Thursday, October 31, 2013

Math problem of the week: 6th grade 1920's math vs. Connected Math

The first fractions-to-decimals conversion problems in 6th grade 1920's math vs. 6th grade Connected Math.

I. From Hamilton's Essentials of Arithmetic, Second Book (published in 1919), chapter I, "Decimals" section [click to enlarge]:

II. From Connected Mathematics' Bits and Pieces I, Investigation 3, "Moving Between Fractions and Decimals" [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

If you divide the mathematical challenges of each problem set by its verbal challenges (i.e., the challenge of figuring out what each problem is asking you to do), which problem set has the larger quotient?

Should 6th graders by encouraged to conceive of fractions as shadings on a hundredths grid, or as a division of the numerator by the denominator?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rewarding smart students

Here in America, we’re constantly shortchanging our smartest students. Even before the Common Core took hold, our schools have been watering down gifted programs or eliminating them entirely. One particularly insidious strategy is to do what Montgomery County has done with math acceleration: open up accelerated classes to a lot more students while keeping standards high. Then, when failure rates in these classes spike, conclude that the problem is acceleration itself rather than who’s being accelerated, brand the phenomenon as “over-acceleration,” and argue that the classes in question should be decelerated—if not eliminated entirely.

Under the Common Core, with its one-size-fits-all-approach and its studious avoidance of words like acceleration, things are even worse. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article in EdWeek:

Gina Tampio said her son, who is in 2nd grade and an advanced learner, has lost interest in school since the common-core standards rolled out at his elementary school last year. (The school he attends no longer classifies students as gifted.)  
"My main concern is that the the common core has made the curriculum so rigid and rote and, frankly, just boring," she said. "When my son has to identify the main theme in a story, the story is so boring and nonsensical that he has learned not to care."  
Her son's school, Daniel Warren Elementary in Mamaroneck, N.Y., has moved to a prepackaged common-core curriculum that Ms. Tampio said is highly prescriptive and requires everyone to learn at the same pace.  
In a statement emailed to Education Week, school district officials deny that claim.
"The Rye Neck School District is proud of its challenging curriculum and its attention to the needs of all learners," it said. "We are a high-performing district, one that will naturally adapt to the common core while continuing to exceed that baseline with individualized attention to every one of our students."  
But Ms. Tampio said that her son has not experienced an individualized curriculum. When her son's teacher tried to differentiate the curriculum for him, Ms. Tampio said he was simply given extra work.  
"In some ways that backfired because it was almost a punishment for him," she said.
A smart enough teacher, surely, would figure out a way to give this child what he needs while still kowtowing to the Common Core. But such teachers are increasingly scarce.

These are some of the things I think about when I reflect on myself as a teacher—and, specifically, on how I evaluate my students. I’ve noticed recently that my top grades almost always end up going to the smartest students in the class—instead of, say, those who exert the most effort or “go beyond the standard” or have the most hands-on experience with autism.

To do well in my class, students must read a number of moderately difficult articles on the psychology of language acquisition and autism and write responses to these articles that include clear, accurate, and comprehensive summaries. In addition they write a research paper that I also grade primarily on clarity, accuracy and comprehensiveness. More fundamentally, they need to read and understand the directions to these assignments such that, for example, that they end up answering the question at hand and not some other question instead.

Success with these tasks is much less a function of hands-on experience with, or passionate interest in, autism than it is of general skills in reading comprehension and verbal expression. These skills, in turn, are more a function of verbal IQ than of anything else (though things like attentiveness and rereading are also important). And in neurotypical people like my students, verbal IQ, in turn, is highly correlated with nonverbal IQ—i.e., with IQ in general.

But whenever I feel weird about my grades looking like IQ scores, I think about how desperately we need to promote smart people and get more smart teachers into classrooms.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Yet another justification for Social Emotional Learning programs

Yet another reason for the proliferation of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs appears in last week’s Education Week. Besides making students nicer and preparing them for the 21st century, there’s a more mundane goal: basic classroom management.

This latest article, entitled “Teachers Use Social-Emotional Programs to Manage Classes,” focuses on a program called the 4R's (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) as it plays out in 3 classrooms led, respectively, by a Ms. Schmidt, a Ms. Mendez, and a Ms. Diaz. Its key elements, apparently, are:

1. Obvious tactics--like giving students input in classroom rules and making them make amends and apologize when they hurt someone’s feelings:

SEL programs also tend to focus on having students repair the damage when they misbehave, rather than simply receive a punishment. For instance, said Ms. Schmidt, if one child in her classroom does not let another play at recess, instead of just having to sit out, the offender will have to find a way to "fix" the problem.  
"He could make a card or write a note to the kid," she explained. "Often this 'apology of action' or 'fixing' is a lot harder than just losing recess."
2. Low-level vocabulary exercises:
Students learn vocabulary words related to feelings and practice identifying their emotions.
Somehow I doubt these exercises include more sophisticated terms like “nostalgic,” “resolute”, and “resigned”.

3. Dorky acting exercises:
One morning early this fall, 1st graders in Nydia Mendez's class at Public School 24 in Brooklyn were working on identifying feelings.  
"It's your birthday. Make a face and show me how you feel," Ms. Mendez said to students, who instantly became all smiles and flapping arms. "You lost your favorite pencil." Their puppy-dog eyes hit the ground. "Your body's showing me that you're disappointed," she said to one boy.
4. Lots of time consumption:
Rebecca Schmidt… uses a variety of social-emotional-focused methods to manage her students. "It's tough, and a messy process, and takes a lot longer than a typical external-incentive/rewards classroom management [approach]," she wrote in an email.
5. Embarrassing, privacy-violating activities:
Students convene for class meetings, during which they express their feelings and solve problems.
6. Intrusion into private family affairs by the “class family”:
Ms. Diaz said she has conversations with the class about not repeating what they hear from members of their "class family." In addition, she explains that as a mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect, she must pass on certain information to counselors and administrators.  
Also, Ms. Diaz said, she warns parents at the start of the year that their children may open up to her about what's going on at home. This kind of emotionally fraught work "does take a toll on me," Ms. Diaz admitted. "I become so engulfed in [the students'] lives that I sometimes forget to take care of me."  
At times, classroom meetings and other discussions can churn up feelings students are having about serious problems at home, which can be difficult for a teacher to navigate.
7. Last but not least, emotional abuse of children by teachers:
Maria Diaz's 5th graders were revisiting a lesson in social-emotional learning they'd done recently in which they drew pictures of themselves and then listened to a story. Each time students heard a "put-down," or a hurtful statement about someone in the story, Ms. Diaz had them tear off a piece of their self-portraits in a show of empathy.  
The "put-downs" activity … brought much of the class to tears.
This sounds to me like the kind of information a “mandated reporter of child abuse and neglect” should be passing on to “counselors and administrators.” But would they listen?

