Monday, March 31, 2014

The problem with ideology in education: not brainwashing students, but failing to educate them

As I wrote earlier, what worries me in terms of ideology about the CCSS and other recent educational fads isn’t the ideology per se, but how that ideology affects pedagogy. When the dust settles, will kids end up learning a systematic body of core knowledge that they will be able to recall and make use of in the long term?

Take one fad: namely, multiculturalism. One of the effects that I’ve seen played out in schools is a piecemeal approach to social studies. One girl I know who attends a small, self-styled progressive school spent a whole month learning all about North Korea—its geography, its history, its culture. Then the class moved onto some other part of the world, and later on, when I last visited them, they'd just begun a unit on West Africa.

“It’s so incredibly random and piecemeal,” her father observed.

I asked him how well he thought she remembered the earlier units.

“I doubt she remembers anything.” he said, and summoned his daughter.

“D,” he said. “What do you remember about North Korea?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“Nothing at all?” he asked. “Nope.”

If the facts she briefly learned about North Korea had been integrated into a systematic (well-organized, chronological) world history curriculum, in which each country is repeatedly revisited over time, maybe she’d have remember something.

We also see this piecemeal approach in the CCSS-inspired approach to “helping” special education students achieve one of the more elusive of those one-size-fits-all-goals that. As I discuss in my recent Atlantic article, instead of teaching general (in this case unattainable) skills, teachers resort to handholding, spoon feeding, and an an ad hoc, situation specific giving away of answers. Again, the ultimate takeaway is close to nothing.

This piecemeal approach—along with Lattice Multiplication and explaining your answers to math problems--is what worries me most about the Common Core. No, Ms. Boylan, I’m not worried that the CCSS will prevent my kids from becoming carbon copies of myself, or cause them to become black-to-white, white-to-black photographic negatives of me--or any other deviance within the shades of gray between carbon copy and negative. First of all, I’m not particularly into carbon copies of myself. Second of all, the CCSS (just like all those purportedly character-building, kindness-inducing, grit-inspiring social/emotional curricula) aren’t anywhere near as personality transforming as Boyle and others would like to believe. Nor are the CCSS anywhere near as personality transforming as Boylan would like to believe its detractors fear.

And no, I’m not worried that the CCSS will make my kids smarter than me or cause them to have original ideas. Instead, what worries me, along with many, many other CCSS opponents, is pretty much the exact opposite of that.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Indoctrination vs. Exposure

Some people critique the Common Core State Standards for encouraging ideological biases that they find troubling. As for me, I’m plenty worried about pedagogical biases: the bias towards lofty, everyone-can-do-it, one-size-fits-all goals; the bias towards an abstract version of “higher-level thinking” that probably doesn’t exist; the bias towards the supposed virtues of explaining in words one’s reasoning in math problems; the bias towards an abstract, information-aged, multi-media conception of “text”; and finally, via its abstract goals and its leaving up to schools and teachers how to meet these goals, the de facto bias towards the dominant pedagogical philosophies of the Powers that Be in education.

On the other hand, ideological biases, per se, don’t worry me. As I wrote in a comment on my recent blog post on Jennifer Finley Boylan’s piece on the Common Core, I think it's harder to indoctrinate kids than many people fear. Kids, after a certain age, are naturally rebellious. They are also often more savvy than we give them credit for being. I think of my oldest son, who, after 13 years of contemporary Quaker multi-culturalist communalism, has seen through the agenda and rebelled against most of it, espousing an original set of contrarian views. Even if he’s more contrarian than most, I’m guessing that indoctrination ventures in K12 schools are failing spectacularly—particularly once the kids become teenagers.

When it comes to social/political/moral issues, I’m guessing that what actually bothers certain people about the Common Core (and other recent educational fads) isn’t indoctrination, but exposure. They worry not that their kids will actually be brainwashed, but, rather, that they will be exposed to certain things from which they prefer to shield them.

I don’t happen to share their particular worries: there’s nothing, politically or morally speaking, in the Common Core agenda (or its likely exegeses by the edworld’s movers and shakers and curriculum developers) that I’m afraid of my kids being exposed to.

Not that there aren’t plenty of things that I (like nearly every parent) want to shield my kids from until they’re older. I still don’t want J exposed to any sex ed (I’ve opted him out for years): he’s not nearly mature enough and will end up with yet another avenue for serious mischief. I don’t want my 13-year-old daughter reading books that (like so many Young Adult books these days) contain scenes of explicit trauma and routine nastiness: they will upset her pointlessly. I don’t want either of my kids hearing racist or sexist or other derogatory slurs bandied about casually as if there’s nothing wrong with them—in books or by teachers or classmates. But I’m pretty sure that these aren’t among the things that the CCSS will end up encouraging.

However troubling some people find the CCSS in terms of social/political/moral ideologies, the immediate issue (except for kids who are unusually suggestible and susceptible to adult authority--and I'm not sure how many of these kids are out there) isn’t indoctrination, but exposure. And when it comes to mere exposure, the CCSS don’t worry me.

