Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I can do algebra but I can't figure out my taxes.

I can do algebra but I can’t figure out my taxes.

Now comes Algebra II to join the band wagon of a more rigorous education.  Pay no attention to the fact that only about 5% of the workforce uses math beyond basic arithmetic.  The addition of Algebra II to the required coursework for high school students is part of the poker game we have been playing of late with our high school students.
Education is highly political, particularly on a local level.  Governors and county officials want to claim they have the best and toughest educational programs with the highest standards.  So school district 1 requires 21 credits for a high school diploma.  Along comes school district 2 that says, I’ll see you at 21 credits and raise it to 23 credits.  On and on it goes until some school districts in Maryland are requiring 26 credits for the high school diploma. 
Now that the schools have probably reached the credit limit for a 4-year program they have needed to move to something else.  That is where math comes it.
It seems very reasonable to me that students should study math for all four years of high school.  The question is which math should that be?
Very few people in the workforce are going to need to use quadratic equations and other skills of advanced math courses.  And if they do, those courses are appropriately taught in college for those students who are going into those fields of endeavor. Or they could be taught as part of a specific vocational training program for those people studying for areas that require more advanced math.
For the remaining 95% of students, why are we not teaching financial literacy.  Fifty-two percent of Americans are invested in the stock market.  That does not count the other Americans whose pension funds are invested in the stock market.  How many of those Americans can read a corporate report so they can make an informed decision regarding purchase.  Or do they rely on a financial advisor and hope for the best.  How do Americans make budget decisions for the political entity in which they live?  Do they even understand budgets?  Do they realize that something purchased on sale is not a savings if they fail to pay off that credit card within the grace period and essentially pay an additional 20%+ of compound interest on that item?  Do they even realize how much interest long term they will be paying?

Please do not throw out that old saw, mathematics trains the mind.  Mathematics is no better at “training” the mind, whatever that is, than any other challenging academic pursuits.  In the name of increased rigor, we have created a rigor mortis that refuses to let us stare reality in the face and move on to a more useful math literacy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

When everything is equal, nothing is fair.

When Everything is Equal, Nothing is Fair

Baltimore County Public Schools have come up with their latest plan to make everyone equal.  Maryland law requires that all school districts operate programs for children who are gifted and talented.   These programs are often known simply as G&T.  State law requires that schools identify the special learning needs of these kids and tailor programs to meet those needs.  Roughly 20% of the children in Baltimore County meet the standard to qualify as gifted and talented. In the past these students were taught in separate classes by teachers with training to meet their unique needs. 
Now comes the latest great idea from the Jackass Tree.  This one hits multiple branches on its way down.  Instead of being in separate classes, gifted and talented kids would be with other kids and the teacher would move around the small groups in the classroom changing instructional method and materials as she goes.  REALLY!  First of all the average elementary teacher teaches five subjects-language arts, reading, math, science and social studies.  If the teacher needs to prepare different lessons for each of these groups, that is fifteen lesson plans per day!  How can one teacher be expected to pull this off especially given that the very bright kids should be taught a curriculum that capitalizes on their ability to think creatively and problem solve. The lower functioning kids will demand attention by their behavior and academic needs.   While the so-called average kids will suffer the disenfranchisement that every middle child in a family knows.  High school teachers usually teach a 6 period day, so that would mean 12-18 lesson preparations in a day depending on how many periods of the same subject a high school teacher teaches.  
The expectation that any teacher no matter how well-meaning could do this day in and day out for 28.5 students is totally unreasonable or realistic.  In our high schools it is also possible that the .5 student is not a statistical average but a female student about to give birth.  Bringing many social problems into the classroom along with the academic ones.
Gifted children learn differently.  They require a separate curriculum.  They need teachers with special training to address their special challenges.  Gifted kids are not just plants in fertile soil that will flourish no matter what.  They need to be guided as well as taught.

If our society does not address the learning needs of this very important group of kids, we will all suffer in the long run.  These are the nation builders right here at home.  They need, and we must demand, people trained to develop those talents so that our entire society benefits.  Equality is not equity.  Fair is not equal.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Short term gain, long term pain.

Short term gain, long term pain

Why is it that we keep looking for short cuts to make people become teachers?  These alternative short cuts are designed to bring more men and more teachers of color into the profession.   That is a noble goal.  But why do these people and others need a work around to come into the profession?
First of all there is also a shortage of physicians in rural areas.  I don’t see people rushing to short circuit the training program for physicians.   I have not even read about med schools expanding their enrollments.  But there is a different story with teachers.  Somehow we think it is no big deal to be a teacher.  After all didn’t we all go to school?   What can be so hard?  That is like saying we have all been sick so we can all be physicians.
Research is now showing that people who become teachers by these alternate routes do not stay in the profession very long.  They leave at higher rates than those trained in the traditional manner and the gap is growing.
By 2007-08, teachers who entered the profession through alternative approaches were 2 ½ times more likely to leave it altogether than teachers who came in the traditional way according to a study by Vanderbilt University. 
Alternative programs allow participants to teach right away after only minimal training.  Usually these people skip all those boring courses on how to teach and there is little to no student teaching. 
In fairness, most of these quickie trained teachers are put into schools that more typically trained teachers don’t want to be in.  These are schools that are hard to staff.  Why we put the least trained people into those schools is not clear.  However, what is clear is that based on this study, even after adjusting for principal effectiveness, availability of materials and working conditions, these alternatively trained teachers were 83% more likely to leave the profession.  The key words here are “leave the profession”.  These people were not saying, we love teaching but not in these hard schools”.  They were not asking for transfers to easier schools; they were gone.

The money, time and human energy that had gone into doing a half-way job of preparing people to teach could have been spent on providing training funds to help people become teachers the right way. These people are also more likely to be individuals who want to become teachers, not who just want a quick way to what they see as an easy job with good benefits.  Teaching is a hard job.  It is also a very skilled job.  As with other jobs requiring skills, extensive training is needed.   We talk about how important teaching is to our kids and our country but we do not demonstrate that importance.   We take short cuts with training and think we can escape the long term pain.  As with many important things in life, it is better to go with short term pain and get that long term gain.  Our kids are certainly worth having properly prepared teachers.