kitchen table math, the sequel: KTM as keeper of the flame

Thursday, April 30, 2009

KTM as keeper of the flame

We go on a lot about whether government money can fix things, if vouchers can work, what the future innovations can look like, what would make them possible. We don't reach consensus very often, and it's unclear whether or not we should. It makes me wonder if I'm doing any good by participating on this blog if I just go back again over the same arguments, returning to the same points we've made before. Even when I agree with others, I've found I am busy negating arguments instead of finding new solutions. So, what then, am I doing that's valuable? What is KTM doing that's valuable?

One big way in which KTM is valuable was so obvious to me that I overlooked it. KTM is a keeper of the flame of What Works. When everyone else has forgotten what curricula worked, what methods worked, what subjects were supposed to be taught, and how they were taught, this blog will recall.

We're now at least two generations into an education establishment that has eradicated the idea of direct instruction of students in subject areas. Two generations now means no one knows that reading or literature used to be rigorous; that grammar was once taught to schoolchildren. Two generations where no one knows the simplest algorithms for helping children master basic math facts. Two generations of no direct knowledge of the value of a comprehensive liberal arts education.

Ed schools are busy burning every copy of every wheel left in existence. The teachers themselves have never heard of this odd invention, because they've been taught by ones who never used it.

Someday, parents, teachers, school administrators, whomever, are going to start looking again for the wheel. They are going to start asking "What subjects should be taught? How can they be taught efficiently?" This blog has done more to promote the answers to those questions in every subject than anything other institution. KTM is a living museum, in the best sense of the word. Who else out there is performing this service? KTM is a virtual monastery that doesn't need to cloister itself to keep the truth alive. We need more of them, but having even one will be a necessity for parents in the future. Every time we find another answer, another subject that was taught, can be taught, and find references to the materials themselves so we can teach it again, we're saving a kid in a future generation. Even if we never can find a way to save them from the schools we've got now.

45 comments:

concernedCTparent said...

This is an amazing post, Allison. Truly wonderful. Thank you.

Catherine Johnson said...

KTM is a living museum, in the best sense of the word.oh my gosh --- this is incredible!

(I've just tagged it with "Greatest Hits" so we can all find it.)

Thank you SO much for writing this.

KTM is a virtual monastery that doesn't need to cloister itself to keep the truth alive.

Catherine Johnson said...

I know I chatted with Vlorbik about this a few years back (online, at the old site), and when Allison was here in NYC we talked about it, too:

I have in my possession one of the last living specimens of the Solution Key, by Gerhard Wichura, to Moise & Downs Geometry.

It was published in 1964 and has no ISBN number. It's in rather fragile condition.

I keep it on my desk where I can see it.

And that's it.

Here it is.

I don't know how to protect it or preserve it for others.

Or for the future.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw....I'm still immersed in budget & election politics here --- which is why I've been MIA ----

SteveH said...

I see KTM as more than a kitchen table; it's a web-based extension of a grocery store or soccer sideline where we can discuss with other parents and teachers without having to rush home to cook dinner. There are always new parents coming into the grocery store. Hopefully they will realize that they aren't "the only one who's complained."

I think parents are very interested in any information they can get. This is the kind of information that many people won't talk about in a letter to the editor. It's also information that schools really don't want to discuss publically either.

For many discussions, there is a niceness factor that gets in the way of critical analysis. If a waiter asks if you liked your meal, most will probably say it was just fine, still tip 15%, but then go to another resraurant. For schools, you can't go anywhere else and you have to worry about consequences. Besides, I really like the teachers at my son's school. Since there is no process for parental input on curriculum or things that go on behind the veil, I would have to become a real pain in the ass to try and make changes. So what happens? parents smile and say that everything is fine, but then go out and hire a tutor.


KTM works to remove the veil (and somethines the niceness factor) to try to get to the core of issues. In math, this means the details of mastery and the meaning of understanding. Things are happening at schools and parents have to pick up the pieces at home. These aren't always nice, happy, constructive discussions because they involve fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

Anonymous said...

