kitchen table math, the sequel: 3/4/12 - 3/11/12

Saturday, March 10, 2012

stuck (college tuition)

The lesson from "Bennett Hypothesis 2.0" (pdf file) is that there is an overwhelming danger, especially over time, that higher financial aid will lead to higher tuition, says Gillen. Barring an overhaul of the nature of competition in higher education, there are a few other ways to avoid this scenario, he says.


[T]uition appears stuck in an upwards spiral.
Revisiting the Hypothesis That Tuition Rises With Student AidBy Caralee Adams on February 22, 2012 10:00 AM
Are we stuck in the same spiral with health care costs? I'm thinking we are -- or, at least, that we have been for a while now.

Ditto, I think, for public schools, at least in my town: the more we spend, the more we spend.

Stuck in a spiral.

Steve H on Irvington taxes

Steve sums it up:
So now we have towns like Irvington where you can buy a simple raised ranch on a half acre for $600K and pay $21,757 a year in taxes to pay for schools that use curricula like Everyday Math. [ed: Not even. We've got Trailblazers.] I had to double check that tax assessment. How about a split level on a quarter acre (on the market for $800K) with taxes of $27,150.
Our taxes doubled in 10 years' time with no measurable gains in student achievement. Curriculum quality significantly declined during that period (e.g.: Trailblazers, Fountas & Pinnell). Teacher quality may have declined, too (I don't know), given that the district stopped hiring teachers with experience because teachers with experience are too expensive. For over a decade, the district has hired only first-year teachers, nearly all of whom have been given tenure regardless of parent opinion.

The new union contract, signed this year, provides around 4% annual overall increase in compensation. Twice the rate of inflation.

Average teacher salary - base salary - is now $100K. Add in pensions, which taxpayers fund, and average salary is around $120K (if not more). Meanwhile, average household salary in Irvington -- household, not individual -- is $117K. 

We have two choices this year and every year going forward: layoffs or a 60% vote to override the cap.

The third possibility is to persuade the union to accept compensation increases indexed to inflation. As far as I know, I'm the only person in town who thinks that's an option. The only person at present, I should say.

I can't tell how things will play out.

At this week's BOE meeting, 100 parents and high school students lined up to protest cuts.

No one lined up to protest the contract that put us in the position of having to make these cuts. Union negotiations are conducted in secret, and when the new tax-cap busting contract was finally agreed to, after years of negotiations, it was hailed. In fact, the new contract is less rich than the old contract, so  that's what everyone focused on.

Cuomo's tax cap is an interesting law. First of all, you vote on taxes, NOT the school budget. I think that's an interesting shift psychologically. And you're not just voting on 'taxes,' you're voting on the rate of increase in your taxes. Do I want my taxes to increase by more than 3% this year, Yes or No? update: I remember reading this, but a friend says it's not true. Can't confirm either way at the moment, so I'm thinking I misread. (3% because of the tax certs, but that's another story. The 2% cap translates to roughly a 3% increase for most of us. A 4% increase would be a 5% increase.)

Second, the school board is taking a bit of a risk by putting forward a budget that breaks the tax cap. If the board does not get a 60% majority, it has one more chance to put forward a budget. If that budget also breaks the cap, and also fails to attract a 60% vote, the district then goes to zero: NO increase from the previous year's tax levy at all. Instead of 10 FTEs cut, suddenly you're looking at 20.

No one wants cuts, and no one wants to talk (out loud) about the union. (Everyone talks about the union sotto voce.) So what will happen?

We'll see.

Friday, March 9, 2012

uh oh

New AP Courses to Emphasize Critical Thinking and Research

The College Board is piloting two new Advanced Placement courses designed to focus on research skills that admissions counselors say are too often missing in high school graduates.

The new program for juniors and seniors, developed in collaboration with Cambridge International Examinations, will be tested over three years in 15 to 18 high schools starting this fall, the College Board announced today.

The AP/Cambridge Interdisciplinary Investigations and Critical Reasoning Seminar will be offered in 11th grade. Students will work in teams to research and write topics of global relevance. Each school can choose its own topic and pair different disciplines, such as history and English.

