kitchen table math, the sequel: 11/27/11 - 12/4/11

Friday, December 2, 2011

STEM careers and the small liberal arts college

I've just come across a passage that is relevant to this exchange between Mark R anonymous. and ChemProf:

Mark anonymous:
With STEM degrees and with physics undergraduate degrees in particular I'd be a little wary of the large research institutions. As an example Cal (UC Berkeley) is the top rated graduate school in chemistry but I sure wouldn't send my kids there as undergraduates with the 500 person classrooms taught by grad students with three weeks of training.

There are a few top notch undergraduate-centered places (Harvey Mudd leaps to mind) but failing getting into there I think there's a lot to be said for finding a strong 2nd tier liberal arts college with one or two solid STEM departments that are actually doing some research as well as teaching. Strong students get lots of attention and opportunities as well as stronger and more personal letters of recommendation.
I was one of those chem grad students at Cal, and we got two days of training. But yeah, for STEM and given the current economic environment, I'd suggest looking at second tier liberal arts colleges and see what scholarship money was out there, as well as which departments have a strong history. It does take a little more searching, but there are some gems. I used to think it was a problem to be the big fish in a little pond, but at least for now, that seems to be a good strategy for students.
from Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities (pdf file):
Liberal arts colleges have produced disproportionate numbers of career scientists, as the surveys conducted by Oberlin and Franklin & Marshall Colleges have shown over the years. This fact alone ought to be grounds for enormous federal investment in small colleges. What has not been as obvious has been the role of less well known liberal arts colleges in meeting the national need for scientists. For example, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania has a biology department that in 1985 consisted of six faculty members and 73 majors. Now it has nine faculty members and 195 majors. Elon University in North Carolina has steadily increased the number of mathematics majors, with two (of 10) majors going to graduate school in math in the year 2000, three (of nine) going to graduate school in 2001, four (of 12) in 2002, and eight (of 12) in 2003. Hendrix College in Arkansas ranks 24th in the nation in the number of its graduates per total enrollment who have received Ph.D.s in chemistry. Most dramatic may be Whitworth College in Washington State, which has increased the number of physics majors by almost 400 percent in five years, from 11 in 1997 to 41 in 2002.
I happen to know about these lesser-known liberal arts colleges that are doing such a good job of producing career scientists because the Council of Independent Colleges has, for the past three years, run a prize program that recognizes outstanding achievement in undergraduate science education. What has been interesting about the applicant pool for these Heuer Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education (as they are called) is that only five out of the 60 institutions that were nominated in 2002 and eight out of the 47 institutions nominated in 2003 had enrollment of over 3,000 students. Almost all of the institutions that have good reason to believe that they are making significant contributions to society’s need for high-quality career scientists are very small.

Richard Ekman, "Selective and Non-Selective Alike: An Argument for the Superior Educational Effectiveness of Smaller Liberal Arts Colleges" in American Council of Learned Societies, ACLS OCCASIONAL PAPER, No. 59.

what is curriculum support specialist, please?

I was sitting here on the sofa going through ancient Education Weeks when I heard Pat Sajak introduce a contestant as "a curriculum support specialist."

"A curriculum support specialist," he said. "What is that?"

answer: "It's a teacher that goes into the classroom to support the curriculum and other teachers."

Who says times are hard? Back in the real Depression, curriculums and teachers didn't have support! Curriculums and teachers had to make do with a principal, a superintendent, and the occasional school nurse.

How fortunate we are today, here with our civilian employment ratio of zilch.


I spoke too soon.

The curriculum support specialist just went bankrupt.

another question

Thanks SO much for the comments on teaching students how to distribute a negative -- I can't tell you how much I appreciate your taking the time.

You are all good deed doers!

Unfortunately, I haven't actually read all you've written.

