kitchen table math, the sequel: 4/26/15 - 5/3/15

Friday, May 1, 2015

May 3rd deadline coming right up

20% discount on Debbie Stier's SAT Critical Reading course for kitchen table math people. Deadline for registering tomorrow night.

Meanwhile I am off to South Jersey to celebrate a bat mitzvah.

I had to write that down to commemorate the fact that I have apparently become a person who says "South Jersey"!

I have never in my life said, or thought, the words South Jersey.

Until this morning.

We've lived here 16 years now, so it's time.

Monday, April 27, 2015

I'm pretty sure 'The Glass Castle' isn't an exemplar text for Common Core

Another board meeting vignette.

The District was in an uproar over Common Core all last year, and every board meeting seemed to feature yet another Powerpoint explication of the Common Core "shifts."

The middle school presentation included samples of student work, and that was great. You could actually get a sense of how the school was interpreting Common Core, and of what the kids were being asked to do.

One of the work samples was a short student response paper using "evidence from the text" (the text in question being The Glass Castle) to support the point that "some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people."

That was the student's "theme statement." Some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people.

The student's response was well-written, so that was a pleasure to see.

But I was annoyed.

I hadn't read The Glass Castle, and I knew nothing about the book, but since I'd like our kids to be able to read something written before 1990 (and not just The Outsiders, which C. read in 4th grade and then again in 7th), I stood up during Public Comments & took everyone to task.

Why are they reading The Glass Castle, I said.

Why can't they read the classics?

Why can't they read the classics ever.

The school board had the same question.

After that, I decided it was time for me to finally read The Glass Castle myself. I'd been planning to read it for a while, and I figured now was the time.

So I did,

Another case of "always worse than you think." (Family motto.)

The Glass Castle turned out to be a terrific book. But it is radically not a book for 6th-grade students.

When I got to the part where the neighbor boy tries to rape the little 8-year old girl and the next day she has to look up the word 'rape' in the dictionary, I thought . . .

I don't know what I thought.

"Holy cow," maybe.

Me being me, my next thought was: doesn't this call for an email?

An email to somebody?

Somebody in charge?

Somebody in charge who would maybe put in a word for having the kids read Tom Sawyer or Red Badge of Courage or Call of the Wild or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or, really, just about any good book that does not include a scene in which Grandma Erma gropes and paws at her 9-year old grandson's crotch and the dad's reaction is "Brian's a man, he can take it."

I mulled the whole thing over for a couple of weeks. I was still reading the book, and practically every page brought something even more unmentionable than the page before, to the point where I was having trouble imagining what exactly I was going to say if I did write an email, especially given the fact that the people I would be writing to, or about, are people I like. (Our current middle school administrators are both menshes.)

Finally I decided somebody else was going to have to deal with it.

I doubt anyone in the middle school has actually read The Glass Castle, probably including the student who wrote about it. All of the evidence-from-the-text came from the book's opening pages.

The Glass Castle is an amazing book, magical. A magical book about child abuse. (As crazy as that sounds. It is a magical book about child abuse.)

"Some people have a different perspective on what is safe and best for people" isn't the half of it.

Did local control ever exist?

I went to a school board meeting two years ago, where the topic of the middle school English curriculum came up.

The English curriculum is a chronic source of woe and has been for as long as we've lived here, which is sixteen years now.

Come to find out, parent unhappiness with the English curriculum goes back at least as far as 35 years. After I stood up and commented on the fact that we still do not have a required reading curriculum that includes the classics (here's what we do have), a member of the board said that his own mother had been unhappy about it, too.

That would have been around 1980.

When did public schools start hiring exclusively from ed schools?

Another year, another school board election

My district has been constructivizing itself for 16 years now, and people have yet to catch on.

Jeffrey Litt and the Icahn charter schools

Where have I been?

The speakers at this year's Fordham Prep Wall Street Forum were Gail Golden-Icahn (Vice President of Icahn Associates Holding LLC & Chairman Icahn Charter Schools); Jeffrey Litt (Superintendent of Icahn Charter Schools); and Julie Goodyear (Executive Director of the Foundation for a Greater Opportunity & Secretary of the Icahn Charter Schools).

(They were all incredible.)

Somehow, after all these years, I did not know that the Icahn charter schools were Core Knowledge schools.

Come to find out, the Icahn schools aren't just Core Knowledge schools, they are legendary Core Knowledge schools. Jeffrey Litt was the second principal in the country to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, and he did it in the South Bronx.

From the Core Knowledge blog:
When Litt took over P.S. 67 in 1988, it was as bad as a school in the U.S. could be. Litt had to spend a couple of years focused on rehabilitating the building, reopening the library-turned-storage room, and finding out which teachers would rise to the challenge and which had to be replaced. That made things better, but the education offered was still weak. As Litt explained in the webinar:
The surprising thing was that nobody knew what to teach. We had closets full of textbooks that were in sealed boxes. It seemed every year there was another series that was given to the schools by the district office….

