kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/25/09 - 11/1/09

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paul B on his short, happy career in politics

A long time ago I worked for a major computer manufacturer and lived in a very small town. The town was investigating their first computer purchase and I volunteered to be on the committee doing the investigating.

I managed to convince my company to donate every last bit of equipment just for the PR benefit but the deal fell apart after months of political warfare.

Long story short, the politicos could not agree on whose office would get the printer. It seems the analysis and critical thinking boiled down to this nugget...

The printer 'owner' would have all of the 'power' by virtue of seeing and distributing all the reports that it spit out. Absent an agreement on this nit, the whole deal went down and they continued without a computer system for years afterwards.

That was the beginning and end of my career in the world of politics.

Given what I am learning about the world of local school boards, I think these people were right.

The person who owns the printer owns the power.

What do you think?

More anon.

Joanne Jacobs on failing math & science


Curriculum for Democracy

I'm an unabashed fan of E.D Hirsch. Sol Stern does a tremendous job of summarizing Hirsh's contributions to the field of education in his article in the Autumn 2009 City Journal entitled E.D. Hirsh's Curriculum for Democracy. Stern follows Hirsh's academic path from chemistry student to Yale graduate school to English professor at the University of Virginia and finally his current status as a true education reformer. The article is worth reading in full. Here is what initially grabbed Hirsch's attention:
Though UVA’s admissions standards were as competitive as the Ivies’, the reading and writing skills of many incoming students were poor, sure to handicap them in their future academic work. In trying to figure out how to close this “literacy gap,” Hirsch conducted an experiment on reading comprehension, using two groups of college students. Members of the first group possessed broad background knowledge in subjects like history, geography, civics, the arts, and basic science; members of the second, often from disadvantaged homes, lacked such knowledge. The knowledgeable students, it turned out, could far more easily comprehend and analyze difficult college-level texts (both fiction and nonfiction) than their poorly informed brethren could. Hirsch had discovered “a way to measure the variations in reading skill attributable to variations in the relevant background knowledge of audiences.”

The education establish has criticized him as elitist for years, but that's baloney.
Far from being elitist, [Hirsch] insists, cultural literacy is the path to educational equality and full citizenship for the nation’s minority groups. “Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children,” Hirsch writes, and “the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents. That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

Mary Damer on Twitter


I've added a link on the sidebar, too, under "Direct Instruction."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

no parent hires a constructivist tutor

Just saying.

I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

Mary Damer on affluent suburban schools:
I agree about the combination of explicit instruction and high quality music lessons, field trips that don't eat into the already too short school time, and I would add foreign language or Latin instruction) enriching an explicit curriculum for students from poverty. With a higher proportion of effective explicit instruction in the early grades for children from poverty, the proportion of explicit instruction needed in higher grades would diminish after basic foundational skills were mastered.

As I read your comment, I have to chuckle, because I keep remembering an office mate of mine in an ed school who couldn't believe that I disagreed with his writing that poor children should have access to the same rich constructivist education that children had in the affluent suburb in which I was living. I tried to explain to him that affluent Midwestern districts had become so constructivist that at times more than a hundred parents were attending school board meetings because they wanted their children to learn "stuff" and stop wasting so much of their time in group-project oriented learning. The district’s experiential science and math, journaling, and silent reading had led to a dramatic decline in rigor and many parents were upset. Tutoring in the suburbs exploded exponentially as a more acceptable way to deal with what Milt Rosenberg in Chicago called the "dumbing down" of suburban education. It was incomprehensible to my office mate that I was sending my daughter to a blue-collar Catholic high school forty minutes away, given that I was a Unitarian, in order to get her a curriculum and teachers who expected grammatically correct writing, still assigned classic books, and had students still memorizing key information in content areas. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter went to Harvard and found that almost all of the Midwestern students were Asian and had parents who recognized the limitations of their American schools. Those parents described years of evenings teaching what hadn’t been taught during the day. I was disappointed to find out that my best attempts to get a “rich” education weren’t enough and that the science, math and classics that kids from prep schools and the best eastern schools had put them years ahead of her as a frosh at Harvard. In humanities, it’s much easier to catch up, but science and math – her science major entry switched quickly with that reality.

