mrs. Johnson:

Artie (Arthur) McCormmack, our director of Health and PE, coordinated the Health Fair. He would be the person most likely able to get this information to you. I have cc'd him on your request.


Joe Witazek


Sat Oct 13, 2007 9:09 am

Thank you, and I will cc the Forum on your prompt response.

I am sorry to learn that Artie McCormmack has elected to expose children as young as age 11 to this material. Nevertheless, as principal of the middle school, you are responsible for our children’s education.

I’m sure you’re aware, as I am told by a parent who is quite upset, that teachers were nervously steering students away from the table containing graphic material concerning HIV and other STDs, cautioning them not to take the brochures unless they “needed” them.

Another parent tells me that a child in your school said to you, “Mr. Witazek, there’s a lot of sex in here.”

May I ask, what was your response to this child?

What steps did you take to protect our children?

And, what is your philosophy on family choice when it comes to presenting sexually explicit material in schools?

Should families be warned in advance that their children will be exposed to sexually explicit material?

Should families have a right, on days when sexually explicit material will be presented at school, to ask that their children pursue their normal educational program instead?

And, finally, do you believe this material was appropriate for the children and families you serve?

Catherine Johnson


Sat Oct 13, 2007 11:52 am

Hello Mr. McCormmack:

Principal Witazek tells us that, as coordinator of the “Health Fair,” you are “the person most likely able to get this information to you.”

We would appreciate your providing to us copies of all material made available to IUFSD students at the Health Fair, including copies of all sexually explicit material.

Thanks very much.

Catherine Johnson & Ed Berenson

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


things my child learned about gay women in school this week

It took me awhile to process the "Woman to Woman" brochure.

At first, reading through all the the hand-anal touching folderol, my primary reaction was: ewwwww. (A pal of ours, coming to the hand-anal passage in the middle of a conversation about the instructional leaders of our schools, said, "That's what they do inside their offices all day.")

So that was my first thought. Ewwww.

My second thought was: huh?

Gay women need to use dental dams, Saran Wrap, or "a square cut out of a latex glove or condom" in order to have safer sex?

Safer than the highly dangerous "unprotected" sex they were having?

Now that seemed wrong.

I distinctly recall, at least I think I distinctly recall, joshing with gay friends - that would be gay female friends - about lesbian sex being safer than heterosexual sex. Also, I distinctly do not recall hearing tell of epidemic levels of HIV in gay women.

Naturally, this led me to think I needed to Google up a fact or two about the health concerns of gay women. At first, I resisted the impulse. I resisted because I am tired of spending my time Googling facts to counter the many non-facts purveyed by the instructional leaders of my high-performing school district.

Inevitably, however, my inquiring nature got the better of me, and within minutes I had discovered the CDC Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS among Women Who Have sex with Women. It was just as I suspected.

This post to the Irvington Parents Forum resulted:

The “Woman to Woman” flier raises another issue, which is that the district has provided students with “information” that is misleading at best, damaging and false at worst. To my way of thinking, the Woman to Woman brochure is hurtful to gay women.
Here is the CDC on the subject of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV:

To date, there are no confirmed cases of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States database (K. McDavid, CDC, oral communication, March 2005).

I will copy this to G.F., who I’m sure had no idea IMS and IHS were planning to teach students that gay women should use dental dams and Saran Wrap to protect themselves from HIV.

Personally, I would strongly prefer that the middle school say no more on these subjects. Here at home, my husband and I will explain to our son that this material amounts to scaremongering at the expense of gay women and nothing more.

One last thing.

I talked to my sister, who was taught sex education in the 1970s in her Masters Program.

She said that a brochure like the Woman to Woman flier will cause children of a certain age -- children whose mothers are gay, or children whose friends' mothers are gay -- to think, "Mommy's going to die" or "My friend's mommy is going to die."

She's seen this reaction many times in children learning about cigarette smoking at school. Kids whose parents smoke are scared to death; if their parents don't smoke, but their friends' parents do, they're frightened for their friends.

So this is U.S. public education, K-12.

Can't teach math, can't teach the disadvantaged kids.

But scaring children and filling their heads with images of dripping, discharging penises and gay women frolicking in Saran Wrap..... that's a go.

Thanks, guys.

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


also playing in a parallel universe

I had no idea how many "health" brochures the kids had been given, and didn't find out 'til I went upstairs to watch a George Lopez show on the subject of parents of SPED kids railing at their school boards (really!)

Here, from "If You Are a Man...STD?"

Know the Signs

For a man, these are warning signs of STD:
  • Need to urinate (pee)
  • Burning and pain when you urinate
  • Drip or discharge from the penis
  • Discharge could be white and watery or yellowish and thick
  • Sores, bumps or blisters near or on penis, testicles or mouth.”

C. has yet to go out on his first date.

And now, thanks to Principal Joe Witazek, formerly of Albany School 18, he has, in his mind's eye, images of dripping, discharging penises to associate with sexual relations and first love.

Thanks, Principal.

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


Friday, October 12, 2007

meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe

I'm going to have to have a couple of life-extending glasses of red wine tonight, I fear.

Right this minute.


Ed tells me the entire 8th grade class has been given detention for being rude to the assembly speaker.

His topic: eating healthfully.

Eating what, I want to know?

update! update!

C. was praised by his English teacher today for coming up with a euphemism for masturbation: self-exploration.

She gave him a piece of candy.

