Sunday, January 31, 2016

Confusing "relevance" with accesibility

“Kids need assignments that they can relate to.” Within today’s Edworld, one of the most pervasive notions is that students should be reading and writing about stuff they can connect to their personal lives. As educational outsiders have pointed out, this assumes kids can’t be interested in things that are distant, whether in time and place, from the mundane and familiar. It excludes the possibility that the long ago, the far away, or the esoteric, might engage children precisely because they are long ago, far away, or esoteric. But isn’t school supposed to open doors rather than close them? Isn’t it supposed to take children out of their egocentric worlds to places they’ve never been before?

In one sense, the Edworld does have a point. While it’s not the case that kids can’t be engaged by exotic or unfamiliar material, it is true that such material can be harder to make sense of. Works set in faraway times and places—particularly if they were also written in these faraway times or places—may employ an unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure, or assume an unfamiliar knowledge base. If enough words, sentences structures, or presupposed facts are elusive, it’s hard to get much out of the material, let alone actually enjoy it—even if you take the trouble to look everything up.

The Edworld’s recent harping on “relatable” material, furthermore, may reflect current realities. Blame screen time: blame social media; blame long-form TV shows that scratch the itch that used to drive people to read novels: for any number of reasons, today’s kids are doing less and less independent reading. Aggravating this, K-12 classes—particularly K-8 social studies classes—are providing less and less instruction in general background knowledge—whether about civics, power structures, military concepts, or life in Regency England. The result is that much of what kids used to readily relate to, however far away in time and setting, is no longer so accessible.

I suspect this is one reason why history is less and less popular—to the point where some history teachers don’t want to teach it any more. Consider these passages from The American Vision, a high school history text used in Philadelphia’s public high schools:

One of the most contentious developments of Jackson’s presidency was his campaign against the Second Bank of the United States. Like most Westerners and working people, President Jackson was suspicious of the Bank. He regarded it as a monopoly that benefitted the wealthy elite.

The bank had done a good job stabilizing the money supply and interest rates, but many western settlers, who needed easy credit to run their farms, were unhappy with the Bank’s lending policies…
What is meant by “the money supply” and “interest rates”? How would a national bank benefit the wealthy elite? What is “easy credit,” and why is it needed to run farms?
At first, excitement about the war inspired many Northern and Southern men to enlist, swamping recruitment offices and training camps. As the war dragged on and causalities rose, however, fewer young men volunteered, forcing both governments to resort to conscription.
What does “enlist” mean? What are “recruitment offices”? What is “conscription”?
To pass a new tariff, Taft needed the help of Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon. As Speaker, Cannon appointed all committees and decided which bills they handled. By exercising almost total control over debate, Cannon could push some bills through without discussion and see that others never came to a vote.
What does “exercising almost total control over debate” mean; why do Cannon’s powers as speaker lead to that control; and how does that control enable him to allow or prevent bills from coming to a vote?

These are all questions, I’m sure, that most of us can readily answer. But how many high school students have been provided with this vocabulary and background knowledge—which is not explained in situ in the Glencoe text? And how many of them are turned off to the material—and more generally hate history--simply because of this lack of preparation?

As the history book moves towards modern times, it gets sloppier about using words it never defines, but simply assumes kids have picked up elsewhere: "destroyer;" "Third Reich;" "Capitol Hill"; and, especially, economic terms like "freeze assets;" "speculator;" "free enterprise system;" "black market." But have they?

Moving backwards to Regency England, consider these passages from Pride and Prejudice:
Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation; and their mother's fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his. Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.
“Entailed on a distant relation”? “In default of heirs-male?” “The deficiency of his”?
Mrs. Bennet was prevented replying by the entrance of the footman with a note for Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and the servant waited for an answer. Mrs. Bennet's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and she was eagerly calling out, while her daughter read -- 

"Well, Jane, who is it from? what is it about? what does he say? Well, Jane, make haste and tell us; make haste, my love."  
"It is from Miss Bingley," said Jane, and then read it aloud.  
"My dear Friend, -- If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on the receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers. -- Yours ever,
"With the officers!" cried Lydia. "I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that."  
"Dining out," said Mrs. Bennet; "that is very unlucky."  
"Can I have the carriage?" said Jane.  
"No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night."  
"That would be a good scheme," said Elizabeth, "if you were sure that they would not offer to send her home."  
"Oh! but the gentlemen will have Mr. Bingley's chaise to go to Meryton; and the Hursts have no horses to theirs."  
"I had much rather go in the coach."  
"But, my dear, your father cannot spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennett, are not they?"  
"They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them."  
"But if you have got them to-day," said Elizabeth, "my mother's purpose will be answered."
Even if they have figured out by now that Mrs. Bennett wants Jane to end up marrying Mr. Bingley (in part because Mr. Bennet's property being “entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation”), how many of today’s 9th graders will have the background knowledge (about horses vs. carriages and the significance of rain) required to make sense of this passage? Is the “carriage” the same as the “coach”? What is a “chaise”? Why Jane would have to “stay over” if she goes on horseback and it rains? What does Mr. Bennett mean by "They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them”? What does Elizabeth mean by "But if you have got them to-day, my mother's purpose will be answered”?

Again, all of us may readily answer these questions, but how many students have absorbed enough of the relevant background knowledge by 9th grade? How many teachers are carefully going over and explaining these passages as needed?

