Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let's learn to read in Georgian via sight words

If your child has a teacher who focuses on sight words and story context at the expense of phonics, ask how s/he'd prefer to learn how to read this page out loud.

(1) By learning which sound(s) each letter stands for.
(2) By learning these words as holistic graphical patterns that correspond to particular spoken words.

(A page from a children's book written in the Georgian alphabet.)

Here in America, many of today's educators have no personal experience with what it takes to master a foreign language. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction English Language Learners need in order to master English.

Even fewer of our educators have personal experience with what it takes to master a truly foreign alphabet like Georgian or Armenian. (Greek and Cyrillic don't count as truly foreign: these alphabets bear too many resemblances to our own). Nor do most people remember what it took for them, back in early childhood, to master the alphabets of their native languages. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction novice readers need in order to master the English writing system.

Our teacher training programs are supposed to be addressing this, but somehow the message still hasn't spread sufficiently far and wide. In a comment on an earlier post, C_T cites a study showing that only 47% of education colleges were making phonics instruction part of their required coursework for elementary ed majors.

Some have argued against a primarily phonics-based approach for English by citing all the unusual spellings that violate phonics. But even in English writing  the rules are far more widespread than the exceptions, and even when it comes to the words with the most unphonetic spellings, like "through," "talk," "bread," "nation," or "psycho," you're still much better off sounding the word out phonetically than memorizing its graphical appearance.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Math problem of the week: Oregon Turkey Math

Courtesy the Oregon Department of Education via the North West Regional Education Laboratory:

“Cooking the Turkey” 

A third grade class is beginning to work with multiplication. The purpose of this lesson is to use an open-ended investigation to develop students’ ideas, strategies, and models for multiplication through a problem that is based in a familiar context.

Background: On the previous day, the teacher had posed a real-life problem to the class for which she requested their assistance. The teacher told the students that she had invited a large group of people over to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. The problem she posed was to find out how much it would cost to buy a large turkey (24 pounds) if it costs $1.25 per pound. The students discussed and solved this problem in pairs and then reported out their solutions and solutions methods to the whole group.

Launching the problem: ...The teacher again gathers the class together on the rug and poses a second, related turkey problem. The teacher wants to make sure her dinner is cooked properly. According to her favorite cookbook, a turkey of this size should cook for 15 minutes per pound. She again sends the students off to work in pairs or threes to solve this problem. Students may use any strategy or approach they choose and must record their solution and their method on a large sheet of poster paper that will later be shared with the class.

Students at work: Four groups of students are seen working on the problem.
1. Hannah M. and Julia: They split 15 into 10 and 5 and add groups of 10 and groups of 5 separately.
2. Kenneth, Marlon, and Sam: They keep track of the number of pounds each fifteen minutes represents and skip count by 15s in a list that resembles a table when they include their labels.
3. May and Rafe: They use a doubling and halving strategy (15 + 15 = 30 and 24 ÷ 2 = 12)
4. Nate and Nellie: They put two fifteens together to make thirty minutes and count by that group. They count by 30s (minutes) while simultaneously counting by 2s (pounds).

Students discuss solutions: After students have solved the problem and created posters showing their solutions and strategies, the teacher brings the group back together on the rug and asks some groups to share with the class. This portion of the class is called the Math Congress.

We see Amber and Vicky present their poster. After they share, the teacher promotes discussion of their method by asking other students to explain Amber and Vicky’s method. Next the teacher chooses Marlon, Kenneth, and Sam to present because she sees a connection between their method and the method used by Amber and Vicky. Finally, she asks May and Rafe to share because their method used a “shortcut” that included an important mathematical idea: the inverse relationship between doubling and halving. Since other students had not used this thinking and were somewhat confused by it, the teacher allowed this discussion to go longer than the others until many students indicated that they understood the strategy.

Evidence of engaging students with the mathematics content

The teacher chose a scenario from a real (or at least believable) context to frame the problem. The need to buy and cook food for a large group is a situation that students have likely encountered and/or can relate to. The use of a real cookbook increases student engagement as does the notion that she is personally seeking students’ help to solve her real-life problem.

Evidence that the students are engaged can be seen in their conversations both during the work time and during the math congress. During the math congress the teacher says, “There is something similar between yours and Amber and Victoria’s [method]” but she does not tell them what the similarity is. Instead she engages them in the process of identifying the connection.

Evidence of creating an environment conducive to learning

Students work in pairs or small groups assigned by the teacher to solve the problem. Purposeful partner selection minimizes the likelihood that any students will be excluded from the process. By gathering students together on the rug for the posing of the problem as well as the subsequent discussion, the teacher creates a friendly atmosphere that is inclusive and engaging. During the student sharing, the teacher sits on the floor as a member of the classroom community. This increases the student-to-student interaction and diminishes the tendency for the conversation to be teacher-dominated. She offers encouragement that is authentic and based on students’ work and conversations. For example, after listening to and then restating Hannah M. and Julia’s approach she said, “You guys have a really good idea here.”

Evidence of ensuring access for all students

Because the problem is posed in a context that students can relate to, there are many access points for students. The teacher does not specify a solution strategy nor does she put a time-limit on students. In her conversations with individual groups and during the math congress, she very often orchestrates the discussion in a way that ensures all students stay engaged. For example when working with Nate and Nellie, she asks Nellie about what Nate had said, “Do you understand what he’s doing?”