And remember, the administration and the other teachers won't let anyone try to remember.

I just lost my position. Of course, I don't have any intention of letting my daughter attend school at one of these institutions. I tried to teach, but the only thing that matters is DISCIPLINE. I wish I knew what they wanted. When students are silent in rows, they prescribe groups. When they are talking too much, they prescribe quietly sitting in rows.

Catherine Johnson said...

it's a web-based extension of a grocery store or soccer sideline where we can discuss with other parents and teachers without having to rush home to cook dinner.It's true.

Absolutely.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi, Anonymous --- I'm sorry to hear about your situation ----

This is horrifying:

When students are silent in rows, they prescribe groups. When they are talking too much, they prescribe quietly sitting in rows.I had an experience that I think jibes with yours just the other night.

A person was complaining to me about chronic professional development in the school where he works. I kept asking for details. I wanted to know what it was administrators were demanding that the teachers do.

He kept not answering me, just repeating his complaint, and I was getting frustrated.

Finally he said, "I'm not sure they know what they want themselves" -- "they" being the district administrators.

That hadn't crossed my mind.

I think of public school administrators as constantly bringing in mediocre-to-bad "initiatives" and forcing everyone (teachers, kids, parents, taxpayers) to deal with them.

It hadn't crossed my mind that administrators would bring in more than one initiative at a time, or that they would bring in contradictory initiatives.

Allison said...

I'm involved in the parent side of an hourly drop in child care center that for unknown reasons, runs as a nonprofit. (the org has a parent advisory board, and I'm co chair.)

The staff are referred to as teachers. The kids are infants to preschoolers, and there's no curriculum, but we call them teachers.

On every grant application, we have to talk about professional development. It's a huge portion of our commitment to our staff, you see.

We're talking about a position that pays 12-14 dollars an hour, and that has no formal requirement of any university degree, but we have to show that we're not merely offering professional development, but having our staff (which quits every year or so) take part in it.

And if we DO show that, grant money can pour in.

It's quite possible that administrators are told there are pots and pots of money for professional development, so they dip into them. They don't know why, they don't have a coherent vision for their school or any school, but that doesn't matter. What matters is this is a way to get more resources for the school, and to possibly even a way to pay the teachers (directly from these pots rather than their own budgets.)

Perhaps it's even like this: Heaven forbid these pots of money dry up without being spent! Like all good bureaucracies, if you don't spend your portion of the budget, next year it's taken away! So spend as much as you can!

So the administrators aren't really charged with setting vision or executing on said vision. They are charged with finding more money. So they do--incoherently is just fine. Incoherently doesn't take away the dollars.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Your comments really make sense. Administration is constantly talking about staff development. Every time something new comes up, they make the "untenured" teachers jump through new hoops.

The tenured teachers refuse to do it-vocabulary walls, elaborate objectives fully posted at all times.

I'm so glad that I found Singapore Math, Kumon, and now Aloha Abacus, starting this summer.

I'll probably have to resort to the public school system since I don't have a job now, but at least I know the system from the inside and I can hopefully work it to my advantage and continue to afterschool her.

concerned said...

Wonderful Post!!

I love the paragraph about "two generations into an education establishment that has eradicated the idea of direct instruction of students in subject areas"

I remember thinking about this during my certification classes in ed school after receiving my degree in math. When they would talk about "constructivism" all I could hear was "deconstructivism"

It was very disturbing to me even back in 1989. Seeing it come to fruition is a damned nightmare!

Paul B said...

PD and its attendant measurements are simply proxies for money that are necessary to keep 'score' in a gomonpoly.

In private enterprise, profit scores the game. Make it and you grow. Without it you die. In government sponsored enterprise you need to invent measures that tell the stakeholders that you're successful. The best measures are the ones that are the most enigmatic.