When people today say they hate Jane Austen, it’s easy to conclude that it's because they have no interest in the class consciousness, arch conversation, ballroom dances, and “marrying well” that constituted middle and upper-class Regency England. But how do we know that the real problem isn’t simply that they no longer have the tools to make sense of the subtle ironies, compelling characters, lively dialogue, suspenseful plots, and still-relevant commentaries on human nature of a writer who is as engaging and entertaining to those who give her a chance as she is dismissed by others as frivolous and irrelevant?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Math problems of the week: a purported comparison of "previous math" with "CCSS math"

A side-by-side comparison of what are purported to be pre and post-Common Core math problems, courtesy the Foundation for Excellence in Education:

Extra Credit:

1. Where is the evidence that actual Common Core-inspired math problems for elementary and middle school lack problems of the sort exemplified by those purported to be "previous math problems"?

2. Where is the evidence that the "previous math problems" in elementary and middle school lacked problems of the sort exemplified by those purported to be "CCSS math questions."?

3. In what way is the so-called "previous math problem" for high school more "mechanical," and less about "solving equations as a process of reasoning," than the so-called "CCS math question"?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

John Dewey goes to college, II

[Great comments my last post! I wrote this post earlier, before seeing them, so there's some overlap between what I've written here and some of your thoughts.]

To pick up where I left off on Monday, I am sympathetic to some of the concerns and recommendations made in the recently released "Turning the Tide" But I find others of the proposed solutions less than satisfactory.

The only sure-fire way around applicant coaching, for example, isn't to advise people not to help students with their applications, but to proctor relevant parts of the application--in particular, the essay sections.

The best way to reduce AP-related stress (and, in the process, prepare students for college), isn't to eliminate the AP, but, as I discussed earlier, to improve academic instruction starting in elementary school.

The best way to level the academic playing field isn't to eliminate the SAT or ACT, even though, as with so many other things, scores on these tests correlate with family income. The whole point of aptitude tests, after all, was to give smart students from non-elite schools--students who may not have imbibed the same quantity and quality of academic content as their prep school peers--a better shot at college admissions. Yes, make college more affordable and student loans less burdensome; yes, do more outreach and simplify the application process; but no, don't eliminate the aptitude tests.

Finally, the best way for colleges to reduce the stress of the admissions rat race isn't to pretend they don't care about test scores and leadership roles--after all, how can they help caring about those things?--but to be much more transparent about the admissions process. Perhaps then students wouldn't feel the need to apply to twelve colleges in order to be sure they'll get into at least one.

I'm also worried by the authors' preference for the social, the emotional, the ethical, and the "common good"--both in community service activities and in college admissions. What happens to applicants who are relatively unsocial or emotionally immature: shy kids; kids on the autistic spectrum? What happens to applicants whose ethics and opinions about the common good clash with those of college admissions officers: applicants, who, say, volunteer for the Donald Trump campaign or protest at abortion clinics--because they truly believe they're acting for the common good?

And what does any of this have to do with qualifications for college? Isn't college readiness, primarily, about academic aptitude and achievement? Shouldn't college diversity include, not just diversity of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic background, but also diversity of opinion/ethics, as well as what people in the autism world called neurodiversity?

The authors' views about what colleges should value and, presumably, nurture, reminds me of John Dewey's views about K12 schools. They shouldn't, he said, be focused primarily on academic instruction, but rather on preparing students to be ethical participants in society. And so here we are, nearly a century later, dealing with the ever-rippling consequences of that philosophy. And Dewey, meanwhile, is ready to go to college.

Monday, January 25, 2016

John Dewey goes to college

In light of recent discussions here on academic pressures and the college admissions rat race, a recently released report is particularly timely. Entitled “Turning the Tide,” and written primarily by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it was endorsed by scores of educators, deans, and college presidents, including the admissions deans of all the Ivy League schools. The report has already generated buzz--e.g., an Op-Ed by Frank Bruni in last weekend's NY Times.

The report's general message is this: society would be improved, and college admissions pressures reduced, if colleges placed less value on academic achievement, standardized test scores, and long lists of extracurricular activities, and more value on activities that demonstrate longstanding commitment towards "the common good." It opens as follows:

As a rite of passage for many students and a major focus for many parents, the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves. Yet high school students often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities.  
The admissions process should both clearly signal that concern for others and the common good are highly valued in admissions and describe what kinds of service, contributions and engagement are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships and ethical citizenship.
What kinds of service do the report's authors value? Rather than
high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership[,]
students should "undertake at least a year of sustained service or community," which can include
substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.
"Immersion" is more important than leadership; so is "the emotional and ethical awareness and skills" they acquire in the course of their service.

