Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reflecting on Reflections

Professionals in many industries love to use jargon and puffed-up terminology to make what they do sound important and difficult -- and educators are no different. (Confession: I have used the phrase "instructional pedagogy" -- which means "the way you teach something" -- with a straight face, so I'm guilty, too.)

If you'd like to read a great example, read this article by New York Times journalist Samuel G. Freedman: "Upon Further Reflection, A Few Random Thoughts."

I laughed out loud.... But then I felt uneasy. As a teacher, I embraced the concept of "reflective thinking" at teacher school. It just sounds so scholarly, so deep. But upon reflection (ha), what other kind of thinking is worth teaching or encouraging? Knee-jerk, impulsive thinking? Shallow, half-hearted thinking? Scatter-shot thinking?

Anyway, it just made me wonder.

UPDATE: Can't get enough of edu-babble? Check out this bracing article by Martin A. Kozloff, Distinguished Professor, Watson School of Education, University of North Carolina in Wilmington (via Scary, but accurate. And for some fun, zip over to the Science Geek's Education Jargon Generator, which claims to be "particularly useful for people involved in writing reports for WASC accreditation." Hillarious.

More on standards

After yesterday's post on the Fordham Foundation's "State of State Standards" report, I could almost hear the audible yawns emanating from drowsy readers as their eyes glazed over. Okay, so education standards aren't the most exciting topic. I'd rather be thinking about pretty much anything else....

But standards, while boring, are the guts of the educational enterprise. They're critical to schools that want their students to succeed. Here's why:

Standards give everyone a clear definition of what needs to be accomplished.
  • For a school board (or council, in JIS' case), standards could be an important component of its "Ends Policies" -- specifically addressing the "what service or product does JIS offer?" question. While a school board using the Carver model of policy governance may not want to get into standards for all grades, it seems that setting standards for graduating 12th graders (and setting a percentage goal for the head-of-school to achieve) might make a lot of sense because they are -- by definition -- the ends that we all hope our students reach at JIS.*
  • For administrators and teachers, creating and evaluating standards requires them to ask, "what's worth knowing and what skills are worth learning?" at specific points in students' educational careers. Once this HUGE question is answered (hopefully in concert with students and parents), teachers and administrators can create and organize curriculum by answering these questions: "If we want students to do _________ by 12th grade, how do we get them there? What steps need to happen? What's the best way to make sure they get there?" (Educators call this process "Backwards Design," and its a great way to plan curriculum.)
  • For parents, standards help them understand what their children's school is doing. They are the "method to the madness" that we see when our kids bring home essay assignments, lab reports, and all the rest. Theoretically, at least, all the work our students do should be aimed at helping them achieve (and hopefully exceed, if things are going well) the school's standards. When parents understand, they can be partners in the process and support the school's efforts.
Now granted, standards aren't a guarantee of success. In fact, there's no clear evidence that US states with great standards have better academic results than other states across all subject areas . (After all, setting standards is one thing -- but implementing them is something else. Some schools do well; others don't.)

But strong, well-crafted standards are linked to improve performance in some subjects, according to Fordham's report. For example, "Five states made statistically significant gains on the science NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Performance] between 2000 and 2005 at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, and three of these have among the best sets of science standards in the nation, according to Fordham’s reviewers."

And standards give educators something important: clear expectations of what students should learn. As a wise man said just yesterday, "If you don't have clear expectations, then anything you do is the right answer."

*For more on the "Ends vs. Means" distinction and how standards fit into that discussion, please click on this link and scroll down to the blog posting for March 10th, "Ends vs. Means: the big question." For some reason, I can't get a direct link to the post -- sorry! Obviously still figuring this whole blog thing out....

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fordham releases "The State of State Standards" report

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (a Washington, D.C.-based organization focused on issues in elementary and secondary education) released today its much-anticipated "State of the State Standards" report for 2006.

Among the report's findings:
Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America attend class in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn.
Don't expect this report to be universally embraced; the Fordham Foundation (home of legendary Chester Finn, Jr., a.k.a. "The Education Gadfly") is known for its conservative views on many education issues. This report, which names names, so to speak, is sure to receive both kudos and a good lambasting.

But regardless of how it's received, the report is good fodder for a discussion on education standards -- especially at an international school like JIS, which gets to set its own educational program outside of governmental restrictions like the "No Child Left Behind Act" in the United States.

Technically speaking, standards are concrete descriptions of what a state (or school like JIS) wants its students to be able to accomplish at each grade level in the four major academic subjects: English, mathematics, science, and history. These accomplishments usually fall into two categories:
  • Specific subject area knowledge (for example, multiplication facts from 0 to 12)
  • Specific academic skills (like being able to comprehend a non-fiction text)
"The State of the State Standards" report gives letter grades to each state's standards. For example, Illinois (the state where I used to teach) received a B for its English standards. That, in and of itself, isn't very interesting or useful -- but what is useful is the rationale behind that grade:
English, language arts and reading receive good coverage, and vocabulary benchmarks are clearly outlined. Illinois students cannot expect to receive a full-bodied English education, however, when their state standards eschew naming specific authors, literary periods, literary genres, and texts. No substantive curriculum can be formed without these components. Illinois avoids them, though, and in so doing cheats its K-12 population of a major segment of English education that they surely deserve.
What's the useful part? The descriptions of what makes a good the case of English, according to Fordham, it's not only skill benchmarks, but also subject area knowledge (for English, that includes things like books written by specific authors).

Designing standards is complicated, and no state (or school) ever feels like it's come up with the perfect set. It should be an ongoing process -- a process that the Fordham report describes in great detail in its analysis of three states' success stories. (These are definitely worth a read.)