PD is perfect. It has an objective input (hours of training) and an immeasurable output.

Ben Calvin said...

I don't know how to protect it or preserve it for others.Scan it, save it as a pdf file, and post it far and wide!

Crimson Wife said...

I don't think it's been 2 generations since the basics were taught. I'm 32 and graduated high school in 1995. We had phonics, old school grammar, and traditional math when I was going through.

Now my youngest brother, who's 24 and graduated in 2003, got the "whole language" fad and somewhat fuzzy math (not as bad as the current incarnation though). So I'd say it's been 1 1/2 generations...

K9Sasha said...

I tried looking up the word "gomonpoly" to no avail. I think I figured it out, though. Is it government monopoly?

K9Sasha said...

If you want to know who besides KTM is keeping alive skills based learning, look at the homeschool community. The book The Well Trained Mind shows how to teach a rigorous curriculum starting from kindergarten or first grade. Homeschool supply catalogs, like Rainbow Resource, have many different curricula to choose from, including rigorous, skill based choices.

While this kind of learning may be in hiding when you look at public schools, it's thriving in the homeschool arena.

Paul B said...

Got it! Gomonpoly is something I just made up.

Do you like it? It started out as a jumbled up typo and then it grew on me. Can't let it go now.

It seems to me we'll be needing this word to describe large swaths of our formerly free economy. Government monopoly is way to many syllables for most of our electorate, eh?

Paul B said...

It's also alive in more classrooms than you might expect; more like a clandestine guerilla movement, but alive none the less.

But, when your curriculum is 3 years ahead of where your kids are, you become radicalized.

concernedCTparent said...

The Well-Trained Mind third edition is now available. My copy arrived last week. It is my favorite and most important resource for homeschooling. It has wonderful suggestions for afterschooling or supplementing during summer, for example.

I highly recommend it!

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Ben --

Yes, that's what I need to do.

We've had a new scanner for a while now; still have to learn how to use it.

I don't own the expensive Adobe software, though -- does that matter?

In other words, if I scan the book now with the Adobe software that comes with the scanner,....is that good enough?

I don't know whether it produces a searchable file.

Obviously the hard copy I have on my desk isn't "searchable," but given the fact that we now have the ability to scan text to searchable files I'd like to do so ----

Catherine Johnson said...

We are having a conflict, here in my district, over "instructional coaches," which we call "teaching and learning facilitators."

What these people really are is teachers for the teachers.

All across the country, in response to NCLB, it seems, public schools are staffing up on teachers for the teachers.

Soon we will be paying for teachers for the kids, teachers for the teachers, and administrators for the teachers of the teachers.

Catherine Johnson said...

Crimson Wife - there seems to be a big variation depending on where you went to school.

The former PTSA president here was raised in Louisville & she was taught sentence diagramming!

I've never even heard of sentence diagramming being taught in a public school, and I'm older than she is. (I was raised in central IL.)

Apparently Louisville had terrific public schools & still does.

Catherine Johnson said...

If you want to know who besides KTM is keeping alive skills based learning, look at the homeschool community.Absolutely.

I always talk about homeschoolers. I tell people: if you want to see what works, forget professional development. Look at homeschoolers.

Amy P left a comment on 11d pointing out that homeschoolers are curriculum connoiseurs.

CassyT said...

Catherine said: Soon we will be paying for teachers for the kids, teachers for the teachers, and administrators for the teachers of the teachers.I teach teachers. You would be surprised how many elementary school teachers don't understand why the subtraction algorithm works. You can pay people like me to teach them, directly where there are gaps, or you can rely on Ed. schools. Tough choice, isn't it.

As for myself, I'd dump 50% or more of all Admin. The charter school where I taught in AZ had 2 principals, and one office person. That was for 400 or so students pre-k - 6th grade. That includes a tuition based afternoon kindergarten and tuition pre-k program. There were no accountants, nurses, registrars, or any other office personnel on staff. There were two certified teachers in each classroom for 30 students, though.