But then there are the less immediate, long-term cognitive consequences of some of these ideologies--a subject for a later post.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Math problems of the week: 4th grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math

Two-digit multiplication problems in 4th grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math:

I. From the Investigations 4th Grade Investigations Student Activity Book, Unit 8: How Many Packages? How Many Groups?, Section 1.2 (about 4/5 of the way through the entire curriculum) [click to enlarge]:

II. From the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4B Workbook, Unit 2: The Four Operations of Whole Numbers, Exercise 12 (about 1/5 of the way through the entire curriculum) [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

Which problem set do you think is preferred by the Common Core authors, who emphasize verbal communication across the curriculum over mere calculation?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The real reason I fear the Common Core

The reason that I fear the Common Core State Standards, as it turns out, isn't that the Standards are so vague that they further enable the Powers that Be in education to promulgate practices at odds with controlled experiments and peer-reviewed research on how children learn, or that the Standards impose expectations that are unreasonably high for most students while providing no strategies to help teachers and students attain them, or that the Standards' one-size-fits-all expectations end up depriving both gifted and special needs students of appropriately challenging material. No, apparently the reason I fear the Common Core State Standards is loneliness.

At least, that's what the New York Times says in an Op-Ed piece it chose to publish this past Sunday by the writer and English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan. In Boylan's words:

It occurs to me that what enemies of a Common Core — by any name — have come to fear is really loneliness. It’s the sadness that comes when we realize that our children have thoughts that we did not give them; needs and desires we do not understand; wisdom and insight that might surpass our own.
Yes, it really makes me sad when I hear my children expressing original opinions. And it makes me feel tremendously insecure when they show wisdom and insights that I don't think I'm capable of. And I'm sure many of my fellow parents feel the same way. After all, as Boylan explains:
For some parents, the primary desire is for our sons and daughters to wind up, more or less, like ourselves. Education, in this model, means handing down shared values of the community to the next generation. Sometimes it can also mean shielding children from aspects of the culture we do not approve of, or fear.
Nor does she merely assert this. Rather, she cites another heavyweight expert who has even bigger credentials that she does. That would be novelist Richard Russo:
My friend Richard Russo, in a commencement address 10 years ago at my college, Colby, noted that “it is the vain hope of middle-class parents that their children will go off to college and later be returned to them economically viable but otherwise unchanged.” But, he said, sending “kids off to college is a lot like putting them in the witness protection program. If the person who comes out is easily recognizable as the same person who went in, something has gone terribly, dangerously wrong."
Personally, what I fear the most (beyond the prospect of my children expressing intelligent, original thoughts), and what I really, really want to shield my children from, is Lattice Multiplication:

Lattice Multiplication is a feature of Everyday Math, the curriculum used by school districts in many large urban areas. But Boylan quotes Bill Gates as saying that "It's ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different." Now I'm really, really scared.

Lattice Multiplication is part of what Boylan refers to as "the Common Core’s presumed progressive bias." That's apparently why Republicans are the only Common Core Enemy she explicitly names--along with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley:
“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” said Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, presumably because doing so would result in children in the Palmetto State riding longboards and listening to the Grateful Dead.
If, rather than presuming to presume, you look at the full quote, you can infer that Haley also fears what's going on in Alabama--and pretty much everywhere else:
“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children. We want to educate South Carolina children on South Carolina standards, not anyone else’s standards.”
Presumably, Haley fears Lattice Multiplication--along with all the scary new ideas it will open up to today's children--at least as much as I do.

And, equally presumably, we can guess which mindset Boylan prefers: the Fear Mindset of the Republicans, or the Unlocking the World mindset of those on the correct side of the Culture Wars, who bravely proclaim that:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Road to Damascus--or simple exhaustion?

Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience.

I wonder this, in particular, on Thursday afternoons when I find myself standing at a whiteboard in front of a group of restless 11-year-olds. The program is an afterschool enrichment/remediation program for disadvantaged elementary school children, and this year I’m teaching them the fundamentals of sentences and paragraphs.

The kids are understandably restless: they’ve already been at school for 6 ½ hours, they’ve had hardly any recess, and they’re hungry for the warm meal that awaits at the end of the program. And so, while there are plenty among them who are eager to please and learn, they are constantly distracted, constantly asking to go to the bathroom, constantly wondering how soon dinner will start, constantly squabbling with one another, and constantly getting out (or falling out) of their small plastic seats and wandering around the room.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft not because of Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but simply because it’s so much less exhausting?

Unfortunately, what reduces teachers’ exertion also reduces students’ learning. Nor is it just that Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn. In the long term, the less practice students have attending to Sages on Stages, the worse they will be at it later. Attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused; classroom cultures develop and solidify over time. Each year that a teacher opts out of exerting the energy needed to hold students’ attention for major chunks of class time, whoever teaches these students the next year will find this even harder. And so each succeeding teacher will be even more tempted to step down and take a breather, um, I mean, experience that much-lauded conversion from Sage to Guide.

