Friday, September 29, 2006

Why content matters -- even in middle school

Middle schools are, indeed, caught in the middle as far as education goes. It's a tricky time not just for the kids, but also for the educators who work with them. Teenage bodies and brains are changing. Issues of friendship and fitting in grow exponentially in importance. Expectations -- both social and academic -- increase dramatically. It's a tough time for everyone.

Unfortunately, middle school also is a time of decreasing academic performance, as numerous studies have shown. (For a recent look at the so-called "middle-school slump," check out this article from the New York Times, and this one from the Baltimore Sun, which now, sadly, is available only for purchase.)

And if your internet is working at something faster than the speed of slight, have a look at this video from ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, which explores the problems of reading and writing scores that drop precipitously during middle school (link via the Education Wonks).

It all boils down to this: kids in middle school need our best thinking and our best efforts to ensure that they've got a solid foundation for moving on in their educational careers.

What things make a difference in preparing students for high school? The Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of US schools, districts and states, addressed this question by studying 3,100 students transitioning between 8th and 9th grades. They looked for commonalities between the students who made the transition successfully, and they found three common middle-school experiences linked to success in 9th grade:
  • "Studying 'something called algebra' in the middle grades;
  • Reading a great number of books in grade eight; and
  • Expecting to graduate from college."
(Click here to read the full SREB research brief, Middle Grades to High School: Mending the Weak Link, by Sondra Cooney and Gene Bottoms.)

JIS does really well on two out of the three indicators of 9th grade success. But what about the "reading a great number of books" bullet? In our experience, this hasn't been happening at the school.

How many books is "a great number of books," according to the SREB? The research brief explains that
"SREB's reading goal for middle grade students is at least 25 books per year across the curriculum. Data from High Schools That Work indicate that improved performance in high school English is associated with reading at least 10 books each year."
Now you can argue that 25 books per year is too many, even when spread across all subjects in middle school. But you'd be hard-pressed to argue that three books in three years is sufficient.

So what to do? We'll look at that next.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Language arts content at JIS -- why it matters

Why does the content taught in the middle school language arts curriculum matter? After all, the program is rich in skills, and there is reading happening, even if it's not in the form of a book.

In my view -- which is that of a high-school English teacher who knows too well what lies ahead for our middle school students going into 9th grade and beyond -- reading great, age-appropriate literature matters because:
  • if done in conjunction with instruction on close reading and analysis, it helps students prepare for reading more difficult texts latter in their education;
  • it provides students with the background knowledge and vocabulary they'll need later to handle more advanced texts. In other words, reading builds knowledge that makes it possible to add more complex knowledge;
  • it gives students something meaty to chew on in their writing and thinking, and actually makes them better writers, themselves (click here to see why); and
  • it gives students membership in "the club" of shared understanding with other scholars who have also read great books.
But don't believe me. Read about it yourself from the mouths of education experts:

Here's noted educator E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in his excellent article for the American Educator's Spring 2006 issue:
"...knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children’s reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either."
And here's Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and current professor of education at New York University, speaking about "Why Content Matters," in a presentation to the Reading Reform Foundation:
"Why does content matter? Content matters because skills are not enough. Skills are necessary but they are only the beginning of learning. Without skills, one cannot acquire knowledge. Knowledge builds on knowledge."
Check out Mortimer Adler, Ph.D., noted philosophy and educational theorist, as he responds to a student's question, "Why should we read great books?":
"People who question or even scorn the study of the past and its works usually assume that the past is entirely different from the present, and that hence we can learn nothing worthwhile from the past. But it is not true that the past is entirely different from the present. We can learn much of value from its similarity and its difference."
Want something more esoteric? Then consider Harold Bloom, the ultimate advocate of reading great literature:
"If you are to really encounter a human otherness which finds an answering chorus in yourself, which can become an answering chorus to your own sense of inward isolation, there truly is no authentic place to turn except to a book."

"Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?"
In books....

UPDATE: Need more reasons to encourage JIS to pump-up the reading program? Have a look at this article from the New York Times, which is a powerful testament to the power of reading great literature.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Language arts content at JIS

Someone asked me the other day if I thought JIS offered a curriculum rich in content as well as skills.....

Great question -- and one that will be much easier to answer this January when JIS publishes its curriculum on the ParentNet. (This is a really good move on the part of the JIS administration, by the way! I've seen a demonstration of the new curriculum search engine, and it's pretty cool.)

At the moment, my opinions on JIS' curriculum are formed by the information I can gather from the "curriculum binders" in the school libraries, and more importantly, by personal observation. In other words, I look at what my kids bring home from school -- their assignment notebooks, homework, graded tests (although that's another subject altogether), and report cards. That gives me a (imperfect) view of what my children are studying at JIS.

So what do my personal observations tell me about whether JIS offers a content-rich curriculum? Let's look at middle school language arts. In the two years that my daughter's been in the JIS middle school, she's read three novels in language arts class: The Cay, The Giver, and Tomorrow When the War Began.

