kitchen table math, the sequel: 2010

Friday, December 31, 2010

gone fishing

Hi everyone -

I'm spending New Year's Eve in Chatham, IL.

Gotta figure out my resolutions.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

kitchen table math

at Debbie Stier's house

email from a parent

Today I visited the best public school in the district. A school so good that they brought in Singapore math. All but one of the teachers at the school had more than 10 years experience in teaching. All of them had classrooms that indicated they had some autonomy, despite the district's top-down insanity--the principal had hired professionals, treats them as professionals, and in return, they behave as professionals.

But they teach Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop. Today, visiting K and 1st grades, I spoke with some teachers. The K teacher explained that they'd been doing guided/leveled reading for a decade, and RW was just catching up to have curriculur content. He said he assessed kids with Fountas Pinnell twice a year, then broke up kids into 6 groups (for 22 kids). He worked with groups every *6* days, though later in the year, every 3 days.

The idea was that higher abled kids in reading could decode well past their comprehension, basically which I don't doubt. [My child] can decode anything, for example. But obviously can't comprehend everything. So the teacher spent that time trying to teach the upper ones (I didn't ask about the lower able readers) things like inference--what else could have happened, how events would have changed the ending,  etc. He said with one kid who was reading at nth grade level he had the kid journal, and they swapped the journal every 2 days, trying to think more deeply about inferences in the comprehension.

My first thought was that in the hands of an excellent teacher, RW wouldn't be so bad. With enough nonfiction books teaching content, and enough interaction, this could be useful.

But my second thought was why do this now? Why not just wait until kids KNOW MORE STUFF to infer about? Why not wait until they are 8 or 9 and then ask about this stuff?

Third thought was that it reminded me of a comment in Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice (do you know that book? It's an annotated version of Alice in Wonderland, explaining the puzzles, puns, riddles, historical and mathematical references, etc.) Gardner wrote that he hoped his book would not be used to destroy children's interest in literature, as excerpts of it would be turned into such questions as "draw the chess board alice is walking on at the end of chapter 2. Is the white queen protected by the knight or not?" "Find five puns in the March Hare tea party about time." etc--wouldn't reading this way make reading miserable?

Then I looked at the WW stuff. and it was so dreary. They had taken a unit on Eric Carle and broken it down into the recognizable PATTERNS! "what's the pattern in the very hungry caterpillar?" "the days of the week" "what the pattern in Does a Kangaroo have a mother too?" "The pattern is the text "yes, an < animal > has a mother too, just like me and you."

Does this stuff just appeal to adults, and they have no idea how much kids hate it? Is it a boy thing to hate this stuff? [My son] would be excited he'd recognized the pattern, and then he'd be ready to move on, no discussion needed. It would take ten seconds, not 5 days. He'd rather be doing something.

I can imagine that RW and WW at least appear to make sense if a child is already a fluent reader. It must be impossible to become one, though, if you're doing this rather than learning to read.

good news!

What exactly is "Readers' Workshop"? My son's school just sent me an email announcing the apparently great news that we have cleared some sort of hurdle, so we will now be able to begin Readers' Workshop as of January. Woohoo! Given that it is the same people who were equally excited about adopting Everyday Math, I'm almost afraid to ask. 

Cleared a hurdle!

I love it!

We've heard similar things around here.

I remember a few years back being told that our then-superintendent had been able to get us accepted by the elite Tri-State Consortium.

Come to find out, the Tri-State Consortium is not elite and charges an arm and a leg for everything it does.

History in an Hour

Debbie Stier found this today.

No idea what it's like - but if it's good it's exactly what I need.

One thing I need, anyway.

Think I'll go Google Logarithms in an Hour.

onward and upward, part 3

also in the new Harvard Education Letter:
Other experts working to train teachers onlinoe agree. "One of the hallmarks of online learning is that it changes the onus of learning from the teacher to the student," obseves Dr. Lynne Meeks, who runs Alabama's portion of eLearning for Educators, a federally funded multistate ODP [sic] project.
Like Teacher, Like Student
by Dave Saltman
Harvard Education Letter
January | February 2011
p. 4

Federally funded, you say.

I'm pretty sure I don't want to pay for a multistate ODP project.

Or OPD, as the case may be.*

Heck, I don't even want to pay for a curriculum department for my own school district.

Also, I vote for the "onus of learning" remaining with the teacher, thank you very much.

Of course, I don't have a vote.

* OPD = online professional development

let's not and say we did, part 3

My copy of the Harvard Education Letter arrived in the mail yesterday:
These days, everyone is trying to get students to think about their own thinking--and take that thinking to a higher level. To do this, educators are urging teachers to help students teach--and even assess--each other, since the success of so-called student-centered instruction is predicated on getting students to collaborate and take charge of their own learning.
Like Teacher, Like Student
by Dave Saltman
Harvard Education Letter
January | February 2011
p. 4

I'm sure we'll be seeing more of this in my district now that our curriculum department will once again have a full-time curriculum director.

onward and upward, part 2

Hainish writes:

I had a fantastic English teacher in grade 7. We did diagramming sentences, the whole nine yards. For me, it was the best part of ELA.

I found out recently that she had been under pressure more and more to abandon that sort of teaching and do more of the readers'/writers' workshop crap that took hold in my district. So she quit, or retired early. (She was not exactly young when she left, but it was a loss for the students.)

I got to see a grade 8 ELA classroom last year at the same school. A row of small, colorful clay models of various objects (presumably, revealing each student's inner soul) lined one wall of the classroom.

Martha Kolln's 10 core sentences

Tips for Teaching Grammar: Sentence Diagramming (pdf file)

E.D. Hirsch on the philosophical roots of progressive education

Hirsch writes:
In my mind, progressive educational ideas have proved so seductive because their appeal lies not in their practical effects but in their links to romanticism, the 19th-century philosophical movement, so influential in American culture, that elevated all that is natural and disparaged all that is artificial. The progressives applied this romantic principle to education by positing that education should be a natural process of growth that flows from the child’s natural instincts and interests. The word “nature” in the romantic tradition connotes the sense of a direct connection with the holy, lending the tenets of progressivism all the weight of religious conviction. We know in advance, in our bones, that what is natural must be better than what is artificial. This revelation is the absolute truth against which experience itself must be measured, and any failure of educational practice must be due to faulty implementation of progressive principles or faulty interpretation of educational results. Thus the results of mere reading tests must not be taken at face value, because such blunt instruments cannot hope to measure the true effects of education. The fundamental beliefs of progressivism are impervious to unfavorable data because its philosophical parent, romanticism, is a kind of secular theology that, like all religions, is inherently resistant to data. A religious believer scorns mere “evidences.”

The Chasm Between

There are many disputes within the education field, but none so vituperative as the reading and math wars—the battles over how best to teach children to read and to solve arithmetic problems. These aren’t just disputes over instructional techniques; they are expressions of two distinct and opposing understandings of children’s nature and how children learn. The two sides are best viewed as expressions of romantic versus classical orientations to education. For instance, the “whole language,” progressive approach to teaching children how to read is romantic in impulse. It equates the natural process of learning an oral first language with the very unnatural process of learning alphabetic writing. The emotive weight in progressivist ideas is on naturalness. The natural is spiritually nourishing; the artificial, deadening. In the 1920s, William Kilpatrick and other romantic progressivists were already advocating the “whole language” method for many of the same reasons advanced today.

