Let’s face it, writes Stephen Battersby at the New Scientist, science is boring. Discoveries of new planets, medical advances and potential environmental disasters leave the impression that science is exciting and cutting edge. Not so.
It is now time to come clean. This glittering depiction of the quest for knowledge is… well, perhaps not an outright lie, but certainly a highly edited version of the truth. Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee.
Science may be boring, but Batterby’s essay is a hoot. Especially his description of his own inglorious research career, which involved months of sifting data from a telescope and finding…nothing.
I tip my hat, though, to New Scientist‘s San Francisco bureau chief, who spent nearly three years watching mice sniff each other in a room dimly lit by a red bulb. “It achieved little,” he confesses, “apart from making my clothes smell of mouse urine.” And the office prize for research ennui has to go to the editor of NewScientist.com. “I once spent four weeks essentially turning one screw backwards and forwards,” he says. “It was about that time that I decided I didn’t want to be a working scientist.”
“Somebody needs to go to jail. Somebody needs to pay for this. Somebody needs to go to jail, and it shouldn’t be the kids.”
Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, demanding jail time for educators and district officials Saturday following the release of test scores that showed fourth- and eighth-graders had the worst math scores in the nation.
New NAEP numbers, the Trial Urban District Assessment or “TUDA” for math, are out this morning, looking at 4th and 8th grade samples from 18 urban school districts. From the IES news release:
In comparison to 2007, scores improved in two districts at each grade in 2009. Scores did not change for the remaining nine districts that participated in 2007.
Five districts at both grade 4 and grade 8 had higher scores than large cities nationally in 2009. Ten districts had scores lower than large cities at both grades.
When compared to 2003, the 2009 average mathematics scores at grade 4 were higher in eight out of ten participating districts, and in nine out of ten participating districts at grade 8.
Average mathematics scores in 2009 were higher for Hispanic fourth-graders in seven out of ten participating districts, when compared to 2003. Over the same period, White and Black fourth-graders achieved higher scores in five districts each.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is launching an ambitious research project to figure out why so many of its freshmen need remediation in reading and math. Every incoming student will be evaluated “to reverse-engineer his academic upbringing,” UNLV president Neal Smatresk tells the Las Vegas Sun. Since eighty percent of UNLV’s undergrads come from a single source, the state’s own Clark County School District, Smatresk hopes to gain particularly vivid insights.
Data gathered from the academic assessments would be shared with school districts and could help educators identify and correct patterns of weakness, whether it be general flaws in teaching philosophies or student study habits. Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the research findings could offer important insight into the root causes of the problems requiring remediation.
“The possibility that the district will be able to identify clusters of underachieving students, and trace them to not only individual campuses but individual classrooms, has Clark County’s teachers union on edge,” the paper notes.
Last year, more than a third of Nevada’s high school graduates who enrolled at the state’s universities and colleges required remedial classes in English and mathematics, at a cost of over $2 million.
USA Today’s Greg Toppo highlights sharp increases in math and reading among many of the nation’s lowest-performing students. especially in the past four years, but notes “the stubborn, decades-long achievement gap between white and minority students shrank between the 1970s and the first part of this decade, but has barely budged since 2002, when the federal government compelled public schools to address it through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).”
Over at Curriculum Matters, Mary Ann Zehr notes average scores have remained flat for 17-year-olds both in reading and math since the early 1970s. “The scores for 17-year-olds in reading, however, did increase by three points, to 286, from 2004 to 2008, which is considered significant. But the same was not true for 17-year-olds in math. The scores remained stagnant for that age group in math during that same period,” she notes.
What’s the difference between $.002 and .002¢? In the case of this customer complaint captured by failblog.org, the difference amounts to about $70 dollars on a phone bill. Alas, a customer service rep and a supervisor at Verizon refuse to accept they’re not the same amount.
Two things to do right away: Check your phone bill to make sure you haven’t been overcharged because of sloppy math. Then sell any stock you have in Verizon.
And while we’re on the subject of bad math in business, here’s a sign that fails on several levels. And before you’re tempted to conclude that the sign is correct because the customer is saving negative $49, do the math:
Results of the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) were released Tuesday, and the data proves to be a bit of an educational Rorschach Test. The New York Times sees “solid achievement gains” in math by U.S. 4th and 8th graders, and “spectacular progress” by students in Minnesota and Massachsetts, while science performance remained flat nationwide. “The results showed that several Asian countries continued to outperform the United States greatly in science and math,” notes the Times, “subjects that are crucial to economic competitiveness and research.”
