Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Unhappy Children in England

An interesting  article on the BBC website today suggests children in England are among the unhappiest in the group of  15 countries surveyed in the Good Children Report 2015

The primary reason given for the findings is the extent of bullying to be found in English schools but there is another, I think, more compelling explanation for the situation eloquently expressed by  Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers in which he "blamed poor mental health on the "narrow curriculum" and "exam factories" culture in schools".

I find this the more compelling and alarming explanation because it's something that is also happening in US schools where the curriculum seems to be focused almost exclusively on those subjects, topics and ideas that can be easily tested, scored and used in the teacher accountability process. The recent growth in "opting out" of testing in New York State is a sign that people have had enough of the endless testing that is afflicting our schools.

If we put the same effort and financial resources into professional development and material resources that we put into the testing process our children would benefit enormously. An SBAC test costs around $35 per student to score depending on the source you use. The Smarter Balance website lists the cost of a test at 33 cents which is somewhat misleading.

I wonder where US children would rate on the unhappiness scale as defined in the Good Children report?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Outrageous Cost of Text Books

For the past several years I have been railing against the outrageous cost of text books. I have used the same text in my math and science education course  for many years as  it is by far the best one available. The problem is that it is reissued every two years with an accompanying dramatic increase in cost.

Subsequent editions contain few changes from the previous one apart from the inclusion in the latest edition of reference to the Common Core. The full price for the text, in paperback form,  is now a remarkable $215 according to Amazon which will sell you a copy for $200.32. Other new copies are available for $180 and a used copy will set you back $130.

To help my students ease the financial burden of college I require them to purchase the 7th edition, available for as little as $15. The fundamental mathematical ideas are exactly the same as in the 8th edition. The only thing missing is the Common Core specifics which are freely available on-line.

It turns out that I am not the only person feeling this way. Today, the Hechinger Report suggests that all educational materials produced with federal funding should be made available at no charge. This would surely spur the publishing companies into some form of price control

How can a paperback book be worth $215? 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Learn Poetry? Then why not Fractals in K-6?

I've said this a million times before and I'll probably say it until I'm laid to rest but we have to include the study of fractals and other kinds of wonderful mathematical patterns in the study of math at the elementary school level. If poetry is part of the CCSS then fractals certainly should be.

Here's a really interesting set of reasons for making poetry part of the study of the English Language Arts from the Atlantic.  One could almost use the same justifications for the inclusion of the study of fractals in the math curriculum.

Cynthia Linus has been promoting the study of fractals for years with a selection of interesting activities on her website; and here's a really cerebral argument for their study by Joe Pagano who even links poems and fractals.

The sad truth about math education is we tend to see it as purely utilitarian. What we learn in math has to be useful, usable, worthwhile or practicable. We never seem to recognize the value of  the aesthetics of mathematical relationships in the same way that linguists recognize the  allure of alliteration, the majesty of metaphor, the perfection of personification. We never stop to marvel at the patterns created by counting by 5s starting at 3, the way equilateral triangles can be divided into four more equilateral triangles, how when 6 circles are placed around one circle a perfect heaxagon can be formed by connecting the centers of the small spaces between the circles, or how magical it is to color in all the even numbers on a Pascall's Triangle and discover you've made a Sierpinski Triangle.

This is what turns children onto math.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tests Only Measure Other Tests

I have always thought that there is something quite disturbing about testing in the context of education. It's probably because the testing system is used primarily to sort students rather than to develop a sense of whether they understand or know something. In the UK, a test is referred to as an exam which seems to denote better the idea of examining a student's understanding or knowledge of a particular idea. To examine seems a nobler and more useful goal than does to test.

Many years ago when i was a grad student I read somewhere that tests only measure other tests. At first glance this seems like a fairly innocuous statement but the more you think about it the more sense it makes. When I was teaching fourth grade in the UK in the early '70s we changed a reading test one year. The same reading test had been used throughout the school (and all the schools in the entire city of Bristol) for many years so it was decided to use a new test. When the new test results came in it was found that all the students in the city had gained two years in their reading age. Since reading instruction hadn't changed it must have been a much easier reading test but it still made everyone feel really good !!!!!

The same happens eery time you adopt a new test or  testing system such as SBAC. Very seldom re two tests exactly the same and more often than not the new test is more difficult than the old test. This is often done with the somewhat naive belief than making the test more difficult will improve instruction and make the students appear brighter. Usually this results in declining test scores and yet more blame placed upon the education system for falling standards.

But not so in Scotland where a maths test was given  that proved to be too difficult. Instead of blaming teachers and the education system, as we would undoubtedly have done here, the  Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) acknowledged the test was too difficult and adjusted the scores accordingly.

We cannot raise standards by making tests, or exams, more difficult. We must improve the way we teach and the way we motivate students to learn. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Neuroscience and Elementary Education

At first glance the study of neuroscience and elementary education at the undergraduate level seems a little bit like an oxymoron; the pursuit of two extremes; a path to schizophrenia.
But for anyone interested in science and wanting to become an elementary school teacher the combination of these two majors makes incredible sense.

To quote Professor Melissa Vanderkay Tomasulo PhD, Director of the Neuroscience Program and associate professor of psychology; "Neuroscience allows us to explore the world and human existence through biological, psychological, and social lenses. It amazes me and my students to be reminded that a three pound organ the size of a cauliflower enables us to ponder, emote, move, feel, and reason." What is teaching children at the elementary school level if it is not helping them navigate  the biological, psychological and social demands of growing up.

Several elementary education majors students have recently  asked if they can pursue the new  neuroscience major. To make sure this new major falls within the liberal arts second major requirement I contacted the Vermont Agency of Education today.  According to Patrick Halliday, Director of teacher licensure at the VtAoE, the Neuroscience major will fulfill the second major requirement and so we are off and running. 


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Common Core and Politics

I wonder if the Common Core will survive the 2016 election campaigns? It's been quite astounding how already the Common Core State Standards are mentioned in negative terms almost every time a politician, regardless of her/his party, gets onto the topic of education. The main question to them has to be "HOW MUCH OF THE COMMON CORE HAVE YOU READ?" Then, the next question should be "HOW MUCH OF THE COMMON CORE DO YOU UNDERSTAND?". I wonder how they would respond.

Having become intimately familiar with the Math CCSS I have to say they are pretty good. The authors seem to have included something for everyone. For example they want students to understand what they are learning, a nod to the liberal side of the populace, and the want students to develop rigor in their learning, a nod to the conservative side. Perhaps this is the very reason why both sides are attacking them. The CCSS contain something that everyone can point to as being not what they want in an education system. Instead of seeing them as an entirely complete piece of work they are selecting small pieces to support their argument for dropping the Common Core. It is always much easier, of course, to chop a tree down in 30 seconds that to grow one in 30 years.

Perhaps it is the name "Common Core" that politicians don't like. The word "common" for example has somewhat negative connotations: It's hard to get excited about something called "common". Then there's the word "core". Again it's a word that you tend to find in somewhat negative surrounding such as in the phrase "cut me to the core".

Then, of course, it's all part of "Race To The Top", a phrase clearly not coined by someone involved  intimately in the education of children. I sometimes imagine a kindergarten teacher saying on the first day of the semester "OK kindergartners, now pay attention. I just want to remind you that you are just about to start the "Race To The Top". Since this is a race, some of you will make it to the top first and some of you won't. No pressure, I just want you to be aware of what lies ahead of you".

Here are some interesting links re CCSS and Politics; US News and the Huff Post.
NPR and the Washington Post.