The goals of all these exercises, ironically, are actually “more than just compliance,” but also making kids “more responsible and empathetic”—two traits which the teachers we’ve read about, as well the architects of these programs, appear to be lacking in spades.

Education Week, though, has been taken in by the “evidence”—the one reported source of which is a rather self-interested institution:
In a meta-analysis of 213 research-based social-emotional-learning programs, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning found that such programs boost student achievement, as measured by standardized tests and school grades, by an average of 11 percentile points. The study said SEL programs also reduced problems with student conduct and emotional distress, and improved their attitudes "about themselves, others, and school."
Edweek’s claims are at odds with what the New York Times Magazine reported just last month in its article on Social Emotional Learning:
So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term.  
In 2010, a report from the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated seven different S.E.L. programs found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.
Nor does Edweek mention a recent study rigorous enough to have been published in the journal Science that supports a much more promising to learning empathy: reading literary fiction.

The Edweek article concludes with one baffling caveat:
SEL-based classrooms also do not work for every child. Students with behavioral issues may require an extrinsic-rewards system or a more structured approach.
OK, so in other words SEL programs are for students *without* behavioral issues. But then why, for the sake of classroom management, are we forcing students who don’t have behavioral issues to waste so much time on these privacy-invading, time-wasting exercises?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Math problems of the week: 4th grade traditional math vs. Everyday Math

I. The second-to-last problem set in the 4th grade section of Hamilton's Essentials of Arithmetic, First Book, published in 1919 [click to enlarge]:

II. The second-to-last problem set in the 4th grade Everyday Math Student Math Journal, volume 2 (of 2), published in 2002 [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit Which curriculum has more every day math?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is refusing to color today's "coloring outside the lines?"

In a comment on my recent post on creativity, Auntie Anne reports:

Our kid was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it.
This didn't use to happen... But now we're living in the 21st Century, and it's not just movies and TV shows and newspapers that are no longer in black and white. In the 21st Century, Everything is Different.

Remember how we used to turn "You're a jerk" into a compliment?
A jerk is a tug and a tug is a boat and a boat floats on water and water is nature and nature is beautiful. Thanks for the compliment.
Today we can turn "You have to color that" into preparing for the future:
Coloring is art and art is creativity and creativity is a 21st century skill and 21st century skills are what students need for tomorrow's jobs. Thanks for preparing me for my future.
A better strategy: if they give you ruled paper, write the other way; if they give you crayons, color outside the lines. Better yet, don't color at all. Educators say they love creativity and risk-taking, but when it comes to the real thing, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Also just out: an interview on School Reform News

I have an interview with Joy Pullmann on School Reform News on the value of literature, as opposed to Social Emotional Learning Programs, as a means to teach empathy. Along the way, Joy and I speculate a bit as to why schools are such eager consumers of Social Emotional Learning packages.

Just out: Technology Tools for Students with Autism

Technology Tools for Students with Autism: Innovations that Enhance Independence and Learning

As regular readers of this blog know, I've been highly critical of technology in the classroom. When it comes to educating children with autism in particular, however, there are some great technological tools out there. In this new book, I have a chapter with Felicia Hurewitz that reviews language teaching software in particular.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Creativity vs. mere whimsy

I was just rummaging through some of my college son’s castoffs and came across what looks to have been his only writing textbook from his high school years. Full of offbeat prompts and whimsical constraints (write a short story using the following words as frequently as possible; write a poem whose lines fit into the curvy shape below), it purports to be all about inspiring creativity.

If what’s not in this book is indicative, learning to write creatively doesn’t require practice with constructing and rearranging sentences and paragraphs. Instead, it’s all about generating ideas.

And, indeed, this is consistent with today’s most popular notion of creativity--the version that is measured on the most popular creativity measure, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

Recent studies would also appear to support Torrance’s take. As Alison Gopnik reports several months ago in the Wall Street Journal, for example, one experiment shows subjects being able to think of more ideas when their prefrontal cortices, specifically their left prefrontal cortices, were disrupted. And as creativity researcher John Kounios has found, feelings of sudden insight coincide with bursts of electrical activity in the right hemisphere, and creative types, compared to others, appear to be less narrowly focused and more easily distracted. All this is consistent with the notion that creativity means suppressing the logical, analytical left brain, and, thereby, unleashing those novel, right-brain-driven associations between prompts and ideas.

What people forget, however, is that this is only one step in the creative process. Nor is it even the first step. That flash of insight, as it turns out, has preconditions. Kounios' studies of the split seconds leading up to creative insight show a momentary reduction in the brain's flow of visual information, which allows the brain to turn inwards and notice those (initially weak) associations, which, in turn, allows certain ones of these associations to pop into consciousness as sudden bursts of insight.

"Chance favors the prepared mind," Kounios quotes Louis Pasteur as saying. A stimulating prompt from the outside is not enough: a preliminary focus inwards precedes whatever creative insight the prompt inspires.

Then there’s what comes after the creative insight. As Gopnick points out:

It isn't quite right to say that losing control makes you more creative. Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished two human faculties, wit and judgment. Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping. Other neuroscience studies have found that the prefrontal system re-engages when you have to decide whether an unlikely answer is actually the right one.
“Wit” vs. judgment; in today’s parlance, a better word for “wit” might be “whimsy.” What’s wrong with the predominant approach to writing in particular, and to the creative arts in general, is that, as one of my most accomplished creative writer friends has said, it mistakes whimsy for creativity.

This particular wrong-headed approach in education goes back several generations. “Creative writing” has long meant fiction (as if nonfiction can’t be creative), and much of such writing has centered on the spontaneous response to “inspirational” prompts. Even those (increasingly rare) teachers who mark up and require revisions of their students’ nonfiction rarely do so with fiction.

As for discussing other people’s creative writing—i.e., that of the literary greats—the long-dominant approach is the “well-wrought-urn” of New Criticism. Though in-depth literary analysis has been fading from middle schools and high schools, to the extent that it still lingers there, New Criticism (as opposed to more prohibitive paradigms like Postmodern Deconstruction) still holds sway. New Criticism views works of literature (especially, of course, nonfiction) as perfect wholes to be appreciated… holistically (how do the various literary devices function within this perfectly unified whole?), rather than as feats of engineering to be… reverse-engineered (how was the work put together; what would it be like if the writer had combined things differently?). It’s as if the best works of art spring sui generis, out of whole cloth, from the loins of the art world’s born geniuses.

