kitchen table math, the sequel: NOW on PBS

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I'm getting emailed press releases these days & thought I'd pass this one along:
I wanted to alert you to this weekend's episode of NOW on PBS this
Friday night looking squarely at public education reform. The big
question: How is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan going to spend $100
billion in stimulus money - almost twice the education budget -- to fix
our nation's schools?

During his seven years running Chicago's public schools, Duncan went
head to head with the teacher's union and skeptical parents by closing
down low-performing schools, getting rid of all the teachers,
principals, even the janitors, and reopening them with new staffs as
"turnaround schools." It's a drastic step, but the results have been
promising. On Friday, May 1 at 8:30 pm (check local listings), NOW
travels to Chicago to investigate the collateral damage of a
top-to-bottom school makeover, and to get a glimpse of what the future
of education might look like for the rest of the country.

"We have to be willing to experience a little bit of pain and
discomfort, but our children desperately need it and deserve it,"
Secretary Duncan tells NOW. "Just as we have to do it, unions have to
change, principals have to change, teachers have to change, parents have
to step up... business as usual is not going to get us there."

Do we need to gut our public schools in order to save them?

The NOW on PBS website at will feature this video online
immediately following broadcast. It will also feature a head-to-head
"issue clash" on the contentious subject of merit pay.

I think this focus will be of great interest to your readers and
audience, so please consider posting and placement in your newsletters,
blogs, tweets, and other communication avenues.

Thank you for your attention and consideration,


Joel Schwartzberg
Director of New Media

NOW on PBS...
On Television:
On the Internet:
On Facebook:
On Twitter:
On iTunes:


Anonymous said...

As well as leaving behind some teachers, will they also be allowed to, um, separate, the students into advanced, intermediate and basic tracks where the slower ones can take longer to master an abbreviated curriculum? I wish I could just teach setting up proportions, or percent increase and decrease, without having to move on to something new. Sure, throw in something light and interesting once in a while, but do some proportion problems every day, or do some ratio and percent problems every day until they get it. They may not be ready for "algebra by 8th", but they will end up KNOWING something, rather than knowing nothing and waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do.

I also wish they came to seventh grade really knowing how to add and multiply fractions, how to reduce fractions to simplest terms by cancelling out common factors, and how to change a fraction into a decimal by hand, using long division. I am sure they can't teach that in fifth and sixth grades because they must move on to something else.


lgm said...

Our district sorts the students failing state testing and/or the course after sixth grade and sends them to double period math for the rest of their career. The teachers then have the extra time to get in the elementary school concepts that were missed and are necessary for the strand. It's futile though, as they are teaching by algorithm memorization rather than conceptual understanding, and these are not the students with great memories for the multiple procedures necessary for passing the Regents.

SteveH said...

"I also wish they came to seventh grade really knowing how to add and multiply fractions,..."

Our schools gives kids a 6th grade math placement test that is a surprise to many kids and parents. It is a test of skills that comes at the end of 6 years of Everyday Math which allows teachers and kids to not worry about these skills.

Our middle school and high schools don't worry about whether they are doing a good job. They care only about placement. If some kids do well and the percentages don't drop from year to year, then there is no more evaluation.

If little Johnnie can't add fractions, they really don't stop to wonder whether Johnnie should be able to do that and if so, why not. In fifth grade, the school could identify some of these kids and offer extra help. They could try one-on-one tutoring and see first hand whether or not it's a gap or whether it's a bigger learning issue. There are ways to figure these things out.

What I still find amazing is that our 6th and 8th grade math placement tests are all about mastery of basic skills. They trash these skills in K-6, but surprise, they really do matter. The change happens when you go from teachers who only have a general teaching background to those who have to have certification in the area that they teach.

My son just finished the 8th grade placement test since he is taking algebra. They use the test for math placement in high school. It was a two-part, two hour test. The first one-hour part is 60 questions that covers everything from about fractions to solving inequality equations. You have no time to stop and think. The second hour has 10 word problems and graphing problems. There is no time for using creative problem solving here. You have to look at each problem and know what you're doing.

So, magically in about 6th grade, mastery does matter and sorry, there is no time anymore for you to spiral to get your mastery.

Educating students at all different levels of ability can be very difficult, but schools shouldn't compound the problem. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, if only they can get over their pedagogical fixations.

Cranberry said...

SteveH, maybe part of the problem is the transition from one school to another. I think that the fuzzy math and fuzzy writing people think that middle schools and high schools will adapt to their methods--after all, they're "the new new thing." Alas, the high schools, and colleges beyond that, do insist upon mastery. They have no interest in pretending that all things are possible. They know that a student who can't multiply fractions will not succeed in high school math.

I applaud the high schools and colleges for using placement tests. I wish parents would blame elementary schools for not preparing their children for high school.

SteveH said...

"I applaud the high schools and colleges for using placement tests."

I do too! It's just strange here. Our schools are split from K-4 and 5-8. Everyday Math goes through 6th grade and right in the middle of the last chance for mastery using Math Boxes, students get hit with the skill-based 6th grade tracking test.

I'm sure it's a big surprise for those kids who thought they were doing well in math. What do parents do? Do they demand that their kids be allowed in the top level math track? Do parents meekly accept the responsibility to make sure their kids succeed even though it's a problem with the curriculum?

"I wish parents would blame elementary schools for not preparing their children for high school."

Many parents I talk to don't seem to have a strong sense about what should happen in K-6. I would love to have parent-only meetings where we can compare notes and pass along knowledge. I've been trying to debrief some high school parents to see what's coming up next for my son, but there are not enough chances for that.

Allison said...

