kitchen table math, the sequel: 5/1/11 - 5/8/11

Saturday, May 7, 2011

tired and overpaid

patentlawyer, Bonnie, and Steve H on careers in computer science and manufacturing--

We read this story every few months but most of these "manufacturers" aren't telling the whole truth.

They aren't talking about how they gutted their own training programs in the 80's and 90's, because someone @ the WSJ/Harvard Business School told them to get lean, downsize, rightsize, or out source.

They aren't talking about how automation has really decimated their bread and butter parts and they have to move up to small runs of specialized parts @ high margins to make the money they're used to making.

They aren't talking about how most of their want ads require years of experience and often times a degree.

They aren't talking about how boring it is to work on a lathe for 8 hour stretches.

The reality is that they want experienced people, but they do not want to spend the money to train and retain their employees.

At least in Houston, there are more than enough people that can read blue prints, calculate sin/cos/tang/hyp if necessary. That area of Houston they're talking about is about 10 miles away from NASA and the aerospace/defense contractor hub in Clear Lake City.

We shouldn't have any sympathy for short sighted companies. Nor should we think that the US is in some kind of STEM bind.

There are plenty of out of work born in America engineers now, and plenty of would-be-engineers creamed by grade curves and weed out courses. If you head over to any of the comp sci/it/science/engineering fora, you'll see just how vast and deep the pool is.
Actually, in CS, enrollments have plummeted in the last few years, to the extent that CS departments are being closed. However, I agree with you on the role of companies. The reason students chose not to major in CS is that they saw their parents laid off from their tech jobs, forced to train their replacements in India (and I know several people personally that had to do that, including my husband). Companies refuse to invest in training or education for their technical employees, instead figuring they can be replaced once their 10 year technical lifespan has expired. Kids saw this happen, and decided that they would rather major in finance, where they can actually be paid well. 
Steve H:
I agree with patentlawyer. I've seen this argument before, and once again, it's not clearly defined. I deal with many companies that bring in computer-aided design and CNC technology. There is more demand than supply. Companies don't like to train because they see these people move on to better paying jobs. Why pay to train someone in SolidWorks who will immediately leave? Just demand that education provide them ready to go. But what, exactly, are these skills? It's not trigonometry.

"Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering."

People with science, math, or engineering degrees won't fill these positions, and companies can train bright high school graduates to meet this demand.

Let's say that a company buys a CNC cutting machine and it comes with a program that nests geometry and generates the G-code to drive the machine. Is this taught in school? Also, where does this geometry come from, a 2D CAD drawing program, a 3D solid modeling program, or a surface modeling program like Rhino? Do they teach these programs in school? You don't learn this in high school geometry. Do schools teach the issues of geometry transfer that cost companies so much time and money?

Look at the skills that companies have in their job ads. Do they say "trigonometry"? Do they ask for people who have critical thinking skills? No. They want specialized skills that are rarely taught in schools. That's why our local vocational school (which offers college degrees) is so popular. They teach these applications and skills. Companies should ask for more vocational schools.

How many job ads say that they are looking for those who had good grades in trig and that they will train. No, you see ads with very specific software or machine skills required, loaded with all sorts of product names (like MasterCAM) and acronyms. Companies might want critical thinking skills, but what they have in the ads are specific product skills. That's why older workers are vulnerable. Companies don't care about general educational background. They care about the latest products and skills. It doesn't matter how experienced you are if that experience is with DEC's VMS. If you don't manage your career carefully, you will end up on a legacy path where the company will not pay for training. One company where my wife worked made a comment about how people over 40 are tired, overpaid, and don't know the latest technology.

the return of bubbling errors


In honor of his first go at the SAT this morning, C. and I took a math section from the Blue Book last night.

C.'s score jumped to 670 (he was scoring as low as 550 in January), and I would have jumped to 750 or thereabouts if I hadn't made another freaking bubbling error.

I thought I was done with those.

The one question I missed fair and square was in the careless error dumb mistake category.

Speaking of dumb mistakes, I've now taken so many SAT math sections that I can distinguish between careless error and dumb mistake.

careless error: you misread the question
dumb mistake: you misinterpret the question

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition

21% correct

PWN the SAT links to an SAT math question only 21% of respondents got right.

Friday, May 6, 2011

academic skills or academic content?

In the new Education Week, word that the AVID program, which apparently teaches -- or attempts to teach -- critical thinking has not panned out in Chicago:
In a report set for release in the fall and previewed at the American Educational Research Association convention in New Orleans in April, researchers analyzed how AVID, a study-skills intervention for middle-achieving students, played out in 14 Chicago high schools. They found AVID participants in 9th grade gained little advantage that year over peers not taking part in the program, and remained off track for graduation and college.