Our charter school in CO is k-9, with 400 or students also. There are so many people in the front office, I'm not sure what each one does. The school has a principal, Dean of Students, and CFO. They also have a huge gym and amazing art rooms.

They are both strong schools, top scoring on state tests. It's hard for me to wrap my head around how different they are.

Catherine Johnson said...

As for myself, I'd dump 50% or more of all Admin.woo hoo!

Cassy, how do you teach teachers?

In other words, what kind of position do you have?

What concerns me about teachers-for-teachers is that we are paying for a full-time, permanent teacher for full-time, permanent teachers.

Plus what happens when you hire a bad teacher for the teachers?

Here's another question (this is a real question, not a rhetorical question, which the other one was, to some degree).

Say a district hires an instructional coach who really is terrific. He or she teaches all the teachers how to teach writing....do you still need the instructional coach?

What do you think?

(I'm also curious what you think of "Professional Learning Communities," if you've looked into them...)

CassyT said...

Catherine asked: Cassy, how do you teach teachers?...In other words, what kind of position do you have?When a school takes on Singapore Math, most do so knowing they need some training. I spend 2-3 days during the summer with teachers covering the basics of SM and get them prepped for at least the first 8 weeks of instruction. What I have found is that teachers will say at some point while we're working with word problems: "Gee, I can see I need to learn more math". Which is a much better way for them to realize this than for me to tell them; "You need to learn more math to teach 3rd grade (or whatever) Singapore Math.

Plus what happens when you hire a bad teacher for the teachers?Well, that happens. And not just in education.

He or she teaches all the teachers how to teach writing....do you still need the instructional coach?I say the coach goes. But really, think about an entire district. Teachers are always coming and going, there is always work, I think for a district instructional coach. They can always start working with technology integration *smile*

I'll be working next year with a couple of charter schools as a math coach for the staff. We'll be doing a book study of Elementary Math for Teachers and I'll be on site at each school several times to observe, teach demo lessons and work with the teachers. It's true, by next year I want them to be so great at teaching Singapore Math that they won't need me anymore.

What is best for the students is that their teachers know what they are doing. I can find other schools to work with, but those students don't really get to pick their teacher.

Catherine Johnson said...

So you think enough teachers are coming and going that schools could justify always having a permanent teacher trainer --

I'm wondering whether this is a better model for K-6?

We were told, the other night, that secondary teachers are fairly resistant to being coached.

I wonder whether "master teachers" work better for K-5 & professional learning communities (or something along those lines) works better for secondary???

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll be working next year with a couple of charter schools as a math coach for the staff. We'll be doing a book study of Elementary Math for Teachers and I'll be on site at each school several times to observe, teach demo lessons and work with the teachers. It's true, by next year I want them to be so great at teaching Singapore Math that they won't need me anymore.Offhand (& this may be wrong) I'm MUCH more comfortable with this approach....I'm more comfortable with an approach in which the goal is for teachers to reach the point could themselves be coaches----and where that is the goal.

Our administration here is telling us that we'll need ongoing coaching to "mobilize enthusiasm" for new "initiatives" -- and we're always going to be having new initiatives because that's what makes a school good.

Initiatives.

Catherine Johnson said...

The idea that the same teachers are constantly going to be needing brand-new coaching because we've got a brand-new initiative says to me that every five seconds teachers are going to go back to square one (or thereabouts); they're going to have to reboot in some sense, or add on something very new & different to what they're already doing.

CassyT said...

We were told, the other night, that secondary teachers are fairly resistant to being coached.Well, I haven't seen that, but I mainly work with elementary teachers. The 7th-8th grade teacher I work with at one school is crying for help. I also worked with a 4-8 gr school. The upper math teachers there were a little resistant at first, but have really come around since this summer.