"I had to wait until 12th grade to see a movie on syphillis," Ed says.

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


news from nowhere redux

Interesting goings-on in Irvington here and here.

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


Request for Records by Email - FOIL

This is for New York state, but I gather it's going to be similar for other states.

[This form language is optional but may enhance your use of the Freedom of Information Law. You may choose to utilize certain portions that are most applicable to your request. You may cut and paste the entire form into a new email, read all provisions, and delete and/or modify those that do not apply.]

[It has been suggested that agencies create an email address dedicated to the receipt of requests. It is recommended that you review the website of the agency maintaining the records that you seek in order to locate its email address and its records access officer.]

[The subject line of your request should be "FOIL Request".]

Dear Records Access Officer:

(1) Please email the following records if possible [include as much detail about the record as possible, such as relevant dates, names, descriptions, etc.]:

(2) Please advise me of the appropriate time during normal business hours for inspecting the following records prior to obtaining copies [include as much detail about the records as possible, including relevant dates, names, descriptions, etc.]:

(3) Please inform me of the cost of providing paper copies of the following records [include as much detail about the records as possible, including relevant dates, names, descriptions, etc.].

(4) If all the requested records cannot be emailed to me, please inform me by email of the portions that can be emailed and advise me of the cost for reproducing the remainder of the records requested ($0.25 per page or actual cost of reproduction).

(5) If the requested records cannot be emailed to me due to the volume of records identified in response to my request, please advise me of the actual cost of copying all records onto a CD or floppy disk.

(6) If my request is too broad or does not reasonably describe the records, please contact me via email so that I may clarify my request, and when appropriate inform me of the manner in which records are filed, retrieved or generated.

If it is necessary to modify my request, and an email response is not preferred, please contact me at the following telephone number: _____________.

If for any reason any portion of my request is denied, please inform me of the reasons for the denial in writing and provide the name, address and email address of the person or body to whom an appeal should be directed.


Address [if records are to be mailed].

Committee on Open Government
Request for Records by Email
Sample Form for FOIL Reports

see also:
Freedom of Information Law
Open Meetings Law (NY state)

sound bites

Does anyone have a succint way to explain the difference between Teaching to Mastery and Spiraling? I am eagerly searching for clarity/brevity of speech.

(I find myself giving too much information and sounding kindof like a conspiracy theorist when I talk to people about math education these days.)

update from Catherine

I would start with this "fact sheet" I put together for a PTSA Forum a couple of years back (scroll down).

The salient passages are these:

You know, talk about curriculum, if I put in front of you a fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade textbook in math and opened up to page 200 and I jumbled them up, and said, “order them from fifth through eighth grade in order,” you'd have a very tough time because they all look the same. That's because, unfortunately, we have this national strategy of “we're not really going to teach to master, we're going to teach to exposure and over lots and lots of years of kids seeing page 200 in the math book, eventually somehow they're going to learn it. We're going to teach them how to reduce fractions in fifth grade, in sixth grade, in seventh grade, in eighth grade, in ninth grade and continue until finally somehow magically they're going to get it.” Instead of thinking, “let's teach the kids how to reduce fractions at a mastery level in fifth grade, maybe spend a little time reviewing it in sixth grade but let's move on to pre-algebra and let's move on to algebra then.” And that's been our take and so it's not that we have a different math curriculum as much as we have a different math strategy and a different math philosophy.

Interview with Mike Feinberg, Co-Founder Knowledge is Power Program

(oops - just found this sitting open on my desktop - more in a bit)

Fisking Fennell

Posted today at VME. Of course I favorably mention Barry's recent remarks here at KTM.

Fractions as Division Problems

My daughter had trouble remember how to find a decimal when given a fraction. She knew it was a division problem, but often transposed the numbers. For example, if she needed to find the decimal equivalent of 5/8 she might divide the 5 into the 8 because it just seems more logical when you are 10 to do it that way. She needed help remembering which way to divide.

Her older (15) brother gave her a mnemonic devise he had learned.

Top dog goes in the house.

There you have it, problem solved. This was new to me too, but it really works, she remembers this easily, even though we only talked about it that one night. Now she never forgets. It's great. Try it with your kids.

The numerator (number on top, or the "top dog") goes inside the "house" the half box you draw for division.

Am I making sense here?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Skipper gets off Gilligan's Island

The Skipper in the title is none other than Skip Fennell, President of NCTM who testified before a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee. This is a guy you'd definitely want to be stranded on an island with, because he would surely know how to get rescued. Here's an excerpt from his testimony:
"I would like to address an element of a child’s education that is often overlooked by policy experts and elected officials. As members of the National Science Board and other prominent education leaders have noted, a child’s first—and perhaps most—influential teacher is a parent. Any call to action—small or large—must recognize the crucial role that parents play in encouraging children and exposing them to knowledge and ideas about any topic or subject, including mathematics. Without parental support and involvement, it will be very difficult to convince young people of the urgency and importance of STEM literacy in this country."
His politburo is quite good. The party-line answer of "the influential role played by parents" is designed to make everyone feel good. But what it really means is, if you want your child to learn math, you better do your part at home. Which means more than providing a support for learning. It means that the principle role that parents play is to make up for the lack of instruction provided by schools forced to use inferior math programs, and taught by teachers with inadequate math knowledge.