This year, her 8th-grade language arts class will read no novels. That's right -- zero.

Of course, students are reading something in language arts class. (I'm guessing short stories and poetry.) But only three novels in three years? That can only be described as "content poor."

Next, why does this matter?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Grumpiness the path to enduring intellegence?

Here's some news that explains a lot: a recent study has concluded "...that upon reaching 60, disagreeable people maintain a higher level of intelligence than more easy-going seniors."

Read all about it in last Sunday's Baltimore Sun (via the nice education blog, Assorted Stuff).

Monday, September 25, 2006

School uniforms: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Warning to our most excellent readers outside of Jakarta: the following posting is totally local in nature and reflects years of internal wrangling and debate at JIS. Read further at your own peril.

My 8th grader has sworn she'll divorce me as a parent if I go down the path on which I'm about to embark. But I can't help myself -- and she's to poor to realistically consider independence. So here goes nothing....

Anyone thought about uniforms lately? I have, for two reasons.

First, a New York Times article, "Do Clothes Make the Student?" explored the issue earlier this month. The article notes that many public schools are moving to uniforms, despite the dearth of research that supports that shift.

But, the Times asks, does research really matter on the subject of uniforms? Shouldn't schools consider factors that may not be quantifiable throught research?

That brings me to the second reason I've been thinking about uniforms lately: the JIS School Council's "Owner Perception Audit" last year, which revealed a general impression among our school community that JIS lacks a shared sense of culture and values. (Click here for the JIS website, then click "ParentNet" and log on. You'll find the "Owner Perception Audit" report under the "Council" section.)

See where I'm going with this?

Uniforms definitely have downsides (if you'd like a list of the 3,289 reasons uniforms stink, please see my daughter, who will tick them off through gritted teeth). But for a school like JIS, there are upsides that go beyond any potential academic implications.
  • Uniforms create a sense of community -- everyone belongs to the "team" in a tangible, visible way
  • Uniforms level the playing field between all economic and social groups
  • Uniforms take the focus off the external (the dress code, the bling, the style), and put the focus on the internal (the scholar, the artist, the sportsperson), where it belongs in an academic setting
  • Uniforms make parents' lives easier
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not a blanket-supporter of uniforms. At the school where I used to teach, uniforms would never work. But they weren't necessary either. The student body, while not 100-percent homogenous, did share a relatively common set of values and a feeling of community, sharpened by the years spent together as students.

JIS is different. We're a transient community, with 1/3 of the student body turning over every year. Our students come from a bucket-load of countries -- and from many different traditions. We don't naturally share a culture or values.

In the past, JIS has raised the issue of uniforms by asking parents -- on its bi-annual questionnaire -- whether "uniforms would improve the educational experience" of our children. But maybe that's the wrong question.... Maybe we should be asking, instead, whether uniforms would improve the school climate and culture.

What do you think? Have you been at an international school with student uniforms? Could uniforms be one way to create a sense of shared culture?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Science goes "back to basics" too?

Apparently not wanting to be left out in the cold on the whole "back to basics" pendulum swing, a group from the US science community came out on Thursday proposing a curriculum shift for elementary students that would focus on fewer topics, but with more depth and connections.

In "Report Calls for Improvement in K-8 Science Education," Washington Post's Valerie Strauss explores recommendations issued by the National Research Council (NRC), which is a part of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. According to the report:
"We are underestimating what young children are capable of as students of science -- the bar is almost always set too low," the report said. "Moreover, the current organization of science curriculum and instruction does not provide the kind of support for science learning that results in deep understanding of scientific ideas and an ability to engage in the practices of science."
So what does the NRC recommend? Strauss explains,
  • "To provide a more comprehensive science education, the committee on science education said that educators should concentrate on core concepts central to the understanding of science rather than the many strands that now exist in school systems around the country." (emphasis added)
  • Link science concepts from grade to grade.
  • Provide teachers with better training, and incorporate new findings on how students learn into the curriculum, "including the notion that children starting school are much more sophisticated, analytical thinkers than has been assumed in the past."
"There are too many ideas in the [science] standards. That just throws a monkey wrench in the system. If we have some core ideas, we can really invest in the system," says Gerald F. Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

However, the NRC cautions against focusing exclusively on content, while ignoring the teaching methods that deliver the content. "Teaching content alone is not likely to lead to proficiency in science, nor is engaging in inquiry experiences devoid of science content," the report said. (Think back to E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch's thinking on the importance of content in the curriculum. It's like Marvin Gaye once said: "It takes two, baby")

Does this sound familiar? If you've been following what's happening in education's math-o-sphere right now, it should. (Now we just have to wait and see if the social studies and language arts/English worlds follow suit!)

It will be interesting to look at JIS' science curriculum when it goes online in January. We've got an abundance of science-minded experts in our JIS community -- hopefully the school will reach out to them as resources in its effort to fine-tune the science curriculum.

To read the NRC's full report, "Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8," click here.

