kitchen table math, the sequel: 1/17/10 - 1/24/10

Thursday, January 21, 2010

revolutionaries, architects and education systems

Do people at ed schools study the history of educations systems and paradigms, since they study the philosophy of education so much? It's just kind of amazing when you look into it, how much the course of education for so many has been steered by so few. Some people here have made hints to it before, but I discovered an article that made more intrigued.
Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant's 1959 book-length essay, The Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a "revolution" engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, in which "one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary." Against School (Harper Magazine), John Gatto.

Gatto, the author of The Underground History of American Education, is not against education, though his view of school (as in the typical public school) is pretty extreme. He is against school the institution the compliance factory, the social engineering tool of architects attempting to construct society according to their vision. If Gatto's metaphor sounds pretty extreme, the idea isn't very new -- in his article he quotes 1924 satirists lamenting the anti-intellectualness of public schooling. The public has been fairly exposed to it since Pink Floyd's Another Brick In the Wall; the song isn't the revenge of a dropout-turned-musician. PF was composed of fairly good students -- competitive students of architecture and art -- yet they too, were "against School".
Some of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell's inspirations for their dystopic novels came from School. Probably for good reason.

There is often talk with this "reform vs. traditionalist" rhetoric as though it were that simple. What tradition, anyway? Has there ever been a golden age of education? I argue not really. The more you investigate the history of school (school anywhere!), the more it seems like the pages out of the history book of Latin America: revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups and counter-coups.

Of course, I don't totally agree with Gatto's picture, though I suppose he simplified the history for rhetorical purposes. If the political spectrum is to be brought into it, public education was a strange alliance of progressive and conservative (in the strictest sense of the word), bringing forth a system that was both radical yet reactionary. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Progressive activists pushed for public education of course, but reactionaries, were faced with the era of populism: ever-increasing mass literacy rates, a politically-awakened population and all of the things that come with small-d democracy.

I am reminded of the one time that my high school world history teacher suddenly asked us -- quite randomly -- if we knew the driving force for why public education was first implemented. Most of us replied with progressive explanations. His answer: factory owners were responsible for the explosion of public education, not the progressives. "Public education wasn't created to educate citizens. It was to train workers so they could work in factories." For a while, I took this as just another fact of history, but it took quite a bit of time for me to realise what he was getting at.

In a paradoxical way, the radical progressives were so ambitious and radical, they unwittingly played into the reactionaries' own hands. School wasn't just to be the place for academic lessons -- it was to be a tool of social engineering to create a more progressive society, a free and enlightened populace and unrestricted flow of ideas. For the reactionaries -- why not social engineering as well? You could also create a more manageable populace this way: disciplined, differentiated, divided, docile. What is "reform education," then? It is an attempt to reverse this early coup d'éducation and restore the original progressive objectives, like Sun Yat-Sen attempting to reverse the coup of Yuan Shikai after he had taken control of the First Chinese Republic. Perhaps not very well -- the reformers are not only divided, they have saboteurs within their ranks, much like the warlords who diverted Sun Yat-Sen's restoration objective.

Which results in the educational mess you might see in your child's classroom today. All of these paradigms and plays for power have been fought by comparatively few compared to the how many people these battles affect. Revolutions? What revolutions? Who knew there could be so much dirty politics involved in your child's education? But veteran parents and veteran teachers can easily attest to how much entrenched power play goes on, of course. Toss teachers' unions and booming education companies and you get a combat theatre!

This isn't merely about the woes of American education. I have been a student of both an American high school and a Singaporean secondary school and must say I found major faults with both experiences. Oh let me say -- despite the good teachers I found in both schools -- I hated high school. In contrast, in my current school -- there are no politics over educational paradigms or standardised assessments, thank goodness. More or less, professors have a free arm to run their class; student feedback is one of "checks" in the system. No rubrics, no standardised professor reports, except of the kind they might submit to Nature. But I hear at many colleges, the edupolitical battlefield is slowly creeping into the picture. It certainly exists in community colleges; I can attest to its presence in the local university I dual-enrolled in.