The AP/Cambridge Capstone Research Project taken in 12th grade involves writing a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper that will be evaluated on the students' ability to design, plan, and manage a research project, analyze information, and communicate their findings.

Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement and College Readiness for the College Board, says college admissions officers who sit on both organizations' advisory boards discussed the need for these types of courses. "They said U.S. students are not coming to college having developed research skills and the ability to integrate knowledge across a variety of academic disciplines," he says.
By Caralee Adams on March 5, 2012 5:47 PM
First of all, no college professor is complaining that students can't "integrate knowledge across a variety of academic disciplines." College professors are trained in the disciplines (in the disciplines, not across the disciplines); they research the disciplines; they teach the disciplines; and they'd like students to come to their classes prepared to do reasonably serious work within the discipline they research and teach, not across the discipline they teach and all the other disciplines they don't teach.

History professors aren't sitting around complaining their students don't know enough math, and math professors aren't sitting around complaining their students don't know enough history. No. History professors complain their students don't know history, math professors complain their students don't know math. (comma splice intentional)

Second, I tend to doubt college admissions officers came up with this idea on their own, though I wouldn't put it past them. More likely they're surfing the zeitgeist like everyone else, the zeitgeist being determined, for reasons unbeknownst to me, by Tony Wagner.

Third, I sat in on a Cambridge Pre-U global-shmobal course in a neighboring district, and it was wretched. Wretched! The course lasted a year and a half, replaced ELA, and involved no assigned reading whatsoever, and virtually no reading above the level of simple news stories and op-eds students found on Google. Students worked in groups -- group Googling, has anyone written a Prezi presentation on that? -- then gave group Powerpoints to the rest of the class during which they examined each item for possible bias: this was critical thinking.

One of the groups presenting that day had found a relevant article in Haaretz, so, seeing as how Haaretz is an Israeli newspaper, they reported to the class that the Haaretz article might be biased against Arabs. Apparently, when you are thinking critically, you take it as a given that anything written by anyone anywhere in Israel should be suspected of bias against Arabs; and that, furthermore, a suspected bias against Arabs should be first foremost on your mind. The fact that Haaretz is a liberal paper, and might thus be accused by some of 'bias' against, for instance, Israeli settlers, did not come up. (For the record, I have no idea what Haaretz is or is not, or might or might not be, biased for or against, or who thinks what about the paper and its writers. And I wouldn't presume to speculate.)

As I recall, the group concluded that the Haaretz article was not biased, mostly because the writer's prose stye was flat and factual-sounding.

All the topics were global, and none of the topics would be addressed within the boundaries of a discipline. Or even across the boundaries of the disciplines, in the case of "Technology and Islamophobia in France."

Technology and Islamophobia in France seemed to be one of four topics students could choose from. (When I told Ed about the Technology-and-Islamophobia option, he said, "Did anyone think critically about the concept of 'Islamophobia'?) Not only is there no discipline that studies Technology-and-Islamophobia-in-France, but judging by what the kids had managed to come up with online even Google doesn't have much to say on the subject.

One of the articles the students reviewed was about surveillance cameras in French airports, as I recall. The presence of surveillance cameras in French airports had to do with Islamophobia in France because there are a lot of Muslims in France, and the French were having a debate about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school. The headscarf controversy was the subject of another article the students reviewed, an op ed written in strong and emotional language, which led the students to conclude that the author of that piece was biased.

Here's an Eastchester version of the course. The Eastchester class has some assigned texts and consumes only a year, not a year and a half.

Steve H on compensation in the private sector

The IBM example of pay is typical for many companies. They put people into pay categories with fixed pay limits, review workers once or twice a year, and set enormously high stadards of expectation. Managers don't look good to their bosses if too many employees are at the highest performance level. Also, they don't want to deal with the potential complaints of putting bad workers into the lowest level. This means that people are thrilled to get a 2-3% raise, but this is unlikely as your pay gets higher. The company starts talking about the actual dollars you are getting. Also, if some are getting 3%, then that has to come out of someone else's pay. Then, if you get to the top of your pay category, they just set up more hoops for you to jump through to be promoted to the next level.