BTW- I have, on several occasions, had teachers tell me:
"I created my own math program and it works fine."
My response? "Oh, you have a PhD and 20 years of experience in math education?"
"No"
"You have a longitudinal study demonstrating efficacy?"
"Um, no."

Well, It looks like their school is going with a program that does.

SteveH said...

"I created my own math program and it works fine."

I would like to hear more about this sort of thing. I hear about issues both ways; that tenured teachers just do what they've done for the last 20 years, and that administrations just shove a curriculum down teachers' throats. Is there a difference in how tenured and non-tenured teachers are treated? Maybe I should put that the other way. Are not-tenured teachers more responsive (because they have to be)? I don't assume that the teachers who have been around for ages are more pragmatic. One of the fuzziest teachers my son had was nearing retirement. Obviously, there could be problems both ways. There are also issues both ways out in industry too. But do many teachers expect very wide latitude in what or how they teach? Do they think that this latitude goes with the job?

I find it very odd that I can't get details about what is taught in class and how it's taught. The curriculum maps I've seen just list a bunch of vague topics. I can't even get any sort of syllabus. My sense is that teachers get to decide on many things that happen in class; that in two different classes of Everyday Math, different material is covered. Even though a school might prescribe EM, there is little quality control. How much of this is linked to any sort of expectation of teacher independence in the classroom?


"I created my own math program and it works fine."

In other words, it this mentality typical? I can understand and might support a teacher who did this to improve mastery of basic math skills, but that doesn't solve the underlying problem.

CassyT said...

My sense is that teachers get to decide on many things that happen in class; that in two different classes of Everyday Math, different material is covered. This appears to be very true. I taught at a school with 2 certified teachers in each classroom and we divided the students into ability groups. One year, I'm in the back of the room with my 16 math students, my partner is in the front with her 17 or so. She is teaching more Saxon than Singapore, even though (she and) the school have been using Singapore for 8 years! Neither of us was ever observed teaching math by a principal.

I figure that the people behind SM have more experience and proven results, so as a teacher, I stuck with that program as the main curriculum. However, there isn't enough practice of basic facts, probability or data handling in the Primary Math materials to meet state standards, so I supplemented.

While my case might seem unusual, I have worked with a lot of teachers over the past 18 months and I have a feeling that it may be the norm. To counteract that, when I train teachers, I expect the principal to be in on the training. I want them to know what they should be looking for from their teachers in a Singapore Math classroom.

As to the latitude going with the job...The answer is "yes" and I don't think that will change until teachers start collaborating.

BTW- The teacher working with our lowest ability group used the My Pals Are Here materials I brought back from Singapore with much success. Great Source has adapted these materials for their "Math in Focus" series, released at the NCTM last month.

lgm said...

The teachers here do have time out of the elementary classroom to collaborate and are paid to do so, per contract. What ticks me off is they have agreed on "No Child Gets Ahead". The goals and units covered for each section of each elementary grade are the same, but the amount of instruction will vary depending on the student's label and the funding that goes with that label. No one ever is grouped at instructional level - grouping goes by state test result. The state goals are deliberately not all offered, which prevents all but the math brains and tutored from reaching the '4'.

Additionally, a student in elementary that is not labeled gets no help if he fails a lesson. He only gets help if he fails enough to qualify for funded extra help. The parents will be told that he is not developmentally ready and there is nothing the classroom teacher can do. Seriously, who in regular ed kindy is not ready to learn the difference between a quarter and a penny? It's no harder than the difference between a pencil and a pen, yet some teachers will not plan an effective lesson, others won't bother with the lesson, and none will ever be held accountable for not teaching ALL children the grade level objectives. Repeat that on other foundational concepts, and voila, lots of gaps that can't be filled in quickly, leaving the middle school holding the bag. We are not committed to excellence, or proficiency..just the 'pass'. Until the goal changes, parents will continue having to privately tutor if they wish to access engineering or science coursework in college.