UPDATE: If you'd like to see Reuters' take on the report, please click here (via

Friday, September 22, 2006

Even more on math

Ken de Rosa of the education blog D-Ed Reckoning keeps the heat on the topic of math, honing on on what he calls "another NCTM backpedals story" from the Chicago Tribune (registration required).

As you'll remember, the US-based National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM) ignited a fire storm of controversy in the math world (that's a hilarious visual image!) by issuing its new guidelines on teaching math to children last week. Those guidelines call for a back-to-basics approach that's a big shift away from the "concept-based" math of the past 17 years.

Lattice multiplication? Russian peasant method? Humbug, says de Rosa. These are all ways to compensate for students' lack of quick recall of their multiplication tables, he says. (My personal favorite: the "finger method" for multiplying by 9s. It's hard to look cool in calculus when you're holding up both hands with digits spread wide....)

Check out de Rosa's argument. He's a great writer (but even a worse speller than me!). What do you think about the "math wars"?

Vindicated! (at least a little...)

The other night at the dinner table, my family had a discussion about spelling (I know...weird. But it was a refreshing change from the usual sport, auto racing, or bodily-function topics that usually dominate).

"I'm the worst speller in the universe, because I forget how to spell 'orange'," says the 8th grader.

"No, I'm the worst speller in the universe, because I forget how to spell 'were'," I volunteer.

"Noooo, I'm the worst speller in the universe, because I forget how to spell 'of'," pipes in my 5th grader, an outstanding math student, but a struggling reader and writer.

Uproarious laughter ensued -- including from the 5th grader, who has an amazing attitude and unusual insight into his own academic abilities.

But then, we suddenly stopped laughing. "U-V," says the 8th grader. "Uv...." We all nodded our heads in shared understanding. It was a "Eureka!" moment for all of us. Spelling is hard.

And also apparently inherited. Wednesday's The Age (Melbourne, Australia) reports on a study of 650 pairs of twins that found "...the ability to read and spell were about 50 per cent inherited, with a child's upbringing and schooling controlling the other half."

What's even more amazing, according to the study, "was the discovery that the same genes were involved in both activities."

Now wait a minute, you're probably thinking, I'm a great reader, but a terrible speller. If that's you, The Age says you're not alone: "...anecdotal evidence shows many people believe they're good at one but not the other." But apparently your experiences in life (schooling, practice, reading) can help compensate for the genetic weakness.

For some like me, though, practice and experience will never overcome poor spelling. I just have to accept the limitation and find strategies to address the problem. (Although if you read this blog regularly, you'll see that even my best vigilence -- or is it "vigilance'? -- fails me regularly.)

So is the study right? Is bad spelling inherited? What about reading? And is one problem easier to fix than the other? What do you think?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

How much time is enough time in class?

Tuesday's Cincinnati Enquirer explores the subject of hours in class and number of school days in "Schools Taking Longer Look at Extended Classroom Time."

According to the article, "Demands for more tests and more academic rigor are spurring schools to consider something that makes most students shudder: more time in class."

Another potential reason for the increase: US schools currently lag behind many other countries in terms of days of instruction, with an average of about 180 instructional days per year. Other countries such as Australia, Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands hit 200 or more. (JIS is close to the US average, with a total of 176 instructional days on the calendar this year.)

(Click here for UNESCO's most recent report on the statutory number of teaching hours and weeks per year in countries around the world. And here's a Word document from the Education Commission of the States, which lists each state's school-year requirements. If your kids have gone to school in the US, see where your state falls.)
"We're looking around the world and saying: 'Holy smokes!' There's other societies that are much more dedicated to creating knowledgeable workers of the future," said Charlie Kyte, director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators."
The Enquirer article points out that schools are under pressure to up the academic ante, while at the same time they struggle to provide a well-rounded program that includes classes in arts and physical education. Additionally, educators (and parents) are concerned about helping students maintain a healthy, balanced life. It's tough.

I'd argue that what's more important than the number of school days or hours is how those days and hours are spent. Does the way the school day is structured make sense? Are "instructional days" really instructional days that involve actual learning? How much time each day are students actively engaged in a curriculum that is both content- and skill-rich?

It's a sensitive, complicated topic, but one worth examining in depth at any school.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Nurturing strengths; redefining weaknesses

Mel Levine, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and the cofounder of All Kinds of Minds, is one of the world's foremost proponents of understanding that children's brains aren't "one size fits all" when it comes to learning. He's written a ton of books (The Myth of Laziness, and A Mind at a Time, for example), developed a boat-load of teacher tools, and heck, he's even appeared on Oprah.

This is all to say that he's a big kahuna in the education world.

So it's big news when he speaks, and his latest utterances come to us via an interview in the September issue of Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

It's worth a read for parents and teachers -- especially if you have a child who sometimes feels like a square peg in a round hole at school.

(Then, to see how others view his theories, take a look at this webpage from the Illinois Loop site. It's pretty harsh. But education history has shown time and again that before you fall hook, line and sinker for the latest edu-theory, consider its possible flaws.)