Ultimately, however, it's all driven by supply and demand for your job skills. Companies are taking advantage of what I call job inertia. People will put up with less money just because they don't want to move or prove themselves all over in a new job. At some point, however, you might realize (usually by seeing someone else leave the company) that you can make a lot more by going to another company. I'm sure that there is a pattern of job follow-the-leader to other companies. This keeps companies honest - a little bit.

Companies can pay you whatever they want. They make up the job categories and pay limits. They can give out over-inflation raises if they decide to. The company might be making profits that far exceed inflation.

In the first company I worked, where I used to go on their college recruiting trips, we thought we figured out the corporation's policy. We would go to good colleges (like RPI) and only interview students with 3.75 or higher grade point averages. They would be offered very competitive starting salaries, and since they were young, their salaries would increase by the highest percentages each year. After a few years, some might jump ship and leave, but many would get married and settle down in the area. Then, the company would start giving these people less and less for raises. They would claim that there were fixed dollars that were allocated for each department for raises. Some years, departments were told that 10% of the employees would get no raises. The department managers would know who to pick - the ones least likely to leave.

Ultimately, supply and demand keep companies honest, but in the public education world, it's all about having everything controlled by contract negotiation, even preventing parental influence and control via charter schools. They have lost the argument that people with comparable educational backgrounds and job risk make more money.

off-topic: a sex difference I had never heard of

Reading The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in normally developing compulsive-like behaviors and
obsessive–compulsive disorder
by David W. Evans, Marc D. Lewis, and Emily Iobst, I came across mention of a sex difference so striking I had to post:
[H]man studies show gender differences in callosal axons projecting from the OFC -orbitofrontal cortex]: men attain maximal callosal size in this region at age 20, well ahead of women who do not attain it until 40-50 years (Cowell, Allen, Zalantino, & Denenberg, 1992).
We're talking about a 20-year gender gap in development?

Twenty or 30?


And how is it nobody's ever heard about it?

It's not like the orbitofrontal cortex is an insignificant part of the brain, or anything.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

lgm on school boards and union contracts

lgm, reacting to no exit:
I wouldn't agree with a). [School boards] knew exactly what they were doing [when they negotiated contracts promising above-inflation increases in compensation forever.] Here it is illustrative to draw the family trees.. vendors that want b.o.e. business, union members' extended families - all have their interests represented on the b.o.e. Some of the comments we hear are that the income of the residents has been studied, and there is an assumption as to how much is wanted from the pockets. Those that cannot pony up need to move on.

For b) [voters signed off on these contracts], I dont' know about you, but in my district there is no line item vote by the people and there is no light on the union contracts either before or after the negotiations. People stood up at the budget meetings and objected to compensation well above private industry and against line item 10% salary raises for the ones that were spelled out rather than hidden up in the union contract. The answer every time was a smug smile and 'We have a contract', with some words to the effect that those employees not under a union agreement have had their wages frozen. Meanwhile, has the facts. In retirement, my kids' teachers are in six figures between the base salary and the part-time work, not without including the other bennies. Nice work, if you can get it.

above-inflation spending

re: no exit

Budget season has heated up, and I'm finding that virtually no one thinks that annual above-inflation spending increases are unsustainable.

The union contract requires something in the neighborhood of a 4% increase in total compensation every year. (Employee salaries make up approximately 80% of the total budget.)

Meanwhile the tax cap requires us to hold spending increases to inflation, which is 2%.

The only way to stay within the cap is to cut jobs.

It's obvious to everyone that you can't cut jobs forever, but it's not obvious to everyone that you can't increase taxes above the rate of inflation forever.

Frankly, I'm confused myself.

There's no way out, right?

If you have permanent above-inflation spending increases while taxpayers aren't having concomitant above-inflation increases in their own incomes, eventually you run out of money, right?

Same for cutting jobs. Each year individual compensation goes up 4%, so you cut enough positions to average out at a 2% increase overall. (This year we need to cut 10 FTEs - "full-time equivalents" - to stay within the cap.) But you're not done. The next year individual compensation goes up by 4% again, so you have to cut more positions to average out at a 2% increase overall.

