Thursday, October 6, 2016

“Empowerment or Abandonment”

Dean Dad has some insightful things to say about the ways different students react to different teaching approaches.

At the time, I felt confident in my overall philosophy, even if not necessarily in every single moment.  My job, as I saw it, was to create students who didn’t need professors.  At some level, I still believe that.  After all, when they graduate, they won’t have professors or t.a.’s around to decode things for them. 

From a distance, though, and in a very different institutional setting, I see a different possible interpretation of what I was doing.  Students with some cultural capital, and some academic confidence, could respond to that sort of teaching as a challenge, and some did.  Students without much cultural or academic capital could read it as indifference, and respond in kind.  That wasn’t what I intended, but intentions only get you so far.  If you’re a student with a relatively fragile sense of belonging in college in the first place, someone refusing to help you could look like a sign of hostility, or as confirmation that you don’t belong. 

The teaching style with which I started was the one I had seen quite a bit as a student.  I cobbled together a general theory behind it and went with it.  And at the flagship research university where I was in grad school, it worked tolerably well.  The students generally were well-enough prepared in traditional ways that they could work with it.  They didn’t always like it, but they could work with it.

Upon moving to a very different setting, it took a while to make the adjustment. 

I was reminded of that recently in visiting a class of entering students and hearing them describe their own frustration at some institutional practices designed to empower them.  What was supposed to convey empowerment instead made them feel abandoned. 

The challenge in designing systems for students is in accurately picturing different students encountering it for the first time.  Does being told “it’s on the website” come as a relief -- “I don’t have to wait for you!” -- or as evasion (“why won’t you help me?”)?  Given the diversity of the student body at most community colleges, the answer is “yes.” 

The long-term answer (!), I think, is in conceiving of all of our processes as part of the learning experience.  Even if the eventual goal is to foster empowered, self-directed learners, some need more initial guidance than others to get there.  And that’s okay; people start in different places.  I can just imagine if I hired a personal trainer who started with “okay, let’s warm up with a five mile run.”  Um, no.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe someday, but not right out of the gate.  Replace “five mile run” with “five page paper” or “FAFSA workshop,” and the same principle holds.  If you don’t start within shouting distance of where people are, you’ll lose them.

Why AP?

I always got the feeling that others saw something in the advanced placement program that I didn't. It was never entirely clear to me why people who so often complained that our schools were doing a poor job teaching secondary-level courses were so damned happy about the same schools trying to teach college-level.

I did understand the argument for key prerequisite courses like calculus or statistics. Getting those out of the way in high school could be very helpful when trying to complete, say, an engineering degree in four years. Putting aside those exceptions, though, there didn't seem to be much point. We already had a program set up for self-study and testing out of courses. CLEP-based approaches are flexible, self-paced and cheap. They reward initiative and independence. They provide an excellent ready-made foundation when you're experimenting with new methods (If the people behind MOOCs were serious…). AP courses are, by comparison, expensive, tradition bound, cumbersome, difficult to schedule, and best serve students who are already well served by the conventional high school classroom approach.

From the moment they were introduced, AP courses tended to force out more varied and interesting elective courses for a standard slate of General Ed classes. In terms of quality of instruction, it was a Peter Principle anecdote waiting to happen. At best, you had teachers who were good at algebra and geometry being pushed out of their depth. At worst, you had faculty members who were good at sucking up to the administration being rewarded with plum positions.

Worse still was the inequality question. The schools that already had an unfair advantage in terms of financing and demographics were the very ones that could attract the highly qualified teachers with advanced degrees.

AP classes also play to one of the worst trends in education, the bury-the-kids-in-work approach which brings us to this recent essay from the Washington Post.

From Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course by Kate Haas

My misgivings started when the homework began to pile up. I knew my son would have a lot of material to cover — the syllabus had been explicit about the required reading. But most of his homework seemed to consist of filling in charts. Night after night, I watched him spend hours scanning the pages of his textbook for relevant facts about ancient civilizations. He was not reading to learn but simply to plug correct bits of information into appropriate boxes.

“But you talk about this stuff in class, right?” I asked him. “You discuss the Code of Hammurabi, and all that?”

No, he told me, they did not. They took notes from the teacher’s slideshow presentations.

This did not remind me of college.

I graduated from an academically rigorous liberal arts school. In my freshman humanities class, I read a book a week: philosophy, literature, biographies, social science. But my classmates and I did not spend our time charting the number of syllables in Emily Dickinson’s poems or listing all the noble houses in Ssu-ma Chien’s chronicle of Chinese history. We were asked to think critically, raise questions, cite relevant passages and discuss a work’s implications in the wider world.

Nothing like that appeared to be taking place in my son’s AP history class. But I kept my mouth shut.

“I would enjoy learning about this,” he told me one night, “if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

“I’m sure that’s not the whole point,” I said.

At back-to-school night, I looked forward to meeting the teacher, who would undoubtedly put all this in perspective. Instead, she talked for 15 minutes about tests and grading policies.

At the end, my husband raised his hand. “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?” he asked.

I leaned forward expectantly. Now, surely, the teacher would mention an appreciation for the sweep of human history or the importance of an informed perspective on world events.

“Test-taking strategies and study skills,” she said briskly. “That’s the main thing.”

[This post originally ran on the sister blog West Coast Stat Views.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Cosmo Garvin give us a tour of the Johnson/Rhee machine

Perhaps the saddest part is that, even after all this, there are still a number of movement reformers who continue to hold Michelle Rhee up as a martyr being so blunt because she cared so much.

Sacramento Shakedown  [emphasis added]

For his community work, Johnson was named one of George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” in 1991. The Sacramento Bee described Johnson’s charity as “almost saintly.”

