Monday, March 2, 2015

Why is innovation always the answer?, II

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer has just announced that

Three Philadelphia School District leaders... will be meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other top principals from around the country in Washington.
The occasion? A program called "Principals at ED," which
"brings groups of highly innovative and successful principals from across the country to the Education Department to learn more about federal programs and to share experiences from their jobs as school leaders."
Guess which three principals have been chosen?

The principal of the school that has consistently scored first place citywide in the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, based on test scores, attendance, AP and SAT scores, and teacher impact.

The principal of the school that currently scores first place, and has long scored second place, in the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile.

The principal of the school which, after years of obscurity, currently scores second place in the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile.


The principal of a school whose students score poorly on AP tests but which is a project-based, technology-empowered school that has "received national attention and prizes for [its] innovation."

The principal of school that has only been operating for two years but is a satellite of the project-based, technology-empowered, national attention and prize-winning school.

The principal of another school that has only been operating for two years but is a project-based, real-life-application school that has "received national attention and prizes for [its] innovation."

Hint: the article quotes one of the chosen principals as saying that "school should really be about problem solving, communicating, persistence, self-awareness, and project management."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Losing yourself in the underworld

There is a creepy underworld in The Princess of the Midnight Ball. There is also a creepy underworld in the The Girl Who Could Fly. In a book club for tween girls, two girls had just made the connection.

L, a friend of mine who leads the club, was excited. "That's a great point of comparison between the two books: their creepy underworlds," she began, anticipating a discussion about archetypes.

But did the girls know the word "archetype"? L hadn't kept close tabs on what today's kids have been learning in English and Language Arts class, but she knew things were different.

"Do you know what that's called?" she continued.

"A text-to-text reference!" chimed a chorus of tweenaged voices.

"A what?"

I couldn't help laughing when L told me the story, so starkly did it highlight how many of today's K12 horrors she's missed out on. What L was asking about vs. what the girls thought she was asking for was the difference between the beauty of literary themes and the ugliness of education jargon. It was the difference between losing yourself in a world of literature and losing that world in order to find yourself--in all your meta-cognitively reflecting glory.

And it was, finally, the difference between the potential joys of reading and the creepy underworld of K12 expert-driven "best practices."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired high school math test problems

The eight questions on the sample 12th grade math test from Smarter Balanced Assessments, which is developing Common Core tests for 31 states:

Extra Credit:

Compare these problems to the sample math problems on the high school math exam given in Finland, and connect this to the ongoing buzz about why Finnish students are outperforming ours.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why Education Experts are Obsessed with Top-Down Accountability–But You Don’t Have to Be

Another recent addition to the New York Times’ extensive literature on 21st century innovation needs is Dana Goldstein’s review of Anya Kamenetz's The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be.

Goldstein begins by laying out Kamenetz's arguments against standardized testing:

...Kamenetz probes psychometry, or the science of testing, demonstrating its roots in the deeply held racism of the early-20th-century I.Q. movement. She shows why today’s achievement tests, designed to evaluate ability on a specific day, typically at the end of the school year, are poor tools for helping either teachers or students improve their practices in real time. “They conceptualize proficiency as a fixed quantity in a world where what’s important is your capacity to learn and grow,” she writes. “They are a 20th-­century technology in a 21st-century world.”
In this brave new world, we learn, current skills and knowledge are no longer important; instead what's important are the future skills that people are capable of eventually acquiring. So, for example, when I’m hiring a programmer, or choosing a doctor or lawyer or accountant or music teacher, I shouldn’t consider their “fixed” proficiencies in programming, medicine, law, accountancy, or music pedagogy, but only how much they seem capable of learning and growing down the line.

Given these compelling conclusions:
…the book’s most urgent contribution is its exploration of how we might hold our schools, teachers and students accountable if we were to scrap high-stakes standardized testing entirely. As in her previous book, “DIY U,” Kamenetz is open to seemingly radical, technology-driven solutions. She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, Kamenetz advocates the kind of approach she observes in action at Bate Middle School in Danville, Ky., and the Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City. These schools assess students using long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking. Their practices hark back to the “exhibitions” of early Republic schools, in which parents and the community observed children as they demonstrated newfound knowledge. Kamenetz shows how fundamentally American it would be to turn toward a more holistic system of evaluating educational outcomes.
It doesn’t seem to occur to Goldstein, or to Kamenetz, that "addictive" gaming software might detract from "learning and growing." Or that “student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity” and “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” might be just as stressful, just as time-wasting, and just as unreliable as “tools for helping teachers or students improve their practices in real time,” as standardized tests are.