Which brings me to the Focal Points. The focal points are like an ink blot test. You can see whatever you want to see in them. If you want to adopt TERC in your school district, just say it conforms to the Focal Points. Why not? That's what Prince William County in VA did last year when they adopted Investigations. Well, actually they said it after Scott Foresman, the publisher of Investigations said it. Check it out: on the County's website is a "correlation document" prepared by Scott Foresman (publisher of Investigation) showing how Investigations meets the Focal Points. It's located here. This is for the new edition of Investigations.

You may also be interested in the School Board's document that they prepared to rebut the protests from one lone parent (an engineer) in the County against Investigations. Go here and scroll down to where it says: Clarifying Misconceptions about Investigations in Number, Data, and Space and click on it. It's described as: "This position paper was written by members of the PWCS Office of Mathematics in response to some criticisms and concerns about Investigations."

Here's only one of many gems: "The crisis in mathematics education in the United States is at least twenty-five years old. Programs like Investigations did not create the problem, but were developed after 1989 to address the problem." Reminds me of that old joke:

Mother: Stop pulling the dog's tail.
Child: I'm not pulling, the dog is pulling.
(Cue laugh track)

As they say in blog land: "Read the whole thing". Then weep.


So Ed spent hours the other night helping the son of a friend of ours with a social studies writing assignment.

Mom just called.

Son got a C.

Ed is so not going to be happy.

Of course, he's doing better than I am. I got a C- in Earth Science on my article summary, which I co-wrote with my child.

I'm thinking it's just possible that the whole Literacy thing, which appears to be happening in every nook and cranny of our country, may finally be the thing that does in public schools. There are a whole lot of parents out there who aren't going to be thrilled to see their kids bringing home inexplicable Cs and Ds on papers their parents had to co-write because their kid didn't have a clue where to start.

Remember the British historian?

Getting her C+ in Connecticut?

btw, we now know for a fact that we've had intentional grade deflation here in Irvington. The Phase 4 teacher, back in 6th grade, was told "to keep her grades down."

The issue wasn't that her grades were too high. Her grades were low. (In one of her years, as I recall, she was having class averages in the 70s and perhaps even the 60s once or twice.)

She was told to keep her grades down, period.

Parents and students weren't informed.

We are now going to be experiencing harsh, punitive grading of writing, too, it appears.

oh, yay

grade deflation in high schools

Susan's book, What High Schools Don't Tell You says a lot of high schools deliberately use grade deflation in 9th grade (must find the passage).

Her advice is to find out whether your school has a grade deflation policy and, if so, to tell them to top doing it.

That'll work.



Don't see the passage now.

ditto that

from Susan S:

My favorite grade school assignments are when they have to write something and are told to use the Internet for "research." They can't scan, they can't extrapolate a main idea, they can't summarize, but they are told to use the vast world of the Internet before they put together their assignment.

I'm beginning to appreciate our little World Book and Britannica encyclopedias.

As it happens, Lynn G gave me this recommendation just a couple of days ago:

I like the Volume Library from Southwestern. It's almost better than an encyclopedia, as it is arranged by topic, not alphabetically. It is designed to give you all of the background knowledge for a k-12 curriculum in 3 volumes. The reproducible maps are almost worth the price all by themselves.

That one's going on the credit cards pronto.

In Defense of "Chalk and Talk"

"Chalk and talk is a dirty expression in the high schools. Kids are supposed to sit in groups and discover answers themselves. They are supposed to explain the work to each other. I have found that this does not work. Often the work they put on the board is wrong. Kids cross out their correct answers to copy what someone else has done. After all, if it is on the board, it must be correct. Even when the work is correct, it is often illegible."

"Group work does have a place, just not in the classroom."

Read the entire Pissed Off teacher's post here.

rinse, repeat

from Doug:

1. Teach.

2. Test what you taught.

3. Remediate the things that were not taught well. (You know what these things are because you correct the test you just gave and saw what all the kids were getting wrong.)

4. Rinse.

5. Repeat.

It's a complex and difficult process (what if the teacher lost a finger sometime in the past and could no longer count to five?), but teachers are supposed to be trained professionals, neh?

The good news around here is: formative assessment is coming to Irvington.

How long have I been banging the drums about formative-assessment-in-Irvington?

Two years, now, I believe.

In the end, formative assessment coming to Irvington has nothing to do with me and my drums. I just got lucky.

Or hope to get lucky.

case studies versus "data"

This explanation of the case study approach, as opposed to the "data" approach, is going to be extremely useful here in Irvington:

Schools just don't do (and appreciate) what parents do at home. Most parents make sure learning happens. Schools don't do that. That's why I believe a lot can be learned by looking at individual kids and what their parents do, not at statistics. Schools want more parental involvement because they see a correlation with student results (statistics). They just don't realize what that connection really involves (study individual cases). This involves things that the school should be doing. Nobody can argue against parental involvement, but what are the details - practicing math facts at home? In other words, doing their job?

I'm going to send this to our administrators and board. People are beginning to grapple with this problem here, I think, and this is perfect.

Previously the administration has had two ways of looking at tutoring:

  • Westchester parents hire tutors when they don't need them.
  • Tutoring is really just a form of providing your child with very reduced class size.

We had a terrific meeting with the assistant superintendent and the assistant principal of the middle school today. It seems clear that the administration is beginning to understand the enormity of the parent reteaching that goes on here. It's not just "tutoring"; it's not just "help with homework." Many students here are experiencing almost a separate school at home, at least in the subjects in which they need a separate school at home.