Looked at more closely, it’s clear that the public benefits promised by Johnson’s various “public–private partnerships” often fail to materialize. Or they come at a very high price. A few examples:

• St. Hope’s development arm built Oak Park’s signature “40 Acres” building, including a beautifully restored Guild Theater, bookstore, and Oak Park’s first Starbucks. It also took nearly $3 million in city loans and grants. But for years, Oak Park residents complained that St. Hope’s properties were overgrown with weeds and illegal dumping. Johnson’s properties gathered dozens of code violations—racking up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Today, the St. Hope website still promises that some of those properties “will be renovated over the next five years” or that they are “scheduled for 2007.” But as that last vow makes painfully clear, the website hasn’t been updated in years; meanwhile, the properties sit empty, unbuilt, or unrefurbished.

• St. Hope also promised to save Johnson’s alma mater, Sacramento High School. Lagging test scores in the early 2000s put Sac High on the state’s list of “failing schools.” Established in 1856, Sac High billed itself as the “second-oldest high school west of the Mississippi,” though the current building dates only from the 1970s. In 2003 the school board gave Sac High to Johnson’s St. Hope to run as a charter school.

The closure of Sac High was bitterly contested. Groups of parents and activists tried for years to kick St. Hope out and revive it as a neighborhood school. The takeover created an undying enmity between Johnson and the Sacramento teachers’ union. Sacramento Charter High School is a success if you go by test scores and graduation rates. But no real empirical comparison can be fairly made between the teeming comprehensive high school of two thousand students and the small charter school of nine hundred that is there today. The latter has an application process, and the local teachers’ union has accused the school of “counseling out” students who don’t perform. In other words, Johnson didn’t turn around Sac High—he gutted it and established a much smaller, more selective school in its place.

• St. Hope’s “Hood Corps” program was funded with AmeriCorps grants to get young volunteers involved in tutoring at-risk youth and other kinds of community service. In 2008 federal officials found that St. Hope had misused the AmeriCorps money for Johnson’s “personal needs and purposes and/or to provide added free or subsidized staff for one or more of the entities controlled by Mr. Johnson.” In other words, the AmeriCorps money helped pay salaries of St. Hope employees. Hood Corps students were also used to run errands for Johnson, to wash his car, and to recruit students for Johnson’s charter schools. Some were even assigned to work on political campaigns for incumbent school board members who, according to federal investigators, “would be more likely to vote in favor of renewing Sac High’s charter.” St. Hope eventually had to give back more than $400,000 to AmeriCorps, and for a time Johnson was barred from receiving public funds from the federal government.


There’s another striking difference between KJ’s charitable network and the nonprofit funds that other mayors control. Whereas the LA mayor’s fund is run by a board of prominent citizens, many with backgrounds in philanthropy, Johnson’s nonprofits are run entirely by his friends and political consultants.

The flagship nonprofit of KJ Inc. is, of course, St. Hope. As mayor, Johnson has been able to leverage, from real estate and other local interests, about $3 million in donations to support the family business. The biggest donors include Sacramento’s biggest sprawl developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos; arena developer Mark Friedman and his family; and Kevin Nagle, part owner of the Sacramento Kings and majority owner of the Sacramento Republic soccer team. Nagle is also on the St. Hope board of directors. All these men have been big donors to Johnson’s election campaigns and to his strong-mayor ballot measure. But while they are limited by strict political campaign contribution limits, they can give unlimited amounts to Johnson’s nonprofits.

They, along with other business interests, also give heavily to Johnson’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation (SPPF), which is more closely associated with Johnson’s job as mayor. SPPF collects donations from interested parties who want to curry favor with the mayor, and then distributes the cash to various policy initiatives under Johnson’s direction. For a time, these initiatives included an environmental brand called Greenwise Sacramento and an arts program called For Arts’ Sake. Neither of these groups ever did much, and both are now dead links on Johnson’s website.

The real project of SPPF is Johnson’s “Think Big” initiative, which the mayor advertises as a way to “promote transformative projects that catalyze job creation and economic development.” But Think Big would be more accurately described as a public relations shop for stadium subsidies, coordinated out of City Hall, with the labor of city employees.


This was thinking big, indeed. The really innovative part of the KJ Inc. model of governance is the way in which it has studiously blurred the lines between the public and private sector. The players are hard to keep straight without a scorecard. Johnson hired former redevelopment manager Cassandra Jennings to be a liaison between his nonprofits and the mayor’s office. Jennings is on the city payroll, and also on the SPPF board of directors. In 2014 her husband, Rick Jennings—who was on the same school board that gave Sac High to St. Hope—also got himself elected to the city council. Not surprisingly, Jennings has been a reliable vote for his wife’s boss.


More typically, the operations of KJ Inc. go on with no public scrutiny at all. That’s especially true of Johnson’s use of City Hall to advance his brand of education reform, which seeks to roll back teacher protections and turn many more public schools into charters.

Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.

As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.

Fenty would lose reelection in 2010, in part because of Rhee’s confrontational tactics—like her ill-timed announcement that she was firing 241 underperforming D.C. public school teachers (and putting 737 more D.C. public school employees “on notice”) weeks ahead of the mayoral ballot. Once Rhee was sent packing along with Fenty, she was well positioned to clean up on the well-heeled foundation and government-affairs circuits, beginning with the anti-teachers’-union lobbying shop Students First, headquartered just two blocks north of California’s State Capitol and two blocks south of Sacramento City Hall.

That also happened to be the address of Johnson’s own education-related nonprofit, called Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. On its tax forms, Stand Up’s stated mission is “to ensure that every child in Sacramento has the opportunity to attend an excellent public school.”

Standing Offers

In fact, Stand Up does next to nothing for Sacramento’s public schools. It is mostly a political organization, leveraging the mayor’s office to promote Johnson’s ideological brand of educational reform, and to promote Johnson himself.

This prime directive is spelled out in a 2011 email from Johnson to a potential Stand Up recruit—cc’d to Johnson’s executive assistant, a city employee. KJ says a large part of Stand Up’s function is to support his efforts to “advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA [No Child Left Behind], and LIFO (‘last in, first out’).” LIFO is the practice of laying off teachers with less seniority, a policy much in vogue among educational reformers. Johnson also mentions Stand Up’s support for “parent trigger” laws in California, which enable parents to vote to turn neighborhood schools into charters.

