Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dramatic Math Gains - Add It Up...

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post relates the formula a 24 year old teacher used to dramatically improve the scores of some poor students.

From "New Teacher Jolts KIP" by Jay Matthews
"I've found that most traditional textbooks oversimplify and isolate concepts, and yet, are still too difficult for non-readers to use. They don't generally push students to think, but offer repetitive, and boring, practice," she said. She started writing each lesson nightly. This was a remarkable feat of youthful energy when you consider that KIPP teachers work 10 hours a day, and Suben was putting in another three hours each night at home composing the next day's lesson on her Dell laptop.

Suben said: "My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."

The core of her method is the workbook she produced last year on the fly. It "lets students build their own notes and create their own examples. It is incredibly active learning," she said. They were encouraged to write down the meaning of important terms and strategies they used that worked with certain kinds of problems.

"I certainly refer to traditional textbooks for ideas and guidance as I write," Suben said. "My sequence and pace are set by a long-term plan that I have designed to catch the students up on second-, third- and fourth-grade material as well as introduce every single D.C. public schools fifth-grade standard by testing time. I model my word problems after the eighth-grade text that I used in Louisiana because those problems require the level of understanding that I am looking for. I focus on non-traditional problems so that students are forced to think."

Thinking! Isn't that a violation of the No Child Left Behind Law?

Monday, December 25, 2006

What have they done to my song, Lord...

My wife was telling me a very funny story about an incident of vandalism involving one of the ubiquitous, inflatable, front yard Christmas decorations. Apparently, in some small town in America some teenagers decided to express their cultural objection by stabbing Frosty, the illuminated Snowman.

The victim, looking forlornly at Frosty's nylon puddle exclaimed, "WHY ME! WHY FROSTY?"

On Christmas eve, I attended Catholic Mass with my wife and boys - a rare trip to church for me. I take my beliefs seriously which is not to say evangelically, conservatively, or in orthodox fashion. And church is one of the last places I look for insight.

And every once in a while I'll attend church when a gifted theologian takes an all too short residency. Gifted priests don't last long in the Catholic Church. In fact they're as rare as hen's teeth these days. But Christmas is the day I try the baptismal waters once again.

I'm in my fifties and I have experienced a LOT of Christmas masses and this year's was the worst ever. It's Christmas and I've wrestled with saying so because, well, it's Christmas but, in the end, it would be unChristian to let such a low point slide.

The Christmas story is a highly decorated, super-fiction that is intended to illuminate the basis of Christian faith. The historical facts, whatever they may be, are simply a springboard for the most popular religious fabulisms that have captured the Christian imagination over time.

And, with these stories, come self-evident contradictions that as an intelligent child and teenager I could never resolve. The contradictions are SO obvious and striking that presumably, anyone with a brain might think twice about. But I would attend church with my father and he would nod out and sleep through many a mass and the fellow parishioners always seemed unconcerned with what was being said.

I would ask myself, "Is anyone listening to this?"

And the big contradiction is this; angels sing, play trumpets, send loud messages, that Christ, the son of God is born. Three big-shot Kings take a road-trip to visit the child, drop off some goodies for the po' boy, and apparently go home empty handed and plan a different trip for their next outing.

Christ, Mary, Joseph, and the town of Bethlehem are left with little or nothing to show for the 15 minutes of fame, the spotlight, and the failed public relations campaign of heaven, three kingdoms and word of mouth.

There are no stories of Joseph hanging a shingle that read, "Joseph and Sons - one of whom is, by the way, the son of God!" No, life went on for thirty odd years before Christ even bothers with his mission. And he does so with no letters of recommendation from Three Kings. He is a populist.

I finally resolved this paradox in mid-life. The happy talk birth stories are for the indoctrination of children and the feeble-minded - sugar-coated theology. A more serious, adult narrative might emphasize the mortality of the child, the humility of the birth and family condition, and the anonymity of the arrival. You don't have to be Christian to appreciate the thought-experiment of this theological speculation.

A few years ago, a more gifted priest even speculated on Joseph as an adoptive father - a high point in Christmas masses for me.

This year my sons are teen-agers whose angst I felt as we all endured an uninspired, joyless, seemingly endless reinterpretation of Christmas that I had never been subjected to in my life.

You see, these days the Catholic Church is more interested in serving the politics of war than the spirituality of the Christ. The Christ child of this story is a birth story of a cosmic media superstar who arrives with a political agenda, "Peace on earth, good will toward members in good standing." Oh yeah, forget about exercising free will - this Christ is taking no prisoners and is taking names.

