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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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Monday, March 30, 2009

No Surprise Algebra-For-All Fails

“Algebra-for-All Policy Found to Raise Rates Of Failure in Chicago”

Math educators, with good reasons, have long recommended that students be required to study algebra. Many districts mandate algebra in the ninth grade. California, one-upping everyone else, currently requires eighth graders to take algebra. Japanese children begin studying algebra in the fifth grade. So how's it working out?

Findings from a study involving 160,000 Chicago high school students offer a cautionary tale of what can happen, in practice, when school systems require students to take algebra at a particular grade level.

160,000 is a lot of students, and normally the bigger the sample from the population, the more reliable the conclusions. Researchers studied eleven “waves” of students entering ninth grade from 1994 to 2005.

(Researchers) compared changes within schools from cohort to cohort during a period before the policy took effect with a period several years afterward. They also compared schools that underwent the changes with those that already had an “algebra for all” policy in place.

What did the researchers find?

The policy change may have yielded unintended effects, according to researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago. While algebra enrollment increased across the district, the percentages of students failing math in 9th grade also rose after the new policy took effect.

By the same token, the researchers say, the change did not seem to lead to any significant test-score gains for students in math or in sizeable increases in the percentages of students who went on to take higher-level math courses later on in high school.

Not much upside. More students failed, test scores were flat, and the percentage of students motivated to take advanced math course did not rise, but, gee, “algebra enrollment increased.” The district says more students will fail when required to take harder courses without supports in place. Yet the district made attempts to include supports over the last seven or eight years.
Steps include developing curricular materials introducing students to algebra concepts in grades K-8, requiring struggling 9th graders to take double periods of algebra, and providing more professional development in math to middle and high school teachers..

One of the researchers thinks that test scores did not improve because teachers may have “watered down” the content since “math classes included children with a wider range of ability levels following the change.”

But Japanese elementary schools are not tracked. All children study exactly the same material with such predictability that some observers have quipped that every child in Japan is on the same page of the textbook on any given day. I have successfully taught Algebra 1 to high school special education students, or to give due credit, special education students have successfully learned Algebra 1 under my guidance.

The problem is with issuing mandates without a coherent, integrated societal commitment to the foundations of education, mathematics in particular. I have seen Montessori preschool students exploring algebra with manipulatives. I have often said that lots of profound math can be learned without any resort to pencil and paper. Children do not necessarily need numerals to understand number.

There is one other thing. Japanese children from kindergarten age regularly take abacus lessons the way American children take piano or ballet. Generating a sum with the abacus is different than generating a sum using the written algorithm. The very process of thinking about number and computation in more than one way leads to greater mathematical flexibility. Japanese students can therefore more readily absorb and manifest algebraic thinking. That's my hypothesis anyway and maybe the Gates Foundation or somebody else will provide me a grant to test it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

“The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.”

President Obama gave another stirring speech about education. Is it just a lot of yadayada?

America will not remain true to its highest ideal... unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.

For we know that economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America...

The source of America's prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people...

So let there be no doubt: The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens -- and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation...

The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it's unsustainable for our democracy, it's unacceptable for our children -- and we can't afford to let it continue...with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station, can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.

(bold added)

But the president is not blinded by his own dazzling rhetoric. He knows what all veteran educators know.
Of course, we've heard all this year after year after year after year -- and far too little has changed.

It is easy to lose optimism and fervor.

Certainly it hasn't changed in too many overcrowded Latino schools; it hasn't changed in too many inner-city schools that are seeing dropout rates of over 50 percent.

Even more maddening, the problem with education in America is not scarcity of ideas and resources.

It's not changing not because we're lacking sound ideas or sensible plans -- in pockets of excellence across this country, we're seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve when we set high standards, have high expectations, when we do a good job of preparing them.

So what is our problem?

Instead, it's because politics and ideology have too often trumped our progress that we're in the situation that we're in.

A good example is the kneejerk opposition to charter schools on the left, and the equally kneejerk opposition to teachers unions on the right. While adults engage in turf wars, America falls further and further behind. We must set aside ego and listen to each other with open hearts.

Secretary Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.

But in the meantime, it would not hurt to unify behind the President's top three priorities for education:

1.Early Education—It is essential that foundations for future academic achievement be solidly laid in early childhood. The attitudes children acquire at a very young age can propel or hinder academic achievement.
2.World Class Standards—American do not give their children enough credit. It is possible to have much higher expectations and standards without destroying childhood. In fact, higher standards, well done, have the potential to enhance childhood.

Several years ago I began facilitating biology and chemistry laboratory experiences for homeschooled junior high and high school students. Moms tried to occupy the younger siblings with other work, but the younger siblings were curious about the fascinating experiments of their older brothers and sisters. Soon I allowed the little kids to participate.

I discovered children as young as eight years old could use the equipment just as capably and responsibly as the older kids. The little kids could record data just as accurately. They could form conclusions and discuss their results as intelligently. What they could not do as well as the older kids was write the lab report. And that was fine, no problem.