The study's authors also prefer services that are more social or group-based than individualistic:
While individual service can be valuable, we also encourage young people to consider various forms of community engagement, including working in groups on community problems, whether the problem is a local park that needs attention, bullying in their schools or communities or some form of environmental degradation. These types of activities can help young people develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including problemsolving skills and group awareness, as well as greater understanding of and investment in the common good
They also prefer services that expose students to "diversity":
We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity. Too often, current forms of service are patronizing to recipients and don’t spark in those providing service a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities. Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another.
These services should also build students' sense of responsibility towards the future:
We encourage students to take up forms of community engagement, service and reflection that help them appreciate the contributions of the generations before them—how their lives are built on the service of others—and their responsibility to their descendants. Working within a tradition, whether religious or secular, such as 4H clubs, can help generate this kind of gratitude and responsibility.
How should college admissions officers assess the quality of applicants' community service? The authors say they should focus on
whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others and their communities in their daily lives. The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.
Turning to the problem of the college admissions rat race, the authors recommend reducing the pressure to accumulate large number of extracurricular activities:
Admissions offices should send a clear message that numerous extracurricular activities or long “brag sheets” do not increase students’ chances of admission. Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.
Second, they recommend reducing the pressure to take large numbers of AP courses:
While some students can benefit from and handle large numbers of AP/IB courses, many students benefit from taking smaller numbers of advanced courses. Too often there is the perception that these students are penalized in the admissions process
Aptitude tests should also be de-emphasized, and the associated pressures lessened:
Admissions offices should work to relieve undue pressure associated with admission tests (SAT and ACT). Options for reducing this pressure include: making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually “count” and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.
Pressures on colleges with respect to these tests, meanwhile, should increase:
Colleges should also be asked to justify the use of admissions tests by providing data that indicates how scores are related to academic performance at their particular institution.
In the absence of high measured aptitude and advanced placement in large numbers of courses, what it is that qualifies students to achieve in college? Again the authors spotlight ethical behavior:
Admissions offices should define students’ potential for achievement in terms of the depth of students’ intellectual and ethical engagement and potential.
The authors also lament "overcoaching" in application process and suggest that admissions officers can lessen it by
warn[ing] students and parents that applications that are “overcoached” can jeopardize desired admission outcomes. Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice. Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.
Finally, the authors advocate a broader sense of what qualifies as a good, career-advancing college:
Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.
I'm all for downplaying the importance of so-called "leadership," of long lists of extracurricular activities, and of one-month, one-time stints doing "community service" in the Amazon Rain forest and such. I'm all for taking into account contributions to the family--caring for relatives, contributing essential income--in making admission decisions.  And I'm all for finding ways to discourage coaching on college applications, making AP tests less stressful, and making students aware of the large variety of non-big-name programs that offer an excellent college education.

But I find some of the authors' solutions less than satisfactory. This post, however, has gone on long enough; stay tuned for John Dewey goes to college, Part II, in which, among the other things, this title will be explained.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

How higher academic standards would help fix the college admissions rat race

One thing I left out of my recent discussions of tween and teenage pressure is the rat race to get into college. I agree with those who note that in many places it is it is totally out of control. When my oldest was applying to college, I made it a point to stay away from all the other parents so that they wouldn't stress me out. (Luckily he himself managed to stay quite calm about the whole process). But some of the rat race pressures can be blamed on academic standards that are too low rather than too high--especially in elementary and middle school.

Poor academic standards in middle and elementary school mean that kids are ill-prepared for college-prep classes in high school. Many high school students, casualties of "balanced literacy," struggle with the heavy reading and writing loads of AP/college prep English or AP/college prep history. With a poor knowledge base in history and science, they may also struggle to take in and process the concepts and informational content of AP/college prep history or AP/college prep science courses. Finally, casualties of Reform Math and heterogeneous ability grouping will struggle with high school calculus. Many of these struggling students end up resorting to after-school tutoring, and/or try to compensate with a huge load of extra curricular activities.

Then there's the increasing competition for spots in top and middle-tier colleges. As far as Asian competitiveness in particular goes, the first Anonymous commenter on my earlier post makes a good point:

Black and Hispanic kids are being accepted to elite and competitive colleges with academic and extracurricular records far weaker than those of whites and, especially, Asians- which has made getting into such colleges a huge arms race for the latter groups. 
It's a vicious cycle: the more competitive Asian students become, the more they fulfill the stereotypes; the more they fulfill the stereotypes, the more they are discriminated against; the more they are discriminated against, the more competitive they may be motivated to become.

Also, as Anonymous notes, American-educated students in general are competing with growing numbers of wealthy, striving foreign students. While many come from China and are handicapped by language barriers, increasing numbers are coming from India as well, and these students, as I've noted earlier, often have a much better grasp of the English language than their American (and British) counterparts, not to mention a much better preparation in math.

So how do we make our American-educated kids less stressed out vis a vis this increasingly intimidating college prep and college admissions craziness? How about raising our academic standards, starting in elementary school, so that:

(1) students are fully prepared for college prep courses in high school.
(2) students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same academic opportunities as everyone else (which, among other things, would obviate stereotype-reinforcing favoritism in college admissions).
(3) American-educated students are more competitive with students who were educated overseas.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Math problem of the week: Common Core-inspired 9th grade test question

A sample 9th grade test question from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CASPP), California's Common Core-inspired test:

Extra Credit:

For which 21st century careers and college courses are 9th graders preparing for in learning to reason verbally about reflections and translations?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Yet another reason for watering down academics: the New York publishing bubble

One reason for the assumption that most tween/teenage stress is due to crushing academics, I've realized, is less related to educational punditry than it is to New York publishing.

New York City dominates the world of publishing, and New York publishing, in turn, is dominated by high-powered New Yorkers with high-powered lives. Beyond the workplace, these high-powered lives revolve around high-powered parenting, high-powered kids, and stiff competition for top schools--starting, infamously, in those highly selective Manhattan and Brooklyn preschools we keep hearing about. The books that resonate with the agents, editors, publishers, and well-connected writers that populate this world are books about how high-powered and competitive everything is.

