Thursday, November 30, 2006

Finland's education system held up as exemplary

Finland is home to reindeers, great rally and Formula I drivers (Mika Hakinen, Kimi Raikonen, Ari Vatanen, and Marcus Gronholm), and the improbable winners of 2006's Eurovision Song Contest, Lordi (this is a must-click link if you need a laugh).

But there's much more to Finland, especially if you're talking about education. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Finland's education system is amongst the best -- if not the best -- in the world. The nordic nation's success is explored in Sunday's Arab News (via ASCD Smart Brief).

The secret to Finland's success (which includes fantastic test scores in math, science and reading literacy) can be linked to these factors, according to the article:

  • An historic emphasis on education (" goes back to 18th Century when the Lutheran bishops wouldn’t allow anyone to marry unless they could read the Bible.")
  • An egalitarian system that offers educational opportunity to all students ("...for the last thirty-five years the schools have been open to all, free and unstreamed.)
  • A system of regular, systematic student assessment "by a mixture of monthly tests and teacher evaluations."
  • Highly qualified -- and respected -- teachers. "No teacher can teach at any level without a master’s degree. Once in a job, teachers are encouraged to keep abreast of the academic literature so that educational decisions are based on rational argument, not just everyday intuition. Moreover, they are constantly being sent on courses during their long holidays to upgrade their knowledge and skills."

To me, the egalitarian component of the Finnish system is interesting because it's one of the current hot-button issues in education in the United States. It's hard to find an education school course book (or syllabus) that doesn't include a section on "equity" or "equality in education."

The difference seems to be that while the tendency in the US system is to "teach down" to kids operating at lower levels of achievement by setting low expectations for all students (while emphasising self-esteem), the Finns have high expectations for all students, and work hard to pull the struggling students up. Seems smart. And the results are great.

Of course, Finland is much more homogeneous demographically and economically than the United States. And with fewer than 6 million people, it's surely more managable. But perhaps Finland's success story offers some valuable lessons to all interested in education.

UPDATE: Check out this posting from the smart ladies at Kitchen Table Math, who pick up on a quote from the principal of Finland's top-scoring intermediate school: "The U.S. texts, she said, are much thicker and more cluttered than the ones her students use. 'It’s impossible when you have 1,100 pages of math that you get the message,” she said.'"

They go on to quote
William H. Schmidt, an education professor at the University of Michigan, who "...has conducted comparisons of U.S. math curricula and those used by countries that consistently score high on TIMSS. As early as the late 1990s, he characterized U.S. math classes as 'a mile wide and an inch deep' compared with those of the high-scoring, mostly Asian, nations.

'It’s basically, you cover everything, everywhere, because somehow, somebody will learn something somewhere,' Mr. Schmidt told conference-goers.

More recently, his analyses have also shown that the high-performing countries teach math in a sequence that mathematicians see as more coherent, and that may be even more influential in promoting students’ understanding."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Using data for accountability and improved instruction

Two interesting articles popped up in today's ACSD SmartBrief (click here to sign up):

The common thread: using specific data to track individual student performance over time can improve the academic performance of all students -- but that kind of analysis requires an investment in both time and money.

This approach to using student performance data (on things like standardized tests and internal assessments) doesn't come easy, and schools have made mistakes along the way. For example, teachers objected to one district's assessment plan because it tested students in February or March, but didn't share the student data with teachers until the following September -- when the students had moved on to the next grade. So much for timeliness.

But a carefully planned and executed data analysis program can work wonders for schools and their students, according to an article in the latest issue of Education Next (a publication of Stanford University's Hoover Institution). It looks at the efforts of three schools that have dived head first into the "brave new world of data-informed instruction" and seen positive results in terms of teaching and student performance.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Maybe small class sizes aren't the magic bullet

Conventional wisdom holds that smaller class sizes will yield higher academic performance. But is that CW based on reality?

Recent studies in Chicago's public schools seem to indicate that maybe size doesn't matter, even though the idea that "small is beautiful" is so intuitively appealing. The Chicago Sun-Times asks "Honey, Should We Shrink the Kids'Classrooms?", and then follows up with "Schools are Top Scorers But Have Jammed Classes." (via, and the Instructivist)

"The 25 highest-scoring schools in CPS [Chicago Public Schools] average roughly seven more kids in their primary classrooms than the 25 highest-scoring suburban schools, or about 27 kids vs. 20, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of state public school data indicates.