During the math congress she offers multiple opportunities for different students to restate or rephrase the explanations that others have given. She also allows and encourages student-student questions, particularly when students are sharing with the class. The classroom climate appears to be one in which questions are welcomed and students are expected to interact respectfully.

Evidence of use questioning to monitor and promote understanding

The classroom interactions that the teacher has with students are characterized by her listening and asking questions. She rarely makes a statement, and when she does it is often to paraphrase or restate the idea that a student has shared.

Evidence of helping students make sense of the mathematics content

The teacher uses the context of the problem to make sure students understand the results their mathematical methods produce. For example, after Vicky and Amber share their solution, the teacher asks, “And what is the 360?” The teacher returns to the context of the problem to make sure the students understand the relationship of the numerical answer they have found and the situation of the problem.

During the whole class sharing, the teacher purposefully chooses the students who will share and the order in which they will share to encourage connections between methods. For example, she has Marlon, Kenneth, and Sam present after Amber and Vicky because she wants to reinforce the connection between jumps on the number line and a skip counting strategy.

Since one pair of students used a strategy that involves a deeper level of mathematical content knowledge (doubling and halving) the teacher makes a point to have that group share. She introduces their approach by saying, “And I would like May and Rafe to come up. And May and Rafe came up with an interesting shortcut, and I’d like you to explain.” The discussion that follows their presentation causes the rest of the class to interact with and explain this strategy and the mathematics that underlie it.
Presumably this discussion does not cause anyone to wish that Thanksgiving break would begin as soon as possible.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Who Speaks for Autism, II

Ironically, despite their enormous differences, both John Elder Robison and the leadership of Autism Speaks share a couple of legitimate concerns: insufficient funds for treatment and accommodations, as compared with funding for early detection and etiology--in what reminds me of the education establishment’s obsession with assessment at the expense of teaching.

As another autism self-advocate, Ari Ne'eman, President, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has observed:

Of the approximately $217 million dollars that the National Institutes of Health(NIH) invested in autism research in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), only a meager 2.45% went towards improving the quality of services and supports available to Autistic people and our families. Only 1.5% went towards research that addresses the needs of Autistic adults. When compared to research on questions of causation, etiology and biology and diagnosis, the percentage of the autism research agenda focused on the actual needs of Autistic people in order to improve their quality of life is miniscule.
Of course, autism researchers can counter that early detection and etiology research will lead to better interventions and cures. One hears similar promises from the education establishment. Time will tell.

Autism advocates don’t necessarily have the right priorities either. Until very recently one of the top priorities of Autism Speaks was more research and action on the long-discredited vaccine theory. Then there are those who advocate indiscriminantly for potentially problematic accommodations like full inclusion or facilitated communication systems that potentially reduce the incentive to actually teach communication skills or instruct students at their instructional level.

Thinking about these tensions between autism self-advocates and autism parents, on the one hand, and autism advocates and autism researchers, on the other, has me wondering what my priorities would be if--ah, if only!--I were in charge of everything. And this has me thinking about what the most under-emphasized priorities are.

When it comes to the most challenging cases, I would say we need many more professional caregivers; more financial support and regular and extended respite care for families; and higher quality lifelong care facilities to relieve the burden from aging parents and younger siblings. No family should have to go through what Josh Greenfeld’s family, and many others, have gone through, psychologically, physically, and financially.

Therapeutically, we need more linguistically-informed language interventions that, wherever possible, go beyond the rote memorization of single words and canned phrases, and free children, as much as possible, from dependency on Alternative Augmentative Communication systems--particularly the more linguistically limited or communicatively misleading of such systems.

For higher functioning children, we need academic instruction that disentangles reading comprehension and writing challenges from math and science challenges, and also disentangles social and organizational challenges from academic challenges. We need to address bullying much more effectively than we do now, among other things allowing kids to opt out of school-based group activities and work independently. Outside of school, we need social skills groups that are willing to include kids that have behavior problems. Related to this, in addition to the full inclusion option, more school districts should offer self-contained classrooms specifically for high functioning autistic students—an option I might have chosen for J, had it existed. Post-high school, there should be an expansion of online degree programs—particularly suitable to those for whom the brick and mortar aspects of colleges are more intimidating than enriching.

One key priority that I don’t need to emphasize, because others have done so already, has to do with meaningful employment. More and more companies are now specifically seek out and harnessing the special skills of adults with autism. For all the ups and downs of research, advocacy, and educational accommodations, this particular development, for some of us in the autism community, has been one of the most promising of all.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Who Speaks for Autism?

About a week ago, best-selling author and autism self-advocate John Elder Robison resigned his position with Autism Speaks in protest over an op-ed piece written by co-founder Susan Wright on the eve of Autism Speaks' first-ever national policy and action summit in Washington, DC.

Autism Speaks is the premier autism advocacy group in the United States, and Robison, who has High Functioning Autism, had served as a member of its Scientific Advisory and Scientific Treatment Board. What upset Robison about Wright’s Op-Ed was her emphasis on the challenges autistic children pose to their parents and society. Autism, he writes

confers both gift and disability on everyone it touches. It’s the fire the moves humanity forward, while simultaneously being a fire that can burn us individuals as we try to make our way.

