kitchen table math, the sequel: 2/5/12 - 2/12/12

Saturday, February 11, 2012

college admissions - news from the front

Ed just got back from giving a talk at an elite college here in the East. Astonishingly, at this particular college the faculty does admissions, or at least is actively involved in admissions.

One of the professors told Ed that if you took everything on the applications at face value, half the entering class each year would be from China. The trouble is that with apps from China, no one can tell what's true and what's not.

He didn't know what the ultimate percentage of Chinese admits is.

related: A family member who works at Bryn Mawr tells us that 12% of the student body there is from China.

pop quiz

from Tips for Teachers:
In the third of the Tips for Teachers series of Spring 2010, we read and discussed "How Knowledge Helps", by Daniel T. Willingham.... We started our discussion with one member stating that he heard from many high school teachers that a number of their students lack simple basic knowledge, such as being unable to complete the rhyme, "Mary had a little ____"
Does Knowledge lead to New Learning?Tuesday, 09 March 2010 18:38
I'm sorry to be a crank about this,* but I distinctly recall, back on my home planet, everyone knowing Mary had a little lamb.

* No I'm not.

Friday, February 10, 2012

dysteachia, part 2

A popular textbook on special education (Rosenberg, et. al, 2008), notes that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given explicit instruction.
Mathematics Education: Outwitted by Stupidity Barry Garelick
So the sequence is:

a. Collaborative group inquiry with spiraling
b. Huge increase in children diagnosed w/learning disabilities
c. Provision of explicit instruction (w/o spiraling?) to children diagnosed w/learning disabilities
d. Followed by 50% of learning disabilities resolving

Back on my home planet, we didn't bother with Steps A, B, and D.


In a well-publicized paper that addressed why some students were not learning to read, Reid Lyon (2001) concluded that children from disadvantaged backgrounds where early childhood education was not available failed to read because they did not receive effective instruction in the early grades. Many of these children then required special education services to make up for this early failure in reading instruction, which were by and large instruction in phonics as the means of decoding. Some of these students had no specific learning disability other than lack of access to effective instruction. These findings are significant because a similar dynamic is at play in math education: the effective treatment for many students who would otherwise be labeled learning disabled is also the effective preventative measure.
Mathematics Education: Being Outwitted by Stupidity by Barry Garelick
The effective treatment for many students who would otherwise be labeled learning disabled is also the effective preventative measure.

and see Galen Alessi's classic: Diagnosis Diagnosed

habit, part 1

I keep mentioning my Eternal Basal Ganglia project...the one that never, ever gets done. (It's close! I swear!)

One of the issues I've been struggling with is the question of how people develop good habits as opposed to bad habits. More to the point, how would one go about developing a good habit on purpose?

Which, of course, raises the question of what, exactly, a habit is.

Answering that question has turned out to be more difficult than I expected. We all know a habit when we see one, and we all have numerous habits of our own, some of which we're trying to "break." But when you try to reverse-engineer the concept, it gets slippery.

I think Piers Steel's terrific book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done, has helped me finally make the jump from "What is a habit?" to "What would I need to do if I wanted to create a habit on purpose?"

More later.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Six-year-old Maria shows how to learn Spanish on a mobile phone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, left, at a technology fair in Hanover, Germany, in 2010.—Focke Strangmann/AP-File
Europe Seen Leading the Way in Hand-Held ComputingBy Ian Quillen | Education Week
Quick! Somebody get that little girl a node chair.

global shmobal

Still trying to persuade my district to adopt college readiness as a goal.

A couple of years ago, when our then-superintendent was writing her second Strategic Plan, I lobbied the administration to include the words "college preparation" on the Plan. No dice.

Our high school's publicly stated philosophy: "It's better to be happy than to get into a selective college." When I say "publicly stated," I mean publicly stated: the high school principal says these words publicly. It's more important to be happy than to get into a selective college. Last spring, one of the two candidates for school board - the candidate we did not support - quoted the h.s. principal at the candidates' forum. The candidate said he'd spoken to the principal of the high school, and the principal had told him it's more important for students to be happy than to get into a good college "no matter how much parents obsess over it."

He won in a landslide.

Westchester school districts aren't too interested in college readiness, and there's no pressure on them to change.

The Procrastination Equation

the equation:

Motivation = E x V/I x D

E = Expectancy: your level of confidence (but not over-confidence) you'll actually get whatever you're trying to do done
V = Value: how much you value getting whatever you're trying to do done
I = Impulsiveness: (no explanation required)
D = Delay: length of time before you realize the reward/goal/etc. - people "irrationally find present costs more salient than future costs"

The book is fantastic. Briliant. Amazing.

More anon.

The Procrastination Equation.

The Procrastination Equation at Science Daily.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What Philadelphia 5th graders should know how to do

I recently came into possession of one the Philadelphia School District Parent Teacher Brochures, which breaks down the goals that each Philadelphia School District student should be able to meet by the end of each grade level.  Since I'm homeschooling my 5th grade daughter, I was particularly interested in the goals for fifth grade. And I was shocked, shocked, to find myself more baffled than enlightened after reading through these goals.

The language arts goals are all about process, purposes, and genres, with a developmentally inappropriate assignment thrown in in the form of a research project:
•Continue to build a reading, writing and speaking vocabulary
•Read to learn new information
•Read a wide range of stories, books and magazines for enjoyment
•Understand a problem or conflict in stories or books and talk or write about an appropriate solution
•Make connections between stories and texts that they have read and the world around them
•Tell and/ or write a summary that gives the main idea of what they read and the most important details or events
•Complete a research project including a written report
•Write stories with several paragraphs
•Write poems, plays, and reports
Not a word about specific reading skills (vocabulary level, sentence complexity, making deductions and bridging inferences within the context of the text) or writing skills (grammar and punctuation, sentence construction, paragraph construction).