That's seven more kids in a CPS room just as children are learning everything from how to read to how to sit quietly at a desk and do classwork. Compared with the statewide primary average, it's roughly six more kids."

It's probably not as simple as pegging our hopes for increased performance on a classroom size number. Teacher quality, the school climate and culture, parental involvement -- all of these factors can improve academic performance. But its just so easy sounding....

Monday, November 27, 2006

Article on Singapore Math ready for your reading pleasure

Just got a note from Barry Garelick, whose article, "Two Countries, One School District," is available now at the Nonpartisan Education Review*. Hurray!

JIS is only an hour away from Singapore, the country that produces the highest scoring math students in the world, according to the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Singapore Math follows the program used to teach these students.

It's interesting (and depressing) to peek inside the debate and decision-making process within a US school district as its schools choose -- and ultimately reject -- the Singapore Math program. If you're confused about the "math wars" and the recent barrage of news coverage on the National Council of Teachers of Math's new math curriculum recommendations, this article is a great explanation of the issues involved, and why they matter to students.

*The Nonpartisan Education Review "provides a forum for those interested in education issues but put off by the education policy groups affiliated with the two major [U.S.] political parties. "

Thursday, November 23, 2006

How can schools prove their success?

Yesterday we looked at the conumdrum of students who pass their classes -- sometimes with flying colors -- yet fail the high-stakes tests established to measure educational success across an entire state. Something's obviously wrong with the situation. Either:
  • the standardized tests are more rigorous than the state standards,
  • schools have failed at preparing students to take standardized tests, or
  • schools are failing to teach the material -- and inflating grades to mask the problem.
This all points out the difficulty communities face when trying to hold schools accountable for student performance. How do you know that the measuring stick you're looking at is accurate?

This matters at a school like JIS because, as it stands, much of the reporting on student performance comes in terms of grades on internal assessments (unit tests, papers -- if your student is lucky enough to write any -- and projects) that make up the students' grades.

Now we can look at IB and AP scores, but those are only relevant for high school students, especially since our population is so transient. (Although wouldn't it be interesting to see an analysis of these scores correlated to the number of years a student has spent at JIS?)

And JIS does participate in the ISA (International School Assessment) for students in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9. But that test is new, its developer was still in the process last year of tweeking the test's grading rubric, and we don't have much of a track record to go on. (FYI: this is the same test that allowed my 5th grader and his classmates to use a calculator for the math section.)

That leaves the assessments done by individual teachers as the main data source on accountability. Are the results generalizable? Do grades in one classroom mean the same in another? If you spend any time talking with parents about their children's varying experiences in the same grade, it would take a lot of convincing to get them to believe that grades would be enough to hold a school accountable.

Looking at data gathered in the classroom is tough -- both as a measure of accountability, and as a tool to improve instruction. Here's a good article from the latest issue of Education Next (a publication of Stanford University's Hoover Institution) that delves into the complexity of using a variety of data to inform and guide schools' decisions on instruction. In each example, data-driven decision making requires a significant commitment and investment in resources, training, and time.

Sorry to wax on about this's just been on my mind, and like an unreachable itch in the middle of my back, I can't get rid of it.

If you find this topic at all interesting, please have a look at this website: The Education Commission of the States (ECS) Accountability Site. I'm still wading through it, but I've found the "Accountability Policy Inventory & Analysis Tool" incredibly interesting. It gives specific examples -- bucketloads, in fact -- of the types of data that can demonstrate a school's effectiveness. (To download this Word document, follow the link above, and then click on the tool -- it's on the right side of the page under Highlights.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A "B" in class, but an "F" on the big test?

"Sylvia James hardly considers herself clueless in mathematics. After all, she finished sixth grade with a B-plus in the subject and made the Honor Roll, which she saw as a victory in a challenging year of fraction conversion and decimal placement.

But what happened when she took the state math test? She flunked it."

So begins an article, "Those Who Pass Classes But Fail Tests Cry Foul," by Ian Shapira, which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

Here's the situation:

Many students in the Washington region [and one assumes other parts of the US as well - ed.] are suffering from academic split personalities. Driven by the federal No Child Left Behind law and tougher state diploma standards, the testing blitz has left these students in a curious limbo: They pass their classes with B's and C's yet fail the state exams.

These cases surface frequently, with one local high school reporting, for example, that a quarter of students in beginning algebra passed the course but failed the state test.

