kitchen table math, the sequel: 5/23/10 - 5/30/10

Friday, May 28, 2010


From Checker's Desk [Fordam Institute]
Rushing to Judgment?

Indeed, we'd probably be better off in the long run if the federal Race to the Top program were not crowding states to make this decision within sixty days. Worse, they're expected to commit to such a decision (to qualify for RTT funding) by June 1, even though the standards themselves don't appear until June 2! This has the makings of theater-of-the-absurd. It also raises anxiety levels about this worthy state-initiated, state-led venture turning into yet another federal mandate that will get caught in the wringer of Washington politics.


At day's end, it's still states that are responsible for public education in the U.S.—and states that must determine whether and how to change it. To be sure, the "common core" carries with it significant implications for the federal government, too, most obviously in the revision of NCLB/ESEA, as well as any later iterations of Race to the Top (and, of course, the grant competition now underway for new assessments).

The Emperor’s New Clothes:
National Assessments Based on Weak “College and Career Readiness Standards”

Recommendations to a range of entities before states adopt Common Core’s standards. They include:

· State boards of education and state legislatures
· Local school boards and district superintendents
· Congress
· CCSSI/The Common Core consortium

“These proposed national standards are vague and lack the academic rigor of the standards in Massachusetts and a number of other states,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios. “The new report shows that these weak standards will result in weak assessments. After so much progress and the investment of billions of tax dollars, it amounts to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of excellence.”

Brookings Institute
Did Congress Authorize Race to the Top?

Martin Gardner, RIP

from City Journal:
The first time I encountered a column in Scientific American entitled “Mathematical Games,” I thought it was a contradiction in terms. Along with most English majors, I equated math with drudgery, not diversion. Then I read the piece. Its author, Martin Gardner, showed me how wrong I was. Over the years, he also showed me (and a few million others) how to understand topics that ranged from the left-handedness of molecules to the devious origins of Scientology to the secrets of sleight-of-hand artists to the in-jokes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. So it came as no surprise that when Gardner died last week at 95, he was mourned not only by mathematicians and physicists but by magicians, literary scholars, theologians, crossword-puzzle fans, writers, and editors. Indeed, the author of some 80 books was a classic example of the polymath (according to Webster’s: “From the Greek polymath─ôs, ‘having learned much’; a person, with superior intelligence, whose expertise spans a significant number of subject areas”).
The son of an Oklahoma-based oil prospector, Gardner gave no hint of what was to come when he attended local schools in Tulsa. He went on to the University of Chicago, majoring in philosophy and attending a wide variety of courses—but not a single one in math. “Beyond calculus,” he was to confess, “I am lost. The only way I could comprehend higher mathematics was to make a game of it.” Gamesmanship became an integral part of his long life—and perhaps the most important part.
“Sometimes I think it would be nice to grow up,” he liked to say well into his 90s. “Other times I think, ‘Why bother?’”

The Mathemagician
Martin Gardner, R.I.P.
Stefan Kanfer
City Journal
27 May 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Online Math Curricula Resources has updated her page of Online Math Curricula today. Quite a few that I had never heard of before...


a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language

More grammar denialism

I've just written about how Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), one of the standard therapies for autism, neglects grammar instruction. Since then I've been reviewing for an online class I'm designing the language curriculum of ABA's main competitor, the D.I.R (Floor Time) approach of the late Stanley Greenspan. Greenspan's curriculum is called the Affect Based Language Curriculum, available on Amazon for $55, and it, too, neglects grammar.

Part and parcel of giving short shrift to grammar is dismissing the work of that seminal linguistic grammarian, Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky's name is anathema among ABA devotees; Greenspan and his accolytes are merely dismissive.  In the Affect Based Language Curriculum, for example, Greenspan writes that Chomsky was wrong to claim that language is innate to the human brain since learning language depends on the social environment. 