As for the math goals, most are vague ("compute" and "find the relationships"), easy (locating numbers on a number line; comparing numbers; sorting shapes), and emphasize verbal explanations over mathematical performance. Four out of the 13 goals are about data and probability. Here the developmentally inappropriate goal (especially given what isn't covered here) involves algebra:
• Compute and find the relationships using whole numbers, fractions, and decimals
• Locate positive and negative numbers on a number line (integers)
• Explain to you what prime numbers, factors, multiples and compositie numbers mean
• Compare numbers (equal to, greater than, and less than)
• Collect, organize, display, and analyze data in a variety of ways
• Find mean (average), median (middle number), mode (most frequent) and range (difference between largest and smallest) of data
• Predict or determine all possible combinations and outcomes, such as, "How many outfits can be created with six shirts and eight pants?"
• Calculate the chance of a simple event happening
• Use a variety of methods to solve for unknown quantities in simple one-step algebra equations (solve for x)
• Sort polygons according to their properties and angles, such as triangles, rhombi, and parallelograms
• Define and compare perimeter (distance around) and area (amount covered inside) of shapes
• Understand properties of a circle
• Explain how they solved a math problem in their own words.
Not a word about which computation skills the child should develop, what sorts of numbers, fractions, and decimals the child should be able to do computations on (perhaps only the "friendly" fractions and decimals), and what level of computational fluency the child should have. Not a word about multiplication tables, long division, repeating decimals, ratios and percents, and multi-step word problems.

Turning to science, only one substantive topic is mentioned (solar energy) and goals pertaining to it remain vague ("build an understanding;" "recognize"). Most the goals pertain to process rather than achievement, many of them involving developmentally inappropriate activities that wrongly assume that children can function as little scientists:
• Develop skills that will emphasize the five senses while doing science
• Use prior knowledge when making observations
• Make predictions and hypotheses based on observations
• Design investigations with a control and one or two variables
• Gather, organize and display data independently
• Build an understanding of how solar energy is transferred
• Recognize that the sun is the main source of energy for people and they use it in various ways
• Design and conduct experiments with variables. Students should be able to explain cause and effect
• Study the relationship in an ecosystem that shows the relationship of an organism to its environment
• Conduct hands-on investigations to discover and understand their world
• Record observations in science notebooks
It would seem that, "goals" aside, the Philadelphia Schools are avoiding any commitment to help your 5th grader increase his or her vocabulary, reading level, sentence construction skills, or computational fluency with "unfriendly" numbers; or learn any scientific content other than a few vague propositions about solar energy.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Merit Aid for Parents

Catherine has kindly offered me the keys to make the occasional post here at KTM. My kids are too young to have issues with math education yet, so I will probably stick to posts about college admissions, which has been a big topic lately. I thought I'd start with a primer on merit aid.

Merit aid is probably the least well-understood piece of financial aid. The entire way that colleges figure out what you will pay is purposely vague anyway. It is based on a sense that a college that costs a lot is perceived to have a high value, while lowering tuition makes a school seem like it is lower in quality. I’m not kidding here – a few years ago, a consultant recommended that to raise our enrollment, we raise our price by 10K per year and raise average financial aid per student by 9.5K. They figured that would actually attract more students by making us look high quality and generous with aid.

The cost of college is adjustable – an institution won’t tell you the real cost until after you have been accepted and they see your FAFSA (which is basically the information on your tax return – imagine if a car dealer asked for that information before you started negotiating!) Most schools have a discount rate, which is the ratio of the real cost to the sticker price, but the published discount rate isn’t meaningful. Instead, the discount rate is different for every student.

So what should a parent understand about this process? First, the largest non-need based scholarships are grouped together as merit aid. You never apply for merit aid specifically. Instead, you are considered for merit aid as part of the admissions process. For the most part, privates give more merit aid as part of so-called enrollment management, though as Catherine noticed, state schools are also starting to compete with merit aid, especially for out of state applicants. Enrollment management is the process of getting a class of students with the desired statistics (grades/scores) that can pay the bills. So a student who is in the bottom 25% of the admitted students will be asked to pay full fare (or full fare minus any federal or other need-based financial aid, but that’s another topic). The admissions and financial aid folks know this person is probably excited to be admitted at all, so will make it work. Another student in the top 10%, on the other hand, has other options and is likely to get a better package with some kind of scholarship.

To some extent, every college wants the same students, but some schools give more merit aid than others. The Ivies and the top liberal arts colleges, which admit ~10% of their applicants, don’t give much merit aid. They don’t have to – even their top 25% applicants are excited to get the admissions letter and they can fill a strong class without discounting tuition.

There is a book out there that discusses all this in more detail, called The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the education you want for a price you can afford.

If you go to the Amazon link and search inside the book for merit aid, you can get the main points. The Amazon site also lets you look at their list of sixty schools that give a significant amount of merit aid. You will notice that the 75% verbal/math SAT score for most of these schools is 1300-1400. So a student with 650+ SATs and solid grades can potentially score some good deals, although not at schools anyone has necessarily heard of! Also, the 25%/75% SAT numbers are public (although as the CMC scandal shows they may not be totally accurate.) You can see an example here, and find many others at

The final thing parents and students should know is that, within a tier of institutions, you can bargain with financial aid. If Oberlin gives you a better package than Macalester, it is worth seeing if Macalester will match or beat it. However, Yale will not be impressed by an offer from Oberlin, but would try to match or beat an offer from Harvard or Princeton.