kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/12/08 - 10/19/08

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Parent Involvement

Parental involvement has real staying power as a catch phrase in education-speak. Possibly because it assumes that parents can always be counted on to take the blame (or blame each other) for most anything going wrong. But there are a few schools that take parent involvement seriously, and could possibly serve as role models. One of the local public schools in my town has taken a few simple steps to move past rhetoric; and I offer it as an example.

1) last May, a Parent's evening was held for parents of 6th graders. The principal, VPrinc, and Guidance Counselor answered questions and gave information. I found this typical and not terribly helpful -- a lot of general information on middle school organization, lockers, classes, blah blah blah. Nothing specific on curriculum, which is what I'd like to hear about.

2) a week before school starts -- a picnic on the lawn for families then about an hour for kids and families to wander the school, find the classrooms they'd be in, lockers, talk to administrators. The event ran past the scheduled end time, but no one was hurried to the door.

3) the second full day of classes -- parents are invited to come immediately after classes to meet teachers for an hour in the cafeteria (although it ran late, again, and nobody threw the parents out). Every teacher was there, all were willing to discuss curriculum and expectations

4) Two weeks into the year -- an open house is held in the evening. We got copies of our child's schedule and followed their day class to class for 2 hours. Every teacher was there, curriculum was discussed, some teachers had detailed syllabi available.

5) 3rd week of classes -- a morning parent open house is held -- from 7:30 to 9:30 parents are invited to attend classes with their child. Parents park all over the lawn. The Principal takes pictures -- the more parents the better. He's told us repeatedly at the first 4 events how he wants to blanket the front grass with parent cars. Yes it's disruptive, but he wants parents to see what their kids are actually doing in class.

The point of all of the events at various times of the day make it easier for parents to find at least one time when they can make it in to the school. The principal asks parents to come to school. He makes it easy to get them there by making the times flexible. No topic is off-limits.

Having sat through two classes with my daughter's teachers (with students present) has given me a far greater understanding of what is happening in my child's school day. I may not like everything going on there, but there is no doubt that transparency is more than empty talk. There are things I will continue to fight to change (still too much emphasis on the child taking responsibility for their own learning), but with transparency and an attitude of openness towards parents, I feel I am involved (for the first time ever in this school district) WITH and NOT AGAINST the school my child attends.

Friday, October 17, 2008

advertisements for myself

A starred review in Publishers Weekly!

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Houghton Mifflin, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-15-101489-7
Grandin (Animals in Translation), famed for her decades-long commitment to treating livestock as humanely as possible on its way to slaughter, considers how humans and animals can best interact. Working from the premise that “an animal is a conscious being that has feelings,” the autistic author assesses dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, poultry, wildlife and zoo animals based on a “core emotion system” she believes animals and humans share, including a need to seek; a sense of rage, fear, and panic; feelings of lust; an urge to nurture; and an ability to play. Among observations at odds with conventional wisdom: dogs need human parents, not alpha pack leaders, and cats respond to training. Discussions of why horses are skittish and why pigs are arguably the most intelligent of beasts—raccoons run them a close second—illuminate the intersection of people and more domesticated animals; chapters on cows and chickens focus more generally on animal welfare, particularly the horrific conditions in which they are usually raised and slaughtered. Packed with fascinating insights, unexpected observations and a wealth of how-to tips, Grandin's peppy work ably challenges assumptions about what makes animals happy. (Jan.)

PW will run an interview with Temple in the 10/20 issue.

(I've just noticed that Jay Mathews' new book on KIPP is listed on the same page!)

Tactics Used to Maintain the Status Quo

Tactic #1: Tell parents that “You are the only one who complained.”

O-M-G ! ! ! !

How many times did I hear that one?

Moving right along:

Tactic #2: Claim that “The research shows that what we are doing is best.” CHECK

Tactic #3: “We are the experts. You should trust us to know better than you.” CHECK

Tactic #4: Claim that children will suffer if the budget is not significantly increased. CHECK

Tactic #5: Accuse critics and parents who ask too many questions of being “against public education.” Hah! They don't dare try that one around here. Too many folks already sending kids to private school and too many other folks who would if they could scrape together the money after paying the highest property taxes in the known universe.

Tactic #6: Claim that FCPS is prevented from making changes by the No Child Left Behind act. No one has used this one around here, and that is to the district's credit.

Tactic #7: Avoid taking actions to change the system by ignoring good ideas. CHECK *

Frederick Education Reform briefings

*I'm adding this one to my list of "Signs that your child is attending a public school." Actually, I could add all 7 of these to my list of Signs that your child is attending a public school.

sticky note

Max got stuck again on a history paper last night.

Max got stuck because he got home at 8 p.m.
Max got stuck because he had a shitload of other homework as well.
Max got stuck because he was so tired.
Max got stuck because history papers are sticky.

Max got home at 8 p.m. because I was doing errands and didn't call to
grill him about his homework.
Max got home at 8 p.m. because he was hanging out with friends.
Max got home at 8 p.m. because his dad was working in his studio and
assumed I'd call him.

