kitchen table math, the sequel: 3/13/11 - 3/20/11

Saturday, March 19, 2011

worse before it gets better

I went with a friend to the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference in New York City.

It was depressing.

Vendors everywhere, technology, no books, Smartboards (it's the 20th anniversary of the invention of the Smartboard!), and, during plenary sessions, constant calls for Parent Responsibility, each one met with thunderous applause. Parents were not a popular group amongst the Celebrants.

During the session on bullying, three teachers asked plaintively, "Why is bullying our responsibility?" "Why is everything on us?" They were aggrieved.

The great and the good (Brian Williams, Cory Booker) thought teachers had a lot to be aggrieved about. Democracy is hanging by a thread, they told us: the only reason we have a country at all is teachers. And yet Americans fail to feel "reverence" toward teachers. What is to be done?

Mehmet Oz said pretty much the same thing; then he showed us a graph charting the rise of obesity in America and said rising obesity is the reason "there's no money for education." We need to lose weight! Because we need more money for education!

Also, the NEA wants the government to pay for college and graduate degrees for teachers. We'll need to lose a whole lot of weight for that.

My friend attended a session where there was a group of young administrators seated in the middle of the room. The teachers booed the administrators. Now that's interesting ---- what was going on? I wish I'd been there.

A fellow from the Department of Education told us that DOE is rolling out "an ambitious 5-year initiative": the moon shot of this generation. Which was.....a website. The moon shot of this generation is a Department of Education website.

We watched a lot of student videos, all created with a product called Adobe-something-or-other: raps about Haiti; a geography class in California making soup. In the soup video, a pretty girl who came to America from Nicaragua complained that nobody knows where Nicaragua is or that a person who speaks Spanish and has brown eyes might be from Nicaragua and not Mexico. Another student in the video said somebody thought "Guatemala" was guacamole.

Maybe the reason students don't know where Nicaragua is or that Guatemala is a country not a dip is that they're making soup in geography class.

A high-energy Brit pitched his Teacher Channel, I think it was called: there will be authentic content!! We watched an authentic video of a grade school class in Florida where the kids scotch-taped together little houses and stuck them in a line on a stage. Then the teacher walked along the stage blowing the houses with a leaf-blower to simulate a hurricane. Some of the houses blew apart and some didn't. Shots of fist-pumping little kids; fade-out.

The Brit told us we had just witnessed "learning" and said there would be many thousands such videos available on Teacher Channel, which was being sponsored or hosted or public-private partnered or some such with WNET, the host of Celebration of Teaching and Learning. Applause!

In the session on how to teach counting using a children's book, the Math for America Master Teacher banned the words "permutation" and "order" because "permutation" and "order" are words, not understanding. He told us, repeatedly, that he makes his high school students spend a full test hour drawing the answers to counting problems in order to show them that multiplying 5x4x3 is more efficient than drawing 60 houses with 1 of 3 pigs inside. At the end of the sessions, he advocated the use of children's books for teaching high school counting problems. "How many handshakes amongst the 7 dwarfs?" That was a good counting question we could base on a children's story, he said.

At one point a teacher said she'd made a counting tree, and the Master Teacher said, a look of mock incomprehension on his face, "Tree? What is a tree? Why do you talk about trees?"

Five minutes later he put up a Powerpoint picture of a counting tree -- an actual tree, with a trunk going down to the ground, and branches pointing up to the sky. I don't know why a real tree is good and an abstract tree is bad. He didn't say. The rule seemed to be that everything the teachers said was old-school and wrong, while everything the Master Teacher said was up-to-date and correct. 

The Master Teacher had no blackboard, whiteboard, or Smartboard, so you had to try to remember everything he had just finished saying while trying to follow whatever he was saying now, and his Powerpoint drawings were confusing, at least to me. He spoke too fast. He told us over and over again that we needed to hold with our students the kind of conversation he was holding with us: i.e., a conversation for understanding.

I don't recommend it. The "conversation" consisted mostly of our Master Teacher eliciting wrong answers and forbidden vocabulary from his class. There were probably 5 people of 30 who could work the problems, so he focused on them and didn't bother with the rest of us.

I'm actually thinking about writing James Simons a letter.

from the Conference Program
Description: If three pigs live in five houses and each pig lives alone, how many living arrangements are possible? Participants will learn how a children’s book illustrates a simple way to solve counting problems like this without listing all possibilities. Teachers at all levels, from elementary to high school, will learn how students can find the answers without using confusing words like “permutation.”
the Celebration for Teaching and Learning on Twitter


Kick Me Out of School, I'm Irish

Have I mentioned Matthew K. Tabor has a new blog??

Education Debate at Online Schools

Friday, March 18, 2011

Blended learning that brings Khan Academy into the classroom

In California they're piloting a program that brings the Khan Academy into the classroom.  It sounds promising, with the potential to gain efficiency and raise achievement levels.

You can read more at Education Quick Takes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

momof4 on middle school versus junior high

My four kids all attended the same school between ES and HS, but it was a 7-8 JHS for my older two and a 6-7-8 MS for my younger two - over the strong objections of the parents in the attendance area. Apparently, the county required that a parent survey be done prior to the change but was not required to pay any attention to the results.