Anyone familiar with Chomsky will recognize this as a straw man caricature. Of course learning language depends on the social environment. But this does not rule out an innate component, and Greenspan does not address any of the evidence or arguments adduced by Chomsky and others to argue that this innate component exists.  Instead, Greenspan goes further, arguing that developing "purposeful affect", or socially-grounded motivation, is all that grammar acquisition depends on: 
We create purposeful affect by being a pain in the neck. [E.g. by standing in front of the door the child wants to open.]... We go away a step and come back saying “go, go?”… Once children have that purposeful affect and begin connecting it to the word “go,” guess what they do? They begin using words meaningfully and even using that verb and noun properly.
A nonlinguist, Greenspan has no idea how complex grammar is. Neither verb conjugation nor noun phrase formation are trivial, and nowhere in the Affect-Based Language is there any discussion of how to teach this. Instead, as with ABA's Teach Me Language, the entire curriculum is organized around non-grammatical categories: requesting, using words to protest, talking about the past, adding to what the speaker just said.

Meanwhile, I and others have established that there are many children on the autism spectrum who can do all these things with words, but can't speak grammatically. In neglecting grammar, we neglect these children, many of whom are quite capable of learning grammar when it is taught explicitly and systematically.

Why are therapists all across the autism treatment spectrum so dismissive of grammar?  Part of it is that their ranks (and the ranks of speech/language therapists more generally) don't include linguists.  Here, though, the causality goes in both directions: we linguists haven't exactly been welcomed into the ranks of autism and speech therapists. But their grammar denialism, I believe, extends into the broader population.  

Most people think that grammar amounts to learning the labels for word categories (parts of speech), grammar-related spelling distinctions (e.g., "their" vs. "they're"), punctuation (as in run-on sentences), and stylistic rules about dangling modifiers and parallel structure. They have little appreciation for the more basic but complex rules and structure that underlie these rules of style: since the latter rules are innate, we don't need to learn them explicitly, and therefore most of us aren't even aware of them.

Unless, that is, we learn a foreign language grammar whose rules are significantly different from the rules of English grammar.  And here is where Americans in particular fall short.  If we learn a language at all, it tends to be one whose grammar isn't particularly exotic compared to English, or difficult for English speakers to learn--i.e., French, Spanish, or Chinese. Languages that Americans used to learn, like German, Russian, Latin, and Greek, presented us with far greater grammatical challenges than these languages do--and perhaps with a greater appreciation for grammar than we currently have.

Furthermore, deep appreciation of the grammar of a foreign language depends on in-depth study of that grammar. Most Americans never get to that point. Many abandon their foreign language after a year or two (as in the "world languages" language-surveying model that has become popular in U.S. schools). And, as I discuss in my book, more and more foreign languages classes have reduced grammar instruction to make room for what's called "communicative competence" (which includes conversing in classroom groups, putting on skits, and designing menus, travel brochures, and tissue boxes).

That leaves it up to the linguists of the world to somehow get across to others what grammar really is, and how best to teach it to those who need explicit instruction--be they foreign language learners or children with autism.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

grass roots

Some of you know that I've been writing citizens' op eds for a Yahoo Group called the Irvington Parents Forum for some time now.* I've been saying there what I say here.

In the past two years, the town has elected 4 new members to our 5-member school board:

Robyne Camp (elected 2009)
John Dawson (2009)
Bob Grados (2010)
Jim McCann (2010)

If you're interested in grass roots politics, it's worth reading these 4 candidates' "Answers to Forum Questions," because you'll notice that all 4 sound more alike than different: all 4 tell us they embrace academic excellence and accountability.

That is a far cry from the 2007 election, when we had 2 candidates who told the public: 'I don't know anything about education so I'll leave that to the experts, the people we've hired to run the schools.' That is very close to a direct quote.

In 2007, the 2 candidates who promised the public that, where academics and achievement were concerned, they would not provide independent oversight of the executive, defeated the 1 candidate who promised that he would.

This year, their terms up, they retired. Four candidates ran for their seats, 1 as a write-in; 3 of the 4, including both winners, ran on accountability platforms.

