Monday, March 17, 2008

Singapore math in LA

Fifth-graders at a Title I LAUSD elementary school in Hollywood went from 45% of its students meeting math standards in 2005 to 76% in 2006 and 2007. This is an extremely impressive (and extremely rare) 31 percentage point increase especially when only 43% of fifth-graders district-wide scored proficient or above on the 2007 California Standards Test (CST) in math. How did they accomplish this impressive feat? The answer may be Singapore math.

Teaching Singapore math is like playing a classroom game ("On your mark . . . get set . . . THINK!") that encourages math thinking from “concrete to pictorial to abstract”. Critics say it is “drill and kill” but a math coach at the school describes it as “drill and thrill”. The students are excited to do math and, if test scores are any indication of learning, students are learning. The article points out that the math “drills” are “carefully thought out to reinforce patterns of mathematical thinking that carry through the curriculum." Singapore students rank at the very top while U.S. students rank somewhere in the middle in 4th and 8th grade math tests in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). According to the U.S. ED, "Singapore's textbooks build deep understanding of mathematical concepts through multi-step problems and concrete illustrations that demonstrate how abstract mathematical concepts are used to solve problems from different perspectives….By contrast…traditional U.S. textbooks rarely get beyond definitions and formulas, developing only students' mechanical ability to apply mathematical concepts." If this comparison is accurate, it would seem that U.S. math is more “drill and kill” than Singapore math.

Usually a skeptic when it comes to reports of improvements in student achievement due to a new curriculum, I could not ignore the 31 percentage point increase. A 69% increase in test scores from just a two year period is worthy of our attention. Also, since California has become the first state to add the Singapore textbooks on its list of state-approved elementary math texts, it is imperative that we study the learning of students who are taught using Singapore math. While I am certainly not advocating that all schools replace their current curriculum for Singapore math, I am suggesting that we need to continue monitoring the progress of U.S. schools that have chosen to use this alternative curriculum.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Getting tough on truancy

I was reading the Orange County Register on Tuesday and came across an interesting news story. The article covered an intervention for truant children in some of Orange County’s most disadvantaged school districts. To deal with the high number of children not attending school, a force was put together consisting of school personnel and police officers. Members would call homes when a child was absent if the child had over 18 days of missed school. These phone calls were to warn the parents that not sending their children to school was against the law and that their children were missing out on their education.

So far so good, right? Well, I was disturbed by the second format the task force used to make sure students came to school. If a child was absent from school, members of the force would go to children’s homes, speak to the parents (if possible) and drive the students to school in a police car! I understand that we want children to take school seriously and that we also want to strictly enforce compulsory education, but this may be taking it a step too far. First, this scare tactic can have a negative impact on the child, who may associate a ride in the back of the police car with possible future transgressions. Second, these children, who are already at risk due to their negative environmental settings (i.e. dangerous neighborhoods, subpar schooling, etc.), may come to believe that they deserve this treatment, and that their future may consist of more “police car rides.”

Lastly, and related to this course, this type of intervention may not be getting to the root of the truancy problem. We must ask, why are their higher truancy rates in disadvantaged schools over schools in more affluent areas? Most likely, truancy occurs because of inequalities between school and neighborhood settings. For example, students in disadvantaged schools may have “rational” reasons why they should not take school seriously. Students are not ignorant of the subpar quality of the schools they attend as compared to their more affluent counterparts. Perhaps lowered attendance rates reflect this more structural, rather than individual problem. In other words, we should arrive at solutions that will get to the heart of the truancy problem, rather than slap another band aid on the situation, especially one that involves scare tactics such as these.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

California slashes school spending

1,836 expected teacher layoffs in Orange County alone. The news stems from a suspension of Prop 98 proposed in January which permits the state to spend less than the minimum amount guaranteed to schools next year. We're talking $4 billion dollars in cuts. That’s a four followed by nine zeros.

The state worries itself so much lately with its own deficit that the governator decides to bring the pain to the public schools to relieve its own stresses. It’s easy to see the results in the micro/immediate sense, but what of the macro/big-picture sense? We have invested human capital in the young students generated from these very schools. To take away their resources in school is to guarantee that fewer of them will succeed in school and life. It seems as though most school officials and parents agree that this suspension is a bad idea, but what power and what say do they have against big government? Groups and organizations form to protest against the suspension of Prop. 98 but the decision is ultimately in the hands of California Legislators. This is just the bureaucracy trying to please the people by skimming the budget as much as possible. They fail to see that the students who will be affected by this suspension will end up being the adults and leaders of California one day. If we force schools to spend less than they already do, there would be less teachers, desks, buses, outdated textbooks, but of course, more and more students.

What time period do we live in, 1900? This is definitely an issue we need to worry about.


Friday, March 7, 2008

The Finnish Miracle

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Finnish teenagers are the “among the smartest in the world.” Interestingly, high schools in Finland do not have honor societies, valedictorians, school uniforms, or gifted classes. Students complete about a half hour of homework per night and there is little standardized testing.

57 countries were tested in an international measure and U.S. teens were rated as “C students.” This, given the current national focus on standardized testing and rigorous standards. In addition, U.S. high school students have hours of homework, especially if the children are labeled as gifted. On a personal note, I see gifted children in the U.S. as a standardized test “cash cow” for schools. They are the work horses that help pull schools’ average test scores up. In Finland, however, there are no gifted programs, and advanced children seem to cope and thrive just fine. For example, the WSJ reported that “Fanny earns straight A’s…and sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up.” Furthermore, Fanny states, “It’s fun to have time to relax a little in the middle of class.” I don’t think “relaxing” occurs very often in U.S. gifted classrooms.