Many autistic people are aware of this dichotomy. Some of us feel “totally disabled” and others feel “totally gifted.” Most of us – I’d venture to say – feel both ways, at different times, depending on what we’re doing at that particular moment.
Robison’s sympathies lie squarely with his “we”/“us”:
I support the idea of changing society to make it more accommodating for people who are different. I also support the idea of developing therapies, treatments, and tools to relieve suffering and disability from both autism and the conditions that accompany it for some people. I know how hard life is for some on the spectrum, but I also see the gifts other autistics bring…

If I act a bit different because I’m autistic, I think it’s my right to do so without being mocked, bullied, or discriminated against.
Not that Robison renounces responsibility for his own behavior:
At the same time I realize people are people, and if I act like a jerk, I will be treated as one. I understand I have a responsibility to learn how to behave in ways others will find acceptable or even appealing.
And so, he implies, does Autism Speaks:
I have tried to help Autism Speaks staffers understand how destructive its messages have been to the psyches of autistic people. We do not like hearing that we are defective or diseased. We do not like hearing that we are part of an epidemic. We are not problems for our parents or society, or genes to be eliminated. We are people.
Here are the offending excerpts in Wright’s Op-Ed:
Each day across this country, those three million moms, dads and other care-takers I mentioned wake to the sounds of their son or daughter bounding through the house. That is - if they aren’t already awake. Truth be told, many of them barely sleep—or when they do – they somehow sleep with one ear towards their child’s room—always waiting. Wondering what they will get into next. Will they try to escape? Hurt themselves? Strip off their clothes? Climb the furniture? Raid the refrigerator? Sometimes – the silence is worse.

These families are not living.

They are existing. Breathing – yes. Eating – yes. Sleeping- maybe. Working- most definitely - 24/7.

This is autism.

Life is lived moment-to-moment. In anticipation of the child’s next move. In despair. In fear of the future.

This is autism.

On the good days my daughter Katie and all the other moms out there – 70-million around the world – see the sun shine. They notice the brilliant colors of the autumn leaves. On bad days, they are depleted. Mentally. Physically. And especially emotionally.

Maybe they have been up all night caring for their teenage child who’s having a seizure.

Maybe they are up yet again changing the sheets because there’s been another bed wetting accident.

Maybe their child has been trying to bite them or themselves.

Maybe they can’t afford the trip to a doctor specializing in autism.

Maybe there is a waiting-list for ABA, speech and OT.

Maybe their insurance won’t pay.

Maybe they don’t have the money to pay a special lawyer to fight for school services.


What I described above is really just the beginning. In the next ten years, 500-thousand Americans with autism will be growing up and out of the system which means they will no longer qualify for the services they rely on every day.

And, what about their parents? How much can we ask them to handle? How long will it be before the exhaustion makes them ill? How long before they break?

And, if they do – who cares for these children?

How about in school? Is there a national curriculum for our children? Are we encouraging teachers around the country to share with each other lesson plans and methods that work for them? Is there collaboration?

Financially, we estimate it costs 2.3 million dollars to care for one person with autism for their lifetime, and it will be well over $137 billion dollars for all our children. …

Close your eyes and think about an America where three million Americans and counting largely cannot take care of themselves without help. Imagine three million of our own – unable to dress, or eat independently, unable to use the toilet, unable to cross the street, unable to judge danger or the temperature, unable to pick up the phone and call for help.

This is a national emergency. We need a national autism plan – NOW.
Anyone who thinks that the nightmare scenarios Wright is evoking are exaggerated, or that it can’t possibly be this challenging to raise an autistic child, needs to read a memoir like “The Small Outsider,” “Mixed Blessings,” “When Snow Turns to Rain,” or one of Josh Greenfeld’s “Noah Books,” and put themselves in the shoes of one of these parents, whose daily experiences make even my most difficult moments with J feel like child’s play.

Anyone who, on the other hand, thinks that autism brings only challenges and impairments needs to meet people like Temple Grandin, Tim Page, and, yes, John Elder Robison.

It’s easy to see why Wright’s words are highly offensive to people at the mild end of the autistic spectrum. It’s also easy to see why Wright is focusing on the most challenging cases, and acting as if these are the only cases out there, in her call for national action. And it’s easy to see why Robison, along with his “we”/”us,” is focusing on those at the milder end of the autistic spectrum.

It’s easy to see these things, that is, if you have the luxury of being able to step back and put yourself in someone else's shoes. But, just as with autism, so, too, with autism advocacy: the core problem involves precisely this kind of empathy. Autistic self-advocates, in spite of how high functioning they are, and parents of highly challenging autistic children, because of how overwhelmed they are, have difficulty imagining other people’s perspectives. Nor should the rest of us be expecting them to—in general.

But those parents and self-advocates who decide to engage in public advocacy on behalf of the entire autistic community need to acknowledge that this community contains a diversity of individuals that extends beyond their personal experiences and perspectives.

Robison, it should be noted, does at least acknowledge the diversity among individuals with autism:
There is a great diversity in our community, which means we have a very broad range of needs.
But notably absent from his discussion of “our” needs is any mention of family members. Here, too, there is both great diversity, and an enormous number of unmet needs.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Math problems of the week: traditional vs. Integrated Math algebra

Highest Common Factors in 1900's algebra vs. Integrated Mathematics

I. The first problem set involving highest common factors in Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898) [click to enlarge]:

(Repeated from last week's post).