SteveH said...

"...leaving the middle school holding the bag."

I've always wondered what middle school teachers think when kids get to their classrooms still struggling with the basics, like the times table. Do they automatically blame it on the student, or do they wish that the lower grade teachers would focus more on the basics?

Whether or not the school provides collaboration time, what's stopping anyone from discussing these issues? Some of the teachers must know that the big door is the math tracking split in 7th grade. They must know that if the student doesn't get on the top track, then the likihood of getting into science or engineering in college drops dramatically. It should be easy to collect this data. For those NOT on the 8th grade algebra track, how many of them pass Algebra II or Trig in high school? It would also be easy to ask parents of top math track students what they've done to support their child's math education.


Our high school's top level math track has finally forced a change to our middle school math tracks. This has created a 6th grade math placement test that is centered on basic skills. The next obvious step is to drive these (top level) expectations down into the lower grades. However, they conflict with the low K-6 state math cut-off expectations. The 6th grade placement test expectations are much higher.

All of this is so obvious to me. What's stopping this self-examination? I don't like the idea of collaboration because it sounds too much like coming to a consensus that may not happen. Lower grade teachers may not want to force the issue of memorizing the times table. Then what?

Apparently, there are vast numbers of schools and teachers who don't set very high expectations for K-6.

Ben Calvin said...

Catherine -- Your scanner should come with software that will allow you to save the scan into Adobe PDF.

CassyT said...

I've always wondered what middle school teachers think when kids get to their classrooms still struggling with the basics, like the times table. Do they automatically blame it on the student, or do they wish that the lower grade teachers would focus more on the basics?You don't have to teach middle school to feel that way. I've had 3rd graders that don't know how to add or subtract within 100. It was taught in 1st grade, expected to be mastered in 2nd. You can seek to blame or you can get to work fixing the deficit. I preferred the latter.

What's stopping anyone from discussing these issues?As an elementary teacher, I worked 50 on campus hours a week. There weren't a whole lot of teachers who wanted to help me dissect or plan lessons. When I do end up talking to other adults, they tend to shy away from discussing work because teachers spend so much time thinking about school already. I had 45 minutes a day while students were in specials last year. 1/8 of that time was spent in meetings. When our team actually sat down to plan a lesson, we each had grading or math lessons to plan, or we needed to discuss what we were going to do about the kid who sat under his desk screaming all morning or the 3rd grader who had repeated 2nd grade and still couldn't read.

LGM- The only way I got the girl that couldn't read help was by pointing out that based on her age, she actually was 2 grade levels behind. The SpEd dep't told me she didn't qualify for extra help because she was technically only one grade level behind (because of repeating 2nd grade).

My experiences may not be typical of all schools. I don't have the answers and that's why I come to KTM. I use this blog as a form of collaboration. More of a focused library than a museum. I see it as the fuse for discussion.

Paul B said...

I don't do blame game and I don't know any teachers that do. When I get a student in middle school that is way behind, my attentions are on how to get at the root misconceptions they're carrying around and fix them. If you work in the system you know there is no magical single point of failure any more than there is a silver bullet to fix it.

Frankly though, there is little that you can do to turn these kids around. If they're 3 years behind and it took them 6 years to get that way, it's not realistic to think you can fix it in the year that you have them. You just patch it up where you can as you try to give them access to the curriculum you are charged to deliver. What they really need is an entire remediation program that is formal, targeted, and paid for with student sweat.

There are a vast number of reasons why kids get to my middle school without basic skills. I could list them but it would take hours and of course it would look like I'm blaming the kids who are the victims in the story. Just let me say that to know their many challenges is not to blame them, it is to understand them so as to be better able to dissect and repair them. The least of my concerns is the expectations set during their prior experiences.

SteveH said...

So teachers never blame students? At what point do you begin to blame the school and fix the underlying problem?