However skewed these writers, agents, editors and publishers are by their peculiar sociological bubble, their judgments about what to write, promote, and publish make a certain amount of business sense. Even if other places or sectors of society are far less academically driven, who is most likely to buy trade books about parenting or education? Parents who hail from similarly high-powered, competitive environments, or parents whose top priorities or worries are issues other than academic competition?

Of course, there are plenty of places outside New York City that are dominated by high-powered parents and high-powered kids. These include Westchester County, the Philadelphia Main Line and Montgomery County Maryland--areas with which I have some familiarity--as well as Silicon Valley, Greater Boston, and the environs of Princeton, New Jersey. In all these places, kids--whether or not they are actually challenged academically--are famously stressed out by the intense competition for the "best" high schools and colleges. But these places are hardly representative of most neighborhoods and school districts.

The result of the high-powered publishing and readership bias is a plethora of bestsellers about how Einstein Never Used Flashcards, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, and Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation.

The problem with these books is that they generally don't acknowledge their skewed demographics. Instead, they suggest that the problem is the same everywhere in America: that kids are being overly pressured academically; that teenage stress, in general, is due primarily to grueling academics; and that the remedy, everywhere, is to water down the academics even more than they already are in most schools. These books overlook the reality that most students are academically ill-prepared and under-challenged, and that the reasons for much of today's childhood anxiety and depression have less to do with from high-powered academics than with low-powered academics and economic, domestic, and social pressures.

And they overlook the reality that today's social pressures stem not just from the high-powered pressures of social media and social media addiction, but from the toxic social pressures that creep into schools that water down academics with socio-emotional processing activities and under-supervised group activities.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Is it only the curriculum? Or everything but the curriculum

The tendency to blame tween-age and teenage stress on grueling classroom academics, I've realized, is the one case where education pundits single out academics. Ironically, when it comes to academic achievement (or lack thereof), these people readily blame factors other than classroom academics (or lack thereof). Whether it's grit, socio-emotional skills, socio-economics, family stability, or nutrition, what's notable is that the culprit is anything but the academic curriculum.

In other words, education pundits hold the K12 curriculum responsible for stress levels, but not for skill levels. And they view factors like poverty, family instability, nutrition, and online social networking as more responsible for low skill levels than for high stress levels.

All this relates to several other weird reversals that I've noted here from time to time:

1. Schools that try to nurture and coddle in loco parentis while asking the parents to drill their kids on the arithmetic facts that they (the schools) claim to be too busy to teach.

2. Schools that sanction monthly field trips and movies during class time while assigning lengthy projects and summer reading tasks that detract from quality time outside of school.

3. Schools that try to teach and grade students on things they don't actually know how to teach them, like "grit," creativity, organizational skills, and social skills, as opposed to things that they should know how to teach them, like academic skills.

Perhaps there's some grandiose philosophy behind all this. Or perhaps some entity is simply trying to avoid taking responsibility for that for which it was once held primarily responsible.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common-Core inspired 4th grade test questions

From questions recently released from New York's 2015 4th grade state math test:

Extra Credit: 

If 1/2 of New York students state wide can't answer a Common Core-inspired test question, what fraction of the curriculum is being revised as a result?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Please visit an actual classroom before you make recommendations, IX

Responding to my previous post, FedUpMom underscores the disconnect between high pressure and high academic standards. Most people don't see this disconnect, however, and assume that when a school is high pressure, the source must be academics, and the answer must be diluting the academics with "whole child," social-emotional stuff. Totally overlooked are such alternative accounts as (1) the academics are not the only potential source of pressure, (2) they may be a source of pressure only inasmuch as standards are too low rather than too high, and (3) some of the popular remedies for pressure, like socio-emotional processing sessions, increase pressure rather than reducing it.

The latest high-profile news article to overlook the disconnect between high pressure and high academic standards is one a recent New York Times Weekend Review entitled Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick? In it, author Vicki Abeles, director of the movie Race to Nowhere, opens with a discussion of how Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine surveyed 2/3 of the 2,100 students at a Silicon Valley high school in Fremont, California and found that

54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.
This, Abeles writes, is part of a much bigger picture that affects the entire country:
Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life.
...According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.
At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.
While there are hints here that more is afoot here than academic pressure (e.g., extracurricular activities), the illustration that accompanies the article suggests that the problem is entirely a function of a painfully crushing academic workload:

Naturally, the remedies that Abeles reports on are entirely about reducing academic demands. For example, at the high school she profiles
Teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. In fact, research supports limits on homework. Students have started a task force to promote healthy habits and balanced schedules. And for the past two years, school counselors have met one on one with every student at registration time to guide them toward a manageable course load.
Abeles' take on this?
There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead. Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests.
But there are additional hints that the problem lies elsewhere:
Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believe that their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.
Perhaps the problem isn't out-of-control academics, but something that's interfering with academics.

As far as homework load goes, comprehensive, longitudinal surveys suggest that, with the exception of elementary school--where there's been an unfortunate (and rightly bemoaned) upward trend--students aren't being assigned more homework, or spending more time on it, than a generation ago:

Meanwhile, recent studies show college students studying less than ever--significantly less than in previous generations.

So then what are today's big stressors? Might today's homework be more stressful not because of its quantity, but because of its quality--or lack thereof? Might there be a record amount of pointless busywork or developmentally inappropriate assignments--ones that are easy yet tedious or convoluted and organizationally demanding; ones that fail to provide any sense of purpose or cumulative accomplishment? Might there be a record amount of mandatory, time-consuming, Common Core-inspired standardized tests? Might there be a sense that schools are doing a lousy job preparing people for lousy college prospects or a lousy job market?