College hunting -- internet style

On Monday, we explored MIT's attempts to de-stress-ify the college application and admissions process. But what if your child doesn't know where he or she wants to apply in the first place? How can you find out what options are out there?

For JIS students interested in pursuing higher education in the United States, there are web-based services, including one called "Counselor-O-Matic," that can help students explore options and discover colleges and universities they may never have considered.

According to the New York Times, "Counselor-O-Matic and similar sites are free to students because they are operated by companies that make money from advertising, from fees paid by colleges and from selling the names of prospective students to colleges." But the payoff may be worth exchanging your data. After entering data (GPA, test scores, interests, geographical limitations), the website cranks out a list of potential schools. According to the Times:
With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, search engines can help narrow the field by provoking students to think about what factors matter to them. This is particularly useful for students seeking admission to the most selective institutions, because they may apply to a dozen or more.
However, as with any newfangled gadget, you should exercise caution. The Times points out that, "critics say students must realize that search engines are not guidance counselors. They reduce the search to a numbers game and cannot factor in the culture of a campus, the personality of a student, or the more elusive concept of a fit."

But it never hurts to look....

FYI....Counselor-O-Matic requires students to enter a high school name, but "Jakarta International School" and JIS aren't recognized. As a trial, I entered the high school where I taught, New Trier, a highly competitive college prep school of 4,000 students. Does anyone know of another US high school that would be a good approximation of JIS? Also, if anyone has a report on how the whole process works out, please comment and share your experience!

Links to other internet search engines for colleges:

The College Board's Match Maker
Thompson Peterson's College Search
US News and World Report's "Best US Colleges" search tool

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

If you didn't laugh, you'd have to cry

Moving from the sublime (math wars, college admissions stress, homework woes...) to the ridiculous, check out this story that stresses the importance of font selection when creating a handout for parents. Too funny!

More on math

It's been math-o-rama in the edusphere since the US National Council of Teachers of Math's release of its new math curriculum recommendations last week. As predicted, aftershocks have ensued:
  • Ken de Rosa at D-Ed Reckoning deconstructs and analyzes that editorial in his typical, pithy style -- worth a read.
  • Kitchen Table Math points out that while the mind may be willing, the NCTM's heart is weak, noting the NCTM's executive director is already backtracking on the issue. (Click here to hear the podcast of San Francisco Chronicle's Debra J. Saunders describing her brief conversation with the NCTM's director. It's really interesting, but sad too.)
What are the options to "Fuzzy Math"? The programs I've seen floated include Singapore Math (click here for info, and have a look at the placement tests), Saxon Math, and Connecting Math Concepts.

But take all of this with a grain of salt: See the What Works Clearinghouse (a research database sponsored by the US Department of Education's Institute of Educational Sciences) for analyses of several different math programs for elementary and middle schools. The research on all is pretty underwhelming.

Clearly, we're only witnessing the beginning of this debate.

Kinder, gentler college admissions policies?

Yesterday's education site had an interesting article for JIS parents with high school kids: "Taking Aim at Admissions Anxiety."

In the article, MIT's dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, discusses her views on the pressure cooker that faces students applying to top flight universities. (See this previous post on the related issue of AP/IB over-programing.) According to Jones, the anxiety is literally making students sick. She points to "statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia."

The article explains that,
"For years, high school teachers and counselors have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students."
Jones agrees, and now she's one of higher education's most vocal proponents of revamping the college admissions process. "Nothing will change unless we get up, look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'I'm responsible,'" Jones told her admissions colleagues. "We have to look ourselves in the eye and say, 'Am I an educator, or am I marketer?'"

The negative effects of all this pressure on students go beyond the physical and emotional, says Jones:

"'You don't see the kind of wild innovation from individuals you used to see,' Jones said over lunch during a recent interview. 'You see a lot of group and team projects overseen by professionals, but you don't see the kind of rogue, interesting stuff that we used to see at MIT.'

MIT faculty told her many students just weren't much fun to teach. The issue of perfectionism had been brought painfully to the fore at MIT by a series of student suicides. Students 'want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what's on the test,' faculty told her. 'They're so afraid of failing or stepping out of line, that they're not really good students.'"

So what's the solution? At MIT, Jones has rewritten the admissions application to make it seem less like a laundry list form for awards, prizes, AP scores, and class rank. And MIT's essays "...asks applicants to write about something they do simply for pleasure...[and] to talk about an experience where they found value in failure or disappointment."

Jones also applauds Harvard's move to drop early admissions, a policy she believes adds to admissions pressure. And she hopes for the day when MIT and other top-flight universities make the SAT optional for applicants.

Will Jones succeed in her quest for kinder, gentler admissions policies? According to,
"She probably won't persuade many parents that it really doesn't matter which colleges accept their children. Nor will it be easy getting other colleges to tone down their recruiting. Many struggle simply to fill classrooms and don't have MIT's luxury of limitless talent to pick. And even MIT's highly selective peers care about rankings; in the marketing arms race, they aren't likely to unilaterally disarm."
But at least she's trying....