The main publicly-stated difference between the 2 winners (Grados & McCann) had to do with "politics," with Grados saying consistently throughout the campaign that he does not like politics, is not a politician, and has no "political agenda." In practice, this means he will vote to keep Math Trailblazers because the administration wants to keep Math Trailblazers. (scroll down)

So in truth, the 2 winners are divided on the question of whether parents and the broader public should have a voice in the education our children receive. However, I think the fact that both sounded like members of the reform camp is probably important.

opinion and fact

The Forum has been taking fire from the administration all year. During the Singapore Math meeting, our Interim Director of Curriculum and Instruction told the board that misinformation about Math Trailblazers was being spread around town. The foolishness making the rounds was the kind of thing, she said, that she once referred to as chatting "over the laundry lines in the back yard."

'But I can't call it that any more,' she said. (words to that effect)

In the last board meeting prior to the election, the Forum was openly denounced by the board president, one candidate (who told the audience that henceforth he would never again read the Forum), and one parent.

Post-election, Ed wrote the statement below in response to complaints by Grados supporters that the Forum is not "balanced":
It’s no secret that this list was created by people concerned about the leadership of our school district, aspects of its educational philosophy, budgetary issues, and a perceived unresponsiveness to community concerns. The list began, that is, as an agent of change. But it has always been open to all comers, and as the husband of the list’s co-founder, I know that essentially all posts are put through. The point of having moderators is not to establish any particular political line but to guard against vulgarity and ad hominem attacks and to prevent our inboxes from being overloaded with spam.

The Irvington Parents’ Forum is as “balanced” or unbalanced as its contributors make it. If we avoided controversy, it would become dull and unreadable. Ditto if all contributors did was state unadorned facts, genre: “The Irvington school district has an enrollment of approximately 1,800 students.”

Contributors express points of view, preferably with facts to back them up. That’s what democracy is all about—taking positions, attempting to support them, and trying to convince others that you’re right. And since we’re fortunate to live in a democracy, everyone is free to take issue (again preferably armed with appropriate evidence) with anything that anyone says.

So, the distinction between “facts” and “opinion” is a red herring. Facts mean very little unless framed by an argument, viewpoint, or philosophy. By the same token, opinions baldly stated and innocent of any factual evidence don’t do the speaker or writer much good. So, for example, if I state the fact that the United States entered World War II in December 1941, that’s not very interesting. But if I go on to opine that we should have gotten involved a year or 18 months earlier and that we didn’t because isolationism still reigned—then my statement, a combination of fact and opinion, becomes more interesting. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s necessarily right. Someone might reasonably respond that the United States didn’t have the military capacity to intervene effectively in Europe in 1939 or 1940, and that even in early 1942, we were woefully unprepared.

It’s as a result of this kind of argument that knowledge advances, new policies are framed, political alliances established, reforms enacted, and the like. Here, at the local level, the Irvington Parents’ Forum clearly fulfills a need. Otherwise, it wouldn’t attract new members almost every day of the week. If you disagree with something that’s been posted—as I’m doing now—go ahead and post a response. The chances are that there will be a response to your response, but again, that’s the beauty and privilege of free speech, especially at the local level. To intervene effectively in the national discussion, it helps to have power, position, and money. Here on the Parents’ Forum, anyone can add her or his two cents for free.

As for the idea that contributors are somehow sacrificing our kids’ education on the altar of local politics, I disagree. We’re creating a dialogue whose goal is to make a good school district better, to give our students the best education we can provide. I’m glad “Kris10why” had a world-class education here in Irvington, but we’ve had posts from recent IHS grads who don’t feel the same way. And, for me, every student counts.

* Since October 5, 2006, to be exact.

endorsement (academic excellence)
endorsement (politics & community sentiment)
the Kumbaya statement

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spell Czech

Eye halve spelling chequer.  It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marques four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word and weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write.  It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is made, it nose bee fore two long,
And I can put the error rite.  Its rarely ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it, I am shore your pleased two no.
Its letter perfect in its weigh.  My chequer tolled me sew.

~Sauce Unknown

Source:  Hake Grammar & Writing

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Group work can also increase engagement because individuals can be assigned roles that allow them to be "experts in something," so that they can be challenged at a level appropriate to their understanding, she says. To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlement failed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advanced students may be "producers" charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might be assigned to be "prop directors" to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation.
Unleashing the 'Brain Power' of groups in the Classroom: The neuroscience behind collaborative work
Nancy Walser
Harvard Education Letter

May/June 2010, p 2

Good thing we got rid of tracking.