Saturday, March 28, 2015

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose--or worse

If I were running a school, there are a number of things I would do to save money at no academic cost. (And, naturally, I would spend some of these savings on what counts the most: teachers, who, regardless of any official credentials, demonstrate great teaching and classroom management skills and extensive knowledge in their instructional fields—though I would attract them not just with reasonable salaries, but with much greater respect and autonomy than they get elsewhere).

Here’s how I would save money at no extra academic cost. I would eschew so-called “educational” technology. I would run the school locally, free from distant, salaried administrators. And, finally, I would avoid buying new books (where new generally means more expensive and of lower academic quality), instead using as many ancient books that are now in the public domain (and essentially free) as possible.

In other words, my spending priorities would be the opposite of what so many large school districts do—for example the Philadelphia School District. Take old books, for example. As a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (In cash-strapped School District, a hidden treasure trove of books reports, the districts has “thousands and thousands” of books

from two dozen city schools shuttered two years ago. Perfectly usable. All sitting boxed up and unused in the basement of the Philadelphia School District's headquarters.

A city block of books. Some of them shrink-wrapped. Some of them dumped in boxes. Some stacked on the floor. Few labeled. Nothing organized. Kindergarten readers next to high school books. Expensive Storytown reading series, gathering dust. Science, algebra, literature textbooks. Literary kits and phonics sets. Books for English-language learners.
These books include “classics like Jack London and Mark Twain.” It gets worse
There are thousands more unused books - and other things city kids badly need, including pianos and other instruments - piled up in the hallways and classrooms of the shuttered Bok High School in South Philadelphia.

In a district where almost 60 percent of the kids cannot read at grade level, the library is heartbreaking. Many shelves are still stocked. There are hundreds of dictionaries.
And the marching band equipment, pushed into a corner of the library: Five pianos. Bass drums. Kick drums. Trombones. The green-and-white band uniforms lie on the floor like the empty cloak of the Wicked Witch of the West.
The article’s author, Mike Newall, asks:
In a broke district, there's no music program that could use that stuff?
District spokesman Fernando Gallard “offered bureaucratic explanations that indicated this is not a new problem.”
Much of the material in the district basement, he said, were from outdated curricula taught during the administrations of Superintendents Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman.

If that's the case, how many thousands of dollars in waste is lying around there?
Math doesn't change. Chemistry doesn't change. Literature is timeless.

Indeed, in terms of the introductory material that should be the focus of K12 schools, most subjects don’t change.

Newall asks:
And in a district in financial crisis, aren't old textbooks better than no textbooks?

I’d go further: most old textbooks are better than new textbooks.

Many people around here in Philadelphia blame the plight of the Philadelphia School district on state government stinginess. The big picture is a bit more nuanced.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

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

From, the first problem on a "math Common Core Sampler Test."

Extra Credit:

1. Given the instructions, should acceptable answers include the rewrite provided below?

5j - (j - 2k) + 5k + 36

2. Supposing that the immediate goal is to have students combine like terms, and that the long time goal is to have students apply math to real-life situations, rewrite this problem as a real-world application that implicitly requires students to combine like terms.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When it matters whether 1 is prime

As I write this post, my home schooled daughter is over at a neighbor’s house spending one school day on what her public school peers have had to devote a week or more of their school year to. That is, she is taking a standardized test. To satisfy Pennsylvania’s home school law, she had to do this once in 4th grade, and once (now) in 8th grade. And since we can pick whichever standardized test we want, we pick the best one: the tried and true Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). And since anyone can apply to be a certified ITBS administrator, we walk a few blocks to the nearest neighbor who has, a fellow homeschooling mom.

As a tried and true standardized test (I took it several times several decades ago), and one with straight forward, well-written questions, the ITBS will give us results that are actually useful. In other words, it isn't anything like the new Common Core-based tests. 

Nonetheless, in some ways I would rather my daughter could forgo testing altogether. Useful as a good standardized test is for diagnosing her weaknesses, not to mention for preparing her for other standardized tests, there are probably better things we could do with our time--both right now, and during the couple of hours we spent preparing for this test. Even the best of multiple choice tests risk occasionally testing knowledge of labels rather than knowledge of concepts, and therefore, so that she wouldn’t feel stumped for stupid reasons, I found myself drilling her on things I really couldn’t care less about. Things like:

Is 1 a prime number?