II. The only discussion of and problem set involving highest common factors in Integrated Mathematics 2: Algebra * Statistics * Trigonometry(published in 2002) [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

Just as you did in last week's extra credit assignment, write a formula relating the depth and difficulty of these problem sets to their respective page numbers.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Common Core and the special ed fantasy

One of the biggest problem with the Common Core Standards, as I noted earlier, is that

They’re imposing a set of one-size-fits all goals on all students, regardless of intellectual ability, that is extraordinary damaging to the education of advanced students and special needs students alike.
We’ve already heard anecdotes about advanced students that are being left behind by the CCS rollout. Even more vulnerable are special ed students, who, though they may be advanced in some academic areas, are often quite behind in others. Several recent articles in a special issue of Edweek address how the CCS are affecting this population. As one of these articles notes, special ed high school students now face, along with their typical peers, requirements
to read several challenging texts and compose an argument that cites evidence from those texts.
to describe how they reached a solution to a problem, or to apply their math understanding to real-world problems.
As the article notes, this is an educational challenge “that is largely unmet, more than two years after every state but four adopted the standards.”

A second article explores this problem further:
One problem is that teachers of students with disabilities, particularly those with severe cognitive disabilities, have often believed the students had to master life skills before moving on to academics, said Diane M. Browder, a professor of special education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of books on IEPs and common-core alignment.

That's a double standard, Ms. Browder said. Teachers of typically developing students don't wait for students to learn life skills before teaching reading, she said.

"Why would we take a whole class of citizens and say you don't get to learn the standards that we say are most important for everyone?" she said.
This kind of wishful thinking is part of a general trend that’s been going on for some time, and which, since the late 1990s, has been working its way into the guidelines for the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that regulate the instruction of special needs students.
The standards-based IEP began in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Access to the general curriculum was a mandated goal for students with disabilities, though the law did not say that access had to be at the student's enrolled grade level.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, and the 2004 reauthorization of the idea provided reinforcement that children with disabilities should be exposed to the general education curriculum on their grade level to the greatest extent possible. [Boldface mine.]
And, to a large extend, this has indeed remained wishful thinking:
Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Maryland College Park, said the reality of standard-based IEPs has not measured up to their promise.

"We end up cherry-picking these discrete little standards and plopping them into a standard, and I think that's even worse than what we were doing before," said Ms. McLaughlin, who is also the associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, based at the university. Teachers have not been given the time and the training to meet and craft meaningful blueprints for students, she said.
She’s right. But it’s worse than teachers not being given enough time and training. For many special ed students vis-à-vis many of the Standards, no amount of time and teacher training will suffice. This is because—and this is one of the biggest problems with the Standards—the CCS authors have assumed that grade level alone determines goal-readiness. In our age of “social promotion,” where hardly any kids are held back a grade (or promoted up to the next grade), this makes the CCS totally unrealistic, and totally inappropriate, for any student whose mental and chronological ages aren’t in sync.

Which grade level students are assigned to is an artifact of society; when it comes to neuro-atypical students, psychologists have long recognized mental age, rather than chronological age, as the more valid psychological construct. Focusing on chronological age and away from realistic goals deprives special ed students of optimized learning opportunities, and attainable learning goals, at their Zone of Proximal Development. The result, substantially lower achievement within the special ed population, is the opposite of what Standards Based IEPs claim to be promoting.

This doesn’t stop members of the armchair class from pretending otherwise. Professor McLaughlin, for example, claims that one can:
drill down into a set of standards and determine which are the critical elements, and then figure out how to get a child to a point where he or she can understand those elements.

"Capturing the essence" of the standards is how Barbara Van Haren, the director of special education at a cooperative educational service agency serving more than 30 districts in southeastern Wisconsin, describes the necessary work when she provides professional development to teachers.
What does it actually mean to “capture the essence of, say, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2b (“Develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples”), when we’re talking about a hypothetical 8th grader who, in Edweek’s words has “the academic skills of a much younger student.” Here’s Van Haren:
"That's where I have a lot of conversations around universal design, response to intervention, and building those core principles, so that we can ensure our students with disabilities have access to the higher-level skills that are embedded in the common core."
Thanks. That really clears things up.

Regarding teachers' concerns about students with “significant cognitive disabilities,” Kim Mearman, an assistant director at the State Education Resource Center in Connecticut “who has produced an electronic presentation on the common core and special education for use by schools and districts” has, in Edweek’s words:
tried to get teachers thinking about the standards in different ways. For example, she said, one English/language arts standard talks about being able to cite evidence from text.

"That's also a life skill," Ms. Mearman said. "I need to know if I need to wear a coat this morning and I need evidence to make that decision."
Anyone who thinks that the cognitive mechanisms underlying decisions about whether we need to wear a coat outside are anything like the cognitive mechanisms involved in citing evidence from a text should take a look at Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

When it comes to the uneven cognitive profile of autism, there are even more problems with the Common Core’s One Size Fits All. Many kids on the autistic spectrum, for example, excel in math but not in language. The Common Core standards for Math, however, are being interpreted right and left as requiring students to explain their mathematical reasoning verbally.

What ultimately determines which particular exegesis of the Common Core State Standards is the "correct" one, of course, is what ends up being assessed by the Common Core State tests. And here, too, there are concerns regarding the special needs population. Autistic students, on the one hand, may lose points when they fail to explain their answers, and, because their resulting low scores, may lose opportunities for appropriately challenging math instruction.