For more then a decade now, all these policies have been flash points in the ed reform wars. And most of Stand Up’s money comes from outside Sacramento, from the big underwriters of the school reform movement, like the Walmart-owning Walton family and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. In fact, Stand Up has taken in more money in mayoral behests than any of Johnson’s other nonprofits, more than $4 million since he took office.

Early on, Stand Up hosted education town halls and viewing parties for the pro-charter film Waiting for “Superman.” Stand Up promoted Teach for America and City Year in Sacramento schools, over the objections of local teachers’ unions. It supported Johnson’s frequent advocacy junkets to other frontline venues in the school wars, such as his trip to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to stump for a ballot initiative to take power away from the local school board and put it in the hands of the mayor. (Fortunately for the citizens of Bridgeport, the measure failed.)

About the only not-overtly-political thing Stand Up has touched is a reading tutoring program it helped to coordinate in 2011. The actual tutoring work was contracted to another group, which soon took over the project entirely. True to form, Johnson’s “Sacramento Reads” program is now just another dead link on KJ’s website.

Stand Up’s website contains video highlights of a handful of “education policy summits” in other cities, such as Nashville and Atlanta. These clips show Johnson, Rhee, and other Students First employees giving the ed reform pitch. But those events were nearly a year ago. Stand Up’s Facebook and Twitter feeds haven’t been updated in a year. When I called Stand Up’s directors of operations, and longtime KJ associate from back in the Phoenix days, Tracy Stigler, for an update, he hung up on me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Matt Yglesias may not be helping his cause -- REPOST

[I originally posted this at the Stat blog in 2013 but it's going to be relevant to an upcoming thread so I thought I'd reintroduce it to the conversation.]

There was an odd exchange recently between Diane Ravitch and Matthew Yglesias.

Ravitch wrote a post about James Cersonsky's American Prospect article on Teach for America's political power. She introduced the post with this:
Teach for America began with a worthy goal: to supply bright, idealistic college graduates to serve in poor children in urban and rural districts.

But then it evolved into something with grand ambitions: to groom the leaders who would one day control American education.
Yglesias's response is rather strange. He doesn't mention Cersonsky or the American Prospect his post but  he only explicitly addresses points that come from Cersonsky's article; not from Ravitch. I say explicitly because the example Yglesias uses is certainly relevant to Ravitch's claim (though definitely not in the way he intended).
I thought of this over the weekend at my college reunion, where I met up with an old friend of mine who right after graduation was a science teacher in a public school in New Orleans. Later, she taught at a KIPP-affiliated school turnaround venture in New Orleans and then became founding assistant principal of a KIPP-affiliated school there. Then she moved back to the Boston area and became principal of a charter school called Excel Academy. Now she's a fellow at an nonprofit called Unlocking Potential, but soon she's going to become principal of a troubled public middle school in a a Massachusetts town whose school district has been placed in state receivership.
The part about reunion caught my eye. That's a lot of jobs for a 2003 graduate (Matt Yglesias '03 as they say at Harvard) so I did a little digging. I may have missed some important details but here's what turned up:

Barring a really astounding coincidence, Yglesias is talking about an educator named Komal Bhasin. Here's Bhasin's job history:

She taught from 2003 to 2005.

With a bachelor's degree and two years teaching experience, she was named assistant principal of a school.

With a bachelor's degree, two years teaching experience, and two years experience as an assistant principal, she was named principal of a different school halfway across the country. (You will often find sudden promotions within a school where you're dealing with known quantities. Putting a fledgling assistant principal in charge of a different school in a different region is much more unusual, particularly an administrator with almost no teaching experience.)

With these qualifications, and five years experience as a principal, she got a principal-in-residence with a high-profile education reform institute -- a relatively short tenure and thin resume for this kind of position.

Obviously, there's a limit to how much we should infer here, but Bhasin has indisputably gotten a series of promotions that were surprising given her job history, education and (as far as I can tell) publications and she has also gotten considerable exposure as a rising star in the reform movement .

Just to be clear, I am sure that Komal Bhasin is a smart and dedicated educator and may well be an excellent administrator. Nothing should take away from that, but it is also true that, given what we know, her career path would seem overwhelmingly to support the idea that she was being groomed for a Michelle Rhee type leadership role just the way Ravitch suggests.

In other words, Yglesias came up with a great example, just not for his side.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Dudeney's Honeycomb

The object of this puzzle by Henry Dudeney is to find the hidden proverb.

I'm thinking about doing a Puzzler's Guide to Problem Solving video on this, but I'm still working through the applicable heuristics.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

This is, of course, root beer and non-alcoholic wine

TFA's enrollment woes – the importance of putting numbers into context

[Originally posted at the statistics blog.]

This Washington Post piece by Emma Brown on the problems at Teach For America is interesting on a number of levels, definitely something you should take a look at if you've been following the story. [emphasis added]

Applications to Teach for America fell by 16 percent in 2016, marking the third consecutive year in which the organization — which places college graduates in some of the nation’s toughest classrooms — has seen its applicant pool shrink.


TFA received 37,000 applications in 2016, down from 57,000 in 2013 — a 35 percent dive in three years. It’s a sharp reversal for an organization that grew quickly during much of its 25-year history ["grew quickly" is certainly true in terms of budget, not so much in terms of members. See below -- MP], becoming a stalwart in education reform circles and a favorite among philanthropists.

Teach for America now boasts 50,000 corps members and alumni; some have stayed in the classroom and others have gone on to work in education in other ways, joining nonprofits, running for office and leading charter schools. Its alumni include some of most recognized names in public education, including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.


The declining interest means that TFA is providing fewer corps members to school districts each year: The organization generally accepts about 10 percent of its applicant pool, and it refuses to lower its bar for admission, [Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s chief executive] wrote. This year’s corps is likely to be several hundred smaller than last year’s.

“These shortfalls matter. Corps members are good at their work,” she wrote. “Our school and district partners want to hire far more of them than our current recruitment effort is producing.”