Once rigorous education diminished so dramatically during the surge of constructivism in the mid 80's in Midwestern suburbs, that when you discuss education for the "rich" you have to recognize you are talking almost exclusively about east coast education for the rich (and some west coast private schools). In the Midwest, as the exposure to great literature disappeared, it was replaced by making toothpick bridges, middle school popsicle stick castles, dropping eggs from spoons without breaking them, endless journal writing, and charting rollercoaster movement at amusement parks (after 2 kids and many neighbors having that experience anyone, anyone who thinks it's not a waste for anyone but the most scientifically minded students has their eyes closed to reality.) The bridges, castles, dropped eggs and roller coaster watching heralded the new creativity, rigor, and development of critical thinking skills. For the most part, what I observe in classrooms today reveals that affluent suburban education in 2009 remains essentially the same as that back then. The other day sitting in a typical affluent middle school, I observed a teacher reading to students, followed by students journaling, followed by cutting out and pasting faces on paper with students then finding synonyms in the books they were reading to write next to the pasted faces. Finally the two-hour language arts block was finished. I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

When I volunteered for the Obama campaign, it was interesting to be around so many 20-year-olds and hear them discuss how “cheated” they felt about their education. Many of these kids went to fine universities and came from “affluent” backgrounds attending schools in affluent suburbs. But they knew that should they be cornered by the Leno show, all the core knowledge that they didn’t know would be exposed. A few were surprised that we “older folks” so readily could add two-digit numbers without a calculator and preferred to do that when there were only a few numbers. Others painfully discussed how their lack of phonics learning to read made law school almost impossible when the “big” words flooded so much of the text. An older volunteer who works at the local branch of a prestigious national firm confided to me that they assume that all of their new young hires need remedial writing classes and they provide them. As affluent suburbs (at least in the Midwest) attempted to design stimulating, creative, experiential classes focused on developing critical thinking, they left the road and many students in the dust.

ktm reactions are here

inside the other black box

school board member Peter Mayer:
I remember sitting in my first executive session as a school board member, in 1999, and thinking to myself, “This is like getting into Fort Knox.”

I had been a general-interest journalist for some 25 years at that point, and had always had the hardest time cracking institutions that took care of children. They almost always denied journalists access, arguing that it was not in the best interests of the child.

Now, here I was, on “the inside,” on the school board, discussing intimate details about children, parents, teachers, aides, maintenance workers—and I was seeing what I had always suspected. The organization’s leaders were not so much protecting (or caring for or even educating) children as they were caught up trying to manage a bumbling and relatively incompetent bureaucracy.

I am not much more than an interested student of school board history. But my sense of things, after two stints on my local school board—for six months in 1999-2000 and since 2007 to today—is that school boards have been overtaken by the “educatocracy,” by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on the deck, but they’re not really steering the boat. Ask board members anywhere what their biggest problems are and they are likely to say: state and federal regulation. Mandates.

I recall a Nigerian immigrant who had several children in our district trying to explain to someone who was complaining about a school why America was so great. “Here,” he said in halting English, “if you don’t like something, you vote no.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, in fact, a no vote on a school budget didn’t really mean no. Because of state law, if voters rejected a school budget, all that happened was the district had to operate with the same budget as the previous year, plus inflation.

And if state and federal regulation ties one hand behind your back, the unions take care of the other by protecting teachers who really should be dismissed.

Then there’s the mind-numbing minutiae. At least twice a month, just before a school board meeting, I receive a packet from the superintendent. It contains the agenda—usually three to four pages long, each item numbered, with subcategories with numbers like 13.1.7—and sometimes hundreds of pages of documentation to go with them. At any given meeting, there also can be several dozen detailed resolutions.

It’s no wonder that “experts” have to be called in to explain it to us board members. “A superintendent’s primary job,” I was once told by one of them, “is to manage the board.” And that’s the problem. School boards have been taught impotence in the face of information, a problem that causes them to act—and fight—like children. I recall one evening being called in to a special meeting to approve $25 million in construction contracts. “I’d like to see the contracts,” I said. My colleagues, so lacking in confidence in their own responsibility, voted 6-1 notto see the contracts.