Might some of the pressures be not academic, but social in nature? Consider the growing trend towards mandatory, heterogeneous-ability group work and social emotional learning sessions. Both of these are fertile environments for social tension and subtle shunning and bullying.

But one huge culprit, I'm guessing, is much less related to school: screen time. As a recent NPR report notes: "Most American children spend more time consuming electronic media than they do in school." Not including screen time in school or for school,
tweens log 4 1/2 hours of screen time a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. For teens, it's even higher: nearly seven hours a day.
And there is mounting evidence that, when it comes to social media in particular, the ramped up social pressures and cyber-bullying that come with constant online social exposure are a huge source of unhappiness, stress, sleep deprivation, and psychological problems--all the things that Abeles blames on academics.

That's not to say that toxically stressful academic environments don't exist. One good example is med school:
After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably
Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.
But, if Dr. Slavin were to actually spend time in K12 classrooms before making similar recommendations, he might find that K12 schools and med schools aren't quite as comparable as he supposes.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Western holism vs. Asian individualism

Time to catch up on some of the the education news that's arisen since my last post. From a December 26th article in the Times:

This fall, David Aderhold, the superintendent of a high-achieving school district near Princeton, N.J., sent parents an alarming 16-page letter. 
The school district, he said, was facing a crisis. Its students were overburdened and stressed out, juggling too much work and too many demands. 
In the previous school year, 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. And on a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “Coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”
Aderhold's solution?

1. Elimination of busywork assignments and sprawling interdisciplinary projects?
2. Elimination of mandatory group activities and toxic social pressures?
3. Tailoring class placements to academic readiness and assigning each student appropriately challenging work?
4. Increasing recess?

None of the above. Instead, Aderhold
urged parents to join him in advocating a holistic, “whole child” approach to schooling that respects “social-emotional development” and “deep and meaningful learning” over academics alone.
Surely such an approach wouldn't actually increase student stress!

In a curious reversal of one set of cultural stereotypes, not all parents are pleased:
instead of bringing families together, Dr. Aderhold’s letter revealed a fissure in the district, which has 9,700 students, and one that broke down roughly along racial lines. On one side are white parents like Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, who has come to see the district’s increasingly pressured atmosphere as antithetical to learning.
On the other side are parents like Mike Jia, one of the thousands of Asian-American professionals who have moved to the district in the past decade, who said Dr. Aderhold’s reforms would amount to a “dumbing down” of his children’s education.
This second contingent has recently become a majority in the school district:
The district has become increasingly popular with immigrant families from China, India and Korea. This year, 65 percent of its students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007. Many of them are the first in their families born in the United States.
They have had a growing influence on the district. Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program…
But an American-born backlash, led by the principal, has been erasing some of the Asian influence. There's the: “right to squeak” initiative "that makes it easier to participate in the music program." And the competitive math program, which once began in the fourth grade, and "in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American," will now start only in sixth grade.  In addition, Dr. Aderhold is limiting participation in a state program in which "Asian-American students have been avid participants" that "permits [students] to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take."

Some "white parents" have worried that
With many Asian-American children attending supplemental instructional programs... the elementary school curriculum is being sped up to accommodate them.
They also worry about
rampant cheating, grade fixation and days so stressful that some students could not wait for them to end.
Other parents, "primarily Asian-American ones"
 described a different picture, one in which their values were being ignored.
Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at UC Irvine and an author of “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” points out that Asian-born parents “don’t have the same chances to get their children internships or jobs at law firms." For them, the best chances come from excelling academically.

As should be the case for everyone.  If I had a choice between a school led by David Aderhold and one led by some of the Asian-American activists featured in this article, I'm pretty sure which one I'd pick.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Speech and Language Technologies for Language Disorders

Just in time for the post-holiday shopping season, our book is finally (sort of) out on Amazon:

"This book draws on the remarkable advances in speech and language processing taking us beyond basic medical dictation and telephone self-service, areas commonly associated with speech technology, to address a wide range of complex speech and language disorders ranging from autism to aphasia."

Friday, January 8, 2016

Favorite comments of '15, CONCLUDED: Barry Garelick, and Anonymous

On Is there a good excuse for textbooks math getting easier?

Anonymous said...
"In the 1960s, textbooks had harder problems in them because the vast majority of Americans never came close to completing high school"

According to this ...

... roughly 75% completed high school in 1960. Yes, the rate is higher now, but to say "the vast majority never came close" in 1960 is not true. Is Griswold trying to imply high school in 1960 catered to group as exclusive as today's Philips Exeter?
Barry Garelick said...
I had the same reaction to Griswold's statement, so I'm glad you looked this up. His statement is similar to the bromide one constantly hears that "traditional math worked only for a small group of people". Yet ITBS scores from the 40's through mid 60's in math went on a steady climb for the states of Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota.

What might be a more accurate and responsible statement is that high school diplomas did not require three years of math; many students graduated with two years of math. Which meant that there were many students who took only algebra 1 and geometry, but not algebra 2 and precalculus.