And their students, along with much of the edworld, will be none the sager.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Math problems of the week: traditional vs. IMP trigonometry

I. The next two pages of the first trigonometry chapter in A Second Course in Algebra (published in 1937), pp.401-402 [click to enlarge]:

II. The next two pages of the first trigonometry chapter in Interactive High School Mathematics Math Program Year 4, pp. 12-14 [click to enlarge]:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

More on the Special Needs Kids and the Common Core Straightjacket

A few weeks ago I published a piece in the online Atlantic in which I argue that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) essentially straightjacket special needs students. Subsequent commenters, however, have objected that the standards are more flexible than I let on.

One commenter, for example, cites the following passage from the Common Core State Standards as allowing "a huge amount of leeway":

Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.

The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations. No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom. However, the Standards do provide clear signposts along the way to the goal of college and career readiness for all students.

It is also beyond the scope of the Standards to define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs. At the same time, all students must have the opportunity to learn and meet the same high standards if they are to access the knowledge and skills necessary in their post–high school lives.
Another writes:
I work with students with significant cognitive and behavioral disabilities at an elementary school in a Common Core state. And I don't recognize the scenario described here. There is no forcing, spoon feeding, lock-stepping, or even much hand-wringing about curriculum. We do the best we can, provide the resources we have to meet the individual needs of the students, enabling their participation in the general curriculum, in the least restrictive environment, to the greatest extent possible. Students have IEPs based on their strengths, needs, and goals, developed in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Maybe things just look different on the ground than from 40, 000 feet. But Common Core just doesn't seem to be a curricular strait-jacket for my students.
Another writes:
The Common Core doesn't preclude in any way the provisions that now exist for individual education plans for special needs students. Those plans can provide for an individual pacing of standards, instructional practices that are best suited for the child involved and assessment mechanisms that are best suited for the child involved. In other words, the Common Core is simply a set of standards that can be applied with all of the flexibility with which any present set of standards can be applied.
None of these people, however, address the specific points I make in my piece:

1. The fact that large numbers of special ed students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms based on calendar age rather than mental age. I.e., if you turned 13 by September 1st and are not so severely intellectually impaired that you spend all your time in a special ed classroom, you attend 8th grade classes even if cognitive testing shows you reading at a 4th grade level.

2. The fact that specific CC standards are pegged to specific grade levels (e.g., 8th grade).

3. The fact that the CCSS names specific sets of texts, including Shakespeare and America's Founding Documents, that all students should read, as well as specific levels of reading passage complexity, exemplified by sample texts (and sample reading assignments) in its well-known Appendix B, and, again pegged to specific grade levels (e.g., 8th grade).

Putting it all together, we have all mainstreamed 13-14-year-olds, even those reading at a 4th grade level, expected to make their way through passages whose complexity matches that of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, for example, this one:
Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.
So is it really the case that teachers have "tremendous leeway"?  More importantly, do most teachers perceive that they have tremendous leeway?  Here's how I open my article:
In a recent discussion board thread on reading comprehension challenges in autism, a special-education teacher commented that her students can’t understand the assigned reading passages. “When I complained, I was told that I could add extra support, but not actually change the passages,” she wrote. “It is truly sad to see my students’ frustration.”
This student isn't alone; she's echoing what I'm hearing from a great many students, most of whom are already teachers of special needs students, many of whom are extremely frustrated by the CC Standards.

Are all of them misinterpreting the Standards?

To some extent, the answer to that question is irrelevant. When large numbers of flesh and blood students are deprived of the developmentally appropriate reading assignments that they depend on in order to maximize their progress in reading, it doesn't matter whether or not this deprivation occurred because of correct or incorrect interpretations of the Common Core Standards. All that matters is that they aren't getting what they need.

Furthermore, there's flexibility and then there's flexibility. Letting teachers decide what reading level is appropriate for their students is one thing; the Common Core does not do this. Instead, it tells them what the reading level has to be and leaves it up to them to somehow figure out what "supports" or "intervention methods" or "materials" will somehow give all students meaningful access to texts at this reading level. This is a very different sort of "flexibility."

Imagine being told: "You need climb this 200 foot cliff, but don't worry, we're giving you all the flexibility you want, because we're not telling you how to do it or providing you with any specific materials."

Of course, some people may simply helicopter their way to the top of the cliff. Likewise, some educators may, as I discuss in my article, essentially give away the answers or otherwise fake their way through things. Or they may convince themselves that students have attained standards when objective, independent testing would reveal otherwise.

But the ultimate problem, the one that trumps all others, is that no amount of "supporting" and "intervening" and "differentiating" and IEP writing makes any difference in the world if the curricula assigned to special needs students doesn't match their levels of developmental readiness.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

What could be more important than unlocking the world for kids?

