kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/12/10 - 12/19/10

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.