kitchen table math, the sequel: education historian

Monday, January 21, 2008

education historian

Ed's in France, where he met a woman who is a historian of education.

She confirmed the big-fish-in-the-small-pond thesis: better to be the star student in a no-name school than the merely good student in a star school. She was the star in a working class school somewhere in Massachusetts, I believe, and she said Harvard pretty much just "plucked her out."

When she got there, she was completely unprepared. She'd never written a paper in her life (me, too, when I went to Wellesley); she couldn't do history, literature, etc.

She was least behind in the sciences, which makes sense to me because science education became progressive many, many years ago and has remained so to this day. This is why science has always had "labs." (I can no longer remember or find my source on this. sigh. I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math.)

In short: the public school education she'd received in the humanities was her worst handicap. She was light years behind her peers.

She told Ed that progressive education started as a way to educate the children of the working class, the idea being that they should be taught life skills rather than the liberal arts disciplines.

Subsequently progressive ed spread to the children of the middle class, so now those kids don't have to be taught the liberal arts disciplines, either. Ironically, she said, the few schools in which you can find teachers teaching traditional content are located in working class neighborhoods.

Her view, which is now mine, is that there are no good public schools. Period.

I'm sure that's wrong as an absolute; there have got to be some good public schools out there. But I don't know where they are or how to find them.

Now my question is: have Catholic schools declined, too?

And if so, have they declined as much as public schools?

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

You said:
"Her view, which is now mine, is that there are no good public schools. Period."

The obvious question is good at what or for what ? In my experience (I'm in GA, in the USA), the majority of public schools are very good at teaching basic content. Many other public schools are good at many other things (and bad at some).

I taught for two years at Wofford college (in SC) a good liberal arts college, and most of our students were excellent, and many came from public schools.

Now, do they prepare you for Harvard ? maybe not (OTOH, I haven't been to Harvard, so they might :).

Instructivist said...

[I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math.]

The situation in science is indeed dismal. Here in Chicago, constructivist ways in science called inquiry (FOSS, STC, IES, SALI, IEY) are largely the norm up to eighth grade, especially in failing schools (most of them). The educationist motto seems to be: If poison makes them sick, give them more poison. You can also tell something is fishy when acronyms proliferate (alphabet soup proliferation). For example, science for 8th grade is IEY which stands for Issues, Evidence and You.

The HUGE SCANDAL in my view is that most high schools here in Chicago are being converted to constructivism (inquiry). It's a Gates idea called high school transformation. Gates dangled millions in front of the mayor and board who immediately jumped. A Gates agent was made executive director of the transformation project. That means academic textbooks go in the garbage and community projects are the new forms of learning science. This scandal is taking place unnoticed by the local media. It raises the question whether one wealthy individual should be allowed to implement his fantasy and wreck high schools which after all are public entities. Resistance from school administrators and teachers is ignored. The transformation is imposed from above by fiat. Schools can select from two or three virtually identical inquiry programs the way the politburo used to put up two or three apparatchiks as the only choice in an election. Even that pseudo choice is constrained in some cases. Now I hear that the board abolished earth science as a graduation requirement to accomodate the Gates fantasy. Two of the three pseudo choices don't even have earth science.

I wrote a comment I posted on the district 299 blog that deals with Chicago ed issues. I reproduce it here (note what is in store for high school math):

The whole high-school transformation project looks like a stealth operation, really a coup. There is no HST website, no transparency. The HST office is unable to provide information on newly targeted high schools. The only (spotty) information is through the grapevine. The project pretends to be democratic, but it is a sham. Schools can volunteer the way the Chinese Communists can produce "volunteers" en masse.

It's also unclear what the total number of targeted HS is. A CPS document I have talks about three waves of 14, 15 and 20 schools respectively, making it a total of 49 HS. Other sources put the number higher.

Then there is the question of effectiveness. Will the new nostrums really improve academic achievement? Alexander Russo asks the perfect question: "Are things any better at the schools that starting doing HST a couple of years ago?" There should already be evidence showing whether the nostrums are working. Why is that evidence or lack of evidence not discussed? It would have been prudent to run pilots before embarking on wholesale, highly questionable transformation. I can only conclude it wasn't done because it would interfere with putting this fantasy in place. Hence the pseudo-democratic stealth operation.

Targeted schools get to choose one of two or three IDSs. IDS stands for Instructional Development System and incorporates six "change levers" (note the nebulous, new-age lingo). IDSs are the heart of the nostrum and are described as the pillars of the core instructional strategy. The actual IDSs are simply progressive/constructivist, mainly NSF-supported, tracts that are trying to do to HS what's been done to elementary and middle schools with disastrous results.