It is fascinating to explore how certain educational paradigms spread worldwide. There is a certain paradigm for example, that you might find to be common among "Asian tiger" nations like Japan, South Korea, The Republic of China on Taiwan, Singapore, etc. The nationalist movements of countries under colonial or imperial influence are partially responsible for spreading them. China is an interesting case with interesting parallels. The imperial examination system -- very reactionary and conservative, arguably quite anti-intellectual -- was overhauled by a young Guangxu emperor of the reformist faction. The only way China was to progress in the world, of course, if the countless "scholars" and "officials" produced by the system knew anything about math, science, and industry and not merely Confucian rhetoric.

Young Guangxu had good intentions, but alas, he was no Queen Elizabeth and he found himself outmanoeuvred by his more politically-savvy opponents at court. One of the consequences of this drastic reform was the sudden dismissal of countless officials and bureaucrats deemed "useless" by the Guangxu emperor, their removal of power, loss of salary (no pension), etc. After all, the Qing government was facing a major budget crisis. Endemic corruption, sinecures and general parasitism were placing a major strain on Qing resources. Alas, this made the Guangxu emperor quite unpopular among the "old school" (literally) bureaucracy and support conservative Empress Dowager Cixi, who was planning a military coup. Guangxu in desperation turned to Yuan Shikai, commander of the modernised Beiyang New Army. Yuan Shikai had carried out major institutional and technological reforms with his branch of the military -- surely he backed Guangxu's reformation plans, right? Wrong. Yuan Shikai realised supporting Guangxu was too risky: he betrayed Guangxu, who was arrested and deposed from power. Cixi effectively reversed most of Guangxu's reforms.

Young Guangxus -- parents, teachers, administrators alike -- beware. The sad fact of life is that it takes political savvy to be a reformer.

It turns out Yuan Shikai eventually betrayed Cixi's faction too, allying himself with the Tongmenghui republicans, a hodgepodge coalition of various revolutionary factions. Many members were young idealists educated in the West -- France, Germany, England, the US. Oh merry that this coincided with the new progressive education movement! The republicans abolished the imperial examination system and copied the new Western trends, including unwittingly some of its reactionary paradigms. Many new members of the government were only republican in name only; provincial governors or military commanders of a different generation than the students, they had allied themselves with the republicans during the Revolution but did not necessarily have their same aims. Ah! School! What a valuable political tool anywhere.

Yuan Shikai then betrayed the republicans and then exerted his own Machiavellian influence on China's education system. The education system split into two when the Communists took the mainland of course, but once again, a strange mix of radical and reactionary across the straits. Japan and Korea's education system have their own versions of the education story, especially since Japan was under the influence of militarism even as it carried out educational reformations in the 19th century. All engineered by very few people.

The architect of Singapore's modern education system as we know it was a People's Action Party official called Goh Keng Swee. (He was also responsible for much of Singapore's economic development.) Was he progressive? Conservative? PAP politics takes a mouthful to explain. Goh was interested in social welfare as an undergraduate. His graduate studies were in the London School of Economics. He returned to Singapore at a time of great social upheaval and aligned himself with such university buddies as Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye, joined the fledgling PAP, and following their win in the elections, became Minister of Finance. The PAP was a centre-left party and quite revolutionary in nature -- it was a dark horse upstart party at the time. In part, the PAP rode to power on the back of its communist faction.