This certainly sounds like a big deal, but a few seconds on Google and some very quick, back of the envelope calculations reveal just how small these numbers are in relative terms.To put things in perspective, there are over 3 million full-time teachers. A drop of several hundred applicants won't be all that noticeable, even if all of them were going to high-need areas (and quite a few aren't).

As previously discussed, TFA is a minor player viewed as a supplier of teachers, but in terms of fundraising, it's a big deal.

From Wikipedia:

Year# of Applicants# of Incoming Corps Members# of RegionsOperating Budget

If all TFA did was recruit six thousand new teachers a year, there would be no way to justify these budgets, but of course, that was never the main focus. TFA is an advocacy group with a stated mission to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence." [again, emphasis added]

Though the organization is sometimes coy on the point, the focus has never been on leading from the classroom. The positions of real value are administrators, think-tank fellows, politicians, and education journalists, and the program is set up to help them rise to those spots, often at exceptional speed. We can go back and forth on whether a decline in the influence of TFA would be a good thing or a bad, but we probably don't need to worry about what the loss of "several hundred" prospective TFA members will do to the teaching pool.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

If we really want to close the achievement gap...

Perhaps the first step is simply making sure poor children receive adequate nutrition.

From Microeconomic Insights via Mark Thoma:

Adults who participated in the Food Stamp Program, renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, as children are healthier and better off financially than poverty-stricken families who did not have access to the program, according to findings in joint work with Douglas Almond and Diane Schanzenbach (this paper and a companion paper Almond, et al. 2011). Children with access were more likely as adults to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on government welfare programs as adults than impoverished children who did not have access to SNAP. Women, in particular, are substantially more likely to self-report they are in goffc905od health and are more economically self-sufficient in adulthood. We find no additional long-term health impacts for children from more exposure to the program during middle childhood, but individuals with access to food stamps before age 5 had measurably better health outcomes in adulthood with significant impacts for those in early childhood.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Remember that old saying about trying the same thing and expecting different results?

Here's an interesting one from Dean Dad that I've been meaning to go around to for a while:
In fact, students taking a class for the second time pass it at lower rates than students taking it the first time.  The third time at lower rates than the second.  With each new attempt, the percentage who pass gets lower.  (To be fair, the sample size gets pretty small once you hit really high numbers of attempts, so it’s hard to say if the percentage keeps going all the way to zero.  But it never reverses direction.)  You’d think it would get easier, but the data suggest otherwise.

It's possible that DD is being partially rhetorical with that part about expecting it to get easier (he's a smart guy, so my first impulse is to assume the best). Of course, it's generally true that reviewing material increases comprehension (particularly when there's a decent foundation to build on, something you usually don't have with students who failed the class before), but it's also true that approaches that have been tried twice and have failed both times are unlikely to succeed on their third try.

When I was teaching, I always tried to avoid simply repeating myself when students didn't understand what I had just said. The very fact that they were confused meant that I needed to try a different approach. If I were to become an administrator (and hell was frozen and pigs were flying and ... ), I would extend this way of thinking to the course level, first by collecting good diagnostic data and then by devising courses with different styles and instructional methods better suited to this population of students. This is one of the rare occasions where a MOOC might be my first choice.

a 102 year old bit of perspective

...From Sam Loyd

The problem with many of the education reform movement ideas is not so much that they're wrong, but that the reformers think they're the only ones to come up with them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Word puzzles and problem solving -- another video in the series

As mentioned before, the plan here is to focus on content and fast turnaround while keeping the production quality adequate for now.

In terms of content, the idea behind this particular series is to use the puzzles to introduce general problem solving concepts such as thinking about what aspects of a specific problem make it easy or difficult and how that information can suggest a direction for approaching the solution.

These aren't yet where I want them to be, but they're moving in the right direction. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

More quality control issues -- Regents exams edition

Math teacher and blogger Patrick Honner has been looking closely at the NY State Math Regents exams and found questions like this:



(sorry about the formatting)

If you remember your junior high algebra, you probably spotted the mistake here. This function doesn't have an inverse. Honner goes into detail on this point but I suspect everyone reading this knows where he's going, Sufficed to say, unless we add a condition like "for x greater than or equal to zero," the correct answer would be "does not exist."

Here's the answer that gets the student full credit (which is definitely not a function).

They get half credit if they leave off the plus-minus (which would actually have been the right answer if we had included the previously mentioned condition).

As Honner puts it:

In summary, you get full credit for the wrong answer, but if you forget the worst part of the that wrong answer (the plus-minus sign), you only receive half credit!  So someone actually scrutinized this problem and determined how this wrong answer could be less correct.  The irony is that this conceptual error might actually produce a more sensible answer.  The further we go, the less the authors seem to know about functions.
It gets worse. Following an outcry from teachers:

The next day, the state gave in and issued a scoring correction:  full credit was to be awarded for the correct answer, the original incorrect answer, and two other incorrect answers.  By accepting four different answers, including three that were incorrect, you might think the Regents board would have no choice but to own up to their mistake.  Quite the opposite.

Here’s the opening text of the official  Scoring Clarification from the Office of Assessment Policy:

Because of variations in the use of f^{-1} notation throughout New York State, a revised rubric for Question 32 has been provided.

There are no variations in the use of this notation, unless they wish to count incorrect usage as a variation.  I understand that it would be embarrassing to admit the depth of this error, which speaks to a lack of oversight in this process, but this meaningless explanation looks even worse.  This is a transparent attempt to sidestep responsibility, or, accountability, in this matter.

I realize New York is a big place, but between Eureka Math, the Success Academy schools and this, the state is more than pulling its weight when it comes to blog fodder.

Monday, March 28, 2016

More on Success Academy and discipline

Yes, there is a pattern.

Cyril Josh Barker writing for the Amsterdam News:

Fatima Geidi and Elizabeth Eloheim, who say their children were pushed out of Success Academy charter schools, brought their issues to lawmakers, urging them to protect students’ rights not increase taxpayer funding for charter schools. The mothers claim their children were victims of abusive disciplinary actions.