The classical approach, by contrast, declines to assume that the natural method is always the best method. In teaching reading, the classicist is quite willing to accept linguistic scholarship that discloses that the alphabet is an artificial device for encoding the sounds of language. Learn the 40-odd sounds of the English language and their corresponding letter combinations, and you can sound out almost any word. Yet adherents of “whole language” regard phonics as an unnatural approach that, by divorcing sounds and letters from meaning and context, fails to give children a real appreciation for reading.

The progressivist believes that it is better to study math and science through real-world, hands-on, natural methods than through the deadening modes of conceptual and verbal learning, or the repetitive practicing of math algorithms, even if those “old fashioned” methods are successful. The classicist is willing to accept the verdict of scholars that the artificial symbols and algorithms of mathematics are the very sources of its power. Math is a powerful instrument precisely because it is unnatural. It enables the mind to manipulate symbols in ways that transcend the direct natural reckoning abilities of the mind. Natural, real-world intuitions are helpful in math, but there should be no facile opposition between terms like “understanding,” “hands-on,” and “real-world applications” and terms like “rote learning” and “drill and kill.” What is being killed in memorizing the multiplication table? The progressivist says: children’s joy in learning, their intrinsic interest, and their deep understanding.

The romantic poet William Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect”; the progressivist says that phonemics and place value should not be dissected in isolation from their natural use, nor imposed before the child is naturally ready. Instead of explicit, analytical instruction, the romantic wants implicit, natural instruction through projects and discovery. This explains the romantic preference for “integrated learning” and “developmental appropriateness.” Education that places subject matter in its natural setting and presents it in a natural way is superior to the artificial analysis and abstractions of language. Hands-on learning is superior to verbal learning. Real-world applications of mathematics provide a truer understanding of math than empty mastery of formal relationships.

Romancing the Child
E.D. Hirsch
Education Next
Spring 2001 / Vol. 1, No. 1
This is where whole math comes from.

Also, this is why it's illegal to teach sentence diagramming (pdf file - Martha Kolln's 10 core sentences) in public schools.


I see I've posted this passage before: E.D. Hirsch on "spilt religion."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

under the Christmas tree, part 2

Over-administered and under-taught

(I didn't write the title!)

under the Christmas tree, part 1

Google inflation tracker

A second inflation measure comes from Web behemoth Google and is a pet project of the company's chief economist, Hal Varian. As reported by the Financial Times, earlier this year, Varian decided to use Google's vast database of Web prices to construct the "Google Price Index," a constantly updated measure of price changes and inflation. (The idea came to him when he was searching for a pepper grinder online.) Google has not yet decided whether it will publish the price index, and has not released its methodology. But Varian said that his preliminary index tracked CPI closely, though it did show periods of deflation—the worrisome incidence of prices actually falling—where the CPI did not.

Do We Need Google To Measure Inflation?
Economists are creating new methods for tracking prices.
By Annie Lowrey
Posted Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, at 5:10 PM ET

pop quiz, part 4

There’s a certain country where everybody wants to have a son. Therefore each couple keeps having children until they have a boy; then they stop. What fraction of the population is female?

A Big Answer

Monday, December 27, 2010

the secret of my success, part 2

re: weight loss, Bill Clinton, and books

These are the books I read:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell

Reversing Heart Disease by Calwell B. Esselstyn

Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes by Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss by Joel Fuhrman

the secret of my success - weight loss

Every few years I think I've found the secret of weight loss and maintenance.

One year it was Strattera.

Another year it was Seth Roberts and eloo.

Both Strattera and eloo seem to work, but eventually one of two things happens to people following any sort of diet regimen: either the effects wear off or your ability to stick with the program wears off.

This time around, I think it's possible I've found the secret not just to getting thin but to staying thin: quasi-veganism.


I adopted a heavy-duty vegan diet (no animal food, no added salt, sugar, or fat) at the end of September 2009. I didn't stick to it altogether, but pretty much.

Over the next six 5 months, I lost 11 pounds. Which for me is huge. The most I've ever lost on a normal calorie-counting and exercise diet is 5 to 7 pounds. While I was on the vegan regimen, fat just melted away; you cannot be overweight - you cannot even be middle-aged chunky - eating all plant foods with no added salt, sugar, or fat. Guaranteed. (update: or maybe not)

So I lost 11 pounds over the next six 5 months.

Then I promptly lost all desire to carry on eating all plant foods with no added salt, sugar, or fat.

So I switched to a quasi-vegan diet. Veganism (with salt, sugar, and fat) is my default setting, but I eat meat* when the spirit moves me, or when I'm out and about.

"Out and about" means "in a restaurant." It's almost not possible to be a vegan inside an American restaurant. Inside a restaurant, everything is meat. The appetizer is meat, the salad is meat, the main course is meat, the side dishes are meat, the dessert is meat. Just about the only things in a restaurant that aren't meat are the alcohol and the rolls.

If you want to know just how much meat everyone is eating, try opening up a menu and asking yourself what you would order if you wanted to be a vegan. Which I realize you don't. But try the  experiment and you'll see.

We're eating a whole lot of meat.

When I switched to quasi-veganism, I figured: this is it. This is the point where I go off the wagon and gain everything back.

That was last spring. 

Now it's Christmas 2010, and I'm still thin. (Which you can kinda see here.)

As far as I can tell, quasi-veganism works. We'll see.

The weird thing is: I seem to be the only person on the planet who knows this. Assuming I do know it, of course.

Also, I seem to be the only person on the planet who can even conceive of quasi-veganism being the Holy Grail of weight loss and maintenance. I'll be sitting around a table or a living room filled with  middle-aged people who've gained weight over the years, and I will be obviously, manifestly thinner than everyone else except Ed, and when the topic of middle-age weight gain comes up and I mention that the reason I'm thinner than everyone else except Ed is that I have become a quasi-vegan, people stare at me blankly. Most of the time, no one expresses the slightest curiosity as to what I'm talking about.*

Which is weird, don't you think?

If two years ago someone thin had told me "I've found a diet that's easy to follow and works even when you're cheating" I think that would have piqued my interest.

Anyway, assuming quasi-veganism does work - or, rather, will continue to work for me - I have an idea about the mechanism or mechanisms:
As to appetite, you can test the proposition that animal fat stokes appetite for yourself just by observing what foods people do and do not binge on.

I binge on butter; I don't binge on peanut butter. That's what it comes down to.

If I eat one toasted English muffin dripping in melted butter, I want to eat another English muffin dripping in melted butter.

If I eat one toasted bagel dripping in melted peanut butter, that's plenty.

If I eat ice cream, I want to eat more ice cream.

If I eat a bag of potato chips before dinner, which I do, I spoil my appetite.

That's another thing. Remember when parents used to worry about kids "spoiling their appetites"? I have never uttered such a warning to my own kids because until I discovered quasi-veganism, I had never seen an appetite actually get spoiled.

I have now discovered that it is in fact possible to spoil your appetite, but not by eating ice cream. Ice cream makes me hungry for lasagne. Bring it on.

Junk food made with plant fat spoils my appetite.

Junk food made with animal fat does not.


These things may or may not be true:
  • tofu makes you fat - no idea whether this is true, but when I come across photos of overweight vegans on the web, they seem to be of people who've put a fair amount of time and energy into knocking off fatty desserts using tofu as a substitute for butter and eggs.
update: I am not the only person on the planet who knows that quasi-veganism causes weight loss. It's me and Bill Clinton.

