Thursday, August 13, 2015

Knowledge is power

I'll have to come back to this later, but this is a "well, DUH!!" kind of education article, that at the same time flies in the face of every thing that teachers are taught about how to teach: 

When Knowledge Is Unforgettable  Adults remember more of what they learned in school than they think they do—thanks to an aspect of education that doesn’t get much attention in policy debates. 

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ. The question is whether it makes people smarter by building mental horsepower, by adding to students’ database of knowledge and skills, or some of each component. Recent research published in Psychology and Aging shows that people who stay in school for a longer part of their lives are no faster at simple mental judgements (like line comparison) than their less-schooled counterparts. Other research published in Psychological Science shows that high-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower. Instead, schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

In other words, education must be knowledge-focused--just like E.D. Hirsh has been telling everyone for decades now. Simultaneously, education schools have been downplaying the same need for knowledge because 1) they think learning science, history, spelling, etc. bores kids, and boredom is the greatest evil in schools to be rooted out and stomped on wherever it is found, and 2) kids don't need knowledge when they have Google!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Teachers are not psychologists

I posted the paragraphs below elsewhere after coming across this article  on judging teachers based on how well they instill "non-cognitive" skills in their students. Skills such as perseverance, grit, resilience, etc.


Either you're a teacher, or you're are psychologist. Pick one.

Do not expect teachers to magically know how to be psychologists, and be able to perform that profession--along with their own--for 20 students at a time. A fully trained child psychologist has dedicated themselves to studying their profession through 7 years graduate school and has been licensed by their state and has professional certification.

"Non-cognitive" skills; such as grit, resilience, self-control, and emotional intelligence; are skills most kids will pick up naturally. If a child is having trouble with these, then they should be referred to a psychologist.
Teachers should be trained to know when a child might need to be seen by a psychologist and make that recommendation, but they should not be asked to do what they are clearly not trained to do. Nor should they be graded based on their student's progress in gaining skills they are not trained to teach.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Discover Project Follow Through

[ Times Colonist ] Many Canadian provinces adopted discovery-based curriculums about 15 years ago. Newer curricula and textbooks appeared, advocating the use of multiple strategies in the classroom, replacing more conventional methods for teaching arithmetic. The result of this phenomenon has led to a remarkable decline in math skills, and a proliferation of children enrolled in costly learning centres to achieve knowledge of foundational math facts.

These centres and private tutors use more conventional and traditional methods to teach their students, because they have been proven to work. This is something to which our policy-makers must pay attention.

Gee, it didn't work! Project Follow Through came out in the early 1970's--that's fully 40 years ago, which means pretty much every single teacher currently trained and working has been trained after its findings were known...and utterly ignored.

The world has known what works and what doesn't in math education for four decades. Educrats continue to ignore it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

All children are above average

Joseph Ganem, "The Common Core can't speed up child development"

Recent evaluations of the state's preschoolers have determined that only 47 percent are ready for kindergarten, compared to 83 percent judged ready last year. This drastic drop isn't the result of an abrupt, catastrophic decline in the cognitive abilities of our children. Instead it results from a re-definition of kindergarten readiness, which now means being able to succeed academically at a level far beyond anything expected in the past. For example, a child entering kindergarten is now expected to know the difference between informative/explanatory writing and opinion writing. The concern is that preschoolers without that knowledge will not succeed at meeting the new higher-level Common-Core standards. However, I think a more pressing concern is: Why do we have educational standards that are not aligned with even the most basic facts of human development? Clearly these test results show that the problem is with the standards, not the children.
 The people who wrote these standards, and think they're appropriate are nuts.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Making kids feel stupid

My new favorite education quote:

You know what’s the worst kind of instruction? The kind of instruction that makes kids feel stupid. And that’s what a lot of that discovery stuff does; their working memory gets overloaded, they’re confused. That’s bad instruction,” said Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s department of mathematics and statistics, who wrote the C.D. Howe Institute report. [ Decline of Canadian students’ math skills the fault of ‘discovery learning’: C.D. Howe Institute ]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cascade of mirrors

A while back, I got upset with the dot school's 7th grade social-studies curriculum. These kids are supposed to me studying something like geography and world cultures this year. Instead they have an ad hoc theme based class. For the theme of "intolerance" they began with watching a video of a Holocaust survivor visiting the interment camp he spent time in. The class was then asked to write a reflection--a self-focused piece of navel gazing--on how the video made them feeeeeel. This was the first exposure these kids had gotten in their entire education to anything in the 20th Century, their first exposure to the Holocaust, and their first assignment is about how *they* feel.

I ended up writing a letter to the head of the middle school saying that of all the topic *not* to be about the kids' feelings and reactions, this was it.

Apparently, this teacher just looooves the "reflection". The kids are always writing reflections about how something makes them feeeeel, how it changed them, blah, blah, blah.

Yesterday in the car, the boy said that this was probably the only teacher he will ever have that would do this: they did a worksheet, then a reflection on the worksheet, then a reflection on writing the reflection.

Seriously! She had them write a reflection about their reflection.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

More money!

