The Invasion of the “Math People”

A tragically common refrain for too many people in our society is, “I’m not a math person.” Often, the real subtext is, “I did not enjoy and/or do well in math class.” This creates an unfortunate feedback loop where most of the people who go on to teach math and write math textbooks are the people who did enjoy and do well in math class, limiting the likelihood of change.

Then again, even when there has been real effort put into changing how math is taught, it’s either been done badly or has been stymied by the way our school system treats teachers. The adapted excerpt from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher that ran in the New York Times details the backlash against the “new math” of the 1960’s and the “new new math” of the 1980’s, as well as Japan’s successful incorporation of different approaches to teaching math. Those approaches were developed in the U.S., but teachers were never supported adequately when adopting them (and, unlike Japanese teachers, don’t have enough time to research, develop, or incorporate best practices).

The Japanese approach replaces the standard lesson format —teacher introduces new material, teacher leads the class in guided practice, students practice independently—with a more student-centered approach. The teacher poses a problem, students work on it independently, then in groups, and then as a whole class with the teacher facilitating and ensuring students explore multiple routes to right answers. (This, by the way, means that Rand Paul’s dream calculus teacher couldn’t actually teach everyone in the country.)

As explored by the National Center on Education and the Economy, another source of, “I’m not a math person,” is the accelerating pace of math instruction that pushes students faster and faster on a path to calculus. This winds up neglecting important areas that are more important to many adults’ lives, such as statistics or key geometric and measurement techniques. It also means that students don’t have as much of an opportunity to master the middle school calculation techniques and “Algebra 1.25” skills that they need for success in most fields.

Especially with the spread of the Common Core math standards, we need to do more to support teachers in reevaluating which math skills need the most emphasis, how they should be mastered, and how best to teach students. A country of “math people” is possible, but it will some systemic changes and more trust and aid for teachers.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Curriculum 

New USDA Program Improves School Nutrition

From a nutrition perspective, 2014 has been a good year for low-income Minnesota students. Earlier this year the Legislature passed a bill mandating the state to pay for school meals for students who qualified for “reduced-price” meals. (Previously, families paid a partial fee to cover what the USDA doesn’t pay.) This change guarantees that more low-income children will always have access to free meals at school.

The new school year will see another positive step forward through the USDA’s community eligibility program. This program, which launched in a few states in 2011, is available nationwide for the first time this fall. Community eligibility targets high-poverty schools where many students already participate in free/reduced school meals or other financial assistance programs. Through community eligibility, all students in those schools may receive free breakfast and lunch, without each individual student needing to enroll. The USDA reimburses schools based on how many students qualify as low-income based on their participation in several other income support programs. Families no longer need to complete an additional round of forms to enroll their children in free meals and schools no longer need to process these forms. This improves student access to the meals they need to succeed in school while reducing the paperwork burden for families and schools.

Over 350 Minnesota schools are now eligible to enroll in this program, which offers great promise for schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Pilot schools in other states have reported increased breakfast and lunch participation, improved academic performance, and reduced administrative costs. In some schools, these improvements have actually boosted their nutrition programs’ revenues.

Community eligibility also opens the door to improve meal programs in other ways because there’s no need for a cafeteria checkout line to ring up each individual student. For instance, some schools have struggled to get students through a breakfast line in the harried time between their arrival and the start of class. Now schools can simplify by offering food right as students enter the building or by delivering breakfast directly to the classroom. Every student can count on breakfast every day as part of their routine.

Minnesota schools will no doubt invent some creative ways to improve student health and achievement through community eligibility. We can look forward to seeing the fruits (pun intended) of this new program as students return to school.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Nutrition  Children's Health 

On Higher Education, Where Do We Stack Up?

In adults ages 16-29, the United States ranks 16th in numerical proficiency and 11th in literacy proficiency, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This new metric, entitled the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, assesses knowledge retention and use in professional settings.

Kevin Carey of the New York Times' Upshot Blog suggests that, due to the newly released OECD study, those who lament the status of our K-12 education system should also be concerned about the status of American colleges and universities. The main problem is that the reality of America’s collegiate mediocrity does not match the rhetorical arguments made by our nation’s leaders.

While it is true that the United States houses 19 of the world’s top 25 universities, academic strength should be judged by the average achievement of those surveyed. For example, great works of literature are still coming from the United States; however, our 11th place in literacy proves that, on average, the United States has significant work to do.