I was in the midst of reading when I had to break off mid-stride, load Andrew into the car, and drive the two of us around a sketchy part of Yonkers* for one hourafter dark (not a lot of street lights in Yonkers, not a lot of street signs, either), with cars honking at us and drivers yelling out their windows (RUDE DRIVERS IN SKETCHY YONKERS!) searching for and not finding ARC,* where we had an appointment to try and get Andrew's weekend aide hired because the agency she's been working for is kaput. Ed called the guy who runs it and reported back that the owner had been 'vague' as to what has transpired. Distressing, because we thought the world of the guy, and so did everyone who worked for him, it seemed.

Anyway: Mission Not Accomplished.

Next time I am going to ask Garmin to take me to 265 Saw Mill River Road in Hawthorne. We'll see how that goes.

No time to read this morning, either, as I am attending a two-hour workshop at my local college on how to pass the course I teach. My college gives exit exams to students taking the remedial courses, which I think is a great idea. The workshop is for students, not teachers, but still. I figure I'll attend and find out what it is they think I'm teaching.

Then, if it just so happens that I am somehow not teaching what it is they think I'm teaching, I'm going to start teaching it right away.

For the moment, I have a quick follow-up question: what do you think of I discovered last night that yourteacher has an algebra app (update: a pre-algebra app, too!) Fifty bucks, but I'm seriously considering springing for it. I'm not experienced enough to be teaching the distributive property on the fly.

* No numbers on the buildings and a paucity of signs announcing who was inside or why: a neighborhood in which a number of the local establishments appeared to have concluded that it makes good business sense not to advertise their whereabouts or even their existence. Curious! Question: what kind of enterprise is housed in a run-down, low-rise office building with a dozen shiny late-model cars crammed together outdoors beneath an oversized carport? I spoke with the two proprietors, who came outside to ask me what I wanted (I wanted directions), and wish now I had asked what they wanted. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Day of Reckoning, brought to us from India

Together, the rise of Reform Math, the reduction in ability-based grouping and AP classes, the demise of the close reading and the analytical essay (see also this), and the growing rarity of instruction in the finer points of English grammar and sentence construction, have caused current and future American high school graduates to be decreasingly prepared for college. As more and more American college students display skills in math, writing, and reading comprehension that are way below expectations (ending up, even in some of the more selective colleges, in remedial math and writing classes), college admissions committees are increasingly looking abroad.

While much of the news about overseas applicants centers on China, with its thousands of Ivy League-aspiring applicants and their glossy, high-production value applications (and the growing suspicion that a fair amount of cheating is involved), it's India, I predict, that will bring to the American K12 education system the day of reckoning that we so desperately need it to have. First, unlike their Chinese counterparts, college applicants from India face no linguistic barriers; many speak and write a much more eloquent English than American (and even British) students do. Second, there are apparently tons of extremely well-qualified Indian applicants pinning their hopes on America's top colleges.

Indeed, as an October New York Times article inadvertently suggests, the Day of Reckoning may be close at hand:
Moulshri Mohan was an excellent student at one of the top private high schools in New Delhi. When she applied to colleges, she received scholarship offers of $20,000 from Dartmouth and $15,000 from Smith. Her pile of acceptance letters would have made any ambitious teenager smile: Cornell, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Wesleyan, Barnard and the University of Virginia.

But because of her 93.5 percent cumulative score on her final high school examinations, which are the sole criteria for admission to most colleges here, Ms. Mohan was rejected by the top colleges at Delhi University, better known as D.U., her family’s first choice and one of India’s top schools.

Ms. Mohan, 18, is now one of a surging number of Indian students attending American colleges and universities, as competition in India has grown formidable, even for the best students. With about half of India’s 1.2 billion people under the age of 25, and with the ranks of the middle class swelling, the country’s handful of highly selective universities are overwhelmed.
True, another reason--indeed, the only reason mentioned in the Times article--why American recruiters are seizing on this opportunity is because so many of the crème de la crème of overseas students are wealthy enough to pay full tuition, unlike many of their American counterparts. But it also helps that the K12 schools they attend aren't using Reform Math, aren't renouncing ability-based grouping, and aren't failing to provide college prep classes that are truly college preparatory. Indeed, if it were primarily her parents' pocket books that make Moulshri Mohan so attractive to Dartmouth and Smith, why are they offering her so many thousands of dollars of scholarship money?