Am I figuring this wrong?

I know only two people who see things this way.

As far as I can tell, the only answer that makes mathematical sense is to persuade the union to agree to a contract that stays within inflation.

Or am I missing something?

The Syntactic Phenomena of English

Katharine told me about this book a year ago, and I need to read it NOW. Passing the title along...

The Syntactic Phenomenon of English by James McCawley

bean counters & others

My first public foray into anti-Triboroughism.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

kids need spiraled practice, not spiraled instruction

Hainish left a link to a terrific post by a math teacher:
11th grade here = 9th grade here. In fact, Algebra 2 was such a rehash of the district's Algebra 1 course that some teachers called it "Algebra T-o-o." And really, the same point could be made about math curriculum as a whole in the U.S., since most content for any given year is a review of content from previous years. (The Common Core State Standards may help change this, but I'll believe it when I see it.)

This approach, where we touch on lots of topics each year--rather than go deep with fewer topics--and then revisit them in subsequent years is often called spiraling. But what it is for many students is stifling. And this is as true for kids who've yet to master a skill as it is for those who nailed it right away. I first noticed this when I taught 9th grade Algebra classes where every student was performing at least two years below grade level.

"Meet them where they are," fellow math teachers advised me. Makes sense, I thought, since I couldn't imagine teaching Algebra to kids who didn't know basic arithmetic. But what I soon learned is that perception matters more to students than performance. For many kids, having seen something is akin to having learned something. "Man, we already know this," students said, as I presented lesson after lesson on fractions, decimals, and percents.

Other students, meanwhile, knew they didn't understand the material, but had given up hope of ever understanding it. The implication was therefore the same for all students: encore presentations on previous years' topics were pointless. And though I was able to engage a few students when I found new ways to present old topics, one group of students was always slighted: those who really did "already know this."


The problem, of course, goes back to the disconnect between kids seeing something and actually learning--and retaining--it. But if it didn't sink in for them the first, second, or third time a teacher presented it, why should we present it again?

We shouldn't. At some point the focus needs to be on students practicing math rather than teachers presenting it.


[W]e should provide students spiraled practice, not spiraled instruction. When I did this in 10th grade Geometry classes, students said they learned more Algebra than they had learned in their 9th grade Algebra course. And, as a result, they were ready for more advanced math--starting with Algebra T-w-o.
Spiraled Instruction, Stifled Learning
By David Ginsburg on March 5, 2012 8:35 PM

College Costs and Aid

There was an interesting article this week in the San Jose Mercury News, comparing the real costs at public California universities to those at private schools. I thought it was interesting to see that the kinds of issues we've been talking about for a while are just starting to make it into the mainstream.

Particularly relevant:
"At UC, "we hear from students who say, 'I was accepted at Cal, but such-and-such private university offered this aid. Can Cal match that?' said Anne DeLuca, UC Berkeley's acting admissions director."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

adjectives, adverbs, and "sentence modifiers"

Reading the thread about Groucho's elephant in my pajamas, I think I see what the problem is. I think FedUp may be talking about modifier clauses in general, while I am talking about adjective clauses in particular.

When I write, I follow different rules for two different kinds of modifiers: adjectives and "adjectivals" on the one hand; adverbs and "adverbials" on the other.

I'm certain I follow a (third?) set of rules for a third category -- sentence modifiers -- but I still don't consciously understand what sentence modifiers are, so I can't take that thought any further. (Katharine's explanation is at the end of this post.)

I'm going to steer clear of sentence modifiers for the time being.

Grammar books, including at least some linguistically-informed grammar books, tell us that adjectives  must be put next to the words they modify, but adverbs can go all over the place.

The black cat is sitting on the roof.
The cat is sitting black on the roof.
The cat is sitting on the roof black.

Adverbs are different:
The black cat is sitting happily on the roof.
The black cat is happily sitting on the roof.
The black cat is sitting on the roof happily.
Happily, the black cat is sitting on the roof.