Less than 6 months after its last article on the Philadelphia Public School’s Science and Leadership Academy, Education Week is at it again. One reason may be financial: a note at the end of the article explains that a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supports “coverage of ‘deeper learning’ that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.”

The article, fittingly, brims with issues relating both to “deeper learning” and to finances. First, there is Philadelphia School Superintendent William Hite, who, after opening schools in September with hundreds of absent (i.e., laid off) librarians, counselors and nurses, is “still scrambling to find $14 million to balance this year's books.”:

Last spring, Mr. Hite pushed through a five-year, $28 million plan to expand three programs, including SLA, a district-run magnet high school. In February, he won approval to invest millions more in three new outside-the-box high schools slated to open next fall.
Although he says the 131,000-student Philadelphia district needs $440 million just to provide a "bare minimum" level of service to schools next school year, the superintendent sees little choice.
With “competition from charter and suburban schools for the city's few remaining middle-class families” and “the new Common Core State Standards,” which “expect students to think critically, solve problems, and work collaboratively,” Hite knows that there’s only one way out of Philadelphia’s educational quagmire: the "inquiry-driven, project-based, technology-infused" approach so enthusiastically and comprehensively embraced by the school district’s Science and Leadership Academy:
This is exactly what we want our children to experience. Instead of 1,000 things that teachers must get through in 180 days, it's deep learning that occurs over and over again.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with SLA, here is how this “deep learning” occurs:
Rather than deliver content, SLA teachers are expected to help students develop the skills and mind-sets necessary to formulate and pursue their own questions and ideas.
Technology helps: Teachers and students are issued their own laptops to use in school and at home, and software applications that facilitate independent research, content creation, and peer collaboration are widely used.
The ultimate goal, in the words of Principal Chris Lehmann, isn’t "Making sure students get the mandatory content delivered on demand.” Rather:
We want to unlock the world for kids.
So mind-blowing and educationally revolutionary is Lehmann’s goal that
The school has attracted significant national attention. In January, the computer-manufacturing giant Dell announced a $625,000 grant to both SLA campuses. A portion of the money will be used to form a "Center of Excellence in Learning," through which Mr. Lehmann's approach is to be shared with educators around the country.
And, indeed, in Edweek’s words, “progress” is already afoot:
Science Leadership Academy has established a second campus that mirrors the quirky, intimate atmosphere of the original. At the new SLA@Beeber, students skateboard through the hallways past a teacher draped in Christmas lights, and no one bats an eye. [Boldfaces mine]   
It should be noted that there’s still some room for improvement:  
Inside classrooms, efforts to re-create SLA's instructional model have been uneven, highlighting the challenges faced by the growing number of districts seeking to open and replicate nontraditional, technology-oriented schools.
For example:
[A] first-period [freshman] engineering class has just been derailed by a series of small frustrations: Students strolling in late. Questions met with blank stares. Smartphones used for text messages instead of research.
“Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth,” says teacher Karthik Subburam, a former engineer and five-year veteran, a teacher at SLA’s new satellite school, SLA@Beeber. Here, Subburam recently completed a unit on load-bearing structures in which students ultimately construct model houses. The unit, as Edweek reports, was “intended to last three weeks” but “dragged deep into February”:
Midway through the unit… Mr. Subburam is struggling just to get on base. Nearly half his class has neglected to bring in building supplies for their model houses. His third cup of morning coffee is nearly empty. After delivering instructions for a classroom research activity, Mr. Subburam tries to answer questions from a half-dozen confused students, while the rest of the class grows impatient. The disruptive chatter is unrelenting.
"I don't want all the information to flow through me," the exasperated teacher finally tells his students. "But if you don't listen attentively, this new style doesn't work, and we'll just go back to me telling you what to do."
But a few weeks later, Mr. Subburam “experiences a breakthrough”:
His classroom still feels a bit chaotic, but now it's because students are scattered across the room in small teams, immersed in the construction of their model houses. Rather than seek to re-establish himself as the focal point of the classroom, Mr. Subburam encourages the groups to interact with each other.
The “wildly varying designs” that result provoke an enthusiastic discussion that Mr. Subburan later characterizes as “awesome.” "We were learning things together," he said.

