kitchen table math, the sequel: 1/31/10 - 2/7/10

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Seattle School District Loses Lawsuit over Discovery Math Program

News report from Seattle Post Intelligencer is here.

From the article:

Those suing to stop Discovering Math in court were Martha McLaren, a retired Seattle high-school math teacher; Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington; and Da-Zanne Porter, mother of a Cleveland High School student.

Mass, a well-known local meteorologist, has said college students' math abilities have been decreasing over the past 10 years.

"I've been giving a math diagnostic exam in my 101 class, and the results are stunning; stunningly bad," Mass said in a story that appeared last month before the lawsuit was argued.

This is stunning news. Every school board should be made aware of this decision. That the ruling was based--in part--on the widening achievement gap attributable to the "discovery" series, raises the spectre of civil rights.

Congratulations to Cliff Mass, Martha McLaren, and Da-Zanne Porter.

The court decision goes a long way in giving parents the credibility they need to stand up to school boards across the country.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Special Education Thoughts and Budgets

Here a few recent comments here at KTM, in which the commenters say things such as:

It doesn't cost much to educate my children. It costs a great deal to educate a few children. Our district is reputed to be good with special needs students, thus it draws more sped kids to us. The "cost per student" reflects overall spending, and no longer breaks out sped costs.

So, it's possible to educate students privately for much less than the public cost, because the school has the freedom to avoid heavy sped costs.....

I'm not advocating that sped kids not receive an education. I think that requiring each school district to pony up for unlimited sped burdens in isolation is bad policy. It leads to a poisonous atmosphere between parents and teachers. The school district has a clear conflict of interest between providing an education and balancing the budget. In our state, everything else in the school budget is subject to cuts, but not sped. That builds resentment.


This is not PC, but some kids have such severe handicaps/medical conditions that they should not be in the education system at all. I know of a 7-12 school that spent 4 years trying to remove one kid; not toilet trained, unable to speak, mental age about 2 years. Highly disruptive, of course.

What follows is an essay by my friend Lea, who is making herself an expert in funding in our local k-8 school district, Redwood City School District in California. She has a child with special needs. As I'm sure you have all read, California is in a budget crisis. Another piece of the puzzle you may not know is that California school funding is...really, really complicated. District A may be under one kind of funding rules, and District B, contiguous and for all intents and purposes, identical in demographics, may be under a second and more restrictive set.

Special Needs Children and Public Education

by Lea Cuniberti-Duran

Raising and educating children with special needs is expensive. That's just a fact.

I have attended many school district budget meetings in which officials blurted to their audience, "We cannot pay for XYZ because of our financial responsibility toward children with special needs: to educate one special needs student can cost the district $100,000 a year." I also hear about how the district has "an unfunded mandate to educate children with special needs, and how this results into an encroachment to the general fund."

As one can imagine this argument is not always well received by parents of typical kids who want a great education for their children, and are lead to believe that "all those quirky kids" are in the way. It is easy to believe the encroachment argument: how can one argue with the fact that our district has to transfer $7M from general fund to the special education department?

The school district's argument has been so effective that a good friend recently confronted my husband and me. She said she couldn't see why the district had to spend so much money to educate special needs children. She resented spending $100,000 for a child who will may never be a fully contributing member of our society. Why not spend that money toward the education of all the other children, those who will be able to contribute, go to university, and have a career?

Don’t Be Fooled By the Numbers

Districts use children with special needs the way a magician uses props: as a distraction, a way to divert attention from schools underperforming because of problems that have nothing to do with special needs. Just look at the numbers: Redwood City School District spends about $10,000 per student (according to the latest data released by the district). RCSD is rated a 5 out of 10 based on State and Federal tests results for the school year 2008-09

If we look at districts around the Bay Area that, like Redwood City, are revenue-limit (meaning, they rely heavily on state funding), have the same proportion of students with special needs, YET are rated higher by; we will see that these districts spend less money per student. From this we can infer that special needs students are not the reason why school districts underperform:

  • Cabrillo Unified (in Half Moon Bay) is rated 7 out of 10; per-pupil spending* = $7,477

  • San Mateo-Foster City is rated 7 out of 10; per-pupil spending = $7,917

  • Mountain View is rated 7 out of 10; per-pupil spending = $8,433

  • San Francisco is rated 7 out of 10; per-pupil spending= $8,357

  • Millbrae is rated 8 out of 10; per-pupil spending = $7,203

  • Novato is rated 8 out of 10; per-pupil spending = $7,203

  • Walnut Creek is rated 10 out of 10; per-pupil spending = $7,281
*Lea crunched these numbers before the real per-pupil spending paper was available to her. So just assume that the real costs are higher.