The IDS choices in math are Agile Mind and Cognitive Tutor. In science there are three pseudo-choices: Inquiry to Build Content, Content to Build Inquiry and Meaningful Science through Inquiry. These are vastly stripped of content but they say they make up for this lack of content by motivating students to go deep. The motivation is said to come from touching the lives of students. Content can take a back seat since according to the "Foundational principles for IDS instruction" the goal is inquiry and engaged learning. Here the "principle" says: "Focus is on problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking. Students seek their own knowledge, formulate arguments. Activities should maximize connection to student lives." How much critical thinking can go on without much to think about is anybody's guess.

My view is that the HST project is another instance of barking up the wrong tree. A lot of the disadvantaged coming from the elementary and middle grades are disastrously ill-prepared for HS. As a middle grades teacher I see these horrific deficiencies all the time. Those concerned with the success of the disadvantaged need to focus on what comes before high school.

crankiest said...

Speaking only re my local (Missouri) schools - yes, Catholic schools have declined, no, not as badly as the public schools. However, since I live in a district which has lost its accreditation and is pretty much in complete disarray, it would be hard to keep up with the public schools when it comes to decline. But when Catholic schools became dependent on lay teachers and administrators instead of nuns and priests, it not only hit them in the pocketbook (the cost of a Catholic education has risen astronomically), but of a sudden Catholic schools were being operated by victims of ed school indoctrination. To make it worse, the vast majority of Catholic schools have bought into the accreditation scam, so even when they are staffed by nuns, they've all been to ed school. For a while, this resulted in the occasional (or in some cases, frequent) head-butting contests between a lay 'progressive' principal and a stubborn, 'three r's' old pastor, but most of those stubborn old pastors have moved on and the ed school graduates are firmly in control. At the Catholic school nearest me, they use Saxon math. But because they've been convinced to participate in state testing, they've 'adjusted' the fifth grade curriculum in an effort to eliminate a temporary drop in scores on the state's test in fifth grade. This drop is eliminated by the sixth grade, but that doesn't matter, and I suspect Saxon will be gone before too many years are out. In the meantime, many students are requiring remedial instruction when they hit fifth grade because they aren't ready for what's being taught. The school used to use a strictly phonics curriculum in 1st-3rd; this is now an ungainly mixture of weak phonics and whole language, and my guess is that the phonics portion of the program will be gradually weakened and eliminated. You can't make these changes all at once in a Catholic school, too many Catholic parents still have large families and would notice the changes from one child to the next and complain, so administrators have to take their time about implementing them. But the changes are happening. Children have to take spanish, and I have yet to hear an argument for this which stands up to criticism. I have nothing against learning a foreign language, but it ought to be for good reasons, and too often spanish is chosen because those teachers come relatively cheaply and the school gets to claim they offer foreign language instruction. The same goes for computer instruction in grades 1-3. This is time better spent on other things, but the powers that be have bought into the 'need for computer literacy' without considering that the vast majority of their upper middle class students were playing on the computer at home before they even got to kindergarden. Bottom line - wherever you have accreditation, teacher certification, and testing, you're going to have all the problems those things bring. At this point, the only thing Catholic ed is spared (in this diocese, and only while this bishop is at the helm) is the teacher's union. And that's not enough to stop the decline.

SteveH said...

"I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math."

My son is joining a Science Olympiad team at school. Any comments about whether it's a good use of time? I read their web site and I don't like some of the things I see, like constructivism and self-teaching.

SteveH said...

"Her view, which is now mine, is that there are no good public schools. Period."

Compared to what ... a generic private school? We've talked about the same sorts of problems at private schools. When my son was in third grade, we parents got notes telling us to work with our kids on the times table. Kids were getting into fifth grade without knowing what 7 + 8 is.

Private schools may set somewhat higher expectations in K-8, but the difference becomes less when you compare high school honors tracks.

A friend of mine who teaches at a highly regarded academy feels that there is little difference between what they teach and the local high school's honors track. He says that the difference is that the academy doesn't let anyone slip through the cracks. The material might be the same, but the approach is different. At the public schools, it's sink or swim.

But there are also great differences among public high schools. I don't hear of any top college (like Harvard) selecting anyone based on just class ranking. That's why many parents in our area expect to see detailed listings of where high school graduates go to college. My guess would be that this woman got into Harvard quite a while back.

SteveH said...

Speaking of Wellesley and prep schools, do you have any comments about the Walnut Hill School just down the road in Natick? I have mixed feelings about academies where kids specialize; music and the arts, in this case.

Catherine Johnson said...

The obvious question is good at what or for what ? In my experience (I'm in GA, in the USA), the majority of public schools are very good at teaching basic content. Many other public schools are good at many other things (and bad at some).