Finnish high school students are “way ahead” in math, science, and reading, and adult Finns are among the world’s most productive workers. Yet there doesn’t seem to be strong social differences between Finnish and U.S. teens – in general, both groups spend hours online, “rebel” through dress and hair styles, and listen to hip-hop and rap.

So why is this? One reason might be the value Finnish culture places on its’ teachers. The teaching profession is highly competitive in Finland and Finnish teachers must hold master’s degrees. Teacher training also appears to differ (from the U.S.). The high school described in the WSJ piece is run “like a teaching hospital.” Interestingly, Finnish teachers are paid about the same as U.S. teachers. However, Finnish teachers purportedly have more academic freedom. Finland has national standards, but the teachers are allowed to “customize” lessons as they see fit.

The most likely reason for the Finns’ success, however, is the homogeneity of the population in terms of language and social class. Very few students do not speak Finnish and there are few disparities in income level among Finns. Furthermore, the Finns spend less per pupil than the U.S., but Finland has a “high-tax government” that ensures that schools receive roughly equal funding (unlike the U.S.). The gap between Finland’s low and high performing schools is the smallest of any country on the international measure. Finally, college is free in Finland. The fortunate Finns enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.

An interesting side note is that Finnish children begin formal education at the age of 7. This agrees with what the LLT (language literacy technology) PhD students have learned in our psychology of reading class. According to the WSJ article, Finnish children seem to be “less pressured” by their parents and more independent. In contrast, U.S. parents worry about academic preschools for their 3- and 4-year olds and play Baby Einstein videos for their infants and toddlers.


Bureaucratic debacle at LAUSD

More than a year after David L. Brewer was named superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, several key positions in the district's senior management positions remain unstaffed. The issue is more complicated because the people that hired the “new” superintendent are no longer in power and it is plausible that he feels that his job is already on shaky ground so he will not stand up to them for fear of his job. In the clash of these conflicting agenda's the district's work has ground to a stand-still.

With that said is the idea of a bureaucratic school district a bad one? Ideally, no. Having a centralized curriculum and a board to problem solve other issues as well as a pecking order for these problems to progress through are good concepts. Why then does it seem to work so poorly? The article ends with a poignant point. “This is the conundrum that faces the L.A. public schools: To attract good leadership, it has to have good leadership.” This pecking order is not going to work if you do not have good people in place to lead the schools. Why does this seem to be the case for LAUSD since many of us have been alive? That I do not know. However the red tape that ties up the time of many people within the district that are attempting to accomplish positive things for the students is at times sickening. With the differing agendas within a district of this size it is hard to work collectively toward a common goal which would make the bureaucracy most effective. Imagine if you had all of the staff in the nations second largest district working for a common goal just how much could be accomplished in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case in LAUSD and it doesn’t look like that will be the case anytime soon.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

After-school programs on the cutting block

Its here! The proposed 2009 federal education budget is up for our viewing pleasure.
(FYI, you can go to the “Eliminations” section to see if your favorite programs are on the cutting block). Yes, I’m being cynical here… The reason for this is a proposed cut in programming that is near and dear to me – afterschool and summer programs. The only solid Federal funding available for these programs comes from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which has been close to $1 billion for the last several years. The proposed budget would eliminate about $200 million of this funding! Jeez….

If the federal government would think about the number of families who need this funding in order to provide their children with quality supervision and programming in the out-of-school hours, they might think twice about this cut. In fact, we should be putting more rather than less money towards out-of-school funding since the supply of programming does not meet the demand. Moreover, research has found that quality out-of-school contexts have significant developmental benefits, especially for children living in poverty.

Unfortunately, like most of what we have learned about in this class, these cuts have more negative impact on poor children. First, lower-income parents are less likely to afford high-quality out-of-school programming. Second, children living in poverty often face more dangerous neighborhoods in the afterschool hours, suggesting a higher need for structured activity settings during this time. Related, the rate of crime significantly increases between the hours of 3-6pm, perhaps due to the number of unsupervised youth during this time. And lastly, afterschool programs are positive developmental contexts that may ameliorate the academic disparities between poor and non-poor youth that we have talked about in class.

In other words, we should hope that this portion of the proposed budget does not get passed.


Monday, March 3, 2008

More high stakes testing...

In the state of Texas more than 135,000 youth are lost from the state's high schools every year. Dropout rates are highest for African American and Latino youth, more than 60% for the students followed in a new study. The study included student-level data for more than 271,000 students in a high-poverty urban district over seven years. The findings show that there is a direct relationship between the exit exam policy and the dropout rate. The authors say their “findings show that disaggregation of student scores by race does not lead to greater equity, but in fact puts our most vulnerable youth, the poor, the English language learners, and African American and Latino children, at risk of being pushed out of their schools so the school ratings can show ‘measurable improvement.’" This study talks about the “avoidable losses” of these students who drop out or are shuffled out as schools pursue accountability targets.

This raises two questions. First, given that schools have been historically unable to meet the unique educational needs of low SES students and students of color, is it fair to hold the students individually accountable for learning? And, second, the Pettit and Western article we read this week says, “Among black male high school dropouts, the risk of imprisonment has increased to 60 percent, establishing incarceration as a normal stopping point on the route to midlife.” Given that the Texas article shows a effect of education policies on the differential dropout rate of African American and Latino students, can it be argued that school policies are contributing to putting these young men at risk for incarceration?