So what's happening in schools that could create a situation where a child can pass the classes, but fail the test developed to determine whether or not students have mastered the material and skills deemed necessary? According to the WaPo:

"Students and teachers offer an array of explanations for why test scores sometimes fail to match up with grades. Some students don't take the exams seriously. Some freeze up. Still others trip over unfamiliar language. And teachers sometimes are not prepped in what the exams cover, especially when the tests are new. Occasionally, some school officials suspect, classes aren't rigorous enough to prepare students adequately."

Ken DeRosa (on a white-hot streak of excellent posts in D-Ed Reckoning) thinks the problem is much larger, and he lets it fly in "You've Been Flim-Flammed:"

"Sylvia dear, I have bad news, you've been lied to. Bamboozled. Your well-meaning teachers are pretending to teach you sixth grade math, but they're not. They're teaching you fourth grade math, maybe even third grade. They're probably not even doing a very good job either. Worse still, they're covering their incompetence by giving you high grades. It's a scam from top to bottom."

Over at the Education Sector's, Andrew Rotherham also wonders whether the story dug deep enough into the dilemma of passing grades and failing test scores:

"It's a complicated issue and the story doesn't do it justice. Of course there are going to be students who don't test well, that's a pretty minor issue that garners headlines but is dealt with relatively easily in public policy through a meaningful appeals system that takes into account multiple measures. Hardly front page news.

Where Shapira falls down is by not engaging on the larger question about whether teacher grades are the best indicator of student learning. He's got anecdotes, but on this one there is also data. Grades are surely one important indicator, but the best or only one?

The question of grades versus test scores really boils down to that question, what sort of external benchmarks do we want in a public system like ours? Right now, standardized tests, which help provide information...are the worst way to do that, except for all the others.

And Kevin Carey at the Quick and the Ed weighs in:

"The only mystery here is why everyone in the article is being so circumspect about something that should be pretty obvious: states create standardized tests because local schools, when left to their own devices, don't always hold students to high enough academic standards...

...How do we know this? Because every measure of what students who have graduated from public schools actually know and can do shows deep deficiencies. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress only 59% of seventeen year-olds can perform "moderately complex" procedures in math. 40% of all college students are forced to enroll in at least one remedial--that is, high school-level--course. 43% of all adults score at only the "Basic" level or below on a test of literacy. Etc., etc."

What does all of this mean for a school like JIS, which doesn't fall under the provisions NCLB (or any other external accountability framework)?

It means JIS should be especially mindful of the problems both with standardized tests and with internal assessments as methods of measuring its educational program's success. Neither is perfect. But it's very easy to fall into the trap of believing that internal assessments (like the unit tests, papers, and projects that our students produce) are the best measure when we're talking about accountability.

More on the subject tomorrow.....

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Interesting take on school choice and accountability

In today's, guest blogger Jal Mehta wonders if the school choice debate in the United States is focused on the wrong thing:

"[T]here is another side to the choice debate that is under-appreciated, which is the way that choice can afford greater school-level autonomy by providing an accountability metric that is less centered on tests and more on parents." (emphasis added - ed.)

Now before you log off, dear reader, thinking that that has nothing to do with JIS, consider this: every family with a child at JIS is here by choice. We are, in many ways, like a charter school. JIS isn't beholden to any state or federal bureaucracy. It doesn't have to jump through the hoops required by well-intentioned-but-ponderous regulation like the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. JIS truly is the master of its own destiny. Unlike public schools, JIS (and other schools like it) can accept sole credit for its successes -- and sole blame for any shortcomings.

Mehta explains how the "bottom-up" accountability that exists when parents actively choose (and are partners in) their school is so much more appealing than the top-down accountability of the public, non-choice system:

"If teachers' main complaint is that they are over-regulated from above, then choice can provide an opportunity to establish an educational identity at the school level, as teachers are accountable to parents rather than the state as a whole. It also provides for greater educational pluralism, which should be attractive to students, parents and teachers alike. This is the genius of charters, and it is frustrating that it has not been more widely embraced by exactly the people--teachers, principals, and the unions that represent them--who could benefit from the increased autonomy and discretion it could potentially afford."