A friend of mine on facebook was angry about cuts in state funding to the University of Wisconsin. I posted this in response. For some people, more money is the only answer; accountability for how that money is being spent and what it is buying never enters into it. More, more more! is the only thing they think about:


A lot of people have lost faith that their money is being spent wisely by public universities.

Much has been written in recent years about the bloat in administration in colleges and universities. What used to be done by committees of faculty, now is
being done by full time administrators. There are lots of new administrators, deans, coordinators, all with staff, but with little educational value. From 1993 to 2007 the number of administrators at UW-Madison went up 32% (on a per-student basis), while the number of instruction and research employees went up only 5%--this in a period when enrollment went up about 4% and tuition literally doubled ( ).

In addition, ridiculous amenities, things like University of North Florida's lazy river, make a lot of news, and make people wonder about how good all those administrators are at spending the money they are getting.

At the same time, the student loan scam is finally beginning to bite. Taking out massive loans to study things that won't help you get a job and *pay* for your loans is finally being recognized as a bad idea. (Yes, education for education's sake is a lovely thought, but not if it means going into tens of thousands of dollars of inescapable debt to do it.) More and more press is being given to the people paying off loans all of their lives, preventing them from getting married, buying houses, and having kids. People are beginning the long process of reevaluation of just what all the loan money, tuition money, and tax money is buying.

I'd add in the problem of part-time instructors who are brought in on a contract basis to do much of the teaching. They get hired or not hired based substantially on student evaluations--which means the easiest graders usually win out. A tough teacher who doesn't give all A's gets booted. Fun for the individual students who get to spend more time waiting in line at the keg or at the tricked-out rec center, but in the long run bad for the universities whose whole reason for being is to actually educate--not give out A's. Studies showing college and university students are paying much more, while studying substantially less don't help either. The value of the education students are getting is under more and more scrutiny.

Public universities preference for out-of-state and international students, who pay more in tuition, is also pissing off the tax-paying public in many states. Here in Cal., the UC system had to come out publicly this year and say that the number of in-state students would be held constant--because more and more parents who pay taxes for 18 years are pissed that their kids can't get in.

If public universities want increased dollars, then they need to think about how they can restore the faith of the people of their states--the people who elect the representatives who vote on things like giving them more money.

I'd suggest that they start by streamlining the administration, and refocusing tightly on providing useful education.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Writers' workshop doesn't work

I've had this one as an open tab for, literally, years. How "writers' workshop" style classrooms, writing reflections on how you feel, and students' personal reaction, instead of giving kids tools of spelling, grammar, style and structure hamstrings them and prevents them from becoming writers:

How Self-Expression Damaged My Students

Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I "modeled" the habits of good readers and "coached" my students. What I called "teaching," my staff developer from Teacher's College dismissed as merely "giving directions." My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.

In short, I presided over the reading and writing equivalent of a Cargo Cult.


Far from imposing a cultural norm or orthodoxy--silencing their stories and compromising their authentic voice--teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining. Teaching grammar, vocabulary. and mechanics to low-income black and Hispanic students is giving them access to what Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator and a critic of progressive education methods, famously called the "culture of power." 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Going slow

"The Role of Curriculum", by William H. Schmidt:

The data are clear. Recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders do not do well by international standards—ranking below average in both grades and, in fact, near the bottom of the international rankings on a mathematics literacy test at the end of high school. Even our best students, taking an advanced mathematics test, do not fare well against their counterparts in other countries. -
By the middle grades, the top achieving countries do not intend that children should continue to study basic computation skills. Rather, they begin the transition to the study of algebra, including linear equations and functions, geometry and, in some cases, basic trigonometry. By the end of eighth grade, children in these countries have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry. By contrast, most U.S. students are destined for the most part to continue the study of arithmetic. In fact, we estimate that, at the end of eighth grade, U.S. students are some two or more years behind their counterparts around the world.
By the middle grades, the top achieving countries do not intend that children should continue to study basic computation skills. Rather, they begin the transition to the study of algebra, including linear equations and functions, geometry and, in some cases, basic trigonometry. By the end of eighth grade, children in these countries have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry. By contrast, most U.S. students are destined for the most part to continue the study of arithmetic. In fact, we estimate that, at the end of eighth grade, U.S. students are some two or more years behind their counterparts around the world. - See more at:
The data are clear. Recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders do not do well by international standards—ranking below average in both grades and, in fact, near the bottom of the international rankings on a mathematics literacy test at the end of high school. Even our best students, taking an advanced mathematics test, do not fare well against their counterparts in other countries. - See more at:

The data are clear. Recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders do not do well by international standards—ranking below average in both grades and, in fact, near the bottom of the international rankings on a mathematics literacy test at the end of high school. Even our best students, taking an advanced mathematics test, do not fare well against their counterparts in other countries. - See more at:
The data are clear. Recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders do not do well by international standards—ranking below average in both grades and, in fact, near the bottom of the international rankings on a mathematics literacy test at the end of high school. Even our best students, taking an advanced mathematics test, do not fare well against their counterparts in other countries. - See more at:
Of course, that same author went on to sign off on the Common Core as a member of its validation committee. Perhaps he's had second thoughts since, but, apparently, he's been trying to prove after-the-fact that his approval was justified:

