Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A case for sensible, rational, reasoned, logical, and level-headed vocabulary instruction

Last week's 8th grade vocabulary quiz:

Fill in the blanks with the appropriate word from the list

sensible, rational, reasoned, logical, levelheaded

______ exercising or showing good judgment
______ being consistent with decisions
______ a decision made in an intelligent manner
______ sound argument
______ making a decision based on facts
Hint:  J's score was 20 out of 100.

(Every week lately, J has been assigned a half dozen highly similar vocabulary words. His take-home study materials consist of flash cards. This past week, one side of each card had one of the five words written on it, along with "calm and cool" in parentheses. The other side of each card was blank).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Other reasons for grade reversal

In a piece in today's New York Times Week in Review entitled "No More A's for Good Behavior," Peg Tyre discusses how some schools have become concerned about a discrepancy between students' grades and their standardized test scores. For example, at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota:

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.
This discrepancy, the article argues, is too large to be explained by how well different students test and how well different teachers teach to the test. The additional factors that school officials in Austin, and Peg Tyre in this article, consider mainly relate to how compliant and organized students are: students, it seems, are being graded for friendliness, behavior, timeliness, remembering supplies and permission slips, completing homework, being a "good school citizen," raising their hands before shouting out answers, being well-organized and hard working, and being well-liked by the teacher, rather than for mastering the course material.

I've witnessed this discrepancy myself, and it's even more obvious if the tests you compare students' grades to, unlike most of today's Standards-Based tests, don't place a low ceiling on measured ability. Back when I helped run an after-school math team at our school--before we were told we had to admit children on a first-come, first-served basis--we gave kids a high-ceilinged placement test which clearly identified a number of the top mathematical outliers. Later we'd hear reports from parents of how some of these top achievers were earning lower grades than their weaker peers.

When it comes to math buffs in particular, and other academically gifted children, there are other troubling reasons for today's discrepancies between standardized test performance and grades that the article doesn't consider. There's the dumbing down of the curriculum and elimination of much of the academic content, such that it's harder and harder to demonstrate high aptitude and teacher-pleasing levels of motivation and effort; there's the reservation of top grades for those students who show the most colorful visual "creativity"; there are the points taken off for unexplained answers to the kinds of math problems that math buffs do in their heads, and, conversely, the partial credit given to incorrect but explained answers; and there are the organizational challenges of today's large, interdisciplinary projects and the emphasis on neatness and cooperating with peers, all of which challenge the many asynchronously developing gifted children. 

The Austin school district's attempts to remove the discrepancy between grades and test scores only goes so far.  They now use what's called "standards-based grading" in which students no longer lose points for incomplete homework. But how much of an improvement such grading actually is depends on how high the ceiling on the underlying standards is, and, in these days of No Child Left Behind, state standards tend towards very low ceilings. Furthermore, Austin's new "standards-based" grades are misleadingly called "knowledge grades" (as if high academic achievement depends only on knowledge), co-occur with "life skills grades," (suggesting a dichotomy between academics--mere knowledge--and life skills--so much more), and homework completion still influences grade determinations:
When parents of students at Ellis Middle School look over their children’s report cards, they will find a so-called “knowledge grade,” which will be calculated by averaging the scores on end-of-unit tests. (Those tests can be retaken any time during the semester so long as a student has completed all homework.) 
(In addition to an academic grade, the 950 students at the school will get a separate “life skills” grade for each class that reflects their work habits and other, more subjective, measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. )
One reason for Austin's cautiousness may the the large numbers of loudly protesting parents. Here's what one of them has to say: 
“Does the old system reward compliance? Yes. Do those who fit in the box of school do better? Yes. But to revamp the policy in a way that could be of detriment to the kids who do well is not the answer.” In the real world, she points out, attitude counts.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Math problems of the week: Chicago Math Project vs. Traditional Algebra

I. Final factoring problems in the "Factoring" chapter of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project Algebra: Integrated Mathematics textbook (published in 2002), p. 769:

Solve by factoring:

x2 - 2x = 0
z2 + 7z = -12
y2 -2y - 3 = 0
2r2 - 10r + 12 = 0
b2 - 48 = 2b
k2 = 9k - 14
0 = m2 - 16
9w2 + 12w = 0
6y2 + y = 2 = 0
0 = 16m2 - 8m + 1