For my older kids, the JHS school had a strong academic focus and my kids and their friends LOVED the fact that the artsy/crafty, touchy/feely stuff had pretty much disappeared. Lots of girls who always had As in ES because they did lots of nice artwork were suddenly getting Bs and lots of boys who rarely got As in ES because they didn't care about pretty (or dioramas) were getting As because the correct answer was the main focus.

Three years later, when my third child entered the MS as a 6th-grader, the whole focus of the school had changed. The academic focus was GONE (even though many of the same teachers remained), replaced by teams, group-work and NEST (nurture, encourage, support and trust, I think). NEST was 20 minutes of daily torture; touchy/feely navel-gazing under the direction of the drama teacher. Lots of kids felt that their privacy was being invaded. The artsy/crafty projects were even more burdensome, since they had to be done in groups; often outside of school hours. It's SO easy and SO much fun to schedule 4 kids spread across 10+ miles of suburbs (irony alert) - and they all had significant extracurriculars, naturally. They also had to be driven by parents, of course. The only bright spot was that my youngest had a PE teacher for NEST and he didn't NEST - just expected the kids to be quiet enough to keep him out of trouble.

My experience was that the MS is awful; it focused on all of the worst aspects of adolescence and exaggerated them instead of minimizing them by focusing on academics. Also, the school obviously didn't understand adolescent (males, at least) very well because they didn't understand why the (male) winner of the Wonder Woman Award (best Women' History Month project) quietly dropped it into the trash can at the bottom of the stage steps - because guys should love the idea of being given a Wonder Woman award in front of 1500 peers. His parents were called in for a full-team conference. My kids could't wait to get out of that school.

Peter Meyer explains New York's contingent budget law

at the Irvington Parents Forum:
[S]tate law says that school districts are allowed to increase their budgets by up to 120% of the rate of inflation. I forgot the exact formula, but we've been informed (again, I'm on the BOE of a small (2000 kids) upstate district) that the CPI is 1.6%.

This might not mean much to Irvington, but to a poor (median family income up here is right around $30k and over half our kids are free and reduced lunch) district where more than 50% of revenues come from State aid, it means something close to a fiscal disaster.

Cutting to the chase, if we, the BOE, wanted to (the law says a board may vote to go directly to contingency if it wants, no vote needed!), we could increase our budget (it's about $40 million) by the 1.6% and make the local taxpayers make up the loss of state aid (projected to be over a million bucks) and loss of federal Edujobs money (another million and change) by having us property owners (all ten of us!) shoulder a 14.9 percent property tax increase. In that scenario we only layoff about 15 staff (including 7 teachers). There are other scenarios, none of them too pretty (and I'm one who believes pretty firmly in the proposition that more money does not buy a better education).
here's a followup:
The interesting thing, of course, is that the contingency law never anticipated the current economic crisis. The board COULD raise taxes 15% if it wanted to -- it has the legal right to do it. Would it? Probably not. So, no there are lots negotiations -- and lots screaming and yelling in executive session and elsewhere -- about whose axe gets gored. I think 4% tax increase scenario resulted in something like 70 layoffs. And yes, a salary freeze saves about 20 jobs (depending, of course, whose job).... It ain't pretty and it ain't too much fun....
It could always be worse, I suppose.

At least New York doesn't have a minimum budget requirement.

news from Headsprout

Headsprout bought by DYMO /Mimio

I don't know what this means, but folks are excited about it on the DI list.

If the DI people are excited, I'm excited.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Le Monde on the damaged nuclear power plants

The Times has just this moment posted a story headlined "Japan Faces Prospect of Nuclear Catastrophe as Workers Leave Plant" (the Times sends sound alerts to the iPad -- a couple of nights ago both the Times and Drudge woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me ---- what was it that night? Hosni Mubarak? Colonel Gadahfi? nuclear meltdown? I don't even remember at this point ---- )

Ed's reading Le Monde out loud; Le Monde is saying the Japan situation is worse than Three Mile Island, not as bad as Chernobyl. There's a French blogger on the scene, who says the Japanese government is not giving out very much information.

Lord of the Flies

from Peter Meyer's Education Next article on middle schools:
Parents and educators have begun abandoning the middle school for K–8 configurations, and new research suggests that grade configuration does matter: when this age group is gathered by the hundreds and educated separately, both behavior and learning suffer.

The Middle School Mess

by Peter Meyer
Education Next Winter 2011

merit pay fails in NYC

at Gotham Schools

Middle school kids did significantly worse.

I blame the middle school model, possibly.

And here is Peter Meyer on the middle school mess in Education Next.

Salman Khan at TED

Let's use video to reinvent education

still haven't watched this -----

I will

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mark Roulo on baseball statistics

re: the 32-parameter value-added model in NYC
One thing I like doing for discussions like this is to try and find a sports analogy. People tend no to get so hung up on non-PC conclusion in sports, but also often care a lot. This can lead to enlightenment.