Junk Food Makes You Eat More

* By "meat" I mean fish, chicken, eggs, meat, and dairy.
* No one except Susan S, that is. Susan S was willing to read several dozen emails on the subject of veganism during my phase of maximum obsession. Thank you, Susan!

let's not and say we did, part 3

“Look, this is what you need to do. So like it or not, do it.”
A principal pushing teachers to raise expectations and adopt an inquiry model

quoted in Marshall Memo 307
A Weekly Round-up of Important Ideas and Research in K-12 Education
October 26, 2009
Raising expectations AND adopting an inquiry model is going to be H-E-double hockey sticks for the kids.


"Like it or not, do it" is pushing?

Not shoving?

let's not and say we did
let's not and say we did, part 2
let's not and say we did, part 3

Adlai Stevenson High School

On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is affluent Adlai Stevenson High School—a one-school district in the Chicago area. Students and teachers there worked in the same team-based professional learning communities and benefited from the same honest, tough-minded leadership advocated here. They relied exclusively on in-house expertise as teams met, by course, to share and prepare lessons and units that they continuously improved on the basis of common, team-made assessment results. Over a 10-year period, under the leadership of Richard DuFour, Stevenson broke every achievement record on school, state, and college entrance exams. Advanced placement success increased by 800 percent (Schmoker, 2001b).

Results Now
by Mike Schmoker
Introduction: The Brutal Facts About Instruction and Its Supervision

I've spent a good two years trying to interest my district in, say, just finding out what it was Richard DuFour actually did at Adlai Stevenson High School.

No sale.

Though I'm told we do now have a professional learning community room at the high school. Apparently there's a sign on the door that says: "professional learning community."

I've gotta get a picture of that.

Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New Insights for Improving Schools

Sunday, December 26, 2010

under the Christmas tree, part 1

Yesterday morning I got up, came downstairs, and there under the tree was a bright and shiny new curriculum administrator wrapped up a red bow!

Sesame Street

apparently being barista also means being neoretrosoulculture DJ at this Harlem Starbucks, two blocks from the A-train Express station on 125 St. Their murals romanticise graffiti. You can see gentrification slowly creeping up from the south, bringing fashionable billboards and storefronts -- but then again before the Great Migrations this place probably was gentrified anyway, to some extent. I am told that the well-to-do south of Central Park used to buy summer houses up here, because they were cooler. The houses 20 blocks north, probably built more than a 100 years ago, have grand marble staircases and dumbwaiters inside. Even in a single residential area, the demographic can range from working to upper middle class. A working mother comes home late at night while luxury cars are parked along her street. It is perhaps a juxtaposition that has arisen as an effect of rent stabilisation laws in the midst of gentrification. The sidewalks of the avenues are wide (alas, unchalked) and at 7:30 am are full of busses full of people on the commute.

There is a sense of pride in this neighbourhood. Not swagger, but hold-your-head-up-high pride -- the pride I suppose a UVA student gets walking past the ampitheatre in the morning on their way to Cabell. An elderly man holding a Macy's bag (walking north) looks like he's shuffling to a beat. Even at 11 pm stepping off onto the subway stations here, you get the homely vibe you get from stepping off at the Redhill MRT station in Singapore. In the night, off the avenues into the streets, the blocks are quiet residential areas and while the buildings look old, their exteriors are kept immaculately neat. That man in a hoodie loitering on the corner is actually a guy hired to make sure passersby don't miss his underground candlelit restaurant. There is a vibe here that you don't get in Times Square or Flushing -- no one is on their guard. The baristas (a girl and neoretrosoulculture DJ -- a guy) are singing to a mean beat.

A writer-looking chap (Ice Cube beard, Malcolm X glasses) writing in the corner has just quietly protested the actions of Neoretrosoul DJ who had expelled an aging chap with a green ski hat reading the NYT at a table.

"I lost my job, I'm on welfare," green ski hat guy had said.
"Please leave the store," sternly commands neoretrosoulculture DJ, almost shouting. Green-hat guy turns to leave quickly; he seems used to this treatment, but probably didn't expect to be noticed so soon.

As he was halfway through the door, neoretrosoulture DJ cries, "Loser! buy your own paper!"

It was then that I could see, that despite his seeming musical literacy and sense of good taste, that neoretrosoul DJ could not be much older than a high school student. But he micromanages the place; this Starbucks is /his/ baby. Writer-looking chap disagrees with this aspect of management though. Did you really have to expel him? His voice is low and I can barely hear -- but with his expression and stern eyes, I think I can make out -- "What sort of example are you setting for our community?"

At 8:45 am the demographic changes; it was initially occupied by a handful of people looking for quiet morning solace -- none of the 7:30 am commuting demographic bought coffee. Now come in the cashmere scarves, tight jeans and Northface jackets; a woman on her way to work with a tomboyish haircut and pearl earrings, but also with Estee Lauder to hide her wrinkles; a large Italian tourist family.

The Payless "Shoesource" across has a street mural painted on its shutters. It's a street message about Liberation and the Struggle of Our People -- but it's tasteful and among its many images, has exquisite 3D detail of children's faces gazing onto some promised land. There must be several dozen shades of colour; it's not gaudy like the murals you can see from the 7 train in Queens (before you disappear underground into Manhattan.) I can see why the owner hasn't done anything to remove it. The shutters go up and down several times before the store finally opens. Many of the other stores don't have shutters, but glass windows with metal blinds -- even though the store is closed, they are open, and they are in pristine condition. One boutique is outfitted in shiny marble, right next to the gaudy "We buy gold and diamonds!!!" store with two graffiti tags painted on its shutters.

The writer-looking chap acquires a pretty date for morning coffee; they study a notebook. She animatedly makes suggestions and inquiries, but writer-looking chap retains a rather stoic expression though his mouth moves passionately. He looks at her with a stern gaze as he explains carefully why he can't implement her suggestion; she looks back at him, locking his eyes in her gaze for half a minute, talking slowly but with an air of protestation . She continues talking more confidently as the conversation progresses. His stoic face breaks into a smile.

9:30 am and the customers stream in; a serious line forms and the Starbucks is full. I'm now not the only Asian in the store. The suitcases walk south; the Times Square shopping bags move north. The bass rhythm underscoring a spoken word piece blasts in the background. The cars streaming by now outnumber the busses 30:1. I converse with a woman with a gospel voice, librarian glasses, a leopard hat, and a drawstring bag with three different cloth patterns -- about computers. With loose strands of brunette hair dangled in her face, morning coffee date suddenly lights up and points out to writer-looking chap that it's snowing. The store's customers now don't seem very different from the SoHo demographic.

But something is different.


What does it mean? A promised land? A selling out? A reintegration? A disenfranchisement?

Can you integrate without losing your culture?

tidbit: Harlem is the centre of education reform in NYC; 18 out of 25 charter schools in NYC are in Harlem.

an interesting article:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

if you can't do it, you don't understand it

cross-posted at the Irvington Parents Forum:
Reviewing his son’s grade-school homework in the early 2000s diverted W. Stephen Wilson from his research in algebraic topology to question basic math education. At two well-regarded private schools, Wilson’s son had encountered the most widely used elementary math curricula, Investigations and Everyday Mathematics. Both encourage the use of calculators for multiplication and division, in line with a 1989 report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics that downplayed teaching arithmetic with pencil and paper. “What the schools were doing with math was beyond my imagination,” Wilson says. “I knew that my kid’s third-grade math wasn’t going to prepare him for college.”