Students with learning disabilities, on the other hand, may get an artificial boost from accommodations like text-to-speech devices that may remove any incentive for schools to address dyslexia. As a third article on special ed students reports:
Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and one of the country's most recognized experts on early literacy, calls the accommodation "cheating."

"What special education does best is create illiterates," Mr. Allington said. "I know why they don't want their kids tested on reading activity. It's because they've done a terrible job of providing those kids with high-quality reading instruction."

"Ensuring that common standards have addressed accessibility concerns does not mean lowering the standards. It does mean, for example, providing a way for students who cannot hear to demonstrate their 'listening' skills; for students who cannot see to demonstrate their 'viewing' skills; and for students who cannot decode to demonstrate their comprehension skills in reading," the report says. But it's not so easy to separate the tasks of reading comprehension and decoding, said literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, the chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Part of the task of reading and learning to read is learning to get the words off the page while you think about them. Not having to get the words off the page gives a measurable advantage in most studies," he said.
Similarly insidious are speech-to-text devices, which remove the incentive to teach handwriting and spelling skills to students with disabilities. Even more problematic is one of the accommodations still under development by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a group of 18 states collaborating on CCS-based assessment tests. This is what’s called “word-prediction” software: software that, according to PARCC, provides special needs students with “bank of frequently or recently used words onscreen as a result of the student entering the first few letters of a word.” The facilitative effects of such a program are potentially quite powerful, making it impossible to tell to what degree the student herself has chosen her words, and impossible, therefore, to assess her communication skills.

All this is all the more ironic when you consider that what afflicts much of the special education population—especially those at the milder end of the spectrum—are some combination of dysteachia and unreasonable expectations rather than inherent disabilities in learning. What these students need is direct, structured instruction in phonics, and drills in basic arithmetic, at their instructional level, and a disentanglement of social and organizational demands from academic demands.

But instead of providing students with these instructional basics, we first artificially inflate the numbers of students in need of special interventions, then set totally unrealistic goals, and then create testing accommodations that mask our persistent failure to help the most vulnerable of our children.

Monday, November 18, 2013

All in the name of the Common Core…

One of the things I criticized the Common Core Standards for in my earlier post was for how it has engendered “a label that lends legitimacy to all sorts of wrong-headed educational ventures.” These include the “Common Core Technology Project,” the name the LA Unified School District had given to its iPad Iniative.

The Common Core Technology Project is a software program designed by that edu-publishing behemoth, Pearson, that, according to a recent article in Edweek, 

will eventually consist of between 145 and 150 lessons per subject and grade, organized by units and building sequentially year to year.
Its special features?
Designed specifically for tablet computers, the lessons make heavy use of videos, games, and interactive elements and focus on engaging students in solving problems. The final software will include assessments, supplemental materials for students of different skill levels, and tools for taking notes and annotating texts.
Just what we need more of: videos, games, writing crutches, and assessments. Interactive elements sounds nice, but automated interactivity, at the moment, is still highly limited pedagogically and of unproven pedagogical value.

But that’s not stopping the juggernaut:
Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses, meant to eventually become the district’s primary instructional resource in both math and English/language arts for kindergarten through 12th grade, currently consists of just a few sample lessons per grade, resulting in widespread frustration and confusion among classroom teachers.  
Despite the questions about the project’s implementation, education technology advocates say that taking a comprehensive approach to integrating hardware and software makes sense. Officials from Pearson, a London-based company with headquarters in New York City, agree.  
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do for kids in this country what high-performing countries have been doing for their kids for a long time,” said Judy Codding, a managing director at the company who is overseeing development of the new curriculum from her base in Los Angeles.
No, sorry, that’s not what high-performing countries have been doing for their kids for a long time. And, interestingly, as I reported earlier, it’s not what many of our country’s hardware and software experts are choosing for their own kids either. But if the folks at Apple and Pearson can talk the people who make decisions about other people’s kids into buying their products, then a question arises that I intend both rhetorically and sincerely: Who cares?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Seven reasons why the Common Core Standards are a really bad idea

1. They bypass, and even undermine, the key factors that underpin a high quality education system: good curricula and good teachers.

The CCS, pedagogically neutral and respectful of local autonomy as they proudly claim to be, do not address teacher training, certification requirements, specific teaching strategies, or specific content (i.e., specific curricula, specific textbooks, and specific readings).

Singapore, along with other countries that outperform us in math, follows a national math curriculum—one that, among American parents, rivals in its popularity just a few of our way too many homegrown math curricula.

Top-performing counties—add Finland to this list—have succeeded in recruiting teachers from the top tiers of academic achievers, requiring strong subject-area knowledge for certification. It’s hard to imagine that the CCS, with its hundreds of vague and often highly unrealistic goals, and its egregious omission of any kind of roadmap for reaching them, are going to make teaching in the U.S. any more attractive than it currently is.

Indeed, articles about the Common Core regularly characterize our teachers as feeling overwhelmed by the goals and at a loss at how to meet them. At the same time, many current and aspiring teachers are now required by their supervisors to state specific Common Core goals (e.g. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.9: Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres [e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.]) at the top of each day's lesson plan and to center each lesson around these goals.