Today, in the meeting, we gave two examples of what is taking place:

Last week Ed spent 2 hours walking a 9th grader we know through a h.s. writing assignment no 9th grader could possibly do. No graduate student would have been able to do it, either. Essentially, the assignment asked students to write a book, or perhaps a series of books, in two paragraphs. Not possible.

Fortunately, this student just so happened to have a professional historian as a familiy friend. So he and his mom came over, and Ed figured out a way for the student and his Ph.D.-bearing mother to do the assignment. The final product wouldn't be good -- it couldn't be -- but it would be as good as it could be under the circumstances.

What happens to students who don't happen to have a historian friend who can "help with homework"?

The other story we told is heartbreaking.

One of Christopher's sweetest friends -- this is such a great kid -- has some family problems (divorce), parents aren't professionals, etc.

Last year Chris' ELA class was given an assignment that was way over the kids' heads.

(I'm going to add my standard disclaimer here: we think the world of this teacher -- I might even be able to document the amount C. learned in her class. Here, I'm talking about a particular problem with writing instruction that we're seeing in many, many classes.)

Anyway, the writing assignment was far too advanced.

Ed spent hours breaking it down, teaching each part, selecting an appropriate text for C. to write about, and so on.

C. ended up with an A.

His friend, who was on his own, got a D or perhaps even an F. He was sad and demoralized; Chris was proud and happy. Ed said, afterwards, "It's like emotional blackmail. If you don't help your kid he's going to be miserable."

What conclusion does C's friend draw?

He told us this summer. One of C's other friends was telling the others that his mom was going to get him a game system if he made honor roll. C's average-student friend said, in his sweet, direct voice, without a trace of envy, "That would be difficult for me."

Then he looked at Ed and me and said, "I'm an average student."

It breaks your heart.

We brought these stories to the meeting, and for the first time, I think, the stories were heard.

Steve's comment about the need for case studies will explain part of what is needed here.

But how does one level the playing field?

I have some thoughts about that, courtesy of Susan J.

Does anyone else?

More info on Nat'l math/science panel

Lynne G below talked about a national math and science panel. Here is further information on the hearing held on the subject:

The House Science and Technology Committee’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee held a hearing on October 3, and heard from educators and other experts on "how to guarantee students are receiving the best education possible" with respect to science and math. The press release on the hearing can be found here.

Skip Fennel's testimony at the hearing can be found here. Also, the National Science Board's draft report (A NATIONAL ACTION PLAN FOR ADDRESSING THE CRITICAL NEEDS OF THE U.S. SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, AND MATHEMATICS EDUCATION SYSTEM) was released on October 3 and can be found and downloaded here. In it is this recommendation:

1. The National Council for STEM Education.

The Board recommends that Congress pass and the President sign into law an act chartering a new, independent, and non-Federal National Council for STEM Education (Council). The Council’s central responsibilities would be to coordinate and facilitate STEM education initiatives across the Nation, as well as to inform policymakers and the public on the state of STEM education across the United States. As part of the Council’s charter, Congress should require Federal STEM education programs to be coordinated with state and local education agencies through the Council.

WMD cartoon of the week

This seemed appropriate for some odd reason.

There are many cartoons at Weapons of Math Destruction located here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

black and Hispanic children in a National School of Excellence

In 2007, no black and Hispanic students passed the 2007 math and ELA state assessments here in Irvington, $22, 000 per pupil spending.

Nary a one.

And, with that, I am going to go and pour myself a glass of life-extending red wine.

Back tomorrow.

black and Hispanic students in a Natl School of Excellence
news from nowhere, redux
meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe
things my child learned about gay women in school this week
also playing in a parallel universe
email to the principal, part 2
ktm-2 readers make up a word problem for IMS
profiles in courage
new talent at the forum
my tax dollars at work
character education emergency
invitation to the dance


Should There Be A National Panel For Science And Math?

Somewhere on Capitol Hill today, hearings were held by a Science and Technology subcommittee on the lagging performance of US students in math and science. A news report about this hearing can be found at Medill Reports.
The proposed council, comprised of representatives from federal and local agencies as well as school districts, would work independently of other federal programs to create national guidance on science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.
Education officials stated that they think a national council is unnecessary and will just create more bureaucracy. But --

The committee’s top Republican, Rep. Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, acknowledged that the increased federal role would be controversial, but said agreement on national standards is essential for the sake of consistency among school districts. American families move on average every four years, he said.

“At the top of the list (of competitiveness) are small, homogenous countries that have the same curriculum throughout the country,” Ehlers said of the leaders in science and math. “There’s a real urgency to this.”

Singapore, anyone?
I wonder if anyone has told him that those small homogenous countries are willing to sell us their curriculum?

Robert Gropp, director of public policy for the American Institute of Biological Sciences, said in a telephone interview university teachers are often frustrated by “hodgepodge” of what local schools are teaching. He expressed hope that this decades-long debate may finally move forward.

A national council could make university-level teaching easier, since national standards could provide a more consistent pool of math and science skills among incoming freshman students.

National standards are a great idea, as long as they are set by mathematicians and scientists that have some idea of content. Input from educators should be encouraged.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

nice work if you can get it, & a quiz

TWENTY-FIVE of the 100 highest-spending school districts in the nation are in Westchester, according to new data from the United States Census Bureau.

