Carnival of Homeschooling

Planning, organizing and choosing curriculum is the theme of this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling, hosted by Embracing Destiny.

Is it wrong to want to know which way is right?

A second-grade math work sheet. Credit: Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

Is it wrong to want to know which way is right? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

In a story on parents’ frustrations with Common Core standards, a mother says her four children, ages 7 to 10, must do math work sheets with pictures, dots and multiple steps.

Her husband, who is a pipe designer for petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his division homework.

“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” (Rebekah) Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”

She plans to homeschool her children in the fall.

The Times “proceeds to regurgitate the Common Core’s tired rationale,” writes Beals.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

She’s dubious.

When did math students ever repeat formulas over and over again? And when did students ever not apply concepts to real-life situations? And when did “explain your reasoning,” ubiquitous to American Reform math and rare everywhere else, become the one, one-size-fits all path towards, and the one, one-size-fits measure of, conceptual understanding?

Core math’s call for writing explanations of answers will be hard on students with learning or writing disabilities and those who aren’t fluent in English.

Parents of mathematically gifted students also are complaining, reports the Times. In a New Orleans suburb, Janet Stenstrom says her daughter can’t move forward quickly.

Anna Grace, 9, said she grew frustrated “having to draw all those little tiny dots.”

“Sometimes I had to draw 42 or 32 little dots, sometimes more,” she said, adding that being asked to provide multiple solutions to a problem could be confusing. “I wanted to know which way was right and which way was wrong.”

Some will see Anna Grace “as overly rigid in her mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills,” writes Beals. But “wanting to know which way is right” is a “reasonable desire.”

In Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, also in the New York Times, Elizabeth Green blames faulty implementation by untrained teachers.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”

“American institutions charged with training teachers in new approaches to math have proved largely unable to do it,” writes Green. A skilled teacher can use “arrays of dots” to explain multiplication, she writes. Or dots can “become just another meaningless exercise” to bore and confuse students.

Moms vs. puppets — in 1948

If Only We Had Listened . . . to parents about progressive education, writes Core Knowledge blogger Lisa Hansel.

In 1948, the Washington Times-Herald criticized the poor spelling skills of high school juniors in New York. Only about 65 percent could spell everyday words such as “develop,” “meant,” “athletic,” etc.

The problem starts in first grade, said three mothers of public school children, who visited the newspaper office. Students aren’t learning anything, said Mrs. A. They make puppets.

The book on making puppets has diagrams with letters A, B and C, said Mrs. B. “But they don’t teach the children what letters are, or what they mean, or how to read, so how can they make head or tail of the diagrams?”

Mrs. A: “There’s a rule, too, against having any letters or figures on the blackboard. They claim a child of 6 can’t grasp those things and mustn’t be bothered with them, or his co-ordination will go bad—at least I think they call it co-ordination.”

Mrs. C: “Of course the fact is that a child at that age is as curious as can be, and loves to fool with pencils, and is usually just crazy to find out how to write like grownups, how to read the papers, how to count—”

Mrs. B: “Oh, yes, about counting. They don’t teach them nowadays to learn figures and add ‘em or subtract ‘em. Oh no—they’ve got to count beads on strings, or bounce rubber balls up and down. Ant they mustn’t learn to go above number 5 for a year or two, because that would strain their brains. Humph.”…

Teachers don’t believe the progressive methods work, said Mrs. C. But they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up.

The editor and the mothers were confident these methods were being imposed on teachers, writes Hansel. “It’s a sad tale that I continue to hear—teachers who have to close their doors and find spare moments to bring rigor and research-based practices to their classrooms.”

When education reforms don’t work well, teachers get the blame, writes E.D. Hirsch. Teacher quality isn’t the issue, he argues. The problem is that most reforms have done little to develop “rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Stop blaming teachers, concludes Hansel. Give them a coherent curriculum with more content — and fewer puppets.