2. They further empower the problematic Powers that Be in education.

At best, they further entrench the status quo; at worst, they further encourage the problematic trends that have gotten us to the point where we think we need Common Core Standards in the first place.

3. They’ve engendered a label that lends legitimacy to all sorts of wrong-headed educational ventures.

Look no further than the “Common Core Technology Project,” the name the LA Unified School District had given to its iPad Initiative.

(More on that later.)

4. They’re leading to more testing, with more interruptions in classroom instruction time and more diversion of scarce educational funds into the Testing Industrial Complex.

...the more so as states begin to make passing these tests a prerequisite for graduation. No that this will make the high school diploma indicative of subject-specific mastery. In Pennsylvania, for example, as a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article reports,

Students will have multiple chances to take the exams, and those unable to pass will be allowed to do projects in the same subjects instead. For those who still can't pass, superintendents may grant waivers to up to 10 percent, though districts that use that authority liberally will be required to submit a corrective-action plan.
5. They’re imposing set of rigid, one-size-fits all goals on all students, regardless of ability, that is extraordinary damaging to the education of advanced and special needs students alike.

(More on the Common Core and special needs students later).

6. Many of the goals, esp. for the earlier grades, are developmentally inappropriate even for students who are developmentally typical

Goals for second graders include:

"Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section." (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.2 )


"Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations)." (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.7)

In practice, these goals have led to heavy homework loads and prohibitive assignments for kids as young as 6 or 7.

7. The CCS authors have fallen for the “how to change your life advice book” fallacy.

Yes, I know I’m supposed to show perseverance and empathy, be generous and accepting of others, balance work and leisure, stop and smell the roses, and live life to the fullest—but what are my incremental steps for acquiring these habits? How, specifically, am I supposed to change my behavior at specific times and places? How am I supposed to remember to override old habits on a day-by-day, circumstance-by-circumstance basis? How do I stay motivated? However many advice books our gurus can sell by showing and telling us how important one or more of these goals are, simply promoting them hardly qualifies as even a first step. The hard part is showing people how to attain them, step by step from day 1, and how to change what they do what in whatever ways are necessary under a whole bunch of particular, ever-changing circumstances.

The same goes for goals like CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3--Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme; CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10--By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently; and CCSS.Math.Content.HSF-IF.C.8a--Use the process of factoring and completing the square in a quadratic function to show zeros, extreme values, and symmetry of the graph, and interpret these in terms of a context.

However ugly and off-putting these CCS goals sound in comparison with "Stop and smell the roses," the big challenge, once again, isn't in identifying the goal, but in spelling out how on earth we get there.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Math problems of the week: traditional vs. Chicago Math algebra

Highest Common Factors in 1900's algebra vs. The University of Chicago School Mathematics Project Algebra

I. The first problem set involving highest common factors in Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898) [click to enlarge]:

(Repeated from last week's post).

II. The only problem set involving highest common factors in the UCSMP's Algebra (published in 2002) [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

Write a formula relating the depth and difficulty of these problem sets to their respective page numbers.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is America jeopardizing its ESL industry?

In my earlier post on America's advantage in the ESL industry, I noted that current trends may be diminishing that advantage. Some students from mainland China, for example, have mastered English so well that they can come over here and teach ESL in Chinatown. But one of these trends is entirely homegrown: the rise of the Common Core Standards and the way in which we are interpreting them vis a vis ESL instruction.

The Powers that Be in American education, citing specific high-level, one-size-fits-all Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts that apply to native English speakers and English Language learners alike--for example, the requirement that first graders write "opinion pieces"--are now arguing that we need to integrate ESL teaching into the regular classrooms rather than pulling students out for special instruction in vocabulary and grammar. A recent article in Edweek, for example, cites Aída Walqui, the director of teacher professional development for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group, as stating that:

ESL teachers themselves, as well as their content-area peers, need to reconceptualize what language is and evolve from their concentrated focus on vocabulary and grammar or on how to make a request or express a hypothesis.
"Students are too often engaged in the production of sentences with vocabulary they have learned," Ms. Walqui said. "But a sentence is an isolated unit of language that would never really count as deep engagement with academic work, which is what the common core is all about."
In another article from the same issue, Ms. Walqui elaborates:
"As soon as you put an emphasis on the language, then people start teaching grammar. The language gets chopped into pieces, and students don't engage in it in a discourse form."
This article also cites Guadalupe Valdés, "an education professor at Stanford University who studies second-language acquisition" and believes "that language is not a set of structures that must be learned in a linear fashion":
Because the most common approach to teaching ELLs [English Language Learners] is to sequester them in classrooms with other language-learners and to focus so much on grammar and vocabulary, Ms. Valdés said they don't get enough opportunities to hear and speak what she calls "rich English" with peers and other educators.
One can try to reconceptualize language all one wants to, and, indeed, there's a long tradition in America in both the education and the developmental therapy worlds of ignoring the importance of grammar. But the fact remains that vocabulary and grammar are the building blocks both of language itself and of linguistic mastery. What Walqui calls "isolated units of language, i.e., "sentences," are the linguistic correlates of units of thought. Potentially isolated though all these units are, they also come together to form the backbone of "deep engagement with academic work.” After all, if you don’t understand English vocabulary and English grammar, you can’t read English texts, nor can you express thoughts about them using English vocabulary and English sentences.

