kitchen table math, the sequel

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hello KTM Community
My family and I are starting to attend high school open houses with our 7th grade daughter. We are mostly looking at private schools in SW CT, we went to Chase Collge Preparatory last week. I will be looking at our public high school (Monroe, CT) as well as the local Catholic High School.

After reading KTM for all these years, I feel very confident in evaluating an elementary program but I find myself at a loss in evaluation criteria for a high school.
Does the community have any advice on what criteria we should be looking at?
Thanks so much-
Dee Hodson


Crimson Wife said...

Some things I would be looking at:

-Are college-type research papers required in history & literature classes? I was shocked at how many of my Stanford classmates had never had to write a real term paper in their high schools.

-Do the foreign language classes read literature in the original? We read Virgil's "The Aeneid" in my 12th grade Latin course and Voltaire's "Candide" in my 12th grade French course. My DH's alma mater. by contrast, never included any literature study in his German classes.

-Do the AP science courses have a lab component? Sounds obvious, but some of my college classmates apparently had AP-level science classes that were exclusively lectures.

PhysicistDave said...


Over a decade ago, many US high schools (apparently the majority, including very many “highly-ranked” schools) dumped real geometry – i.e., geometry taught using the axiomatic method which goes back to Euclid: axioms/postulates, theorems, proofs (see ).

Many mathematicians would claim you have not really started math until you learn the axiomatic method – in a very real sense, these schools have simply decided not to teach math in high school.

So, I’d check that out. By the way, it’s not enough to simply ask school officials; rather, you have to actually spend some time looking at the geometry text. Some schools *claim* to teach the axiomatic method, but this turns out to mean that the text has one chapter that *discusses* the axiomatic method and proves two or three theorems.

That’s not enough. Kids should spend the bulk of the year reading and understanding proofs in the book and proving theorems on their own. Geometry should be taught as an integrated system, so that students can see how a handful of axioms results in a huge number of surprising, useful results.

The axiomatic method is our great inheritance from the ancient Greeks. To throw it out is a crime against civilization.


John said...

I am contemplating public vs private school for my daughter. She is currently 41/2. Our public school system is highly rated in Ohio as Excellent with distinction. Composite Act scores 24.4, SAT Reading 551, SAT Math 592 and SAT writing 532. However, the curriculum in elementary school appears rather weak to me: New Phonics in K, Touchphonics in 1st, Everyday Math, Sitton spelling, Write One and The Write Source. Newbridge Science and Harcourt Science later.

The private school I am considering uses Riggs for phonics and spelling, Core Knowledge for their literature, history and science. Saxon for Math.

Am puzzled by the weak public school curriculum but their good results. They have a very detailed each grade level items to know that seem independent of the individual textbooks.

Not sure how to post to the blog, but any comments for those who have information about what the public school is using vs the private school curriculum I'd be interested in your thoughts?

Thanks. MelissaO

Allison said...

I'd ask what your objective is of a high school for your daughter.

Is it to get into a top 10 university in the US to study math, science, or engineering?

Is it to get into a highly touted liberal arts college? Is it to get her into college at all?

Is it to complete a well rounded classical education because you know she won't get that at any college she attends?

If your daughter's goal is physics at Yale, find out how many kids they've sent to Yale in the sciences, and how those kids have fared. If the goal is a classical education, find out who has gone onto Hillsdale or Claremont, etc. If the goal is to be happy, walk around and see if the students are happy.

If the school says its goal is to teach independent thought and critical thinking, my question is: TO WHAT END? If the answer is "in order to find the truth", then that says they know there is truth. If they don't know what the end is, that's a problem. If they don't believe in the truth, then everything else about their goals will fall apart because their mission is already lost.

I'd ask what their view is of high school students. Do they view them as needing direct, explicit instruction in things like study skills, time organization? Or have they decided that "the child needs to step up and take responsibility for her own learning" ? If the latter, it translates to "we are not going to help, and we aren't going to tell you that your child needs help either".

Does the school ridicule "helicopter parenting"? Same issue: then in my view, they are undermining parental authority at the time that the children are most vulnerable.

In terms of specific criteria, I agree with CrimsonWife whole heartedly. Additionally, look for schools that find a way to participate in the science fair (and that send their kids on to high levels of the science fairs), debate, academic decathlon, quiz bowl, model UN. These are usually extra curricular pursuits, but in great schools they are part of the curriculum, too.