High salaries for teachers and administrators, experts say, are driving costs, with veteran teachers in the county earning $100,000 and more, and superintendent salaries averaging more than $200,000, not including costly and generous benefits packages.

Among the 8,400 districts nationwide with at least 500 students that serve all grades from kindergarten to 12th, 67 of the top 100 spenders are in New York State suburbs, including 25 in Westchester. Fourteen are in northern New Jersey, and most of the rest are in Alaska and Wyoming, where sparse populations mean more teachers and higher transportation costs per pupil. Connecticut has no districts that crack that list.

“The data suggest that New York is outbidding its neighbors for the best teachers and administrators,” said Bruce Baker, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Education.


New York suburban school districts pay, on average, $10,087 per student for teacher salaries and benefits, more than twice as much as the rest of the country. Administrators cost another $1,204 per student, also about twice the national average.

The suburbs of northern New Jersey and in Fairfield County, Conn., spend more than the average, but far less — almost 25 percent — than New York on teacher salaries and benefits, $7,629 per student. In northern New Jersey, administrators add another $1,043, and in Fairfield County, administrators cost $940 per student.

New York’s high teacher costs are partly attributable to smaller class sizes: The state’s suburban districts, for instance, employ far more teachers than the rest of the country — 76 per 1,000 students, compared with the national average of 60 — but only slightly more than the New Jersey suburbs, at 74, and Fairfield, at 70.

New York’s suburban districts, though, pay more for each teacher, even compared with New Jersey and Connecticut — about $133,000 in salary and benefits for each full-time teacher, compared with $94,000 in northern New Jersey and $100,000 in Fairfield, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Westchester School District Among Top Spenders
by Ford Fessenden
NY Times
June 10, 2007


Would anyone care to guess how many of Irvington's black and Hispanic non-SPED students passed the 8th grade state tests in math and ELA last year?


Terrific gadget, though they've stopped making the one I have.


If you're going to have "technology in the schools," this is the thing to have.

email to the principal

Hi J—

Ed drove C. to school for Extra Help last Friday morning, a day listed on Mr. X’s homework sheets as designated for that purpose.

Bringing C. in early isn’t easy for us, because Jimmy and Andrew, both of whom have autism, meet two different buses in two different places. But we managed.

When C. reached the school, the guard turned him away. The reason? He didn’t have a pass. C. has had one detention in two years at Irvington Middle School, but I suppose one can never be too cautious when it comes to the safety of our children.

As it happens, the pass didn’t matter anyway, because, as the guard told him, the teachers were in a meeting. There wasn’t any Extra Help, pass or no pass.

So here we are. C. is coming out of two years of ineffective mathematics instruction. The school has provided no diagnostic testing as he enters 8th grade, nor has the school displayed the slightest interest in identifying gaps in his knowledge and remediating those gaps.

Instead, it’s business as usual. Passes, rules, guards.

We would very much appreciate a responsible adult taking it upon himself to provide C. with a dozen or so passes he can keep on his person at all times, so that we can avoid miscues like this one in the future. Or perhaps you might consider compiling a list of students known to be Extra Help Seekers and providing it to your guards. We are eager to work with you in finding a solution.

Thank you for your ongoing support and cooperation.

Catherine Johnson
Irvington Union Free School District
$22,000 per pupil spending
school size: 450 students

how to teach algebra really, really fast

Friday 9-21-2007: first word problems assigned for homework ever

Friday 9-21-2007 - Thursday 9-27-2007 - cover in class:
  • number word problems
  • consecutive integer word problems
  • distance word problems (two trains, etc.)
  • coin word problems
  • age word problems
Friday 9-28-2007 test on consecutive integer problems & motion problems

et voilĂ !

my life and welcome to it, part deux

Yesterday I spent 4 hours helping C. with algebra.


8 am to noon.

I also took copious notes on my AlphaSmart.

Then I forgot all about the AlphaSmart and left it sitting on the kitchen table where Andrew could get at it.

Notes gone today.

On the bright side, Chris is getting pretty good at distance problems.

Also at coin problems, consecutive integer problems, number word problems, and age problems, all of which he "learned" last week.

update: AlphaSmart

Special Alert!!

I have a lengthy four part post on positive reinforcement techniques and classroom management by KTM2 irregular Palisadesk over at d-ed reckoning that's too long to cross post here at KTM2.

It is the antidote for all the stories you read by teachers who claim that they can't motivate their students. It's not that students can't be motivated, it's that teachers have never been taught effective techniques.

Don't miss it.

Monday, October 8, 2007


I've just revised the "Phase 4" narrative.

I can't tell how comprehensible this is to folks -- it's still not really comprehensible to me.

I am told, reliably, that in the past many tears have been shed over the Phase 4 course at the middle school in all three grades, 6 to 8.

To my knowledge, the district never once asked itself whether all that pain had to be.

Children struggling and failing in "accelerated" math was seen as natural, normal, and inevitable by educators and parents alike. Some kids had what it took to succeed; the other kids didn't. That's life.

Thus the normal trajectory of any given Phase 4 cohort, the 30 to 35% of kids tracked into the algebra-in-8th-grade track in 6th grade, was a war of attrition. One by one, kids fell by the wayside, until, in 8th grade, their numbers had been whittled from 3 classes down to just 2.