A wonderful side effect was the increase in inter-age respect. Multi-age interaction is more like the real world than self-contained groups of same-age peers.
I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

3. Quality Teachers---Recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers

From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it's the person standing at the front of the classroom. That's why our Recovery Act will ensure that hundreds of thousands of teachers and school personnel are not laid off -- because those Americans are not only doing jobs they can't afford to lose, they're rendering a service our nation cannot afford to lose, either...

And if you do your part, then we'll do ours. That's why we're taking steps to prepare teachers for their difficult responsibilities, and encourage them to stay in the profession. That's why we're creating new pathways to teaching and new incentives to bring teachers to schools where they're needed most. That's why we support offering extra pay to Americans who teach math and science to end a teacher shortage in those subjects.

Schools should not only work harder to keep their best teachers, schools should also seek out the veteran non-practicing teachers in their communities. Schools should eliminate the arbitrary obstacles that block out-of-district teachers and offer incentives to attract them back to the classroom.

There are many great teachers in America who moved from one district to another, for whatever reason, to find themselves virtually unemployable. Some of them, like me, are math and/or science teachers. A few of them taught in our Department of Defense Dependent Schools overseas, and now back home, they find, like I did, that they are out-of-district in every single district in America.

Now, here's what that commitment means: It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable -– in up to 150 more school districts. New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. Teachers throughout a school will benefit from guidance and support to help them improve

Money cannot be allowed to remain an excuse for blocking veteran teachers from returning to the classroom.

We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and the schools where they teach.

4. Innovation and Excellence—even if innovation and excellence is found in a charter school. Learn from the best charter schools, adopt their best practices in public schools, and follow John Wooden's advice, “Don't whine, don't complain, and don't make excuses. Just get out there and do your best.”

5.Higher education---College is the new high school.
6.The Bottom Line---Personal Accountability

Of course, no matter how innovative our schools or how effective our teachers, America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education. That means showing up for school on time, paying attention in class, seeking out extra tutoring if it's needed, staying out of trouble. To any student who's watching, I say this: Don't even think about dropping out of school. Don't even think about it...

No government policy will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents -- because government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do. These are things that our parents must do...

So today, I'm issuing a challenge to educators and lawmakers, parents and teachers alike: Let us all make turning around our schools our collective responsibility as Americans. (my bold)

Reactions to the President's Speech.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quality Professional Development on the Cheap

People who have a lot of money do not have to think too hard about problems.  They can just throw a few dollars at their problems and solve them fairly easily.  They may complain the whole time they are pitching the dollars, but they pay just the same.  People without money have to be a lot more resourceful, creative and innovative.  Maybe I can't afford $300 for a diagnostic on my car when it flunks the smog certification.  So I ask around, pay $8 for a fuel additive, drive my car over the grade, and voila, it passes the certification with flying colors, and I keep most of the $300.

The very act of idea-generation can highlight areas of waste and profligate spending. A good example is professional development.

"Any district hiring a consultant to come in for a one day for $10,000 or $15,000—that's a waste of time and money," says Ed Wilgus, a former district professional development manager who is co-founder of Systemic Human Resource Solutions.

There are lots of options for planning a satisfying DIY professional development program.
Here are some ideas:
1. Veteran teachers share their best practices.
2. A conference format with several options within any particular time frame
3. A longitudinal lesson study Japanese style.
4. A collaborative discussion addressing a specific concern within the district.
5. Teachers design, conduct and share the results of active research within district classrooms.
6. Reflective analysis of the rational behind specific teaching strategies.
7. Reviews of books and journal articles of interest.
8. Demonstrations of math manipulatives and other resources.
9. Presentations by parents.
10. Classroom swapping-teaching for a day in a very different grade or subject area with no more preparation than an average substitute teacher.

One school district had a great idea for using the Internet.
Instead of hiring presenters to come to their schools, they downloaded free archived video presentations from the Web site of the K-12 Online Conference, an annual grassroots gathering of instructional technology aficionados. Then they featured the videos as part of a special series of staff development sessions on technology topics. Members of the district's tech team and Web-savvy teacher leaders facilitated the sessions, leading discussions on the presentations and addressing teachers' practical concerns. In some cases, they even conducted live follow-up interviews with the original presenters via Skype, the free Internet phone service.

P.S. A school can get me for $1000-$1500, (not $10000-$15000), depending on the amount of time, distance, hotel, etc. I do presentations on math, science and foreign language teaching, ESL, art, curriculum and the Japanese education system. I help teachers plan and organize their own self-facilitated professional development. I also write education grants for schools.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Teachers Misbehaving

Purveyors of professional development don't like it much when the teachers they are supposed to be teaching misbehave. I have been on both sides of the podium. Teachers have good reason for regarding professional development sessions as a monumental waste of time. Usually the sessions are mandatory, and the presenter has been commissioned to present specific information whether or not the audience is interested. One school district asked me to present a hands-on literacy session to high school teachers on developing questions that build critical thinking.