I found that teachers who loved social studies would teach social studies every day and those who didn’t love social studies but loved science would teach social studies once a week. And I noticed that 5th grade teachers particularly were teaching completely unrelated units even though they were in the same grade. So right away I knew there was no curriculum in the school.

Instruction played a backseat to everything else. I was determined to fix that.
Soon thereafter, Litt attended a symposium in which E. D. Hirsch, Jr., was the featured speaker. At the time, the Core Knowledge Sequence was still being developed, and there was only one school in the nation using it. That suburban school in Fort Myers, FL, had, says Litt, “a magnificent building” and was “not even close to what I was facing in Mohegan.”

Could Core Knowledge, then a fledgling idea, actually work in the South Bronx? Litt knew that it would—that it had to:
The children had no knowledge of anything outside their immediate community. My kids could not understand the concept that they lived in a borough, which was part of a city, and part of a state, and part of a nation, on a continent. This was all foreign to them. They couldn’t name the five boroughs. I saw Core Knowledge … as the great equalizer. My kids did not have exposure to the arts. My kids did not have much in the way of travel. My kids didn’t go to museums or theaters, and they didn’t necessarily come from literature-rich homes…. I felt that Core Knowledge provided this background knowledge for them.
Instead of adopting Core Knowledge schoolwide, Litt started with just six classrooms. By February, more than a dozen more teachers wanted to use Core Knowledge. By June, the entire faculty voted to become a Core Knowledge school. Unlike today, few supports were available for implementing the Core Knowledge Sequence. But figuring out how to teach all the content specified in the Sequence was a productive undertaking. According to Litt, “We wrote our own curriculum guides, subject by subject, month by month, of what we were going to teach our children. That was the beginning of a complete renaissance of the entire school.”

Today, as superintendent of the six Icahn Charter Schools (the seventh is opening in September), Litt has that full-color picture of equity and excellence. He isn’t chasing each new fad; he remains focused on replicating and refining what works: knowledge-building curriculum, embedded professional development, and continuous tracking of achievement—not for tracking’s sake, but to inform curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

Litt ensures that “all Icahn charter schools follow the same Core Knowledge curriculum and the same procedures.” At first that may sound stifling, possibly even oppressive. But then Litt explains all the benefits. Principals meet every Wednesday to help each other solve problems. Teachers “are sharing their successes and they are going to their colleagues for help.” And, unlike what Litt found when he arrived at P.S. 67, the shared curriculum allows teachers to pursue their favorite subjects without students missing out on important content. Litt explains: “If you love science and math, and I love English language arts and social studies, and we’re both in third grade, [then]… I might teach your children English language arts and social studies. You might teach my kids science and math. Or at least we are going to share the lessons.” Teachers also collaborate across grades because the Sequence takes students deeper into academic domains as they progress.

And that stifling thing? It’s a myth. The Core Knowledge Sequence specifies content, not pedagogy. Icahn’s teachers, says Litt, “have a perfect opportunity to be innovative, creative, use their imaginations, share with their colleagues, use plays, use videos, and so on.” And, when taught with the type of refined, coherent curriculum Litt’s teachers have developed, the Sequence takes just 50% of the instructional time. So the Icahn schools really have developed their own shared curriculum. The Sequence ensures that all essential background knowledge is included, allowing educators to focus on adding content of local interest and importance.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Math students in other countries can do, plus a brain teaser

From Nicholas Kristoff's column in the Times today:

What is the sum of the three consecutive whole numbers with 2n as the middle number?

A. 6n+3

B. 6n

C. 6n-1

D. 6n-3

More than three-quarters of South Korean kids answered correctly (it is B). Only 37 percent of American kids were correct, lagging their peers from Iran, Indonesia and Ghana.


A piece of wood was 40 centimeters long. It was cut into 3 pieces. The lengths in centimeters are 2x -5, x +7 and x +6. What is the length of the longest piece?

Only 7 percent of American eighth graders got that one right (the answer is 15 centimeters). In contrast, 53 percent of Singaporean eighth graders answered correctly.


How many degrees does a minute hand of a clock turn through from 6:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the same day?

A. 680 degrees

B. 600 degrees

C. 540 degrees

D. 420 degrees

Only 22 percent of American eighth-graders correctly answered B, below Palestinians, Turks and Armenians.


Correlation isn't causation, but the absence of correlation is meaningful.

Fifteen years of constructivist mathematics programs adopted in virtually every public school in the country, fifteen years of teacher-training in authentic problem solving and guide-on-the-sidery, and here we are.

At a minimum, we can say that constructivist math has not been a blinding success.


Back to Kristoff, I love this brain teaser for some reason:

You’re in a dungeon with two doors. One leads to escape, the other to execution. There are only two other people in the room, one of whom always tells the truth, while the other always lies. You don’t know which is which, but they know that the other always lies or tells the truth. You can ask one of them one question, but, of course, you don’t know whether you’ll be speaking to the truth-teller or the liar. So what single question can you ask one of them that will enable you to figure out which door is which and make your escape?
Are You Smarter Than an 8th Grader?