I think about my son's old fifth grade EM teacher. She was very nice and worked hard to get kids back up to a proper level of mastery of basic math skills. Good for her, but that did nothing to fix the problem. She didn't cover 35% of the material in the course. The issue is not about whether an individual teacher is doing his/her best under the circumstances.


"...or we needed to discuss what we were going to do about the kid who sat under his desk screaming all morning or the 3rd grader who had repeated 2nd grade and still couldn't read."


If a child is screaming under a desk for more than 5 minutes, he/she should be removed from the classroom. A child should not get to third grade not being able to read. These shouldn't be daily time-wasting issues for teachers. Are there no mechanisms for dealing with these issues on a systemic level?

How easy do the basics have to be to realize that there is something seriously going wrong at a school? If a fifth grade teacher has kids who don't know the times table, he/she should be yelling and screaming about it. Even if it's really the student's fault, it does nobody any good to have that student in the classroom.

VickyS said...

From what I understand, classroom teachers often have little to say about the child screaming under the desk or the third grader who can't read. Administration has to authorize a transfer out of the classroom, whether it's for an hour or a full year. Teachers, correct me if I'm wrong. 9 times out of 10, it's a question of whether your adminstration will back you up or not.

What Steve might be wondering is: why aren't teachers politicized? Why don't they throw a hissy fit when faced with these situations? I wonder about this, too. It always seemed strange to me that teachers are protected by unions, but are still afraid to speak up or push for change inside the system. What gives?

Barry Garelick said...

It always seemed strange to me that teachers are protected by unions, but are still afraid to speak up or push for change inside the system. What gives?I asked this question of someone who works at AFT. She said that teachers fear for retribution much of the time. Administrations can hide behind "Why isn't the teacher better at classroom management?" They punish teachers by giving them lunch room duty and more preps (classes) than they can handle. If the teacher complains to the Union, the administration then says "Well Teacher X is the best we have and is the only one who can take on these classes". I forget how they twist the reasons for extra lunch room duty so maybe somebody can tell me. In any event, they are like Eddie Haskell in the old Leave it to Beaver series. When the parents are out of the room, their real personality emerges. The unions know what's up, but it's a matter of being able to prove things and make a case, and administrators are very good at making it difficult for unions to do that.

SteveH said...

"why aren't teachers politicized?"

Actually, what I'm trying to find out what's really going on in schools. I don't want to assign blame. I understand that teachers might want to focus only on what they can do ... given the circumstances. However, I'm trying to find out what the circumstances are. I want to understand why the circumstances can't be changed.

I also don't automatically blame administrations either. They get requirements passed down from above, and I might agree with some of the things they do. Besides, somebody has to be in charge. The goal is not to hire and train good teachers and then let them do their thing. You can have bad management, but the solution is not to eliminate management.

While I might sympathize with many teachers about their circumstances, my focus is not necessarily to solve their immediate problems. As I've said many times, the problems of education are not defined by what walks into a classroom. the problem is not what an individual teacher can do under the circumstances. It's how we can change the circumstances.

I don't want to accept the idea that a screaming child can't be almost immediately removed from a classroom. I don't want teachers to waste time dealing with these issues on a daily basis. I want to know why kids get to third grade not knowing how to read ... not so much that they don't know how to read (for whatever reason), but why did they get to third grade.

Why are kids getting to fifth grade not knowing their times table? What percentage of students really can't master this information after 5 years of math, even if they don't ever have an ounce of homework? I don't want to talk about what an individual teacher could do for remediation.

I also don't want to take an agnostic view that says that we really don't know what the problem is, so we just have to remediate the best we can.

KTM is all about ensuring the mastery of basic skills in math, especially in K-6. This is not getting done. Teachers see and deal with these problems daily. Do they really think these kids are just not developmentally ready, or that there is something unknown going on? Or, is there little that they think they can do to fix the underlying problem from a pragmatic or political standpoint? What's going on in the schools?

Barry Garelick said...

