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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

“Ed. Schools Flunking Math Prep”

According to a study released on June 26, 2008 by National Council on Teacher Quality, colleges of education are doing a terrible job of preparing teachers to teach elementary math. In many universities, the professors in the college of education do not teach the math for elementary teachers; usually the professors are from the math department, and those math professors agree that newly-minted elementary teachers are poorly skilled at teaching math.

The report looked at 77 elementary education programs around the country, or roughly 5 percent of the institutions that offer undergraduate elementary teacher certification.

It found the programs, within colleges and universities, spend too little time on elementary math topics.

Author Julie Greenberg said education students should be taking courses that give them a deeper understanding of arithmetic and multiplication. She said the courses should explain how math concepts build upon each other and why certain ideas need to be emphasized in the classroom.

The fact is many education programs already require students to take courses intended to “explain how math concepts build upon each other and why certain idea need to be emphasized in the classroom.” Other researchers (i.e. Liping Ma, James W. Stigler, James Hielbert, Harold W. Stevenson) have found that American teachers compare poorly with teachers of other countries both in their understanding of math and their ability to teach it. So what is the problem?

Any of the math professors could have told you, but a study is more convincing. A PhD candidate at the University of Arizona is working on a dissertation about the attitudes of pre-service elementary teachers in the "math for elementary teachers" course. The candidate video-taped students in their elementary math classes, conducted interviews of students and their math professors, and analyzed the students evaluations of the class. She found that students approach the elementary math courses with one of two attitudes: either they consider themselves a math learner and see the course as an opportunity to learn more, or more commonly, they see the course as a waste of time because they already studied the material in elementary school and think their understanding is already more than sufficient.

The dissertation confirms what professors of these courses have observed again and again. Students tend to be hostile because they believe the courses are nothing but meaningless university hoops. Nevertheless, alarming numbers fail the classes. Some universities have a 50% fail rate. Students retake the course until they barely pass and then they move on, eventually becoming certified teachers, even though their math understanding is still woefully inadequate.

The report also criticized the tests education students take when they complete their coursework, and on which states rely when granting teacher licenses. In many cases, the prospective teachers are judged on the overall score only, meaning they could do badly on the math portion but still pass if they do well in the other areas.

Truth be told, the math professors do play a role in the problem. Many of them do not want to teach this kind of low-level content, deeming it a waste of their expensive and prestigious PhD's. Besides, they know students tend to down-rate the instructors of these courses, hurting the instructor's evaluation mean. Furthermore, math professors often fail to customize the course for education students. One way to motivate the unmotivated is to present the material in the context of anticipating and preventing children's math misconceptions. But since nearly all the math professors have never taught young children, they are unable to provide the information the future teachers want.

Without the misconception frame, students may believe that there is something wrong with them, an idea that is very hard for them to accept after twelve years of gratuitous self-esteem building. Even when a math educator with experience teaching children explicitly teaches the class in terms of children's misconceptions, students often remain hostile and become even more resentful when they perceive that for some reason unknown to them they are not succeeding in what they believe should be a “skate” class. They will often punish the instructor with unfairly harsh evaluations. No worries about the instructor's self esteem.

College students are naive if they believe that a professor cannot match up anonymously written student evaluations to the individuals who wrote the evaluations, especially in a class of around 25 students or less. The dissertation video-taped fraction lessons. Pre-service teachers, even when gently confronted with conceptual errors, grouse, “So what? What difference does it make?” and other similar responses. The same students inexplicably writes in the evaluation that they did not get much out of the class. No wonder, with the bad attitude going in.

American children are especially weak in fractions, so it should come as no surprise that elementary pre-service teachers, given that they are often among the least scholastically able in the university, are especially weak in fractions as well.
"Almost anyone can get in. Compared to the admissions standards found in other countries, American education schools set exceedingly low expectations for the mathematics knowledge that aspiring teachers must demonstrate," said the report.

One of the main reasons American children do poorly in international comparisons is because their teachers are ill-prepared to teach them.
(Francis) Fennell, who instructs teacher candidates in math at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., said a common area of weakness among his students is fractions—the same subject the national math panel described as a weak area for kids. "Part of the reason the kids don't know it is because the teachers aren't transmitting that," he said.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Schools Gotta Meet the Needs First

The bus service in my town is not great. The director of the local transit company said that when the ridership increases, the company will improve the service (i.e. have buses run in both directions). However, the way it works is when the public perceives the bus is meeting their needs, they will ride.

The same is true of public education.

The latest issue (May 2008) of California Educator, published by the California Teachers Association, blames charter schools for many of public school's problems. I want to address some of the claims made in the article:

1. “(The) influx of charter schools is siphoning off what little (revenue) the state gives us.”

Our district even has to pay transportation costs to take children to privatized charter schools.

Actually, in my experience, charter schools increase the revenue of the public schools IF the public school in sponsoring the charter school. Students who leave the public school simply are not there. Usually they are homeschooling or they are going to a private school. Either way the revenue these students represent is not going to the public schools. In many districts, charter schools sponsored by a public school district must give 15 percent of the state revenue they receive to that sponsoring district.