Eloheim alleges that her daughter, who attended Harlem 1 Success Academy, and her family were targeted because they questioned the abusive practices and policies at the charter school.

“It was one of the worst experiences of our life, and the long-lasting effects are devastating,” she said. “The school used deprivation of bathroom privileges as a discipline practice, which is inhumane.”

Geidi said her special needs son faced multiple suspensions when he was a student at Upper West Side Success Academy for things such as walking up the stairs too slowly.

“He was often accused of being too emotional,” Geidi said. “He has special needs but never received his mandated services and supports. At nine months pregnant, I finally gave in to the pressure of withdrawing my son, which is what the school wanted all along. The role of the school is to educate children, not displace them.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The quality control problems continue

A tutor with an after school program here in LA brought in this one. I believe it was from an eighth-graders homework assignment.

He said the problems had seemed straightforward at first. Each had two sentences that described relationships between two numbers. He walked the student through the steps of translating each sentence into an equation then using substitution to get one equation with one variable.

 The trouble started when he looked at the instructions.

The tutor immediately saw two problems. For starters, the first step (converting each sentence to an equation), greatly confusing the student. Worse still, the answer in the example was simply wrong: the solution to 8n = 112 is n = 14, not n = 14 and 98. This is the sort of thing that you gently correct when a student does it, not the sort of thing that should slip past a professional proofreader.

Going by what I see working with that program (admittedly a small and unrepresentative sample), most handouts these days seem to come from large companies. Back in my teaching days, I almost always made up my own handouts. I can understand the potential advantages of using ready-made educational materials -- creating these things is a time-consuming job -- but what I can't understand is how the quality control can be this bad.

I've been over this before, but the list keeps getting longer.

Monday, March 21, 2016

I don't actually need an excuse to post a Theremin video

... but if I did, I would point out that a clip of the instrument followed by a quick discussion is a great way of opening a lesson on the Cartesian coordinate system.

In case you've forgotten:

The theremin is distinguished among musical instruments in that it is played without physical contact. The thereminist stands in front of the instrument and moves his or her hands in the proximity of two metal antennae. The distance from one antenna determines frequency (pitch), and the distance from the other controls amplitude (volume). Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. Most frequently, the right hand controls the pitch and the left controls the volume, although some performers reverse this arrangement. Some low-cost theremins use a conventional, knob operated volume control and have only the pitch antenna. While commonly called antennae, they are not used for receiving or broadcasting radio waves, but act as plates of capacitors.

Plenty of choices for the video (just Google 'Theremin'). This one ought to go over well.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Four times as likely"

I would have liked to have seen more detail in this NYT piece, but it's still worth reading.
Black students are four times as likely to be suspended from charter schools as white students, according to a new analysis of federal education data. And students with disabilities, the study found, are suspended two to three times the rate of nondisabled students in charter schools.

These inequities are similar to those in traditional public schools, where black and disabled students are disproportionately disciplined for even minor infractions, and as early as preschool — although on average, charter schools suspend pupils at slightly higher rates than traditional public schools.
 What we could really use here is some kind of a breakdown by type and chain. Charters are, by design, a diverse group. I strongly suspect that disaggregation would reveal certain pockets were generating more than their share of suspensions and disciplinary overreaction.
Based on data from the 2011-12 school year, the report found that charter schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels suspended 7.8 percent of students, compared with 6.7 percent of students in noncharter schools. Among students with disabilities, charter schools suspended 15.5 percent of students, compared with 13.7 percent at noncharters. At the extreme end, there were 235 charter schools that suspended more than half of their students with disabilities.

Crossroads Charter School in Charlotte, N.C., suspended close to three-quarters of all black students in 2011-12. Adrian Sundiata, the operational director at the school, said it was now using more disciplinary measures to address infractions like taking a cellphone to school or using profanity, including after-school detentions and community service.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Revisiting "The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill de Blasio"

When following the education reform movement, it is enormously useful to step back from time to time and look at who was saying what a few years ago. As recently as 2009, it was almost impossible to find serious critics of the movement in the mainstream media (to highlight how much things have changed, I put together an e-book collection of my 2010 education posts, annotated but otherwise unrevised).

As far as I can tell, the Washington Post was the first of the major papers to start turning a tough, critical eye towards initiatives like charter schools, Common Core, and Glengarry Glen  Ross incentive systems. Recently, the New York Times has been aggressively investigating problems at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, but this is a relatively new position.

This  2014 NYT Magazine piece by Daniel Bergner is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which being a reminder of how things have changed.

On the topic of scores, the U.F.T. and Ravitch insist that Moskowitz’s numbers don’t hold up under scrutiny. Success Academy (like all charters), they say, possesses a demographic advantage over regular public schools, by serving somewhat fewer students with special needs, by teaching fewer students from the city’s most severely dysfunctional families and by using suspensions to push out underperforming students (an accusation that Success Academy vehemently denies). These are a few of the myriad factors that Mulgrew and Ravitch stress. But even taking these differences into account probably doesn’t come close to explaining away Success Academy’s results.
First off, even at the time "vehemently" did not equate to "convincingly." There was already an enormous amount of evidence behind these accusations. Letting SA's denial go unchallenged did Moskowitz a huge favor, as did the unsupported claim at the end. Little more than a year later, the NYT itself was reporting on the Success Academies' "got to go" lists.

[Diane Ravitch was extremely upset both by how Bergner handled her interview and wrote a stinging post in response.]

As bad as this section was, the really troubling part (at least for me as a statistician) came later.

In talking to dozens of current and former Success Academy employees and parents, the critique with the most staying power involved the schools’ overly heated preparation for the state exams. A former fourth-grade teacher recounted that network employees made a mini­van run to Toys “R” Us and returned to unload a mound of assorted treasures in the back of her classroom. “It was a huge pile,” she says. “We called it Prize Mountain.” She would remind the pupils that a good score on a practice test meant a gift from the mountain.