Anonymous said...
@ Barry: or, two years of math that were called Business Math, which really meant two years when arithmetic skills through fractions and decimals were really solidified, word problems inched into algebra, and personal finance/business practices were introduced. I remember this; may students in my town took this course sequence. It would have been a much better option, for one of my children, in the 1990's, than Algebra 2 and Geometry. And she is not below average in intelligence.

Favorite comments of '15, cont: FedUpMom, Barry Garelick, and lndmayg

On Exeter Math: Reform or Traditional?

FedUpMom said...
Wow. You start with a hand-picked group of bright, motivated, hard-working students, and then you throw a curriculum at them that they can't possibly handle themselves, so they must rely on help from each other and their over-available teachers (do they have any private time?) This seems like a great way to produce young adults with no sense of independent agency.

Wouldn't it be better to give them clear problem sets which might be occasionally challenging but that they can still solve on their own? Shouldn't school be about giving kids tools that they can use themselves?


Barry Garelick said...
The availability of and encouragement for teacher help amounts to direct instruction--which raises the question of whether that should have been done in the first place. No, better to sustain an illusion that the kids are doing it all by themselves. Sounds like a self-sustaining juku.

lndmayg said...
My son had an honors geometry class at his boarding/prep school that used the Exeter curriculum. He and more than half of his classmates ended up dropping the class and going down to the regular traditional geometry class. Even with super-available teachers, there is only so much extra help that is reasonable for students to seek, especially for introverts like my kids. It was practically impossible for him to study for a test with only his notes to use. If he missed something there was no chance he was going to learn it from his notes. A textbook would not have been helpful as the first few units did not seem to be about geometry at all. The kids who did not drop the class had Algebra II as their prior class instead of Algebra I, so there are real questions about how much kids were learning and how much they actually were applying prior learning.

We had a similar bad experience with a Harkness method precalculus class for my older son at a different boarding school. He struggled all year with the "figure it out yourself" methodology. He is very strong in math and went on to all 5s on the Calc AB, Calc BC, and Stats AP exams after classes with traditional instruction.

Favorite comments of '15, cont: Anonymouses and SteveH

On Math problems of the week: from the "reform math" curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy:

Anonymous said...
I looked at the Exeter problems a few years ago and I like them. I would hesitate to call them "reform," though. If I remember correctly, quite a few of the problems require substantial knowledge of Algebra to solve them.

I think that this approach is basically a "sink or swim" situation. As a teacher in the public sphere, I think about what I would have to teach so that students would be capable of solving, or even engaging in a solution of these problems. The Exeter situation seems to assume that their students come to them WITH the skills, which are then honed through solving these problems. Either that or those who can't solve them fail out - at Exeter that the way it goes. But at public schools, we don't have that luxury, we need to teach these skills rather than only identify the students who either already know them, or acquire them independently. Now, this is not to say that the teachers at Exeter aren't teaching, but I believe that it is a very different environment than what we face in the public sphere.

It reminds me of the Juku system in Japan where the skills and practice are handled by the private cram schools while the public schools simply assume that everybody (who is anybody) will be paying for the Juku and thus the public schools focus almost exclusively on conceptual problem solving.

The Japanese style problems are here:

Again, I would hesitate to call these reform problems because they require so much real mathematical knowledge.

An interesting comment of the juku phenomenon is here:


SteveH said...
Andover (more traditional) and Exeter (Harkness Table) are two opposing pedagogies that seem to work well in their own ways, but Exeter's use of oval table discussions bears little resemblance to anything the usual "reform" K-12 math pedagogues push. Exeter's students also have enormous homework requirements and have to come prepared to take a position and defend it. It's not a hands-on, engagement-driven, "trust the spiral" approach. However, I'm still not a fan of the Harkness Table because it's too easy to get wrong and waste time. Then again, a poorly prepared teacher can waste a lot of time. However, Andover and Exeter are populated with driven (internally or externally), high achieving students. Both schools go out of their ways to bring in top math students. I was considering each for my son and Andover would be the choice, but I decided to save a LOT of money and stick with our AP-pushing public high school. This is JUST high school material and both schools don't have some magic "understanding" formula outside of pushing and hard work, and they don't try to go further than AP Calculus. They just push the AMC math contests. Actually, I'm rather annoyed that AMC is now the "beyond" score of choice for colleges.

Anonymous said...
If the case of the son of a family connection is typical, Exeter expects incoming freshman - at least those not coming from known prep schools or very high-performing publics- to have completed their freshman year at their previous schools. This was also true at an another big-name New England school, when another family connection entered. Both kids had been good students - I don't know details - at academically solid public high schools. As the old non-PC, saying goes; if you want better schools, get better students.

Anonymous said...
I could do these, but I'd have to privilege the symbol. Is that allowed?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Favorite comments of '15, cont: Bookish Babe and FedUpMom

Anonymous said...
With my experience as a substitute I can tell you point blank it is a waste of time. Not only does it take time away from actual teaching of subjects, it does not change the emotional outlook of the students. There will always be poorly behaved students disrupting the class. This has more to do with unstable home environments and nonexistent disciplinary policies. If anything this kumbaya fad makes things worse because it is quite dull and meaningless.

Bookish Babe

FedUpMom said...
Educrats are just so clueless. They're constantly underestimating how difficult things are.

"Kids learning to read? No problem! We'll just put them in a text-rich environment and they'll teach themselves!"

"Kids stressed out, with mental and emotional health issues? No problem! We'll sit them in a circle and have them talk about their feelings!"