I think, all of a sudden, this year, things are different.

The parents are different.

Back to School Night, inside the Math A classroom, felt like a bit of a revolutionary moment. A happy revolution.

It was happy because everyone was there. At least, everyone I knew who had started out in the class, back in 6th grade, was still there.

Not only that, but at least 2 kids who'd dropped out of the track had dropped back in, and the teacher was complaining about the enormous size of the class. Twenty-six kids in the room; I doubt the school has seen that before.

I figured they must have divided the three classes from last year into just two for 8th grade as they used to do. That's why C's class was so big.

I was wrong. They still have 3 classes of kids in the track this year, taking algebra in the 8th grade.

It's not that these kids are doing any better than kids in previous years, as far as I know. My own child certainly is not, and he has yet to be alone in a boat. Something else is different.

Many things have happened over the past two years, since we came to the middle school. For one, the legendary math chair resigned. When she went, I imagine her aura of authority went with her.

The new young teacher didn't inspire confidence, and even if she had she was still a novice; parents must have begun to think perhaps the problems didn't lie within their children.

Meanwhile there were and are 3 vocal parents in this class alone, one of whom was himself a NY math teacher with 34 years' experience.

As for me, I spent a great deal of time repeating the KIPP/Europe/Asia message -- algebra in the 8th grade for one and all -- and I'm certain this had an effect. People here are nothing if not quick on the uptake. Once you know algebra in the 8th grade is an international norm, you can't give the math department the same credence when they tell you it's not.

As to that, one of the middle school math teachers has told parents that, realistically, only 10% of Irvington students should take algebra in the 8th grade.

If you changed "algebra" to, say, trigonometry, I would agree.

Of course, the truth is that I don't know what has happened here, nor do I know whether this is a real change, or a blip on the radar. For whatever reason, this fall, there we all were. Back in the saddle, bloodied (some of us) but unboughed, unto the breach!

Everyone looked happy. The air was alive with something that felt like excitement, the math teacher's jokes were funny, the math lab guy opened his mouth and uttered the word "remediation" and you could tell (well, I could tell) that your child's days of trying to pass for gifted in order to learn algebra in the 8th grade might be drawing to a close.

That is change.

Dear Sir

Jeff H said...

Dear Boeing,

We have been given the contract to design and build the engines for your new aircraft. I must tell you at the outset that we will require you to do all the design, testing, building and certification on your own. We are here to be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. We will allow your engineers to come to our facilities and see what an engine looks like but don't expect us to explain how it works, you must discover that for yourself. Imagine how much better your company will feel about itself if you discover how to build an engine instead of us building it for you. I can see that our partnership will greatly increase the self esteem of your company.

Thank you
General Electric

Dear General Electric,

Several of us here at Boeing were beginning to wonder just what value your multi-billion dollar contract would be adding to our project. Thank you for clearing that up for us. We look forward to a long and profitable relationship*.


* With Pratt & Whitney.

somewhere in a well-to-do district

a comment from palisadesk:

At one school I know of, the principal announced to the parents on curriculum night something like the following," We will not be teaching math facts, algorithms, handwriting, spelling, decoding skills -- that's YOUR job. We will provide children with enriching cross-curricular projects, technology integration, field trips, opportunities for personal research... " (yadda yadda)

Why does he get away with this? Most of the parent community are sheep and go out and pay tutors or Kumon to do what the school should be doing, because they are afraid their kid will not make the grade if they don't. It's a well-to-do neighborhood. In a disadvantaged area, of course, schools don't teach the skills effectively either, but there they can blame the kids and parents -- using euphemisms, of course.

I've mentioned several times my suspicion that wealthy schools are different from middle class schools.

A couple of weeks ago, Ed talked to a woman who put two kids through Horace Mann. She told him that not only is there a lot of tutoring going on at Horace Mann, there are tutors who specialize in individual Horace Mann classes -- whole rosters of tutors-for-hire who tutor your child in one particular class.

I find that remarkable. These people are paying Horace Mann somewhere in the neighborhood of $30K to educate their kids, and they're still having to hire tutors, and they're having to hire different tutors for different classes.

How do they keep it all straight?

Do they post organizational charts on their kitchen walls?

This story caused me to come up with my new phrase: compliant rich people.


I think there may be something to this idea.

My own town is filled with the working rich. Ed is a member of the working rich, compared to other members of the professariat. (I'm not bad where writers are concerned.)

Well, how do the working rich become the working rich?

Not by "whining," that's for sure!

From time to time, in the past, I've had the vague thought that the reason I've been so uncooperative and noncompliant with the scene around here is that I grew up on a farm, G**damnit.

I look at the folderol that goes on around here and I think: this is not the way your basic middle class person whose nephew plans to enroll in SIU-Edwardsville functions. I mean, I can't spend 1 week every August at the Staybridge Suites in Springfield, IL and spend the other 51 weeks of the year in a Westchester County public school district and have it all make sense.

A person raised on a farm, generally speaking, has a core expectation that if one asks a simple question, one will receive a simple answer.

Back when C. was in K-5, that was the rule. Ask a simple question, get a simple answer. (Of course, with the advent of Trailblazers, that has changed to some degree.)

The middle school is a whole different culture, and it's not for me.

who's the boss?

