kitchen table math, the sequel: junket

Saturday, October 2, 2010


The perennial issue of foreign language instruction in the early grades is alive once again in my district. I say "perennial" because, where foreign language instruction in the elementary grades is concerned, administrators are perennially against it while parents and interested bystanders are perennially for it.

The question of Mandarin keeps cropping up, too.

Looking for articles on edu-junkets to China, I found this:
Top San Francisco schools officials, who will consider expanding Mandarin language programs later this summer, quietly accepted a free trip to China recently to visit schools and meet with government officials who hope to persuade U.S. educators to expand Chinese curriculum.

Interim Superintendent Gwen Chan, five school board members and four principals made the unannounced trip from June 28 to July 4, spending time in Beijing and visiting schools across several provinces.

A staff member from the district's "multilingual programs department" also joined the entourage, which included about 400 schools officials from across the United States.

"This trip is not costing the school district any money," said Chan, whose first job in the district nearly 40 years ago was teaching Mandarin. "It is a goodwill and educational journey to promote Chinese immersion programs."

The Chinese government picked up the tab as part of its efforts to persuade U.S. schools to teach Mandarin, the official language of China.


The San Francisco contingent -- including board members Mar, Jill Wynns, Dan Kelly, Norman Yee and Eddie Chin -- said they found the trip inspirational.

"I feel it helps us understand a significant portion of our student body,'' said Mar.

Wynns said there was great value in seeing another society, "especially one from which so many of our students have come.''

The trip included excursions to the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square in addition to a speech by the Chinese minister of education in the Great Hall of the People.

Even though five elected school board members traveled together without a public announcement, Wynns said the trip did not violate California's open-meeting law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act because no official business was discussed.

Kelly put an even finer polish on the point:

"You could say it was a junket," he said. "Totally a junket. We did no real work at all."

China trip for top schools officials
- Jill Tucker, Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writers
Thursday, July 13, 2006

A: The point of junkets is to get junketeers to spend money. There is no free junket.

B: Open Meetings law applies to any gathering of a majority of the board. A special exception for junkets does not exist.


Catherine Johnson said...

Our superintendent has informed the board that she hopes to take a trip to China "at no cost to the district."

kcab said...

I don't know if people here (I'm in CT, central coast) are taking junkets to China but we're definitely getting the Chinese language instructors via some reduced-cost program offered by the Chinese govt. At least that means that the language is offered (though not in elementary).

SteveH said...

"...while parents and interested bystanders are perennially for it."

In theory (for K-6), until their kids keep learning the same colors, animals, and body parts year after year ... pronouncing them incorrectly, to boot. It's another example of low expectations.

lgm said...

Try asking a school official or board member why only certain students are taught a second language in elementary school, and follow up by asking why ALL students don't have that oppportunity.

Catherine Johnson said...

lgm - now there's an interesting question

since we don't have foreign language instruction in the early grades, I can't ask it

Actually, we do have it in grades 4 & 5, but the school set up the program to maximally undermine learning; then they cut back the already limited time allotted to foreign language instruction.

In any event, these days foreign language programs "teach the culture."

Not the language.

Catherine Johnson said...

The fact that elementary grades foreign language instruction is not actually foreign language instruction because apparent when the crash first hit. As I recall, other districts were ending their grade school foreign language instruction on grounds that it was more a cultural appreciation course than an actual foreign language course.

Catherine Johnson said...

My district, after being lobbied for 10 years by a group of parents, finally gave in and created courses in French and Spanish for kids in grades 4 and 5.

But they required all the kids to take both languages, one each semester, thus preventing any child from even approaching fluency.

A couple of years later, as I mentioned, they cut the amount of time allotted to the classes, too. So: you get only one semester to take French or Spanish, on a two-day-a-week schedule (I think it is); then the kids have to abandon the language they're (barely) learning to switch to a different language they will also barely learn.

Catherine Johnson said...

The district didn't want to teach foreign languages, and when they finally gave in they arranged the classes so that kids would not learn foreign languages.

It's really pretty staggering when you contemplate it.

Now we've hired another foreign language consultant (we already paid for one, whose recommendations were ignored) and set up a committee to look into foreign language instruction in the early grades all over again.

Many of us assume that the purpose of hiring the new consultant is to shut down what's left of the current program in grades 4 & 5.

Lisa said...

No elementary foreign language here. Last year they removed Home Ec and incorporated mandatory Spanish in 8th grade. For a whopping 9 weeks. Maybe enough time to learn those colors and week day names but not much else. Oh, and the teacher is the math teacher who evidently must have taken Spanish in high school I'm guessing.

lgm said...

Most districts offer ESL in elementary. Some offer content instruction in the native language along with learning English (2nd language), since students that know little or no English are included in NCLB testing & the content can be taught & tested in the native language.

It's been brought up here by the public that it is discrimination to offer some citizens' children instruction in a second language, while others who are capable are denied that opportunity. It has also been pointed out that the mandate of at least 1 full time ESL teacher per building means that there is a competent underutilized foreign language teacher on the premises of all the elementaries. If the ESL teacher can conduct math class in a nonEnglish language to a handful of children, she could include the rest of the class who would like to learn a second language.

Glen said...

We have three Chinese principals from Shanghai visiting our elementary school right now--a Chinese junket to Silicon Valley. I talked to one of them and mentioned the Chinese math texts I use as part of my afterschooling curriculum for my kids. She was very familiar with the books and said that they were too hard, that kids using those books in China had to work so hard their lives were miserable.

I'm sure she's right. There's a big difference between a challenging curriculum forced down your throat at a pace determined entirely by someone else's ambition for the collective vs. the same curriculum taken at a pace determined entirely by how quickly you, as an individual, understand it well enough to move on. The former is a death march; the latter, a challenging hike.