They seem to live in a much simpler world than the rest of us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Favorite comments of '15, cont: R. Craigen, Anonymous, Paul Bruno, Barry Garelick, and Anonymous

On Explaining answers to easy problems vs. doing mathematically challenging problems:

R. Craigen said...
Cognitive scientists speak of a well-established pattern called the Expertise Reversal Effect. Essentially what it says is that discovery-based teaching/learning is ineffective with novices but effective with experts. That's why, for example, we tell PhD students "Here's your subject matter and the question you must solve. Good luck because nobody's ever solved it before. Go dig up all the relevant references and become and expert. Then consider how you plan to attack the problem and come back to me and we'll discuss whether you are likely to make a successful thesis out of this." That's discovery learning of a sort that blows Boaler, Meyers, Mitra etc out of the whole discussion. Even when they imagine themselves leading such a thing they have no realistic idea of how to bring it to fruition. But we do it all the time with PhD candidates, and they are SUCCESSFUL. Why? Because you don't even get INTO the PhD program without establishing your expertise. Then the first thing we do is put you through a barrage of Comprehensive exams to test your mastery of that knowledge. Then, and ONLY THEN, do we say, "okay, now lets get started on your thesis work." (Well, I'm obviously generalizing and glossing. But this is the essential principal of the matter as pertains to our success rate in producing PhDs)

When my children were in an elementary school in Fresno California they were put in the pull-out GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program. There they did more open-ended exploration. To me that's a no-brainer. You do that with kids who have mastered the "canon" and are ready to build upon it. Nevertheless every one of those kids still sat in regular classes and did the timed drills etc with the rest. Had they not done so, and their skills fell behind, their GATE experience would have been a millstone around their educational necks.

Now I'm no rah-rah "my kids are better than yours" elitist on these matters and that's not why I bring this up. It is that I am enraged at the tendency for some to argue that because some program dealing with very talented students with a strong background is able to accomplish something with their demographic that somehow this means that it is an ideal way to teach average students. What is the basis for this argument? I fear it is as simple a logical error as causation reversal: Some seem to believe that open-ended instruction (etc) CAUSES students to be advanced. Uh, no. The observation of students having advanced abilities or backgrounds, in contrast, does open the door ("cause" is a bit of a strong word) to these possibilities with them. Causation reversal on this point is cargo cult deception.

Anonymous said...
The edworld has been assigning causation wrongly for decades; self-esteem, Latin, 8th-grade algebra (when it was only honors), foreign languages, honors and APs, debate, music etc. When it was found that kids who had high self-esteem were very successful, the edworld immediately jumped to the conclusion that the former caused the latter. When data showed that kids who took Latin, 8th-grade algebra etc. did better on a variety of measures (graduation, college etc), they jumped on the Latin-for-all (a local MS did this) etc. as a causative factor for success. In fact, those courses merely served as a proxy variable for the identification of the most able, prepared and motivated students. Inability to recognize that has lead to placement of kids into courses where they lack the background knowledge and are unable to do the work. No, the same approach does not work for all students.

Paul Bruno said...
I'm not sure why that commenter wants to cherry-pick PISA scores rather than all of the various other measures employed in the Quebec study, but the raw scores are not relevant anyway since you have to control for various student characteristics that may change between provinces over the course of the intervention. (Especially relevant here because the intervention took place over so many years.) And indeed the authors do just that in their DID/CIC methods. I will grant that the econometrics involved are complicated but these particular "compare to the rest of Canada!" and "PISA!" objections seem to be based in misunderstandings of the authors' methods and the right way to use test scores.

If only fans of reform math were this concerned with rigorous controls and falsification exercises when considering their preferred education research.

Barry Garelick said...
"What is the basis for this argument? I fear it is as simple a logical error as causation reversal: Some seem to believe that open-ended instruction (etc) CAUSES students to be advanced."

I agree with that statement and add that some also seem to believe that traditional math worked only for a small group of students who happened to be advanced. I.e., the advanced nature of the student CAUSED traditional math to work. It failed for everyone else. The logic of this breaks down when one stops to define "advanced" and takes a close look at the other factors at work with traditional math. E.g., did the teachers teach it poorly or well? Of those for whom traditional math worked, what was the breakdown of IQ's and "advanced" nature of these students. For many if not most of the truly "advanced" students, the factual and procedural foundation for their success was predicated on their obtaining that foundation through the traditional teaching of math.

In the various online discussions of traditional vs reform math no one ever bothers to look at what is happening with the students who manage to make it through to HS calculus and major in a STEM field. For many of these students, they do a lot of practice and drills and memorization, either at home, or at a learning center, if they're not getting that through school. One has only to look at the Asian countries to see that Jukus and similar organizations are providing foundational skills to make these students excel at what appear to be inquiry-based assignments at school.

Anonymous said...
I had well-taught, traditional math in my small-town 1-12 school, in the 50s-60s. Most of the town was poor, but all kids came from respectable, intact, two-parent homes (widowhood aside)and were all well-socialized at school entry (no pre-k-k available). Of HS classes of 30-36, only 3-4 went to a 4-yr college and there probably weren't 10 adults with college degrees in town. At the end of 8th grade, however, everyone was decently literate, numerate, could write correctly and had decent general knowledge. ES teachers taught science, history (including art and music hx/appreciation), geography and civics. In no way was this a high-IQ or highly-educated population. The ability to use math for everyday purposes (this was before calculators) came strictly from school (perhaps some flashcard math facts at home, but only a few kids). We were taught well enough that we could calculate tax, interest, gas mileage, amount of materials needed for household projects and the like. Traditional math worked for all.

