Archives for January 2004

Fish, unfried

When fire threatened the third-grade classroom at a Minnesota school, the class fish saved the day. Dory was swimming in a vase on a desk.

A forgotten candle started a small fire on the desk on Jan. 24, setting off the smoke alarm and shattering the fish bowl, spilling enough water to put out the flames.

Firefighters found a few embers still glowing on the desk — and Dory still alive in a puddle.

Revased, Dory is doing well.

The imperfect movie

The Perfect Score is a typical teen flick that can’t deal with the moral issues it pretends to raise, writes James Bowman. A group of students plots to steal the SAT exam so they can achieve their college ambitions.

The leader of the conspiracy is Kyle (Chris Evans), whose SAT score of 1020 suggests that his desire to attend Cornell to study architecture may be a trifle over-ambitious. He needs a 1430 on the re-test and plots with his friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg) to get it in the only way he thinks he can. Matty has just been told that his scores are too low for him to go to the University of Maryland, where his girlfriend is a student. If he is unable to join her there, he thinks his only alternative in life is to work for his father cleaning septic tanks.

. . . Of course we know everything will turn out all right. First the film sets up a series of false dichotomies, like Matty’s between Maryland or merde. Then it shows the kids giving their all to win on their own terms. Then, when the going gets rough, they all slap their foreheads and say, “Oh! They’re false dichotomies.” Duh!

The movie may appeal to dim-witted teens, says Reuters. The Houston Chronicle gives it a C- grade.

Immigrants win in academic decathlon

Nearly half the competitors on a Tempe high school’s academic decathlon team are recent immigrants. The Arizona Republic reports:

High school student Carlos Ballesteros began learning English just over a year ago. Since then, the teenager from Mexico wrote an award-winning essay during an academic decathlon competition.

Ballestero’s teammate, Mauricio Leon, also is a foreign-born student excelling in speech, language, and writing. He too recently mastered the English language and already has won several medals for his speaking and interviewing skills.

Both students are part of an ethnically diverse academic decathlon team at Tempe’s Marcos de Niza High School. Nearly half of the team members began speaking English just a few years ago, but most of them shine in the categories of writing, speech and communications.

In the competition, students demonstrate their abilities in math, language and literature, economics, science, music and art.

The Marcos students come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Asian, Hispanic, Russian, Romanian and Peruvian.

The students say their love for reading and literature helped them learn the language quickly. Some also said that watching American television helped them grasp English.

The team must have a terrific advisor.

It’s not typical for new immigrants to be able to give a good impromptu speech or write a winning essay. It is common to see foreign-born and first-generation students winning in math, science and engineering competitions. Spelling, too, as as Glenn Reynolds writes in his MSNBC column. Many native-born American children are discouraged from competing — except in sports — lest they damage their self-esteem or suffer from stress.

Defining equality down

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district is eliminating advanced classes in the name of equality. From Misanthropyst comes a Raleigh News & Observer column by Rick Martinez:

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board voted to eliminate advanced language arts courses next year at two of its middle schools. This comes on top of dropping similar classes for sixth-graders this year, and plans to eventually eliminate all eighth-grade advanced language arts courses. Peculiar moves, given the district’s history of being one of the best, if not the best, school systems in North Carolina.

. . . District officials say advanced courses lead to “tracking,” or grouping of students by academic ability, which can lead to high expectations and extra opportunities for gifted students. Conversely, they believe tracking can doom non-gifted pupils to low expectations and exclusion. So instead of teaching high-performing kids in accelerated courses, the board has adopted the one-class size fits all, equality-based theories behind differentiation.

The local NAACP had complained that most students in advanced classes are white and Asian. Instead of preparing black and Hispanic students for more challenging classes, the district is holding back everyone.

In elementary and junior high, we had no advanced classes. Everybody was lumped together. I coped with the boredom by reading surreptitiously in class. I literally read every fiction book in the elementary school library by the middle of fifth grade, in addition to averaging five books a week from the public library. In high schools, most classes were tracked. It was wonderful. But it did cut into my reading time.