Teachers also chart students’ results on the practice tests, posting their names and scores on classroom walls. Yet I heard from parents like Natasha Shannon, an African-American mother of three girls in Success Academy schools, that although the public posting could be painful for the children, it was important nonetheless.


For her part, Moskowitz asserts that the public charting is one aspect of the network’s emphasis on feedback, not only for the students but also for the faculty. Throughout the year, whether or not test prep is underway, scores on quizzes and writing assignments are analyzed at network headquarters. Each teacher’s outcome is tabulated, and bar graphs are instantly available to all faculty members. The teachers whose classes lag are responsible for seeking out advice from those who top the graphs, just as the students with red or yellow stickers by their names are guided to emulate the topic sentences of those whose stickers are green or blue.

Couple of points here.

1. We can go back and forth on different methods of rewarding academic performance in other contexts, but in this case we're talking about diagnostic tests. Doling out special rewards and punishments can and probably does undermine the quality of the resulting data. The fact that Bergner (and, to be fair, most reporters covering the story) seem completely unaware of fundamental education concepts is disturbing;

2. Even more disturbing (though we can't blame this one on Bergner.) is the fact that one of those model teachers whose advice was being sought was Charlotte Dial.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

NASA's Real World Mathematics

As I've mentioned before, there are a lot of great resources for educators at the Internet Archive and it's all in the public domain, which mean you can re-edit anything you find to fit your needs.

Friday, March 11, 2016

He ought to know...

Elwyn Berlekamp is one of the authors of the classic Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays. One of these days I need to open up a substantial thread on Winning Ways. In the meantime, here's a cool video from Dr. Berlekamp.

How to always win at Dots and Boxes - Numberphile

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A different kind of name-the-states map

The cartoonist who created this explicitly say that it would be unfair to erase the names and use it as a name-the-states quiz, but I think it would make a great activity for small groups.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Short version -- policies that stress small children to the point where they throw up are probably bad policies

I am generally nervous about quoting overly partisan news sources. Even when the arguments are compelling, I am uncomfortable with discovery processes that seem to start with the conclusion.

That said, the Nation is a good magazine with a solid history of investigative journalism behind it. So, with the caveat that a publication this liberal will probably be hostile to charter schools (something we probably couldn't have said 10 years ago), this article is definitely worth checking out for anyone who's been following the debate.

In particular, this caught my eye:
Brenda Shufelt, a recently retired library who served public school and Success Academy Charter School students at a co-located school library in Harlem, noted that as charter schools rapidly expand, they may be taking in more high needs kids, many of whom cannot conform to one-size-fits-all disciplinary approaches.

“In my experience what would often happen is that charter school students would be so rigidly controlled that the kids would periodically blow up,” says Shufelt. “At PS 30, some of our kids would have meltdowns, usually because of problems at home, but I never saw kids meltdown in the way they did in charter schools. They were just so despairing, feeling like they could not do this. I was told by two custodians, they had never had so much vomit to clean up from kindergarten and elementary classes.” 
I realize that we have been hammering away at this thread for quite a while and I apologize for going over familiar ground in the next few paragraphs. Feel free to skim if you're a regular reader, but the following points do need to be emphasized.

Many of these techniques are remarkably hard on kids. Even if there were no other issues and the methods were accomplishing everything their supporters claimed, we would need to have a serious discussion as to whether or not they were worth the physical and emotional toll they are taking.

But there is considerable reason to question those alleged accomplishments. For starters, a lot of students do not make it all the way through the program. These kids pay a double toll, dealing with the stress not only of the no-excuses program but also of the disruption of being pulled out of one school where they have made friends and established relationships and put into another school where they are surrounded by strangers. Even for those kids who make it through, there is considerable evidence that the improvement in test scores is largely limited to one exam and does not translate into the areas we are really interested in.

Using Wikipedia critically

[via Popular Mechanics]

One of the things I've noticed since I started working with after-school programs a couple of years ago is that while students now spend a great deal of their time online, few are fully aware of the resources that could be making their academic lives so much simpler. I can't count the number of times I've seen students reading and rereading class notes hoping to find an answer that was just a few seconds away on Google.

Of these resources, perhaps the most underutilized is Wikipedia. It's not perfect, of course, but between breadth and surprisingly good quality control, there's nothing better on the internet for general factual questions.

Occasionally, though, something godawful does slip through.

Case in point...

Wallace L. Minto (August 6, 1921, in Jersey City, New Jersey, United States – September 3, 1983) had a passion for science at a very young age. For instance, at age 13, he and his father, Wallace Milton Minto, stock piled more than 50 tons of uranium rich ore in Sparta, NJ. He was also the first to split the uranium atom while still a teenager. This nearly created an atomic explosion in his family home. At age 16, Wallace synthesized radium and invented what is now known as "Scotchlite". He had a copyright on his own periodic chart which renamed all the elements.

When only 16, he was a student at Columbia College and was later instrumental in convincing Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (dated August 2, 1939) stressing the need for the United States to expand its experimentation with Atomic Energy, leading to the Manhattan Project. Consequently, Minto sold his uranium rich ore to the U.S. Government for use in the Manhattan Project.[1]

On June 26, 1944, Minto was enlisted by Dr. Andrew H. Dowdy, director of the Manhattan Department of the University of Rochester, to take charge of the Special Problems Division of the Manhattan Project. Minto reported directly to General Leslie Groves and reportedly threw Groves out of his lab for tampering with his beakers.

We could, of course, dismiss this as being simply incredible, but simply dismissing the unbelievable is a potentially dangerous habit. Unlikely things do happen. Instead, the article strikes me as a great opportunity for discussing why we reject certain sources as unreliable.

1. Check the issues box.

Lots of red flags here.

This article needs additional citations for verification. (July 2015)
This article may be in need of reorganization to comply with Wikipedia's layout guidelines. (July 2015)
This article is an orphan, as no other articles link to it. Please introduce links to this page from related articles; try the Find link tool for suggestions. (December 2015)
That first one leads us directly to...

2. Check the sources

Or, in this case, source.