The same principle holds for adjective & adverb phrases & clauses:

The cat that is black is sitting on the roof. (adjective clause)
The cat is sitting that is black on the roof.
The cat is that is black sitting on the roof.
The cat is sitting on the roof that is black.

Adverb clauses can move around:
The cat is sitting on the roof because she likes high places.
Because she likes high places, the cat is sitting on the roof.
The cat, because she likes high places, is sitting on the roof.
And even, in some cases:
The cat is, because she likes high places, sitting on the roof.
(I wouldn't write that sentence, but I'm pretty sure I've seen the occasional adverb clause dropped inside a 2-word verb.)

According to grammar books - at least according to the ones I'm reading - the words "because she likes high places" are an adverbial clause modifying the verb "is sitting."

I find that explanation confusing, but I don't find the rule confusing. I follow the rule automatically and unconsciously, and I always have. I also follow, automatically and unconsciously, the rule that says adjective clauses must go beside the nouns they modify (though dangling participles are something of a temptation, which I think is interesting.) Importantly, if we're talking about English teachers imposing artificial, made-up rules they learned in books upon captive students, I didn't learn either rule from a book.

I learned these rules from talking and reading. I'm not just a native speaker of English. I'm a native writer.

Katharine on sentence modifiers

I'm starting to think maybe the reason I find adverbials confusing is that the category grammar books call "adverbials" includes the category linguists call "sentence modifiers." I don't know.

In any event, here is Katharine on sentence modifiers and Groucho Marx, and this explanation does make perfect sense to me, which is a great relief!:
It's true that modifiers are generally placed next to the things they modify. But sometimes it's the entire sentence that is being modified, in which case the modifier can go at the beginning or at the end.

In the ordinary interpretation of "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" (before the "How he got there, I don't know" clarification), "In my pajamas" is a sentential modifier. That is, it most obviously characterizes the circumstances of the elephant shooting. In the bizarre interpretation (which becomes obvious only after the clarification), "in my pajamas" is a modifier of object noun "elephant." As such, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. Thus, "In my pajamas, I shot an elephant." is unambiguous.

The tradeoff is between stylistic concerns (e.g. FedupMom's) and concerns about clarity. Depending on the overall context, sentential modifiers placed at the ends of sentences can be misinterpreted as verb phrase or object noun modifiers, which both tend to go at the ends of verb phrases. Since the end of a verb phrase is often also the end of the main sentence, you often can't tell what an end-of-sentence modifier is modifying from word order alone.

With Dick Cavett, I discussed sex. (unambiguous)
I discussed sex with Dick Cavett. (ambiguous; example from Steven Pinker).

Monday, March 5, 2012

"bad teacher" - bad parent?

I AM a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances. I love these kids, but they can be a handful. Almost without exception, they struggle on standardized tests, frustrate their teachers and find it hard to connect with their peers. What’s more, these are high school students, so their disabilities are compounded by raging hormones and social pressure.

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.


When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.
Confessions of a Bad Teacher
Published: March 3, 2012
As far as I can tell, there are two approaches to accountability: roughly, top-down and bottom-up.

Top down means state tests, substantially reduced teacher autonomy, and lots and lots of principal observations.

Bottom up means professional learning communities.

At least, that's the way it looks to me.

I gather from some of palisadesk's comments that top-down can work. At the same time, I've spent the past 6 years of my life trying to function as a parent inside a tiny district headed by a top-down superintendent, and those were six long years. I never want to hear the words "work up the chain of command" again ever. Or "Thank you for your ongoing cooperation and support." I don't like being thanked for my ongoing cooperation and support. I feel that if there must be ongoing cooperation and support, I would like to be the person receiving the said cooperation and support at least occasionally.

Anyway, blood over the dam, but my point is: I don't think top-down makes for happy teachers, and I know for a fact that top-down in my district produced a very large cohort of unhappy parents.

I'm reading that in Finland teachers function as professionals, and it looks like maybe that's going to happen in my district.

I vote for teachers as professionals.

And I vote for Richard DuFour's "professional learning communities" as the best way to get there.