Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.


Education Week

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Last Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed new rules that will link teacher performance to their students’ performance on assessments. Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education. My mind has been on assessments lately because I just came out of a week defined by what I initially labeled a colossal assessment failure. I gave unit tests to cap off a couple of weeks in Latin and English grammar, and things did not go well. My students failed, failed, failed, and as teachers are wont to do, I used the transitive property and concluded that I had failed, failed, failed.

I spent the following weekend going over the assessments, my preparation, my teaching, the students’ homework scores, and found that the week of failure was much more complicated than one faulty assessment or a failure to teach some critical aspect of the lesson. As I could not go back and re-do the previous month of teaching, I decided to move forward, and figure out how to turn failure in to a learning experience. Once some time had passed, and I’d gained the benefit of hindsight, I wrote about the solution I came up with in my blog, Coming of Age in the Middle . I wrote about my teaching methods, but mostly, I wrote about how I had managed to make it through the week without tucking my tail between my legs and quitting my job.

A writer friend of mine liked the post, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my failure was in the Gray Lady herself. When K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote her piece on my blog, titled “What Good Teachers Do When Kids Fail,” in the New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode , the comments fell into two distinct camps: Parents who wished their teachers had more time to address student failure and teachers who lamented that they had no time to address student failure. A few teachers wrote about the time they took for re-writes and remedy, but for the most part, the message from educators was one of regret and frustration with a testing-centric schedule that did not allow for reflection.

The solution I came up with for my students required humility on both sides of the classroom – I had to admit I had failed my students and my students had to admit that they had not held up their end of the pedagogical bargain – but mostly, it took time. Time that, according to the comments after the article, most teachers just don’t have. I handed out blank tests and asked the students re-take the assessment as an open book exercise. They were asked to work in pairs I had strategically assigned, and teach each other the material on the test. They were required to not only find the correct answer, but to show why all of the other answers were wrong. This process ate up two classes, and as I only see my Latin students twice a week, this one remedial exercise burned an entire week of the school year. Clearly, this is simply not an option in many classrooms. Maria, from Baltimore, MD, wrote:

“I am a public high school math teacher. It’s only November, and I’m already 10 days behind schedule in one class, 3 days behind in another. And this is without me taking any sick days, no snow days, just a few days away from class for . . . you guessed it, administering the No Child Left Behind tests. I would love to have students retake their tests and learn from mistakes, but thanks to NCLB, and curricula that are an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to press on to the next topic.”

Many comments stressed the vital role that failure plays in education. Dr. Kim, from Ithaca, NY wrote,

“We need to allow students opportunities to fail. Too often our kids are afraid of failure. If we don’t fail, we’re not pushing our limits–we’re not challenging ourselves. I have a friend who is an amazing skier who says “if you don’t fall, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” This is true. Plus, we learn much more from failure. Our brains are programmed to remember those things with strong emotional attachments — positive or negative. Failures are memorable.”

I completely agree that some of the best lessons are learned from failure. Failure can shock a student out of complacency, particularly among those students who are smart enough to do well on a bare minimum of effort. Middle school is the ideal time for this time of shock; the stakes are still low(ish) and the potential for growth is huge. I’m not one for sports quotes, but in this case, baseball player and coach Vernon Law had it right. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It would have been much easier to teach the lessons first and give the test after, but in the end, I think the experience taught all of us a greater lesson. Everyone has to admit to failure – teacher and student. As a result of this failure, I grew as a teacher and they grew as students. Crossroads Academy was built on a core virtues curriculum as well as a core knowledge curriculum, so our journey through this week of failure became an important part of the students’ character education. That’s where commenter T. Zinner of Boston hits the nail on the head:

This article goes to the heart of our goal as parents and the ideal of teachers: creating individuals with strength of character. The happiest and most successful people seem to be the individuals who take their talents and face obstacles either directly with perseverance or creatively so that the obstacles are no longer viewed as challenges. This is the case for the most exceptional physicians I work with, the patients who live fully despite illness and friends and neighbors who create lives of joy and depth in the face of unexpected loss or change in circumstance.

That’s the kind of teaching I love to do, teaching that helps students become better people, teaching that takes into account the unpredictability inherent teaching adolescents.

But this sort of teaching is increasingly not what is valued today, and it’s certainly not what counts as quality teaching or a gauge of student progress. Failure makes people nervous because in order to find anything of value in the situation, everyone has to face their role in the failure. It would have been much easier for me to fail the students and move on, or curve the exam so much that the failure got lost in a sea of amended numbers. The grades would have looked good, the students would have felt good, and everyone would have been satisfied with my performance. But lurking under this neat and tidy appearance, my students would know. They would know they had not really learned the material, that I had swept something under the rug. Worse, I would know that somewhere down the line that gap in their education would come back to haunt them.

Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom. This one assessment failure taught me valuable lessons about my teaching methods, the quality of my assessments, and the courage of my students. Two of my students summed up our week perfectly as they handed in their remedy exam: “I think I learned more from that one failing grade than from any A,” and “You know, now that we have gone through every question, that test really wasn’t that hard.”

My sentiments exactly.

My District Spent $33 Million on Technology and All I Got Are These Lousy Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
September 7th, 2011

Maybe the medium is not the message.

Voters in the Kyrene school district, which serves students in Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler, Arizona approved spending $33 million on education technology, and are being asked to fork over another $46.5 million in November. The funds have purchased a lot of laptops, interactive whiteboards and software. What it hasn’t bought is higher test scores. The New York Times reports reading and math scores have stagnated in Kyrene since 2005 while rising statewide. “To many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning,” the paper reports.

“This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.”

Anyone shocked? Regular readers of this blog will note we have regularly questioned the rush to fill classrooms with technology without asking how–how exactly–it improves outcomes or what we expect kids to learn. Breathless pronouncements about the needs and preferences of “digital natives,” and the imperative of endlessly individualized curriculum and instruction, elevate tools over their use. It’s magical thinking and overlooks that every piece of educational technology—from a piece of slate on a child’s lap and bound books in a one-room schoolhouse to Smartboards and Twitter—is a delivery mechanism, a means of displaying, transmitting, or manipulating ideas and information. The bottle is not the wine.

There is a broad tendency among edtechnophiles to conflate student engagement with achievement, and the Times is particularly strong in puncturing that myth. “The research, what little there is of it, does not establish a clear link between computer-inspired engagement and learning,” notes the Times, citing Randy Yerrick, associate dean of educational technology at the University of Buffalo:

“For him, the best educational uses of computers are those that have no good digital equivalent. As examples, he suggests using digital sensors in a science class to help students observe chemical or physical changes, or using multimedia tools to reach disabled children.

“But he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor [Larry] Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained. ‘There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,’ he said.”

The Times is as guilty as any news organization of mooning over the need for “digital-age upgrades” and to liberate schools from their 19th century mindset. Thus it’s gratifying to see the Grey Lady take a clear-eyed look at what exactly we get when we fill our classrooms up with tech toys. The answer needn’t be “not much.” But that will always be the answer unless we make an equal effort to thoughtfully design a content-rich curriculum and stop assuming that mere “skill” with technology is a meaningful goal for schooling.

Every trade celebrates its tools, but education has made a fetish of it, too often treating technology as an end, not a means. It is hard to imagine a chef saying, “it’s not the meal that matters but the ingredients”; or an architect declaring, “Buildings aren’t important. Building materials are important.”  But when someone says what we learn doesn’t matter, but that we learn to learn–that skills and tools are what really matter, not content and products–we nod knowingly as if we have heard something profound.

“When Will I Ever Use That?”

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2011

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. 

The problem with math instruction is that it’s just not relevant to the lives or future careers of our students.  Writing in the New York Times, Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford say there is no “single established body of mathematical skills that everyone needs to know to be prepared for 21st-century careers.”   The authors are the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications; and an emeritus professor of mathematics at Brown.  They write that, in fact, “different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact.”

“How often do most adults encounter a situation in which they need to solve a quadratic equation? Do they need to know what constitutes a “group of transformations” or a “complex number”? Of course professional mathematicians, physicists and engineers need to know all this, but most citizens would be better served by studying how mortgages are priced, how computers are programmed and how the statistical results of a medical trial are to be understood.”

Say goodbye to algebra, geometry and calculus. In their place, Garfunkel and Mumford propose “a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering.”

“In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers. Science and math were originally discovered together, and they are best learned together now.”

Hey, I get it!  It’s project-based learning!  Again.

It all sounds sensible, even seductive.  The worst ideas in education always do.  “Relevant” isn’t supposed to be a synonym for dumbed-down, for example.  It just always seems to work out that way.   And my hunch is that students might struggle less with algebra, geometry and calculus if they showed up in high school with a strong foundation in basic math skills.  As is often the case, Garfunkel and Mumford seem to be offering up a classic false dichotomy.  Of course we want students who can calculate a tip, understand mortgage pricing or understand credit card interest payments.  But we also need a math track that will produce scientists, engineers and mathematicians, who are already in short supply.  