Update: "Princeton Joins Harvard in Dropping Early Admissions" (from, 9/18/06)

Update 2: The Washington Post's Jay Matthews unpacks six compelling reasons for colleges to keep Early Admissions programs (9/19/06)

Monday, September 18, 2006

The middle years and substance abuse

When I look at my eighth grader sleeping like an angel, its hard to imagine that she's confronted with issues like drugs and alcohol. She looks too young, too composed, too "pulled together." But according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA), a US-based think tank at Columbia University, my "little girl" is about to enter the most challenging, risky age for teens.

In "At 14 Candles, Kids are Facing a Darker Path," Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer reports that:
Compared with 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds are four times likelier to be offered prescription drugs, three times likelier to be offered Ecstasy, three times likelier to be offered marijuana, and two times likelier to be offered cocaine, according to the group.
One problem, according to NCASA: parents who, like me, can't imagine their kids would do drugs. Our naivete allows kids space to dabble in drugs and alcohol right under our own noses. The evidence: a survey conducted by the NCASA, which yielded some shocking results:
  • Virtually all parents surveyed (98 percent) say they are present during parties they allow their teens to have at home. But a third of teen partygoers report that parents are rarely or never present at the parties they attend.
  • Virtually all parents (99 percent) say they would not serve alcohol at their teen's party, but 28 percent of teen partygoers have been at parties where parents were present and teens were drinking alcohol.
So what to do? Reimer offers these suggestions:
The kids will be mortified, but the parents have to be the parents and supervise any gathering at their homes, whether it is an official party or not.

That means greeting everybody at the door and asking for introductions; eyeballing the guests and acting when you sense trouble. Don't be afraid to send someone packing.

It means passing through the room where the kids have gathered every few minutes. Smile cheerfully and offer something to eat, certainly. But never retreat to your bedroom.
I can already envision the eyerolling and moaning that my daughter will produce when I "smile cheerfully" while "passing through the room" every few minutes at her get-togethers. But I'll sweetly remind her that it could be worse: I could perform a rendition of the Chicken Dance for her friends' enjoyment....

Saturday, September 16, 2006

News for families from Texas

Walking around the JIS campuses, it's not unusual to hear a Texas twang -- we have lots of families from the Lone Star state. So here's some news that may affect the education plans for those who may some day return to the land of the Yellow Rose:

The Texas State Board of Education just approved new graduation requirements for next year's freshman class that will require four years of both math and science to graduate with a regular diploma. That's up from three years each.

Read all about it in the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle.

What is Singapore Math?

Lots of math news lately, which is befuddling for a lowly English major like me. But if you're wondering about Singapore Math, a math-teaching program mentioned on this blog and around the edusphere, read Barry Garelick's description and analysis in the latest issue of Education Next (via

Update: Thanks to Barry Garelick for pointing out that Education Next's web address has changed! Click here for the new link directly to his article on Singapore Math.

Friday, September 15, 2006

National standards an issue Down Under

Americans aren't the only ones wondering if a set of national education standards would help pump-up the volume on a currently-enemic public school system. Our neighbors "Down Under" are tackling the same issue -- and they've come up with a plan, reports Kevin Donnelly (guest-editorializing for the Thomas B. Fordham Institutes' Education Gadfly).

According to Donnelly, Australia is "developing so-called Statements of Learning in key subjects such as mathematics and English that describe 'the essential knowledge, skills, understandings and capacities that all students should have the opportunity to learn' at key stages in schooling (years 3, 5, 7, 9)." (Those are grades 2, 4, 6 and 8 at JIS, if I've got it straight.)

Supporters of the effort point to research that shows a correlation between national standards and higher academic performance. They also highlight the rationality of bringing the (sometimes vastly different) state standards into one consistant national plan (with national testing to back it up). And supporters highlight the benefits of giving teachers "clear, succinct, and easy-to-follow road maps at the start of each year that detail what is to be taught and what students are expected to learn."

But the Statements of Learning fall short, according to Donnelly, for several reasons:
  • They don't include any specific content information, (yes, we're back to content);
  • They don't include a way to assess success (yes, we're back to backwards design -- start with an assessment of what you want students to know and do, and then work back to how to get them there); and
  • They aren't meant to stand alone, but instead to be used as an "overlay" to existing state and territory curriculum standards (now we're talking sheer and utter confussion).
Having perused the Standards of Learning for English, I'd add one more problem to Donnelly's list: they are full of jargon, fluff, and meaningless sentences that any rational person would laugh at. But at least they're honest about it: "It is not the express intent that the document is promoted directly with teachers or the general community." (Whew, that's a relief. We poor dolts would surely couldn't handle all that high-falutin' fancy talk.)

(Click here for the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) webpage on the Statements of Learning; you can download PDFs for its standards covering English, Mathematics, Science, Civics & Citizenship, and Information & Communications Technologies.)

Is lots of AP/IB a bad thing?