Is 0 a natural number?

What is the “median” vs. the “mode”?

What does the expression |X| mean?

What is scientific notation?

But, as far as the Labels as Concepts Fallacy goes, the ITBS is much better than its Common Core counterparts.  So I didn’t find it necessary to drill her on the meanings of “kite” and “number sentence” and “rate of change” and “Cavelieri’s Principle”, not to mention “dilation,” “reflection,” and “translation.”   It could have been a lot worse—and for so many kids and their parents, it is.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

“Me Talk Pretty One Day” one day?

What does it mean, then, to give a special needs student like J meaningful access to the general education curriculum?

Meaningful access includes things like enlarged texts, braille translations, and screen readers (for visually impaired students); FM systems and sign language interpreters (for deaf students); and special keyboards and touchscreens for students with fine motor impairments. None of these devices or translations, after all, simplifies the underlying content or the underlying academic tasks.

As I suggested earlier, meaningful access is not attained by accompanying and/or replacing real works of literature with simplified, “no fear” counterparts, Sparknotes summaries, movie versions, or story board representations of plot and character.

Meaningful access also isn’t provided by “differentiated” group work in which the other students do the more challenging tasks. Nor is it attained by teachers and aides who, often with the best of intentions, model and scaffold and prompt students through tasks without fading these supports until the child achieves independent mastery. One parent once commented here that her son “used to come home with his school work essentially DONE by his helper--who thought she was ‘helping’ him.”

The latter sorts of “accommodations,” all of which involve eliminating some or all of the academic challenge, risk interfering with learning rather than fostering it—and can easily (especially in today’s pedagogically-challenging, heterogeneous-ability classrooms) become excuses not to teach what needs to be taught.

True access means abandoning the popular notion of “multiple pathways” to “demonstrate understanding” in a one-size-fits-all calendar-age-based curriculum. True access means adjusting, not the pathways towards predetermined ends, but the ends themselves. It means meeting the child at his current cognitive level—his Zone of Proximal Development. It is by starting here, as the research shows, that he will make the most real progress.

Where language-impaired students are concerned, true access means assigning texts at the students’ actual reading levels. The trick, though, is to find books that the students find interesting rather than babyish. A language-impaired 11th grader may not enjoy reading Roald Dahl novels, for example.

Many people, including Auntie Ann here, have commented on how much more complex classic texts are than their contemporary counterparts. For precisely this reason, more contemporary texts, with their shorter, simpler sentences and less complex vocabulary, are probably the place to start. In lieu of Shakespeare plus No-Fear Shakespeare plus Kenneth Branagh, how about some Kurt Vonnegut or David Sedaris, or…?

If it were up to me, I would happily deprive J and others like him of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Poe and all the other stars of the classical cannon in order to provide meaningful access to “Cat’s Cradle” and “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired test questions

Another from the sample 3rd grade math test from Smarter Balanced Assessments, which is developing Common Core tests for 31 states:

Extra Credit:

Compare the problem's mathematical challenge to the challenge of figuring out what exactly it's asking about.

(Maybe it's just me, but I had to reread it a couple times, and I've had a bit more experience interpreting math problems than your average 3rd grader).

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

“Universal access” to The Answer

Many teachers, as I discussed earlier, are obligated by their superiors to assign literary works that are many grade levels ahead of that of their students. But how, short of massive grade inflation, do you keep your students from failing the class? The answer is to relegate the actual works to window dressing, replacing them with simplified texts like No Fear Shakespeare, or movie versions, or graphical representations of the story and its characters.

While these moves may be purely pragmatic in some cases, I’ve heard some education professionals discuss them as reasonable ways to provide special needs students with “equal access” to the great works of literature. Withholding Shakespeare from students with language delays, after all, would be an ableist bigotry of low expectations.