II. Final factoring problems in the "Factors" chapter of Wentworth's New School Algebra, (published in 1898), p. 107:

Resolve into factors:

x4y - x2y3 - x3y2 - xy4
9a2 - 4b2 +3a + 2b
x3 - y3 - (x2 - y2) - (x - y)2
(x - y)2 - 1 - 2(x - y - 1)
a3 - 2a2c - a2 - 4a + 8c -4
a2 - b2 - c2 + 2bc + a + b - c
x3z2 - 8y8z2 - 4x3n2 - 32y8n2
5ac + 3bc + c +5ab + 3b2 + b
2ab - 2bc - ax + cx + 2b2 - bx
x4 - 2abx2 - a4 - a2b2 - b4

III. Extra Credit:

1. Which factoring exercises better prepare students for modern day higher-level mathematics?

a. Those from the end of the 7th chapter (out of 27 chapters total) of an introductory algebra text published in 1898.
b. Those from the end of the 12th chapter (out of 13 chapters total) of an introductory algebra text published in 2002.

2. Relate your above answer to the ubiquitous assumption that it's not the curriculum, but the teachers, the parents, the children, and/or society, that explains the decline in the mathematical preparedness of today's U.S. students.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Skewing college admissions towards those who "look wonderful"

In a piece in this past Sunday's Washington Post, Robert Sternberg, provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University and the author of College Admissions for the 21st Century, argues that the SATs do a poor job of predicting student success, and advocates a different test that aims to assess creativity and practical skills.

Sternberg's evidence for the deficiencies of the SATs is largely impressionistic and anecdotal. First is his experience in the admissions office at Yale University:
Over the course of my years in the Yale admissions office, I found myself continually surprised by how many of the students we accepted had sky-high SAT scores but seemed to lack basic practical and creative skills, whereas others with more modest scores were stunning successes at Yale, both academically and personally.
Since--as Sternberg himself emphasizes in this article--college admissions officers weren't officially measuring practical, creative, and "personal" skills at that time, it's not clear how Sternberg formed this impression.

Then comes Sternberg's impression of how "many students" look 20 years after college:
Many students who appear to have tremendous potential at age 17, based on their SAT scores and GPAs, don't look so wonderful 20 years later.
Here it's unclear not only where Sternberg's impression comes from, but what his criteria for "looking wonderful" are. 

Third, there is Sternberg's anecdote about an investment bank executive:
An executive at a major investment bank told me awhile ago, looking back on his 25 years on Wall Street, that he had found that SAT scores predicted quite well who would be good analysts at his bank - that is, they predicted the technical skills needed to evaluate investments. What they did not signal, he said, is who would be able to take the next step, who would have the capacity to envision where various markets are going, to see larger trends and to make decisions that go beyond individual stock or bond picks.
Here we see the popular right-brain-biased notion that big picture thinking (assessing the market as a whole) is inherently superior to focused thinking (evaluating particular investments)--instead of being a qualitatively different ability.

Having made his case, Sternberg argues for alternatives to the SATs that
assess and value analytical, creative and practical skills and wisdom, not just the ability to memorize or do well on tests.
implying in the process that the SATs don't measure analytical skills.

It is at this point in the article that Sternberg starts to let on what he means by "looking wonderful":
We should admit people on the basis of their potential for leadership and active citizenship - people who will make a positive, meaningful and enduring difference to the world.
Here's an example of the assessment questions Sternberg proposes, and, in fact, went ahead and implemented during his time at Tufts University, where it figures as one of the essay questions on the Tufts application:
"Use one of the following topics to create a short story: a. The Spam Filter, b. Seventeen Minutes Ago, c. Two by Two, d. Facebook, e. Now There's the Rub, f. No Whip Half-Caf Latte, g. The Eleventh Commandment."
This is just the kind of open-ended, creative writing question that completely staunches the creative juices of many left-brainers, however creative they are in ways that aren't apparent to right-brainers.

Sternberg enthusiastically lists other examples:
Other [questions] might ask students to draw something, such as a design for a new product; to post a video on YouTube; or to imagine an alternate history (what if the Nazis had won World War II?). An analytical question, meanwhile, might ask a student what his favorite book is and why. A practical question might ask a student how he convinced a friend of an idea. And a wisdom-oriented question might ask him how a high school passion might be turned toward the common good later in life.
Here we see the all-too-familiar, right-brain notions of creativity as visual, practical skills as social, and wisdom as outward-focused and applied.

Test answers would be scored on how "original and compelling they are and how appropriately they accomplish the task at hand," and Sternberg assures us this would involve "well-developed scoring rubrics, backed up by a training program on how to use them."  Ah yes, rubrics.