Here's an interesting article from the Washington Post that explores the issue of AP/IB overload in high-performing schools. It's probably worth reading if you have high school student at JIS.

A WaPo reader takes education reporter-extraordinaire Jay Matthews to task for glorifying hellish course loads that include 8 or 9 AP or IB courses in the 11th and 12th grades. And she points another finger of blame at "...high schools and colleges pushing every bright student toward a course load that is 75 to 80 percent AP," saying those educators are:
"...doing many bright students a disservice by pushing AP to such an extreme. These kids would do well in college anyway, and they are sacrificing their childhoods, which are so important, and are taught to obsess over individual achievement at an early age."
Matthews doesn't necessarily disagree with the reader, saying, "I think you are right to be concerned about some students taking more AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses than are good for them."

Matthews goes on to explain why too much emphasis on AP/IB -- at the expense of other activities and passions -- can actually make admission to Ivy Leagues and other upper-eschelon universities more difficult. He's interviewed boat-loads of high school counselors and college admissions officers, and he's discovered that:
If an admissions officer has one applicant who has taken nine AP tests and has the usual collection of class offices and clubs and sports teams, and another applicant with three AP scores and a collection of published poetry, the selective college admissions officer -- all other things being equal -- is going to take the poet every time. Interesting and unusual after-school passions are the gold standard of modern college admissions, so loading up too many AP courses can actually hurt you.
That's something to consider as you and your high school student sit down to create an educational plan for those 9th-to-12th-grade years. How many AP/IB classes are enough to demonstrate a solid ability to handle university-level classes, while at the same time allowing a kid to be a kid?

(In a related note, here's the website for the College Board's Advanced Placement International Diploma -- or APID -- program. It's something that JIS offers, in addition to the JIS high school diploma and the IB diploma. The APID requires students to score a 3 or above on at least four AP exams in several different subjects.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Huge math news rocks edusphere -- It's back to basics!

The math-curriculum pendulum has just made a mighty swing back to basics, thanks to a new report issued by the US-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

The changes the NCTM recommends for the K-12 math curriculum -- its first overhaul of its influential math standards in 17 years --can only be described as seismic. Among its conclusions, according to the New York Times:
At a time when most states call for dozens of math topics to be addressed in each grade, the new report sets forth just three basic skills for each level. In fourth grade, for example, the report recommends that the curriculum should center on the “quick recall” of multiplication and division, the area of two-dimensional shapes and an understanding of decimals.
The report's aftershocks are shaking educational journalism already. Read about the issue (and the potential implications) in these excellent places:
  • Kitchen Table Math's take on the report -- with chunks of a Wall Street Journal article that you can read in full at WSJ-online for a fee. The ladies also include great links on Singapore Math, a program that closely resembles many of the NCTM's new recommendations.
  • Ken De Rosa's sharp analysis of the news at his blog, D-Ed Reckoning. So hot, it sizzles.
Educators (and parents) who thought the state of math instruction in the United States was catastrophically flawed are breathing a little easier today. (I'm one of them -- still recovering from the fuzzy, "cutting-edge" discovery math of my sixth-grade experience. Somehow learning to divide using piles of macaroni just doesn't cut it when you reach higher levels of math. Now I pay the price, watching worthlessly while my 8th-grader struggles to master algebra.)

And lest anyone think this is all "just school stuff," check out's take on the OECD's annual report this week on education. While it doesn't mention math, specifically, the report concludes that :
The U.S. spent about $12,000 per student, second only to Switzerland among the 30 OECD countries based on 2003 figures....[but] outperformed only five of the 30 countries on an OECD test given to 15-year-olds, ranked 12th in high school completion rates and averaged 23 students per class, higher than the average of 21.
And who can forget the 2003 TIMSS study, which ranked the United States number 12 in 4th-grade math performance, behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and a host of others? A glutton for punishment? Have a look at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) analysis of math achievement in the lower grades:

The study, “Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA,” focused on students in the United States and 11 other industrial countries that participated in all three assessments: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and the Russian Federation.

U.S. students consistently performed below average, ranking 8th or 9th out of twelve at all three grade levels. These findings suggest that U.S. reform proposals to strengthen mathematics instruction in the upper grades should be expanded to include improving U.S. mathematics instruction beginning in the primary grades. (From the AIR news release on the study.)

The new NCTM math standards can only be good news for students -- and a wake up call for educators.

UPDATE: Here's the feedback on the new NCTM report from Chester Finn, Jr., (the Education Gadfly) and his compatriots at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute:
[W]e salute NCTM's newfound wisdom in this matter. Now, we pray, states (and textbook publishers, test builders, etc.) that slavishly follow NCTM's lead will revise their own standards and instructional materials, thus gradually reintroducing common sense--and math competence--into American schools. (From the Education Gadfly)
UPDATE 2: Joanne Jacobs reports on NCTM's executive director, who claims that the new guidelines don't represent a change in philosophy. A true Kool-Aid moment -- but sadly, probably also a portent of how difficult changing curriculums will be.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Homework brouhaha

It's an annual rite of fall: the veritable journalistic orgy of discussion over homework. Too much? Too little? Too much busy work? Two recent Washington Post articles highlight the debate on this evergreen topic.