"Forgotten Genius". Retrieved 2015-07-28.

It's a brief post that cites no sources other than an alluded-to acquaintance with the subject, nor is there anything in the writer's online biography that suggests special knowledge.

3. Check the relevant pages

Go to the Wikipedia listings for the Manhattan Project and the Organic Rankine Cycle Engine and do a search for "Minto." You can probably guess what happens.

As far as I can tell, the only other place Minto does show up in Wikipedia is the also suspect entry on the Minto wheel, a cute but not very practical heat engine that seems to predate Minto by quite a bit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

More cool machines

A very nice clip to get kids' brains working on a Monday morning.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Thinking about "teaching to the test"

[warning -- I dictated this to my phone so beware of homonyms.]

The following is probably both obvious and overly simplistic, but (putting aside emotional development for the moment) the primary purpose of instruction should be to increase students' mastery of the material (both knowledge and process based) while the primary purpose of tests is to measure that mastery. Those definitions are ridiculously broad but they'll serve for the moment, as will the rule of thumb that any instructional practice that doesn't improve mastery of the material or validity of the test should be viewed with suspicion.

I should also note before going any further that it has been many years since I got my teaching certificate and I have long since forgotten what little terminology I once knew. For the next few paragraphs I'll just be coining my own.

Teaching to the test – inclusive vs. exclusive

Inclusive teaching to the test – – making sure to cover everything students will be tested on – – is always defensible and is generally a very good idea.

Exclusive teaching to the test – – leaving out material you would otherwise cover because it is not going to be tested over – – is much more of a gray area. Obviously, teachers have to prioritize, but this should, at the very least, give one pause. In most cases, the test should include only a proper subset of the material covered.


Teaching to the meta-test -- prepping kids on the non-content aspects of the test -- gets even more gray. On a very high level it is certainly justifiable. You wouldn't want to have kids encountering strange formats and confusing instructions for the first time when they sit down to take a major test. On the other hand, this is an example of instruction that doesn't improve mastery of the material. If done for certain groups of students and not others, it runs creating an unfair advantage and thus undermining the validity of the test, which leads directly to...

Changing the conditions of the test

In order to get the most valid results, it would be best if all kids took all tests under optimal conditions -- motivated, well rested, comfortable, relaxed and free from distraction. We would always like to be sure that a low score represented a low mastery rather than a poor night's sleep. If, however, we can't be universally optimal, it is important that the suboptimal be distributed as uniformly as possible.

Teaching the actual test

Everything we've covered up to this point has ranged from OK to borderline, but ethical and even legal lines are quickly crossed when specifics of the test start making it into the prep materials available to only certain students. When individual teachers and administrators do this, they lose their jobs. When the companies that make the tests do it by selling "aligned" texts and prep materials, their stock goes up.

If you've been following the no-excuses discussion, lots of these concepts should sound familiar.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Breaking the SEND MORE MONEY code

A step-by-step solution to the classic alphametic.

These videos are still very much a work in progress but at least I'm seeing signs of that progress. Trying to do this in one shot and some parts are more confusing than they should be, but those mistakes can be learned from. I was more worried about getting the narration natural and conversational. and in that respect I feel things are definitely moving in the right direction.

 I'll be experimenting with more puzzle videos in the future, though probably ones that require less than thirty slides to explain.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"Slam the Exam" = "Game the System"?

Some 2,300 Success Academy students attended a "Slam the Exam" rally before last year's state English tests. The network goes to great lengths to make sure students are ready for the exams. ( Photo by Success Academy )

Data-driven strategies are a lot like market-based solutions. Properly applied under the right circumstances, they can be excellent, even optimal approaches, but if badly designed by people who don't understand the underlying principles (or who are looking to manipulate the process for their own ends), the results can be disastrous.

When designing a system of data-based decisions, perhaps the two most important considerations are:

Do your metrics have a strong relationship with what they are supposed measure? and;

Will that relationship continue to hold when the system has been in place for a while, particularly once the people affected figure out the rules?.

The Success Academy network is evidently gaming the achievement data in at least three ways:

Selection bias particularly in efforts to force out special needs kids;

Teaching to the test;

Changing the conditions of the test.

Let's focus on this last one for the moment. Check out the following excerpt from an article in Chalkbeat:

At Success Academy schools, high-octane test prep leaves nothing to chance
By Patrick Wall
Published: May 1, 2014

School leaders had provided teachers with color-coded agendas with precise instructions for every few minutes of test days, along with boxes of supplies that might come in handy — from pencils and tissues to extra clothes for students and deodorizing powder to sop up vomit.

Teachers had been taught the proper way to hand out tissues during the test (pass the student a new sheet first, then use a second sheet to grab the used tissue). They knew to set their classroom temperatures to between 66 and 70 degrees, and to call each student’s family every evening before a test to remind them of the next morning’s exam.

On test days, some teachers would take Success-funded cabs to pick up chronically late students (“Taxi Scholars,” as the agendas refer to them). Outside auditors, who had already observed the network’s practice tests, would monitor the real exams to safeguard against charges of test-rigging.

But students were perhaps the most prepared of all. They had spent weeks taking practice tests modeled off the actual state exams. They starred in test “dress rehearsals,” where exact testing conditions were simulated. Some had even practiced tearing perforated reference sheets out of mock test booklets.

If history is any guide, the preparation will pay off. Last year, Success students’ pass rates on the new and much harder state exams beat those of every other city charter school network and far surpassed the city and state averages. [Though these resullts have not carried over to other standardized tests -- MP]

Practices such as calling parents the day before the test very probably do improve test scores – – if, for no other reason, they make it less likely that kids will be allowed to stay up past their bedtime's that night – – but they can have no conceivable effect on the knowledge that is being tested.

It is notable and more than a little disheartening that this reporter, like most of his colleagues, seems to see all things that improve achievement scores as equally desirable, even those tactics that only serve to undermine the validity of the test.

Friday, February 19, 2016

What 1964 thought today would look like

Let Arthur C. Clarke handle your lesson plan for you. Show these videos, open the floor for discussion, assign an essay.