Doug Rohrer, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, found the CCSR study more rigorous than prior AVID research.

In a September 2010 analysis, the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse found only one of 66 AVID studies met its quality standards. Based on that study, the clearinghouse found AVID had “no discernible effects on adolescent literacy.”


“The critical question in my mind,” Mr. Rohrer continued, “is whether AVID is better than requiring students to go to another class, such as an extra dose of math or writing. Learning how to take notes is a fine strategy, but it might not help you in Algebra 2 if you haven’t learned Algebra 1.”
You can't think critically about algebra if you don't know algebra.

Here is Daniel Willingham on the subject (pdf file):
After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).

Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?
American Educator
Summer 2007

a really big class size

from the Ed Week article on Reasoning Mind:
The Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, recently awarded a $742,996 grant for a pilot program of Reasoning Mind, which will test whether one Reasoning Mind-trained teacher can affect the math scores and proficiency of 250 students using the program in different grades at several schools.There will be nine teachers trained, responsible in total for 2,250 students.

Reasoning Mind

Are any of you familiar with Reasoning Mind?
The Compton students are using Reasoning Mind, an online-based math program modeled on a Russian math curriculum and developed by a nonprofit organization of the same name. The program is currently used at 165 public, charter, magnet, and private schools around the country by more than 20,500 students. Most of the schools and districts using the program, like the 26,000-student Compton district, have high percentages of minority and economically disadvantaged students, and are in communities whose schools qualify for federal Title I funding.

In the Compton schools alone, 1,170 students use Reasoning Mind in the district’s, or ASES. Because of state curriculum requirements, Compton students can use the program only in an after-school setting, not in their day classes as preferred by Reasoning Mind. But even in this environment, where daily attendance can be variable and retention uneven, the Compton students have seen notable results in improved math scores and general math proficiency the past 2½ years.


The program is the brainchild of Alex Khachatryan, a Russian mathematician and scientist who created Reasoning Mind in 2002 after finding his son’s math education disappointing when the family immigrated to the United States. With the help of others, Khachatryan adapted a pencil-and-paper Russian math curriculum into an interactive Web-based program for American students. The program, which starts introducing some algebra and geometry concepts as early as 2nd grade, is designed to teach students in ways that the best teachers teach: adjusting content based on how students respond to the material in real time, and building on knowledge from the previous year’s studies.

“To really learn math, it’s not enough to solve simple, routine problems,” Khachatryan says.

“The reason why Reasoning Mind works so well,” he adds, “is that it brings together several important things: nonstandard problems to develop thinking skills, lots of interaction between students, individual attention from the teacher, and a solid, coherent curriculum.”

Web-Based Russian Math Curriculum Shows Positive Results
By Nora Fleming
Published Online: March 14, 2011
Published in Print: March 17, 2011, as Tailoring Mathematics for Young Minds
Education Week


lots of changes in Indiana schools

sounds good to me, but the folks at Cato take a dim view...

calculus in prison

from the WSJ article on factories lacking skilled workers:
While community colleges and technical schools struggle to keep up with demand for skilled workers, some prisons are trying to help. At California's San Quentin prison, the machine shop offers training to prepare prisoners to pass exams demonstrating skills in such areas as operating computer-controlled lathes and mills. Some inmates get classes in calculus and trigonometry to help them work with machinery.

MAY 6, 2011
Help Wanted on Factory Floor
by James R. Hagerty

math in factory work

In the Wall Streey Journal today:
U.S. manufacturing companies, long known for layoffs and shipping jobs overseas, now find themselves in a very different position: scrambling for scarce talent at home.

Large and small manufacturers of everything from machine tools to chemicals are scouring for potential hires in high schools, community colleges and the military. They are poaching from one another, retraining people who used to have white-collar jobs, and in some cases even hiring former prisoners who learned machinist skills behind bars.


Third, the U.S. education system isn't turning out enough people with the math and science skills needed to operate and repair sophisticated computer-controlled factory equipment, jobs that often pay $50,000 to $80,000 a year, plus benefits. Manufacturers say parents and guidance counselors discourage bright kids from even considering careers in manufacturing.

"We get people coming in here all the time who say, 'I can weld,'" says Denis Gimbel, human-resources manager at Lehigh Heavy Forge Corp., of Bethlehem, Pa., whose products include parts for ships. "Well, my grandmother could weld." He needs people who understand the intricacies of $1 million lathes and other metal-shaping equipment.

