kitchen table math, the sequel: Report from the front

Friday, July 12, 2013

Report from the front

The other day I was introduced to a dean at a progressive private school. We chatted, and at some point I asked how the school assesses student learning.

The dean was vague. He mentioned teachers "reflecting" a couple of times, and then said the school is moving more and more to students assessing themselves, which also involves reflecting.

Funny thing: just last week I talked to a friend of mine whose son attends the school. She says the school has rampant grade inflation, and her son has learned nothing but his grades are good. He learns so little at school that he had two full-time tutors all last school year. (This is a very smart kid, by the way. No learning problems, no behavior problems.) When she took him to the SAT tutor she used with an older child in the family, the tutor told her there's no way he can prepare her son to take the SAT Math Subject test.

I told my friend about "Teach Like a Champion" classes: rapid-fire, high-energy events, with cold-calling and choral response, and said we need charter schools for rich kids. Parents should at least have the option of putting their kids in classrooms where kids spend a a lot of time practicing, not just discussing.

My friend is athletic, and she sparked to the idea it instantly. She said her son would love it, and he would remember what's been taught because he would be practicing in class.

Grade inflation and no practice during class-time: that is a recipe for total disengagement in a lot of kids.


SteveH said...

This is from Auntie Mame (the one with Rosalind Russell - 1958), which is one of my favorite movies:

Dwight Babcock: I dropped by the Bixby School. And what do I find? I find he isnt even registered there, he never has been. So I've been hunting through every low, crockpot school in this town, and I finally found him in the lowest of them all.

Auntie Mame: Mr. Page is a progressive educator...

Dwight Babcock: There they were, a schoolroom full of them: boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.

Auntie Mame: I assure you that the children under Mr. Pages care were engaged in normal, healthful, broadening procedures.

Dwight Babcock: Broadening? You show them what you were doing when I broke into that place. Go ahead, show them.

Patrick Dennis: We just playing Fish Family.

Dwight Babcock: Fish Family.

Patrick Dennis: Its a sort of constructive play.

Dwight Babcock: Now, listen to this.

Auntie Mame: Show me now darling, show me.

Patrick Dennis: Well, we do it right after yogurt time. Mrs. Page and all the girls crouch down on the floor under the sun lamps. And they pretend to be lady fishes, depositing their eggs in the sand. Then Mr. Page and all the boys do what gentlemen fish do.

Auntie Mame: [pause] What could be more wholesome or natural?

SteveH said...

My son would hate "Teach Like a Champion". He would also hate Mr. Page's progressive school and the "Bixby School". Actually, he is quite happy with his public (strong AP) high school.

The biggest problem in many areas are the K-8 public schools. They can't or won't separate students. They've gone in the other direction with full inclusion. There has been an big increase in K-8 private schools since I was young. Unfortunately, many of them rehash the same constructivist ed school ideas. Many parents (like us) put their kids into private K-6 schools only to bring them back to public schools and try to survive until high school.

So many people really have trouble seeing the importance of content knowledge and mastery of skills in K-8, and I see no explanation that will convince them to change. Maybe the will see that when they experience the problems with their kids, but I've never been able to change anyone's mind. I have surprised a few with my views, but that's about it.

SteveH said...

KTM had a discussion a while back about progressive and unschooling approaches. If you believe in natural and unschooling approaches, that is all of the justification you need. When confronted by tests like CCSS, SAT, or AP, the complaint usually is that schools end up only teaching to the test. That may be true in some cases, but often the natural approaches don't produce better scores on those tests. This takes a little bit more rationalization to justify, and usually involves complaining about mere facts and rote skills. Never mind that most colleges expect to see good SAT, SAT II, and AP scores.

Some parents think that natural learning is OK in K-8, but then send their kids to regular high schools. They wonder why the transition is so difficult. Our regular high school has a number of struggling Waldorf kids. Some end up getting sent back to a Waldorf school for high school. I know one student who followed this process, and then (eventually) ended up at Hampshire College. This is fine if that's what you really wanted.

In many public school systems, however, students start out in a natural K-6 learning environment that trusts the spiral and assumes that all students will learn when they are ready. Then they are hit with the seventh and eighth grade transition to high school. Teachers begin to focus on content and skills to toughen the students up. It doesn't match up. I saw my son go from a fuzzy learning K-6 environment into one that changed it's philosophy completely around. I've talked about the philosophical wall I saw between 6th and 7th grades. That's the point where teachers in our state have to be certified in the subjects they teach.