And don't say I never did anything for you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The cutting edge of transportation, 51 years ago

Changing Geometry of Flight -1965

"Mostly animated film made for the Boeing Company by Playhouse Pictures. Directed by Jim Pabian. It is preceded by a space-age commercial for RCA televisions, also from Playhouse Pictures."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Feynman on the disease of increased precision

We want to be careful about arguing from authority, but it is also important to consider credibility.

Richard Feynman was, to put it mildly, a big deal in 20th century physics. His opinions on scientific and mathematical reasoning carry a tremendous amount of weight. On top of that, he spent a great deal of time and serious thought to digging into the state of elementary and secondary math textbooks. For all these reasons, when he argues forcefully against a certain trend or practice in mathematics education, we should certainly take his arguments seriously.

by Richard P. Feynman

March 1965, Vol. XXVIII, No. 6
Words and definitions
When we come to consider the words and definitions which children ought to learn, we should be careful not to teach "just" words. It is possible to give an illusion of knowledge by teaching the technical words which someone uses in a field (which sound unusual to ordinary ears ) without at the same time teaching any ideas or facts using these words. Many of the math books that are suggested now are full of such nonsense - of carefully and precisely defined special words that are used by pure mathematicians in their most subtle and difficult analyses, and are used by nobody else.

Secondly, the words which are used should be as close as possible to those in our everyday language; or, as a minimum requirement, they should be the very same words used, at least, by the users of mathematics in the sciences, and in engineering.


Pure mathematics is just such an abstraction from the real world, and pure mathematics does have a special precise language for dealing with its own special and technical subjects. But this precise language is not precise in any sense if you deal with the real objects of the world, and it is overly pedantic and quite confusing to use it unless there are some special subtleties which have to be carefully distinguished

A fine distinction
For example, one of the books pedantically insists on pointing out that a picture of a ball and a ball are not the same thing. I doubt that any child would make an error in this particular direction. It is there- fore unnecessary to be precise in the language and to say in each case, "Color the picture of the ball red," whereas the ordinary book would say, "Color the ball red."

As a matter of fact, it is impossible to be precise; the increase in precision to "color the picture of the ball" begins to produce doubts, whereas, before that, there was no difficulty. The picture of a ball includes a circle and includes a background. Should we color the entire square area in which the ball image appears or just the part inside the circle of the ball? Coloring the ball red is clear. Coloring the picture of the ball red has become somewhat more confused.

Although this sounds like a trivial example, this disease of increased precision rises in many of the textbooks to such a pitch that there are almost incomprehensibly complex sentences to say the very simplest thing. In a first-grade book (a primer, in fact) I find a sentence of the type: "Find out if the set of the lollypops is equal in number to the set of girls" - whereas what is meant is: "Find out if there are just enough lollypops for the girls."

The parent will be frightened by this language. It says no more, and it says what it says in no more precise fashion than does the question: "Find out if there are just enough lollypops for the girls" - a perfectly understandable phrase to every child and every parent. There is no need for this nonsense of extra-special language, simply because that type of language is used by pure mathematicians. One does not learn a subject by using the words that people who know the subject use in discussing it. One must learn how to handle the ideas and then, when the subtleties arise which require special language, that special language can be used and developed easily. In the meantime, clarity is the desire.

I believe that all of the exercises in all of the books, from the first to the eighth year, ought to be understandable to any ordinary adult - that is, the question of what one is trying to find out should be clear to every person. It may be that every adult is not able to solve all of the problems; perhaps they have forgotten their arithmetic, and they cannot readily obtain 2/3 of 1/4 of 1-1/3, but they at least should understand that that product is what one is trying to obtain.

By putting the special language into the books, one appears to be learning a different subject and the parent (including highly trained engineers) is unable to help the child or to understand what the thing is all about. Yet such a lack of understanding is completely unnecessary and no gain whatsoever can be claimed for using unusual words when usual words are available, generally understood, and equally clear (usually, in fact, far clearer).

Feynman was, of course, writing in the Sixties, but we have a pretty good idea what he would say about this Common Core aligned handout for an eighth grade algebra class.

Dilation: A transformation of the plane with center O and scale factor r(r > 0). If
D(O) = O and if P ≠ O, then the point D(P), to be denoted by Q, is the point on the ray OP so that |OQ| = r|OP|. If the scale factor r ≠ 1, then a dilation in the coordinate plane is a transformation that shrinks or magnifies a figure by multiplying each coordinate of the figure by the scale factor.

Congruence: A finite composition of basic rigid motions—reflections, rotations,
translations—of the plane. Two figures in a plane are congruent if there is a congruence that maps one figure onto the other figure.

Similar: Two figures in the plane are similar if a similarity transformation exists, taking one figure to the other.

Similarity Transformation: A similarity transformation, or similarity, is a composition of a finite number of basic rigid motions or dilations. The scale factor of a similarity transformation is the product of the scale factors of the dilations in the composition; if there are no dilations in the composition, the scale factor is defined to be 1.

Similarity: A similarity is an example of a transformation.
This is not an isolated case. Both the standards themselves and the materials associated with them are filled with obtuse, overly precise language often used in an alarmingly imprecise way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Quick review videos for math tutors -- rational numbers

I've got a training session coming up on math teaching and, since the participants will be coming from a wide range of backgrounds, I've decided to partially flip the class and put together a few videos reviewing some of the more basic concepts involved in the example lessons so that all the participants can start from roughly the same place.

If you happen to be one of these participants and you're wondering if any of these review videos are right for you, take a look at the following questions:

Are you still a bit confused by the different forms of fractions (mixed numbers, decimals, etc.)?

Forms of Fractions

Not sure how long division works or why we sometimes get repeating decimals?

Long Division

Forgotten how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions? (or make that multiply, divide, add and subtract – but we'll get to that later)

Operations on Fractions

Not quite clear on what that log key does on your calculator (not to mention all of the other ones)?

calculators video1

Not sure how to find the prime factors of a number?