So here are my dire predictions. In the next ten years, as the effects of Reform Math continue to percolate up the American school system, and as the number of highly qualified Indian students continues to outpace the numbers of spots at the best Indian universities, there will be a the growing displacement of American students by Indian students. Only then will a large enough proportion of the Powers that Be start realizing how urgent it is to enact actual education reform--reform, that is, that reverses the century's-long tide that has pushed our K12 schools further and further away from what's happening in the most successful school systems overseas.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

help desk - 'distributing the negative'

I'm working with a boy in a neighboring town who can solve equations with positive values like the following:
3 + 2(x + y) = 9
He is having difficulty solving equations that require him to distribute a negative:
3 - 2(x + y) = -3
I remember C. having trouble distributing a negative, and I remember stumbling over minus signs myself when I was a kid. At some point, I solved my problems by deciding to treat minus signs as either a -1 or the addition of a negative, depending on the expression I was dealing with.

Thus -x became (-1)(x) and x-8 became x + (-8).

I don't think anyone ever told me to translate expressions in this manner. Quite the contrary; I have vague memories of reasoning it out for myself on more than one occasion.

Here's the way a sheet I have from Glencoe says to teach distribution of the negative:
Use the Distributive Property to write each expression as an equivalent algebraic

a. 3(w – 7)
= 3[w + (-7)] Rewrite w – 7 as w + (-7).
= 3w + 3(-7) Distributive Property
= 3w + (-21) Simplify.
= 3w – 21 Definition of subtraction
Unfortunately, this sequence doesn't solve the problem. My student can simplify 3(w-7); what he can't do is simplify 3–2(x+y).

Today I tried having him draw huge brackets around 2(x+y), then simplify the 2(x+y), and then simplify the remaining expression:
In effect, I was turning the problem into two distributions: first the 2, then the negative sign.

This approach always worked for me, but the logic of it wasn't obvious to my student.

One more thing: this student probably had Everyday Math in elementary school, and his current class seems to be intensely procedural. The only textbook his teachers are using seems to be a NY state test prep book.

I'm eager to hear any thoughts you have both about procedural teaching (including mnemonics) and about how I might help this student make some sense of the math he's learning. Moreover, and I hate to say this, but if I'm going to help him make some sense of it, I have to do it on the fly. Our time together is extremely limited.

If anyone knows of a good set of "instructional worksheets," that would be fantastic. I'm combing through my own collection.

Last but not least, what do you think of this video?

ture and flase

In the thread on reading kcab and the SAT, Glen writes:
As a child, my bête noire was always true-false tests. The more details you know about a topic, the more likely you are to see every answer as, "well, yes and no." True or False: Lincoln was well-educated? Well, he had very limited formal education, which the teacher mentioned and which is what people today tend to mean when they say "educated," so maybe she wants me to say false. But he had extensive self-education, which she also mentioned, and this may be a trap where she's going to argue, "No, education doesn't have to mean formal education, and I told you he was self-educated" which would make it true. But if I answer true, she'll end up marking it wrong and telling me, "Oh, come on, you know what I mean by 'educated'", and someone will tell me--they always do--to stop "overthinking" it. What does "overthinking" mean? Does it mean that answering correctly requires answering as if I knew less? How much less?

And what does "true" mean? Does it mean 100% true? In formal (binary) logic, something that is mostly true is false. So, on a true-false test, if something is mostly true, is it true or false?

Those %#$@ true-false tests drove me nuts.
I'm laughing!

Glen's story calls to mind my first year freshman rhetoric at the University of Iowa. I was young and wide-eyed.