She said that too many Chinese kids' lives were miserable in school, hating math, and they were here to see how we taught math so that kids enjoyed it. They were on a pilgrimage from China, in other words, to learn the Tao of Everyday Mathematics.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't those Chinese principals be visiting a country whose students actually do well on Math? Why would they come to the US, which ranks close to the bottom on international assessments? Maybe they should visit Finland instead.

Glen said...

The Chinese principal I spoke to had some interesting comments on that. First of all, she said that we Americans overestimate the quality of Chinese high schools. She said that in her opinion, China's advantage was at the primary (elementary) level, which prepared a higher percentage of children for high school, but that for those Americans who were prepared for rigor in high school, American high schools were just as good as Chinese high schools.

She said that the reason for the advantage they had at the primary level was that teachers were trained as subject specialists. Their math teachers were trained to teach math, and that's all they taught; their science teachers learned to teach science, etc., while here, the same teacher was expected to be good at teaching everything, which she thought was a very unrealistic expectation.

But then she said that what she was really interested in was the fact that research [what research?] showed that Americans were much more interested in learning after leaving school than the Chinese were. Many Americans felt that ongoing learning was fun, while few Chinese felt that way after the trauma of their school experience.

In other words, she wasn't looking for the best 4th grade mathematicians in the world, but for the 4th grade classes that produced the most motivated lifelong learners in the world, and she seemed to feel that the US was a good place to look.

SteveH said...

"... but for the 4th grade classes that produced the most motivated lifelong learners in the world, and she seemed to feel that the US was a good place to look."

Bad conclusion.

What is a lifelong learner? I really dislike this term. It's used to justify all sorts of silly things. How is it defined and quantified? It's the same as saying that US schools are better because "research shows" that people in the US are more creative.

"[what research?]"


What she probably wants to know is how to reduce the "trauma" of their school system. Easy. Dumb it down. Actually, it's an interesting issue, but she won't find the answer looking at K-8 schools in the US. What she will find are low expectations where only the smartest (or those with help or "trauma" at home) come to high school prepared. There is also plenty of trauma for high school kids who come out of K-8 unprepared. They should do "research" on whether US high school dropouts are better lifelong learners than their graduates.

The real assumption is that trauma in learning (home or school) adversely affects lifelong learning. We parents know all about the fine line of pushing and expectations, but my motivation has nothing to do with lifelong learning. What an outsider might not see, however, is how rigor and trauma in K-8 gets translated from the school to the home. The schools don't solve the low expectation problem, parents do. One might look at how the pushing (home + school) is done in different cultures. Less can be more in a few cases, but in most cases, less is just less.

My son plays in piano competitions and I can see some of the differences in pushing. I should probably push more and some of the other parents (Asian and Eastern European) should probably push a lot less. The kids who succeed might look fine, but what about the rest? I understand that in China, there is a huge cultural emphasis on being number one. Lang Lang talks about it in his autobiography. Look at how many Chinese restaurants are named "Number One". Pushing versus fun is an interesting topic. My son's piano teacher (Japanese) once held his hand low and said that he was trying to have too much fun "down here". Then he raised his hand high and said that if he works really hard, he will have much more fun "up here". Does this imply too much pushing? Not necessarily.

If foreign educators expect to find the answers to these questions by looking at K-8 schools in the US, the deepest educational thoughts they will find are "trust the spiral" and hands-on learning.

Anonymous said...


I can't help thinking that coming to America to examine math teaching practices would be a lot like going to Somalia to learn how to run an effective government. There are so many countries that do much better at math than we do without pressuring their students too much. Finland and Canada are good examples.

I'd like to think that Americans are motivated lifelong learners because we love learning. Unfortunately, Americans often have to be lifelong learners because we have learned so little at the K-12 level. We're forever making up for those deficits in learning.

Glen said...

The Chinese principals came to investigate our school system generally, not our math teaching practices specifically. When I spoke with one of them, we spoke about the math aspect, because I brought it up, not because it was the central reason for their visit. Sorry I didn't make that clear.

They were also apparently very interested in seeing Chinese culture in America. Our Chinese-American principal had dragged me in to meet them, because I was a blond Chinese speaker whose sons also spoke some Chinese. My oldest son says that they later tracked him down at recess to discuss his Chinese language and to hear directly from him about his unusual math experience. I had worked out a deal with the school to get him excused from Everyday Math, both classwork and homework. He had to pass an EM bypass test, then I was allowed to replace EM with my own curriculum that borrowed from the Chinese curriculum that the Chinese principal had told me was too hard for most Chinese schools. (He works independently in class on materials I give him.)

Here was a Chinese-American principal working out a deal with a blond Chinese-speaking father to replace the standard American curriculum with his own home-brewed, partially-Chinese, alternative curriculum.... So much "Chineseness," yet so American, and so unlike China. This was apparently something they had wanted to see. They were also fascinated by my son's classmates, who were Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, half-Chinese/half-white, half-Chinese/half-Japanese, half-Chinese/half-Korean, half-Iranian/half-black, Punjabi, Tamil, half-Palestinian/half-Armenian, white, Mexican, Russian, and Vietnamese.

I hear they were also interested in the vans that pull up in front of the school every afternoon to whisk kids away to Chinese lessons and math classes taught in Chinese.

Whether the Chinese would have found Finland more interesting or useful, I couldn't say, but they've now returned to China and taken our principal back with them to show her around. I asked them to show our principal what Chinese 4th graders do in their math classes. I'm trying to get the camel's nose under the tent.