In "As Homework Grows, So Do Arguments Against It," Valerie Strauss takes a look at what the US' best researcher on homework has to say about the current state of homework in K-12 schools. According to Duke University professor Harris Cooper:
Elementary school students get no academic benefit from homework -- except reading and some basic skills practice -- and yet schools require more than ever.

High school students studying until dawn probably are wasting their time because there is no academic benefit after two hours a night; for middle-schoolers, 1 1/2 hours.

And what's perhaps more important... is that most teachers get little or no training on how to create homework assignments that advance learning.

Ah-ha! So those complex projects students bring home to cut, color, paste, and accessorize probably add little value to learning, but add considerable frustration to parents' lives.

Ben Wildafsky opened the whole can of worms with his article, "Busy Work," which examines the claims of two hot books in today's edusphere: The Case Against Homework, and The Homework Myth. Both books posit that today's students are buried under a mountain of homework that is not only of little value, but also is actually causing them physical harm.

But Wildafsky points to research that indicates these claims are overblown. For example, scholar Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution released a report in 2003 that:
found that even in high school the typical American student spends less than one hour studying per day. While there has been a marked increase in homework among younger students in recent years, the average amounts are still modest -- about two hours per week for kids ages 6 to 8, and under four hours per week for those ages 9 to 12 -- and the rising average is largely driven by a decline in the proportion of kids who had no homework at all. What's more, studying is far outpaced by time playing sports, and is dwarfed by -- surprise -- hours devoted to watching television (13 and a half per week among 9- to 12-year-olds, for example).
It's a subject worth thinking about, no matter which side of the debate you favor.

Content matters

So what was wrong with my idyllic-sounding 6th grade? After all, it was chock-full of collaberative learning, student-guided curriculum, teachers functioning as "coaches" and "facilitators." And it emphasized creative, "higher-level" thinking! How can that be bad?

It was empty. Sixth-grade students aren't capable of teaching themselves Beowulf. Peer editing of student writing? Same thing -- if students don't understand grammar or the components of an expository essay, then how good can the editing advice be? It's garbage in -- garbage out. Figuring out creative ways to solve math problems is nice, but just try to do long division (or worse yet, algebra) without a firm grasp of multiplication facts. And the projects full of hours spent coloring, cutting,'s craft class, not education.

So while my sixth grade teachers celebrated our creativity and pumped up our self esteem, they forgot to spend time actually teaching the content that would make us successful later in our academic career. They cheated us out of the hard work that would make accomplishing more difficult, complex work later possible.

I'm not suggesting that collaborative learning, student-directed learning, or coming up with creative ways to engage students as learners are bad. They're critical -- when used wisely and judiciously. These progressive teaching methods must be paired with a strong, rigorous curriculum that includes specific content.

Seems like common sense, but remember the Fordham report last month that gave US state standards an average grade of C-? States received poor grades because, in part, they ignored the issue of content.

But don't believe me... Read education expert Diane Ravitch's excellent speech, "Why Content Matters." It's long, but for anyone interested in understanding the ins-and-outs of curriculum design and instructional design, its worth the effort. And then backtrack to E.D. Hirsch's thinking on the importance of a content-rich curriculum.

A year in the life of a child is a terrible thing to waste. Let's make sure that we're doing all we can to ensure that doesn't happen here.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Where's the beef?

My sixth-grade class was a model of progressive teaching. We worked in self-directed groups to explore the classic epic Beowulf. We created our own lists of spelling words by finding words we didn't understand in literature. We explored ourselves and our world views by creating multi-media projects over a quarter. We discovered the wonders of math by trying various approaches to solving problems. My school was on the cutting edge of education theory.... and this was way back before George Lucas introduced us to Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie.

The best thing about my 6th grade -- we were never wrong! It was all about self-esteem, self-discovery, and creative, reflective thinking.

The problem -- it was a total waste of a year.

It's not that there's anything inherently bad about progressive teaching methods. And self-esteem and creative, critical thinking are both noble and important goals. But if those goals are pursued without any meat behind them, then it's a fraud.

Here's a great article from noted education writer Joanne Jacobs on why focusing on the delivery -- and not the content -- is a dangerous, foolhardy approach to education. Unfortunately, it's also a common approach. The eduworld has exploded with angry debate on the subject. One pithy comment from Ken de la Rosa of the blog D-Ed Reckoning should give you a taste:
If the kids were really developing super higher-order thinking brains with these new-fangled progressive teaching techniques why are they unable to use those super brains to solve algebraic equations on a simplistic multiple choice exam? Why are they unable to higher-order think their way to the correct answers on lower-order basic skills exams?

Tomorrow: The three components of a great curriculum, and why content matters.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Same issues, different location

Sometimes it feels like we have such different issues at our international school than we did back in our home-country school system. But just how dissimilar are those situations?