Regardless of which particular century we happen to be living in, there is a much better way to hold schools accountable. Imagine if all parents had real school choice. Imagine if all the programs currently beset with impossibly long waiting lists--Montesseri, KIPP, and language-immersion, for example--could expand to meet parental demand. Imagine, further, if parents could request specific teachers--with popular teachers getting larger classrooms and extra support staff.

Of course, because it empowers the amateurs, who supposedly have much less sense than the experts do of whether their kids are learning anything useful, this sort of accountability will never be advocated by the experts. Especially by those who suspect, deep down, that most parents don't want what they are offering.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why is the answer always "innovation"?

Even this past week's Education Week admits that things are pretty bad for America’s high school and college graduates as compared with their peers in most other development countries.

Of course, what Ed Week doesn't acknowledge is that much of the blame falls on K12 schools and all the problems with today's trends in K12 education (Reform Math; Constructivism, Balanced Literacy, student-centered learning, etc., etc.). But were I to identify the top things to fix at the college level, I'd say they are:

1. the extra costs, passed on to students on their families, of the steep rise in the proportions of salaried administrators; and of growing numbers of non-academic perks like rec centers, weaving studios, and luxury dorms.

2. the decline in the humanities in instruction of basic knowledge, analytical skills, and writing skills (via the drop in survey courses and the dominance of “critical theory” and postmodern claptrap over facts and communicative clarity).

3. the shrinking time college students spend studying, which, over the last fifty years, has dropped from 24 hours a week to about 15.

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, however, Jon Cohen and Jim Kessler, respectively the president and senior vice-president for policy at the Third Way, assert that the top problem is something completely different: namely, the general quality of college-level teaching:

At the K-12 level, the No Child Left Behind law required training, evaluation and assessment of teachers. But at the college level, professors are mostly on their own. They typically come through the ranks of Ph.D. programs, receive little training on how to teach, and are — at research universities — granted tenure primarily for scholarship, not effective instruction.
Currently, the federal government gives just 24 cents in postsecondary education improvement grants for every $100 in grants for research; that number should be at least doubled. By 2020, every college that gets federal aid should be required to have a plan to train professors, improve the quality of instruction and measure student learning. This need not be a top-down mandate; the universities should be allowed to compete for federal funds to design the best assessments of whether and how students learn.
While it’s probably true that many college professors could teach better, the likely result of any pressure to "have a plan to train professors and improve the quality of instruction" will give carte blanche to education schools to tell other departments how to teach. This, in turn, will result in a decline in the quality of instruction, as professors are pressured to get in line with all those enduring education-school fads: to step down from their lecterns, to further de-emphasize discrete bodies of basic factual knowledge and the mastery of discrete skills, and to guide from the side while students work in groups doing hands-on, interdisciplinary activities with the latest so-called "educational" technology—all of those key elements of what some people call "innovative teaching."

Indeed, "innovative teaching methods" are exactly what the authors want, so certain are they that it’s a lack of innovation, rather than a trend away from traditional teaching practices, that explains why things have deteriorated:
A research study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently found that just 20 percent of faculty members used innovative teaching methods, like team-teaching across subjects, soliciting real-time student feedback in class and using social media to spur discussion outside the lecture hall.
No wonder, then, that 45 percent of a sample study of more than 2,300 students demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after two years of college, as the education scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in a landmark 2011 book, “Academically Adrift.”
Perhaps my own college experience failed to bestow "gains in critical thinking" upon me—after all, none of my professors used innovative teaching methods—but I simply can’t fathom why, when things get worse, the answer is to innovate rather than to go back those practices (of professors, of students, and of colleges as a whole) that coincided with the heights from which our society has fallen.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired math problems

From's "Common Core Test Prep" page:


Extra Credit

American educational priorities often confuse labels with concepts. Identify those problems, above, where the primary challenge is knowing the meaning of a particular mathematical label, as opposed to understanding a mathematical concept.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Conversations on the Rifle Range 26: Moving On and the Sedimentation of Students

Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters published here under the name Huck Finn, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents the final episode (26) to this series.

I am currently working at a middle school in a neighboring school district. I do not have my own classes; I assist the math teachers there by identifying and working with students who are struggling. Like most schools these days, it has fallen under the spell of Common Core, with a disturbing amount of instruction spent on writing about how they solved a problem, explaining their reasoning and why they think the answer is reasonable. I work there four days a week; I started in August and will continue until school lets out. While I miss having my own classes, I like it for the most part. One key advantage is that it allows me to focus on teaching students the basic skills they are missing rather than on having them explain their reasoning for problems they cannot solve because of procedures they cannot perform.