So steeped was I in this New Critical thinking that I was much more surprised than I should have been when I first observed how much analytical assembly and reassembly my most accomplished fiction writing friends would engage in. But a recent study reported in the Wall Street Journal suggests that precisely this process is what characterizes the best artistic creations:
Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg's research suggests … that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.
Prof. Weisberg analyzed Picasso's 1937 masterpiece Guernica, for instance, which was painted after the Spanish city was bombed by the Germans. The painting is considered a fresh and original concept, but Prof. Weisberg found instead that it was closely related to several of Picasso's earlier works and drew upon his study of paintings by Goya and then-prevalent Communist Party imagery. The bottom line, Prof. Weisberg told me, is that creativity goes back in many ways to the basics. "You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you."
What this means for the creative process is that, every time we connect ADHD and manic depression to creative geniuses, we're forgetting most of the story--along with a third disorder. While some combination of ADHD-induced distraction and Bipolar-induced mania may help you get started, it's the much less romanticized OCD that leads you towards perfection.

What this means for writing instruction—however “creative” the writing is supposed to be—is that teachers should be focusing less on whimsy and more on revision. They should focus less on the artifacts of “inspiring prompts,” and more on the art (art) of sentence and paragraph construction, sentence and paragraph rearrangement, and revision, revision, revision.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Math problems of the week: 2nd grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math

I. A 2nd grade Investigations homework sheet, assigned in mid-October:
II. The first assignment in the 2nd grade Singapore Math workbook (Primary Mathematics, 2B):
III. Extra Credit:

Which is more challenging, Tens Go Fish, or Go Fish?

What should Tomorrow's Number be?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Math professors on making math fun

Certain math professionals are convinced that there must be better ways out there to help the rest of us appreciate their favorite subject. Generally, their ideas involve comparing the beauty of mathematics to that of the arts. Two of the best-known math promoters, NPR “math guy” Keith Devlin and "Lockhart’s Lament" author Paul Lockhart, have analogized math appreciation to music appreciation.

Recently, two other would-be math popularizers have entered the public eye. There’s Berkeley math professor Edward Frenkel, the writer, director, and star of the movie “Rites of Love and Math." And there’s University of Maryland math professor Manil Suri, the author of the novels “The Death of Vishnu,” “The Age of Shiva,” and “The City of Devi.” In August, Frenkel did an interview on loving math with the Wall Street Journal. In September, Suri wrote an OpEd piece on math appreciation in the New York Times. But rather than music, each has chosen the visual arts as their chosen vehicle.

Like Devlin and Lockhart, however, both Suri and Frenkel begin their arguments with assertions about traditional math and drill-oriented arthmetic being boring. Frenkel alludes to “the boring way that math is traditionally taught in schools,” while Suri notes how “in schools, as I’ve heard several teachers lament, the opportunity to immerse students in interesting mathematical ideas is usually jettisoned to make more time for testing and arithmetic drills.”

Both these impressions appear to be based on hearsay: neither Frenkel nor Suri grew up in this country, and neither appears (from their entries in Wikipedia) to have school-aged children. That doesn’t stop Frenkel from diagnosing the problem:

It's like teaching an art class where they only tell you how to paint a fence but they never show you Picasso. People say, “I'm bad at math,” but what they're really saying is “I was bad at painting the fence.”
Suri thinks that painting the fence is completely unnecessary:
Think of it this way: you can appreciate art without acquiring the ability to paint, or enjoy a symphony without being able to read music.
One can develop a fairly good understanding of the power and elegance of calculus, say, without actually being able to use it to solve scientific or engineering problems.    
 It’s noteworthy that Suri shies away from what would be a more precise analogy:
One can develop a fairly good understanding of the power and elegance of calculus without actually being able use it to solve calculus problems.  
Few people would dispute the idea that one can appreciate a great deal about art without being able to do real art. But how much can one appreciate about math without being able to do real math? On this question, someone who is unusually skilled in doing real math, i.e., a math professor, may not be the best informant.

As I’ve argued earlier, there’s only so far the comparison between math and art goes. Consider Suri’s examples of the beauty of math. First, there’s this Youtube video of the construction of the integers from operations on the empty set.

For a more contemplative example, gaze at a sequence of regular polygons: a hexagon, an octagon, a decagon and so on. I can almost imagine a yoga instructor asking a class to meditate on what would happen if the number of sides kept increasing indefinitely. Eventually, the sides shrink so much that the kinks start flattening out and the perimeter begins to appear curved. And then you see it: what will emerge is a circle, while at the same time the polygon can never actually become one. The realization is exhilarating — it lights up pleasure centers in your brain. This underlying concept of a limit is one upon which all of calculus is built.
…fractal images — those black, amoebalike splotches surrounded by bands of psychedelic colors — hardly qualifies as making a math connection. But suppose you knew that such an image (for example, the Julia Set) depicts a mathematical rule that plucks every point from its spot in the plane and moves it to another location. Imagine this rule applied over and over again, so that every point hops from location to location. Then the “amoeba” comprises those well-behaved points that remain hopping around within this black region, while the colored points are more adventurous and all lope off toward infinity. Not only does the picture acquire more richness and meaning with this knowledge, it suddenly churns with drama, with activity.
 Suri asks:
Would you be intrigued enough to find out more — for instance, what the different shades of color signified? Would the Big Bang example make you wonder where negative numbers came from, or fractions or irrationals? Could the thrill of recognizing the circle as a limit of polygons lure you into visualizing the sphere as a stack of its circular cross sections, as Archimedes did over 2,000 years ago to calculate its volume?
Yes, yes, and yes—assuming I’m a mathematically-inclined person who’s had a solid foundation in math at least all the way through arithmetic. Suri, however, isn’t preaching to the choir, but to students in general:
If the answer is yes, then math appreciation may provide more than just casual enjoyment: it could also help change negative attitudes toward the subject that are passed on from generation to generation. Students have a better chance of succeeding in a subject perceived as playful and stimulating, rather than one with a disastrous P.R. image.
The problem is that Suri has it backwards. The boring foundations must come first before you can appreciate—let alone do—the fun stuff.