Here's Ze'ev Wurman writing on Breitbart:
One does not need to be a content expert, however, to observe the simple fact that, despite the soaring rhetoric of Professor Schmidt in 2005 about how by the end of eighth grade students in high achieving countries “have mostly completed mathematics equivalent to U.S. high school courses in algebra I and geometry,” Common Core firmly placed the first Algebra course in the high school. It also doesn’t take an expert to observe that Common Core’s “college preparation” in mathematics amounts to a poor-man’s Algebra 2 and Geometry courses. The U.S. Department of Education’s own data shows that with only Algebra 2 preparation – even the full course – the chances of a student to end up with a Bachelor’s degree – any Bachelor’s degree – is less than 40%.
The data are clear. Recent results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. eighth- and 12th-graders do not do well by international standards—ranking below average in both grades and, in fact, near the bottom of the international rankings on a mathematics literacy test at the end of high school. Even our best students, taking an advanced mathematics test, do not fare well against their counterparts in other countries. - See more at:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blood of Olympus

Yesterday they released the last of the "Heroes of Olympus" books, the "Blood of Olympus".

Not bad, but not really good either.

On the good side, Riordan mostly stopped doing the thing that has been driving me crazy through much of this second Greek-Roman book series: he's dealing with teens, so he constantly has them thinking that any time they use their demigod powers, everyone else must hate them for it. For example: Frank can turn into an elephant: oh no! Hazel will hate me now! Leo can shoot flames at people: that's just too weird, I'll never fit in now and everyone will hate me! Hazel can bring cursed gems out of the earth: no one will ever love me, wah!!

That got old five books ago. Riordan put a little of that in this book with Nico, but pretty much limited it to him and kept it to a minimum (and Nico has some freaky powers. [I loved it when he was told to get over himself, and that the only reason he's isolated is because he's isolated himself. Yep.])

The two major battles were a bit of a disappointment. The battle against the giants was over pretty quickly. Yes, it ended with a deus ex machina, but that was entirely appropriate--yes, the hand of Zeus came down and cleaned things up...and Athena's...and Poseidon's...etc. It would have been nice if that went on for more than half a chapter though. I would have liked to see more of how each demigod fought beside their parent. Annabeth and Athena, certainly, deserved more time, and Riordan could have been very creative about the ways they would play off each other's strengths. I always want more Percy and Poseidon, who barely rated a paragraph.

The actual defeat of Gaia was also over pretty quickly and was incredibly easy. Defeating a primordial goddess should be really, really hard!

My biggest gripe--and it is a pretty big one--is that Riordan has been foreshadowing since, I think, "Titan's Curse", seven books ago, that Percy would have to deal with his fatal flaw--excessive loyalty to his friends. This should have been a traumatic event, difficult and painful to overcome. Riordan even foreshadowed that the decision would be a life-or-death one, as in: leave one friend to die in order to take care of a problem elsewhere. It was supposed to be a pivotal decision which would decide the fate of the world. Despite all of that hinting over the course of several books, in the end it was a squib. If it is in the book at all, it is in half a paragraph, and his decision is a simple one. He had to choose between letting three of his friends focus on fighting Gaia without him--which he knew they were capable of doing, or go help Annabeth who was about to be overwhelmed. The way it was laid out, this was pretty much a no-brainer for him. No trauma, no angst: go help Annabeth and trust the others to take care of other matters.

I can't tell if Riordan just forgot to put it in, forgot that it should have been a bigger deal than he made it, or if the structure of the book made it hard for him to cover. In this second Olympus series, Riordan has been writing each chapter from a particular character's point-of-view. But, in this book, all of the chapters are written from the point of view of Jason and his friends (Jason, Piper, Leo, and Reyna) or from Nico's. Neither Percy nor Annabeth have a chapter of their own, nor do Hazel or Frank. It's hard to make a big deal of Percy's dilemma, when he is never the focus of a chapter. I had been waiting for this for years, and went away very disappointed.

And no death! In two major battles--the biggest battles since the age of Heracles--not one of the major characters gets killed off. This is what separates "Harry Potter" from Riordan. Rowling had battles with real repercussions: Cedric dies, Fred dies, Lupin dies, Dobby dies, Dumbledore dies. Everyone has to deal with those losses, the guilt of surviving, the drive to finish the job, and move on. Riordan seemed to know that in the first series: Selena, for example, dies. So does Ethan Nakamura. Luke's death is part of the whole point of the series--and certainly the Great Prophesy. He redeeems himself and sacrifices himself to save the world. Their deaths meant something for the plot. They were sacrificing for the greater good, and accepting that sometimes that is necessary. Their deaths drive others to greatness. Without Selena's death, you don't have Clarisse slaying the drakon. Without Ethan's and Luke's, does Percy give up immortality to keep his promise?

But, in this series, Riordan balks. I'm sure he's setting up another series (and left lots and lots of loose ends to tie up later,) and didn't want to write anyone off, but massive battles and victories like this should come with a real cost--which was even mentioned and was a minor theme in this book. He chickened out, when he should have been ruthless.