Manufacturers have anticipated for years that baby-boomer retirements would create difficulties. Among those who have tried to get ahead of the demographic curve—with mixed success—is Jeff Kelly, chief executive of Hamill Manufacturing Co., a family-owned company near Pittsburgh that cuts metal into parts for ships and machinery.

Hamill doesn't have any button-pushing work. The 127-employee company is constantly resetting its mills and lathes to produce small numbers of parts to meet precise and ever-changing specifications. There are no long, routine production runs.

One morning in late April, Trent Thompson, a 20-year-old Hamill apprentice wearing shredded jeans and a black baseball cap, was assigned to drill three holes in a piece of carbon steel about the size and shape of a hockey puck. To make sure he was spacing the holes exactly right, he scrawled a triangle and some trigonometric calculations on a notepad. Even a tiny error would mean wasting about $400 of metal.


In another corner of the factory, Bill Schaltenbrand, 59, was cutting bigger, more complicated parts. A computer had worked out where he should drill and cut, but Mr. Schaltenbrand, a 40-year veteran at Hamill, does his own math to double-check the plans. Computers, he says, sometimes "punch out stupid stuff." Part of Mr. Schaltenbrand's skill is reading blueprints with myriad numbers and symbols that would baffle most people.


Bayer has had particular trouble filling positions in such areas as chemical-process technology at its plastics plant in Baytown, Texas, near Houston. A decade ago, Mr. Babe says, a job opening typically would attract 100 applications. "These days I get about 10," he says. After screening, Bayer often finds that only a couple are qualified. Some jobs have been open six to nine months.

"This place is five acres, and it's three stories tall," says Donny Simon, 55, who has worked in the plant since 1988. It takes time to understand how all the pipes, valves, pumps and feedstock tanks work together and how to avoid explosions or other accidents. Technicians need basic math and science for such tasks as calculating the rate at which dyes and stabilizing agents need to be added for specially ordered batches of plastics.


Manufacturers say the U.S. education system doesn't produce enough students strong in math, science and engineering. About 5% of bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S. are in engineering, compared with an average of about 20% in Asia, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. In the most recent comparison of math and science test scores of 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students trailed far behind those from China, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Germany.

Help Wanted on Factory Floor

May 6, 2011
Wall Street Journal

and see:

blue collar
The Race between Education and Technology

The Race between Education and Technology

Thursday, May 5, 2011

wild goose chase


What Can I Do to Help My Child with Math When I Don't Know Any Myself?

Debbie Stier told me about Tahir Yaquoob's book What Can I Do to Help My CHild with Math When I Don't Know Any Myself

My copy came in the mail today, and the book is fantastic.

So wish I'd had it when C. was in 5th grade.

Or when C. was in Kindergarten for that matter.

Here's his website.

What Can I Do to Help My Child with Math When I Don't Know Any Myself?

if grocery stores were schools

in today's Wall Street Journal:
Suppose that groceries were supplied in the same way as K-12 education. Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties. Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets. Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address. And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries—"for free"—from its neighborhood public supermarket.

No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside of its district. Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.

Of course, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in families' choices about where to live. Real-estate agents and chambers of commerce in prosperous neighborhoods would brag about the high quality of public supermarkets to which families in their cities and towns are assigned.


Responding to these failures, thoughtful souls would call for "supermarket choice" fueled by vouchers or tax credits. Those calls would be vigorously opposed by public-supermarket administrators and workers.

Opponents of supermarket choice would accuse its proponents of demonizing supermarket workers (who, after all, have no control over their customers' poor eating habits at home). Advocates of choice would also be accused of trying to deny ordinary families the food needed for survival. Such choice, it would be alleged, would drain precious resources from public supermarkets whose poor performance testifies to their overwhelming need for more public funds.
If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools
MAY 5, 2011
Having now spent a vast portion of my adult life dealing with public schools and the politics surrounding public schools, I believe every word of this!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Help Desk question: Can parents affect a curriculum change at a school?

I'm looking for success stories of parents affecting the math program taught in an elementary school.
I'd like to provide some encouragement to a commenter on my blog, who asked:
How does one get their school district to consider changing over to Singapore Math?
Most of the schools I have worked with have had teacher-led math curriculum initiatives. Does anyone have examples of parent-initiated changes to share?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Steve H on the Race

Speaking of the Race to Nowhere, Steve H writes:
At any level, there will likely be students who work harder than you do. This only matters because the top colleges pick those kids. A parent I know has most of her kids at Phillips Andover, with the goal being an Ivy League school. Does a high school think that competition will go away if they eliminate AP classes?