The problem is that what makes Shakespeare et al great literature isn’t translatable into simplified texts and visual representations. Great literature is a function of great writing: evocative word choices, turns of phrase, rhythms of prose. Simplifying that writing not only reduces its quality, but also much of its more intricate content. Replacing poetry or prose with visuals or cinematography removes all that isn’t visually or cinematographically depictable: the characters’ introspections or interior monologues, the narrator’s nonvisual descriptions (e.g., of personalities), and other nonvisual reflections, commentaries, and foreshadowings. This kind of access isn’t real access.

Instead, it creates a mockery of real literature, reducing it to basic plot, simplified characters, and a simplified notion of authorial intent.

Somehow this reminds me of Reform Math. In endorsing multiple ways to get the answer, or "multiple pathways" to “demonstrate understanding,” Reform Math ignores the importance of specific mathematical strategies. No matter if you counted on your fingers or guessed and checked in lieu of following general rules to find patterns and manipulate expressions and equations: as long as you write some sort of verbose explanation for how you solved the problem, that’s all that matters. Similarly, Universal Design-inspired literature classes ignore the importance of the specific means the author has used to convey the literary “answer” (the work’s content and theme). As long as you “demonstrate understanding” of what the "answer" is, it doesn’t matter how you got there. In this version of education--of “access” to “learning”-- it’s the final destination, not the journey, that matters.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Full Inclusion illusion

Even as J winds down his final year in the Philadelphia public school system, I’m still learning new things about how the district operates. For example, I recently learned that the one-size-fits-all approach to high school English predates the Common Core. For at least the last dozen years, all Philadelphia high school English teachers have had to choose from a specific list of literary works/authors, which include Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare plays. It doesn’t matter that, according to a 2013 report, only 53.4% of the school district’s 11th graders scored proficient or advanced on the Literature section of the state’s new Keystone test, and that only 10.1% and 10.6%, respectively, of English Language Learners and special ed students with IEPs scored proficient or advanced in Literature.

For all but the most intellectually impaired of these students, it’s full inclusion in regular classrooms. In other words, Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare, for nearly everyone who scores Basic or Below Basic in Literature.

Many of my own students, special ed teachers who teach children with autism, have long been concerned about how all this affects their students. They report, however, that higher powers keep them from making modifications and from telling parents how bad things are. On a recent discussion board, one student wrote:

I was stuck between the school district and the parent who wanted their child placed in an outside placement because the child was struggling behaviorally and academically. It was difficult because I did not feel that this student needed placed outside. The problem actually was that the regular education was not properly modifying his classroom and work for the student needs. Of course, I could not tell this to the parent. I worked my hardest to get the teacher to understand how inclusion works with no luck.
When I asked her why she felt she couldn’t tell the parent what was going on she wrote:
I was told not to tell the parents because they are famous for making complaints with the state (which I don't blame them because I would have too). … Everyone here is too worried about getting in trouble for not following the rules, simply because they know they aren't. They fear that telling a parent could result in the filing of a due process complaint.
Another student has the same feeling about: administration not wanting the special education teachers to tell the "whole" truth about how they feel things are going. I feel that some schools want to make it look and sound like everything that needs to be done is being done when it may not be. Many teachers try to get students different curriculum that will best meet their needs and they are shut down. When teachers suggest pulling out for more intense instruction at the students level, it was frowned upon and said we are "full inclusion." With some persistence some teachers now pull out which has been very beneficial to those students. Some schools want to "look" so much like what the public thinks is full inclusion and not what it should really be... Many teachers work behind the scenes to try and fix the problem, which causes a lot of stress on them.
Another student writes:
I have definitely seen students not necessarily getting what they need in a specific area, especially if they are included in the mainstream when they probably shouldn't be.
And another student writes:
I am a regular classroom teacher with GIEPs and IEPs. I have to widen my instruction and materials for levels from 1st grade to 5th grade in reading and math. I have no support teacher or aide and this is honestly a big challenge. My school believes that one person, me, should be able to handle this with no problem and challenge/meet the needs of 22 students. This is where I believe that schools are in the wrong with full inclusion and students not getting what they need.
But is anyone listening?