In "Preparing Hispanic Parents and Children for School," New York Times writer Valerie Cotsalas explores how one program is trying to ease the transition for very young children. These kids -- and their parents -- have to deal with hurdles very similar to many in our JIS community: language and culture.

It's easy for those of us who speak English as our mother tongue to forget how difficult it must be to study -- or figure out the system -- in a totally different language. (I shudder to think how I'd do as a parent in a Dutch school district. I'd probably end up crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. There certainly wouldn't be much of a "partnership" going on!)

Anyway, food for thought.....

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

YouTube and Parental Involvement

Have you bumped into yet? Depending on how you look at it, this website chock-full of video clips is either the next step in our planet's evolution to web 2.0, or a sign of the impending apocolypse.

Oh well, let's think positively....while there's a lot of junk on YouTube (anyone with a webcam is a actor/director/commentator? Uh, don't think so), occasionally you'll find a gem. One example: this little clip by Missouri Commissioner of Education, D. Kent King, who talks about the critical need for more parental involvement in St. Louis Public Schools.

Granted, JIS isn't in the same spot as the beleaguered St. Louis school district. We're already in a pretty good place. But even great schools make strides to improve. It makes you think....maybe homework help and fundraising aren't enough. Does a true parent-school partnership require something more?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Here's my daughter

Want to see a picture of my middle school daughter? Click on this link (via Learning is Messy, a really nice edu-blog).

I laughed my head off -- it's SO accurate. But then it made me wonder how many other kids there are at JIS who look exactly the same. And that made me wonder if there are other parents who worry about some of the things in this picture.....

Would it be helpful to have a session at school on the cyberworld our kids live in? I'm not one of those "the sky is falling" people who believe MySpace and its ilk are the root of all adolescent evil. But I am one of those people who thinks you have be aware and stay on top of things.

If you think it would be a good idea, would you help me put a session together? Parents, teachers, admin., tech-gurus -- we all could help educate each other on this very current subject. Leave a comment, or send an email to

Monday, September 04, 2006

The universe deserves perspective, too

My dad sent me a link to the coolest website: The Florida State University's "Molecular Expressions" page. It starts at the outer edges of the Milky Way, and zooms in until you're looking at the tiniest bits of matter.

I'm not a scientist, or even a very logical person. But there's something magical about zooming in and out of the galaxy by powers of 10. Absolutely amazing, and humbling too. Definitely worth the time to click the link.

Putting some perspective on teacher pay

I've always said, no one goes into teaching to become rich. But just how bad is it? The New York Times puts teacher pay into perspective in "A Teacher's Year, a CEO's Day: The Pay's Similar." Yikes.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pumping up middle school academics

Last week's Baltimore Sun had an interesting article: "A Focus on the Needs of School 'Tweens," by education writers Gina Davis and Liz F. Kay (via the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development's SmartBrief -- click here to sign up).

"There's an awakening nationally about the need to reform the middle grades and accelerate the rigor to get students ready for high school," according to Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which oversees the Making Middle Grades Work initiative used in 21 states.

Check out the article to see what kinds of ideas are on the table. Very interesting stuff.

Friday, September 01, 2006

If you want to learn to write, read great writing

Pulitzer-prize winning writer and journalism professor Michael Skube has the solution for what he sees as a dearth of strong writers in today's schools: read great writing. He explores this idea in an excellent article in The Los Angeles Times.

Skube bemoans the language arts programs in many schools, which he believes have raised creative writing "to a status that supersedes modest craftsmanship and even waives the requirements of mere competence."
"[I]n the middle schools and even elementary schools, students scribble away in journals, write skits and sketches, labor over sentences littered with misspelled words (this is called "creative spelling") and faulty grammar. The aim is not competency in the plain carpentry of prose but self-expression and creativity. It is the Little League of Art. Nothing wrong with self-expression. But it's worth asking when self-expression devolves into self-spelunking and the preening narcissism evident everywhere on the Internet....Ask them to write straightforward English and you would think it was a second language, even for kids whose ancestors have been here generations. Sentence structure, punctuation, the parts of speech — they are almost completely unfamiliar with any of it."

Skube posits that reading the works of great writers is the best way to learn the elements of great writing -- the cadence, the impact of carefully chosen words, the way authors craft sentences together.

It makes you wonder: are our kids reading the kind of writing that takes away the breath, that demonstrates the power of precise, finely crafted prose? If we value good writing (think back to our discussion of standards), then maybe it's time to revisit the subject of reading and make sure we're offering our students the best examples upon which to build their own writing skills.
After all, it could be true, as Skube believes, that " learn to write well by reading good writing. And by emulating. It's not too late to start."

Related News: According to this article in The Times of London, a new service from Google now allows users to search, download and print entire texts of classic books, including the complete works of Shakespeare, Dante's Inferno, and boat-loads of other classics. I tried out a few searches on it, and it's pretty fantastic.