A professor of mathematics in the Krieger School, Wilson teaches calculus to undergraduates. In 2006, he decided to conduct an experiment with his Johns Hopkins students. His Calculus I for the Biological and Social Sciences class that year bore close resemblance to the 1989 class. Their scores on the SAT math exam were nearly identical, and the two groups contained the same percentage of freshmen. Curious to see how they’d compare on the same exam, he gave the 2006 students the same 77-point final that he’d given the 1989 class. The results, he believes, confirmed his hunch that students were coming out of K–12 schooling less prepared for college math. When he compared scores by the grading scale in use in 1989, 27 percent of the 1989 students received As on the exam and 37 percent scored Bs. Only 6 percent of his 2006 students would have received As, 26 percent Bs.


As another experiment, Wilson gave a short test of basic math skills at the start of his Calculus III class in 2007. The results predicted how students later fared on the final exam. Those who could use pencil and paper to do basic multiplication and long division at the beginning of the semester scored better on the final Calc III material. His most startling finding was that 33 out of 236 advanced students didn’t even know how to begin a long division problem.

Wilson says he wouldn’t be so against calculator use if teachers still taught multiplication and division by hand as well, regardless of the fact that few will ever do math that way as adults. “The theory that people should only learn what they are going to use as adults doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he explains. “If you take that to the extreme, there wouldn’t be much left to K–12 education. If someone is going to fly an airplane when they grow up, should we skip all the intermediate steps and just teach them how to fly an airplane when they are 10?”


In 2006 he served as senior adviser for mathematics in the U.S. Department of Education, where he helped form the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. Since his return to his Hopkins classes in 2007, Wilson has continued to review K–12 curricula for various states.

Wilson has found that the brightest students work around what he calls their “unnecessary handicap.” In his study of 2007 Calculus III students, for example, the correlation between being “division clueless” and scoring poorly on the final exam wasn’t as strong as he would have guessed; some of those students did just fine. But that seemed true only for the minority. When he followed up on the class two years later in 2009, one-third of the “division-clueless” students were on academic probation.

Wilson doesn’t like the long-term implications of a new generation of engineers and scientists who can’t divide or don’t know their multiplication tables. He compares it to having car mechanics who only know how to fix automatic transmissions. “You might use a calculator if you’re an engineer, but you need to know what it does. If you need mathematics in your career, then it is probably a good idea to really understand it,” he says. “You don’t understand it if you can’t do it.”

Back to Basics for the “division clueless”
By Lisa Watts
December 6, 2010
Johns Hopkins Magazine

Saturday, December 18, 2010

a good school is good for everyone

The report also included a finding that in every country surveyed, girls read better than boys — a gap that has widened since 2000. Also included was a finding that the best school systems are the most equitable — where students do well regardless of social background.
Western Nations React to Poor Education Results
Published: December 8, 2010

I believe it.

Educated parents with the money to hire tutors can go a ways towards mitigating the effects of bad curricula and teaching.

I've seen that for years in my district.

I'm curious about the reading gap in countries with highly phonetic languages.

leaning tower of PISA, part 2

“Germany has improved its status from ‘horrendous’ to ‘average’ — we are at least satisfied with that upward trend,” Ulla Burchardt, chairwoman of the German government’s education committee, said in a radio interview.
Western Nationsl React to Poor Education Results
Published: December 8, 2010

leaning tower of PISA

In Britain, where results showed students falling behind peers in Estonia and Slovenia, Education Minister Michael Gove promised to overhaul the examination system to make it tougher, using tests from China and South Korea as benchmarks. Britain will “explicitly borrow from these education tiger nations,” Mr. Gove said.
Western Nations React to Poor Education Results
Published: December 8, 2010
Estonia and Slovenia?

it isn't the culture, stupid

Barry G on the new international comparisons

The news last week that Shanghai students achieved the top scores in math on the international PISA exam was for some of us not exactly a wake-up call (as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized it) or a Sputnik moment (as President Obama called it).

We've seen this result before. We've seen the reactions and the theories and the excuses that purport to explain why the US does so poorly in math. In fact, there are three main variations used to explain why Chinese/Asian students do so well in international exams:

Version 1: They are taught using rote learning and then regurgitate the results on exams that test how well they memorize the procedures of how to solve specific problems.

Version 2: They are taught using the reform methods of a "problem based approach" that doesn't rely on drills, and instills critical thinking and higher order thinking skills

Version 3: The teacher or the culture produces the proper conditions for learning

This argument is based on the observation that the education-valued culture manifests itself in ways that are unlikely to happen here: long school days, after-school math “clubs” in which math facts and procedures are drilled (pointed to by some as evidence that students in China are engaging in rote learning), long hours studying and teachers who know the subject matter extremely well. . . . The “culture argument” also paints a picture of U.S. culture as totally oblivious to educational values and ignores the subcultures that place a value equal to that seen in China and other countries. Those are the students whose goals are to enter the top universities in the US, who work very hard and take AP classes and exams. Some of the parents of those students have protested against the adoption of substandard math programs such as Investigations in Number, Data and Space, and Everyday Math. These are the parents who have been told by school boards that the traditional method of teaching math may have worked for some, but not for all. Those are the parents who have discovered that the traditional methods of teaching math (in the 50’s and 60’s) work very well indeed, and are similar in some respects to how it is taught overseas.

decline at the top

Speaking of our best students, the other reaction to mediocre U.S. performance on international tests I've seen -- which shows up in the comments to Barry's article -- is the claim that our best students are doing as well as the best students elsewhere. This is a variant of the 'culture' argument: American  slackers are bringing down the mean.

Not true.

Here's a passage from the Baltimore Curriculum Project video. In this section, William Schmidt, who headed one of the TIMSS studies, is talking about the best American students:
8:05 Schmidt: This system of ours has failed the elite kids, too. This is a little known fact because it wasn't emphasized very much, but in the early TIMSS study there was a high school specialist exam for those kids that were the AP physics kids and those that were the AP calculus kids. Those kids were last among their counterparts in the rest of the world. That is, if you took the elite track in the French system that was leading to math and science, these [American] kids were at the bottom. So we're failing those kids just as much as we're failing the kids on the other spectrum.

William Schmidt Baltimore Curriculum Project
Dr. William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University
Leading Minds K-12 Math Education Forum, April 24, 2008 in Baltimore.
12th grade

Thursday, December 16, 2010

wake me when it's over

cross-posted to the Irvington Parents Forum:

I attended a meeting on the Race to the Top teacher evaluation protocols up in Bedford, and the new regs are a horror.

I’m completely off the boat with RTTT. If even half of what I heard the other night is true, schools are going to become a compliance nightmare beyond imagining as every teacher in the state receives annual ratings of “highly effective” and all probationary teachers are granted the right to years of appeals when they don’t get tenure. This is the ultimate bad law.

I talked to a number of school board members coming out of the meeting as well as one assistant superintendent. They were reeling.

Preview of coming attractions: under the new law, a school with 40 teachers could have ALL FORTY TEACHERS appeal their RTTT-mandated evaluations AT THE SAME TIME, and the principal would be required to respond to all 40 appeals on deadline and with multiple documents and timelines and rationales and data sets and god knows what else in order.

Schools will have to hire armies of administrators to process all the appeals. More likely, everyone will be rated Highly Effective forever.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


One way to win a debate is to make sure you're in on developing the question, for it is the nature of the question that frames the debate. The question is the fence around the playing field and when the question is, for example, "What should our standards be?", or "How will we measure success?", you can't discuss, "What are our standards for?", or "How will we act on our measurements?".