Get a reading list for each year's literature. Are they reading books you've never heard of, by authors you've never heard of? Or worse, are they reading things you know are titillating rather than meaningful? Are they reading Dostoevsky, Chekov, Eliot, Dumas, Bronte, Orwell ever? never?

I'd ask for a list of textbooks used in the courses. Are they willing to give the list to you? Do they use texts?

I'd ask if they have a library. ( is a nice warning sign of what I'd avoid...)

Allison said...


Here in St. Paul, some of the public elementary schools are highly regarded. But when you crack the egg and look at the NCLB (no child left behind) data, you find that those highly regarded schools all have the same overall trend as the rest of the schools:

white kids are above AYP (adequate yearly progress, in nclb speak), asian (mostly Hmong) kids aren't, African (somali) kids aren't, african-american kids aren't, hispanic kids aren't. High SES kids are above AYP, low aren't. All that changes at the "Great" schools are the percentages of each demographic group.

Or in other words, the data is consistent with the hypothesis that schools teach NOTHING, and parents do it all. The 1 or 2 income white parents can do more than the Somali or Hmong refugees can, and that's where the learning is taking place.

Your public schools may have similar hidden variables. Maybe the kids are being afterschooled in Kumon or Huntington or retaught by their parents, and the school proudly claims they are the ones teaching math and reading.

Cranberry said...

Are you limiting your search to day schools, or are you willing to look at boarding schools? Some of the most expensive boarding schools do have financial aid available for students--and the family income levels can be much higher than you'd expect. (Check out some of the threads at College Confidential's Prep School Admissions board for more information.)

I'd ask about the writing expectations for each grade level. It seems standard, in the prep schools I've investigated, to spend the first year (or two!) working on grammar and the basics of writing well. What sort of written work does the school expect a student to produce in Junior or Senior year? Ask for the length of the research papers. Statements such as, "oh, we have such a wonderful writing program!" aren't sufficient.

What sort of an atmosphere do you want? A small, single sex school will have a different feel than a large, coed school. There's no best choice, it's only what you're comfortable with.

I would look for a school which could offer four years of lab science, four years of math and foreign language, and had the extracurricular activities which my child enjoys. I'd look for a school which is flexible about placement. If my child is placed in a math class which isn't challenging enough for him, what would they do? I'd want to meet some of their seniors. These are the children who've been there for four years, and they should be able to answer your questions about the school.

Cranberry said...

MelissaO, you might want to research your public school's enrollment numbers. Do the grade sizes take a jump in 9th grade? That could mean an inflow of kids from private school, joining an excellent public high school. Conversely, comparing your census data to school enrollment could give you an idea if many parents choose to leave the system for a time.

SteveH said...

For high school, a simple thing to check is whether they offer AP, IB, or both. I like the a la carte approach of AP, but some really like the prix fixe approach of IB. For IB, check to see what it involves. My niece is finishing up an IB program (she loves it), but it leaves her little room for electives and anything else. She quit the swim team because she didn't have enough time for studying.

For AP, check to see which ones they offer and how often they are taught. Ask how many kids are in each class and for the AP test results.

Look at the sports, clubs and activities. Each school has it's strengths. Our high school is good for kids who want to focus on music. The chorus sang at Carnegie Hall last year and the band went to Europe the previous summer. However, if you are interested in math competitions, go somewhere else. I like larger schools because they offer more opportunities and they get concentrations of better students. Small schools (especially private schools) often have to force kids to do sports and music just to get enough warm bodies.

Private schools seem special, but they are often small and can't separate kids by ability. A very elite boarding school in our area has 10% openings for local day students. The competition is great for those slots and a friend of mine who teaches there says that it's easy to pick out the day students. He said (on the side) that in a larger public school, you probably get a better group of kids in an AP class. At the private school, they can't be so selective. The misconception is that all of the kids at that school are much better than average. That isn't true. Just ask whether children of employees get free or reduced tuition.

However, the big advantage of many private schools is that they won't let any student fall through the cracks, and they work really hard to get the students into the best colleges. Most are not sink or swim schools.