One thing that is particularly interesting is how the PAP inherited its power structure from the Leninist tradition: it still has a secretive and selective cadre system, which still serves as the "inner guard" of the party. It still has a Politburo (since renamed), a Central Executive Committee, and all the other power institutions you might find in a normal Communist Party. It's quite peculiar because with time, the PAP swung steadily towards the right and eventually became anticommunist. (The paradox is not unprecedented: the Kuomintang Nationalists also have a Leninist structure because of an initial Soviet-KMT alliance in the early 1920s.) The cracks in the paradoxical PAP opened up in 1961: the communist faction fought with Goh Keng Swee, Lee Kuan Yew and other moderate party leaders, giving Singapore an electoral drama it has not since seen for almost fifty years. The PAP had its own right-wing faction -- but one suspects they came to an internal compromise with moderate leaders. This transition was very silent, because LKY, a great orator, opponent of sedition laws and a passionate supporter of freedom of speech for the sake of something like "principle" in the 1960s, appears to reverse his position throughout the 1970s, turning very pragmatist until he is found justifying sedition laws and the regulation of political dissent in the 1980s. The radical had become the reactionary.

What of the impact on the education system? The education system has an uncanny bearing to the politics of the time. Singapore's education story is a little more complex than the others because of the division of the schooling into Chinese schools and English schools (which were more prestigious), and there was a struggle between the Chinese-language proponents and the English-language proponents too, mirroring the split between the Chinese-educated communists and the English-educated moderates educated in London. (The moderate-right divide is more mysterious, because the right-wing never broke with the Politburo leaders publicly.) In a way, it too is a mix of radical and reactionary. Goh Keng Swee, under influence from both left-wing and right-wing ideas, divided the Singapore education system into "streams," in a system more complicated than currently is today. One of the explicit aims of the Singapore education system was to train workers for Singapore's fledgling industrialisation. Essentially, there were streams devoted to that -- at the secondary school level it is seen today with such designations as Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic). The Express stream can be analysed as a stream to produce a bureaucratic, professional and managerial class. Finally, a Special stream to produce Singapore's next generation of leaders, e.g. party members. All very clean, orderly and disciplined -- like a factory.

Goh wasn't the only architect: experts were recruited from all over the world. Experts from countries such as Japan, West Germany, Israel and the Soviet Union joined the Singapore development project. Many features of the Soviet education system can still be seen in the Singapore education system; our HDB public housing programme was asssisted by Soviet experts, since they had the most experience in constructing affordable public housing and the West generally failed at such programmes.

In a way, these architects were extremely brilliant people. The bar model used for primary school math in Singapore was created by a single individual (not GKS however). Goh was one of the experts who chose the right economic path for Singapore, promoting economic and social development while other developing nations suffered under planned economics and property seizures. Buyers of Singapore Math books know that Singapore's education system has been successful, in a way. But I must lament his vision: such is the problem with having a few architects design entire education systems. Having set forth to write about an ideal education system, I suppose it's not a bad thing to first write a tangent about lessons from past attempts at designing education.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Paul Attewell's Winner-Take-All schools in bullet points


I don't think the article is available online any more. Let me know if you'd like me to email you a copy.

cijohn @

Rudbeckia Hirta on top-name colleges

I work with gifted high school students, and I can attest to the fierce competition for the top schools. One of the students I have worked with applied early to a well-known top tier college and was not accepted. This student had an SAT score over 2300, had an A in every single course (and they were all honors or AP except for German), and had all fives on AP exams in several social and physical sciences in 9-11 grades (including Calc BC as a junior), impressive performance in national competitions (spelling bee, science bowl, etc.), and had performed research with a professor at a local university.

This is typical of the applicants to your most prestigious name-brand colleges.

On the other hand, the university where I teach will accept just about anyone with a pulse. I run into a lot of students whose SAT scores are alarmingly low and who had two-point-something GPAs in high school. You can get a damn good education here -- if you choose your degree program and courses well.

mom of 4 on high school & college admissions

The other issue to check is whether the school/district uses a weighted grading scheme. If honors and/or AP courses are weighted, then they have a big impact on class rank and that is important. Some of my kids attended schools where a 3.0 average (with no honors or APs) was in the lower half of the class because the top kids took ALL academic classes at honors level or better. The guidance counselors told incoming freshmen that no one took more than one or two honors classes at a time, which was blatantly false. The very top also took 8-10 AP classes (all of which had honors prerequisites), so they affected the junior GPA. Also, if the school profile (which is sent to colleges with all transcripts, which include GPA and class rank) indicates that APs are offered, not taking them usually hurts. I'd say to take every possible period of REAL classes unless there's a real need for a study hall (like a swimmer/gymnast etc who trains 5 hours a day).