If you're a parent from the United States (or have lived in -- or will be moving to -- the States), here's a webpage that has links to the actual academic standards in all 50 states so that you can see what the Fordham report is analyzing.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Do PTAs matter?

Over at, guest blogger Steve Barr (founder of Los Angeles' cutting-edge Green Dot charter schools) asks the question....

You probably know my thoughts on the subject!

Does teacher gender affect student success?

Didn't get enough arguing in yesterday's debate over stressed-out students? Well, get ready to rumble: Here comes another edu-hot-potato that should get blood pressures roiling.

In the Fall issue of Education Next (a quarterly publication from Stanford University's Hoover Institution), Thomas Dee examines "How a Teacher's Gender Affects Boys and Girls."

Dee, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at Swarthmore College and faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), comes to a startling conclusion:
Simply put, girls have better educational outcomes when taught by women, and boys are better off when taught by men.
Check out the Associated Press' analysis of Dee's article (via

Not everyone is buying Dee's conclusion, according to the AP. "'I don't think there are many parents or students, looking back over their educational careers, who haven't been inspired by a teacher of the opposite sex,'" says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which works to advance the progress of women. "'And many have had very unhappy experiences with teachers of the same gender that they are. We have to be careful of too many generalizations.'"

But Dee argues "his research raises valid questions," according to the AP. "Should teachers get more training about the learning styles of boys and girls? Should they be taught to combat biases in what they expect of boys and girls?"

Monday, August 28, 2006

Stressed out kids -- or a lot of hype?

In a Washington Post article sure to cause many dinner-table debates, edu-journalist Jay Matthews discounts the popular notion that today's high school students are overstressed.

The object of his ire: The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, a new book by Alexandra Robbins, who

...follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they navigate the SAT and college application process. These students are obsessed with success, contending with illness, physical deterioration (senior Julie is losing hair over the pressure to get into Stanford), cheating (students sell a physics project to one another), obsessed parents ( Frank's mother manages his time to the point of abuse) and emotional breakdowns (Publishers Weekly).
But Matthews, creator of US News & World Report's annual ranking of the best high schools in America, says Robbins is perpetuating a modern myth.

While he acknowledges that a small percentage of students in the wealthiest school districts may indeed suffer from stress, Matthews points out that "the parents and students in such communities fail to see...that they are in the uppermost 5 percent in homework, just as they are in housing square footage, money spent on vacations and stock market investments. Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare."

Matthews goes on to site a study by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute that found two-thirds of high school students spend an hour or less on homework each night.

"If they are not doing much homework in high school," Matthews asks,

what are they up to? The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research collects time diaries from American teenagers. These documents make clear our youth are not taking long walks in the woods or reading Proust. Instead, 15- to 17-year-olds on average between 2002 and 2003 devoted about 3 1/2 hours a day to television and other "passive leisure" or playing on the computer. (Their average time spent in non-school reading was exactly seven minutes a day. Studying took 42 minutes a day.)
See the debate brewing? Yikes....

In the end, Matthews says "Robbins is right to lambaste parents who insist that their children do nothing but AP and tell them they must get into Princeton. But keep in mind that our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little."

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Opposite ends of the parent spectrum

Two articles in this week's edupress demonstrate the variety of parents and parenting approaches that exist. They both took my breath away, but for different reasons.

First, this article from the Education Wonks, which demonstrates the highest common denominator in parenting.

Then, shifting from the sublime to the ridiculous, there's this news flash from South Carolina (also via the Education Wonks). It just makes you wonder....

Friday, August 25, 2006

New opportunities

Like a bear emerging from a long, restful hybernation, JIS Topics finally leaves its cozy cave and faces the sunlight of a new school year. Has it really been more than two months since our last posting? Oh well, I guess it's true what they say about good intentions....

Hope everyone in the JIS community had a fun, energizing school holiday. Despite some educators' warnings about the dangers of "summer slide" (apologies to all Southern Hemispherians), I'm one of those rebels who really believes in the rejuvenating effects of an extended break -- for students AND teachers and parents.

But now it's back to the proverbial grindstone. There's stuff to learn, new friends to make -- and I'm not just talking about the kids! So much opportunity. So much potential. So much work!

Speaking of work, if you're like us, homework is already in full swing. It's never too early to start building a strong quiver of resources to support our students at home. Here's an article from yesterday's Los Angeles Times at lists a bucket-load of links to excellent educational resource sites. You might have to register to view the entire article, but it's free and relatively painless. You'll find links on everything from archeology to world facts. Some of the links require cutting and pasting, but save them in a "Homework Helpers" folder you create under Internet Favorites, and your kids will thank you.

Other sites that are well-loved favorites at the van Tilburg house include:
  • -- an amazing website with searchable databases on great books, poetry, quotations, and writing resources.
  • Wikipedia -- a community-created encyclopedia resource available in many languages.
  • Math Fact Cafe -- requires a little work to figure it out, but you can create your own flash cards and math-fact worksheets. Geared toward elementary kids...but great for review for everyone!
  • MIT's Writing Center -- It may be known for its engineering and math programs, but MIT has a fantastic online resource for writers. Information on the writing process, strategies, and ESL make this site a gem.
  • OWL Writing Lab -- Purdue University's website on writing and grammar is the gold-standard. Lots of practice worksheets and plain-English explanations of grammar issues from dangling modifiers to comma splices.
  • Grammar Bytes -- Take a bite out of grammar issues with this fun, easy to use website.
  • Harvard University's "Close Reading" site -- great advice on how to get the most out of reading tough texts. These people aren't smart for nothin'.
  • Study Skills Center at NTHS -- shameless plug for my old employer. Hands down the best general site on the planet for general study resources and subject-specific links. Just ignore the corny graphics!
Have you bumped into other good resources on the internet? Let us know -- we're compiling a list that hopefully we'll be able to post on its own page soon.