Furthermore, the more we move away from visualizable geometry (the math promoter’s favorite topic) to the more abstract, symbolic math that dominates the field, the less well the math-appreciation-as-art-appreciation comparison hold up. As I argue earlier:
There's an important difference between math and music... Music has a privileged place in subjective experience. Along with sensations like color, taste, and smell, it produces in us a characteristic, irreducible, qualitative impression—an instance of what philosophers call "qualia." Just as there's no way to capture the subjective impression of "redness" with a graph of its electromagnetic frequency, or of "chocolate" with a 3-D model of its molecular structure, so, too, with the subjective feeling of a tonic-dominant-submediant-mediant-subdominant-tonic-subdominant-dominant chord progression. Embedded in what makes music what it is to us is the qualia of its chords and melodies.
Like most other, more abstract concepts ("heliocentric," "temporary"), mathematic concepts don't generally evoke this qualia sensation. What makes math beautiful are things like eloquence, patterns, and power. Unlike a Bach fugue translated homomorphically into, say, a collage of shapes, mathematical concepts can be translated into different representational systems without losing their essence and beauty.
Math is much more appropriately compared with thoughts than with music. This means that there is a much closer connection between passive appreciation and active skill. You can appreciate a fugue without being able to compose it; you can’t appreciate a thought if you don’t understand it well enough paraphrase it.

For those who aren’t up to understanding set theory or geometric limits or the question of where numbers come from, there are still plenty ways to have fun with math. As I discussed in an earlier post, however, they involve math as puzzles rather than math as art, and they’re all in the realm of active doing; not of passive appreciating. And to get there, for most ordinary human beings, a certain amount of “boring drill” is absolutely necessary.

Frenkel’s strategy for math appreciation is less about appreciating the “art” in math, and more about “putting love into math.” “Everyone loves love,” he points out. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “Mr. Frenkel, a youthful, puckish 45-­year-­old with a slight Russian accent and a flair for fitted shirts and tailored jeans, hopes to be math's next leading man.”

Whence Frenkel’s above-mentioned cinematic endeavor, a 28 minute erotic movie that features a naked lover, played by Frenkel himself, and his naked and love interest, played by an actress young enough to be his student. The film culminates with the math professor tattooing the mathematical formula for love on the latter’s naked back. You can watch a trailer on Youtube.

The Wall Street Journal notes that YouTube videos of Frenkel’s lectures at UC Berkeley are “viewed by hundreds of thousands of people," with Mr. Frenkel adding “and that's even the most boring stuff.” And actually, his math videos aren’t that interesting. I can think of several math professors I know who are much more dynamic lecturers; they just don't post themselves on Youtube. Perhaps seeing the naked Frenkel do the more interesting, i.e. erotic, stuff has sparked interest in seeing the clad Frenkel do the math stuff. Perhaps more math professors should try their hands at erotica.

To get students interested in math, though, it really shouldn’t be necessary to take your clothes off. A more promising approach, once again, involves fun problems of the sort that reward perseverance and clever thinking—just like the kinds of puzzles that all sorts of people readily do for fun.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A comprehensive bullying prevention program for selective schools

The proliferation of Social and Emotional Learning programs is part and parcel of the American school system’s campaign against bullying. Ironically, as I’ve noted earlier, these programs often end up further enabling the bullies:

Socially savvy kids can take advantage of zero tolerance policies and subtly goad a more socially clueless peer into lashing out. The victim rather than the perpetrator is then the one who gets punished. In whole class discussions in which children are supposed to share their experiences with bullying, the victims may be too uncomfortable to do so, especially if those experiences involved subtle, difficult-to-articulate forms of bullying like shunning, and especially if the victims expect subtle reprisals from peers once the adults are out of earshot.
Also worsening the social climate for quirky kids is the rise of group-centered learning, which proponents claim teaches valuable cooperative skills:
The anecdotes I collected for my book strongly suggest that group learning environments, rather than preventing bullying, are often arenas for it. Bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to detect; teachers cannot supervise multiple groups simultaneously; unsocial and socially awkward children regularly report being teased and ignored as the social hierarchy of the playground creeps into the classroom's "cooperative groups"--whenever the teacher is out of earshot.
For those whose families can afford it, certain private schools--those that have lower student-to-staff ratios and more traditional, less group-centered classrooms--potentially provide somewhat of a refuge. However, I’ve been hearing more and more anecdotes lately suggesting that it’s become harder and harder for quirky kids to get into private schools. Schools that once were known for their Aspy-friendliness are increasingly looking at “the whole child,” where “whole” favors those who show social skills that, according to neurotypical norms, are commensurate with their cognitive skills. Quirky, asymmetrical development is insufficiently “whole”—particular when what’s deficient is social normality.

When it comes to discriminating against quirky, unsocial kids, some of the worst offenders around here (with one refreshing exception) are our Quaker schools. Bastions of tolerance though they supposed are, their admissions officers don't hesitate to tell parents that their kids are “scary” or “really need to be evaluated” or, at the very least, “not a good fit for our school.”

Why are private schools so skittish about quirky kids these days? Ironically, this may have something to do with America's anti-bullying campaign. This has made a reputation for friendliness more desirable than ever. More and more, private schools, particularly the Quaker schools, tout their ability to create friendly, supportive environments in which all students are kind to one another.

However, just like selective magnet schools, private schools can cherry-pick those applicants who allow them to coast towards their goals. The easiest way to obtain high test scores isn’t through the hard work of providing students of all ability levels with appropriately challenging instruction, but through the simpler process of only admitting students who already have high test scores to begin with. Similarly, the easiest way to foster a friendly, supportive environment isn’t through the hard work of monitoring students, providing incentives for good behavior, and minimizing opportunities for bullying, but through the simpler process of only admitting students who already seem to have friendly and supportive personalities. And this, indeed, seems to be one of the biggest admissions priorities of our so-called Friends schools.

But quirky kids can be at least as friendly and supportive as more typical kids. So how does rejecting them foster friendliness and prevent bullying? To see why, all you have to do is consider what a comprehensive anti-bullying admissions program requires. No matter how carefully you screen out the potential perpetrators, some of the subtler ones will slip through the cracks. So you must also screen out the potential victims. And the victims are, overwhelmingly, those quirky, socially awkward kids. Keep them out as well, and you can claim a school culture that is friendly, supportive, and open minded.