Overall, I didn't enjoy this second Olympus series as much as the first. Riordan seemed to get lazy and was writing by the numbers. Step 1: pick a god or monster. Step 2: the demigods meet the god or monster. Step 3: either the demigods have to fight the god/monster or work with them. Step 4: pick another god or monster. Step 5: repeat... A little more creativity would have helped. Also, as I said before, the teen angst was boring and always hitting the same note over and over again. Teens are more interesting than that, and demigod teens even more so; he made them boring.

The books were enjoyable, but I prefer the original Percy Jackson books by a pretty wide margin.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Education in a panic

From a comment of mine, posted to the website and discussing how the Common Core is taking away recess and free play time for kids:

Common Core is being used as a scapegoat for every problem in education today. If anything, the Common Core and the Race to the Top initiative overturned some of the heavy testing requirements of the previous No Child Left Behind Act--which was very heavy on "accountability" and accountability at the classroom and teacher level: which meant testing. This is why states have been reluctant to jettison the CC, even with major backlashes against it: without the Common Core (or a set of standards so similar there's little difference) states have to return to the No Child Left Behind requirements which are much heavier on the testing, and require serious--and probably unreachable--results. (All children must be above average sorts of results.)

I think much of the education world is in a panic and reaching for ideas to improve educational outcomes. Spending on education has skyrocketed in the last few decades, with little or nothing to show for the extra money in terms of results. (Though, a large chunk of that money is being spent on special-needs kids who in the past were either not mainstreamed or were stuck off in a corner and ignored.) Class sizes have been shrunk with little benefits seen. "Technology" and computers have proliferated with little in the way of benefits. "Reform Math" replaced "New Math" replaced "traditional math" with little benefit. "Whole Word" replaced "Phonics" and failed miserably. Everything they've tried has failed.

With little in the way of results, schools are eliminating anything that isn't 3-R related: art, music, even academic subjects like history and science have been put on the back burner. Free play time was often the first to go.

This isn't the result of Common Core, this is the result of decades of failure in our education system. (And even schools which we consider good schools, like the nice suburban ones which we don't consider a problem, often stack up poorly to schools around the world.) They don't know what to do, and don't know how to fix the system.

If they are once again turning to a system which will backfire--less free time for squirming children, it is entirely in line with most of what they've tried over several decades.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One central misconception of teachers

Our 12-year-old 7th grader has his second "creative" project of the school year--which is just over a week old.

The first was assigned by his Humanities teacher in the middle of the first week of school (they started in classrooms on 9/8--very late. The previous week was an all-school retreat.) The assignment was due the middle of the second week and was this: take a small coffee can (provided by the teacher) and decorate it with your name and photo, from it hang 4-5 items which represent you. Yes, they were assigned to make a mobile in 7th grade. This had no academic content and was explained by the teacher as a way to decorate the classroom.

The second "creative" project is of an academic nature. In Science class, they were assigned to "creatively" show the five characteristics of living organisms: they grow, they respond to stimuli, they reproduce, etc. My nephew asked if a research paper could be considered "creative" and if it would be acceptable, and the teacher replied that he really only wanted students to spend maybe 45 minutes on it...Which left the answer a bit open: could you do a research paper, if it only took you about 45 minutes? I'm not sure the teacher ever answered that. Since our kid has adopted the use of Dragon voice recognition software, writing a short paper in 45 minutes isn't much of a problem. He did a paper last year which was about a page long and had it done in 15 minutes.

What I'm left wondering is: why do teachers think that a "creative" assignment takes less time than a written one? (This puts aside the issue of why they don't think expository writing is creative.) The coffee can assignment took our kid several hours over two days to complete, and required a parental trip to the art store for spray paint and letter stickers. He had to: paint a base layer onto the can, place letter stickers on it for his name, spray paint the top color of paint over the can, remove the stickers to reveal the name underneath, create the dangling objects (which he first did in clay, but redid by printing images from online onto printable shrinky-dink film), tie all the objects to strings, decorate the top string as required in the assignment, print out a photo (also on shrinky-dink) then hot glue it to the can. This came after he had already turned in a summary of his design for approval earlier in the week. All together, this might have taken him three or four hours or more. Academic content: 0.0.

The science class discussed some of the options for the project, with the main one being a poster. But just going to the store to buy posterboard would take 10-20 minutes, which should be counted as part of the project time (and actually, in real man-hours it should count double, as it also usually requires a parent to accompany the student,) as should assembling the craft supplies to be used: markers, stickers, a ruler for lettering, etc. Why do teachers think that creative art projects don't require time-consuming planning and execution? (Not to mention the frustration level when a kid's creativity and artistic abilities are mismatched.) Unless a student doesn't care about the aesthetics of the "creative" assignment, it can take a long time to arrange the piece, add consistent lettering, decorate it, etc. None of that time is spent actually engaging the topic--or even thinking about it!