Steve,

In some schools, teaching math the way it should be taught can get you the worst classes, lunch room duty, and other "punishments" as I described above. Not in all schools, but I've talked with teachers who have verified this. Vern Williams went through hell for years but his success rate and people flocking to get their kids into his school convinced the administration to leave him and the other math teachers alone.

Paul B said...

I came to teaching after 35 years working in technology industries. One thing that is strikingly different for me is the cultural/organizational differences.

In tech, organizations are really lumpy with informal connections everywhere and this lends itself to lots and lots of opportunities to influence peddle. If you have a good idea it is easy and even encouraged to spread it like a virus all over the place.

Schools, on the other hand, are incredibly flat organizations. Teachers spend their days behind closed doors interacting with kids, not peers. At first this was a really upsetting and unnatural way to work. It's more like being an actor in a stage play. Every day the curtain goes up and 'you're on'. No breaks, no water cooler, no philosophical discussions with your boss, no boss really. It's very very different than the private sector.

I'm not sure, if you've never done it, that you can appreciate the isolation and at times the frustration that this environment engenders. There's simply no time to get ripped over an issue and go on a campaign about it because tomorrow the curtain goes up again and you have to be on your game or get eaten by your clients.

This is at least one of the things that makes change so hard. The foot soldiers who are most aware of what is needed and also most affected by it, are the least able to campaign for it because they're in the play.

Paul B said...

When it comes to classroom behaviors teachers have little to say about things like removal of chronic miscreants. Unless there is violence, drugs, or theft kids pretty much stick around.

Schools are measured on keeping kids, all kids, in front of a teacher. They get dinged for suspensions because they make the child miss seat time.

Lots of times that kid screaming under the desk is, believe it or not, not a bad kid. They might be suffering from pharmaceutical maladjustment. The meds don't always kick in on cue. You don't want to suspend for that (maybe wack a doc or parent).

Every time you send a child out of the room you're dinged for classroom mismanagement. Every time the school suspends, admin gets dinged for depressing seat time. Unfortunately these things are easy to measure and quantify.

There is no measurement for what happens to the rest of the kids in the room who have to put up with this BS.

SteveH said...

Having taught college math and computer science full-time for years in the 1980's, I understand some of the issues. There was nothing I could do to go back a few years and fix problems I saw in my algebra classes. However, We did spend a lot of time in department meetings making sure that the content and skills of one college class fed properly into another. This is basic common sense and it didn't take much time.


What I'm hearing is that K-12 schools just go through the motions of education. Perhaps, (especially in K-6) they don't have any solid idea of education (content and skills) to guide them. They just flounder from one fad to another.

I don't think it's about not having enough time or money to deal with these issues. I think it's more about conflicting agendas and the polarizing divide between the union and the administration.

It shouldn't be a big deal to have discussions about the tradeoffs of full-inclusion and about how to tell whether a child needs extra help or a big push. What Barry is saying is that schools are so screwed up that teachers just keep their heads low and do their jobs. However, schools tell us that math curricula like EM teach critical thinking and problem solving even though many teachers know that this isn't true. That would put teachers in a tough ethical position.

So, the answer to my question is that there is no way to change the circumstances. No solid ideas of education guide K-8 and teachers can't do anything about fixing problems even if they wanted to. There is no way to get schools to enforce mastery of the basics, something so simple that it should not be an issue.

I don't think it's quite that bad in our schools. I think that our main issue is the fuzzy educational ideas that are required to support full-inclusion in K-6. It's up to parents to do more work to make sure their kids keep up with the skills necessary to make it to the top tracks in middle school and high school. However, kids from high SES families still get to fifth grade not knowing the times table. Some teachers know exactly why this is happening, but they can't even say a word. My son's fifth grade math teacher had remediation sessions, but (as far as I know) never complained once about the situation, and then at the end of the year, sent home a letter declaring victory over critical thinking and problem solving.