It is also a plus to have significant extracurriculars, especially with leadership. One or two serious commitments with leadership is better than light involvement with a long list of things, in my experience. A lot depends on the high school/community - how big, how competitive, urban/rural/suburban, etc. Of course, what kind of college is planned has a huge impact. I remember an info session (many years ago) for out-of-staters at UNC Chapel Hill where a National Merit Semi-finalist with a 4.0 GPA was told (publicly, no less) that she had no chance of admittance because she had no APs. The various college guides can be very helpful in identifying characteristics of admits.

My kids attended 4 very competitive to highly competitive high schools in three states and their experience leads me to recommend that the guidance counselor is useless until proven otherwise (see comment above). I have never met one that seemed to have much interest in or knowledge of academics; their interests were all social/emotional.

If your block schedule means that a year's course is done in one semester (with double periods), the issue of forgetting previous material can be an issue, especially in math and foreign languages. He also did extra reading in history because he didn't think they really covered a full year. Fortunately, we moved after two years.

Also, it is not necessary to take and AP course in order to take the test; just get a study guide and whatever other materials look helpful.

steering & rowing: make all schools charters

Lynn G put me onto a terrific book: The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson. Osborne and Hutchinson say governments should budget for outcomes instead of doing what governments normally do, which is to assume that next year's budget will be this year's budget plus. Next year's budget plus is called baseline budgeting.

As to how a government can go about budgeting for outcomes and make it work, they advocate separating "steering" from "rowing":
Politicians love to merge organizations, because it looks like they're taking action to save money. But simply moving boxes on an organizational chart can actually make matters worse, increasing costs while sowing confusion that hampers performance. A much more powerful alternative is to consolidate funding streams and policy authority into "steering" organizations that can purchase results from any "rowing" organizations -- public or private -- that can best produce them.

Budgeting for Outcomes by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson
"... focus on steering, not rowing – making policy and setting direction rather than producing services" (Osborne 1999)

separating steering from rowing in public schools

Osborne and Hutchinson:
Consider public education. A school board is a steering organization, but in the consolidated model we developed in the twentieth century, the board and district own virtually all the schools and employ virtually all the employees, from teachers and aides to custodians and bus drivers. The same organization--the school district--is responsible for both steering and rowing.

We have already discussed some of the problems this creates. Employees with a vested interest have the power to block changes that could help children. With all their employment contracts, regulations, sunk costs, and infrastructure, districts find it impossible to change their offerings fast enough to keep up with what their customers want and need. And those who should steer--board members and superintendents--find their energies sucked into the job of employing people and managing buildings, rather than ensuring student achievement.

A new survey of 100 public school superintendents in large urban districts illustrates these problems. Most of these superintendents, it reports, feel "the job is well-nigh impossible." Their role as employers continually overwhelms their role as purchasers of results. In large cities, school districts are among the largest employers, and as the report makes clear:

Control of the jobs is highly coveted and is never ceded lightly; the jobs themselves become central battle grounds for unions, community groups, and local politicians. No politician can afford to ignore them. And very few do. . . pressures for districts to respond to adults' financial demands rather than the children's education needs [are] a frustrating reality for many superintendents.

One superintendent was even more candid:

The real problem is that the district is a big pot of money over which adults in and out of the system fight to advance their own interests and careers. Better jobs, higher status, bigger contracts, and career advancement are what's at stake. All the public talk about teaching and learning has to be understood as secondary to that economic dynamic.