How can we work together to make the United States the best country for higher education?
The answer is two-fold. Surveys have shown that public universities educate up to 75 percent of American college students; however, public funds have decreased by an average of $2,394 per student (27 percent) between 2008 and 2012 alone.

Tuition has, therefore, become more prevalent in supporting school expenses and has led to some families being “priced out” of their education. Increased public funds for large universities would also keep large universities accountable to the public, not just big private donors.

As for changing practice, more colleges and universities should increase their emphasis on critical thinking and creative problem solving in every education setting. Knowledge retention is enhanced greatly by these different practices, and they don’t just belong in a liberal arts education setting.

Engineering or high-level mathematics classes benefit just as much from these learning practices as do creative writing or sociology. It is a fallacy to state that cohort learning or experiential development is only beneficial in one, not the other.

By enacting these two changes, the United States can put its colleges and universities on track to become more competitive. It won’t happen next month or next year, but we owe it to our students to ensure their success and effectiveness in the world.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

Forward Together

Lean on me/When you’re not strong/I’ll be your friend/I’ll help you carry on…

This old Bill Withers song never sounded so good, ringing out from a not-nearly full enough Peavey Plaza on Saturday, August 16, where the Reverend William Barber, along with his traveling arts expert, Yara Allen, was getting ready to lead a march down the Nicollet Mall.

Reverend Barber and Yara Allen were in town at the request of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and in honor of Barber’s work as the leader of not only the North Carolina NAACP, but also the growing, grassroots Moral Monday movement.

I am so grateful that I got to meet Barber in person, to introduce my children to him, and to be astounded, amazed, floored, and inspired by not only his rhetorical skills, but also his grounded, strategic tips for how to build a unified movement of, by, and for the people.

Forward together, not one step back.”

A key tenet of Barber’s message is unity: Forward together—not one step back. While Barber was in Minneapolis at the invitation of the teacher’s union, he made it clear that tackling disparities and inequities in education is everybody’s problem. In a sea of acrimony, Reverend Barber’s message rings out like a clarion call, and he does not shy away from his belief that he is building and leading a moral movement.

You cannot care about education and not care about student hunger and homelessness, said Reverend Barber. You cannot trumpet the successes measured by test scores while ignoring the many who “fail” to perform. You cannot build a house from the roof on down, he said. You must build a house up, from the bottom to the top.

With a new school year upon us, we must admit that no one of us, acting alone, has all of the answers for anyone else—and especially not for our most struggling communities and the children who live in them. To carry Reverend Barber’s message forward, we must find a way to come together, bury our egos, and find common ground.

In North Carolina, Reverend Barber has found that it is working to lead with heart, with honesty, and with an insistence on the immorality of, among other things, resegregated schools, draconian austerity measures, and the further privatization of our public institutions.

He has brought people together, and forward, in North Carolina. Will we now follow his lead in Minnesota?

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Education Reform 

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Learning to Ask the Right People the Right Questions

It’s interesting to me that so much of the work of a student in school is about finding the “right” answers, while so many leaders and policy makers struggle to find the right questions.

Earlier this month, the education-focused Hechinger Report covered the debate within many districts about which technology to buy. The article’s frame emphasized the tablet vs. laptop split (which, as the article noted, is mostly an iPad vs. laptop split, since nearly all tablets used in schools are iPads). In exploring this specific question, the article touched on a broader point: Before we can make these choices, we must pose the right questions to the right people.

This is most clearly demonstrated when the article quotes a veteran teacher who has successfully incorporated iPads into much of his practice. He said, “You’ll probably never find the answer of what is the right device. First you have to ask: What do you want the device to do for your children?”

Think about those last two words. “Your children.” That could refer either to a parent or guardian’s children or to a teacher’s students. Both groups—families and teachers—need to be included when making these decisions.

This inclusion must go beyond tokenism. Putting one teacher and one parent in a working group with ten district administrators is not inclusion. Holding a meeting to tell faculty or families about the district’s plan after it’s been set is not inclusion. The conversations that must happen in more schools and more districts are about what families want for their children, what teachers need to help meet those goals, and how schools can support that work.

Not every decision can be made this way, but many more should be. Education technology is poised to become a $10 billion industry in the next couple of years. If new tech is to have an effect on learning, teaching is going to need to change to take advantage of what the new tools offer. Making good decisions here requires including the people closest to the classroom in defining priorities, responsibilities, and plans.