In the same amount of time, a student can often create a solid page of writing which actually concentrates on the educational material and not on the crafting materials.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Homework problems

Stupid activity of the week for our kids (this is for 6th grade):
  1. Select an object. (He chose a book.)
  2. Measure the dimensions of the object 
  3. Calculate the surface area and volume.
  4. If you were to place this object into a cylindrical mailing tube, what should be the dimensions of the tube?
  5. What about a triangular prism?
  6. Rectangular prism?
  7. What are the surface areas and volumes of these boxes?
  8. Determine which of these boxes fits your object best.
  9. Explain why.
  • Time required: 90 minutes, minimum.
  • Educational value (0-10): 2. 
  • Opportunity cost (cost of time wasted which could have been spent doing something useful, instead of cutting and taping cardboard) (0-10): 9.
  • Teacher's perception of the "fun" value of project (0-10): 9.
  • Students' perception of the "fun" value of project (0-10): 0.
  • Potential student frustration level when the cardboard doesn't cut and the tape doesn't stick (0-10): 8.
  • Requisite parent participation level when frustrated kid wastes an hour and a half on a dumb-&^% and pointless assignment building a box, and parent gets exasperated by the time wasted and takes over (0-10): 6.
Addendum: Apparently, this got worse. In class today, they had to make up a story about where they were sending the box! 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Common Core

I recently came across some posts by my brother in the comments section over on NRO. The subject was the Common Core. He and I seem to agree about one thing: there is nothing, or little, actually in the math standards that are objectionable. The point-by-point details in the Common Core, of what students should learn each year, aren't that bad. Many people—even the CC’s strongest critics—admit that the CC math standards are better than what most of the states had before. I follow the arguments surrounding the Common Core's math standards fairly intensively and rarely have I seen actual nit-picking of individual standards. (Apart from the fact that they are often written in bureaucratic gobbledygook.)

The criticism I have seen hits many different notes:

  1. The pacing is slow. James Milgram, one of the CC's major critics, has said that the CC puts US kids one year behind our peer countries' math curricula by 5th grade, and two years behind by the end of 7th grade. In other words, what we teach in 7th, other countries cover in 5th. And it gets worse every year.
    [ James Milgram ] For example, by the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in the Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high achieving countries. By the end of seventh grade Core Standards are roughly two years behind.
    In addition, a lead writer of the Core, Jason Zimba, has said in a public forum and on camera that the math standards are "not only not for STEM, they are also not for selective colleges." In other words, students who follow the CC pacing in math will not be prepared to get into a selective college and will not be prepared to study a STEM field if they do get in. Zimba can be seen saying this in the short movie "Building the Machine" starting at about 20:40 in.

    Keep in mind what this means: no student who follows the Common Core’s pacing will be prepared to major in math, science or engineering in college.

    When Jason ZImba was later questioned about his public statements that the CC math standards would not prepare kids for selective colleges or for STEM studies, he tried to say that he never said anything of the sort. Only when he was faced with the actual video of him saying exactly that, was he forced to address the issue. He continues to obfuscate and pretend that he didn’t really say what he clearly said.

    Did he misspeak? Most people who look over the standards would say that he did not; the CC math standards are minimalist and aimed at making sure that everyone has a basic level of competence. They are not aimed at the high end of the spectrum or at future math and science majors. In addition, the Common Core documentation states that it prepares kids for the level of study provided at community colleges, and not for studies at more rigorous schools.
  2. This brings up a semi-related point. I recently was talking to a parent in the Santa Monica school system. She has a daughter in 6th grade who is advanced in math. She is ready to take algebra next year. However, Santa Monica's adoption of the CC has included a jettisoning of all accelerated tracks of math study. Her daughter will not be allowed to take algebra in school until 9th grade. I remember when California passed the law adopting the CC, it did so in a rigid manner. The law said that what the CC says students should be taught in 7th is what all students should taught in 7th--even if they are ready for advanced work. This eliminated the possibility of accelerated math. There was some talk about fixing this, and I know not all districts and schools have taken Santa Monica's position, but many have. Keep in mind, that in taking algebra in 9th grade, you cannot be on track to take calculus in high school--in a rigid system like this, high school calculus is not an option.

    Can this interpretation of the CC standards be laid at the feet of the CC? In part, yes. The Common Core does not talk at all about advanced students or allowing an advanced track with calculus as an end-point in high school. That has given schools, districts, and states an excuse to eliminate or reduce math tracking.
  3. On the other end of the spectrum, Common Core makes no allowances for students who are not developmentally ready for the work required in the given grade-level standard. A student with special needs must be taught the grade-level standard math even if they are years behind in understanding, or even in the ability to understand the material. This is an "all students must be average" approach, which does not take into account the needs of learning disabled kids. Instead of giving those kids a curriculum which will advance them from where they are to where they can reasonably be at the end of the year, these students will be in way over their head with no chance of actually understanding the material and with little to help them catch up.

    For example: Students who have not mastered counting to 100 might be required by the standard to do multiplication and division. How can they possibly progress when the curriculum is so far out of their reach?

  4. What is now happening, as the Common Core standardized tests are being taken in places like New York, is a massive upwelling of complaints about them. 
    Elementary school teacher Ralph Ratto the day after administering CC math exams:  I was angry that my students were victims in the abusive game to drive a political agenda.

    I lost it today. I lost a little bit of my self-esteem. I lost my faith in my party. I lost my faith in my ability to protect my students. I lost my faith in our future.

    I watched my students valiantly attempt math questions that most adults could not answer. These questions were wordy, and purposely confusing in a warped way to prove some point about our public education system.