It quickly became clear that what these high school teachers really wanted was tips on phonics, and how to integrate phonics into their content lessons. I converted my presentation to phonics on the fly. Because I had not brought any phonics materials with me, I had to abandon the hands-on part. I ended up delivering mostly lecture, but the teachers loved it. Six months later I was commissioned to present an overview of the six traits of good writing to a group of elementary teachers in a completely different geographical area. What the teachers wanted to do was vent their complaints about the district's adoption of the reading curriculum, Success for All. When they were done, I carried on with my presentation. Only later I found out that the administration canceled my future presentations because I did not shut down the criticism.

So you never know.

For every expectation, there are other conflicting expectations. If some teachers expect presenters to model hands-on techniques, other teachers want the presenter to just tell them the info and let them go back to grading papers. The presenter comes prepared with the information commissioned by the administration only to find the audience deems the information irrelevant to their needs. I gained appreciation and sympathy for presenters when I became a presenter.

The worst problems with professional development can be avoided by letting teachers create their own professional development. Administrators are notoriously out of touch with the teaching staff.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Districts Pushing Out Math and Science Teachers

If Researchers Say It...Will That Make IT True?

None of the plethora of programs for increasing the supply of math and science teachers ever focuses on bringing back the great teachers America already has. Schools constantly look to hire novice teachers, and routinely reject teachers with over five years experience. Hiring committees in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and upstate New York have told me so. I made the telephone calls back in 2001 as part of commissioned research in public school district practices regarding the recruitment of substitute teachers, but often conversation ranged to general hiring policies.

What these hiring policies mean is that a teacher who moves to another district may very well be unemployable.

“I admit I’m being heretical,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the university. “But it’s not that we’re producing too few math and science teachers. It’s that we’re losing too many.”


The findings are important, Mr. Ingersoll said, because they suggest that national efforts aimed at expanding the pipeline of new math and science teachers are misdirected. If policymakers really want to ensure that those subjects are being taught by skilled teachers, he said, they ought to focus on retaining the much larger pool of science and math teachers who are already in schools.

The research studied the reasons that teachers leave teaching. The top three reasons: dissatisfaction, another job, or personal. The study did not address teachers who did not leave teaching but found that teaching had left them when they moved for whatever reason, usually to follow a spouse.

But the research is poor.
While teacher supply-and-demand issues are much debated, there have been relatively few efforts to examine the issue empirically, Mr. Ingersoll said.
It is notoriously difficult to get frank answers to questions. My telephone survey is a good example. I was collecting data regarding substitute teachers, but when the conversation veered to other areas, I heard interesting stuff, but I was not prepared to collect that information in any systematic or “scientific” way. Yet when I have tried to collect information about hiring policies directly, I get different answers from those previous “off the record” responses.

One thing the study highlights is that supply is not the problem.
But the researchers maintain that (supply) difficulties stem more from teacher turnover than from supply-side problems. “For science, those leaving teaching at the end of the year represented 130 percent of those who entered at the beginning of that year,” the study says.

For math, the number of teachers leaving their jobs was 120 percent of the number who entered the pool of qualified candidates at the start of the year. In both fields, retirements accounted for only a small percentage of leavers, suggesting that most of the attrition is not the result of a graying workforce.

The high rate of non-retirement-related job movement led Mr. Ingersoll to suggest that retention, rather than supply, is the key to solving schools’ staffing problems.

Retention should mean not only keeping the teachers who are already in the schools, but also bringing back teachers who were ended up working who-knows-where after moving. Teachers who are no longer teaching but want to teach become invisible in our society. Their identity as teachers is effectively scrubbed. A receptionist who is a once and hopefully future math teacher is a receptionist, not a teacher. The fact the receptionist was ever a teacher becomes part of a past life, not a present possibility.

Schools can reduce turnover, Mr. Ingersoll said, by improving their working conditions—supporting new teachers, for example, offering better pay schedules, getting a handle on student-discipline problems, or showing more effective leadership.

Schools should do all that, but schools should also welcome veteran teachers who move into their communities as the valuable assets they are instead of viewing them as budget breakers. State credentialing commissions should remove the arbitrary obstacles that make it difficult for proven out-of-state teachers to get certified in their new state of residence. For example, an out-of-state teacher who moves to Arizona must pay for and pass Arizona's certification tests, even if they have already passed either the National Teachers Examination (NTE) or other state tests. Once they pass Arizona's tests, they get a provisional credential which expires in two years if they are unable to land a teaching job. The more experienced the teacher, the more likely their provisional credential will expire. Then these teachers are barred from tutoring for the schools or serving as teachers for the home-bound or in other public capacities.

They suffer even when they try to tutor privately. The first question any parent asks is, “Do you have a teaching credential?” “I have an expired one,” does not satisfy. The public simply does not understand how society is barring some of its best teachers from teaching.