The district I’m in has recently contracted with SVMI (the Silicon Valley Math Initiative), just like the school district where I was working last year. These are the folks who developed the Problems of the Month to stimulate "algebraic thinking" outside of algebra courses and who also constructed the test that was now being given as an extra barrier to taking algebra 1 in seventh or eighth grade in my old district. There is no word yet on raising the barriers for qualifying for the traditional algebra 1 course in 8th grade. But one never knows.

I have not kept in touch with anyone from my previous school (Lawrence Middle School), though occasionally I look at the website for pictures of the students. I see pictures of some of my seventh graders, now eighth graders. All appear to be doing well. I don’t know how any of my former eighth graders are doing now in high school.

In case you’re curious, my algebra classes managed to do better on the chapter test on quadratics than they had on the quiz. We moved on to algebraic fractions and various word problems had one last test, and that was that.

My prealgebra classes also wrapped things up nicely. I recall with particular fondness my Period 2 class. They were my favorite of all my seventh grade classes; they were generally very sweet, though over the months since I took over they were much more talkative and rambunctious as they proceeded on their relentless path to becoming eighth graders. On the day before the last test, we were reviewing multiplication of binomials and a boy asked “the question”: “Am I ever going to be using polynomials in my life?”

The question of “When will I ever use this stuff” gets a lot of play these days. I don’t recall it being asked that much when I was in school, but maybe I wasn’t aware of it. Fifty years ago, when I was in junior high, the space race had begun in earnest and there seemed to be no doubt in my mind, or in the minds of many of my classmates, of why algebra or math in general would be of any use. Given today’s technological age, one would think the same reasoning prevails, but students keep hearing that with the Internet you can just Google the answer to many questions. Furthermore, I think the press and others plant the idea in peoples' minds that math must be relevant and kids seem to delight in asking "How am I ever going to use this in life?" I get the feeling that they've picked it up from various sitcoms and other venues that use this as a stock phrase and laugh-getter. Kids only ask this question because they are –essentially—told to ask it.

Mario, the boy who asked the question, had ambitions of being a wrestler. “Well, if you go into wrestling, I doubt you will use polynomials much. And those of you who go into law or journalism, or any field that doesn’t typically use a lot of math—well you probably won’t use polynomials all that much.”

The class listened quietly—they were the only pre-algebra class that would do that.

"But,” I continued, “If you go into math, the sciences or engineering, you will use polynomials almost on a daily basis. They are a mainstay of mathematics and used in just about every math course you will take from now on. Formulas in physics that plot the trajectories of rockets are polynomials. But aside from polynomials and what you will use in life, I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know what any of you will do. My job—and the job of all teachers—is to prepare you as best I can to give you as many opportunities as possible. Maybe you aren't interested in science now, but suppose you change your mind. The algebra you take will then prepare you to take science classes and other math classes. It would be totally unfair of me to single someone out and say 'Oh that person will never be in science, so let's not waste time teaching him math' because we just don't know what that person will do. If you had told me when I was in seventh grade that I would end up majoring in math, I would have thought you were crazy. I didn't do well in it then. But here I am. Anyway, that's my sermon for the day."

I expected to then move on, and was suddenly surprised when the whole class applauded. "That's the first time I ever got applause for that little speech,” I said. There are other reasons to study algebra that I didn't get into with my students, one of them being the "sheer beauty and importance of the structure of mathematics". But I had the applause so I went with that.

I’ve given variations on that speech where I am now, and on some occasions I have again received applause. It’s mid-February as I write this, and a little past the one-year anniversary of when I started my assignment at Lawrence Middle School. It has taken me a while to let go of the students there and stop missing them. When I started at my present school, I resisted getting to know the new students well, as if it would spare me the pain of saying goodbye later.

But my new students have grown on me. They won’t ever replace my former students; they’ll just add to the collection. The white boards in my classroom on the last day of school come to mind here. Each class wrote their names and greetings on the white board, some erasing what was there before, some writing over it, like sedimentary layers of rock. That’s what my memories of students will be like over time, I think.

I’ve left some pictures of those white boards so you could see. I’d much rather leave you photos of the students themselves but privacy laws prevent me from doing so.

I wish you could meet them all. I know you’d love them.