In public education much of the debate has been co-opted by this time tested debating technique. While people argue about curriculum, pedagogy, and standards, two mythologies, central to the field are left outside the fence. One myth is that all children have the same abilities (child as widget) and its partner is that public education can be designed as a singular (widget factory) assembly line, replicated across towns, states, and country. Much of the flailing in evidence today is about how to come up with this mythical process for our mythical widgets.

First, child as widget. I don't buy it. Without addressing why or how children arrive at their various capabilities, it is demonstrably true that any age based cross section of kids will produce a vast range of abilities. These can be athletic, academic, maturity, or any other measure you can think of. Kids exhibit huge differences in any category you can think of.

Unfortunately, many (most?) of the education establishment does buy into the child as widget meme. It's understandable since this is both politically and emotionally correct. Who wants to admit an inconvenient truth after all? If you buy the myth while being charged with developing widget factories, then your first task as a designer is to come up with a device that supports your mythological fantasies.

This is the root of subjective standards. With subjective standards one can disguise differences. It allows for the substitution of exposure for mastery. It facilitates social promotion. It pretends that there are no dependent stages to building an educated widget. It eliminates the need for expectations. Subjective standards remove the scoreboard from the game.

The second myth, the widget factory, is only made possible by instituting the first. It would be absurd to design a singular assembly line if your raw materials were not being delivered to the line meeting some minimum level of specification. Fuzzy specifications clear this problem. Subjective standards that support the 'child as widget' myth are a precondition for the widget factory. Fuzzy subjective standards create the necessary illusion that permits the universal solution.

So if you find yourself arguing text books, teachers, pedagogy, and expectations, lift your head out of the weeds to see if there is greener grass over the hill. You might be surprised at what you see.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Revolutionizing Math at the School of the Future

(Cross-posted at Out in Left Field)

A front page article in Monday's Local News section of the Philadelphia Inquirer profiles a math class at Philadelphia's Microsoft-funded High School of the Future, whose teacher, Thomas Gaffey, placed second in Microsoft's U.S. Innovative Education Forum and was a semi-finalist in its Worldwide Innovative Education Forum. In Gaffey's ninth-grade algebra class there are:
No textbooks, no paper, no chalk, no desks, and no assigned seats.

Instead, students use laptops while sitting in rolling chairs at trapezoidal tables spaced out in hexagonal classrooms.
Just how newsworthy this sounds to you depends on whether you think chair mobility and table shape have a big influence on learning, on whether you've been following current trends in education over the last 50 years, and on how unusual you think it is for a teacher to "encourage his students to find answers to their own questions" and engage with them in exchanges like these:
"Is this an obtuse triangle?" one student asks.

"Well, what can you tell me about an obtuse triangle?" Gaffey replies.

"One of the angles has to be more than 90 degrees," the student answers.

"Are any of the angles here like that?"

"Yeah. Oh, I get it now!"
As the Inquirer explains:
This snippet of student-driven discussion is a glimpse of the style and approach that have earned Gaffey national and international recognition.
Student-driven? Who's asking most of the questions? But I'm splitting hairs here. What I should be asking is: Why does this kind of exchange warrant international recognition?

To fair, it wasn't this, specifically, that earned Gaffey his honors. Rather:
Les Foltos, one of the judges who reviewed Gaffey's work, was impressed by his emphasis on "actively engaging students in solving real-world problems." As Gaffey puts it, "If we want to teach math to learners, we should teach math how it is actually used. It doesn't matter how much you know. It matters what you can do."
Ah yes, "real world problems." Again, only if you've been out of touch with the last half century of educational reform, and with today's Reform Math in particular, will this strike you as revolutionary. Here is Gaffy's version of real world math:
In his classroom on a recent Tuesday, Gaffey's challenge to his "learners" - as students in the Parkside public school are called - was to estimate Earth's land area.

To solve the problem, the class first covered basic concepts about area and polygons - shapes with three or more straight sides.

Gaffey then asked, "If a shape has four sides, is it always a polygon?"

Learners who answered yes (the wrong answer) were asked to redefine what a polygon is, while those who answered no were asked to draw a four-sided shape that was not a polygon on the class "smart board."

Gaffey drew a shape with three straight sides and one curved side.

"Is this a polygon?" he asked.

"No," the class responded.
The class drew lines through each of the continents, chopping them up into complex polygons, then simple polygons.

The final phase was to derive formulas for the areas of the simple polygons, and add up the areas.
This sort of problem is not particularly new, as a quick survey through now-standard textbooks like Everyday Math and the Interactive Math Program makes clear. And it's been around long enough to have garnered some serious criticism--specifically in what Barry Garelick calls its "just in time" approach to teaching.

Among other things, "just in time" often means serious delay. For example, one would hope that students would already know the formulas for the areas of simple polygons, and how to derive them, well before they hit 9th grade.

But because so many students are so far behind where they should be, there is one thing in which I and Gaffey are in whole-hearted agreement. In Gaffey's words, as cited by the Inquirer:

"Math education, more than any other subject, is in need of drastic reform."

Friday, December 3, 2010

the real world

Speaking of ditching the daily lesson plan, Allison wrote:
For those so enamored with preparing kids for the real world, why do they want school at all? Wouldn't child labor better? That would integrate everything.

Let's not and say we did, part 2

Ditch the daily lesson plan
If you think about the “real world” that we’re preparing kids for, how often is the “real world” day broken up into science moments, math moments, writing moments, etc?
I don't know about you, but for me the "real world" day gets broken up into science moments, math moments, writing moments, etc. any time I happen to be doing science, math, writing, and 'etc' all on the same day.

Say I'm studying math for the SAT.

I just study math. Without any science or writing at all. (Also, if I can find a decent worksheet, I do a worksheet.)

Or say I'm writing a book proposal or an article for the local paper.

I just write!

I don't do any math or science to speak of, unless I happen to be writing about math or science. And even then, I don't do math or science. Writing about math or science isn't the same thing as doing math or science. moments, math moments, writing moments, etc? We engage all of these things at all times.
No we don't.
Also, it’s not like integrated units are anything innovative…
Kids don’t need a six-week unit on mastering quotation marks; they need to learn to master the quotation marks piece in the screenplay they write collaboratively about the people of Iceland solving problems around a catastrophic tectonic event that includes the gathering and analysis of quantitative data.
oh, man

Speaking as a person who is finishing up a semester teaching English composition to college freshmen, I would have a very hard time convincing my students that what they really need isn't to learn when and where to use a comma but to write collaboratively about the people of Iceland solving problems around a catastrophic tectonic event that includes the gathering and analysis of quantitative data.

I'd get some stony looks on that one.

Real stony.

let's not and say we did
let's not and say we did, part 2
let's not and say we did, part 3

WordSmart Software

Does anyone have any comments on a product called "WordSmart High School Excellence"? I got a call out of the blue based on something my son filled out at school, although he doesn't know what that was. The implication is that this product is recommended by our school and that we can get a big discount because of that. To get the discount, they have to arrange a time to call me back. I'm trying to find out whether his high school really recommends the product or not. When I read the guidance dept. info on the school site, they talk of putting together an IEP for each child and that the parent plays an integral role. Right now, I don't feel integral.