Taking things to a whole new level of awesomeness are the raucous experiments:
A group of students gathers around a table, eager to see if their classmates' model house will withstand the "simulated natural disasters" that their teacher has concocted. The teens are loud. Scraps of cardboard litter the floor. One group's model house tips over when confronted with a gentle breeze.
Then, the teacher places a five-pound bag of pennies on the roof of a student-built house. It's a test of the structure's ability to bear a heavy load. The top floors sway slightly under the pressure, but most of the weight is transferred down to the solid foundation. The students high-five, elated that their skyscraper-inspired strategy worked.
This, presumably, is what Mr. Lehmann means by “unlocking the world for kids”--which, surely, far outweighs preparing them for college-level engineering classes by delivering actual content.*

But wait: if you think SLA@Beeber is unlocking the world for kids, take a look at what’s happening across town at SLA’s main campus. SLA@SLA provides, as Edweek puts it, “a clearer vision of what's possible.” Consider Matthew VanKouwenberg's advanced engineering class, which he's taught since the school opened in 2006:
In early February, while the freshman engineering class at the new SLA@Beeber struggled to find its footing, Mr. VanKouwenberg's advanced engineering students were engaged in a unit on cybersecurity. Their ultimate task was to construct a radio transmitter capable of sending an encrypted message. To get there, Mr. VanKouwenberg guided the class through a series of smaller projects that built on each other, taking detours as needed to teach key concepts or address misunderstandings revealed by students as they worked.
On this day, the teens assembled in teams around the cluttered room, using paper plates and bowls, wires, magnets, tape, and an amplifier to build makeshift speakers. Their teacher eased into the background, eating yogurt and listening.
Seniors Seamus Kirby and Ethan Reese produced a speaker that played surprisingly crisp, clear music.
Mr. VanKouwenberg sidled up.
"What did you guys do that made it sound so much stronger?" he asked.
"We flipped the magnets," the boys responded.
"No, seriously, what benefit did you get from it?" Mr. VanKouwenberg persisted.
After an extended silence, he gave the students a friendly nudge.
"It looks like you've done a good job with your speaker," Mr. VanKouwenberg said. "Now, I want you to figure out why it works."
What happens next doesn’t make it into Edweek. Instead, the article moves on to Mr Gray's physics class:
Mr. Gray... recently used the Christmas lights he had earlier worn through the hallways as the basis for a culminating project in which students were expected to create "electric art"—an object of personal significance that incorporated functioning circuits.
As their deadline approached, more than 30 teenagers gathered in the physics room during lunch, eating chips and wiring stuffed animals and sneakers as their teacher danced around to opera music.
Christopher Johnson, the veteran Philadelphia administrator who now heads SLA@Beeber, was thrilled.
"I'm seeing kids tinker. I'm seeing kids be creative. I'm seeing kids able to reflect on who they are," he said.
Once again the keys clink inside the cosmic door latch. Who cares if no one delivers to these students the content necessary for college-level physics classes? The world’s doors have opened and the kids know who they are.

And the great thing is, there’s still room for progress. Edweek cites former district administrator Jolley Bruce Christman:
For 30 years, Ms. Christman has watched as small bands of city teachers have attempted to incorporate inquiry-based instruction into their schools and classrooms. Almost inevitably, she said, "the tide washes over their efforts, and they get burned out."
But not Mr. Lehmann:
Early struggles for teachers new to the approach are natural and predictable, Mr. Lehmann said. What's important, he maintained, is an "upward trajectory."
And, darn it, SLA’s trajectory is upwards; not sideways, and definitely not downwards. After all, when the ultimate goal is “unlocking the world for kids” rather than "making sure students get the mandatory content delivered on demand," how could it be otherwise?

*SLA insiders have remarked upon the large number of students who end up having to take remedial math.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Math problems of the week: math exams a century ago and now

I. The math portion of the 1912 8th Grade Examination for Bullitt County Kentucky Schools, courtesy Catherine Johnson [click to enlarge; you'll also find typos]:

II. Word problems from a sample test for the new Pennsylvania Keystone Algebra I exam, also taken by 8th graders (as well as by 9th-11th graders who either failed it or are only now taking Algebra I) [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

There are a bunch of things that bug me about the sample Keystone questions, not all of which I can articulate. What do other people think?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What should colleges be testing for?

We Need More Tests, Not Fewer, argues John D. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives," in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times.

He begins by talking about how effectively tests capture people's later accomplishments, as well as more elusive aspects of cognitive potential and personality:

Research indicates that mental tests do predict people’s patterns of behavior in consequential ways. For instance, graduate students’ G.R.E. scores are correlated with the ratings faculty members later give them, their likelihood of remaining in a program, and the impact of their publications (as measured by citations). And tests like the NEO-PI-R that measure social and emotional traits like conscientiousness and agreeableness can predict a person’s longevity and likelihood of staying married.
In addition, tests are our only way to study and attempt to understand ineffable mental qualities like intelligence, openness to experience and creativity. They help make the mysteries of mental life tangible. Neuroscientists use them to discover who excels in particular mental abilities, and to try to identify the parts of the brain responsible.
So far so good. All this sounds reasonable and plausible. Over the last century, a whole host of different tests have emerged that predict, apparently with increasing accuracy, more and more aspects of cognition and personality.
Much less clear, however, is how these tests should be used. One good use, in Meyer's opinion, is in college admissions:
What if, in addition to the SAT, students were offered new tests that measured more diverse abilities? For future artists or musicians, there are tests that measure divergent thinking — a cornerstone of creativity largely ignored by the SAT. For future engineers, there are tests that measure spatial reasoning. And new measures of “personal intelligence” — the ability to reason about a person’s motives, emotions and patterns of activities — may also tell us something important about students’ self-knowledge and understanding of others.
But considering non-academic skills like social skills, and, arguably, divergent thinking, smacks of the "best graduates" over "best students" strategy, discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 New Yorker article Getting In, that was used by Harvard, Yale and Princeton to limit the numbers of Jewish matriculates back in the mid-20th century--and that is probably being used by those same schools to limit the numbers of Asian students today. Should admissions favor those who look like they will have the most "successful" careers after college (as measured, typically, by fame and fortune) over those who look like they will do best in college classes?
Colleges, of course, aren't monoliths, and different insiders will have different answers to this question. Professors, presumably, prefer students who show up to class, pay attention, contribute to discussions, write the best papers and problem sets, and have the greatest potential to master the course material; development officers, presumably, favor those who will donate the most money and generate the most publicity for their alma maters.
Ethics, I believe, are firmly on the side of the professors.
First of all, taken to its extreme, a best-graduates policy has you favoring not only those with certain types of social skills, leadership skills, and creative skills, but also those with certain physical traits and family resources. Beauty, stature, and family wealth and connections, after all, are correlated with future earnings and fame. Thus, in addition to the existing discrimination against Asians and nerds and Aspies you'd have (to the extent that this is not already the case--cf. legacy admissions) discrimination against the vertically-impaired, the not-so-good-looking, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Second of all, what is the purpose of these non-profit, government funded, academic institutions called colleges? Is it to coast off of those who will have a certain type of showy, real-world success regardless of how much, or how little, they actually teach them? Or is it to recruit, challenge and inspire the most academically advanced and motivated students and help them reach their academic capacities, both by teaching them well inside the classroom, and by providing fora--cafeterias, quadrangles, and common rooms--where they can interact among themselves, conversing, arguing, and bouncing ideas around, in ways that many of them have never before had the opportunity?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Autism Diaries: why I pretend to be you

A text message tips me off:

What is F's phone number?
This is neither a literal question, nor a rhetorical one. No, when J asks for someone's phone number, it means he already has it. Presumably he looked it up on one of his parents' cell phones during one of our brief periods of lapsed vigilance.

The next step, typically, is to text the person in question from his own phone, pretending to be one of us. As Daddy or Mommy, he begins by informing the person that "I just got a new cell phone and this is my new number." The ultimate goal: to receive an "invitation" to visit that person's home and get some photos and footage of their ceiling fans. The intermediate goals: learning all about the person's current ceiling fans and encouraging them to make repairs, replace missing parts, and/or install new fans. And, of course, ascertaining their availability for visits.

But the weird thing is that he's been asking me about F's phone number all week, which suggests that he's been texting F all week. And so suddenly it's occurring to me that F isn't on to him yet--even though usually there's some grammatical error or social oddity that gives J away early on.

So on Saturday morning, when I finally have a moment, I call F up.

"Hi, K" she says, in a voice loaded with subtext.

"I think J's been texting you," I say.


"Wait... What's your new number?"

We quickly sort it out, and for the next 10 minutes I listen as F reads out loud the most recent lengthy text exchange she had, this very morning, with the person she thought was me.

Apparently, I had told her that "J really wants to come over and see your ceiling fans," and that "J wants to know if you can send him a picture of your ceiling fans" and "J wants to know if you are going to install a fan in your living room" and "J wants to know if he can help you pick out a fan for that room." I had also apparently asked "Can J come over today and film your fans?" She had replied that she really wasn't feeling well this weekend and was basically lying in bed and wasn't up for any visitors. In response, I'd apparently asked what the dimensions of the dining room were and what the distance was between the middle of the ceiling and the light switch.

"After all I've heard about J's impersonations, I realize I should have figured out it was him," she said. "But instead I was worried that I was annoying you with my dismissive responses."

We had a good laugh, and I told her that I wouldn't tell J that she was onto him now. "You can use that information however you want to," I said.

I'm not sure how her replies to his texts may or may not have changed since Saturday morning; all I know is that the "What is F's phone number?" texts have increased in frequency--along with the "Can I pretend to be you?" texts. Here's our most recent exchange:
What is F's cell phone number? 
Do you want me to call her? 
No, I'm OK. I can text her for invitation. Can I pretend to be you? 
What if I want to be invited? 
Ask for an invitation as yourself. 
Many times I ask as myself, they just ignore me. That's why I pretend to be you.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Moving beyond grades

Grades, let’s face it, are problematic. They are non-transparent, refracting a multitude of factors beyond mere subject-specific mastery. Worse, the more a teacher’s subjective impressions of student grit, creativity, cooperative learning skills, presentation skills, and so-called “higher-level thinking” skills figure into grades, the more those grades distort what many people still assume grades are mostly about—namely, academic achievement. A “B” in biology may mean that you don’t have a complete mastery of biological processes, or it may mean that your poster was sloppy, you didn’t make enough eye contact during your presentation, and that you didn’t get along with your lab partners.