This style of education governance isn’t very common right now. Recent reforms have focused more on top-down technocracy for teachers and encouraging families to leave schools rather than help improve them. We could do with a little more democracy to figure out what we want technology, and really schools in general, to do for children.
 

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education 

The True Potential for MOOCs

Massive open online courses, MOOCs for short, burst onto the education scene in 2012. Their emergence as the ‘cutting-edge’ future of education supposedly spelled the end for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and K-12 education.

Put simply, this shift hasn’t happened, nor will it.

Along these same lines, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently proposed a “revolutionary” education plan that limits oversight and funding for national education policy.

He suggests that: “if you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country.” The reasoning behind Paul’s philosophy is identical to that of advocates for fully realized MOOC education.

Simplistic statements about who is “best” at something aside, Paul seems to be attempting to fit the wide discipline of education into one small aspect of teaching, the explanation of content. Using this worldview it must surely be deplorable that no one has learned everything there is to know on all known subjects. Wikipedia has all of the information right there!

But maybe education requires more than explanation. Perhaps students benefit more from interaction with a learned professional who encourages individual engagement with complex notions and creative means to solve problems.

Educator James Goodman wrote on Salon.com that: “Real learning comes from engaging with material. Whether you’re forming an argument about a character’s motives in a novel, debating the root causes of World War I, trying to make sense of the relationship between temperature and pressure of gases, or trying to understand the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, the best learning doesn’t happen when the answers are simply given to you.”

In many cases, MOOCs may fit into this equation in order to learn about an interesting subject you didn’t have time for in school or to pursue a hobby or passion, with more intention.

EdX, the non-profit host of free MOOCs from institutions such as Harvard and MIT, has shown nearly 2.5 million students interested in their courses; however, only 10 percent complete the coursework. MOOCs have transformed from an omen of education’s doom to a “genre.” Similar to web series housed on YouTube, such as CrashCourse, these online video-based courses aim to reach interested parties to increase knowledge, not replace educational institutions.

Schools are not perfect in their mission for educating our children. However, they offer far more than only a computer screen ever will.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Community Education 

Learning Across Generations and the Conditions for Innovation

The more time I spend studying interesting efforts to improve education, the more examples I see of isolated examples that do an extraordinary job of combining the right resources and people to achieve great things. Figuring out how to make the extraordinary more, well, ordinary means thinking about the conditions that help these sorts of efforts begin and thrive.

Recently, Education Week covered the growth of programs aimed at helping parents and guardians raise their own educational level as their children go through school. Responding to the well-documented associations between children’s educational outcomes and those of their parents, these programs are meant to interrupt the intergenerational cycles of educational struggle.

Especially with the rising cost of child care, people often struggle to add post-secondary work to their jobs and child-related responsibilities. Finding ways to integrate child care with meaningful educational opportunities for adults offers one way to meet two needs at once.

In one example, a community college co-located two high schools on site. According to Education Week’s reporting, "The college and high schools integrate child care for parents taking classes, and try to frame instruction in ways relating to parents’ career goals and parenting issues.”

It would be quite possible for more Minnesota communities to sustain similar efforts. Local high schools and MnSCU branches could partner up with early childhood educators in different ways depending on local needs.

The underlying conditions required for such efforts to be successful on a wide scale include adequate K-12 and postsecondary funding, committed leadership, proactive engagement with families, and sustained investment in early childhood education.

Each of those conditions is achievable, and each one has additional benefits beyond enabling the kind of multigenerational education Education Week profiled. This broader, more inclusive vision for education is about laying the fundamentals for many different innovative approaches that can adapt to provide what’s best for each area’s students.

Supporting democratic, community-minded education should be a progressive goal as the limitations of technocratic and market-based reform grow clearer.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Community Schools 

More Lessons on Gender Equity from Higher Ed

Several months ago, I wrote an article pulling some lessons from Harvard Business School’s experience addressing grade gaps between men and women. More recently, a few institutions of higher learning have received attention for addressing a different gender equity gap: participation of men vs. women in computer science programs. Participation gaps are somewhat different than perceived performance gaps, so the lessons drawn from these schools—including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington, and Harvey Mudd College—are also a bit different.

Lesson 1: Invite and Recruit
This correlates roughly to two of the Harvard Business School lessons: “Admit There’s a Problem” and “Assume Student Ability.” The schools addressing gender participation in computer science did not accept the disparities they saw, nor did they fall back on essentialist arguments about male and female thinking or ability as excuses. Instead, they made it a point to build connections at the high school level to connect female students with their programs and changed their recruiting practices to emphasize the normalcy of women in computer science.