Max had a shitload of other homework because he's in high school now.
Max had a shitload of other homework because he's a slow reader, so
even not much homework can amount to a shitload.
Max had a shitload of other homework because he probably saved some
for the last minute—when you do that, even a "small shit" becomes a

Max was tired because he couldn't get to sleep the night before.
Max was tired because he was bored.
Max was tired because instead of taking a nap, he hung out with his

History papers are sticky because some CocaCola spilled on them.
History papers are sticky so that even your dogs won't eat them.
History papers are sticky so students will adhere to them without

the winner is

This is the poll I was waiting to see.

Forum for School Board Candidates

How can parents be involved in their child's public school education?

Check out the CANDIDATE FORUM in the "briefings" section here:

Frederick Education Reform

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ted Nutting on the math mess

I'm a high-school math teacher in Seattle. When I hear Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, say that this state is "at the bottom in the production of scientists and engineers," and warn that our graduates "will be washing the cars for the people who come here for the best jobs," I know what the problem is. It's math. We are failing to educate our children in mathematics. I know how that came about, and what we can do about it.

The problem is national in scope, but in Washington state our difficulties can be traced principally to Terry Bergeson, superintendent of public instruction for the past 12 years. She oversaw the writing of our state's weak, vague math standards, basing them on a "reform" idea to promote "discovery" learning. This has turned teachers into "facilitators" who "guide" children in learning activities. It has promoted "differentiated instruction," placing students of wildly differing abilities together where some students cannot do the required work, often to the detriment of those who can.

She has moved away from rigorous testing. The "reform" math she champions encourages such things as journals, portfolios and group projects that tend to form large parts of classroom grading systems, while test results are relegated to a lesser role. The math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), aligned to her faulty standards, tests math skills at a low level. Even so, about half our 10th-graders fail it.

She has wasted millions of dollars on "professional development" to encourage teachers to put "reform" theories into practice. These theories are supposed to make it possible for all students to learn math. But few students know significant mathematics, and most know very little. About half of our students entering college now have to take remedial math. Many of our students who do succeed use private tutors, and the racial achievement gaps have widened. "Reform's" emphasis on equity and fairness has been revealed to be empty talk.

My experience tells me that we can fix this, and quickly. I am the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School. I don't teach Bergeson-style. I tell my students what they need to know, they do problems to understand how it works, and they demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through testing. Up until this year, we've insisted that our students who take AP calculus actually be able to do the work.

We at Ballard have by far the best AP calculus program in Seattle Public Schools, based on AP test scores. I have no special magnetism or charisma; I'm not a cult figure for teenagers. I have high standards and I require the students to work. If they don't work, they know they will probably flunk. But they do work, and I am proud of them. I also have the benefit of having an older textbook that doesn't fit the "reform math" model, and most of my students have had an excellent pre-calculus teacher the year before.

In most of our other math classes (and I doubt that Ballard is unique in this), we've tended to follow a "reform" model. We've passed students on from class to class; there is no meaningful threshold they must cross to enter a more-difficult class. Since we find that many students in our classes cannot do the work, we dumb down the courses. We say we are admitting unprepared students into our classes in order to "challenge" them.

But students should be challenged in the classes that they are qualified to take, not sent on to classes where they cannot do the work. Unfortunately, things are changing, even in our school's AP calculus classes: We're starting to admit unqualified students, and our program will soon begin to deteriorate.

It's not just Ballard's AP calculus program that is successful, and it's not just the top students. North Beach Elementary in Seattle [was this Niki Hayes' school? will find out] switched its math curriculum to Saxon Math in 2001. This excellent series teaches real math and does not follow Bergeson's fuzzy, reform-oriented ideology. North Beach did this with reluctant agreement from Seattle Public Schools because the PTA paid for the books and because the superintendent supported site-based decision-making. North Beach's passing rate on the WASL rose from 68 percent in 2000 to 94 percent in 2004 — and yet, every year parents worry that real math will be scrapped. Recently, the school has had to seek waivers to avoid having to teach the district's "reform" math.

Legislators have begun to understand the problem. At the Legislature's direction in 2007, the state Board of Education reviewed our state's math standards, finding they were failing. The Legislature set up a system to fix the problems, but that system gave Bergeson the opportunity to sabotage the process. She stacked the committees selected to rewrite the standards with like-minded ideologues. The results were so bad the Legislature refused to accept the rewritten standards, sending them to the Board of Education to fix.

Bergeson then stacked the committees set up to select curricula for state approval. That process is not complete, but the first results are discour-aging. The Legislature had required that the new mathematics standards be based on (among other things) the standards of Singapore, consistently a leader on international tests, but Bergeson's initial submission of texts ranked Singapore Math, that country's official curriculum (and a superior one), dead last out of 12.

Most school-district administrations have gone along with Bergeson and share responsibility for this mess. Even as an uproar arose nationally against the programs Bergeson promotes, Seattle started using two of them in elementary and middle schools.

None of this is necessary. Students can learn math. My students learn it. If our education leaders would follow the lead of our Legislature, stop ignoring obvious successes and support what actually works, we would see major improvements in just a few years.

Ted Nutting is the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School in Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

A formula for lifting Washington out of its math mess

Students should be challenged in the classes they are qualified to take.