Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Buzzword BS

The blogosphere and news world is on fire about the latest report on the progress made in education over the last few years.

Even though everyone and there bother has wrote something about it (including me now), I will pick on Kevin Drum's post over at Political Animal. Commenter's are using all sorts of cool phrases over in the comments section: phrases like "curriculum narrowing"

Curriculum narrowing is such a nice little buzz word. Of course no one talks about the curriculum broadening that happened over the last couple of decades.

Our schools teach the same things, to the same students, year after year, hoping that if it's repeated enough, some of it will sink in. Of course this is a very inefficient manner of teaching. It's half ass year after year.

K-3 should concentrate on basic reading and math skills.

4-8 grades should be used to gradually increase students background knowledge.

9-12 grades should then begin to merge the background knowledge, put it in to context, and teach critical thinking.

Instead our schools try and teach critical thinking to 8 year olds, basic reading skills to 8th graders, and background knowledge to Juniors in High School.

Kevin himself, notes the wide discrepancy between the state test scores and NAEP. (He isn't the only one, bloggers on the left and right are miraculously discovering it).

The discrepancy between State scores and NAEP performance has been well covered by the education blogosphere, including take-downs of several NYC articles.

For example.

Its amazing to me that the political blogosphere only cares about education when it can be used to score points against which ever political party they are against. The rest of the time, all that interests most political bloggers is whether some guy named Scooter is going to serve any prison time.

Meanwhile there are thousands of parents out there railing against the system trying to encourage the smallest amount of reform. Enjoy your 15 minutes school reformers, it will come around again in another few months.

Peace, I'm outie.


Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, as you know, most teachers are not exactly thrilled about NCLB. As you also know, our school performed miserably on the math tests last year. I have to admit that this really kicked our school into a new gear in pushing math this year, and that is mostly a good thing. We don't know, yet, how our kids did on the math test this year, but I will be shocked if it's not significantly better than last year. The only problem is that we are pushing higher level math on some kids who will never use it, and will probably never get it no matter how good the teaching is. That's not such a good thing. By the way, as bad as you might think our math program is, one of my hockey players is going into pre-med at the University of Minnesota-Duluth next year, and he was able to complete all of the math that he will need in our high school's college math classes. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The opportunity is there; kids just have to take advantage of it.

Independent George said...

The only problem is that we are pushing higher level math on some kids who will never use it, and will probably never get it no matter how good the teaching is

Dennis, I think this is the major source of contention between parents and teachers. The first part is a question of what should constitute the core curriculum. Opinions will differ, but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect mastery in algebra and geometry (roughly 10th-grade level in most states).

It's your second point that really bothers me. I don't dispute that there will always be a sub-population that won't get math, but I'm going to have to disagree quite strenuously if you think that number is greater than 10% (especially if we're limiting ourselves to algebra and geometry). There seems to be a prevailing view that real, rigorous math is just too difficult for most students. It's become almost a cliche at this point, but Singapore's success across all levels seems to be pretty strong evidence that this is not the case.

I think one of the biggest difficulties is that education is cumulative, so the low achievers you see daily at the HS level are the product of almost ten years of neglect. You're then essentially faced with the impossible task of cramming up to twelve years of education into the four that you've got them for.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Independent George, the inspiration for that statement actually came from our principal. He got stuck with having to substitute for one of our basic sophomore classes, and I saw him shortly after he walked out of the class. He said, "The state expects those kids to get through Algebra II? No way!" I'm not sure what our Algebra II class consists of, but I believe it's some trigonometry. I have those same kids in my Basic American History class, and quite frankly, I'd have trouble arguing with our principal. It might not be that these kids couldn't get it if they tried, but a lot of these kids simply have no idea what it means to try.

Parentalcation said...

I think we need to provide alternate math courses for students who choose not to go the normal route. Say focused applied math courses that teach financial and common real world uses.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, I think what you are saying is just good common sense, and that's what we've done in the past. The problem is that the way the tests are set up in Minnesota, it is a guarantee that those kids will bomb their tests as juniors. Then, of course, the school ends up with a big black eye.

Up until now, that test hasn't counted toward the kids graduation, and that has been a problem. Some kids make no effort on it, and that can also make a school look worse than it is. Our school has now increased our math requirements for our kids--taking a basic math is no longer going to be good enough--and next year for the first time the state has mandated that the math test will count toward graduation. That will be interesting! I guess we will begin to find out whether it's good for kids, or if we're just banging our heads against the wall.

CrypticLife said...

"we are pushing higher level math on some kids who will never use it, and will probably never get it no matter how good the teaching is."

The real problem isn't that kids aren't understanding higher-level math, but that they aren't mastering basic math. I tend to agree with you, Dennis, that trigonometry is not necessary for everyone (though it is nice if they have something of an appreciation for that it exists).

I'm struck again by your comments that you're less comfortable discussing basic education, Dennis. I think you're right that it's not entirely fair to criticize the high schools because they need to deal with the cards (or students, rather) they're dealt. But, I think there are still some things they can do. Making the tests count towards graduation will help, I think, but it will still run into the problem of being too far away. Imagine being a student in a sophomore math class. You'd be thinking to yourself This is boring. I have two whole years until I graduate, I don't have to worry about this now. They'd end up not working until the test is very close, when it's pretty much too late. To compensate for this, teachers start reminding their students of the test at every opportunity, and then feel like they're "teaching to the test". Moreover, the test becomes something intimidating, rather than an opportunity for gain.

That's part of what led me to refer to the certifications available in some countries. Imagine if, instead of that, the sophomore was sitting in a basic finance class learning to do a trial balance or something, and at the end of the class they could take a test that would let them work over the summer in an air-conditioned office as an assistant bookkeeper or clerk at a real salary if they passed it, rather than flipping burgers for minimum wage.

Do high schools have summer placement officers?

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I hope you'll forgive me if I'm being obtuse, but I don't know what you mean when you say, "I'm struck again by your comments that you're less comfortable discussing basic education, Dennis." I need you to explain that, and like the Denzel Washington said in Philadelphia, tell it to me like I'm a six-year-old.

Parentalcation said...


I assumed that he meant you were less comfortable talking about K-5 education. Your experience and most of your suggestions are applicable to High School age kids.

Correct me if I am wrong Crypticlife.

CrypticLife said...

Ah, yes, I meant primary school education. I think a lot of issues stem from earlier grades. It wasn't intended as a slur on you at all, Dennis, it's just that you've mentioned a couple of times that you deal much more with High School ed.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I plead guilty!

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