kitchen table math, the sequel: 3/10/13 - 3/17/13

Monday, March 11, 2013

budget season

Sorry to be missing in action -- budget season is upon us, and I've been writing posts for the Irvington Parents Forum.

The Forum has also had an interesting discussion of kids learning Mandarin Chinese, including an email from a mother who is living in China so her daughter can learn the language. I'll get links posted as soon as I've read everything.

For New Yorkers and anyone else who is interested in school funding:

Per pupil spending $28,517


Why the tax cap passed in New York state
Pension contribution rises 37% for 2013-2014
New York State School Board Association opposes Triborough Amendment


English Language Arts scores 

The insanity in my state is that a school district can have nearly $30K per pupil funding and still be laying off teachers, cutting programs, laying off more teachers, threatening to cut French, Latin, and Greek, threatening to cut French, Latin, and Greek again, etc., etc., on and on.

Each and every year since the crash, we have a budget crisis: the same crisis, over and over again. It's like Groundhog Day, only not fun.

The reason we have a budget crisis each year without fail is that the budget is capped, but the contracts are not. The cap is 2%, but our contract calls for roughly 4% annual increase in compensation, and 4 is not 2. Plus pension payments will rise by 37% next year, and tax certs are through the roof (nearly $2 million this year, assuming I'm reading the Powerpoint correctly). Apparently tax certs always will be through the roof, forever. So we have a crisis.

Surreally, the solution is simple, but impossible.

All of our problems would be over if the union simply agreed to index raises to inflation. But that option is unthinkable.

The 4-is-not-2 dilemma is unthinkable even as a description of the problem. Instead of "labor costs are too high," the problem is understood to be Cost Escalation Beyond Board's Control.

Pension contributions! Health insurance! Special ed! Mandates!

True enough, all these things are expensive, but "mandates" obscures the fact that the only mandate that matters, and the source of our woe, is the Triborough Amendment. And that is here to stay.

So we are living in the land of zero-sum, where 4% raises for some mean lay-offs for others.

Sometimes kids know *less* than adults realize

A few nights ago, I was having dinner with a friend and her very smart fourteen year-old son.

My friend told me the story of how her son, who is in *eighth grade*, had come home from school with an assignment to write an 8-10 page paper. 

The exceedingly nebulous instructions included brainstorming a "guiding question" and due dates for various drafts, but other than that, there was not one iota of specific information about how these thirteen and fourteen year-olds were supposed to go about writing this paper. 

Never mind high school, it looked like the assignment sheet for a college term paper.  

My friend, a teacher herself, was a bit concerned that the assignment was unclear and emailed his teacher. She couldn't figure out whether the paper was supposed to be thesis-driven or whether it was just a research project, but the teacher wouldn't give her a straightforward answer.

She asked her son whether he'd been given clearer instructions in class.

He shook his head.

"Do you know whether you need to have a thesis, or is it just research?" she asked.

He shrugged. 

"Wait," I said. "M., do you know how to write a thesis?" 

He hesitated and looked confused. "What exactly do you mean by thesis...?"

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Even if boys score higher than girls on standardized tests, they get lower grades

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college....
The sometimes controversial Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about this problem of "Boys at the back" in our public schools, illustrated in this chart posted by Mark Perry.


A reason is differences in 'noncognitive skills'
Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.
The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.
The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.
That last sentence, which I've highlighted, may hold a key to the gender gap in school performance.  Boys lag girls in developing both noncognitive and literacy skills. Over time schools have pushed down more rigorous academic and organizational requirements to younger grades, making it more likely for boys to develop early gaps that often persist into the college years.

A related reason for the gender gap may be what David Brooks called the lack of cultural diversity.
… The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys....
Brooks is describing what is often called the “feminization” of public schools.  This term is distasteful to some, probably because it reinforces gender stereotypes.  Whatever the label, it does appear that schools have become “culturally homogeneous” in a way that hurts boys more than girls.  It starts in elementary school when an early reader is told that he got the wrong answer because he picked “mad” instead of “sad” to describe how the boy in the story feels after he doesn’t get the bike he wanted for his birthday.  It continues through high school where group discussions in history class only allow expressions of compassion for victims of war but no praise for brilliant military maneuvers.  The message is clear – only certain types of behaviors and thoughts are welcome in the classroom.
There’s no doubt that students do need to be ”studious and industrious” to perform well academically.  It just seems that public schools are misguided in the methods they use in trying to develop those qualities in all students, particularly in boys.
Suggested reforms

Sommers points out that this gender gap should motivate schools to find ways to promote boys' academic achievement, as they have done for girls in recent cases when the gender gap has been reversed.  She suggests some changes that the British, the Canadians and the Australians have implemented.
... These include more boy-friendly reading assignments (science fiction, fantasy, sports, espionage, battles); more recess (where boys can engage in rough-and-tumble as a respite from classroom routine); campaigns to encourage male literacy; more single-sex classes; and more male teachers (and female teachers interested in the pedagogical challenges boys pose).
One example of how poor noncognitive skills can create a misalignment between grades and test scores

I know of a case where a middle school boy consistently earned almost perfect test scores in his social studies class and who reached the finals in his state's geography bee contest.  However, his overall grade was significantly lowered by his poor class notes, likely due to a deficit in "noncognitive skills".  Because of his grades, and because "behavior and work habits" counted so heavily in the admissions process, he was shut out of his high school's honors history track.  If not for his parents' intervention to override the school's policies, allowing him to enroll in the honors course, he might have languished in courses that were too easy and boring for him.  As it happened, he went on to graduate with honors and enroll in an elite university.

(A version of this post previously appeared on Cost of College.)