Race to the Average

Our state will get Race To The Top money, so our town is putting together a plan that is based on the state test. The goal is:

"90% of students entering the 4th and 8th grades will be proficient in reading and math on our state assessment"

This is really a Race To The Average. Do most parents think that state proficiency levels are good enough for their own kids? I don't think so, but do they think the money will help their kids? I haven't seen our (58 page!) proposal yet, but I can't imagine that there is anything more than a guess and check approach to increasing the numbers.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

wrong again

a letter to the Times:
Middle-class American children attending well-financed schools outscore nearly all other countries. But our overall scores are unspectacular because we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty.
Rich schools are good schools: the very assumption that led me to overspend on a house in an overspending town.

Maybe I should write a letter to the editor.

Here are Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann:
White students. The overall news is sobering. Some might try to comfort themselves by saying the [achievement] problem is limited to large numbers of students from immigrant families, or to African American students and others who have suffered from discrimination....

...[L]et us consider the performance of white students for whom the case of discrimination cannot easily be made. Twenty-four countries have a larger percentage of highly accomplished students than the 8 percent achieving at that level among the U.S. white student population in the Class of 2009. Looking at just white students places the U.S. at a level equivalent to what all students are achieving in the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Poland. Seven percent of California’s white students are advanced, roughly the percentage for all Lithuanian students.

Children of parents with college degrees. Another possibility is that schools help students reach levels of high accomplishment if parents are providing the necessary support. To explore this possibility, we assumed that students who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college were likely to be given the kind of support that is needed for many to reach high levels of achievement. Approximately 45 percent of all U.S. students reported that at least one parent had a college degree.

The portion of students in the Class of 2009 with a college-graduate parent who are performing at the advanced level is 10.3 percent. When compared to all students in the other PISA countries, this advantaged segment of the U.S. population was outranked by students in 16 other countries. Nine percent of Illinois students with a college-educated parent scored at the advanced level, a percentage comparable to all students in France and the United Kingdom. The percentage of highly accomplished students from college-educated families in Rhode Island is just short of 6 percent, the same percentage for all students in Spain, Italy, and Latvia.

The Previous Rosy Gloss

Many casual observers may be surprised by our findings, as two previous, highly publicized studies have suggested that—even though improvement was possible—the U.S. was doing all right. This was the picture from two reports issued by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research, who compared the average performance in math of 8th-grade students in each of the 50 states with the average scores of 8th-grade students in other countries. These comparisons used methods that are similar to ours to relate 2007 NAEP performance for U.S. students to both TIMSS 2003 and TIMSS 2007. His findings are more favorable to the United States than those shown by our analyses. While our study using the PISA data shows U.S. student performance in math to be below 30 other countries, Phillips found the average U.S. student to be performing better than all but 14 other countries in his 2007 report and all but 8 countries in his 2009 report. (Oddly, the 2007 report takes a much more buoyant perspective than the 2009 report, though the data suggest otherwise.) Phillips also finds that individual states do much better vis-à-vis other countries than we report.

Why do two studies that seem to be employing generally similar methodologies produce such strikingly different results?

The answer to that puzzle is actually quite simple and has little to do with the fact that Phillips compares average student performance while our study focuses on advanced students: many OECD countries, including those that had a high percentage of high-achieving students, participated in PISA 2006 (upon which our analysis is based) but did not participate in either TIMSS 2003 or TIMSS 2007, the two surveys included in the Phillips studies. In fact, 19 countries that outscored the U.S. on the PISA 2006 test did not participate in TIMSS 2003, and 22 higher-scoring countries did not participate in TIMSS 2007. As a report by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics has explained, “Differences in the set of countries that participate in an assessment can affect how well the United States appears to do internationally when results are released.”

Put starkly, if one drops from a survey countries such as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and New Zealand, and includes instead such countries as Botswana, Ghana, Iran, and Lebanon, the average international performance will drop, and the United States will look better relative to the countries with which it is being compared.

Teaching Math to the Talented
Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann
Winter 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 1

what does Google want?

A friend of mine (ok, it was Debbie S.) talked to a person at Google about what they look for in job candidates.

He gave her a typical problem a candidate might be asked to solve during the interview. 

As I recall, it was a permutation problem.

A hard one.

So here's Tom Friedman on the three basic skills:
There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

Teaching for America
Published: November 20, 2010

I guess Google-level math knowledge falls under 'problem-solving.'


Economists' Grail: A Post-Crash Model
By Mark Whitehouse
Wall Street Journal November 10, 2010
I love this.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Recently released data from ACT shows that only 24 percent of high school seniors knew enough in four subjects — math, reading, science and English — to do college-level work.

No More A’s for Good Behavior
by Peg Tyre
Published: November 27, 2010
New York Times

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds: North America, Britain, and Northern Europe

The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699

The Classical Tradition

Six Books of Euclid

GPA Calculations

I was looking at the way my son's school calculates GPA and weighted GPA. Then I looked at how other schools calculate them. Since I was looking at high school web sites, I was only partially successful. In any case, many of them seem to be math-challenged. Even when I searched the web about how colleges calculate GPA (or not), I met with little success. We are told that colleges generally like to recalculate their own GPA. Why? If they have the numeric percentage grades, why do they have to sort them into GPA buckets (e.g. 83-87 is a 'B' = 3.0) and then come up with a new number that contains less information than the percentage grade. Perhaps some high schools send out only GPA bucket scores for each class, but do colleges know what the buckets are?

What I find more interesting are discussions that talk about how colleges like to use unweighted GPA scores. There is some sort of advantage to an 'A' in a regular course over a 'B' in an honors course. Maybe. I think it depends on whether you make it past an initial cut. Someone told me once that colleges use unweighted GPAs for the initial cut. That seems backwards to me. You want to use a weighted GPA (and rank and SAT and etc.) to make the initial cut, but then compare applicants based on unweighted GPA. Of course, they must first strip off all of the non-academic courses.

There is the Ivy League "Academic Index", which uses something called the "Converted Rank Score" (CRS) along with your SAT scores to come up with a number, that presumably, is used to determine whether you make it past a cutoff. The CRS number is based on your class rank and the size of the graduating class. Since most high schools rank based on a weighted GPA (including all fluff courses), this would indicate that class rank matters more than the unweighted GPA of core academic courses. That seems to be a poor game to play. If you are on the bubble, perhaps you might want to look at another college. I told my son that it might be nice to look at his GPA, but he should just try to get the best grades on his core academic courses. This came up because some kids at his high school are getting weird about GPA scores.

I do, however, tell him not to give away free points. For example, in science, they had a grade for whether they covered their books or not. I showed my son that if he didn't do it, his overall grade for the class would drop 3 points. I told him that it was like finding free money. Then there are the things you have no control over, like group grades. There was also the essay where he got an 80, but that was the second highest grade. Both of those things dropped his quarter grade by 5 points. There is not much you can do if a school has two different grading rules for the same course and you stuck with the wrong teacher. Things might average out in the end, but it's difficult while the student is going through it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

on beyond zebra

A friend sent me a link to this story last night:

"Infinite" is not a word you expect to find in a report on municipal spending. It's more of a science fiction–type term — Tremble, Earthling, before the infinite might of Galaxor! But there it was, in a recent report on San Francisco's finances: Spending on the city's employee retirement system in the past decade had grown at an "infinite" rate.

Naturally, that's an exaggeration. If you do the math, the city's retirement costs for employees in the past 10 years actually grew only 66,733 percent.

Still, you might call that a Galaxor-sized number.