The Christ of this Christmas seemed more vengeful and self-righteous than his dad. And in a wholly adult audience, the silly Christmas stories were inter-dispersed with condescending moral admonitions, subliminal political loyalty oaths, and a guest mention of the - wait for it - devil itself. This was Christ as Mel Gibson might cast the part, the new sheriff in town surrounded by devils and a big, evil world to clean up. Step out of line and you're left behind, chopped liver, and out of luck.

By the way, merry Christmas! Yeah, that's the best part, merry Christmas!

I could barely sit through it. Like the home-owner who wondered in astonishment of who would attack Frosty, I wondered why the church allows misguided moralists to distort the theology.

I told my boys that now that they're old enough to think for themselves, they could say no to this. Teen-agers need to know that adults are aware that bullshit is bullshit and that despite of the pollution the season is worth celebrating for all the right reasons. And they need to know that just because a holier-than-thou person is sugar-coating their speech in religious platitudes that they are no holier than a person who is still growing their soul.

Billy Graham, recently interviewed in a major magazine was asked how he felt about this absolute insistence of churches that only true believers will find salvation replied by saying, "God and God alone will make that decision."

That's my understanding as well.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Holidays!

This blog is little more than a year old and has been a huge success in delivering education concerns to the community and a worldwide readership. Thanks to everyone for participating.

And a wish for a healthy, safe, and prosperous holiday season to all.

The Economics of Education

The myth of investing in education is crumbling and fast. This New York Times Magazine article documents the phenomenon.

From "The Rise of the Office-Park Populist" by JACOB S. HACKE.
Remarkably, the ranks of the long-term unemployed — people who spend more than six months looking for work — are disproportionately professional and well educated. And it is better-paid workers who have seen the promise of guaranteed pensions replaced with the risks and uncertainties of private investment accounts like 401(k)s — the less skilled rarely receive pensions at all.

Indeed, in some ways, workers who have invested the most in skills are most at risk today. For one, such investments are a lot more costly than they used to be. About a third of recent college graduates enter the job market with student-loan debts that exceed what experts consider reasonable — a major increase from the past. What’s more, skills can also put you directly at risk. If you have labored for years to learn cost accounting or blueprint preparation, you can gain a big leg up in the competition for jobs that require those specialized skills. But while these talents can help you prosper, they also make you dependent on particular jobs or lines of work. If these positions dry up, so does the market for your skills — and the rewards those skills once delivered. (Unskilled workers, by contrast, have fewer opportunities to increase their wages but generally find it easier to move from one kind of job to another.)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hunger and Learning

A short article that appeared in the New York Times recently reports a study that encourages maintaining a slight hunger before taking big tests.

From Empty-Stomach Intelligence by CHRISTOPHER SHEA, NY Times;
Hunger makes the best sauce, goes the maxim. According to researchers at Yale Medical School, it may make quadratic equations and Kant’s categorical imperative go down easier too. The stimulation of hunger, the researchers announced in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience, causes mice to take in information more quickly, and to retain it better — basically, it makes them smarter. And that’s very likely to be true for humans as well.
The finding was startling, but “it makes sense,” Horvath says. “When you are hungry, you need to focus your entire system on finding food in the environment.” In fact, some biologists believe that human intelligence itself evolved because it made early hominids more effective hunters, gathers and foragers.

Horvath says we can use the hormonal discoveries to our cognitive advantage. Facing the LSAT, a final exam or a half-day job interview? Go in mildly hungry, not carbo-loaded for endurance, and snack to maintain that edgy state. Such advice, applied on a national scale, might help save our schools. Since overweight kids have suppressed ghrelin levels, Horvath theorizes that perhaps the obesity epidemic has contributed to declining test scores and other American educational woes.

Interesting stuff, no?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It Happens Every Year!

Yes sir. Without fail there is one event parents can count on. Oh, don't be so coy as to act surprised.

You see if I went to a Board meeting and suggested that teachers learn a new education technique over the Holiday vacation period and get tested on it when they returned I'd be escorted out of the building in a strait-jacket.

But every year without fail, at least one teacher that my boys have will either assign a major project end date for the day after New Year's holiday OR they'll assign a semester end test.

I feel a little bit like Charlie Brown when I shout into the cold winter night, "Doesn't anybody out there know what the word vacation means?"

Can we put that on the employment screening test?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Teacher Responses to a NCLB Column

Recently, the Huffington Post columnist Gerald Bracey wrote a column that revisited what the proponents of No Child Left Behind thought today called "Things Fall Apart".