Following instructions is important.
But does there come a time when following the instructions is actually injurious?
Some background:
The student had previously demonstrated the ability to go far beyond the work currently being done in the classroom. But yet in this case, the instructions became more important that the content.
Look closely at the picture.
You can see the erasure marks.
When a student is more advanced than the work being given, would it be better to have FIXed the worksheet?

Catherine here, parachuting into Vormath's post

I wouldn't normally post an anecdote about my own kid inside someone else's post about her kid, but in this case, because we've had so many Comments, I think this material belongs here.

For new visitors, I'll explain that quite a few parents here have mathematically gifted kids.

I do not. Nor is my child studying a constructivist math curricula (thank heavens for small favors). He is in the 8th grade & taking New York state's standard Math A course, which you can take a look at here or here, if you're interested.

The material in Math A is not hard.

Here are a couple of questions from the 2006 Math A Regents exam:

While solving the equation 4(x + 2) = 28, Becca wrote 4x + 8 = 28.
Which property did she use?
(1) distributive (3) commutative
(2) associative (4) identity

What is the product of 10x4y2 and 3xy3?
(1) 30x4y5 (3) 30x5y5
(2) 30x4y6 (4) 30x5y6

A micron is a unit used to measure specimens viewed with a microscope.
One micron is equivalent to 0.00003937 inch. How is this
number expressed in scientific notation?
(1) 3.937 × 10-5 (3) 3937 × 10-8
(2) 3.937 × 105 (4) 3937 × 108

The test contains some short answer word problems, too:

In Clark Middle School, there are 60 students in seventh grade. If 25 of
these students take art only, 18 take music only, and 9 do not take either
art or music, how many take both art and music?

Running at a constant speed, Andrea covers 15 miles in 2 hours.
At this speed, how many minutes will it take her to run 2 miles?

A recent survey shows that the average man will spend 141,288 hours
sleeping, 85,725 hours working, 81,681 hours watching television,
9,945 hours commuting, 1,662 hours kissing, and 363,447 hours on
other tasks during his lifetime. What percent of his life, to the nearest
tenth of a percent, does he spend sleeping?

So that's Math A.

I took the exam after working my way through Saxon Algebra 1. I passed with distinction:

Raw score: 76 out of 84.
Scaled score: 94 out of 100.

I missed 4 2-point items. One was a logic problem, one was on probability, and one asked me to determine the equation of a perpendicular line. I had never seen any of these topics before, so I missed the answers.

I missed only one item on a topic I had studied, and that was a graphing-a-linear-equation problem, a procedure I could do in my sleep when I took the test. So I chalk that miss to temporary brain freeze.

In short, I worked my way through Saxon Algebra 1 without benefit of class or a teacher, I took Regents Math A, and I missed one question I'd studied before.

Not a hard test.

C., my child, is your basic bright, industrious, middle-class kid with parents who happen to have 2 Ph.D.s and 3 Distinguished Teaching Awards between them (sorry, I know that's boasting, but it's relevant) so he gets a lot of teaching at home, both direct and incidental. A whole lot.

The reason I'm posting here, inside Vormath's post, is that C. is experiencing the mirror opposite of what Vormath's gifted child is experiencing; he is being given work that is far over his head, work he can't possibly do on his own without extensive parent reteaching and/or expensive tutoring (rates start at $80/hr), and my school is not going to do anything to fix this situation.

The result is that he is having the same experience V's child is having: he is being forced to do work that is not at his level, and his parents cannot persuade the school to provide him a curriculum that is at his level. The school does not respond to parents. Period.

I'll add that it's not just C. who is "struggling," the middle school term of art for kids in C's boat. Quite a few of the kids are struggling, and the school is well aware of the situation. Kids have always struggled in this course; suffering, struggling, and failing in the middle school accelerated math track is a time-honored tradition at the middle school.

Why is C. struggling?

He is struggling because the "Phase 4" track, which is simply the regular math track accelerated by 1 1/2 years, is and has always been built to serve as a "wash-out" course. In Irvington, Phase 4 math has been to academically inclined middle schoolers what biochemistry always was to pre-med students and probably still is.

It's the course that separates the men from the mice.

I suspect that no one in the math department would admit this today; I don't know that anyone admitted it in the past. The steady failure of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in accelerated math has always been seen as natural and inevitable, nothing to do with the curriculum, the pedagogy, or the teaching. In fact, the math chair, who was respected and even revered, seems to have been widely viewed as fair and caring, a teacher who tried her best to keep faltering 12 year olds in her class. The one time I spoke with her directly, I liked her very much myself.

At home the "tries hard" children -- I owe this expression to Rudbeckia Hirta -- would cry over their homework and their grades (I know the stories firsthand); at school parents would meet with the math chair; together the grownups would search for some solution. Finally the child, or the parents, would give up. "It's not worth it," the parents would say, and they were right. It wasn't. It wasn't unusual for the regular-track kids to fare better on the state tests than the accelerated kids. Parents who lived through those years told me these things, and I believe them.

Watching this scene unfold year in and year out, parents and students have drawn the appropriate conclusion. Last year one of the kids on C's bus, who is mathematically talented, as are his sibs, told the other kids, "Ms. X [former math chair and, I assume, developer of the course] was a great teacher. She washed kids out if they couldn't do the work."

