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On college costs, and standards

November 4, 2013 Leave a comment

This business about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is so polarizing as to make your head spin.  It’s a brilliant example of the difference between intention vs. policy, idea vs. implementation, and goal vs. mechanism.  Politicized beyond belief (although since when has public K-12 education not been politicized), the CCSSI is, at its core (ahem), an intentional attempt to identify the kinds of skills and abilities students need in the modern world.

I’m not going to wade into the political elements of the debate, or the apparent deficiencies in the standards model itself, but I am quite fascinated by how the CCSSI views and expresses (implicitly and explicitly) what it thinks higher education is all about.  There’s an emergent view of higher education’s “job”, and I suppose you can only evaluate whether we are “doing our job” if we can all agree on what that job is.  Educating the masses?  Elite education for the few?  Create new knowledge through research? Develop independent thinking skills in our students?  Create entrepreneurs?  Generate wealth?  Service learning?  There’s many more possibilities here…

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The New, New Math (no, this time, really…)

June 15, 2013 1 comment

Last night, two delightfully clean-cut college students came to my door.  Their “Aggies” license plate and A&M visors let me know that this was the outfit who recently incited a scare in the local neighborhoods because they have out of state plates and are looking for houses with small children.  Maybe not the best opening line to a sales pitch.  I didn’t catch the name of the product they were selling, but it was some combination of actual books and website access, and somehow these two things were supposed to work together to improve student reading, especially for young kids.  It was never quite clear how the system worked, and the details are not exceptionally important.  What’s interesting about this situation is:

  • the website access was promised to add value (“it’s fun, kids love learning online…”)
  • the books seemed like, well, books (of which I have a house full)
  • this was a cold-call sales job

It’s almost as if there’s something magic about having a supporting website that makes this sort of thing (at least in the eyes of the sellers) attractive, effective, or worth the money.

My son just finished third grade in a local school, and throughout this school year we received the following proclamations about how he would be learning math this year (note: I am intentionally not linking to any of these).

  • Some time in the fall, my son’s math teacher was “pleased to tell [us] that we will be using a website called IXL in our classroom this year.”  The letter promises that in addition to “making math practice exciting, IXL is designed to help your child learn at his or her own pace.”  A laudable goal, to be sure.  The letter closes by asking parents to “encourage your son or daughter to use IXL daily.”  Well, okay, maybe.
  • On Jan. 29, we received another nice letter about using XtraMath to “increase speed and accuracy in arithmetic”.  Yes, well, okay, speed might be important, accuracy is certainly important, and so yes, right, we can have our child “spend a few minutes each day practicing math on the computer.”  Got it.
  • On Feb. 7, we received another letter, this one stating that students in this math teacher’s class “have an opportunity to work with an exciting new math product.  ExploreLearning Reflex is an online, game-based program that helps students build fast and effortless recall of math facts.”  Hmm.  Okay, well, yes, I’d like my son to have fast and effortless recall, but the Jan. 29 letter told me that XtraMath was going to increase his speed and accuracy too. So I am not sure what to do here.
  • Throughout the entire school year, the class was using something call ST Math.  ST stands for “spatial-temporal”, and the premise of ST math is that students are introduced to a math problem visually first, then using more traditional mathematical symbols.  The visual narrative is driven by the adorable (ahem…) penguin Jiji.  Students essentially help Jiji solve math puzzles so that whatever obstacles are in Jiji’s way can be removed.  The obstacles represent the visual part of the math problem.

I’m not complaining about any one of these products in particular.  In fact, ST Math in particular claims to have a strong basis in research, and the group at UC Irvine who created the system has some scholarship available to substantiate their claims about how the system supports achievement on standardized tests.  Whatever.  And apparently it costs on the order of $100 per students per year.  Yikes.

What is shocking and distressing is this hodgepodge of introduced-then-quickly-forgotten websites that promise learning, sharpening of skills, and (!) fun.  Other than ST math, which really permeated the whole school year, I have never heard of the other three again.  And it might be worth noting that my son, whom I consider to be a very visual guy with a really good talent for visual/spatial mapping, hated, really abhorred ST math.  He thought the whole storyline with the penguin was silly, he thought the adaptivity was weak (in the sense that the questions didn’t adapt fast enough, and he had to endure too many questions on the same topics), and he generally felt like it was not an effective tool for him to learn math.  Call them learning styles, or learning preferences, or whatever you want, but the point is that not everyone learns the same way, and this way didn’t work for him.

I’ve learned a lot about the enterprise of education over the past few years of public schools.  Public schools have it rough.  The range of preparation of students entering the system, the demands of NCLB and standardized testing, the differential commitment of parents to the school and its mission, the constant sense that resources are not spent wisely, on the “right” things.  Teachers are overworked and underpaid.  The burnout rate is high, and teacher turnover is costly (This is astonishing:  “The total cost of turnover in the Chicago Public Schools is estimated to be over $86M per year.”  And the cost of a single teacher leaving the system is on the order of $17,000.  In Chicago, there are around 23,000 teachers, and this data means that around 4,800 of them [20%] turnover in a given year.).  There’s no doubt that teachers deserve more love, more professional development, more efforts at retention and general job satisfaction, and more respect from the public.

But I am an online skeptic, a MOOC skeptic, unlike some others.  And I make constructive use technology within my pedagogy as much as anyone.  But I feel strong dismay at the notion that students are sophisticated enough in their understanding of how they learn to be able to make good judgments about how to productively engage with these technologies.  Yes, perhaps the role of the teacher is changing to something more like a coach or mentor.  I get that, and I generally like the idea.  But the teacher plays a central role;  not as gatekeeper of information, but also not as an incidental part of the educational process either.  The teacher must be directly involved in the student’s experience, and here’s what I think are the important things teachers can do:

  • motivate students, and using their knowledge of a student’s personality and personal circumstance to tap into their desire to succeed
  • challenge students, by pushing them to meet and even exceed their own expectations
  • inspire students, by being the positive role model for learning that a computer could probably never be
  • engage students in the critical thinking and the memorable and crucial give-and-take of classroom discussions, whether about arts, literature, or even math

This is not intended to be a polemic attack on public schools, or teachers, or parents, or students.  It is, however, a strong lament about the current state of technology in education, especially K-12 education.  I am concerned, more than ever, that just because technology is ubiquitous, people will use it for all sorts of things that it isn’t ready to be used for.  And just because technology is all around, it is perceived to be disposal–or worse yet, interchangeable.  The three websites I never heard about again are perfect examples of a technology pop culture:  pretty, shiny, disposable, and nobody will remember them even a year from now.