I've always looked for ways to drive the high school expectations (and ideas of learning) down into the lower grades, but I think it's impossible. Our educators either don't see this problem or they don't care. They keep talking about critical thinking and understanding in K-6 as if full inclusion allows them to provide a more rigorous education. They want it both ways, and parents are left to pick up the pieces. If you only see this problem when your child gets into high school, it's really going to be a struggle.

Anonymous said...

What the extreme progressive educators have a hard time understanding is that although children do need a nurturing environment where they can feel free to fail, most children do not experience complete, constant spontaneity as "nurturing." Children need structure in order to master skills and content; then they can benefit from a bit of spontaneous exploration in which to use their skills and content.

lgm said...

Guided Practice is not going to happen in class unless everyone in the classroom with an I.E.P. can do the practice with just the resources present in the room. Traditional games such as "Around the World" for math facts have been banned as unfair to those who don't have good auditory skills. Full inclusion means that g.p. would be 'unfair' to those who don't have their aide, their equipment, their preferred input form, or special ed. teacher present.

palisadesk said...

Guided Practice is not going to happen in class unless everyone in the classroom with an I.E.P. can do the practice with just the resources present in the room.

That has not been my experience or observation. Guided practice can be done in a number of ways, and these can be geared to the varying levels of the student in the class, IEP'd or not. "Around the World" and its variants can be adapted so that there are various "decks" of questions and the teacher (or student) can select from which one the items for a particular student will be drawn.

A program for developing reading fluency and both phonics and word recognition skills is one from Sopris West called "The Six Minute Solution," with passages, resources, lists etc. and fluency charts and levels from K-6+, and Morningside provides materials for the middle school level. Students can work individually or in leveled groups to practice to mastery on skills as diverse as factoring equations and diagramming sentences.

This takes some up front work to pre-organize and have appropriate folders and materials ready but I've seen inclusive class teachers make it work well, and have done it myself in smaller groups that were still quite varied in skill level.

A problem with no apparent solution is that of children who need much more practice than can be provided in school. We can't aim to get all children to mastery without confronting that one.

Anonymous said...

@ Palisadesk -- Re: a problem with no apparent solution . . .

A relative with Down Syndrome was allowed to spend 2 years in each grade until he was 16. That ended up with his mastering decoding and writing simple paragraphs, simple arithmetic, fairly good vocabulary (although I think that came from home, too). Not recommending this; it only worked because it was a small rural school and every class had at least a couple of cousins in it to help him out socially. But it indicates how MUCH extra practice it can take, when cognitive ability is impaired.

momof4 said...

My kids were raised in Montgomery County, MD and I believe that its special-ed HS is still open. We knew two families with cognitively-impaired kids (1 Down's,1 not) and both chose to place their kids at that school, which worked to maximize what they could do academically, but also to prepare them for job placements. Both kids had been in designated spec-ed classrooms for all academics, in ES and MS. After we left the area, we lost track of the family whose son was still at Rock Terrace (could stay until 21, IIRC) but the other has been working as a housekeeper for a major hotel chain ever since she graduated. Both families were very clear that they did not want their kids to waste time in a class where they could never learn the material.

Wise use of time should be the goal for all kids; low, middle and upper levels. It's a precious resource that should never be wasted.

palisadesk said...

But it indicates how MUCH extra practice it can take, when cognitive ability is impaired.

Cognitive disability and memory issues are not always closely connected. The kids i worry about are those WITHOUT cognitive disabilities who nevertheless have significant issues with mastery involving procedural learning, symbol acquisition, working memory etc. Most of the ones i see have average ability; some even are gifted (such as the student I posted about with an IQ of 160+ who only managed to learn 6 alphabet letters in 4 years!).

Frequently these students do not meet criteria for special education either. They need a lot of guided practice, but there is not sufficient time in school. When their parents cannot help them (as is often the case in families of the working poor), their prospects are grim.

Anonymous said...

Agree that it's not only kids with cognitive impairments that have a need for extra practice. But if the kid does have cognitive impairment, it's almost a given that extra practice will be needed. Ironically, sped classrooms are set up to provide that extra practice, while regular ed classrooms are not.