There is a small school district in Northern California with about 125 students. The district sponsors a charter school with about 800 students and receives that 15 percent cut. The reason for the 15 percent is that the sponsoring district usually provides some services to the charter schools even if only payroll service. Normally the cost of the services is far less than the 15 percent extra revenue, resulting in a net gain for the sponsoring district.

2. “The bottom line of privatized education is money...It's not right to look at things in terms of profit and loss when you're dealing with human beings.”

This charge is untrue and unfair. Admittedly, there are some charter school operators motivated by money. Many, many charter schools are started and run by teachers who are fed up with the system and are willing to take significant pay cuts in order to have the opportunity to provide what they believe is a superior educational experience to students.

In fact, early in the charter school movement, studies generally found that charter school students attained greater academic achievement than comparable public school students. As time goes on, charter schools have been regressing toward the mean. Today the studies find mixed results similar to results in public schools. Just as there are strong public schools and weak ones, there are strong charter schools and weak ones.

3. “Charter schools pick and choose students, and tend to take the cream of the crop...”
The student body of many charter schools, such as the EXCEL chain in Arizona, consists of students who have either dropped out or been expelled. Additionally, parents of students with behavior issues often believe the problem is that the public school bores their children, so the children act out.

(Personally, I do not believe that boredom should ever be an acceptable excuse for misbehavior. Children can be bored and well-behaved. If the class material is so easy that it is boring, that child with the A has a far stronger case for claiming boredom than the child with the F and a string of referrals to the principal).

These parents frequently enroll their children in those charter schools which position themselves as somehow better than the public schools. This positioning may be signaled by words in the name of the school such as “accelerated” or “academy” or any number of such glorious terms. It is NOT true charter schools take the cream of the crop.

Even if the charge were true, it would be a silly complaint. Childhood only comes around once. Most kids have only one chance to get educated. Caring parents do not have the time or luxury of sacrificing their own child's education to society. If parents believe the public schools are not providing the education their child needs, for whatever reason, the parent has the duty if they are able, to put their child in a position to get the education that child needs.

One teacher was characterized as pointing to “excessive testing, unrealistic academic content standards, endless assessment and paperwork, 'teacher-proof' scripted instruction, state and federal money for hiring private consultants, and a high school exit exam that tests special education students” as being used as part of a “crusade to portray public schools as failing” and that the crusade has been largely successful. Supporters of public schools, not just crusaders against, have complained loudly about all those problems.

Most parents would rather have their child in a neighborhood school. Getting their children to a charter school can be quite a daily inconvenience. If the public schools want charter schools to go away, they must provide an obviously better service or the parents who are able will vote with their feet. It is backwards for the public school to claim that if the enrollment increases, then education will improve. Once parents perceive that the public school is providing the education their children need, they will enroll their children.

A teacher asks,
When public education fails, what will take its place? ...Will it be the free market system? And if so, will it work better than the privatization of health care? I don't think so.

I agree, but making charter schools the scapegoats is profoundly unhelpful. Getting rid the the scapegoat will not help either. The problems are deeper and more resistant than that.

Another article in the same publication asserts:
While public schools certainly face challenges, they are, in fact, far from failing. A new report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) says California's public school children have managed to hold steady or improve across subjects and grade levels, with graduation rates rising (emphasis original).

It reminds me of a school board meeting I attended a while back. The assistant superintendent presented data from a recent round of standardized testing and celebrated the improvement in test scores as proof that our local district was a high performing district. But examining the data as displayed on the screen, I was perplexed how a 3 percent improvement in “proficient” from 25 percent to 28 percent could be construed as good news. Holding steady at low levels is not a cause for celebration and certainly is not “far from failing.” The adults need to raise the bar higher for themselves.

Monday, June 2, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 3

You can find the original “quiz” in Part 1.
Part 2 is here.

7. Japanese students behave better than American students.

False. Kids are kids are kids. If American visitors to Japanese schools observe Japanese students to be better behaved than American students, it is because Japanese students fear the consequences of bad behavior more than American students do. American students know that at bottom teachers are powerless and have no administrative support.

Hizamazuki is a common form of punishment in Japanese schools. Students who are late to school can be found every morning lining the hallway in front of the administration office doing hizamazuki. They kneel upright for 45 minutes on the hard linoleum. In class, each teacher has their favorite discipline technique. Some may rap their knuckles on the student's head once or twice. Some may twist the sideburn hairs. Some may pinch the shoulders. Most students do all they can to avoid punishment at school. Sometimes a teacher will go too far and injure a student. In such cases, the newspapers will have a field day for a while, because even though Americans may consider Japanese routine forms of punishment excessive, outright harm and abuse is just as wrong in Japan as America.

All of the forms of punishment I have described are illegal in America. In fact, imposing discomfort of any kind on students is not an option in America unless you are a sports coach. An American principal told me that merely having a student stand for ten minutes during the lunch hour was unacceptable because standing was physically uncomfortable and it was unfair to make the student ten minutes late to the cafeteria for lunch.