Anyone seen the baby?  She was right here when I threw away the bathwater…

Over at Joanne Jacobs, she asks, ”Math or quantitative literacy?” (echoing Garfunkel’s and Mumford’s preferred term).   Here’s another good rule of thumb:  When someone describes a content area as a “literacy” watering down follows.

Yetis, UFOs and Term Papers

by Robert Pondiscio
August 9th, 2011

Update:  Cedar Reiner posts a research paper-length blog post on this from his perspective as a college professor and cognitive scientist.  Stick with it.  The conclusion is worth the wait.

Ask a high school student – any high school student – when they were last required to submit a research paper.  Not a five paragraph essay or a “personal response,” but a paper – an in-depth piece of academic research and original writing, drawing upon deep reading of multiple sources.  Think footnotes.  A bibliography.  The MLA Handbook.  Research papers are the academic equivalent of the Yeti or UFOs: sightings are rare and those who argue for their existence are routinely dismissed as cranks or nuts.  You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that research papers are the sum and symbol of all that ails American education.

You didn’t know? 

Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan becomes, by my rough calculation, the 18,938th pundit to suggest that the real problem of American education is its adherence to a 19th century model.  What we need, she writes, is a “digital-age upgrade.”   She cites the wholly imaginary “statistic” that 65% of today’s grade school aged kids “may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”   Thus, we can’t keep preparing students “for a world that doesn’t exist.”

“Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.”

(Psst!  Have a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the 10 most common occupations for Americans.  Shockingly low-skill, low-pay, and low-tech, isn’t it?   Clearly there are some old-timers who don’t recognize what work looks like right now.  Digital careers?  Tens of millions of Americans are still working with their digits.)

We cannot, Heffernan insists, “keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own.”  Set aside for a moment the curious notion that we should reimagine education around skills kids are developing on their own.   No, what’s really “inhibiting today’s students” is their teachers’ and professors’ insistence that students write papers.  “Semester after semester, year after year, ‘papers’ are styled as the highest form of writing,” she writes. “And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.”  Heffernan’s touchstone for her attack on research papers is Now You See It, a “galvanic” book by the MacArthur Foundation’s Cathy N. Davidson, which argues, per Heffernan, against the “industrial-era holdover system that still informs our unrenovated classrooms.”

“Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: ‘What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?’”

Online blogs directed at peers, Davidson observed by contrast, “exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”  At Flypaper, Kathleen Porter-Magee, struggling heroically to overcome the handicap of her own industrial-era education, answers with an elegant and persuasive blog post of her own:

“Heffernan seems to have missed her own point. As she implies, we are no better at predicting what today’s elementary students will be doing in twenty years than Hanna-Barbera were at painting what 21st century life would look like in the Jetsons. And so, our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology, but rather to identify the timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment.”

Ten years ago, legendary Yeti hunter Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review and an unsung hero of American education, oversaw a study of the state of the research paper in U.S. schools.  The results will surprise only digital fetishists who confuse contemporary schools with Dickensian workhouses:  While 95% teachers surveyed believed writing a research term paper is “important” or “very important,” 62% never assigned a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length; 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.  And that’s ten years ago.  Unless there has been a renaissance of scholarly rigor that I’ve somehow overlooked, I suspect the percentage of 2011 high school graduates who have ever produced a research paper of any length or substance is now a single-digit number.  A small one.

Why?  Writing a research papers, as anyone can tell you, is not an “authentic” learning task.   The average student is already far more likely to “demonstrate mastery” by creating a poster, an advertisement, a blog post, or a series of tweets than writing a research paper. If the future of education means an end to the tyranny of the paper, rest assured the future is already here. The fresh-thinking offered up by Heffernan and others who wring their hands over our anachronistic schools is as least as old as John Dewey, and its triumph is very nearly complete.  Just ask a high school student. 

What Heffernan is offering up, sorry to say, is a blander version of 21st Century skills, which privileges skills over content, and devalues actual academic work.  The sad parade continues.  We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic.

“Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new,” says Fitzhugh via email.  “I don’t forsee the day when ‘witty and incisive blogs’ will be able to take the place of legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any  of the other vital tasks of a literate society,” he concludes.

Common Core Standards: A Cautionary Tale

by Robert Pondiscio
May 12th, 2011

Guest blogger Katharine Beals, PhD is the author of “Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.”  She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and at the Drexel University School of Education, specializing in the education of children on the autistic spectrum.  She blogs about education at Kitchen Table Math and on her own blog, Out in Left Field.