Of course Mehta's concept of parents holding their schools accountable assumes several things:
  • Schools must clearly communicate student performance data on both internal and external assessments to parents -- and the information should include both specific results for the family's child, and aggregate data for individual grades and the school as a whole.
  • Schools have to give parents comparable data from other "like schools." This is how parents can make judgements on the effectiveness of their school's educational program. Raw data from one school isn't enough; parents need something to help them make relative sense of the numbers.
  • Schools have to communicate the other ways -- outside of testing -- that it's monitoring its own success. Parents want to understand the bigger picture of the education program, but that understanding won't happen in an information vacuum.
  • Schools and parents must be true partners in the educational enterprise, not just superficial acquaintances.
JIS is on the road to making "bottom-up" accountability a reality. Let's hope that process grows and flourishes. Here's a golden chestnut article that explains how it might look (from theMarch/April 2002 edition of the Harvard Education Letter): "Accountability-based Reforms Should Lead to Better Teaching and Learning -- Period," by Douglas B. Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment and the International Center for Educational Accountability. It's good stuff.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Project learning gone kafluey

Yesterday our 8th grader cooked our family dinner as part of her health class homework. She planned the menu, shopped, prepared, served and cleaned up. Woo-hoo! Then she had to write about the experience -- using specific content knowledge. It wasn't all touchy-feelie reflecting. Woo-hoo number two! Now there's a school project I can embrace with open arms (and widening belt).

But what happens when school projects go kafluey? As parents, we've probably all seen our fair share of mobiles, dioramas, and other "make happy" work come home. But what pushes parents over the edge? Ken DeRosa at D-Ed Reckoning shares one mom's plea to educators: "Don't Make Me Do School Projects!" (from the Christian Science Monitor).

"Recently, while rummaging through my son's 20-pound backpack, I found a note from the literature teacher: "Class, please sew together a stuffed animal representing a character from the Dr. Dolittle novel we read in class. It doesn't have to be elaborate, simply use any old scraps you have around the house. And, please, whatever you do, DON'T INVOLVE YOUR PARENTS!"

Oh yeah, sure. They always say that. Who, may I ask, is going to drive to the fabric store and run the sewing machine? Who will buy the stuffing, find buttons for the eyes, and sew on the cute whiskers? Certainly not the 9-year-old boy who is busy playing a Star Wars game on the computer.

But wait, it gets worse. Beware the dreaded "group project." Three or four kids clad in old Halloween costumes might reenact the battle of Agincourt for a home video. Or if your child is studying ancient civilizations, you might need to throw together a few Babylonian ziggurats for a backdrop."

The Instructivist digs deeper into the situation to find the educational theories that drive projects in the class. It's a good, thoughtful read.

At the end of the day, I don't mind projects that build understanding of an idea or concept taught in class. Occassionally I've seen students use a project to connect complicated ideas or get hands-on experience with something that isn't so clear when taught as a theory (like the meal project). And reading the pleading mom's "9-year-old boy who is busy playing a Star Wars game on the computer" made me cringe. Yikes.

But I think all educators should question project assignments rigorously before sending them home:
  • How will the project enhance the students' understanding and learning?
  • Can you realistically expect students to complete the project with minimal parental input?
  • Are families likely to have the materials at home?
  • Is the educational value worth the effort -- or is it just a crayola curriculum experience?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

We've lost another giant

Bo Schembechler, ex-football coach at University of Michigan, has died on the eve of an epic battle between his beloved Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes. A seven-time Big Ten coach of the year and member of the National Football Hall of Fame, Schembechler never had a losing season in his 29 years of coaching. According to Associated Press sports writer Larry Lage,

"In the end, Michigan vs. Ohio State may have been too much for Bo Schembechler's failing heart. The man with half-century-old roots to The Game died at age 77 Friday on the eve of perhaps the biggest matchup in the storied rivalry's history, No 1 vs. No. 2, and his doctor said it might have been because of all the excitement."

Another sad day....

Friday, November 17, 2006

Heartbreak in the 408

Several years ago the wife of one of our dear friends (and a good friend, herself) died of breast cancer. She was too young, too beautiful, too much the great wife and mother. It was horrifying, and Robert and I promised ourselves that from that moment on, we would concentrate only on what truly mattered. We swore a earnest vow to celebrate all the great things -- both the monumental and the seemingly insignificant -- that life had to offer. No more sweating the small stuff.

In the intervening years, our promise has faded. I've fallen back into old habits of sometimes focusing on the negative things, the little issues that in the big picture won't determine the value or quality of our lives. I lost the perspective sadly brought on by our friend's passing.