A Good Investment
Allowing people with disabilities to reach their full potential is a good investment. With appropriate services and support, people with disabilities can lead full and productive lives. And helping those who may never be fully independent reach their full potential costs taxpayers less than funding 24/7 assistance for the rest of their lives.

We, as society, need to move away from thinking that people with a mental or physical disability cannot be contributing members of society. Just look around in your daily life, and notice some examples of people who have gone and beyond those simple expectations: my children’s occupational therapist who is missing an arm, or a tax accountant who happen to be dyslexic, or one of my personal heroes, Dr. Temple Grandin, PhD, who is a leading expert in livestock management as well as an advocate for the autism community.

Work programs can specialize in employing individuals in areas where they excel, like complex but repetitive tasks that a neurotypical person cannot perform with consistent precision. I was told of a woman with Down syndrome whose job is to prepare all the instruments for the surgeons in a mid-west hospital. Educating and teaching skills to a person with a disability may require extra resources, but it leads to more independence – so it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the least expensive approach.

We Are Not Sparta
We, as society, value life, and have laws to protect it. We also value diversity. Long gone is the time of Sparta when people with differences were thrown off a cliff. But in the not-so-distant past, American children with disabilities were taken away from their families and put in institutions, where they were often left in very desperate conditions: with minimal food, clothing and shelter and terrible unhygienic conditions. In 1967, for example, state institutions were homes for almost 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Some of these institutes still exist, like the NAPA State Hospital outside Sacramento, California which has been investigated by the State as recently as 2005 for abuses and infractions against patients.

The birth of IDEA
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Federal government, with the strong support and advocacy of family associations, such as The ARC, began to develop and validate practices for children with disabilities and their families. These practices, in turn, laid the foundation for implementing effective programs and services of early intervention and special education in states and localities across the country.” (From the US Department of Education)

This lead to the creation of IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Educational Act), which gives children with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education, in the least restrictive environment, with accommodations, modifications and support so that children can access their education. This law benefits ALL children with an IEP, no matter how few services he or she is receiving.

What Has IDEA Accomplished?
A few examples from the US Dept of Education:
  • The majority of children with disabilities are now being educated in their neighborhood schools in regular classrooms with their non-disabled peers.

  • High school graduation rates and employment rates among youth with disabilities have increased dramatically. For example, graduation rates increased 14 percent from 1984 to 1997.

  • Today, post-school employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice those of older adults with similar disabilities who did not have the benefit of IDEA.

  • Post-secondary enrollments among individuals with disabilities receiving IDEA services have also sharply increased, with the percentage of college freshmen reporting disabilities more than tripling since 1978.

In Conclusion

In a year like 2010, when schools are squeezed by a state in financial disarray, when budgets and programs are slashed with a hatchet; when the panic feeling of saving money makes people cut corners; special needs children will be the easy target for blaming and the victims of further cuts. As a parent and an advocate for my children, I have pledged to stay involved, informed and calm; attend as many school board meetings as I can, and share information with other parents.


I am committed to push further and follow in the footsteps of the parents and advocates before us, who fought for their children to have a more appropriate education and a dignified life.

Power Teaching Revisited, now Whole Brain Teaching

The other day I was over at Tahirih Bushey's excellent site, Autism Games. She had posted Power Teaching and Followup to Whole Brain Teaching.

The name "Whole Brain Teaching" set my skeptical sense tingling -- there is so much "brain" ... (searching for polite word) bushwa... out there, especially in professional development for teachers.

But I thought I'd go look.

Power Teaching was the brainchild of three instructors, Chris Biffle (college), Jay Vanderfin (kindergarten) and Chris Rekstad (4th grade). They called it Power Teaching until sometime last year, when they reorganized into Whole Brain Teaching. They are using the power of YouTube to spread their ideas.

Here's a kindergarten lesson (the video is about 7 minutes). I'm impressed by the engagement of the students, the explicitness of the teacher's presentation, and the number of repetitions she gets in.

The website has a lot of resources, and Chris Biffle has posted a lot of video clips showing examples of Whole Brain Teaching at various grade levels and subjects.

I haven't poked around the site enough to know if it is truly congruent with Direct Instruction. I'd like to hear what you think.