Sternberg and his tests have appeared earlier on this blog, and he makes the same claims about this test as he does about the Rainbow Project Aurora test he has devised for determining who should be admitted to gifted programs:
After controlling for high school grades and SATs, Tufts's new admissions questions, like those posed by the Rainbow Project before them, improved prediction of college grades. They also helped forecast which students would shine as active citizens and leaders on campus, and they virtually eliminated the admissions edge enjoyed by some ethnic groups.
Of course, current trends in education include not just the marginalization of the SATs that Sternberg and many others have advocated, but also a shift in grading priorities that now downplay analytical skills and give more weight to the kinds of creativity that Sternberg prefers. It's thus no surprise that Sternberg's tests are doing a better job of predicting college grades than the SATs might once have done.  

But not everyone measures "wonderful" by such superficial and showy features as grades, leaderships skills, and active citizenry. In our present society, it's not these kinds of accomplishments, but rather those of the solitary, narrowly focused, super-analytical, quirkily creative left-brainer, that risk being dismissed--not only in the college admissions process, but also, as Sternberg himself makes clear, in how their post-college accomplishments are appraised by others.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Addendum to front-page accolades for hands-on classrooms

Skewing some of the comments on my last post are a couple of misunderstandings that seem worth going over in detail:

First, some have objected to my focus on the Philadelphia Inquirer article because its treatment of Etkina's physics instruction was, as with so many articles on education, inaccurate and superficial.  As I explained to one commenter, however, the article is all most of those who are involved in k12 education are likely to encounter vis a vis Etkina's teaching. In other words, the article's inaccuracies doesn't detract from its nefarious influence. Many readers with their own influences over k12 education will come away thinking that the best way to teach physics is to completely avoid lecturing and direct instruction. And it is precisely this premise that I want to critique--because it is, at once, so problematic and (as anyone who knows anything current trends in k12 schools can attest) so influential.

Second, a few of the comments evince what I like to call the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle. While it is generally true that either X is true or "not X" is true, it's not true that either "never X" is true or "always X" is true. So when I say that it's bad to never stand up in front of a class and lecture and to only use "discovery" learning, I'm not saying that I believe teachers should always stand up in front and lecture and never use discovery learning.

One commenter who does recognize this "excluded middle" is Mr R., who twice attempted to post his remarks, which for some reason never made their way into the comments section:
As a second year physics teacher I am still trying to find that
delicate balance between discovery (labs) and semi-lectures. I
sometimes wonder if that balance will vary for each group of students.
This would mean that there is never going to be a 'perfect' formula of
how much time should be used doing what :( If life could be as easy as
math and physics.

Having this said I see two major concerns using the 'only- discovery'

1) Time. We simply do not have the time to let students 'discover' all
the concepts, ideas, relationships, and formulas.

2) Related to the first is the problem of, as Noam Chomsky called it,
concision. This is an idea that the population is intentionally being
trained in not being able to understand complex and complicated
explanations or concepts.


Let's be honest with ourselves. How do most reseachers, and adults in
general, get information if not by reading - from lectures (listening->
processing-> developing). This is sometimes due to time but more often,
as in college, audience size. In a large society, people MUST be able
to understand and retain information from lectures.

When we don't lecture at all to our students or never require them to
retain any information from lectures, we are in effect training them to
not learn from lectures.

Without any evidence to support my claim, I believe that 12 years
of 'non-lecture' education will leave a student less competent at
understanding any lecture - physics or any other subject.

Sad is the day when there are no more lectures.
Thanks, Mr. R!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Autism diaries XXIII: Writing what you feel

Twice this past week J came home with "daily write" assignments that he failed to complete during literacy class and therefore had to do at home. Why this had happened was clear to us as soon as we saw the writing prompts:

Write about a time when you were disappointed about something.


Have you ever visited someone in a nursing home? What was it like? How did it make you feel?

If those had been my writing prompts I, too, would have clammed up. Why should I share such feelings with my teacher, and what does this have to do with what I should be learning in English class? 

But for someone with autism who not only has no interest in sharing his feelings with others, but also may not engage in enough emotional introspection to have ready answers to these questions, or the socially "correct" feelings about the topics they cover, this assignment reads more like a diagnostic test for autism.  I.e., if you fail it, you're on the spectrum. 

Is this really how we want to treat our mainstreamed autistic students?  Can't we leave their challenges with emotional expression to a trained therapist, and get our English teachers out of the therapy business--and out of their students' psyches?