Students may also be punished at school for actions committed outside of school. For example, if a student is found driving a motorcycle without a license the school will levy a punishment of some sort. The teachers vote on the form of punishment at the daily morning meeting. The reasoning is bound up with the group ethic of Japanese people. All day long the Japanese person is a member, and thus a representative, of one group or another. The actions of each member reflect on the group. When a student misbehaves outside of school, it brings dishonor on the school.

Nevertheless students do misbehave. In middle school and high school, if a teacher is absent, the school do not call a substitute teacher unless the absence will last at least several days. Therefore, the class of 45 students will have no adult supervision for an hour. Students are expected to treat the time as a study hall, but some students will take the opportunity to go over the back wall and smoke in a side street. As long as they are back in class by the time the bell rings and the next teacher appears, they may not be caught.

Between classes it is the teachers who pass but not the students. One teacher leaves the class at the ending bell; the next teacher heads to class at the sound of the starting bell. There is normally a full ten minutes of unsupervised time between classes when students may commit mischief or worse. Much of the bullying happens during this break. It is not uncommon for a teacher to walk down a deserted hallway on the way to class and find a student tied to a pillar with his pants pulled down. Bullying is a huge problem in Japanese schools and the Japanese are always wringing their hands about it. I once suggested simply making sure there was no unsupervised time would eliminate most of it, but none of the teachers were willing to go to class ten minutes earlier, or cover the classes of an absent teacher.

The reader may think, well, I wouldn't want to cover someone else's class during my prep period either. The reader would be assuming that Japanese teaching schedules are similar to American teaching schedules. It may surprise the reader to learn that middle school and high school teachers have at least two, but usually three, prep periods a day. It would be easy for a teacher to supervise a study hall and still prepare for class. Instead they would rather hold symposiums about the difficult problem of bullying.

8. Japanese students have more instructional days than American students.

True. If you compare an Japanese school calendar with an American school calendar, you will find that Japanese students get up and go to school many more days than American students, but it does not necessarily mean they have classes more days than Americans. The average American calendar has about 180 school days; the Japanese calendar may have around 240 school days. However, if you examine the Japanese calendar carefully you will find that many of those days are not instructional days.

There are club days, cleaning days, field day rehearsal days, days during the summer break for attendance-taking. A Japanese school year has three terms with a midterm and a final for each term. During midterm week and finals week, there are no classes in the afternoon. There are also the weekly homeroom class meetings and club meetings. Students used to go to school every Saturday morning mostly to make up for all the lost instructional hours during the week, but Saturday attendance has been gradually phased out. In a typical school year 65-70 afternoons are either free time or devoted to nonacademic activities.

Japanese students do experience more instructional time at school than American students, but not the wildly dramatic difference a raw count of calendar days would suggest. Of course, since nearly every middle school and high school student attends juku, Japanese students do in fact experience substantial more instruction than American students.

9.Japanese educational standards are high.

There seems to be plenty of evidence of high education standards in Japan. For example, we know Japanese students perform near the top in international comparisons. Furthermore, in order to be accepted into college, students must demonstrate levels of knowledge comparable to an American bachelors degree. However, the situation in Japanese schools might make us wonder about education standards.

Compulsory education in Japan extends through middle school. Students who desire to pursue education must take an entrance exam for high school. Because the entrance exam is more a test to avoid elimination than a test to demonstrate ability, students can get into high school with surprisingly low levels of achievement. I have seen students avoid elimination with scores as low as 10 points out of 200 possible points. This strange result happens when the number of applicants is only slighter higher than the number of available slots. For example, if there are 304 applicants and 300 slots, the applicants with the four lowest scores are eliminated. Schools will even go to the trouble and expense of giving entrance exams even when the number of applicants is less than the number of slots.

At the college level, there are normally many more applicants than slots, so to avoid elimination students must score very highly. In some prestigious universities, students need scores in the 90's. Students know what score they need because they study the test questions from previous years and the statistics from many universities to strategically determine at which university they will have the best chance.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Japanese education is the pathetically poor job the public schools do in preparing students for the university entrance exams. The entire mission of the academic high school is to prepare students for those crucial entrance exams. Ironically, virtually 100% of public school graduates would fail the entrance exam if they depended on the public school alone to prepare them.

Any student who hopes to go directly from high school into college must attend juku. Even so, most high school graduates are eliminated through the entrance exam. Most students spend at least a year as roninsei (literally masterless samurai) attending juku full-time to prepare to retake the entrance exam which is given only once annually. Students have been known to study full-time in a juku for as many as three years in order to avoid elimination.

The Japanese are not unaware of the failure of the public schools to accomplish their express mission. Task forces perennially convene to discuss the issues and make recommendations for education reform. The pace of reform is slow because the current system helps preserve the values of Japanese society, especially the sorting the population according to the Japanese concept of merit.