So ... baseball:

(1) You can get a *VERY* good handle on how valuable a batter is with just two values, which can be combined into one number. You need on-base percentage (OBP) , which is, for every 100 times he comes to the plate, how often does he get on base? And you need slugging percentage (SPG) , which says how many bases he gets each time he has an at-bat. In both cases, more is better. And you can combine them with this: (OBP*3 + SPG)/2 to get a number that works the way most people who follow baseball can understand.

There ARE more sophisticated models, but they don't improve on this one by much. So ... two parameters, both of which are pretty easily understood.

(2) For pitchers it is a bit more complicated, but you can basically track strikeouts, walks and home runs and then put them together to get a single number. Again, one can improve (for starting pitchers, you also care about how "efficient" they are), but basically you'll get the right answer for ranking pitchers with just these three.

I get that teaching is more complicated. But 32 parameters is nuts.


This is the first picture I've seen that gave me a sense of what the tsunami that hit Japan actually looked like.

And the aftershocks go on: 275 new tremors hit quake-torn Japan as fears grow for missing 10,000 in flattened port town
By Jo Macfarlane
Last updated at 8:55 PM on 13th March 2011

on film

group homes

Nearly 40 years after New York emptied its scandal-ridden warehouses for the developmentally disabled, the far-flung network of small group homes that replaced them operates with scant oversight and few consequences for employees who abuse the vulnerable population.

A New York Times investigation over the past year has found widespread problems in the more than 2,000 state-run homes. In hundreds of cases reviewed by The Times, employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses, and in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state. 

And, despite a state law requiring that incidents in which a crime may have been committed be reported to law enforcement, such referrals are rare: State records show that of some 13,000 allegations of abuse in 2009 within state-operated and licensed homes, fewer than 5 percent were referred to law enforcement. The hundreds of files examined by The Times contained shocking examples of abuse of residents with conditions like Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

At a home upstate in Hudson Falls, two days before Christmas in 2006, an employee discovered her supervisor, Ricky W. Sousie, in the bedroom of a severely disabled, 54-year-old woman. Mr. Sousie, a stocky man with wispy hair, was standing between the woman’s legs. His pants were around his ankles, his hand was on her knee and her diaper was pulled down.

The police were called, and semen was found on the victim. But the state did not seek to discipline Mr. Sousie. Instead, it transferred him to work at another home.


In 25 percent of the cases involving physical, sexual or psychological abuse, the state employees were transferred to other homes.

The state initiated termination proceedings in 129 of the cases reviewed but succeeded in just 30 of them, in large part because the workers’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, aggressively resisted firings in almost every case. A few employees resigned, even though the state sought only suspensions.

In the remainder of the cases, employees accused of abuse — whether beating the disabled, using racial slurs or neglecting their care — either were suspended, were fined or had their vacation time reduced.
At State-Run Homes, Abuse and Impunity
Published: March 12, 2011
Rubber rooms are expensive, but we clearly need them.

And we need cameras. Cameras in every room.

thinking about Japan

The Lede


Apparently, God wanted me to a) think of Vlorbik today and b) Google his blog, because look what I found there: Notices of the American Mathematical Society - math education issue.

Here is H. Wu: The Mis-Education of Math Teachers (pdf file)

getting used to it

Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.

Reply to Felix T. Smith who had said "I'm afraid I don't understand the method of characteristics."

—as quoted in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1984) by Gary Zukav footnote in page 208.

John von Neumann
I know people here have quoted this before (I think Vlorbik might have been the person who I first heard this from). But I just stumbled across it today and had to quote it again.

For what it's worth, this observation describes my own experience of learning math - quite a bit of it, at any rate.


 cross posted at the Irvington Parents Forum *

Proposed Tax Rate Increase: 4.31%

Average assessment in Irvington = $24,500
Approximate full value = $731,000
Estimated increase in school taxes for the average assessed home = $604.17

History of Irvington tax rate increases:

2005-06: 13.42%
2006-07: 9.41%
2007-08: 5.87%
2008-09: 8.86%
2009-10: 0.42%
2010-11: 0.28%
Proposed 2011-12: 4.31%

In the years 2005-2009, we saw increases far beyond the rate of inflation.

Inflation for 2010 was 1.6%, so again we are far above inflation. (Core inflation - excluding food and energy prices - was only 0.7% from October 2009 to November 2010.)

Here’s a chart of core inflation since 1971: **

If you superimpose Irvington’s percent change in tax rates on this graph, the problem becomes obvious. Annual tax rate increases well beyond inflation make school spending unsustainable.

BLS Consumer Price Index – January 2011 (pdf file) 

Forecasters Expect Solid Growth, Low Inflation in 2011 (pdf file)

* If any of you would like to join the Irvington Parents Forum, please do. We have members from around the country.  
** I don't know why the label on this chart is "Core inflation, previous 12 months." UPDATE from gasstationwithoutpumps: Inflation is usually measured as a ratio of two index values taken at different time points, divided by the time between the points. The label is saying what index is used and what pair of time points (the core index at time on the x-axis divided by the same index 12 months earlier).