I was so young and wide-eyed that I vividly recall to this day my shock at one of the older T.A.s* telling a group of us that his students so often misspelled "true" and "false" on true/false tests that he had once required everyone in the class to write "ture" and "flase"(which he pronounced "flace") instead of true and false.

Later on, he became my boyfriend, but I don't think the ture-flase episode had anything to do with it.

* I'm pretty sure there's supposed to be an apostrophe after "T.A.s," but I don't like an apostrophe after T.A.s, so I'm not putting on in.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Charles Murray on abolishing the SAT

Murray writes:
For most high school students who want to attend an elite college, the SAT is more than a test. It is one of life's landmarks. Waiting for the scores--one for Verbal, one for Math, and now one for Writing, with a posible 800 on each--is painfully suspenseful. The exact scores scores are commonly remembered forever after. So it has been for half a century. But events of recent years have challenged the SAt's position. In 2001, Richard Atkinson (2001), president of the University of California, proposed dropping the SAT as a requirement for admission. More and more prestigious small colleges, such as Middlebury and Bennington, are making the SAT optional. The charge that the SAT is slanted in favor of privileged students--"a wealth test," as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier calls it--has been ubiquitous (Zwick, 2004).

I have watched the attacks on the SAT with dismay. Back in 1961, the test helped get me into Harvard from a small Iowa town by giving me a way to show that I could compete with applicants from Exeter and Andover. Ever since, I have seen the SAT as the friend of the little guy, just as James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, said it would be when he urged the SAT upon the nation in the 1940s.

Conant's cause was as unambiguously liberal in the 1940s as income redistribution is today. Then, America's elite colleges drew most of their students from a small set of elite secondary schools, concentrated in the northeastern United States, to which America's wealthy sent their children. The mission of the SAT was to identiy intellectual talent regardless of race, color, creed, money, or geography, and give that talent a chance to blowwom. Students from small towns and from poor neighborhoods in big cities were supposed to benefit--as I thought I did, and as many others think they did. But data trump gratitude. The evidence has become overwhelming that the SAT no longer serves a democratizing purpose. Worse, events have conspired to make the SAT a negative force in American life. And so I find myself arguing that the SAT should be abolished. Not just deemphasized, but no longer administered. Nothing important would be lost by so doing. Much would be gained.

Murray, Charles. (2011). Abolishing the SAT. In Soares, Joseph A. (Ed.), SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions (pp. 69-81). New York: Teachers College Press.

John McWhorter on Big Dude languages

A fascinating interview with John McWhorter on bloggingheads -- amazing!

I ran his argument by Ed, a historian, and Katharine, a linguist. Ed said it made sense to him; Katharine disagreed with McWhorter that some languages are more complex than others (far more complex, according to McWhorter) but agreed that the "Big Dude" languages are less inflected than the Little Dudes.

Enormously interesting.

Monday, November 28, 2011

SAT Math Problem

If a square has a side of length x+4 and a diagonal of length x+8, what is the value of x?

You have 75 seconds. Go. No thinking first and then starting the clock.

This is a simple problem, but where is the shortcut?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A swindle in gifted ed?

I saw this curious comment on Joanne Jacobs' post about EPGY becoming Stanford Online High School. Joanne says:
Ray Ravaglia, who still runs the program, told my ex-husband that students didn’t need to be gifted to handle the classes. He put “gifted” in the title so that schools wouldn’t be scared of losing too many students.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. So, have gifted students and their parents spent several thousand dollars a piece being swindled by EPGY? Or was this the kind of comment to make parents feel better about how their student was doing?

If the head of a school tells you that he branded the school falsely and promoted it under false pretenses, does that make you want to have anything whatsoever to do with the school?

My kids are too young for EPGY, but I know plenty of parents in the local gifted ed community who have worked very hard promoting EPGY, even inside their own districts, as a way to get gifted kids what they need. I don't really know what to make of this. Thoughts?