Never mind that the type of social open mindedness that is in shortest supply is that which pertains to the deepest way in which one person differs from another. By this I mean not diversity of skin color or of religion or of sexual orientation (though we can always use more openness in these areas), but diversity of personality.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Educational Technology and the Educational Industrial Complex

Technology in education is in the news as never before. This past week’s Education Week  has a huge section devoted to classroom technology; Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy was recently interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition about the LA Unified School Districts campaign for ipads in the classroom, and a few weeks ago, the NY Times Magazine’s special issue on education ran a long piece entitled  "No Child Left Untableted."

Let’s start with the Lewisville School District in north-central Texas. As Edweek reports:

[It] is in the process of giving all 53,000 of its students access to “the right device at the right time,” part of a so-called “1:X” initiative that began last spring. District officials are currently seeking to trademark the “1:X” name, which is also referred to as “1-to-many.”
To date, Lewisville’s 1:X initiative has included introduction of a bring-your-own-technology program; the purchase of $19.1 million worth of iPads and laptops; $23 million in districtwide technology-infrastructure upgrades; and extensive training for staff, students, and parents. 
So far, the district has purchased 19,300 iPads, 3,880 MacBook Airs, and 1,887 MacBook Pros. The goal is to give every student and teacher access to multiple devices by 2016.
Nor is there anything particular about the Lewisville School District:
As it is, more than 2,000 schools around the country now provide each student with their own digital device. 
A recent survey by Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc., a market-research firm, found that 80 percent of district technology officials used or planned to use iPads in their schools over the next two years.
In particular, there’s the Guildford County, North Carolina school system, which, as the New York Times Magazine reports, has received a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program so that:
Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive [an Android tablet], 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.
One school district that really stands out is the Los Angeles Unified School District. As the New York Times magazine reports:
The Los Angeles school district… cut costs in recent years by laying off thousands of teachers yet is now using bonds to finance the spending of $500 million on iPads.
And as Edweek reports:
The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a $30 million contract with Apple Inc. in June, for the first phase of a roughly half-billion-dollar effort to provide all 660,000 students in the district with their own iPads by the end of 2014.
LAUSD’s contract isn’t just with Apple, but also with Pearson, the behemoth that has brought us such wonders as Investigations Math, and which has been growing even more powerful thanks to the Common Core:
Los Angeles Unified isn’t just purchasing devices. Mr. Hovatter [the chief facilities executive for the Los Angeles district] described how the district “forced a marriage” between Apple and the education publishing giant Pearson, resulting in a package deal that means each new tablet will come preloaded with Pearson’s brand-new Common Core System of Courses. The intent, said Mr. Hovatter, is to “completely and dramatically change the way we deliver instruction to our students.”  
Mr. Hovatter, though, made clear that the initial rollout of 30,000 iPads in 47 schools, already underway, is not a pilot project. He said that Los Angeles school officials are “absolutely convinced” that going all-in as quickly as possible “is the right thing to do.”
Educational power brokers see these tablets as performing an ever longer list of functions. They are supposed to help kids access and organize assignments, take notes, receive alerts and reminders from school staff, do “in-depth” research and large group projects, and use “educational” apps. They are supposed to allow students and teachers to create multimedia content and share information and post to online discussion boards 24/7. And they are supposed to allow teachers to do quick polls, assign and assess short answer exercises, call on students randomly, and run “flipped” classrooms in which students listen to lectures at home and do assignments at school.

Amplify, the software company that has developed the Android Tablet to be used by the Guilford county schools, is even more ambitious. As the Times Magazine’s Carlo Rotella reports:
The Amplify tablet helps make personalization possible. It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.” The teacher’s tablet also has an app blocker and monitoring functions that can see and control what’s happening on student tablets, and a one-touch classroom-control feature to lock their screens, replacing whatever was on them with an eye symbol and the phrase “Eyes on Teacher.”
Still in the pilot stage, but on its way:
Amplify’s variety of reading, math and science games, like its curriculum, are calibrated to the national standards, but the games [still in the pilot stage] are meant to feel like free play, not more schooling. 
Soon, games that know what a student has read (the tablet’s library will contain 1,000 books) will be able to strategically sprinkle a particular word in his path based on how many times the research says you need to see a new word in order to learn it. In a few years, according to Leites, advances like “gaze tracking” and measurement of pupil dilation “will revolutionize” the gauging of cognitive response by making it possible to determine exactly what students are reacting to on the screen. 
This growing stream of information, which can be analyzed down to individual keystrokes, yields a picture that will eventually progress in complexity from, say, a list of words a student looks up to a profile of metacognitive skills — like the ability to concentrate — and in time to a full-blown portrait of a developing mind. In theory, each student will generate the intellectual equivalent of a fantastically detailed medical chart.
In particular, Amplify imagines a brave new world of individualized learning, with teachers
giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.
While technology spreads around and soaks up funds, pretty much everything else is the same. In particular, the stakeholders are just as self-interested; the arguments given in favor of the technology are just as lame; and there remain a great number of concerns and no evidence that the technology actually adds educational value.

The self-interested stakeholders include not just the private companies like Apple and Pearson, but also particular individuals tied to these companies and to one another through the governmental-educational-industrial complex. First and foremost there’s Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City’s public schools from 2002 to 2011, and now the chief executive of Amplify, itself a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Then, as the Times Magazine reports, there’s U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan:
Duncan, whose longtime allies include Joel Klein, Bill Gates and other apostles of disruption, has a record of supporting reforms that increase the role of market forces — choice, competition, the profit motive — in education. He wants private enterprises vying to make money by providing innovative educational products and services, and sees his role as “taking to scale the best practices” that emerge from this contest.
These stakeholders, along with the superintendents who funnel money towards them, are the primary exponents of the lame arguments in favor of tablets in the classroom. Here’s some of what they’re saying. From Edweek:
Lewisville’s Superintendent Waddell said the purchasing is driven by the prominence of mobile computing devices in all walks of life. 
“We see highly fluid, highly collaborative work environments that are becoming more and more creative,” he said. “We want our kids to be ready for that.”
Ah, yes, collaborative work environments and creativity.

Then there’s John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In response to a question by Steve Inspeak in his interview on NPR’s morning edition about why the district has made iPads a budgetary priority:
All students should have access to technology. And all students should have access to live digital curriculum. I mean, what we would want for those privileged students, it's our obligation to make sure that students who live in circumstances of poverty have exactly that.
Isn’t it more important that all students have access to great teachers—many of which the LAUSD has laid off?