I'll tell you....I think it's entirely possible that schools in the Midwest and South may be good (or at least not actively bad).

My sister-in-law teaches in downstate IL; given what she tells me I can't classify her K-5 school as bad. (She thinks the K-5 schools have their act together -- pretty skeptical about the high school.)

Karen H. who lives in central IL also, and who comments here, also has consistently good tales to tell about her school.

I'm just speculating, but I think it's possible.

I also continue to think that schools in "middle class" areas are better than schools in wealthy areas. (Of course, I guess that's what the historian Ed met was saying, isn't it?)

Catherine Johnson said...

it not only hit them in the pocketbook (the cost of a Catholic education has risen astronomically), but of a sudden Catholic schools were being operated by victims of ed school indoctrination. To make it worse, the vast majority of Catholic schools have bought into the accreditation scam, so even when they are staffed by nuns, they've all been to ed school

oh, no

well I have to say I'm not surprised

when I was thinking about sending C. to the Catholic school here I discovered that they were advertising, on their web site, a Lucy Calkins workshop approach to writing instruction

Catherine Johnson said...

Does anyone know anything about Fordham Prep here in the Bronx?

Catherine Johnson said...

I taught for two years at Wofford college (in SC) a good liberal arts college, and most of our students were excellent, and many came from public schools.

That's encouraging.

These kids had gone to public schools in the south, I take it?

And what was the SES (if you know)?

Catherine Johnson said...

If poison makes them sick, give them more poison

I've got to find the behaviorist motto for this.

It's something like, "When something isn't working, do it more often and louder."

Catherine Johnson said...

Remember that famous teacher at Columbia Medical School? The one who trained a lot of major researchers?

He grilled into his brainiac medical students: If what you're doing isn't working, try something else.

Catherine Johnson said...

This goes against human nature.

Catherine Johnson said...

Issues, Evidence and You

speechless

Catherine Johnson said...

Bottom line - wherever you have accreditation, teacher certification, and testing, you're going to have all the problems those things bring.

What do you think would happen if you got rid of accreditation & teacher certification but kept the testing?

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't know much about Science Olympiad, but I'll bet there's a huge amount of self-teaching going on.

Our entire school just had to do the egg-drop thing, which private schools also do, I gather.

Everyone had to make a contraption that would protect an egg from breaking when you drop it off a building. (Did I post this already?)

C's egg broke.

After hours invested in this project he learned that if you wrap an egg up in cotton and attach it to a parachute you can drop it from a building and have it not break.

Needless to say, the kids who had engineer dads were the ones who had unbroken eggs.

I refused to involve myself in this particular project even though C. desperately needed the 10 points he would have earned for having the egg make it to the ground in one piece.

It was 10 points or nothing, so he got nothing.

Catherine Johnson said...

The first grade on his Sacred High School Transcript will be a B.

Catherine Johnson said...

ummmm.... that's assuming I teach Earth Science here at home.

Which I will do.

The school can count on me!

Catherine Johnson said...

It raises the question whether one wealthy individual should be allowed to implement his fantasy and wreck high schools which after all are public entities.

That's for sure.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't know what she was comparing today's public schools to -- either to public schools in the first half of the 20th century or to public schools as they could be if they used direct instruction & taught the liberal arts.

Catherine Johnson said...

No, she's young. I assume she has her Ph.D., but she's young.

Maybe 30?

(I'll check with Ed, though.)

Catherine Johnson said...

High school honors tracks are extremely problematic.

David Klein filled me in on that quite awhile back....and I can tell you that in the freshman Honors English class here the kids are drawing pictures.

My friend's son drew a bunch of pictures then had to re-draw them because he hadn't put them on the right-sized paper.

She sent him to school with poster board and crayons.

This is Honors English in one of the top 100 high schools in the country.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed and I think the story on private schools is probably that you find some superb private schools in NYC, San Francisco, Boston, LA, and presumably Chicago.

(I don't know which major cities in the south would have terrific private schools.)

The reason why you can have fantastic private schools in these places is that you have quite a few people with Ph.Ds from local universities who don't want to take jobs in the heartland or in the south. So they take jobs in private schools.

Our friends from La Jolla, both college professors, pulled their son out of public school & put him in private school.

The private school was so bad they brought him back to public school.

They said the Catholic schools there weren't good, either -- and I know for a fact that LA has several superb Catholic high schools.

As far as we can tell, private school quality is heavily dependent on having a rich supply of highly educated people to hire.

One more thing: I've looked at the faculty lists of all the schools around here and routinely the one subject where you see ed school degrees is math.