    Historically, my students excel on standardized tests, often finishing near the top of our district and state. Today I witnessed –, no I was part of!!  – a situation in which students were forced to endure what amounted to what I would call an abusive situation.
    I can’t tell, without seeing the unpublished questions, whether he is complaining about how poorly-written these tests are, or whether they are testing math which is beyond the students’ learning. Is it simply the way they are asked to show their knowledge? Or are they being asked about things they haven’t been taught?

    Many of the complaints seem to be of the former variety: these tests are awful. That is a temporary problem, as the tests get better over time and as stupid questions and wording are removed. As I understand it, the NY exams were actually testing the tests, not the students. They were a dry run to see how well the tests worked. By the word leaking out about them, they seem to have failed in spectacular fashion.

    But, if it is a case of the students not having learned the material yet, then that might just mean that there will be an adjustment period. The new math standards are higher in many states than what was in place before, and it will take several years for the students to catch up to the standard. It should be that first graders starting out with these standards should do just fine. It’s only the older students who are being thrown in the deep end.

    The weird thing about this, is that many of the complaints against the Core are of the “it’s too slow” variety, but here, it might be too fast. Is this just because there needs to be a period of adjustment, or is the standard really too high for the average student?

  5. In the only direct complaint against the actual standards I have seen, supposedly, the high school geometry standards came out of nowhere and embrace an odd view of geometry. I don't know if this is true or not, but I do know that the classic geometry of proofs and theorems and corollaries has been dying for a long time. Geometry was my favorite math class, and I loved the proofs-based course. If it has been dying for a while, it is hard to attribute that to CC.
  6. In fact, that's true with many of the complaints against CC: what critics are complaining about isn't really the CC, but the education establishment's strange ideas of how math should be taught, and what they are and have been teaching for decades. Many of the crazy examples of homework coming home supposedly “Common Core Aligned” are not any different than what was seen prior to the adoption of the Common Core. 
  7. This includes the word-heavy explanations required in K-12 math today, and the belief that if you can’t explain something in words, then you don’t really understand it. Showing your work used to be enough to show understanding: if you could show the steps you took, you already showed your understanding. Now, even simple tasks have to be explained in complete sentences.

    I’ve seen examples, including with our kids, of students baffled by how you explain why 5 x 6 = 30, or how you got that 3+3 = 6. My nephew, when asked to explain a simple problem this year, said: “They take something simple and make it so hard!”

    One of the problems with this verbal-based math is that when kids are learning basic arithmetic they have not necessarily yet developed the linguistic abilities to explain things. You can fully understand that 5 x 6 = 30, you might even picture a 5 x 6 grid of objects, you might understand that this means adding 5 to itself 6 times, and might also understand that it means adding 6 to itself 5 times; and still not be able to put that in words.

    As for explanations of the obvious, my favorite answer I’ve seen so far is: “my brain told me so.” At some point the language of mathematics becomes a real language and is sufficient to show understanding.  Today’s math teachers don’t seem to agree.

    This is especially hard on English-language learners, on kids whose brains take better to math than language, and on kids with learning/reading/writing disabilities.

    It used to be that non-English speaking immigrants, in particular, could get ahead through math and science. Because language skills were less important than in other studies, they could become engineers, mathematicians, programmers, etc. Today, when everything has to be verbally explained in words instead of equations, students like this have less hope of advancement.

    But, again, this is not necessarily to be laid at the door of the Common Core. These trends in mathematics education are long-standing and entrenched. What the Common Core adds to the problem is simply this: it locks the entire country down to this style of math education (and the accompanying documentation of the Common Core does do this, even if the individual standards do not) regardless of whether it is wise.

  8. As for crappy worksheets coming home with the Common Core label, I would say that math textbooks and especially workbooks are notoriously bad. My nephew came home with a worksheet last week which had only six problems on the whole page and with a “match each problem to its answer” format—in other words, the answers were all on the page, and you just had to link up the problem with the appropriate answer. But, for one problem the actual answer was missing. This was for finding the volume of a triangular prism, and whoever wrote the worksheet forgot that when calculating the area of the triangular face you need to divide by 2:  b * h / 2 . Obviously, no one had bothered to check the worksheet for accuracy—including his teacher.

    Math books tend to be written by freelance writers who are working on a rushed pay-by-the-problem basis. Editors prize speed over accuracy and don’t care if the books follow a coherent, systematic progression.

    With the adoption of the Common Core, publishers sped to slap the label of “Common Core Aligned” on everything possible in their library, and commissioned rush-jobs of new material. Editing costs money and provides little, or no, return on publishers’ investment, so little editing took place. I don’t really see the Common Core texts and worksheets as being anything worse than what came before. It is simply that these things are now under greater scrutiny, and parents are wondering what the heck is going on.

  9. "Internationally Benchmarked" and "research based" claims about the Common Core are complete fabrications. The few attempts to compare the CC standards to our international peers fall into two camps: a) comparisons done by CC partisans which show some  correlations and b) comparisons done by independent or anti-CC partisans showing no or negative correlations. Either way, the studies are few and far between and have been done *after* the standards were written.