USA Today’s Greg Toppo sees American students “consistently better than average,” but notes that “if there were a math-and-science Olympics for elementary and middle schoolers…the USA never quite makes it to the medal podium.”
At Flypaper, the Fordham Foundation finds reasons to be cheerful. “American students have made steady gains in mathematics performance over the past decade. This progress was especially noteworthy at the eighth grade level, where the U.S. made gains since 1995 that were at least as strong as all of our major economic competitors.” Diane Ravitch disagrees however that 8th grade gains are “noteworthy.”
The gains posted by 8th graders are certainly not a vindication of No Child Left Behind’s testing regime. Eighth-graders registered a 12-point gain in math from 1995-2003, before the imposition of NCLB testing. They posted a 4-point gain from 2003-2007. The students who were tested by TIMSS in 2007 had been subject to NCLB annual tests in every year from third grade onward, yet their scores did not show a dramatic improvement. If anything, the gains were no greater (and possibly smaller) than those registered pre-NCLB.
Democratic Congressman George Miller sees “significant gains” in 4th grade math, but tells the Washington Post it’s “troubling that our students are still behind their international peers in both math and science.” Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, tells USA Today that the new TIMSS results belie complaints that U.S. students are lagging behind the rest of the world in math. “It’s just not true,” he says. “It hasn’t been true for a long time.” Meanwhile the National Science Teachers Association pronounces itself “discouraged” by the results, noting science scores for minority students are “dismal.” Many districts simply do not value science education, says a statement released by the NSTA Tuesday. ”Science is being eliminated from many K-6 classrooms.”
What if there was a writeulator? wonders Paul, a public school math teacher who blogs at When Galaxies Collide. Arguing against the widespread use of calculators in math class, he imagines what would happen to a student’s writing skills if there was an ELA version of a calculator.
To use it, you simply type in four sentence fragments; one for character development, one for causality, another for conflict, and the last for a bit of complication. Then you plug the device into a computer through its little port and push the writeulate button. Voila! On the computer you get a complete short story. All the nasty spelling, sentence structure, plot, and paragraph development is done for you by the writulator and the output is delivered nicely wrapped in Microsoft Word. Far fetched? Sure! But, think for a moment what such a device would do for your writing skills. Even more frighteningly, think of what it would do for your ability to even speak a coherent sentence.
A writeulator would disrupt the connection between a thought and its alphabet, just as calculators disconnect numbers from mathematical reasoning. ”Fluency with multiplication facts makes you fluent in factors,” Paul writes. ”Factors make you fluent in division. And so it goes, on and on through the magnificent and ancient hierarchy of mathematics. Every such trip, strenghens your lower level skills and builds insights that are cut short by a calculator.”
Students in six major U.S. cities–Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York and San Diego–are performing as well or better in mathematics than 4th and 8th graders in other countries, according to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).
However, students from five other major cities–Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, the District of Columbia and Los Angeles–are performing below the international average, and sometimes well below. The research compares data on the U.S. cities math performance in the NAEP 2007 Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in Mathematics with international numbers culled from the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
USA Today looks at the numbers and concludes “Fourth- and eighth-grade students in…Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Houston, New York City and San Diego actually hold their own against international competitors from Singapore, Japan, England and elsewhere.” That’s an overly generous description given that Singapore has 73% of its 8th graders proficient in math; Japan has 57%; while the top U.S. cities in the study, Charlotte and Austin, have a proficiency rate of 34%. However, the international TIMSS average among 8th graders is a mere 21%. For it’s part AIR concludes:
The findings in this report reinforce the fact that neither the typical student in the United States or in any of the 11 urban districts has achieved the Proficient level of performance found in Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Chinese Taipei, and Japan. If the United States is counting on today’s mathematics education to seed the future technology and science needed to carry our cities and our nation forward, then we are already at a competitive disadvantage.
A press release on the study is here. The full report is here.
“If we want kids to master algebra by eighth, we need to focus at least as much energy on getting them proficient in whole number operations by fourth,” writes the New America Foundation’s Sara Mead, commenting on today’s Brookings report. “That’s a lot harder than simply mandating algebra for all eighth graders, but in the long term the results will be much better.”