Furthermore, Deasy, like many whose priority it is to narrow the “digital divide,” seems to think that, since the digital revolution is one factor contributing to growing income disparities, the way to reduce these disparities is to give everyone access to digital media in school. That’s almost as much of a non sequitur as the conclusion that, since globalization is one factor contributing to growing income disparities, the way to reduce these disparities is to give everyone access to a globe.

Joel Klein’s argument, naturally, is tailored specifically to Amplified’s Android. As Rotella reports:
Citing global assessments that rank the United States well behind the leading countries in reading and math, he said: “Between 1970 and 2010 we doubled the amount of money we spent on education and the number of adults in the schools, but the results are just not there. Any system that poured in as much money as we did and made as little progress has a real problem. We keep trying to fix it by doing the same thing, only a little different and better. This [Android’s Amplify] is about a lot different and better.”
Echoing the former New York City Schools Chancellor is the U.S. Secretary of Education:
“To keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past hundred years — everybody working on the same thing at the same time, not based on competency. . . .” He sighed and let the thought trail off, then added his standard reminder that we must equip our students to compete with counterparts in India and China.
There’s only one problem with Klein and Duncan’s argument: the countries that outrank us in reading in math, including India and China, aren’t doing so either via tablets in general, or via Android’s Amplify in particular.

Robert Britt, an Amplify employee who trains teachers how to use the software, makes a more historical argument:
His “before” picture was the typical 19th-century classroom, the original template for our schools. He likened it to industrial shop floors designed for mass production: “People sitting in rows, all doing the same thing at the same time, not really connected to each other.” He contrasted that with a postindustrial workplace where temporary groupings of co-workers collaborate on tasks requiring intellectual, not physical capabilities. “We need a schoolhouse that prepares students to do that kind of work,” he said.  
The key, he said, is personalized learning — breaking free of the mass-production model, tailoring the curriculum to the student and redesigning it around proven competence rather than accrued face time, so that each student can go at his own pace. “Now your job is not to dispense knowledge,” Britt told the trainees. “It’s to facilitate learning. No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge. Rather, the teacher architects the environment — in the classroom, on the tablet, online, everywhere.”
Ah, collaboration again. As for go-at-your-own pace classrooms, these have existed both during the 19th century (look back no further than the one-room schoolhouse), and since then (I myself attended a go-at-your-own-pace math class in the late 1970s).
In the “after” classroom Britt envisioned, some students might be working together on an assignment appropriate to their shared level of competence. Others would be ranging ahead on their own, catching up, exploring a special interest. A small group might be gathered around the teacher, who, having instantly scanned the responses to a short-answer exercise just given to the whole class on the tablet, decides to spend some extra time with those students still hazy about the lesson. Britt repeatedly made a fluid gathering-and-pushing gesture with both hands, as if demonstrating a basketball chest pass, as he said: “Then you move that group out, they’re off practicing to reinforce what you just taught them, and you pull together another group, or you go to an individual, then you flow them out to the next task. Gather and flow.”
How is this different from what’s been going on in student-centered classrooms for decades—without the help of tablets?

But even Carlo Rotella, the skeptical author of the Times Magazine piece, is somewhat taken in, specifically by:
stories from Amplify’s pilot programs about previously marginal, quiet students blossoming: the boy in Georgia whose tablet-troubleshooting skills made him popular; the tall girl in Connecticut who blew away her classmates with an essay about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school.
Rotella appears to think that essays about what it’s like to be 5-foot-11 in middle school can only be written on Android tablets.

The only good argument for technology in the classroom that appears in Rotella’s piece concerns how it facilitates individualized learning:
Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, who stresses that “individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen.” Among other things, teachers will need better tools for processing and interpreting all the additional information they have to handle. “They used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”
The education system has long been obsessed with student data; the problem was, is, and will continue to be a dearth of follow-up measures—whether or not our classrooms are tableted.

Meanwhile, there are a number of persisting concerns about technology in the classroom. These include concerns about the growing role of corporations in public education, as well as concerns about as privacy and security. In LA, as Morning Edition reports "some students hacked the security on the iPads to surf forbidden sites on the Internet.”

More worrying, how much will tablets in classrooms increase the screen time of generation of children who already spend a record amount of time in front of screens—rather than, say, in face to face interactions. Rotella cites Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and expert on education and technology at California State University:
Rosen’s own studies of attention and multitasking show that pre-teenagers and young adults focus for no more than five minutes before becoming distracted. “There’s also a concern,” he said, “that technology tends to overstimulate your brain,” disturbing sleep cycles and preventing the mind from going into what psychologists call the Default Mode Network — the highly creative state you enter when daydreaming or between waking and sleep. And overstimulation can just plain hurt. Erika Gutscher, who teaches science at a year-round school in East Cary, N.C., that has been piloting the Amplify tablet since March, reports that she and her students love the tablets but get headaches if they use them too much. 
Then there are concerns about the effect of screen time on how children learn to be members of a human community. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health who specializes in the study of adolescents, describes the tablet’s ability to provide instant feedback as “particularly brain-friendly” — but, he says, “a lot of our brain activity is devoted to social interaction with other people, and an enormous amount of the change in the adolescent brain is about socialization. What if we’re inadvertently interfering with development in ways that will show up in 20 years in ways we didn’t expect?”
Then there’s a second compelling critic:
Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor and a prominent Cassandra who writes about the unanticipated consequences of our immersion in electronic technology, described some aspects of tablets in the classroom to me as “the dystopian presented as the utopian.” She said, “We become smitten with the idea that there will be technological solutions to these knotty problems with education, but it happens over and over again that we stop talking to kids.” That’s the root of what she calls “the crisis in the ability to talk.” High-school teachers are already complaining, she said, that their students “are fixed on programs that give the right answer, and they’re losing the notion of talking and listening to each other, skills that middle school is supposed to teach.”

“There’s a reason they call them ‘discussion groups’ and not ‘conversations,’ ” Turkle said. “You learn how to broadcast, which is not the same thing as what you and I are doing now. Posting strong opinions isn’t a conversation.”
Do any of the technology stakeholders have a rebuttal? The only response to Turkle quoted here is Joel Klein’s: “This is an important issue, and she’s obviously an important mind at work.” Regarding concerns about screen time, he adds this: “I understand that; I have some of that same emotional response.” Rotella notes that:
His near-affectless delivery made it hard to tell whether he was dismissing, simply acknowledging or genuinely sympathizing with these points of view. He did go on to say that he wouldn’t put fourth graders in a MOOC — a massive open online course — and that he would exercise great restraint in introducing technology into a kindergarten classroom.  
But he wasn’t conceding much ground. “The world is living in this tech-driven experience,” he said. “Maybe we all should be concerned about it, but think about how empowering it’s been, and the notion that a device is going to make us less good at producing citizens runs counter to how democratizing this technology is.”
The concerns, in other words, continue, unaddressed. So does the lack of evidence. Here, again, is Rotella:
When I asked Klein, who routinely characterizes current debates about education as “ideological, not evidence-based,” what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology, he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.
In short, there is no evidence.