Here are some selected comments that followed from teachers:

As a middle school teacher I can testify that these tests are the ruin of true education. I am no longer there to inspire kids to love reading and writing. I am there ONLY to make sure we get better scores on the next round of miserable tests. Ask any teacher! We have lost our way w/ this idea of testing and testing. Parents ought to be up in arms. If teachers complain, the rap back at us is usually, "If you are a good teacher you shouldn't concern yourself with this. Your kids will do well." Nonsense. SO much of the tests have nothing to do w/ what really ought to go on in a classroom so we end up teaching to the test. Is that REALLY what parents want?
By: devora on December 09, 2006 at 08:02pm

I've taught under NCLB. As someone coming out of the corporate, "competitive" world I'm appalled by this programs lack of common sense.

1) It's not helping drop-out rates.

2) It focuses on the worst students, often leaving the brightest floundering. No, the poorer students didn't improve with the extra help. The best just learned less.

3)It teaches for regurgitation, not for concept. Teachers are teaching to the test and students aren't learning concepts they can reapply.

4) If we put a fraction of the money we're putting into Iraq into our own schools, we could drop class size down to a manageable 15 - 20 students per teacher. We say we don't have the money for schools and teachers, yet find it for killing people in foreign countries.

5) Teachers are still bearing the burdens of useless fanciful teaching techniques and purchasing supplies the schools aren't providing. I've had to supply my own paper, pencils and pens for weeks at a time.

6) Until we work on getting parents more involved, nothing we do at school is going to make that much of a difference. In particular, changing drug laws to keep parents at home. They may be in rehab programs, but they can at least be reached and influence their children.
By: DonsBlog on December 09, 2006 at 09:31pm

As a teacher, it amazes me that education is the one profession that everybody thinks they are experts in just because they went to school. As a teacher teaching in an economically-disadvantaged area of Chicago I have seen that NCLB is a complete failure. the funny thing no one wants to listen to the people who really know what needs to be done, the teachers. We have to go to college and get a college degree to be teachers. And we are tested to be certified to teach. And we are forced to complete further professional development training to maintain our certificates. We need to get more input from the teachers at the local level to improve our educational system. Our local school councils have only one teacher representative on them, and the local schools councils make important decisions concerning the schools.
I have to echo Donsblog's post. I think every teacher at my school would have to agree.
They need to totally repeal NCLB and start over. Stop the silly testing and let the teachers teach.
By: mphalen on December 10, 2006 at 02:43am

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is a Diabetes Cure Imminent?

This article, Diabetes breakthrough - Toronto scientists cure disease in mice by Tom Blackwell, National Post (Canadian Newspaper), is wonderful news for everyone if the discovery remains true.

The researchers caution they have yet to confirm their findings in people, but say they expect results from human studies within a year or so. Any treatment that may emerge to help at least some patients would likely be years away from hitting the market.

But the excitement of the team from Sick Kids, whose work is being published today in the journal Cell, is almost palpable.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Dr. Hans Michael Dosch, an immunologist at the hospital and a leader of the studies. "In my career, this is unique."

Their conclusions upset conventional wisdom that Type 1 diabetes, the most serious form of the illness that typically first appears in childhood, was solely caused by auto-immune responses -- the body's immune system turning on itself.

They also conclude that there are far more similarities than previously thought between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, and that nerves likely play a role in other chronic inflammatory conditions, such as asthma and Crohn's disease.

The "paradigm-changing" study opens "a novel, exciting door to address one of the diseases with large societal impact," said Dr. Christian Stohler, a leading U.S. pain specialist and dean of dentistry at the University of Maryland, who has reviewed the work.

"The treatment and diagnosis of neuropathic diseases is poised to take a dramatic leap forward because of the impressive research."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Joe Lieberman, Profile In Courage

Yeah, our senator is back in the news with the usual highlight reel of his -cough- "career". This time WFSB, a local news station, reports that Joe Lieberman salutes the video gaming rating system!

Oh, and brace yourself for this nugget of wisdom. Lieberman is reported to say that it is the responsibility of parents to police their children's video games. Really! You don't say. Seems like Joe's been kicking parent's in that same spot for quite a while now. How about trying another spot for a while?

You see, CT's font of political fecal wisdom campaigned on cleaning up the gaming industry. Oh, there were these very serious video spots of Joe sitting around a table with what must have been paid actors all expressing concern over a video game Joe was waving around. And mere weeks later, NOTHING! ZERO. ZILCH. Wham, Bam, thank you SUCKERS!

Now that the election is over, Joe washes his hands of his favorite show issue faster than Pontius Pilate at an uncomfortable crucifixion. This guy makes hypocrites look like concerned citizens.

We can look forward to yet another six years of pathetic "leadership" from our man in Washington.

How much Joementum does one state have to suffer from before this jerk finds the exit?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Clever College Student Video

This stop action video is just pure fun and a testament to the kind of creative and accessible video production students can engage in even at the high school level.

This is a very worthwhile video.