When the New York Times presents case studies in education reform, one can often spot between the enthusiastic lines at least a few reasons for skepticism. The latest front-page education article, a piece on the new Common Core standards, is no exception:

“The new standards give specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources; the goal is to get students to see how beliefs and biases can influence the way different people describe the same events.”

At first glance this sounds pretty good–although it’s disturbing that it’s necessary to spell out that book reports should include analysis and that history papers should sometimes require multiple sources.

On second thought, however, one might worry about how teachers and their advisors will interpret “persuasively”: does it pertain to an argument’s rhetorical content, or is it a matter of charisma, body language and showy prompts? One might worry, as well,  about the implication that history is only about “higher level” thinking skills like sorting out biases and multiple perspectives rather than about learning a fact-rich core of basic, historical knowledge.  In other words, how much will the Common Core standards play out like a caricature of the New Math of the 1960′s, a.k.a. Some Math, Some Garbage?

Here, accordingly to the article, is what’s happening in Hillcrest, one of 100 New York City schools that are piloting the new standards:

“Until this year, Ena Baxter, an English teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, would often have her 10th graders compose papers by summarizing a single piece of reading material.

“Last month, for a paper on the influence of media on teenagers, she had them read a survey on the effects of cellphones and computers on young people’s lives, a newspaper column on the role of social media in the Tunisian uprising and a 4,200-word magazine article titled ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’”

So far, so good, though, again, it’s disconcerting to hear what the 10th grade papers used to be like. But then there’s this:

“Eleni Giannousis made a change in her 10th-grade English class that might make some purists blanch. She had students watch the filmed stage performance of “Death of a Salesman,” starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, before they read the play. The idea was to have students absorb information through a medium they use for entertainment, one way she was experimenting with her lesson plans to try to meet the new goals.

“It wasn’t about making things easier for the students, but about challenging them to experience a classic in a different way,” Ms. Giannousis said.

Yes, I’m blanching. And yes, I’m skeptical.

As for nonfiction:

“While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.”

I’m all for elevating nonfiction, but the Times suggests that, at Hillcrest at least, the only medium for it is English class. History and social studies, assuming these are focused on content and not on so-called “higher-level” thinking, should also be a major venues for reading. Indeed, by giving the English Language Arts standards the specific title “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” the Common Core underscores the importance of reading in all subjects. Nowhere, incidentally, does it mention film and video viewing as alternatives to reading.

As for math, the Common Core names Statistics & Probability as one of six core areas for high school. How is this playing out at Hillcrest in particular?

“A math teacher, José Rios, used to take a day or two on probabilities, drawing bell-shaped curves on the blackboard to illustrate the pattern known as normal distribution. This year, he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.

“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”

A whole day in groups for what could be a 5-minute survey and plotting of data points in front of the entire class?

While the Times article shows just a few snapshots of a single school’s attempts to implement the Common Core standards, these snapshots collectively suggest a basic problem with the standards in their current, schematic incarnation. As the Times explains:

“There are guidelines for what students are expected to do in each grade, but it is still up to districts, schools and teachers to fill in the finer points of the curriculum, like what books to read.”

Sticking to general guidelines reflects widespread concern about the federal government micromanaging education, but leaves way too much room for interpretation. Given the dominant Constructivist paradigm, there’s way too much room, in particular for a Constructivist interpretation and implementation of the Common Core standards, and, thereby, for even further Constructivist penetration of  America’s K12 classrooms. In the enthusiastic words of the Times, “In three years, instruction in most of the country could look a lot like what is going on at Hillcrest.”

To ensure that this does not happen, we must constantly remind the education establishment that what the Common Core calls for is a curriculum “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge” and therefore in opposition to much of the dominant paradigm.

Private School Student, Public School Reformer

by Robert Pondiscio
April 19th, 2011

Many of the most prominent names in education reform attended private schools as children, observes Michael Winerip of the New York Times.  Does their background “give them a much-needed distance and fresh perspective to better critique and remake traditional public schools?” he asks.  “Does it make them distrust public schools — or even worse — poison their perception of them? Or does it make any difference?”

Winerip provides a substantial list of reform leaders and the private schools they attended including Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Fordham’s Checker Finn, and “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim among many others.   Ed reform flame-thrower Whitney Tilson, a hedge fund manager and one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, responds by calling Winerip “the worst education reporter in America” and a “gutless weasel.”  The piece, he says, is a “biased, error-filled hatchet job.”  And Whitney’s just clearing his throat.