Here’s my own take on things. Most of the supposed benefits of technology are either (1) already provided by good classroom teachers, or (2) aren’t actual benefits. Consider “in depth research”--one of the most-cited examples of how technology is supposed to help. The kind of research that technology enables, what I’ve called cut and paste research, is in fact about as shallow as research gets.

There are only two really good reasons to include computers/tablets in classrooms. One is to enhance writing skills; another is to teach programming skills. Ironically, as computers and tablets have proliferated, both of these skills have declined. That’s because, as even Joel Klein can’t help acknowledging, teachers trump technology:
“We’ve spent so much on things that haven’t worked,” he said, making a list that included underused computers as well as obsolete textbooks, useless layers of bureaucracy and smaller class sizes. “We should have spent that money on preparing higher-quality teachers.”  
“Take Finland,” Klein continued, citing everyone’s favorite example of a country that puts its money on excellent teachers, not technology, and routinely finishes at the top in international assessments. “There’s a high barrier for entry into the teaching profession,”
One reason why teachers trump technology is that learning requires regular, perspicuous feedback that goes beyond the binary “right or “wrong” to analyze errors and give appropriate clues. For all its bells and whistles and mounds of data, classroom technology still doesn’t provide this.

The worst thing about technology in the classroom is the way it has private companies feeding off the public trough. When people fret about the takeover of American schools by big business, they tend to conflate corporate welfare with for-profit schools. But imagine if Joel Klein, instead of talking credulous or corrupt superintendents into spending millions of dollars of other people’s money on non-evidence-based technologies, were running his own for-profit school. Would his spending priorities be the same? Who knows? What is clear, however, is that Klein would have something he doesn’t have currently: a huge incentive to make that school a success.

There are, in fact, some highly successful for-profit schools at there. Joanne Jacobs blogs about one here.  Corporate welfare, on the other hand, is the worst economic system known to humankind.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Math problems of the week: 4th grade 1920s math vs. Investigations

I. The final problem set in Hamilton's Essentials of Arithmetic, Lower Grades (2nd through 4th grade), published in 1919 [click to enlarge]:

II. The final problem set in the 4th grade Investigations Student Activity Book, published in 2007 [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit

1. Hamilton's textbook is 222 pages long and covers three years of study; the Investigations Activity book is 451 pages long, each page having about twice the area of Hamilton's pages, and covers one year of study. Which book covers math in greater depth?

2. The material in the Investigations is "based on work supported by the National Science Foundation ('NSF') under Grant No. ES1-0009459." Hamilton's book, in contrast, is based on the work of Samuel Hamilton, Ph.D., LLD., Superintendent of Schools, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. What does this suggest about which book is based on more scientifically sound theories of math instruction?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why the Pennsylvania government should bypass the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia

…and fund each Philadelphia public school directly, per capita and per special needs.

Consider, from a recent issue of Edweek, some news that seems not to have made it into Philadelphia’s local papers:

In little more than two years, the Philadelphia school district has stripped $400 million out of its annual budget, closed 30 schools, eliminated nearly 7,000 jobs, and lost more than 20,000 students.  
The teetering city system, said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., desperately needs "to show a win."  
So Mr. Hite is placing a controversial bet: Although scores of schools opened here this month without regular guidance counselors, nurses, or basic supplies, the superintendent is pouring millions of dollars into expanding what he considers to be three of the city's most innovative schools. They include Science Leadership Academy, an acclaimed magnet high school at the forefront of the national effort to marry educational technology with so-called "deeper learning.”
Science Leadership Academy is distinguished by two things: project-based learning and technology:
Lesson units… build upon student questions and culminate in project-based assessments, as well as using digital tools to track and share a wide range of student work and data.
As I note earlier, SLA is also distinguished by low scores on tests that measure scientific content knowledge—a basic prerequisite for college-level science courses. Among Philadelphia public high schools, it places in the 3rd quintile on the Pennsylvania state science tests, with only 15% scoring "advanced," and 59% "below basic."

At SLA, it’s not science learning, but technology use, that reigns supreme:
Much of the national attention Science Leadership Academy has garnered—including recognition from President Barack Obama and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates—has focused on the school's abundance of technology. Since its founding in 2006, every student has received a laptop, and SLA was named an Apple Distinguished School in each year from 2009 to 2013.
It’s not surprising that Apple loves SLA. Indeed, those connected with the educational technology market have every reason to praise Principal Chris Lehmann:
"He's truly a visionary leader, known for giving teachers and students the freedom to excel," said Brian Lewis, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, which in May gave Mr. Lehmann its "Outstanding Leader Award" for his use of technology to support learning.
Outside the tech world, there are detractors:
Skeptics … question whether investing scarce resources in a small, highly selective magnet school is the best strategy for sparking citywide educational improvement.
Consider SLA’s highly selective admissions process. This past school year, accordingly to Mr. Lehmann, SLA had 2,100 highly qualified applicants for 125 available slots. Given (1) how skewed the applicant pool is skewed to begin with and (2) that an applicant’s of admission is less than 1 in 16:
Critics argue that the ability to handpick top students minimizes the significance of Mr. Lehmann's accomplishments and the potential impact of replicating his model, especially in Philadelphia, where independent charter operators have successfully brought to scale strategies for dramatically turning around some of the city's most challenging neighborhood schools.
Edweek says that Mr. Lehmann “bristles” at comparisons with these successful charter schools--which, unlike SLA, are legally required to base their admissions on random lotteries. Instead of explaining why his cherry-picked model is more deserving of expansion than that of a successful charter school, Lehmann simply “highlights what he sees as major pedagogical and cultural differences between his approach and that of many large charter management organizations.”
"I want to build a structure that smart, creative, kind people can come in and imbue with their own energy, ideas, and passion," he said. "I don't want standardization."
What Lehmann personally wants, it turns out, is much bigger than what his highly selective cherry picking might suggest. Despite selecting students not just for their intelligence, but also for their affinity to project based learning (the application process includes a project presentation), Mr. Lehmann’s got the solution for schools everywhere:
"I'm passionate about this idea that schools can be authentic and empowering and relevant and caring places," he said. "And what we have seen over the last seven years is there are a lot of families who want that for their children."
Whence all the cherry picking of applicants. It’s been a virtuous cycle, beginning with Mr. Lehmann’s genius at buzz and promotion (check him out on Youtube—here, here, here and here), as well as the lure of all that technology, all those technology awards, and all those trendy “21st century skills.” The more smart self-starters the school attracts, the more successful it looks to outsiders. Students who score high enough on state tests to get admitted to SLA will tend to continue to earn high test scores in math and English while enrolled there. Clearly, this is not the case with science scores—which, more content-based, are more a function of current instruction (or lack thereof). But people pay much less attention to science scores than to those in math and English. Smart self-starters make the school look good in other ways as well—churning out flashy performances and projects–regardless of what the school is actually teaching them.