I like AP classes because it forces some sort of rigor on high schools, but I don't like the AP arms race. These are two separate issues. The arms race has to do with supply and demand at colleges. A senior I know is taking 5 AP classes even though she will be going to a college that is ranked only about 90th for liberal arts colleges. IB doesn't help. It's actually worse in terms of commitment. With AP, you can choose what you want to do.

Even if the demand goes down and the college SAT cutoffs are reduced, there will still be the same percent of students stressed out about getting into their first choice colleges. Is supply and demand the problem of K-12 education?

There are also the problems of curriculum and how well classes are taught. Students can be stressed by working very hard, but be quite happy when they get into the college they want. Students can also be stressed when they find out that all of their hard work didn't prepare them properly.

Of course, this doesn't say anything about the kids at the middle and lower end. I find it odd that when many see problems in high school, they think that the problem to fix is in high school. They translate everything into one problem to solve. Even in K-6, I see solutions based on remediation and not finding the source of the problem.

If the problem is overstressed students (not bad classes or curricula), then don't push them. Tell them not to take so many AP classes and do so many activities. Our son is not at Phillips Academy, but we don't ignore the game. It's my job to help him find the right balance. It's the school's job not to waste his time.

and just like that, you hate math

email from redkudu: 
Charles Benoit's YA novel You is written in second person. According to the book jacket, Benoit is a former high school teacher and Edgar-award winning author of adult mysteries. I see the "former high school teacher" all over this book, which is unrelentingly grim, but worthwhile. The main character is a high school boy who has this to say about math:

It's your favorite subject. Which surprises you.


You like it because either you're right or you're wrong. Not like social studies and definitely not like English, where you always have to explain your answers and support your opinions. With math it's right or it's wrong and you're done with it. But even that's changing, with Ms. Ortman up there at the whiteboard saying how this year you'll be writing something she calls Mental Notes, which explain how you solved the problem and support your answer, saying that having the right answer isn't as important as explaining how you got it and bam, just like that, you hate math.

related: students must struggle

Monday, May 2, 2011

"owning" the content

From an edutopia post entitled Project-based learning made easy:
Academic Rigor -- Ask a Question

In addition to mapping from state content standards, we use inquiry as driver for almost all projects, units and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid lab unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” She can teach the content as she always has but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong but many will. Most importantly, the students will own the content because they applied it.
I don't exactly understand what this passage means, possibly because I don't know what happens in a "recipe lab."

Do teachers teaching "recipe labs" not ask questions?

And if the teacher teaches the lesson the way she has always taught the lesson, i.e. as a recipe, how does explicitly asking the question "What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?" transform the activity into a project instead of a recipe?

And what does own the content mean?

If own the content means remember the content, it's rare to remember content you've practiced just once.

If own the content means understand the content, the same principle applies: once you forget the details of what you did, you may still have a feeling of understanding, but if you had to explain the concept to another person you couldn't do it.

I know this from long personal experience.

The feeling of understanding is not the same thing as understanding.

Anonymous on Race to Nowhere and over-work

Anonymous writes:
This movie was shown in our district courtesy of our PTO. The re-cap in the local paper confirmed what a friend told me about the event: the discussion hosted afterward quickly ended up in favor of less AP classes. Parents wanted to ditch AP and Honors class in favor of more vocational and elective type classes. This would be more an annoyance than a serious concern if I didn't live in a district that has already eliminated gifted ed and doesn't support ability grouping until middle school. Eliminating AP classes is just one more way to take away opportunities for the motivated, the gifted, and/or the plain 'ole hard-working kid.

However, I do think the message may be partially right. Our kids are working too hard-- they're spinning their wheels for all the wrong reasons: poor curricula, lack of ability grouping, constructivist classrooms, lack of pedagogical content, and other issues often discussed on this website. It's really hard to waste time of a group project or power point presentation and then wonder why the SAT and ACT questions are so challenging, why you now need to hire a tutor, or why you're going to have to give up that dream of becoming an engineer because you never developed the requisite skills. Not having the proper foundation means you're going to have to work really, really hard to make things happen... and sometimes, it's just so difficult you just give up.
The peril to AP classes is a real worry to me. My district would clearly like to eliminate them (although I'm guessing they'd be interested in replacing AP with IB).

I wish I'd filmed the three college presentations we've attended. It's all AP all the time; colleges want to see AP courses on transcripts.

They make no bones about it.

Bin Laden

New York Times

You should go look at the New York Times front page right now -- amazing.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Google is not a curriculum

I mentioned the other day that our interim curriculum director recently told the community that: "We're getting away from textbooks."

In practice, "we're getting away from textbooks" means the curriculum is Google. Teachers Google lessons and download them from the internet.