That makes sense.

A person with a Ph.D. in math or a math-related field is probably more employable here in the NY area than a person with a Ph.D. in history or literature.

Catherine Johnson said...

I also believe that the closer you are to Columbia Teachers College the worse off you are.

Obviously we're close; we're right next door; we hire from there.

Just hired a "specialist" in "balanced literacy" from Columbia!

Woo hoo!

I assume that California is next-closest to CTC.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

My son did Science Olympiad last year and really enjoyed it. He medaled at state and got to go the the University for the competition, but even if he hadn't, I think he learned a lot of science that year. The competitions have some academic contests, as well as building and racing stuff.

I wasn't in on the day to day workings, but he had to meet for "academic" practice once a week and then another day for "building" stuff. I just think the hands-on quality along with the competition was a good thing.

I did notice at region and state that the killer schools also had math teams. He got to see how others approached what he had been working on all year and he found that exciting.

They have some fun contests around building things including a catapult. One of my son's was a balloon racer. There are a couple of other racing type contests.

One of the academic tests was called "Metric Mastery" or something like that. I only remember that because he was picked to be in that. He probably was in that because of his processing speed. I still am not totally sure what he did, but he did well. I think one of the websites goes into all of the events.

He never complained about going in the morning or staying in the afternoon, so he must have found it interesting and/or challenging or I would have heard about it.

SusanS

KathyIggy said...

I couldn't get the link to format properly on here, but available when you search "Google Books" is a 2004 book called "Catholic Schools Then and Now." Especially of interest to me is Ch. 9 (Just Teaching-the Meat and Potatoes Method) all about my alma mater, St. Matthias Grade School in Milwaukee where it appears things haven't changed since the 1970's when I attended (or even the 50's). One quote, "Teachers don't indulge much in educational theories such as inquiry based learning, constructivism, multiple intelligences. They just teach."

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Kathy!

Thanks so much for the reference -- I'm going to order that right away.

SteveH said...

"C. desperately needed the 10 points he would have earned for having the egg make it to the ground in one piece. It was 10 points or nothing, so he got nothing."

This is obscene!

Isn't this constructivism, where the process is more important than the result? We did this at Michigan 35 years ago from the 4th floor fire escape at the West Engineering Building ... for fun.

SteveH said...

"This is Honors English in one of the top 100 high schools in the country."

And some would like to get rid of the SAT.

In our area, high schools (and their honors courses) vary greatly. It can also vary within the program, based on the teachers.

SteveH said...

SusanS,

Thank you for the feedback. My son is going into this quite clueless, but I don't think his school is very aggressive about it. As far as I know, it's just once a week.

I looked out at their site and saw an example having to do with circuits. My son has a circuit kit and knows something about serial and parallel circuits, batteries, and resistors, but not much else. I don't expect they will do much teaching once a week. They will probably match up different areas of science with each child and the kids will have to teach themselves.

I've had enough of this sort of thing with the First Lego League that I was a coach for last year, but if it inspires my son, it's worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I was skeptical about my school, too, since they are also very anti-competition. They did seem to to allow for some science parents to help out which I thought was great for my son. Rarely does the school take advantage of the expertise of the parents.

My son was new to it last year, also, so he seemed to get the less fun events to compete in. (I think one was Food Science or something.) However, there was enough variety in all of the events to keep his interest, even when he wasn't on that particular team.

Even though my son has a phobia about being called a geek, I also felt it helped him to work with more kids like himself.

The balloon racer event was a race with balloons rising, but they couldn't rise too fast, so the team had to figure out how to control the ascent. Something like that. Anyway, they also have to "show their work" which was some math to scribble down (You can see how closely I was paying attention).

Later, my son called me from the state competition to say that he was sure they had lost. However, it turned out that they had snagged a silver.

He is convinced that some of the teams simply forgot to show their work. He almost forgot except his teammate reminded him right before they turned in their sheet.

SusanS

Catherine Johnson said...

I just talked to the Director of Admissions at Hackley.

They have a famous calculus teacher -- he's been there 29 years, I think.

These figures are roughly correct.

The senior class has around 90 kids, of whom approximately 80% are taking calculus. They don't give AP courses but the kids all take the AP tests. The Hackley calculus course is equivalent to the AP BC course & students take the BC test.

They score 4s and 5s.

She said they've had kids who didn't think they could do calculus at all take calculus from this teacher and end up with 5s on the AP.

I've just requested our figures here for AP calculus.

What I've heard from parents is "No one takes BC; that course is so hard."

I've also heard that kids are dropping out of precalc because it's hard.

And so far the parents I know whose kids took calculus here knew calculus themselves and were able to "help with homework."