What does it mean to blame an elementary school? Is it like blaming Congress?

Time and again, we see that while people are mad at Congress, they still vote for their incumbent. The message is "oh, those OTHER people in Congress are bad, but my Congressman is good."

And time and again, we see the same thing in schools. Parents will gladly respond to some generic poll that "Schools are Terrible!" but not that THEIR school is. and even if there is a problem at their school, not THEIR child's teacher!

There are a few reasons. One is the need to defend one's own prior support for these policies and people-you have to believe they are good, because otherwise what kind of a jerk are you for voting for them/leaving your kid there?

The second reason is likeability. Most people gravitate toward likeable people, and they make irrational choices because of it. They like someone, so they support them--a nice, kind, warm, enthusiastic teacher who likes your kid is likeable. Are you really going to spend time blaming that person for your kid's poor education? When you like them? Fundamentally, it's the Bernie Madoff problem--we trust people we like, and we like people like us (which reinforces that we should be trusted, etc.) To diligently undermine that trust on purpose seems obscene.

The third reason is Steve's other point-you'd have to know that the school was to blame, and that would mean you'd have to have some way to measure the input vs. output and have a very good idea of what inputs and outputs SHOULD BE. Most people don't know until after the fact--too late! too late! and many probably don't even know then. They don't know what the expectations are for their own children, let alone what schooling is supposed to achieve. If they don't know if those expectations are reasonable, it's easy to blame the child.

Allison said...

Another piece of Steve's point that parents don't have clear expectations of what K-6 is supposed to achieve is that they are constantly getting contradictory info from the teachers, admins, etc. because the teachers, admins, etc. don't have any clear expectations either!

But just look at the style and types of possible schools out there: Montessori, Waldorf, Charlotte Mason, Reggio Emilia, Constructivism, Spiral education, direct instruction, etc. etc. etc. They are all in conflict with each other. Catherine made the point that the middle school model, learning communities model, educational specialists model, etc. are all in conflict too.

The schools themselves, and the teachers in them have no idea what they are trying to achieve, except that they will teach "the whole child", not just their elbow. And that all children will flourish at something--but what that is is left unsaid, too.

VickyS said...

This brings to mind a point I often make: that we have been reforming schools for at least a couple of decades. "No more business as usual!" promises the latest reformer. But there is no such thing as business as usual. Or, business as usual *is* just an annual scattershot of reforms, many of which reduce to the same junk. Sure, there are some exceptions (Kipp, Classical ed) but the school down your street is likely already a *product* of school reform. What good will more do?

Only a complete overhaul or dismantling of the current system has a chance to truly make a difference.

Back to Steve: what I fear for him is that the placement tests get replaced by "performance assessments," portfolios or the like. I'll never forget the statement on the Everyday Math website, now long gone, that confessed that EM students did not do well on some state tests but promised that they were working hard on getting those state tests "aligned" with EM, at which point we could expect the EM kids to do quite well, of course! Those elementary teachers in Steve's district could make much the same argument concerning the placement tests.

SteveH said...

"what I fear for him is that the placement tests get replaced by 'performance assessments,' portfolios or the like."

I see that in K-8 mostly. There is a progressive fuzziness in our high school with mandated state portfolios, but that's more of a nuisanse for the AP level students. The AP tests aren't perfect, but they at least keep high schools a little honest. Tests can work both ways.

I can also see a direct effect of how it's helped backwards to our middle school. AP calculus requires trig, which requires algebra II, which requires geometry in ninth grade. This all requires a solid algebra course in 8th grade. Our school finally got rid of CMP in 8th grade due to the reality of kids not being prepared for honors geometry and algebra II.

Therefore, this 8th grade algebra course requires a skill-based test that will be given in 6th grade to begin the tracking. This all happens outside of the world of state testing, which is geared towards low cutoff points. I see two realities going on here; one based on what the top level students need, and one based on everyone else. Schools can ignore the differences of students only for so long.

But what about the kids who aren't naturally smart or get help at home? There is nothing in the middle. There is no slower, but rigorous track in math or any other subject. There are few paths that offer a fast or rigorous approch to a vocation or technical school. Their alternate educational goal is some sort of poor community college piece of paper, or worse, flunking out of college with lots of student loans.

Apparently, our middle school has no issues with this split in educational realities. They see no issues with giving a skill-based math placement test in 6th grade. Perhaps that's because all of the 7th and 8th grade teachers are required to have ceertifications in the areas they teach. But for elementary school, the fuzzies dominate. They are not going to complain because they have exactly what they want.

I suspect that the 7th and 8th grade math teachers might like to tell the lower grade teachers to pay more attention to mastery, but that doesn't happen. They could point to the 6th grade placement test and have the school send out samples to all of the 4th grade parents, but that won't happen.

The happy, full-inclusion unreality of K-6 has to give way to the stark realities of college or real life pushing down from above. We've talked about this non-linear jump or change before. It used to happen at our schools between 8th and 9th grade, but reality has pushed it back to between 6th and 7th grades. It's not only math. All teachers decide that it's time to whip the kids into shape. They have to take charge of their own learning. However, they don't seem to realize that for the past 6 years the school has been setting these kids up for failure; out of the wading pool and into the deep end.

Anonymous said...

SteveH is right. Once we find out in 6th grade which children need help, and separate them, then we should not just teach them a lite version of what the other kids are learning. We should back up, and strengthen their basic skills so they can really learn the next next step.

"Algebra by 9th" is still possible for a lot of these kids, but only if the slower track is the mastery of what was missed, and not a watered-down version of what the faster track is learning (what lgm called algorithm memorization).