But even when grades are mostly about mastery, it’s not clear how well they signal to future employers, or to graduate and professional schools, how good a candidate you are for what comes next. Recently, a tenured professor in one of the top biology departments in the country told me about the one and only thing he and his colleagues look for in admitting graduate students. It isn’t high grades; it isn’t high GRE scores. Instead, it’s lab experience. This, they feel, is the most direct indicator of what matters the most: how much a student will end up contributing to the field.

So why not dispense with grades altogether and replace them with something a little more indicative of what people can actually do? Why not have a list of concrete skills for each school subject, with mastery tests for each one? Following the latest cognitive science research, deliver these mastery tests over time (to both assess and enhance long term recall), set a high bar for mastery (say 95% correct), and allow students to retake these tests as many times as needed (and whenever they choose to). Also allow them to move through the material at their own pace. The upshot, instead of a report card or transcript, should be a list of the skills currently mastered.

There are, of course, a few caveats. First, the skills listed really should be concrete—as in not vague, as in not like the Common Core Standards, as in both teachable and filled with specific content. In other words, algebra skills would involve things like “Simplify rational expressions involving terms with unlike algebraic denominators using standard tricks for maximum efficiency, including factoring and cancelation of like terms, distributing factors and combining like terms, and seeking out and exploiting differences of squares and other familiar patterns” (as opposed to “Rewrite simple rational expressions in different forms”). And history skills would involve things like “Enumerate the primary causes of the French Revolution” (as opposed to “Understand that revolutions can have multiple causes”).

Not all subjects, of course, naturally break down into lists of discrete sub-skills. Product oriented faculties like writing might better be demonstrated with actual products—i.e., student work samples—though, to ensure that they are purely the student’s own work, proctored, in-class samples would be best.

But that doesn’t mean that the process of learning to write can’t be taught in terms of sub-skills; it can and should.

Another caveat: the skills measured should always reflect what the student can do independently, with any “supports” limited to things like enlarged print or sign language interpretation or keyboards, which enhance access, as opposed to things like simplified texts, movie versions of novels, and word-prediction software, which end up doing for the student a significant part of what’s being measured.

Of course, all this is wishful thinking. But every while it’s nice to stop complaining about how bad things are and fantasize instead about ways in which they could improve.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Math problems of the week: variation in traditional vs. reform algebra

First variations problem sets: 

I. From Wentworth's New School Algebra, published in 1898, pp. 320-321 [click to enlarge]:

II. From Integrated Math 2, published in 2002, pp. 79-80 [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:
Comparing the two problem sets, does time expenditure vary directly or inversely with mathematical egagement?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Should should top grades reflect teachers' perceptions of "habits of mind"?

Here's an update on the new grading system used by the Montgomery County Public Schools which I blogged about earlier. It turns at that the Powers that Be at the MCPS have provided some additional guidelines that purport to address parental concerns (a) that the new grading system is insufficiently transparent, and (b) that the new top grade, "ES", is so highly elusive that hardly any students are getting it.

Here are the criteria for an "ES", as communicated to principals and teachers:

The student consistently demonstrates mastery of the grade-level standards as demonstrated by a variety of work that shows in-depth understanding and flexible use of grade-level concepts within the scope of a Measurement Topic. Students who are exceptional at the grade-level standard are also able to:  
• Demonstrate excellent reasoning skills
• Readily see relationships in ideas, objects, or facts
• Transfer thoughts and ideas from one set of circumstances to another
• Persevere with problems that are not easily solved
• Easily grasp generalizations, pointing out similarities in events and situations
Beyond the initial mention of grade-level mastery, what's remarkable about these criteria is how little they reflect what students are actually learning in school, and how much they reflect vaguer, more innate aspects of personality and intelligence that are relatively independent of the classroom. This raises several concerns:

1. How realistic is it for teachers to accurately assess general aspects of intelligence--reasoning skills, connections skills, generalizations skills--particularly when they've had no special training is this, when their assessment tools don't include any standardized, field-tested intelligence tests, and when they have 20+ students in the class and plenty of other things to do?

2. Is even right to grade students on vaguer, more innate aspects of personality like general intelligence and perseverance? What, exactly, is accomplished by such grading?

3. Isn't the point of grades, rather, to indicate to students, teachers, and parents whether kids are learning what is being taught, or supposed to be taught, in school?

A supplementary memo claims to ensure that teachers know how to provide "to the fullest extent possible (at least 51% of the time)" assignments that "offer students the opportunity to demonstrate exceptional understanding." Such assignments, the memo explains, should include "open-ended questions"; questions that solicit "innovative" connections between current topics and new ideas and/or prior knowledge; opportunities to "transfer knowledge to new situations"; opportunities to "creatively solve problems"; opportunities to explain answers and justify solutions; opportunities to "socially construct knowledge" through interactions; opportunities to demonstrate "metacognitive awareness."