In fiscal year 1999-2000, the city spent about $300,000 on its retirement system. In fiscal year 2009-10, it was $200.5 million. Benefits alone — not salaries, just benefits — for current and retired employees this year are budgeted at $993 million. Spending on retirees' health care and pensions is conservatively projected to triple within five years.

And after that? Infinite.

Let It Bleed
By Joe Eskenazi and Benjamin Wachs
Wednesday, Oct 20 2010
San Francisco Weekly News
I actually didn't even know there was such a thing as an infinite rate.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Warren Buffet on insuring local and state bonds...

Some quotes from this letter sent out in 2008 are rather intriguing. All of this is addressed to the stockholder's view of course, who has a different interest from the local communities that decide to insure their bonds. But it seems that Warren Buffet has some insights into the finances of many public budgets...

"Early in 2008, we activated Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Company (“BHAC”) as an insurer of the tax-exempt bonds issued by states, cities and other local entities....BHAC has become not only the insurer of preference, but in many cases the sole insurer acceptable to bondholders. Nevertheless, we remain very cautious about the business we write and regard it as far from a sure thing that this insurance will ultimately be profitable for us...

The rationale behind very low premium rates for insuring tax-exempts has been that defaults have historically been few. But that record largely reflects the experience of entities that issued uninsured bonds. Insurance of tax-exempt bonds didn’t exist before 1971, and even after that most bonds remained uninsured.

A universe of tax-exempts fully covered by insurance would be certain to have a somewhat different loss experience from a group of uninsured, but otherwise similar bonds, the only question being how different. To understand why, let’s go back to 1975 when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. At the time its bonds – virtually all uninsured – were heavily held by the city’s wealthier residents as well as by New York banks and other institutions. These local bondholders deeply desired to solve the city’s fiscal problems. So before long, concessions and cooperation from a host of involved constituencies produced a solution. Without one, it was apparent to all that New York’s citizens and businesses would have experienced widespread and severe financial losses from their bond holdings.

Now, imagine that all of the city’s bonds had instead been insured by Berkshire. Would similar belt-tightening, tax increases, labor concessions, etc. have been forthcoming? Of course not. At a minimum, Berkshire would have been asked to “share” in the required sacrifices. And, considering our deep pockets, the required contribution would most certainly have been substantial.

Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date. The pension liabilities I talked about in last year’s report will be a huge contributor to these woes. Many cities and states were surely horrified when they inspected the status of their funding at year-end 2008. The gap between assets and a realistic actuarial valuation of present liabilities is simply staggering.

When faced with large revenue shortfalls, communities that have all of their bonds insured will be more prone to develop “solutions” less favorable to bondholders than those communities that have uninsured bonds held by local banks and residents. "

Page 13 of Berkshire Hathaway's Letter to Stockholders

(p.s. don't ignore the first page.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

money tree

Irvington School District's Financial Challenges

and: a new administrator at no extra cost to the district

from the SMO junior exam

(The competition is meant for 14 to 16 year olds.)

This was from the 2004 exam:
Find the number of digits in N where N is the product of all positive divisors of 100,000,000. (Note: For any positive integer A, we regard A itself as one of the divisors.)

Another one:
The number A=200420052006...2040 is formed when one puts the consecutive integers from 2004 to 2040 together. What is the remainder when A is divided by 9?


solution discussion for the first one:

Divisors come in pairs -- every divisor x, there must be a divisor n/x, and their product is n. (But if the divisor is a square root of n, then it is the same as the other divisor and it is only counted once.) How many pairs are there?

For n=10 there are two pairs (10-1 5-2), and we note the product is 10^2 = 100.
For n=100 there are five pairs (100-1, 25-4, 20-5, 10-10, 50-2) but one pair is degenerate and the product is 100^4 * 10 (=10^9).
For n=1000, there are eight pairs. Divisor product = 1000^8.
For n=10^8, the script I wrote in Mathematica tells me there are 81 divisors and the divisor product is 325.

The number of divisors for 10^n has an interesting trend, too. It seems to be (n+1)^2.

Friday, November 19, 2010


I don't know what the heck has happened to the Comments sections or who ShirleyFenette2010 may or may not be.

What is a comment from whiteboydancefloor doing at kitchen table math?

déjà vu

Two parents discover Everyday Math:
As it turns out, our school district is using a controversial math curriculum called Everyday Mathematics, also known as "Reform Math." EM, as Everyday Mathematics is referred to by teachers, was developed by the University of Chicago, and according to their website, it is in use by about three million students nationwide. Here is one example of how simple addition "can" be performed using EM:

An example of what EM calls the "lattice method" for performing multiplication:

What becomes immediately clear is that several extra steps are now necessary to accomplish simple beeline computations. More steps will result in more errors -- only an idiot would claim otherwise. Eventually, EM students are taught four ways to add, five ways to subtract, four ways to multiply, and two ways to divide (traditional long division has been eschewed completely). Rote memorization is de-emphasized, and calculators (as well as estimating) are introduced in grade two.

Here is the basic rationale behind EM, directly from the University of Chicago website:
Research has shown that teaching the standard U.S. algorithms fails with large numbers of children, and that alternative algorithms are often easier for children to understand and learn. For this reason, Everyday Mathematics introduces children to a variety of alternative procedures in addition to the customary algorithms.

Links to or excerpts of said research are not provided -- we are to simply take these statements as fact. EM further claims to "make mathematics accessible to all students" by:

Incorporating individual, partner, and small group activities that make it possible for teachers to provide individualized feedback and assistance.

Encouraging risk-taking by establishing a learning environment that respects multiple problem solving strategies.

This couple is politically conservative, and as a result, the one thing they've got wrong is the idea that  liberal parents like this stuff when they don't. Not for the most part.

This passage took me aback:
What's worse, the methods purportedly being used to convince school boards to adopt EM reek suspiciously of Rules for Radicals: *
State that the traditional approach hasn't worked

Disparage testimony from those against the adoption as ideological and politically-motivated arguments

State that the success of any program depends on the teacher

Bring in teachers from affluent school districts as witnesses

Bring in a witness from a university
Never thought of these tactics in terms of Saul Alinsky.


* Barry's article!

On top

The top earner in Westchester County and the region, Scarsdale's Michael V. McGill, earns $372,006 in total compensation.
Source: Demand for quality school superintendents fuels high salaries
Top-earner Scarsdale superintendent Michael V. McGill on our top students:
If you listen to people like Richard Elmore, who’s a teacher at Harvard, he says the very top top American kids are scoring about the 75th percentile on international studies. So we know our top performing kids are doing very well.
Source: A bully pulpit for the Superintendent of the Year | lohud blogs
Our very top students should be performing on par with Europe and Asia's very top students.

If they're not, then our very top superintendents are overpaid.

Superintendent salaries

Thursday, November 18, 2010

sitting in a class on the elementary classroom

unintentionally. I'm in the Curry School of Education library at UVA, working on a physics paper. (Wikipedia tells me the Curry School was apparently ranked #19 in the nation, #7 for secondary education in 2007 by the UNSWR.)

Now there are friends of mine who are Curry School students, and I've seen one tutor kids on Reformation history in Clemons library -- but they're going into secondary education. This elementary classroom situation is a little different. The entire thing is a simulation of a 3rd grade (math?!) classroom, with the instructor simulating the teacher and the ed students simulating...3rd grade students. The teacher to his credit, is engaging, and his rhetorical strategies seem useful.... just the activities they're doing don't seem all that intensive.