The answer we (with great effort on our part) extracted from J for the first assignment will probably be considered adequate. He wrote about the Phillies losing the World Series.  But I'm not so sure about his answer to the second one.  An excerpt:
We went to Granddaddy's 100th birthday party. There were no ceiling fans in the cafeteria. I played with the helium balloons. I had macaroni and cheese and muffins. I went back twice for muffins. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

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

I. A 4th grade Investigations homework sheet, assigned in mid-November (click to enlarge):
II. The end of an early multiplication unit in the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4A (click to enlarge):

III. Extra Credit:

For each problem set, estimate the ratio of tedium to gain in mathematical aptitude.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More front-page accolades for hands-on classrooms

A front page article in yesterday's Health & Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer describes an exciting new way to teach physics to prospective physics teachers.

The teacher? Eugenia Etkina, a professor of science education at Rutgers.

Her method? Rollerblades.
And medicine balls, pulleys, springs, lightbulbs, magnets, mirrors - whatever it takes to prepare her students to teach a subject that, in some classrooms, fails to gain much momentum.
"Whatever it takes" does not include lectures or other forms of direct instruction:
Just be sure not to use that word teach. Or worse, lecture.
And her students, in turn, also avoid such unpalatable methods when they "teach" physics to others:
"My students, they don't lecture," says Etkina. "They engage students in observation."
The ultimate goal, indeed, is for students to think like scientists:
Etkina's goal is not to have her students, or her students' students, memorize Newton's laws of motion. Rather, she wants them to learn to think like physicists, to learn the practice of science.
The Inquirer cites examples from Etkina's website:
...where at last count there were 242 short videos that illustrate the phenomena of physics. But here's the key: The site does not explain why a ball bounces a certain way, or how an electrical circuit is completed. Instead, it provides questions and tools that direct students how to figure it out, under the guidance of a teacher.

For example, you can measure exactly what happens when Etkina, wearing her Rollerblades, pushes off from a heavier colleague who is also wearing in-line skates. They are stationed in front of a long blackboard that has chalk marks at regular intervals. The student can play the video one frame at a time and, by scrutinizing how fast each person rolls, calculate just what is happening.

Other videos display fluids spurting from leaky bottles, pennies sliding on spinning disks, and laser beams reflecting off mirrors, to name a few.

"These videos aren't teaching science," says former student Chris D'Amato, now teaching in Mount Olive High School in Morris County, N.J. "These videos are an opportunity for students to actually do science."
The evidence that Etkina's methods are effective? First and foremost, there's the fact that Rutgers is one of the top producers of physics teachers in the country:
The New Brunswick, N.J., campus is regularly among the nation's top producers, graduating six to eight physics teachers a year...
and that "Almost all of them stick with the profession."

Second, "others are starting to take notice":
The journal Science recognized Etkina last month for a physics video website that she developed with former student David Brookes, an assistant professor of physics at Florida International University. 
Third, other education experts like Etkina's methods:
Her Rutgers program recently became the first to be endorsed by the Physics Teacher Education Coalition - a network of more than 175 institutions striving to improve physics education.
"It's really a model program," says Monica Plisch, assistant director of education for the American Physical Society.
Finally, there are Etkina's own impressions--namely, of what worked and what didn't work during her 13 years teaching high school physics in Moscow:
Whenever she ran into her former students after graduation, she noticed something that now forms the core of her philosophy.

"I could see they only remembered things they did on their own, not the things I told them," Etkina says.
Confirmation bias aside, it's unclear whether Etkina has checked in with her current, American-trained physics students to see how much physics they remember. But we do know this:
Many come back to Rutgers for optional, twice-monthly support sessions long after they've graduated.
The notion that you can improve science instruction by encouraging students to think like scientists is as old as the notion that traditional science involved mindless memorization of things like Newton's laws, and those who subscribe to this notion pay no attention to what cognitive scientists Dan Willingham say about the underlying fallacy of equating the minds of novices with those of experts.

Perhaps a better way to attract more qualified physics instructors in this country would be to eliminate the various hurdles and deterrents we thrust in their way, and, in particular, stop requiring them to get degrees from education schools.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Lake Wobegon effect, with a twist: where no child is neurotypical

It occurs to me that two recent posts (here, here) point towards a strange convergence: more and more children are officially "special."

On the one hand, increasing numbers of parents are seeking IEPs and 504s because of instructional failures (->"dyslexia" and "dysgraphia"), schools holding children behind (->"giftedness"), and developmentally inappropriate assignments (->"executive dysfunction" or "ADD/ADHD").