In case you're wanting specifics, here's how you take a group of bright kids who've tested into a beginning algebra course and set them up for failure. Consider this schedule:

  • Friday, 9-21-2007: first homework containing word problems assigned
  • Friday 9-28-2007 test on consecutive integer problems & motion problems

We're talking about perhaps 5 days of class time. These students had never set up and solved a simple algebra problem; they had never written -- or even seen, unless their tutors taught them outside class -- a "let x equal" statement. Starting from nothing, then, in 5 days the kids were taught:
  • number word problems
  • consecutive integer word problems
  • distance word problems (2 trains left from a station)
  • coin problems
  • age problems
And there you have it. If this is Tuesday, it must be consecutive integer problems.

The district flatly refuses to address the situation, or even to acknowledge that it exists. This is just the way it is. Math A is a "hard" course; at most 10% of the kids should be taking it according to one of the teachers at the middle school. Instead the course is oversubscribed with 25% to 30% enrolled because pushy parents got their kids in where they didn't belong. (So they get what's coming to them. This, too, is not said, but we hear it.) This has been the narrative for many, many years, and it will take a paradigm shift to change it.

Meanwhile we have no disadvantaged kids taking algebra in 8th grade; we have virtually no middle class kids taking algebra in 8th grade. On back to school night, when you look around the classroom, you see that the children we do have in the class are the children of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and professors.

And a number of these children are struggling.

In Irvington, you (almost) need to be the child of an internationally known research physician to survive algebra in the 8th grade.

What this group blog is about, in part, is the fact that nearly every parent (and many of the teachers) here is dealing with a school district that simply does not respond to parents, to dissident teachers, or to the broader public.

By and large our schools, at least in my experience, do what they do. It seems they always have.

What's different now is that parents, teachers, and the broader public have blogs and YouTube and Yahoo. We can protest in plain view.

And we do.

I lost it at the movies, part 2

Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?
Timothy Fenwick, Jr.

I've been trying to remember this line for about 3 years now (and this is after somebody else remembered it for me, then I forgot again.)

Now it's here, for safekeeping.

I feel this way often, btw.

I lost it at the movies

No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.
Hawkeye to Cora
Last of the Mohicans

Sunday, October 7, 2007

my genes made me do it

So...I had a little Scots-Irish moment back there....

And to understand the [Scots-Irish] . . . one must comprehend their journey, which has been not simply one of hardship or disappointment, but rather of frequent and bitter conflict. These conflicts, from which they have never in two thousand years of history retreated, have followed a historically consistent cycle of, among other things, a values-based combativeness, an insistent egalitarianism, and a refusal to be dominated from above, no matter what the cost.
Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
James Webb

I had never heard of the Scots Irish until I encountered Webb's book when it came out - I had no idea that such an animal as the Scots-Irish existed; I certainly had no idea I was one myself.

I had always thought, vaguely (educated by wolves) that I was "British" or, alternatively, "Wasp."

This was confusing.

I'd hear those great Wasp jokes* and, yes, they'd remind me of me; they sounded exactly like me, in fact, comparing me to my Jewish in-laws.

But after that, confusion. I just didn't seem to possess the reserve we Wasps were supposed to be famous for.

Born Fighting was a revelation.

Every last page was a revelation.

Two thousand years of bitter conflict!

From which the Scots-Irish have never retreated!

.... values-based combativeness, an insistent egalitarianism, and a refusal to be dominated from above, no matter what the cost ..... ("You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you.")

woo hoo!

Reading this stuff, I thought, Gosh. That explains a lot.

* the ones that are "really about Jews"

letter to the editor

at the Irvington Parents Forum:

I thought some list members might be interested in my letter to the editor of
the Rivertowns Enterprise published the other day. Ed B.

At the Irvington school board meeting three weeks ago, the District announced plans to survey the community about our playing fields. The Zogby polling firm, we're told, will undertake the task. This is excellent news and reflects a much-improved tone on the board, whose members have decided to weigh the taxpayers' views and seek professional advice for the campus's drainage problem. Most of us want high-quality fields usable the year round; we just need assurance that they'll be built properly and at reasonable cost. The Board has already gone a long way in this direction—bravo to them.

Once the fields survey is done, the next step should be to poll us about the central mission of our schools: academics. It would be extremely useful to have Zogby, whose fees are surprisingly modest, design an instrument to gather the community's views about
the academic direction of the District.

Do we think students are learning subject matter at a high level, or is there too much emphasis on discovery learning, "differentiation," and other elements of the "constructivist" orthodoxy that school administrators want to impose? Are we using technology effectively, or have we become overly enamored of expensive but academically dubious bells and whistles like SmartBoards, whose replacement bulbs cost $400 apiece?

What do we think about the controversial Trailblazers mathematics program? Should we begin foreign language instruction early in the elementary school years? Are students who
struggle academically receiving the help and support they need? Do we offer enough
advanced courses, and is access to them as open as it should be? To what extent, in
short, do we think our kids are being well prepared for college?

As we plan for higher education, nothing is more important than mathematics, reading and writing. But does that mean math teachers should issue writing assignments, as they do at the Irvington Middle School, taking valuable time away from math? And in English class is there too much emphasis on personal narratives at the expense of summarizing and analyzing texts?

All too often, my NYU undergrads, smart as they are, give me too much opinion and too little analysis. In high school, they're commonly taught to express themselves but less often to interpret texts, examine arguments, and marshal evidence based on what they've learned.

Perhaps views such as mine represent a minority, perhaps not. With Zogby's help
we can find out.