    Though the CC writing process is somewhat shrouded in secrecy, it does not appear that the committees that drew up the standards did so with an eye to our international competition. In fact, there is little research done about anything in the CC or about the CC in general. A recent study, by the Brookings Institution,  showed that those students in states with a math curriculum most unlike CC did better than those states with a CC-like curriculum. The correlations were small, but the point here is that there is nothing out there which shows that CC is a superior (or even adequate) curriculum—or, conversely, that it is a bad curriculum. There is simply little out there to look at. 

  10. Similarly, the claim that his was “state led” is bogus. This came out of the Gates Foundation and from a consortium of education think tanks that Gates had funded. Actual state involvement came after the fact when they were asked “hey, do you like this?” They were allowed no actual input during the writing process. So, yes, the promoters are lying about it, but that doesn’t mean the standards themselves are therefore bad.  For a rundown of how the Common Core came to be written the movie “Building the Machine” goes through it.
  11. Prior to the adoption of the Common Core by 45 states, each state was on their own. At least two states, Massachusetts and California, are widely acknowledged to have had a better and more rigorous math standards before their adoption of the Common Core. Several states had to dumb down their standards to adopt the Core.

    In fact, in this case, the rigidity of standards was also a routine complaint. California, in particular, required algebra in 8th grade; this despite the fact that many students were simply not ready for it. Setting the bar that high meant that many students failed and hit the wall.

    If anything, the argument should be made that it is not the grade level, which is largely decided by a student’s age, that is important, but what they are realistically capable of understanding given their prior learning. Common Core, like many standards before it, often does not take this into account.

    The problem, as I see it here, is that the methods used by many teachers, and those they are led to believe in at ed school, simply do not work: Group math projects. Homework with only a handful of problems. No drilling of math facts. “Spiraling” curriculum, which believes in going over something lightly again and again every few months in the hopes that something will eventually sink in—instead of carefully, methodically, and systematically making sure the kids learn it the first time. The constant attempts to make every aspect of math class “fun” instead of addressing those aspects which simply take focus, work, and dedication.

    This has nothing to do with the Common Core, and points to a deeper issue at the heart of education. Common Core, unfortunately, does nothing to negate, and often supports, these teaching methods.

  12. What was the rush? The Race to the Top program required states to adopt the Common Core standards by a certain date (if they were applying for RttT grant money, which most did). The final standards were only published a month or two beforehand. There was very little time for debate and for deep assessments to be made before it got passed. Once again, however, that doesn’t address whether the standards themselves are good or bad, just that the states which adopted them had very little time to review them. The RttT initiative dangled the carrot of grant money, and states signed on without really analyzing the standards.
  13. Just like anything else, the Common Core will obey the law of unintended consequences. If you ask any of the people involved in its creation, or in the government who pushed for, or who voted to adopt the Common Core, you are likely to hear some variation of the hope that this will help poor and disadvantaged kids get ahead; and moreover, that the Common Core should reduce inequality. In part, that might be true, but with a ceiling on these students’ aspirations.
    Because in many states the Common Core is an improvement on what existed before, those students in those states who stick to the new program should come out the other side in a better position than their predecessors.

    However, as I said above, the Common Core is not a selective-college or STEM-ready standard. Poor and disadvantaged students, or students with poorly educated parents, will be completely reliant on the schools to give them their math curriculum. On the other hand, students in the middle-class or better, and students with well-educated parents will get more.

    The family in Santa Monica that I mentioned earlier will not simply have their daughter twiddle her thumbs for the next two years until her peers catch up with her and she can finally be allowed to take algebra. The family will hire the tutors necessary to make sure that their child continues to stay on the track she is on now.

    There are six Kumon centers within five miles of where I’m sitting. There are two Mathnasiums in that same area. There is one Sylvan. There is one C2 center. There are many other smaller tutoring centers as well. In addition there are many people who tutor independently, including myself. We are in a middle class to upper-middle class neighborhood, and just to our east is Koreatown. All around us are parents who are not going to let their kids fall behind and who have the resources to make certain that they do not.

    Poor kids have no such opportunity. Those students who are stuck in schools that are eliminating math tracking in the name of the Common Core, and who will only offer a single not-STEM or selective-college-ready curriculum, will bifurcate between those getting outside help and those who can only afford to be taught at school. To some extent, this has always been true. But with more systems eliminating tracking, more students will be denied advanced study.

  14. The effects on public colleges and universities should also be taken into account. As part of the push for the adoption of the Common Core, the Race to the Top initiative included a stipulation—signed onto by 45 states—that any student who completed the Common Core math curriculum in high school could not be placed in remedial math in public colleges and universities. They must be placed in non-remedial, credit-bearing classes. With current colleges often requiring 40-50% of their freshmen to take remedial math, this will require a great deal of shifting on the part of schools. This can take several paths:

    a) They can just put students in the intro college classes and let them crash and burn. This one is highly unlikely to happen, especially when the kids crashing and burning are likely to be disproportionately poor minorities who went to crappy high schools.

    b) They can dumb down the intro courses so that the students can pass. This is the most-likely scenario, and will result in the level of college math work diminishing for many.

    c) They can remove the requirement to take math in order to graduate, depending on the major chosen.