On the other hand, more and more parents are seeking special accommodations for standardized tests like the SATs because more and more parents are seeking special accommodations for standardized tests like the SATs (a vicious cycle in which private schools are enthusiastically complicit->"ADD/ADHD" and "learning disability/processing speed disorder").

The problem, of course, is that this dilutes scarce resources and raises skepticism towards special needs, disadvantaging the minority for whom the above labels are most truly descriptive.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Math problems of the week: 8th grade traditional math vs. Conntected Math

I. The final pre-review problem set in Hamilton's Essentials of Arithmetic: Second Book (intended for students in the "sixth, seventh and eighth years"), p. 404:

II. The final pre-review problem set in the 8th grade Connected Mathematics text, p. 57 of Unit 8 ("Clever Counting"):

III. Extra Credit:
Discuss what contemporary educators mean by "real life" mathematics, and why they think that traditional math didn't involve this.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Relevant science projects

"How is your project going to make the world a better place?"  This seemingly innocuous question in the science fair guidelines is all it takes to completely stymie my 4th grade daughter.

It's hard enough to come up with a workable idea for a science fair project when you're only 9 or 10 and not particularly inspired by open-ended assignments. But when your project must not only be viable in the typical grade school science fair kinds of ways--doable at home; within your ability to explain and depict; at least somewhat original--but also help improve the world, what do you do?

Especially if you're the kind of kid who likes science not for its real world applications, but for its intrinsic interest.  

Indeed, what ever happened to science for science's sake, math for math's sake, history for history's sake, learning for learning's sake? In the education world's obsession with real-world applications, real-world skills, and personal connections, it has completely forgotten about plain old curiosity. 

But isn't this, in the end, a big part of what makes the world a better place?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Autism diaries XXII: in search of the perfect school, part II

The "Temple Grandin High School," the high school for autistic children and other left-brainers I fantasized about in my previous post, does not exist, at least around here. So what does this 5th largest city in the country have to offer to those who need structure, direct instruction, independent learning opportunities, and rigorous offerings in math, science, and engineering?

There's the Science and Leadership Academy, which provides more leadership than rigorous science, more group work than independent learning environments, and more project based learning than direct, structured instruction. There are the academically minded schools like Masterman, Central, and Bodine, which either focus on something other than math, science, and engineering (Bodine), are nearly impossible to get into at the high school level (Masterman), or have front-page Philadelphia Inquirer articles written about their exciting new, hands-on approach to science--an approach that simply won't work for those who need structure and a rigorous, content-rich foundation (Central).

There are other schools that sound promising in name only, like the now infamous, Microsoft-funded School of the Future. And there are the various Philadelphia charter schools, most of which favor the arts, the social, and the project-based, and nearly all of which have reputations for failing to accommodate special needs children.

Finally--finally!-- there's the High School of Engineering and Science--perhaps the best kept secret out there (it's not even on the radar of most of the ambitious parents I know). But, in this highly competitive environment (in which the local, neighborhood schools are terrible), it's scary to have only one option.

So here's one other idea. Why not continue as we have been, giving J most of his science, math, and content-based instruction outside of school (via ourselves and an academic tutor), and rely on the school primarily for language arts and socialization?  And why not improve upon this model by choosing a school that offers stuff we can't offer him at home--namely, a trade school (or a trade program within a school) that provides useful, hands-on training in areas where his parents are clueless and where hands-on is actually appropriate?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why are there so many IEP's?

Look closely, and you'll find more and more seemingly typical children going to school with legally-binding Individualized Education Plans that cost both their parents and their school districts significant time and resources to secure and implement. Are today's parents more demanding than they used to be, or might certain trends in education be responsible? Consider the following possibilities:

1. Instructional Failures:

In particular, the failure to teach phonics intensively and systematically, and the failure to teach penmanship at all. Many children (enough to camouflage the problem) still muddle through, figuring out how to decode words with minimal formal instruction or with parental tutoring, and managing to write fluently and legibly enough for today's classrooms. But many others don't. Some of the people I've talked to who work with children identified as dyslexic or dysgraphic say they suspect that many of these kids are actually victims of dysteachia.

Incidentally, instructional failures in mathematics haven't yielded a similar proliferation of disability labels, but only because the cognitive standards for math disability (dyscalculia) are low enough that most children, however deficient their math instruction is, don't qualify.

2. Holding students back:

First, there's the decline of ability-based groupings and opportunities for students to work independently and at their own rates, and the rise of mixed-ability group-based assignments and the same curriculum for all students at a given grade level. Some teachers have even eliminated the free choice of independent, take-home reading books, requiring advanced readers to read at the same level as their classmates. Second, there's the dumbing down of that one-size-fits-all curriculum, and of those one-size-fits-all books, so that No Child is Left Behind.