Previously, here:

Exo on Power Teaching

Power Teaching from redkudu

Susan Engel's revolutionary new proposals for education reform

In an Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams college, makes the bold proposal that "if we want to make sure all children learn, we will need to overhaul the curriculum itself." Almost as original as Engel's proposals is her original use of language, some of which I've put in bold face.

"Our current educational approach," Engel argues, "is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike."

In particular, students shouldn't be spending "tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run."

Engel proceeds to enlighten us on the following things that "scientists know" and that "research has shown unequivocally":

-children "construct knowledge; they don't swallow it."

-"the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment"

-"the second [step to literacy] is to read a lot and often."

-"people write best when they use writing to think and to communicate rather than to get a good grade."

-"children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning."

-collaboration is "a skill easily as important as math or reading."

Based on these astonishing new insights from science, Engel boldly proposes the following paradigm-shattering changes to classrooms:

-every child should be given "ample opportunities to read and discuss books."

-children should "spend an hour a day writing about things that have actual meaning to them--stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another."

-children should "spend a short period of time practicing computation" and once they are "proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events, or people." (Children love such activities, Engel argues, "if given a chance to do them in a genuine way").

-children should engage in playful activities "from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games," which will "help them acquire higher-order thinking skills like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else's perspective and thinking of alternative solutions."

-children should have ample time "to collaborate with one another."

Clearly Engel not only knows her cognitive science, but has spent countless hours observing what happens in today's classrooms: all that futile phonics instruction; all those tedious math and science drills; all that dearth of collaborative learning, game playing, letter writing, and cartooning.

But I must reserve my greatest appreciation for the New York Times for deeming it fit to publish this courageous piece, with its original criticisms of today's classrooms, its revolutionary proposals for reform, and its pioneering attempts to bring science into classroom teaching (Dan Willingham, please take note!).

Sunday, January 31, 2010

when is a demographer not a demographer?

answer: when he is a retired superintendent of schools

no vendor left behind


Martin was quoted as saying: "What's amazing is New Orleans was devastated because of Hurricane Katrina, but because everything was wiped out, in essence, you are building from ground zero to change the dynamics of education in that city."

Duncan was quoted as replying: "It's a fascinating one. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.' And the progress that they've made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that -- that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we've seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing."

Education Secretary Duncan calls Hurricane Katrina Good for New Orleans Schools
Washington Post Saturday January 30, 2010

Barry G on exercises vs. problems

By way of introduction, I am neither mathematician nor mathematics teacher, but I majored in math and have used it throughout my career, especially in the last 17 years as an analyst for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. My love of and facility with math is due to good teaching and good textbooks. The teachers I had in primary and secondary school provided explicit instruction and answered students’ questions; they also posed challenging problems that required us to apply what we had learned. The textbooks I used also contained explanations of the material with examples that showed every step of the problem solving process.

I fully expected the same for my daughter, but after seeing what passed for mathematics in her elementary school, I became increasingly distressed over how math is currently taught in many schools.

Optimistically believing that I could make a difference in at least a few students’ lives, I decided to teach math when I retire. I enrolled in education school about two years ago, and have one class and a 15-week student teaching requirement to go. Although I had a fairly good idea of what I was in for with respect to educational theories, I was still dismayed at what I found in my mathematics education courses.

In class after class, I have heard that when students discover material for themselves, they supposedly learn it more deeply than when it is taught directly. Similarly, I have heard that although direct instruction is effective in helping students learn and use algorithms, it is allegedly ineffective in helping students develop mathematical thinking. Throughout these courses, a general belief has prevailed that answering students’ questions and providing explicit instruction are “handing it to the student” and preventing them from “constructing their own knowledge”—to use the appropriate terminology. Overall, however, I have found that there is general confusion about what “discovery learning” actually means. I hope to make clear in this article what it means, and to identify effective and ineffective methods to foster learning through discovery.

To set this in context, it is important to understand an underlying belief espoused in my school of education: i.e., there is a difference between problem solving and exercises. This view holds that “exercises” are what students do when applying algorithms or routines they know and the term can apply even to word problems. Problem solving, which is preferred, occurs when students are not able to apply a mechanical, memorized response, but rather have to figure out what to do in a new situation. Moreover, we future teachers are told that students’ difficulty in solving problems in new contexts is evidence that the use of “mere exercises” or “procedures” is ineffective and they are overused in classrooms.

As someone who learned math largely though mere exercises and who now creatively applies math at work, I have to question this thinking.
Discovery learning in math: Exercises versus problems
by Barry Garelick

Me, too.

authentic 21st century teaching tool

The Inner Life of the Cell

BioVisions at Harvard University

More here.