Feds for phonics

Schools that want federal funds must teach phonics to new readers. I was stunned by this paragraph in a Christian Science Monitor story:

Critics also worry about the studies left out of the reading panel’s scope. Of 100,000 studies first culled by the panel, all but experimental research that adhered to the scientific method were eliminated. That left around 40.

Only 40 scientific studies out of 100,000? Apparently, so. The critics complain there’s too much reliance on science and quantifiable data. They see teaching as a mystic art.

“Even if you could prove that all these top-down mandates had science behind them, the human spirit would deny and resist that,” says Thomas Newkirk, director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institute in Durham.

Professor (Michael) Kamil at Stanford disagrees. He acknowledges that there may be a “mystery” and “art” to teaching. “But there’s a heck of a lot of science,” he says. “And we can deal with science.”

He didn’t turn it in

Via Interesting People, here’s a story about a Canadian student who won the right not to have his essay submitted to a plagiarism detection site called The site compares a new essay to a huge data bank of old essays. McGill sophomore Jesse Rosenfeld refused to hand in essays through the site.

“I was having to prove I didn’t plagiarize even before my paper was looked at by my professor,” Rosenfeld said, according to the Globe and Mail.

Students’ essays are saved as “digital fingerprints.” They’re never read by a human. Critics think Canadian universities would hire more instructors to read and analyze papers if profs didn’t rely on TurnItIn to spot plagiarism.

I have a hard time believing students have privacy rights to papers they write for classes. And I can’t see a copyright violation here either.

Welcome, new addict

Matt Rosenberg, who’s been writing about education in Seattle, has started Rosenblog to cover a variety of topics.

No-frills college

Writing in Gadfly, Chester Finn makes some practical suggestions to cut college costs for students who’d just as soon do without the deluxe recreation center if they could earn a degree with less debt. Finn suggests letting students pay for amenities and services they really want, instead of folding everything into the tuition bill. In addition:

A year-round, four-quarter calendar with facilities in constant use, steady work for employees and the opportunity for energetic students to finish in three years.
Faculty paid well but worked hard: a full teaching load, no tenure, and the expectation that their job is to teach. (Those wanting to engage in research raise grant dollars and “buy out” some of their teaching time.)
A trimmed-down curriculum with a solid core and strong majors in a dozen fields. Those wanting to study social work, broadcasting, expressive dance, or contemporary Somali politics would see that No-Frills U is not the school for them. It makes no pretense of teaching everything.
Rigorous exit standards with diplomas equivalent to an intellectual “warranty.”
Students pay for themselves, with outside grants and loans and suchlike for those who are eligible but no “Robin Hood” behavior within the college’s own budget.

Public university costs are now soaring; it’s not just a problem at private colleges. Yet no-frills education is being provided by for-profits like the University of Phoenix and coursework increasingly is available online.

Because distance learning makes it possible not only to slash campus expenses but also to extend the “reach” of a given professor to far more students than one could ever teach face-to-face, it serves willy-nilly to boost academic productivity. The fact that more students now assemble their college credits from multiple providers—the academic equivalent of “grazing”—puts considerably more leverage into the consumer’s hands and correspondingly less in those of producers.

The trick is to write student-aid rules that provide access while encouraging colleges to be more productive.

California’s second-tier university system may turn away about 20,000 eligible students next year due to the state budget crisis. I wonder whether the universities will decide on the basis of academic preparation or simply on when the student applied. A majority of California State University freshmen must take remedial English or math classes.

Reading Dickens in Baghdad

At Iraq at a Glance, the blogger’s mom, a teacher, posts on how English is taught at a “distinguished” girls’ school in Baghdad.

Sex and drugs in the suburbs

Sex, drinking, drug abuse and delinquency occur at similar rates in suburban and urban schools, concludes a new Manhattan Institute study.

Parents are fleeing urban schools not just because of low academic performance, but also because they believe suburban public schools are safer and more wholesome.Ê This study finds that fleeing from the city to the suburbs doesnÕt produce much difference in the level of these problems one finds at local public high schools.

Two thirds of all suburban and urban 12th graders have had sex, but pregnancy rates differ: 20 percent of urban 12th grade girls have been pregnant compared to 14 percent of suburban 12th graders.