But just as I'm fully reverted to old bad habits, I read something that puts life back into perspective. Teacher TMAO, writing in Teaching in the 408 (408 is a school district in California), relates the story of a student facing almost unimaginable suffering after a robbery-turned-stabbing that claimed the life of his father and injured him in ways more than just physical:

"...this high school sophomore who struggled so mightily and tried so hard in your class had his chest ripped up, his liver lacerated, a wound that required 25 metal staples to close, and wiped the kid's short-term memory clean in a flurry of repression, laying there in a hospital bed at the end of the hall, too weak to grip your hand, or the hand of the two other teachers who have come, struggling to speak against the tube down his throat."

This is writing with the power of a defibrillator. It shocked me back into remembering that life is short, the small stuff doesn't really matter, and friends and family are the most important things. Too bad it takes something this sad.


Can't get enough math

My favorite curriculum policy guru, Barry Garelick, just sent me a link to his latest article, "Two Countries, One School District." You may remember his article in Education Next, "Miracle Math," which looked at the Singapore Math program.

Garelick describes his latest article as "an endoscopic look at the colonic decision making process in the education bureaucracy for those who are brave enough to look." It would be hilarious, if it weren't such a sad example of how lame thinking, buck-passing, and lack of follow-through hurts living, breathing students who will have to suffer the effects of subpar math curricula for the rest of their lives. You can't get those elementary years back....

Garelick's new article, which appears in the Nonpartisan Education Review, unravels the
complexity of curriculum adoption -- and the pitfalls that face school districts when they forget that teachers are a critical component. It isn't enough simply to select the strongest program; schools need to consider how they will implement the program fully.

The article comes at a time when math is on front burner in education debate, spurred on by the National Council of Teachers of Math's new curriculum guidelines. Here's a sampling of what people are saying about the subject lately:


UPDATE (4:40 p.m.): Just received a note from Garelick explaining that he's giving his article a polishing-up, so it won't be available for a bit.... In the meantime, we'll have to wait on pins and needles for the final product. Hurry Barry!

Milton Friedman dies at 94; world loses a visionary

Dr. Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate economist, died yesterday at 94. It's a sad day.

Here's the statement from Gordon St. Angelo, president and CEO of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation:

America has lost a true visionary and advocate for human freedom. And I have lost a great friend.

Milton’s passion for freedom and liberty has influenced more lives than he ever could possibly know. His writings and ideas have transformed the minds of U.S. Presidents, world leaders, entrepreneurs and freshmen economic majors alike. The loss of his passion, incisive mind and dedication to freedom are all national treasures that we mourn for today.

Milton never chose to slow down; even at 94 he kept fighting to bring educational equality to all of America’s children. And it’s this vision, this drive for educational liberty that the Friedman Foundation will continue to bring to families throughout America.

His impact on my life over the last 33 years was significant. His impact on the world was momentous. Without a doubt, few people have done more to advance civil and economic liberties throughout the world during their lifetime than Dr. Milton Friedman.

Via, a publication of the Alliance for School Choice, which offers its own statement here. The New York Times also looks back at Friedman's work and theories here.

One doesn't have to agree with all of Friedman's ideas to appreciate that he was an intellectual giant and an inspiration to those who want to make the world a better place.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"You can't improve what you don't measure...."

In one of the most thoughtful postings I've read lately, Brett Pawlowski from the DeHavilland blog asks, "If we can see the problem [in education], why can't we fix it?" (via this week's Carnival of Education, hosted by What It's Like on the Inside).

His focus is on US public schools, but Pawlowski's points are relevant for any school system that's trying to improve:

"We’ve known for some time that there are serious issues in education – NAEP scores for 17-year olds haven’t budged in decades (reading and math), there’s a large disparity in academic achievement between whites and non-Asian minorities, and the dropout rate is unacceptably high. Until NCLB, we were only able to see those problems in the aggregate – national statistics that allowed us to believe our own schools were fine, thankyouverymuch, and it’s the other guy’s school that’s the problem.

Thanks to local accountability provisions with disaggregated data, however, we can now see exactly what’s going on in our own schools, and it turns out that most of us see those national problems reflected in our hometown schools and districts.

By identifying the problems, the thinking goes, we’re supposed to be compelled to address them. But here’s the rub: the people who are running and teaching in all these schools are the same ones being charged with the mission of substantially improving them, and they’re left to their own devices to do so.