One year, I had a debate with a board member in a newspaper’s letters column on the question of whether the board should have a curriculum committee. He was certain that it was the school board’s only job to hire a superintendent and then sit back and let him or her run the district. The board shouldn’t be “meddling” with curriculum. It was a view shared by the five other board members, even after someone unearthed for me Board Policy #4200, which clearly stated the “board is committed to establishing and maintaining a coordinated curriculum management process.”


For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Schools Must Assert Power
by Peter Meyer
Education Wee
Vol. 29, Issue 07, Page s15

Peter Meyer is a former news editor for Life magazine and a contributing editor at Education Next. He is a member of the school board in the Hudson City School District in Hudson, N.Y.
A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
Hudson is a 2-hour drive from here.

Vocabulary Reduction, a Deliberate Dumbing Down

In Dolch's 1948 book, "Problems in Reading," he states on page 255:
Give children books suited to their abilities and most reading difficulties will be solved.
In Dolch's 1945 "A Manual for Remedial Reading," p. 428,
There is nowadays an evergrowing demand in all fields for textbooks that are easier to read. Teachers especially are making themselves heard in this demand. Publishing companies are rising to the occasion and are revising old books or issuing new books which have simpler reading matter. As soon as an easier book is adopted, many children become satisfactory readers who were classed as unsatisfactory before. Children who were serious remedial cases become less serious.
In my recent post about Dolch and the 4th grade slump, Mark Roulo had an excellent link to this article:

Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores by Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, Michael F. Wolfe Cornell University

I saw a great table years ago in one of the books I read showing exact numbers of unique words in schoolbooks over the years that correlated with the introduction of whole language, but cannot find it. The above link has better graphs, though, the source I had was just numbers!

Geralding E. Rodgers in her book “The History of Beginning Reading” (e-version available from Author House) has an entire chapter in this book called: "The Reduction of Vocabulary, Oversimplification of Syntax, And Banishing of True Phonics." The whole chapter (her whole book, actually) is worth reading, here are a few good quotes from pages 1047 - 1048:

The record of reading texts which were published after 1925 confirms that the push after 1925 was emphatically on first grade and primary reading, and on the enormous reduction of vocabulary in primary- grade reading books. Of the seventeen series Smith listed as post-1925 series, eight covered only the first three grades. As Smith was not the slightest bit embarrassed to make very clear, the size of the vocabulary lists in those books had dropped sharply after 1925. It is an astonishing fact that, by 1934 when her book first appeared in print, the reduction of vocabulary in primary-grade books of which she boasted had actually been sold to gullible government school administrators as an “improvement."

After 1921, the reduction of vocabulary had been largely based on Thorndike’s The Teacher’s Word Book, Teachers College Press, published in 1921, which provided the first guide to the ten thousand highest-frequency words. For the first time, with the use of that book, it was possible to reduce vocabulary systematically in reading texts through the third or fourth grades.

Complex syntax was also removed from materials, but very deliberately in the 1920’s, in the name of reducing “readability” levels. Without exposure to such complex syntax in reading materials to provide necessary practice in its use, the ability of American students to handle complex syntax has dropped. This is demonstrated by their weak written compositions.

On page 216, Smith referred to the sharp reduction of words in primers and first readers between 1922 and 1928, and the even greater reduction by 1931. In 1922, nine of twelve had vocabularies ranging from 377 up to 630. In 1931, none ranged that high. Instead, the highest of the seven was 333, and the lowest 274.

Palisadesk also had some excellent comments on my first Dolch post where she explained all the things that need to be taught explicitly for reading.

Webster's Speller followed by Parker's readers taught all of these steps. Phonics and spelling were explicitly taught, syllables were explicitly taught, and the readers had pronunciations and definitions of difficult words. His First Reader also breaks words up by syllables. On my Webster page, I explain how to use Webster's Speller and have links to Parker's Readers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I guess there's a reason why they call it compulsory


Targeting Differentiated Instruction

In the 2 years of participating in KTM, I have come to the conclusion that differentiated instruction is gravest of all of the myriad problems in K-12 today.

In a world where Paul B has one classroom of 7th graders whose current proximal development covers a 9 YEAR spread (from 3rd to 11th grade), where PalisadesK says her secondary school is in crisis because numbers of kids who are entering 9th grade don't even register as having 4th grade math, it seems clear that nothing can be fixed without grouping by ZPD/ability/whatever you want to call it.