More and more parents, seeing their kids held back relative to their academic potentials, are finding that the only way out of this is a legally-binding gifted IEP.

3. Developmentally inappropriate requirements:

For all the dumbing down of the curriculum, the organizational and attentional demands of today's classrooms are much greater than they use to be. Back in my day, what homework we had in grade school was handed directly to us to put in our backpacks, along with all the information and materials (e.g. textbooks) we needed to get it done. The assignments were short and straightforward and required no prompting, directions-explaining, breaking down into subtasks, or assistance looking things up over the Internet because the information isn't in our backpacks, by our parents. It came home with us automatically, and we got it done on our own and our teachers collected it from us the next day. The tests were based on material in our textbooks, not on material covered only in class.

Today's grade schoolers receive large, complex, multi-day assignments, often based on material covered only in class or that must be searched for online, that they are expected to record in their planners and pick up and hand in on their own. And they are often tested on material covered only in class, the absorption of which requires careful attention and note taking. While the more attentive and organizationally mature students can handle these demands independently, many others require constant assistance from their parents. In areas where parents can't assist their children--e.g., in paying attention and taking notes in class (notes that are legible enough to read later), and in remembering to pick things up and hand things in--these children flounder so much that parents often feel they have no choice but to seek legally binding accommodations.


So here's my question: Wouldn't it be more cost effective, less of a waste of everyone's time, and less of a squandering of our country's intellectual capital, if our public schools would teach our children how to read and write, and would give them work that is both academically challenging and developmentally appropriate?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Math problems of the week: 2nd grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

I. The final fractions word problem in the final fractions chapter of the 2nd grade Everyday Math Student Math Journal Volume 2, p. 211:

Write a faction story. Ask your partner to solve it.

II. The final fractions word problem in the final fractions chapter of the 2nd grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 2B Workbook, p. 111:

Pauline has 3 pairs of shoes. 
She has a pair of blue sneakers, a pair of brown dress shoes and a pair of brown sandals.
What fraction of her shoes are brown?

III. Extra Credit:

Estimate the fraction of Everyday Math student-generated problems that are more difficult than the Singapore Math problem is.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autism diaries XXII: in search of the perfect school

We've just completed J's high school application (we live in a city where all decent public high schools have selective admissions) and, in the process, have spent many hours considering what the perfect high school would look like. 

The ideal school for kids like J would involve what some schools in other school districts are smart enough to do: it would concentrate all the students with high functioning autism, and all the experts in high functioning autism, in one school.  (And there would be experts in high functioning autism).  Those experts, in turn, would help the regular classroom teachers become experts in autism.

But there'd also be classrooms specifically for children with high functioning autism--and here's where I part ways with those who consider the least restrictive educational environment to be, by definition, the one offering the maximum exposure possible to typical classmates and to the typical curriculum, and moving towards this "least restrictive environment" to be, ideally, the goal for all children.  Some high functioning autistic kids, like my son, for all their academic strengths, and for all their ability to sit through it all and get the work done, aren't sufficiently engaged (and sometimes aren't sufficiently well-behaved) in regular classrooms to thrive in them.  They tune out, act up, and may end up being regularly asked to leave, supervised elsewhere in the building by someone who is neither an expert in education, nor an expert in high functioning autism. Wouldn't it be nice if the school offered academic classrooms specifically for them?

Here's what such a classroom would look like: teacher-centered (the teacher: highly trained both in autism, and in whatever subject s/he is teaching); tons of structure (inspired by the most effective therapies for autism, like ABA); systematically presented, analytically challenging material with a focus on math, science, engineering, and computer programming (think Temple Grandin); and independent work (all group environments being restricted to highly structured, expertly-supervised, social skills-building activities). Reform Math, writer's workshop, social studies (as opposed to straight-up history), and the sort of project-based learning that prevails everywhere else would all be avoided like the plague.

Were a school to offer such a classroom, there'd be an additional perk for all concerned. Once parents of typical children hear that this classroom actually exists, some of them might decide that it offers the least restrictive educational environment for their kids as well. Those children would be welcomed in, and, while they're being educated as never before, also serve as social role models for their autistic classmates.

Ah, isn't it nice to fantasize? But in our next installment, we will return to reality and discuss what the best of the actually existing high schools looks like around here--for high functioning autistic kids, and possibly for others as well.