Favorite comments of '15, cont: Anonymous

Anonymous said...
I think the kinds of people who go into education, math or otherwise, are communicators. So vocabulary and labels are important to them. I am not sure they understand that math can be understood without so much of the vocabulary or labels, or even classification. There is too much early emphasis by them on communicating - explaining in words how you solved the problem, explain how your friends solved the problem, explain why this one is wrong, talk, talk, talk, communicate. They think that learning cannot take place without turning the kids into little teachers themselves. They think that if you can't communicate it in words, then you don't understand it. They forget that math is symbolic, and a form of communication in and of itself without needing sentences and vocabulary and words. And that some kids can understand things perfectly well without verbalizing. And that having to verbalize all the time can inhibit learning for those kids.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Favorite comments of '15, cont: FedUpMom, Catherine Johnson, lgm, C T, and Anonymous

On Mindfulness classrooms: another way to bore our students and stress them out:

FedUpMom said...
For most young kids, sitting quietly is a *source* of stress, not a cure. I'd much rather see them spend those 2 15-minute periods exercising, or dancing, or running around outside.

Catherine Johnson said...
Study finds people would rather electrocute themselves than spend 15 minutes alone with their thoughts

Catherine Johnson said...
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

lgm said...
My children would prefer not to be in classrooms with violent children. Meditation, talking about perceived playground injustices, how to be a friend, all of that was useless and did nothing for anyone. Removal procedures are just as scary as out of control classmates.

C T said...
One-size-fits-all approaches are invalid in education just as surely as in psychology.
And I like mindfulness. I've learned a lot from it in the past few years about calming down and observing my thoughts. But I'm middle-aged now. I was incapable of much introspection during my K-12 period.

Anonymous said...
Reason number 794 why we homeschool.

Anonymous said...
Katherine, I pretty much agree with all of your takes on how education goes astray. But there is actually some pretty good research being conducted on yoga-based mindfulness training to reduce stress and impulsive behavior in older students (not K-5 students). I see no harm in doing units of this curriculum in PE; it can't be worse than the usual team sports drills that don't actually include much physical movement and are never used in the future for most kids. The schools that benefit the most, of course, are schools with large numbers of kids whose lives are challenging. Likewise, Restorative Justice wouldn't make sense in a school where most kids already know how to manage their behavior. But there are schools where most do not, or are on the edge of acting out much of the time. I hope that there will soon be research documenting whether and how much Restorative Justice helps in these schools.

Favorite comments of '15, cont: momof4, Anonymous, lgm

On Lecture me--across the curriculum!

momof4 said...
I've always loved a good lecture, and it's a great way to cover a lot of material well and to enable good questions and discussions. However, much of the benefit requires students to be well-prepared; having done required readings and reviewed previous lecture notes (as needed for clarification and greater understanding) and to be diligent in attendance - and I'm given to understand that this is no longer common. It's also necessary to be able to take good, comprehensive notes - yes, by hand - and I think many kids lack the at-least-semi-cursive speed necessary (print tends to be too slow) and/or the ability to outline well - and both speed and organization are essential. I remember having at least 12-15 pages of outline notes (pretty small writing) for each 3-hr history class and almost that for sciences (or more if lots of diagrams).

I think it's likely that kids are not taught outlining any more and I guess teaching cursive has disappeared. My 5th-grade teacher taught us to outline, first with written material, then with short lectures. Notes were turned in, corrected and graded. This continued, with increasing frequency and complexity, through 8th grade. In HS, we were expected to be able to take appropriate notes on our own. This was especially true for college prep classes, but US history was all juniors together and passing meant taking decent notes. I think we're at the point where kids expect study guides, reviews etc - not just in HS but in college, to the point of not being able to do without such aids. The real world doesn't work that way.

Anonymous said...

That is no longer the case. I've been a substitute for two years and what you wrote is how I was taught during my schooling in the 80's and 90's. I'm noticing there isn't any real instruction. In fact, there aren't any subjects being taught. And cursive writing, forget about it!! Hence, two generations of students have chicken scratch for penmanship, can barely read, and cannot retain anything beyond the last test/quiz.

momof4 said...
I was afraid of that. Sigh, again. Today, I talked with a 30ish and an ES teacher - the former was taught outlining, with practice, and the latter started her 4th-graders on it, with repetition and practice in MS, in her old state. Here, she said she doubts it - everything is CC and she says all the teachers hate it. You can't call it education anymore. (she authored the book Credentialed to Destroy) has all of the ideological underpinnings.

lgm said...
One of my children was taught to take notes in grade 4, as the public school experimented with ways to get everyone to the 3 level on the listening portion of the state ELA test. The instruction was discarded after that year with the comment that it not an essential skill, nor could it be taught whole class as so many were not developmentally able to listen and write simultaneously, even if they did have the short term memory, penmanship, and sequencing ability. Full inclusion seems to mean eliminating anything that is viewed as college prep.

Anonymous said...
... while pretending that everyone should go to college and denying that cognitive ability has any relationship to academic achievement. In the real world, IQ is positively related to cognitive processing speed - a certain amount of which is necessary in order to listen to a lecture (or any lesson presented orally), understand, analyze, synthesize and commit it all to paper.