Lesson 2: Support
The Carnegie Mellon approach also responded to the informal social supports that are disproportionately available to men in male-dominated fields, and which make it more likely that men will persist and succeed in a program. They created formal equivalents for women, like mentorship programs with more experienced women studying and practicing computer science.

Lesson 3: Start Young
As mentioned previously, the schools built connections with high school teachers and students. Many of these weren’t gender-specific, but had the effect of making computer science more accessible to all students. This produced a natural trend towards more equal participation. The earlier we can break down such barriers for students, the easier it is to achieve parity of participation.

Conclusion
There many layers to educational inequity, including participation and performance gaps by gender, race, and economic background. Cases of success are rarely clear-cut or complete—even the programs discussed above are closer to a 60/40 participation ratio than a 50/50 one—but we can learn from them. And, as the Harvard case showed, it’s also important to keep working at it.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: Higher Education 

When Teaching Better Means Teaching Less

When Vox interviewed Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher, the following passage stuck out: “The Japanese were doing all these things differently in terms of teaching. I didn't know how Japanese teachers got to that point, so I went to Japan myself and I asked them. It was this really strange experience where they would all say, "We learned from you. We learned from the US."

This might be news for people in this country who have grown tired of how often Japan beats us on international standardized tests. Especially if they assume that the difference is in the quality of teaching, it might be disturbing that Japan adopted practices developed but unused here. Some might wonder if this is about teachers with such a strong work ethic that they put in substantially more hours of work with students. Those folks would be wrong; the average Japanese teacher spends hundreds of hours less than the average U.S. teacher in front of the classroom with students. (This is true in Finland as well.)

Instead, Japanese teachers spend more time with each other, collaborating and doing research on what works best for their students. In many ways, the assumptions underlying this model are radically different than the assumptions driving much of the U.S. debate about teaching, which seems more interested in shaming teachers for being bad or lazy than in helping them improve.

Entrusting teachers with their professional development and building a system where they are expected to work together regularly to improve their practice would seem a worthwhile use of our time. However, that might require more trust from administrators and policy makers than they’re prepared to give right now.

For the rest of us, though, it reinforces the idea that good teaching can be taught. Indeed, it must be. As Green points out, teaching is in many ways more complicated than practicing medicine, and we have over 3.8 million teachers in this country. (We’d need more if we moved to a system like Japan’s or Finland’s with less student time and more development time.) Hunting for talent can’t be the core of our strategy; developing it must be.

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Teachers 

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Racial Divisions Plague School Discipline

From unfair hiring practices to unequal incarceration rates, the evidence of persistent racial biases is overwhelming. One area where racial inequality is particularly clear and particularly concerning—is within schools.

Disparities in school discipline are well-documented. African American students are suspended and expelled much more frequently than white students, even though research shows the two groups exhibit similar behavior. This is true in school districts across the country. In a nationwide survey of school-related law enforcement incidents, 70 percent of arrests were of black or Hispanic students.

In Minnesota, the problem is particularly acute. Four percent of all black students are diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders, a rate three times the national average for that demographic. That is the highest rate of any state in the country. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, that rate is 7 and 8 percent, respectively. In Minneapolis, 14 percent of black students were suspended in the 2012-13 school year, compared to just 2 percent of white students. The disparity is not just present within schools but also between schools. In predominately black and Native American charter schools, the rates of suspension are significantly higher than in public schools.

Suspensions and expulsions hinder normal academic development and considerably reduce chance of graduation. They create a culture of hostility and alienation that pushes too many students toward delinquency and incarceration.

No quick fix exists. Despite nominally colorblind policies, racial discrepancies generally result from unconscious biases among those administering discipline, making it difficult to assign blame on any one person or group. But that is not to say nothing can be done.

As Michael Diedrich proposed earlier this year, we should stop modeling discipline in school after law enforcement and instead emphasize rehabilitation and treatment. A critical piece of this involves educators and administrators exercising restraint when they dole out punishments. The state legislature should clarify its existing statutes on discipline and specify legitimate and illegitimate grounds for dismissal. School districts should provide training for its employees that stresses consistency and proportionality in punishment. Additionally, schools should make clear to students which actions could result in dismissal so that they may adequately self-correct their behavior.

If we want to get serious about addressing the inequality issue in our state’s education system, this is a good place to start.
 

Posted in Education | Related Topics: K-12 education  Education Administration  Racial Inequalities 

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