Parents do not know that this is happening. They have no idea that all of that lip service about "teaching to students with stages of development in different learning styles" is meant to paper over 9 YEAR disparities, that children could be entering high school already 6 YEARS behind.

If parents--no, if people-- did know, I believe they would be in uproar. This may be the only place where the bulk of parents and nonparents would agree.

So how can we crack this nut? It isn't top down; there is no chance of changing the essentially mandated differentiated instruction from the top of the ed school chain, or from the top of the superintendent's chains in nearly any districts. There are many many forces leading to differentiated instruction in order to create "inclusion", "diversity" and a whole bunch of other feel-good social goals from the top. The bigger powers that be, politicos at the state level and the like probably also have no idea how much of crisis this is, because again, they don't see what's happening in an individual classroom. They know only about the means and medians of achievement gap; they don't know that that achievement gap translates into more than half a decade of dispersion in a 7th grade classroom.

The only chance that I see is to crack it open by going directly to the people.

A documentary that interviewed actual middle school teachers, who would speak honestly about the disparity of skill/ability/proximal development in their individual rooms (NOT at the school level, or district level, but IN THEIR ROOMS), that showed the desperation of good teachers trying to teach curricula across a 3, 5, 7, year gap, might be huge.

Especially if the documentary could show it across the country: a national problem in EVERY STATE. Schools where 20k per pupil spending by the district and those with 8k, etc.

The documentary should be done by some creative, hip, young film maker, not a policy wonk, who could get teachers telling the story themselves, not using statistics or analysis of data, viewable on the web, or in short bursts (or given to Andrew Breitbart.)

I don't mean to imply that ending differentiated instruction will suddenly bring 7th graders 5 years up in a year. But none of those problems can possibly be solved inside the group delusion that is the differentiated instruction classroom. Yes, bad curricula will still need fixing. But you can't make Singapore Math 7A work in Paul's classroom, either.

Well, what do you all think?

extremely short notice: precision teaching conference this weekend

I am desperate to go to this conference:

International Precision Teaching Conference
2009 Conference Program
The Standard Celeration Society Presents
Precision Teaching and Science:
Candles in the Dark
The 22nd Annual International Precision Teaching Conference

October 29-31, 2009
Hosted by Penn State University
Nittany Lion Inn
University Park, PA 160802-3109

There are a lot of sessions on teaching people with autism, but given the project I'm working on now, I'm particularly interested in is this session:

Using the SCC to Measure Changes in Ourselves

conference program (pdf file)

There's a sample chart in the program - worth studying.



Yahoo Maps says 4 hr 23 min drive time. That's about 3 hours 53 min more Behind the Wheel Spanish than I can bear in one sitting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mary Damer at Bridging Differences

Must walk the dogs before daylight is gone - will read Mary's comments when I return.

up, down, up

Every time I try to describe what life has been like since my mom's fall on August 12, the words 'roller coaster' pop into my head.

"It's been a roller coaster."

I haven't put up a post saying it's been a roller coaster, however, because It's been a roller coaster is fantastically clich├ęd - and seems oddly discordant under the circumstances.

Turns out it's not:
Patients with end-stage heart failure* have a trajectory of illness characterized by an overall gradual decline in function punctuated by periods of symptom exacerbation followed by a return nearly to their baseline. These exacerbations are not predictable.

Trajectory of End-Stage Heart Failure | Nathan E. Goldstein and Joanne Lynn
You can say that again.

Trajectory of End-Stage Heart Failure
Nathan E. Goldstein and Joanne Lynn
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
winter 2006 | volume 49 | number 1
p. 12

* I don't know what stage my mother is in.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two book talks in Western New England

I'll be giving two talks about "Raising a Left-Brain Child" this week:

On Tuesday, 10/27, at 7:00 PM in Pittsfield, Mass (Chapters Bookstore).

On Wednesday, 10/28 at 7:00 PM in Manchester, Vermont (Northshire Books).

Hoping for lively discussions, I'd love to spread the word to anyone in the area who has a shy and/or unsocial and/or socially awkward and/or analytical and/or mathematically inclined child... or who works in the field of education!