The more successful SLA looks to outsiders, the more students apply the next year. The more students apply, the more selectively they can be cherry picked. And on and on, with apparent success driving selectivity and selectivity driving apparent success, even if the school’s curriculum and pedagogy add no more value than does your average Philadelphia public school.

In SLA’s expansion, housed on the third floor of Beeber Middle School, a neighborhood school in West Philadelphia, the cherry picking continues:
Inside Beeber, sharp disparities were evident between the new high school and the struggling middle school now sharing a building.  
On the first and second floors, middle schoolers—nearly all poor and African-American—wore uniforms and passed by glazed windows that let in only a hint of the bright fall sun outside.  
On the third floor, SLA@Beeber's new 9th graders, a multiracial mix drawn heavily from the city's top elementary and middle schools, were dressed in an array of colorful styles. Through newly installed windows, they could look out over the tops of the nearby rowhouses, on to the city skyline in the distance
The continued cherry picking will guarantee that most people view SLA’s expansion as a success, prompting even more expansion in the future--until such time as everything implodes. As Edweek notes:
Expanding the three school programs [which include SLA] could cost more than $28 million over the next five years, more than 90 percent of which would likely have to be covered by a district currently unable to buy adequate supplies of paper for most of its schools.
And as Ethan Gray, Executive Director of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust argues:
"I don't think it's a very significant accomplishment to replicate a magnet school. At the end of the day, it still results in a broad group of underprivileged kids being continuously underserved."  
 As for the Philadelphia school district superintendent:
Mr. Hite said Science Leadership Academy is the type of school he wants to see proliferate throughout the 136,000-student district.  
...which is why the Pennsylvania government should bypass the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia, starve it of discretionary funds, and fund each Philadelphia public school directly.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to teach empathy, II

A timely addendum to my post below on "How to Teach Empathy" has appeared as a Front Page article in Friday's New York Times.

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel. 
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking. 
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
School districts are spending thousands of dollars on Social and Emotional learning packages that detract from time on core academic subjects. As I noted earlier, there's no evidence that any of them have any positive effects on students' emotional development. Now we have evidence that traditional English classes featuring literary fiction, on the other hand, are effective.

This approach to emotional development is free, feeds into rather than detracts from academics, and doesn't require any special training (only good English teachers). What could possibly favor RULER or PATHS or Second Step over it?

Only a lack of good English teachers... or a lack of vested monetary interests. Yale's Center for Emotional Intelligence, for example, isn't going to make nearly as much money if it simply promotes Chekhov and Alice Munro.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Math problems of the week: 1960's vs. 21st century introductory geometry problems

I. From Weeks Adkins A Course in Geometry (1961), pp. 3-4 [click to enlarge]:

II. From Discovering Geometry: An Investigative Approach (2003), pp. 4-6 [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:
Discuss the relative importance of logical reasoning vs. recognizing symmetry in the 20th vs. the 21st centuries.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How to teach empathy

I’ve written below about how several of the various non-cognitive skills people like to talk about can be built into the school curriculum—grit and self-esteem in particular. I left out a big one, however: empathy. Empathy is a huge component of all those Social Emotional Learning programs that have been proliferating around the edusphere—and watering down academics.

For most kids, though, basic empathy is an innate faculty that develops naturally and incidentally through social interactions, both in and outside of school—especially, as a couple of commenters have pointed out below, if adults stay out of it and let kids sort things out themselves. Certain children—autistic kids in particular--need targeted empathy training, but this is best done by trained professionals who specialize in social disorders, not by general classroom teachers.

There’s more to empathy, however, than socializing with your peers. The kind of empathy that doesn’t unfold naturally among neurotypicals is the ability to imagine the perspectives of non-peers. By this, I mean people who live under totally different circumstances: people from distant parts of the world, people from vastly different cultures and religions, people who live with extreme poverty and/or political repression and/or trauma, people who are old, infirm, or simply eccentric, etc., etc. For this kind of empathy, no amount of RULER or PATHS or Second Step will get you anywhere.

This kind of empathy instead requires social studies classes that cover, in greater depth than is now typical, world history, current events, religion, and culture; English classes that include stories that unfold under unfamiliar circumstances, and/or feature unfamiliar personality types; and theater classes in which students play the roles of unfamiliar personality types in unfamiliar circumstances. The more teachers have students read about, discuss, and even to act out a variety of other types of lives, the better those students will be at imagining the perspectives of all kinds of human beings.

In other words, where most people fall short in terms of empathy isn’t in empathizing with nearby familiars, but in imagining other lives. And only after we absorb and reflect on a fair amount of core knowledge can we begin to imagine what it’s like to be a Sudanese refugee, a Chinese peasant, or an adolescent girl in India. Only after we read a certain amount of literature can we imagine the perspective of someone with with, say, major depression or Tourette Syndrome.

This is one more reason why the bias of today’s schools towards “relevant” literature starring kids in contemporary American is so wrong-headed.

Of course, it’s not enough to assign texts that feature unfamiliar people in unfamiliar circumstances; the students must be able to understand these texts. And for this they need two things that schools have been systematically neglecting. One is a lot of basic background knowledge—of the sort that comes from content-rich history and social studies classes. The second is the attention span it takes to process often complex and novel ideas and deeply introspective passages, expressed as these often are in complex sentences and paragraphs that, for readers who can’t sustain attention, remain largely unintelligible.

As we develop the capacity to imagine specific other lives far removed from our own, we also develop the capacity to imagine other lives in general. It is this capacity, and not what the experts call Social Emotional Learning, that matters most for developing good character, citizenship, and humanity.