“Winerip exposes, in dramatic and scornful fashion, that a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools!  Oh, what a high crime!  How indefensible!  How DARE such people criticize the existing system when they, for at least four years of their K-12 education, went to a private school!?”

Does it matter what schools ed reformers attended?  It might, but not for the reasons one might initially think.  Those who feel besieged may be quick to criticize private school reformers on issues of class, race and income.  They will no doubt presuppose that presumed privilege and a top-shelf schooling blinds them to the needs of low-income children and the efforts of low-paid teachers.   I don’t agree.   But I do wonder if those who have enjoyed a first-rate education take for granted the content of their education.  Private and parochial schools tend to have fairly set curricula that describes grade-by-grade content with great specificity.  Public schools tend to have “standards” that enumerate the skills kids should demonstrate, while leaving curriculum choices to the teachers.  That’s not a subtle difference.  Yet it may be lost upon those who assume that what one learns in elementary school is settled, and the differences are chiefly in the implementation.  It certainly seems to be lost upon or of no great concern to the vast majority of heavy hitters in ed reform.

Let’s say you’re in 5th grade in a private prep school in Manhattan.  The curriculum says you’re going to learn American history from the explorers through the Civil War and Reconstruction.  In science, you’ll get basic concepts of electricity, ecology and robotics.  It’s your first year of French, Spanish or Mandarin.  You will tackle Great Expectations.  By the end of middle school, you’re pretty much guaranteed a broad, rich basic education across and among academic disciplines. That’s what a good curriculum does.   

In public school, reading is skills-driven and largely dictated by student choice and engagement.  In struggling schools history, science, art and music are the first things cast aside to make room for ever-longer periods of instruction in reading strategies of questionable efficacy.  Test prep puts even greater pressure on the curriculum.  In terms of content in science, history, geography, art and music you’re pretty much guaranteed….well….you’re not guaranteed a thing. 

Nearly no one talks about the academic content of public vs. private schools, but it should not be taken for granted for a nanosecond that they’re comparable.  If you assume that what kids learn is basically the same from school to school, you will naturally assume the only thing you can change is teacher quality, accountability, pay structures and funding formulas.  Do students in public schools get poorer meals, fewer resources and lousy teachers compared to their privileged peers?  Some do, some don’t.  But the one thing most low-SES children certainly do not get is a well-rounded, academic curriculum.  Tilson himself once told me that a good curriculum “is like mom and apple pie. Everyone is in favor of it.” 

But then why are so many children saddled with content-free drivel? 

Like Tilson’s children, my daughter attends a well-regarded Manhattan private school.  For years I would drop her off at school and continue on to the low-performing South Bronx public school where I taught fifth grade. Here’s an observation that will not endear me to the staff or parents association at my daughter’s school:  there were teachers—lots of teachers—at the school where I worked that were clearly stronger  than some of my daughters’ teachers.   I would have gladly swapped some of my colleagues for her teachers.  I would not, however, swap her school for mine.  The magic of her school, at least at the elementary school level, was not in the teachers but in the curriculum and a first-rate, purposeful school tone. 

Tilson’s full-throated rebuttal to Winerip lists a number of bold-faced names in ed reform who attended public schools, including Wendy Kopp, Joel Klein, KIPP’s Mike Feinberg, Norman Atkins of Uncommon Schools, Jay Mathews, Andy Rotherham and Eva Moskowitz, who attended New York City’s competitive-entry Stuyvesant High School.  The distinction may not whether one went to a public or private school, but whether one went to a good school or not, and the assumptions they make about what children do in school all day. 

It took me quite a while, teaching in a low-performing school while my daughter attended a private prep school, to appreciate fully the dramatic difference in their respective curricula.  I wonder how many ed reformers remain blind to the difference.

Singapore Math Is “Our Dirty Little Secret”

by CKF
October 6th, 2010

The following guest post is from Barry Garelick, co-founder of the U.S. Coalition for World Class Math, an education advocacy organization that addresses mathematics education in U.S. schools.

The New York Times ran a story on September 30 about Singapore Math being used in some schools in the New York City area.  Like many newspaper stories about Singapore Math, this one was no different.  It described a program that strangely sounded like the math programs being promoted by reformers of math education, relying on the cherished staples of reform: manipulatives, open-ended problems, and classroom discussion of problems.  The only thing the article didn’t mention was that the students worked in small groups.