In other words, the teacher's role is to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate those vague aspects of general intelligence. But there's nothing about providing teachers with accurate tools to measure these things, and nothing about the school's role in teaching them. Nor is there any justification, once again, for why skills that are relatively independent of what's going on at school should be factored into grade distinctions. What's wrong with simply basing grades on students' levels of mastery of what's actually being taught?

I'm guessing that most teachers, students, and parents--in other words, pretty much everyone other than the Powers that Be in education--would prefer mastery-based grading to intelligence-based grading. What's less clear to me is whether the Powers that Be have any incentive to show the kind of flexible, open-minded thinking they expect of students, and actively seek out alternative perspectives.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The wrong way to communicate about grammar

One of the most popular articles running on the online Atlantic right now (1062 tweets, 111 google plus shares, 57 shares on LinkedIn, and over 16,000 Facebook shares) is entitled The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar. So far, so good. But next comes the subtitle: "No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading."

Good writing, as this subtitle suggests, involves more than good grammar. In terms of linguistic factors, it also involves good pragmatics. What good pragmatics does is anticipate what your readers' presumed knowledge and biases are and how these people will therefore read between your lines. And what a good writer does, among other things, is ensure that what readers read between the lines is more or less what s/he intends to convey.

So let's look again at that subtitle. What does "No more diagramming sentences: Students learn more from simply writing and reading" convey? It conveys that a lot of today's teachers are having their students diagram sentences. And, particularly among the majority of readers whose only experience with school grammar (if any) is in labeling parts of speech and in diagramming sentences, it also conveys that teachers should minimize grammar instruction.

But if you know anything about what's happening in classrooms today, you know that sentence diagramming is extremely rare. And if you read the article more closely, you see that minimizing grammar isn't exactly what the writer recommends. Here's how the article opens:

A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers. Yes, they need to learn grammar, but the old-fashioned way does not work.
"Yes, they need to learn grammar."

Here's more:
Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help communicate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones.
Schools that have shifted from traditional “stand-alone” grammar to teaching grammar through writing offer concrete proof that such approaches work.
If 30 years later, you or your child is still being taught grammar independent of actually writing, it is well past time to demand writing instruction that is grounded in research rather than nostalgia.
All this is very true. I've been researching grammar instruction, and, as I've long suspected, traditional grammar goes nowhere. What works, as the study that the article links to makes clear, are exercises in sentence construction. Such exercises, in fact, involve a much deeper and more interactive engagement with grammar and syntax than does traditional "grammar" does--the latter being so linguistically superficial that we linguists regularly deride it. There is, in other words, a big distinction between "traditional grammar" and actual grammar.

Here's something, however, that the Atlantic article doesn't mention, but that another article makes clear: this actual, sentence-focused grammar used to be common practice back in the 1960s and 1970s. Here's an abstract from that article:
Sentence-based pedagogies of the 1960s and 1970s have been completely elided within contemporary composition studies despite the evidence that they did work to improve student writing. Three sentence-based rhetorics of the New Rhetoric were the generative rhetoric of Francis Christensen, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining. The first full-scale empirical study of the Christensen system did demonstrate statistically significant classroom results; imitation was also tested and determined successful in helping writers to internalize sentence structures and design. Kellogg Hunt’s work on syntactic maturity and his concept of the T-unit paved the way for important experiments on sentence-combining, with confident results that sentence-combining exercises improved both syntactic maturity as well as perceived quality of writing in general. Reasons for the erasure of the sentence and the devaluation of sentence rhetorics can be linked to anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism, and to the changing demographics of composition studies as it became a subfield of English.
So a more accurate, if much less catchy, subtitle for the Atlantic article would have been "No more traditional grammar: a more dynamic grammar applied during the actual writing process works better."

One of the reasons the article's actual subtitle is so catchy is that it meshes with what most people want to believe. Most people think grammar is tedious and would prefer students not have to learn it; teachers in particular have long been indoctrinated in the Composition Studies mentality the above excerpt alludes to, which holds that students best learn writing simply by writing.

So could it be that there's another reason for the pragmatics of headlines (and titles and subtitles) than effective, accurate communication? Perhaps the real thinking behind that subtitle was--dare I suggest it?--those tens of thousands of Facebook shares.

We've long lived with sensational headlines, but some are more problematic than others. These particular headlines make the article's most likely takeaway not that we need more grammar-focused instruction (in the sense of actual, sentence-focused grammar), but less. In a world in which Writers Workshop, Balanced Literacy and peer-editing reign supreme, and multiple revisions based on sentence-focused feedback are minimal, this is the exact opposite of what people need to be hearing.