I’m not trying to impugn these administrators, principals, and teachers in any way. I believe that, as a rule, educators are passionate and committed people who earnestly want to hand the keys to the kingdom to their kids. They know education is the key to success, and they would like nothing better than to watch their kids leave school with the knowledge, skills, and motivation needed to succeed in life.

But the fact is, they were working really hard before we identified these problems, and there’s no reason to expect that they can materially change course now. Why? Because we’re not giving them the tools they need to succeed.

I’m not talking about new funding here: I’m talking about the knowledge and tools they need to improve instruction in substantive ways. Like proven and replicable models from both inside and outside education. Like real authority over budget, personnel, scheduling, discipline, and curriculum issues. Like access to research, free from agenda, that points to successful practices – and the authority to implement despite ideological opposition (consider the reading wars as an example). Like the intellectual freedom to explore new thinking and ideas that would allow them to question existing practices and try new things.

Instead, we box them in with rules and restrictions that deny them the opportunity to change (i.e., you have to use this curriculum, you can’t hire/fire according to needs, you can’t kick out the kids who don’t want to be there, you can’t pay people different amounts based on scarcity or capability, etc.), and we leave all conventional thinking in place. No models of success; no focus on research; faulty beliefs on effective teaching courtesy of education schools (see here and here); and confinement within the walls of the system, restricting access to new thinking.

So what we end up with is this: do what you’ve been doing, but work harder at it. And since the means and the opportunity to truly change are not available to them, here are the kinds of responses they’re left to choose from:

  • Kill the messenger – question the value or validity of the assessments
  • Cheat on the assessments
  • Lower the bar (usually done at the state level with easier assessments or lower standards)
  • Call for more resources – money, volunteers, etc.
  • Spend more time - double reading/math classes, start clubs, hold study sessions – using the same faulty materials
  • Reform around the edges, such as professional development that reinforces existing thinking
  • Hold pep rallies (yes, this really happens)

And when none of this works over the course of a few years, the state moves in – and, since the folks from the state don’t have the tools mentioned above either, they shift staff, make some cosmetic changes (like converting to a charter school with no attendant changes), and restart the AYP clock.

Want to change this cycle? It all comes down to a stunningly simple idea: If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to change what you’re doing.

Eduwonk follows up with this:

Everyone likes to say that we know what works, money, class size, choice, private management, etc...but that's BS. "Turn-arounds" are complicated and hit or miss and that's not all that surprising, it's a human endeavor.

A lot of people do claim to have the answers, acting mostly on beliefs rather than data. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We do have some reliable data now on effective instruction, and in areas where we don’t, we can start to gather it by trying some truly different things and doing rigorous and objective evaluations to see what happens. But it’s going to take fresh thinking, the freedom to act in new ways, and new blood from outside the industry, and it doesn’t matter whether that work happens in public schools, charters, or private schools as long as it happens and can be shared across the industry.

It’s true that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, which is the thinking behind NCLB. But it’s also true that you can’t improve on what’s not working by doing more of the same. We need to give our schools new options, new models, and new voices at the table – and we need to do it now."

Nicely said.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

How'd the US end up with so much testing?

Jay Mathews, the education writer at the Washington Post, takes readers through a historical journey of testing, from Socrates to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Some of it's nostalgic, some is disturbing. And at this point in history, all of it is controversial.

On one hand, there's the belief that too much testing stiffles the child, narrows the curriculum, and draws focus away from spending increased resources on improving teaching.

The other side says it doesn't make much sense to throw money at what isn't working -- especially if you don't know why the system's broken. And without testing, where's the accountability? How do schools (and those who pay the bills) ever know if they're succeeding in educating kids or not without some form of measurement?

Check out the article for yourself. And then have a look at Diane Ravitch's review of testing (she's a giant in the education world, and one of Mathew's sources for this story). She wrote this analysis, "A Brief History of Testing and Accountability," for the fall 2002 issue of the Hoover Digest. According to Ravitch,

"American education, in the near term at least, will therefore continue to be driven by the two paradigms: the professional education paradigm, which deeply believes that the profession should be insulated from public pressure for accountability and which is deeply suspicious of the intervention of policymakers, and the policymaker paradigm, which insists that the public school system be subject to incentives and sanctions based on its performance. How this conflict is resolved will determine the future of American education."

UPDATE: Andrew Rotherham, a big-wig blogger over at, digs deeper into the recent avalanche of stories on testing and accountability. Is testing alone the answer to creating more successful schools -- and students? No, according to Rotherham. "So sure, better assessments and curriculum are a must if we want to see real gains in student learning, but frankly so are better teachers and better teaching. But as Kati Haycock has pointed out (pdf), the latter is awfully hard to talk about. And the former is a more convenient villain." Lots of good links.