    This is actually not necessarily a bad thing. While I would say that the ability to do college algebra should be universal among college students, I would also wonder why someone majoring in social work needs to pass algebra? Or why someone majoring in early-childhood education (say preschool – third) would need to?

    There are many college majors and post-college careers that simply do not require math at all. Many adults will never do another algebra-style problem for the rest of their lives. Apart from showing a level of mental discipline, why is college algebra required for these studies?

    I know one former community college student who could not pass algebra to save her life. In the end she dropped out of school and never got her AB. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. She went on to start a small business and is doing well—either way, she will never be called upon to do any algebra problem at any time for the rest of her life.

    When college algebra puts up an impenetrable barrier to students who want to study something which has nothing to do with math, and in which they can do well, why is math a requirement at all? I would think it is quite likely that the math requirement will be removed from many majors and as a general requirement for graduation. It might be replaced with something like a statistics course, which would be much more useful to more students than college algebra.

  15. Some of the weakest critiques of the Common Core are about the process of its implementation and the knee-jerk reaction to nationalizing school standards.

    a) To some extent this is justified. As Jay P. Greene, in particular, has tried to point out, there are at least two separate federal laws which explicitly prevent the federal government from creating or trying to implement a national curriculum. Race to the Top and the Common Core violate those laws.
    The intent of Congress is clear: The federal government cannot mandate, direct, supervise, or control curriculum or programs of instruction.  Indeed, the legislative history of the DEOA [Department of Education Organization Act] underscores this, as does its statement of intent “to protect the rights of State and local governments . . . in the areas of educational policy” and to “not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education or diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States and local school systems.” Yet…the Department is evading these prohibitions and using proxies to cement national standards and assessments that will inevitably direct the content of K-­12 curriculum, programs of instruction, and instructional materials across the nation.
    So, whether or not the CC is a good idea, it seems to be explicitly illegal according to several laws governing the Department of Education. It is reasonable to add this to the list of extra-legal legislation coming out of the current White House, and it is reasonable to object to the CC on this basis alone.

    b) As I’ve said above, several states had better math standards pre-CC and had to jettison them to adopt the new standards; and  previously, each state wrote their own standards (or in some cases didn’t write standards at all).

    This plays to the old idea that states are “little incubators” of innovation. If one state has a better program, other states are free to use it as a model and alter their own in response. Hopefully the better states serve as exemplars until another state comes along and surpasses them. With a national set of standards, experimentation and change comes to an end. We will never know where that dynamic experimentation would have led.

  16. The weakest arguments of all, which I’ve seen too often, and which I think are things both my brother and I object to the most, are the “if it comes from Obama, it must be bad” mentality. A lot of the criticism starts with that idea, and searches for evidence to fit it. The standards themselves aren’t terrible, and aren’t even too bad. In some areas, they are quite good. Even if Obama’s name’s attached.
  17. At the end of the day, the people instituting the new standards, and the new curricula that go with them, are the same people who have been failing our kids for decades. The same mentality dominates in schools and ed schools. (Often against anything rigorous, and in favor of all things that are “fun,” and thus will make the children happy to learn. Not all that children need to learn can be constantly “fun”—you still have to learn how to spell, and you still have to learn your math facts.)   
I often liken the implementation of the Common Core to the whole country throwing all its educational balls up in the air at the same time. Considering how bad the system has been, you would think that whatever gets reassembled would be an improvement; but, the same people who were in charge before are the ones now catching the balls, and they will do their utmost to try to put them right back where they were.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Construct this!

A nice overview journal article detailing how little scientific basis is behind constructivist educational techniques, and how much is behind direct instruction. It also talks about how project-based learning techniques overtax working memory and can work against creating long-term memories:

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching
The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.


Working memory has two well-known characteristics: When processing novel information, it is very limited in duration and in capacity. We have known at least since Peterson and Peterson (1959) that almost all information stored in working memory and not rehearsed is lost within 30 sec and have known at least since Miller (1956) that the capacity of working memory is limited to only a very small number of elements. That number is about seven according to Miller, but may be as low as four, plus or minus one (see, e.g., Cowan, 2001). Furthermore, when processing rather than merely storing information, it may be reasonable to conjecture that the number of items that can be processed may only be two or three, depending on the nature of the processing required.


Furthermore, that working memory load does not contribute to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory because while working memory is being used to search for problem solutions, it is not available and cannot be used to learn. Indeed, it is possible to search for extended periods of time with quite minimal alterations to long-term memory.


None of the preceding arguments and theorizing would be important if there was a clear body of research using controlled experiments indicating that unguided or minimally guided instruction was more effective than guided instruction. In fact, precisely as one might expect from our knowledge of human cognition and the distinctions between learning and practicing a discipline, the reverse is true. Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it. 


Problem-solving search is an inefficient way of altering long-term memory because its function is to find a problem solution, not alter long-term memory. Indeed, problem-solving search can function perfectly with no learning whatsoever (Sweller, 1988). Thus, problem-solving search overburdens limited working memory and requires working memory resources to be used for activities that are unrelated to learning. As a consequence, learners can engage in problem-solving activities for extended periods and learn almost nothing