Does it have to be this way? Of course not. In the late 1990s, the Education Commission of the States--made up of governors, state legislators, state superintendents of education, and other education leaders--created a National Commission on Governing America's Schools. Its members studied the governance system of public education and issued a report recommending that states and districts make big changes in the consolidated model. The first option proposed was to introduce full public school choice, decentralization, and competition, within the consolidated paradigm. But the second was a more radical break. It said, in essence, that those in charge of education should separate steering and rowing. School boards should stop being owners and operators of schools and become purchasers of education programs on behalf of the communities they served. The board should grant charters -- five-year performance contracts to independent groups (teachers, colleges and universities, nonprofits, businesses, community organizations) to operate schools. The commission said, in effect, that every public school should become a charter school.

If this were done, the commission pointed out, school boards could close down schools in which students were not learning, replace them with schools more tailored to the needs of those students, and quickly contract for innovative new schools that embraced technology, used particular learning methods (from Montessori to computer-based learning), and/or offered specific content themes, from performing arts to math and science to community service. When the board closed a school, it would not face the united opposition of every teacher, aide, clerk, and principal; indeed, competitors would line up eagerly to replace it. The board would no longer be a political captive of its employees because it would have so few; schools would be the primary employers.

Teachers in every public school would know that their jobs were safe only as long as students were making academic progress and parents were satisfied. The door to innovation would suddenly swing open, and the size, shape, and pedagogical methods of public schools would change rapidly.

Many superintendents appear intrigued by the idea. In the survey of superintendents of large urban districts, two-thirds agreed that the "district should be able to charter all schools or enter into contracts with schools governed by accountability for education results."

Even more surprising, some districts are already moving in this direction.


Barnstable, Massachusetts, has begun to convert each of its public schools to charter status. In California, three small districts have already done the same. San Carlos made six of its seven public schools charters. The Hickman Community Charter District has only three schools, but all are charters. And the Twin Ridges Elementary School District has two traditional schools and two charter schools within its boundaries, but has sponsored ten charter schools outside its boundaries.

The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson
p. 128 - 130

Sounds good to me.

I think this is the way services for developmentally disabled adults are funded here in New York. More anon.

how many people know what charter schools are?

At last night's board meeting a parent asked what a charter school is, which led me to wonder: how many people know, today, what a charter school is? I remember it was only a very few years ago that I finally figured it out, probably after I started writing kitchen table math.

I found a terrific description in the Times:
SOME things never change. For example, children still collect soda cans and box tops to buy classroom equipment. But much in K-12 public education is being turned on its head, especially in urban districts where fixing failing schools has become a national focus.

This means new education leadership jobs: running charter schools, directing turnarounds of troubled schools and founding nonprofits with creative answers to education challenges.

Such work demands educators who are more M.B.A./policy-wonk than Mr. Chips, which is why universities are unveiling degree programs that pull professors from schools of education, business and public policy. In September, the Harvard Graduate School of Education announced a tuition-free, three-year doctoral program in education leadership, the first new degree at the school in 74 years.


Other programs are drawing people looking for high-level job training or flexibility. That’s who’s filling Central Michigan University’s online charter school leadership program, which graduated its first class on Dec. 12. One student, Patrick Kissel, 44, a retired Army master sergeant, wants to change careers, and appreciates the opportunity to earn his master’s while working as chief of business operations at Letterkenny Army Depot in Pennsylvania.

He will not graduate until August 2011 but has already been contacted by a charter school group in Canada. That’s not unusual, says David E. Whale, the program director. “People are reaching out to me saying, ‘We want to talk to your graduates,’ ” he says, noting that starting salaries for charter school directors are $60,000 to $80,000 a year.

Sergeant Kissel, who chose charter schools “because they are mission-driven,” became interested in education while serving in Bosnia and Kosovo, where he was charged with rebuilding schools and, he saw, children’s lives: “It was sort of like a passion to give these young kids skills they could actually use.”