John Dewey alive and kicking in education school

You might be unaware of the battle royale that's waged in the education world between "Constructivists" and "Instructivists" for years, but you still can enjoy some great writing from an anonymous education school student -- working under the nom de plume John Dewey.

He's penned seven missives to date -- all available for your reading pleasure over at He's laugh-out-loud funny, but somehow a little melancholy at the same time.

So if you want a candid peak inside the hallowed halls of "teacher school" -- or if you've traipsed those halls yourself -- check it out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

More US states consider revamping math standards

The New York Times has an interesting story today that follows up on a decision by the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM) to release a set of new curricular guidelines for educators.

What's the fuss? “There’s increasing understanding that the math situation in the United States is a complete disaster,” according to R. James Milgram, a math professor at Stanford University. "The whole country has been in denial about mathematics, and now we’re sort of at a second Sputnik moment,” adds Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson.

And states aren't just standing around wringing their hands while watching their students pour into Kumon classes. They're taking a look at states with strong math standards -- and expanding their search for ideas to countries like Singapore and South Korea.

UPDATE: "Donald and Antonia Chacon-Taylor, ages 10 and 9, may not be representative children for a story about math in public schools. Mom has a Ph.D. in physics. Dad has a Ph.D. in chemistry...." -- and neither believes their kids' school's Connected Math curriculum includes enough actual math. Read about what they're doing about it here (via the great education blog,

What's coming down the track in English

So just what is coming down the track for middle school students when they hit English literature in a US high school? asks one of my friends today..... This was in response to yesterday's posting which bemoaned the anemic English/language arts curriculum at our daughter's middle school.

Fair question. I answered by giving a run-down of the reading, writing, and other activities that happen in 9th grade at New Trier high school. I actually taught this curriculum up until two years ago, when we moved to Indonesia:

Students began the year having read The Hobbit as a summer assignment; that way we could hit the ground running with discussion and classwork on the Joseph Campbell's hero cycle and archetypes in literature. Upper level students (New Trier tracks students in each grade into four ability-based levels) went on to read and study the following in my class (not as outside reading -- although students were required to read four books outside of class as well):
Lower level students read the same -- minus Gilamesh and Siddhartha -- but added Up Country. Each student purchased his or her own copy of the books, and therefore could learn to annotate properly by writing in the margins and highlighting key passages.

At the same time, students were busy writing about the literature they read, cranking out at least one major expository paper per quarter, in addition to the journal writing, homework assignments, and other miscellaneous writing opportunities that popped up each week. Students also created their own websites and technology-based projects, studied and practiced oral presentation, and learned about -- and facilitated -- Great Books discussions on the literature they read. (There's more, but even I'm starting to find this tedious.)

Are those expectations high? Did the students work their rear-ends off? Was the amount of grading hellish? Were the results astonishing? Yes to all four.

Would my daughter and the other kids in her 8th grade class be able to handle this load next year? Now that's a harder question.....

Monday, November 13, 2006

Back to blogging

Finally back in the saddle after a nearly-two-week hiatus from blogging. Robert and I returned to the States for our 20-year reunion from graduate school. It was weird and wacky and head-spinningly wonderful. But all the soft-focus reminiscing and revelry made me fuzzy and vague when I returned. My edge was gone, for a minute --

[Section removed at the request of the Jakarta International School.]

This is a middle school English curriculum that I don't understand. That's not good for any parent -- but it's especially bad news for a parent who, before moving to Indonesia two years ago, taught 9th grade English literature at a large high school outside of Chicago. I know all too well what's coming down the track, and it looks like a train-wreck.

Luckily, my daughter reads voraciously on her own, loves to write because she thinks it's fun and challenging, and probably will survive any curriculum thrown her way. But I worry about the other kids -- both the ones who struggle, as well as the really gifted kids who languish. What happens to them?

So I'm getting back on the blog-horse. JIS' work to put the curriculum online is a good step, and I'm optimistic about the efforts and focus of our new adminstration. I think the school is making some great steps. But I'm wondering if we can't do more for the students right now. We don't have another year to wait for huge curricular holes to be plugged. Dialogue is good, and I'd love for someone to explain to me why I've got it all wrong. But until that day comes, I'll keep blogging away.