Those of us familiar with Singapore Math from having used it with our children are wondering just what program the article was describing.  Spending a week on the numbers 1 and 2 in Kindergarten?  Spending an entire 4th grade classroom period discussing the place value ramifications of the number 82,566?   Well, maybe that did happen, but not because the Singapore Math books are structured that way. In fact, the books are noticeably short on explicit narrative instruction.  The books provide pictures and worked out examples and excellent problems; the topics are ordered in a logical sequence so that material mastered in the various lessons builds upon itself and is used to advance to more complex applications.  But what is assumed in Singapore is that teachers know how to teach the material—the teacher’s manuals contain very little guidance.  Thus, the decision to spend a week on the numbers 1 and 2 in kindergarten, or a whole class period discussing a single number is coming from the teachers, not the books.

The mistaken idea that gets repeated in many such articles is that Singapore Math differs from other programs by requiring or imparting a “deep understanding” and that such understanding comes about through a) manipulatives, b) pictures, and c) open-ended discussions.  In fact, what the articles represent is what the schools are telling the reporters. What newspapers frequently do not realize when reporting on Singapore Math, is that when a school takes on such a program, it means going against what many teachers believe math education to be about; it is definitely not how they are trained in ed schools.  The success of Singapore’s programs relies in many ways on more traditional approaches to math education, such as explicit instruction and giving students many problems to solve, in some ways its very success represented a slap in the face to American math reformers, many of whom have worked hard to eliminate such techniques being used.

Singapore Math does not rely heavily on manipulatives as so many articles represent.  It does make use of pictures, but even that is misrepresented. Singapore makes use of a technique known as “bar modeling”.  It is a very effective technique and is glommed onto as the be-all end-all of the program, when in fact, it is only a part of an entire package.  People mistakenly believe that all you have to do is teach kids how to draw the right kind of pictures and they can solve problems.  (In fact, there are now books written that provide explicit instruction on how to solve problems using bar modeling—meant to supplement Singapore’s books. That such books rely on a rote-like procedure is ironic considering that reforms criticize US programs as being based on rote instruction.)  Pictorial representation is indeed a gateway to abstraction, but there are other pathways that Singapore uses as well.  Singapore’s strength is the logical consistency of the development of mathematical concepts. And much to the chagrin of educators who may have learned differently, mastery of number facts and arithmetic procedures is part and parcel to conceptual understanding.  Starting with conceptual understanding and using procedures to underscore it is an invitation to disaster—such approach is making profits for  outfits like Sylvan, Huntington and Kumon.

The underlying message in articles such as the Times’ is that math education is bad in the U.S. because it is not being taught according to the ideals of reforms—and the reason it is successful in Singapore is because it is being taught that way.  Never considered is the possibility that the reform minded methods and textbooks written to implement them are one of the root causes of poor math education in this country.  Katharine Beals in her blog “Out in Left Field” does an excellent job describing this.

A friend of mine recently admonished me for my criticism of the article.  At least schools are using Singapore Math and it is getting worthwhile publicity, he said.  Fortunately, the logical structure and word problems in Singapore’s books are so good it will work in spite of the disciples of reform.  My friend is right.  If the education community wants to think that Singapore Math is student-centered and inquiry-based and the realization of US reforms, let them think it.  For those of us who know better, it will remain our dirty little secret.

Barry Garelick is an analyst for the U.S. EPA and plans to teach math when he retires this year.  He has written articles on math education in Education Next and Educational Horizons.

Three Big Lies

by Robert Pondiscio
August 2nd, 2010

1.   The check is in the mail.
2.  No, officer, I have not been drinking
3.  Copying stuff off the Internet counts as plagiarism? I had no idea!


by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen” –Woody Guthrie.

In the least surprising education story of the year, the New York Times reports that cheating is increasing as the stakes grow higher on standardized tests.  Cue sounds of earnest clucking and charges of sloppy journalism.   There’s a bigger and better cheating story to be told and it goes far beyond tales of individual or even school-wide mendacity.  Lower cut scores, scoring rubrics that award generous and undeserved partial credit, and dumbed down tests are cheating too.  So is using these debased metrics to create an illusion of proficiency or progress where none exists.  One doesn’t need to be cyncial to wonder if the real story isn’t who is cheating, but rather who isn’t?

Every year — EVERY year — that I taught fifth grade, I had students in my classroom who had tested on grade level the previous year who added and subtracted on their fingers and struggled to retell details from even simple stories.  Was someone cheating?  Maybe.  Was someone cheated?  Definitely.