Skills to Fix Failing Schools
Published: December 29, 2009


High School Questions

My son will start high school next year and they will have an open house for 8th graders and their parents in a couple of weeks. Do you have any suggestions about what questions I should ask? One I already have is what the heck they do in "Advisory" for 20 minutes each day. They use a block schedule that alternates between day 1 and day 2. Is there anything I should look out for with this kind of scheduling? The first class of the day starts at 7:25.

Of course, we gave our son the pep talk about how all of his grades really matter now, even as a freshman. However, I don't want him (or us) to get weird about everything. I don't want him trying to fill in every last minute of his day. This led me to look at GPA and class rank. It dawned on me that taking more classes will not improve these numbers, but I don't know if they want to have kids fill up all slots with classes. By the way, what happens when you apply for college, do you give them the GPA/class rank at the end of the junior year? I know that colleges look at whether you slack off in your senior year, but does your final GPA/class rank really matter?

My goal is to have him focus on the core courses and not feel like there is always something more that he needs to do. I told him that if he does well on the SAT/ACT and has a good GPA, then he doesn't have to drive himself crazy with all of the intangibles.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New York loses Race to the Top Funds?

I haven't followed the ins and outs, so this is all I've got.

Hard work. Reverence. Discipline.

I loved this 60-Minutes story about Samoan football players and I couldn't help but draw parallels to education.

It's estimated that a boy born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to get into the NFL than any other kid in America.
Fifty-six times! And I don't believe it's just because these kids are bigger or that it's merely coincidental either. Sure, physical attributes come into play when we're talking athletic ability, however there are plenty of big boys in the U.S. that don't have what it takes to make it in the NFL.

[I]t's not just size that makes the Samoans such great football players. His people come from a farming culture that prizes hard work, reverence and discipline. And he thinks that's why scouts and coaches are pulling out their atlases.

Curiously, most Samoan players currently in the NFL didn't even start playing football until high school. They play on makeshift fields with equipment that wouldn't meet safety requirements here. Yet these kids are a testament to that elusive something more that makes all the difference. Except it's not all that elusive.

Hard work. Reverence. Discipline.

Not money. Not perfect fields. Not the best equipment.

Part II

Part III

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I've been dipping into literature on management & I love the Corner Office series in the Times. Here is Cristóbal Conde on micromanagement:

Besides the endless travel of that year [during which Conde ran his company as a top-down, command-and-control organization], was there something else that made you shift styles?

A. Yes, it was a huge disagreement with somebody who worked for me directly, and he ended up quitting shortly thereafter. And it wasn’t that the decision that we disagreed on was so big. It was more that, to him, it just wasn’t as much fun anymore. He felt he could do more, and I was in his way. I was chasing away somebody extremely valuable, and that is when I realized I never would have put up with that myself. If you start micromanaging people, then the very best ones leave.

If the very best people leave, then the people you’ve got left actually require more micromanagement. Eventually, they get chased away, and then you’ve got to invest in a whole apparatus of micromanagement. Pretty soon, you’re running a police state. So micromanagement doesn’t scale because it spirals down, and you end up with below-average employees in terms of motivation and ability.

Here he is on feedback:

Q. What is some of the best feedback you’ve received?

A. A boss once told me: “Cris, you’re a smart guy, but that doesn’t mean that people can absorb a list of 18 things to do. Focus on a handful of things.” Very constructive criticism, and the way I’ve translated that is, when I do reviews, everything is threes.

So, “Look, Charlie, these are the three things that are going well. These are the three things that are not going well.” Now, that’s very important because then people know that everybody’s going to get three positives and three things they should do differently. Then they don’t take it personally. I’ve found that to be an incredibly valuable tool.

Structure? The Flatter, the Better
Corner Office - New York Times
January 16, 2010

I love that.

One thing I've noticed, reading the columns: nearly all of the CEOs interviewed describe dramatically changing their approach to management at some point, often in response to criticism and/or setbacks. They talk about these moments frankly, without defensiveness.

I've come to prize the quality of not being defensive. At this point, I'd probably put it right up there with courage, generosity, clear thinking, and a good sense of humor.