However, when my wife and I took our son out of private school in 6th grade (it went to 8th grade and parents were already beginning to worry about which tony prep school their child would go to), we decided that we could do the job of crack filling and college preparation ourselves. This would be quite different if our public high school didn't meet some sort of minimum expectations or if some school really seemed ($25,000+++) worth it.

Anonymous said...

I recommend checking the levels of foreign languages offered and how it matches with your daughter's current school offerings. In some areas, the public schools offer first and second year languages in 7th and 8th, but the private schools do not. We discovered that one of the private schools offered 4 years of Spanish, but it was 1-4and our son was taking 2 in 8th grade. He went to the public school and took 3,4,APlanguage and AP lit. I've seen the same issue in math; some schools don't offer algebra and geometry until high school.

I also second the suggestion to ask what KINDS of writing they do, both in English and in history. How does their science sequence align with the math one?

Anonymous said...

How many kids are going to Kumon or other tutoring and for what reasons? (remediation, teaching real math/grammar/phonics etc/acceleration) I doubt that the schools will give that info, but I imagine that Kumon and other tutoring organizations will have a pretty good idea. I've read that some areas with great test scores have at least 50% of kids in outside tutoring, to make up for real content the schools aren't teaching.

Cranberry said...

Liz Ditz wrote a series of posts about parents investigating private schools. Here's the last post in the series, with links to the previous posts:

If you find a school which interests you, I would recommend trying to meet families who send children to that school. Don't base your decision on the prospective families who attend admissions events. If you find that families of current students share similar values, and place a similar emphasis upon education, that's a good sign.

Anonymous said...

Sitton spelling is the antithesis of what a spelling program should be. It has the children memorize the spelling of "high frequency" words, and calls it good. The workbooks are scattershot. Today they'll be working on possessives, tomorrow they'll be working on 'ou'. There is no rhyme or reason to it, and it has nothing to do with the spelling words for the week. If you do decide on public school, plan on teaching phonics based spelling at home.

Anonymous said...

Allison and Crimson Wife and others:
Have public schools changed significantly since about 1980? My small public high school had most of the elements that you mention: lots of college-type papers, especially in 11th and 12 grade, The Aeneid in Latin class, Chekhov and Orwell in "English" class (along with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hardy,Albee, Twain, and Hawthorne) and all of our science classes, 9-12, had labs. I do not recall doing any "naval gazing" writing assignments at all. (But I do know that my Mom had to fight the school board to get a history course into the curriculum that was NOT American history, so European History was also available by the time I got to H.S.)
Was a school like that unusual and those days, and is it even more unusual today?

Allison said...

I don't know about 1980.

I was in high school from 1985 to 1989 in San Diego, at University of San Diego HS, which was college prep (it claimed). It had honors and AP classes. I took AP every time it was offered, and honors every time it was offered in all subjects.

I had no college type papers. NONE. one 10th grade term paper on a filmmaker. We had no Latin at my school. I didn't read Iliad or Aeneid in any language. No Chekhov, no Orwell. No Hemingway. No Albee or Twain. No Bronte or Eliot. We read only the Scarlet Letter and Great Gatsby for Hawthorne and Fitz. We read a total of 5 Shakespeare plays in 4 years.

The only writing assignments were 5 paragraph essays to conform to the AP tests. the *only*. We had 2 terms of western civ, from Sumer to WWII. We had 1 term of "Contemporary World events", 1 year of American History. No european history. 1 term of government. No rhetoric. No grammar after 9th grade.

It's only gotten worse since 1989.

CassyT said...

Hmm, I was in high school 1980-1984 in MN, a pretty high quality ed state. I took both a college level writing lab as well as newspaper writing and speech. I can't remember a navel gazing assignment or diorama since 3rd grade. In 7th -9th grade, I took Independent Studies (& IS Honors) Social Sciences, which basically consisted of writing research papers.

Our HS school had a required semester of either African, European or Asian studies along with a semester of western civ or something like that. I had Bio 1 & 2, Chem & Physics, and math through Calculus but I don't recall ever hearing about an AP class. Students just tested & klep-ed out of college courses.

I guess it has gotten much worse. My son has made 2 posters already since August in his IB level freshman courses. Today he is presenting (with his group, natch) on the hero archetype as seen in the Matrix 1 movie. They even made a computer with green numbers on the screen for a prop, because you have to have a visual aid(!).