Part of the problem in the American education establishment is a failure of imagination. Because so few Americans have ever really attempted to learn any foreign language beyond a superficial elementary level, it's hard for many of us to imagine how much the grammars--word orders, word endings, etc.--of different languages vary from one another, and therefore how little of a foreign language you can comprehend and produce without learning its specific grammar rules. Even fewer of us have experienced what it's like to be a foreign language learner in a foreign school system.

In principle, ESL students can learn English vocabulary and grammar without special pullouts—but only if they experience sufficient immersion. Those who end up in ESL classes often do so because they aren’t getting enough immersion opportunities—perhaps because they choose to do most of their socializing with fellow immigrants who share their language; perhaps because their native-English speaking classmates fail to fully include them in their social interactions—or, worse, are deliberately exclusive and nasty.

When it comes to this kind of English Language Learner, the Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts are totally unrealistic. Making them the instructional goal for ELLs will backfire in at least two directions. If our ESL programs are to succeed in teaching English to non-native English speakers, then, absent full immersion, the next best thing is direct, intensive, and systematic instruction in vocabulary and grammar. If America’s ESL industry decides to abandon these things even more than it already has, we may see even more people coming over from other countries to do the job for us.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Is America losing its one global advantage in human capital?

In my previous post on America’s Resource Curse, I include as one of our most valuable natural resources our gigantic reserves of native English speakers. Considering how much money and how many instructional hours other countries invest in getting students proficient in English, and how much money America’s native English speakers can make off of the resulting ESL industry, it’s hard to underestimate just how much of a relative economic advantage we Americans gain as a result.

Think of it: most of us are born into an immersion environment that confers on us naturally (via the innate human capacity to learn a first language) a highly marketable skill that the rest of the world spends a huge amount of money trying to confer artificially (through hours and hours of deliberate instruction).

When I think of this advantage, I think in particular of those of us who graduate from college without any clear career goals and then stumble upon one of the many programs for teaching English in East Asia. We head off to China, Japan, or Thailand for a couple of years, often launching our careers in the process. That’s exactly what happened to me. I spent a year teaching English in Hong Kong, which gave me the opportunity to become fluent in Cantonese, which made me an attractive enough applicant to the graduate program in linguistics at the University of Chicago that I was awarded a generous 4-year fellowship even though I hadn't taken a single linguistics class in college. I supplemented my stipend by teaching English in Chicago’s Chinatown, completing my degree one year after my fellowship ended. My Ph.D. in linguistics has been crucial to every job I’ve held ever since.

Two of my college classmates, now professional writers with Wikipedia pages, launched their careers with books about their experiences living in East Asia—experiences made possible by their jobs as ESL teachers. Mark Salzman's Iron and Silk centers on his two post-college years in China; Bruce Feiler’s Learning to Bow portrays life in the small Japanese town he lived in during his first two years after college.

How many native Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or Igbo speaker have similar opportunities?

But the times, they are a changin’. As always, it’s all about technology and globalization. Automatic translation programs like Google Translate are becoming ever more widespread and accurate, and however far they still have to go, they reduce both the man hours required for translation, and the need for texts to be composed in English. At the same time, countries around the world are getting better at teaching their students English without so much help from us Americans—to the point where things sometimes come full circle. A friend of mine who teaches in the University of Pennsylvania English Language Programs (and whose career was launched by a year teaching English in Czechoslovakia) has been supervising ESL teachers from mainland China who are currently teaching English--to U.S. residents of Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

America’s home-grown ESL programs, meanwhile, appear poised to decline substantially in quality, at least at the K12 level, in what looks to be yet another casualty of the Common Core Standards. But that's a subject for another post.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Math problems of the week: traditional vs. contemporary algebra

Highest Common Factors in 1900's algebra vs. College Preparatory Mathematics

I. The first problem set involving highest common factors in Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898) [click to enlarge]:

II. The only problem set involving highest common factors in CPM's Algebra, 2nd edition (published in 2000) click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit

My home schooled daughter just finished the Wentworth assignment, above. What, if anything, does this predict about her "higher level mathematical thinking skills," as standardized by the Common Core?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The “Resource Curse” in 21st century America

Back in the mid-1970s when I was in 6th grade, I spent a year in the French school system. Even just a month or two into my classes, I was struck by how much more challenging content there was—and not just because I was struggling to understand the language of instruction. In math there were multi-step word problems that, like the 6th grade word problems of Singapore Math, cry out for algebraic strategies; instead of social studies, there was classical history and geography; there was also biology, drawing, a vigorous gym class, music (with music theory), English (as a second language), and a French class (for native speakers) that had weekly dictations, weekly in-class compositions, and weekly grammar drills. Comparing this, and the similarly rigorous K12 education my parents had gotten a generation earlier, to my 5th grade class back in Chicago--a class in which we spent most of our time filling in the blanks in under-challenging workbooks and Weekly Readers--I wondered how on earth America was maintaining its status as a superpower.

In her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley has an answer. As the New York Times digests it in its review:

Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.”
And those sources of wealth have been pretty constant, if changing: from natural resources, to slave labor, to industrious and entrepreneurial immigrants, to our country’s uniquely unscathed emergence from World War II, to our unique (if recently shaky) status as a global currency reserve, to our uniquely vast reserve of native speakers of what is currently still the world’s most highly-valued lingua franca. Like the proverbial stunted, natural-resource-cursed country, we’ve never had to worry about providing a rigorous education to the majority of our human capital.