I've been observing the Googleization of the curriculum for years now, but I was surprised to discover that even some textbooks have turned into Google.

peer review - con and pro

In the midst of a conversation about peer review (here and here), I happened onto a critique of peer review I though I'd post:
The US Supreme Court has recently been wrestling with the issues of the acceptability and reliability of scientific evidence. In its judgement in the case of Daubert versus Merrell Dow, the Court attempted to set guidelines for US judges to follow when listening to scientific experts. Whether or not findings had been published in a peer-reviewed journal provided one important criterion. But in a key caveat, the Court emphasized that peer review might sometimes be flawed and therefore this criterion was not unequivocal evidence of validity or otherwise. A recent analysis of peer review adds to this controversy by identifying an alarming lack of correlation between reviewers’ recommendations.

Something rotten at the core of science?
by David Horrobin
Peer review has its problems, some of which I became aware of several years ago, when Ed and I learned that autism researchers doing behavioral research were being defunded, apparently in favor of funding researchers studying the brain and biology.* Peer review was involved.

Nevertheless, I do want K-12 curricula to be peer reviewed by specialists in the fields being taught.

Here's a case of a history textbook that was given no peer review:
Another historical malpractice foisted upon American school children came to light in Virginia last week . Once again it comes down to whether the standards of history as a discipline mean anything in the context of elementary and secondary history education.  Few of us would trust our children’s dental care to a historian.  Nor do we assume that anyone who has written a book can write a math textbook, regardless of their educational credentials.  But too often history seems different, subject to lower standards and inadequate review.


The case at hand is straightforward.  Our Virginia: Past and Present  (Five Ponds Press, 2010) was approved by the Virginia Board of Education without a single historian involved in the review process. Fortunately an alert historian reviewing her daughter’s assignments noticed the glaring error: a statement that “thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.”  It’s not true.  The reference to Jackson’s army is a total fabrication, and the broader reference to the Confederate army ignores the fact that slaves were forced into service and that there are no data available in any archive to document the statistic. 

So where did author Joy Masoff (not a historian) get her information?  From the Internet.  More specifically, from the web site of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.  And even more specifically from a page that claims Frederick Douglass as the source for the statistic, but can’t even get his name spelled right.  The relevant quotation from Douglass is taken out of context, and there are no corroborating sources. 

Historical Malpractice and the Writing of Textbooks
By James R. Grossman Malpractice
October 25, 2010
The disciplines are disciplines: they are fields of study with established bodies of knowledge, rules of evidence, and modes of analysis.

A professional historian possesses knowledge and expertise the rest of us don't possess, and that is the knowledge we send our kids to school to acquire. At least, that is the knowledge I sent my children to school to acquire.

History textbooks should be vetted - or preferably written - by historians, math textbooks by mathematicians, and science textbooks by scientists.

That's not to say K-12 teachers should have no involvement; teachers are the people who can tell us whether a textbook is working with students. If a K-12 teacher writes a textbook that's vetted by disciplinary specialists - then great!

I think parents should have a vote on their children's textbooks and curricular materials, too, though in my dream world we wouldn't need to exercise it.

Rethinking Peer Review
The Editors of The New Atlantis, "Rethinking Peer Review," The New Atlantis, Number 13, Summer 2006, pp. 106-110.

* I no longer remember all the details, and my understanding of what was going on may have been wrong. However, I do recall accurately that behavioral researchers were losing funding at the time. I don't know whether that is true today.

Bonnie on peer review and textbooks in computer science

Bonnie writes:
Peer review in computer science is very weird, because unlike other fields, we mainly publish in conferences rather than journals. It is a huge issue at tenure time because tenure committees assume that conference publications are meaningless - and they are in most fields - but not in computer science. Most of our conferences have acceptance rates of around 25%, and the top conferences are below 10%. That is where the peer review is happening in our field.

But that is research peer review, and I thought we were talking about textbooks. In CS, there are textbooks for certain "standard" courses - intro to programming, databases, operating systems, theory of computation, and a few others. The only real churn that I see is in the intro to programming area, because every time a new programming language hits the scene, you get 10 new books doing CS 1 and 2 in that langauge. In databases and operating systems, the same 3 or 4 authors have dominated for 20 years, issuing edition after edition of their book. So in reality, professors adopt the textbook, which isn't purchased or read by most of the class anyway, and then add lots of their own material. For courses that have no reasonable textbook - for example, everyone is adding courses on Android programming right now - we simply have the students buy a book aimed at professional developers, or cobble together notes on our own.
And here is Allison on peer review in mathematics.