I really can't see how participating in a national healthy foods recipe competition is all that useful. (And I love food science.) I suppose it must be about the ingredients-measuring. And calendar-time planning.

Now there's another instructor (less charismatic) coming in to discuss how to teach young kids fractions; a new piece of software -- "designed for preschoolers but has been used in elementary schools sometimes up to 4th grade". I must say I like some aspects of what I see -- they give me a, "oh hey! that might be useful!" reaction. I'd keep the sound effects and the trusting kid narrative voice, but use really powerful, engaging diagrams.

I just see many ways in which their approach could be scaled so much up and made so much more intense. One thing I do see is an underestimation and a consistent underexpectation of the imaginations of children. A reminder of the kind of elementary school classroom I grew up in. (And my first grade teacher was a graduate of Harvard.) Certainly if they do mean to inspire children to discover concepts for themselves there isn't a lot of inspiration going on.

I currently do not see a lot of inspiration in the ed school students going on either, in a "imagine the possibilities!" sort of way.

Now the lecturer is showing how the software can be used, and how it can be used in Spanish -- but not showing them for example, how it might be customised or programmed to suit a lesson -- even when the lecturer was the leader of the team responsible for its development! (Though apparently other students did write the program.)

I don't know. I imagine that an elementary school teacher could be taught how to use Mathematica and write simple scripts (fun slider bars!) to create kid-friendly yet very engaging, powerful plots.

OK allows disabled students vouchers for private schools

Getting the vouchers, though is a "whole nuther ball of wax".

From Jay. P. Greene's blog post: Violators of OK’s Special Ed Voucher Law Get Good Mocking

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TED, global health: does economic prosperity lead to good healthcare -- or is it the other way round?

The results may surprise you.

The other takeaway message of this is to take a critical look at things, and question assumptions. Averages can be deceiving when they mask distributions and what is really happening. You may be inclined for example, to think most of Sub-Saharan Africa have approximately the same issues with healthcare or economic development -- at least in the public mind they do.

I thought this would be relevant when discussing cost-effectiveness and development. Correlation does not imply causation, cause and effect and all that, etc.

Also the way he presents the data is really worth looking at. It's simply mind-expanding. Data presentation is far from making it look pretty -- it can tell you something new, that you might not have noticed.

The students here at UVA love TED talks -- from Commerce School students to biology majors to engineering students to Foreign Affairs students.

"teachers' unions, exposed"

These are interesting ads...

I am not against the principle of teachers' unions. (Are any of us?) Recently there does seem to be a movement among teachers who dissent against the current practices of their union and wish to nucleate around alternate paradigms...

Btw, I did NOT know that Michelle Rhee was forced to resign last month, after the incumbent mayor lost the elections. It never appeared in any news article I saw...


How is a 20-year-old student to assist in teacher union reform? It is not a particularly hot topic here on Grounds, in the face of healthcare reform, the DREAM Act (which students recently marched in support of) and the like. I am friends with several education majors and pre-TFA hopeful (I myself being one), and the Curry School is a major ed school here at UVA. Massive chalking? Printing random ads in black and white? I deplore stagnation so so much.

the spartan school and the low-income student

Far from an advocate of minimalism or the Lacedaemonian style of discipline, I am often struck by how schools elsewhere in the world can still retain excellent educations on so little a budget.

I admit, I have an ulterior agenda, one that pertains to immigration policy. I often hear the justification for stricter immigration controls (that is to repress even legal migrants) because additional migrants are overloading the resources of school systems. My answer is that a lot of districts have no idea how to manage low-income students or to construct low-cost schools.

Low-cost schools with excellent education, if you ask me, is a lot better than the alternative -- buildings that look like their high-income counterparts but the teaching does not. Schools in Singapore, ranging from the government-run "neighbourhood schools" to the independently-run distinguished names share some common design characteristics. They are not shamed by bare concrete floors; they are easy to spray-wash. I estimate that my primary school's (FMPS) current building cost at maximum $12 million SGD in todays' dollars, with a capacity of 1800 students. Contrast this with my high school district in Maine, which a few years ago wanted to take out a $57 million USD bond to renovate a high school that sees a student population between 900-1150 students. Where does the money go? I mean, Singapore, materials have to be imported from overseas; I imagine that cost of materials in New England is considerably cheaper. On top of this, FMPS managed to build several koi ponds and other feng-shui pleasing things in the courtyards -- a delight at every recess.

But the physical space is really a minute fraction of overall cost.

Is it the structure of the classes? From ages six to sixteen, schools do not try to imitate universities, though there are differentiated teachers even at primary one. So you don't have a single first-grade teacher trying to cover mother tongue languages, English, math and social/civics. But at the same time you're not shuffling kids from room to room in an imitation of the college environment. Yet I imagine a lot of American schools have this too. One thing my school did was to have morning and afternoon sessions -- from 7:50 am to 12:50 pm, and from 1:15 pm to 6:15 pm (with a 30-minute assembly before each session), so each classroom was effectively used by two different cohorts each day. Economization of space, I suppose.

How much expense is the food budget? Schools traditionally lease their canteen to eight vendors, which are in competition with each other, but the rent was cheap, such that the food prices were usually half that of the food prices found in the market across the road. But American schools can just as easily lease their premises to ARAMARK or some similar outsourcer, although a poor district may find itself paying for a large amount of free lunches.

Discipline perhaps. A large part of discipline was managed by peer leaders known as prefects -- but then again, it was needed, because a Singaporean teacher will typically manage a class of 40. Prefects were usually popular, respected students who could influence their peers, and were nominated for this reason. (I remember my form teacher once told the class monitor -- also a student discipline role -- she did not nominate him for prefect because he was "too quiet".) In my class, 11/41 students ended being prefects. (I was not the model student, and so, I was not one.) The system has its complaints; sometimes the prefects were not perfect instruments of administration and would sometimes conspire in mischief. But at the same time, perhaps the system takes considerable work out of classroom management, reducing stress and turnover. Does the system work well in Britain, who we inherited it from?

Books. The MOE much prefers thin textbooks and workbooks. Explanations in the textbooks are rather concise and visually illustrated (not with like, full-colour photographs, but with well-annotated diagrams). In primary school for each semester, my math textbook was at max a 100+ pages and was a low-cost paperback at $3.50 SGD. The workbook was a thin tome, costing like $2. And after exhausting the workbook, the teacher (with the assistance of the department) easily made up her own problems, or used past exams, and assessment books if need be. In secondary school the textbooks and workbooks were significantly thicker, but the prices were not ridiculous -- on the range of $10-$15 SGD usually.

Perhaps it's because publishers do not have a monopoly. Schoolbooks are meant to be worn; publishing in hardcover is ridiculous. I believe MOE drafts the material (with the help of participating teachers) and then has publishers bid to publish it the most cost-effectively. On the other hand, I have never heard of the Department of Education ever publishing anything besides reports, "standards" and "rubrics". I have never seen a Department of Education approval stamp on say, a textbook.

The money must be going somewhere. The Singapore administration would probably like the opportunity many districts in America are facing, with a large influx of migrant students. From a purely economic perspective, more students means more productive citizens in the future, and new opportunities to strengthen the state machinery, especially in the face of a declining birth rate. We don't have to be that cynical, but I really dislike how many local governments view their low-income students, treating them as liabilities rather than as future solutions to the poor neighbourhoods they came from.