Since my time in French classrooms several decades ago, our human capital development has only worsened. As reported a month ago in the NY Times:
American adults lag well behind their counterparts in most other developed countries in the mathematical and technical skills needed for a modern workplace, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills.

Among 55- to 65-year-olds, the United States fared better, on the whole, than its counterparts. But in the 45-to-54 age group, American performance was average, and among younger people, it was behind.
Once again:
“The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’ ” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

In several ways, the American results were among the most polarized between high achievement and low. Compared with other countries with similar average scores, the United States, in all three assessments, usually had more people in the highest proficiency levels, and more in the lowest. The country also had an unusually wide gap in skills between the employed and the unemployed.

In the most highly educated population, people with graduate and professional degrees, Americans lagged slightly behind the international averages in skills. But the gap was widest at the bottom; among those who did not finish high school, Americans had significantly worse skills than their counterparts abroad.

“These kinds of differences in skill sets matter a lot more than they used to, at every level of the economy,” Dr. Carnevale said. “Americans were always willing to accept a much higher level of inequality than other developed countries because there was upward mobility, but we’ve lost a lot of ground to other countries on mobility because people don’t have these skills.”
Indeed, as Riply notes in her book, by now:
Everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.
In short, we’re doing worse than ever at a time when it matters more than ever.

Will anything change for the better as a result of this latest study? Not any time soon. The problem isn’t that education establishment has too few ideas about positive change; the problem is that it has too many, and that they’re all wrong: Common Core Standards and tests; more technology in the classroom;  more hands-on, group-centered, Project Based Learning; and more so-called “higher-level thinking.” The Powers that Be in education are willing to try just about anything that they claim other countries are doing—without looking to see what's actually going on in the classrooms of the smartest kids in the world.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Creative" application essays

First we hear about Google and other "innovative" companies asking  off-beat interview questions; now, as this week's New York Times Education Life reports, we hear about elite colleges using offbeat prompts for their application essays. Front and center is the University of Chicago, whose recent prompts include:

“Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.”

“What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?”  
“Destroy a question with your answer” 
“Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.”  
“How did you get caught?” 
But then there's also Brandeis
“If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” 
“You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?” 
And Tufts:
Discuss the meaning of “YOLO" (an acronym for “you only live once,” popularized by the rapper Drake). 
Other practitioners (see here for a more complete listing) include the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Amherst, Hamilton, and University of Notre Dame.

As once college counselor acknowledges, "most students prefer — and are better off — avoiding the unusual questions":
“There are the kids who find it just invigorating, but they are not the majority,” he said. “The linear, sequential, mechanical kids of the world usually don’t want to play that game, no matter how smart they are.”
But at what cost? As the Education Life notes:
At a time when some elite colleges worry that high school students are more likely to be high achievers than independent thinkers, oddball essay questions offer a way to determine which of the A-student, high-test-score, multi-extracurricular applicants can also show a spark of originality.
And as John W. Boyer, the dean of the undergraduate college of U of C, opines:
“It requires a little bit of wit and more than a little bit of imagination,” he said. “We want to give students an opportunity to be unconventional in a pushing-the-boundary sense and see what they can do.”
As I've noted before, we "linear, sequential" left-brained types are, indeed, particularly stymied by such questions. Nor is is clear that these question tap into the true essence of creativity, or that we left-brainers are creativity-impaired. I generally feel full of ideas on all sorts of topics; there's something about prompts that are simultaneously open-ended and off-beat that makes me feel utterly barren.

I'm lucky: I applied to college back in the early 1980s, before these these trends took hold. But what does this take on "creativity" mean for the college admissions prospects of today's left-brain students?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Rewarding smart students, II

One major educational entity out there that continues to consistently reward smart students is the GED and its various competitors. According to A., a smart kid I know who recently took the GED, you don't have to do any actual studying in order to pass; you just have to be smart. This is consistent with what I've observed earlier; it's also consistent with what you see in today's Education Times in the sample questions for the new GED, due out in January, and those of its various new competitors.

Almost none of the sample questions require much in the way of background knowledge; when it comes to fact-intensive subjects like science or history, the information you need is built into the question itself, or into the accompanying diagram. Consider this science question from the new GED:

1. The map shows Earth’s continents, the outlines of the plates that make up Earth’s outer shell, and locations of volcanoes. Which conclusion can be reached from the information on the map?

a. Volcanoes are scattered randomly across Earth.
b. Volcanoes are only located along edges of continents.
c. Volcanoes are mostly located along boundaries between plates.
d. Volcanoes are distributed equally in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Or consider this U.S. history question from the new alternative to the GED known as the TASC:

1. Which principle of the United States government is described by this excerpt?

When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty. There is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers. — Baron de Montesquieu

a. individual rights
b. popular sovereignty
c. separation of powers
d. separation of church and state

My friend A reports that he encountered only one question on the GED that actually required you to draw on any specialized academic knowledge. That was a question in the science section that asked which chemical combination was toxic. A happened to know which of the four possible choices was the correct one, but not because he'd studied. Instead, he remembered how a few months ago his mother had attempted to clean a urine-saturated litter box with chloride bleach, creating a cloud of mustard gas in the process--non-weapons-grade, but still pretty intense. And memorable.