Study: Charters do more with less

Public charter schools produce similar or higher test scores with much less money, concludes a productivity analysis by researchers at the University of Arkansas’ department of education reform. Overall, charters are 40 to 41 percent more cost effective in reading and math compared to traditional public schools, the study concluded.cover-productivity-of-charters

The return on investment is almost 3 percent higher if a student spends one year in a public charter school and a 19 percent higher if a student spends half of their K-12 education (6.5 years) in a charter school.

Researchers analyzed National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math scores and data from CREDO studies. They controlled for students’ poverty and special education status.

Walton Family Foundation, which supports school choice, funded the study, but did not play any role in designing it, researchers say.

Massachusetts has some of the most effective charter schools in the nation, especially in Boston, yet the state Senate refused to raise the cap on charter seats, writes Jim Stergios in the Boston Herald. It’s like the old segregationists standing in the schoolhouse door, he writes.

This way up

A bachelor’s degree isn’t the only route to the middle class, but the upwardly mobile need “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

Learning from disruption

Rocketship charter schools experimented with 100-student “flexible” classrooms, then returned to its more conventional — and very successful — blended-learning model. Was it just a failure? asks Christina Quattrochi on EdSurge.

In Rocketship schools, students spend 3/4 of their time in teacher-led classes of 27 students and the rest in a learning lab, where they work on adaptive software.

Two years ago, Rocketship put fourth- and fifth-graders in 100-student spaces for the entire school day.

Three teachers and one learning coach decided everything from the class schedule to how the 60 Chromebooks were used.

. . . In a class of 100, one teacher could give a lecture to 20 students, much like a traditional classroom. Meanwhile, another teacher could oversee small group projects for 30 students. 40 students could be working independently online, with the remaining 10 receiving one-on-one tutoring from the third teacher.

Learning gains “depended a lot on the dynamic of the (teaching) team . . . and that dynamic is difficult to control and predict,” says Charlie Bufalino, manager of growth and policy. “So thinking about scaling and building it into a model was difficult.”

Rocketship has “throttled back” its ambitious multi-state expansion plans.

Test scores fell. Rocketship went back to the old model, with some modifications. Teachers in grades 3 to 5 will get 10 Chromebooks in their classrooms and more time for collaboration.  This year, schools will implement a 40-minute “flex block” in which students in the same grade will be “grouped based on their skills and work collaboratively on targeted practice assignments.”

“Disruptive innovation” can disrupt students’ learning write Richard Whitmire and Michael Horn on the Hechinger Report. But, even after the experimental year, Rocketship’s students are doing much better than their neighborhood friends in the nearest San Jose Unified school.

Take Mateo Sheedy, the Rocketship school that suffered the biggest setback. Mateo Sheedy embarrassed itself as its test scores fell. The 2013 student proficiency rates for its students fell to 62 percent in English and 76 percent in math (from 2010 proficiency rates of 83 and 90).

. . . if Rocketship were not around, where would its students go to school? . . . Gardner Elementary, a San Jose Unified school (is) located less than a mile away from Mateo Sheedy. The schools serve a similar demographic of students, both in terms of the percentage of Hispanic students and in terms of the poverty rate. The proficiency rates for Gardner students in English and math for that same year: 19 percent and 32 percent, down from 30 and 45 in 2010.

Rocketship saw a problem and moved quickly to fix it, they write. Mateo Sheedy and the other Rocketship schools “mostly recovered” this year,  according to the network.

Whitmire is the author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope.

Low-tech ‘duet’ blends video, teaching

Combining science and math videos by experts and active learning sessions led by the classroom teacher has made MIT BLOSSOMS “one of the most exciting and effective” blended learning ideas, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Slate.

There are no adaptive algorithms and no personalization. All it takes technologically is “an old television and VCR.”

Concord-Carlisle, Mass., teacher Sandra Haupt co-teaches with the Blossoms lesson “The Power of Exponentials, Big and Small."Sandra Haupt, a teacher in Concord-Carlisle, Massachusetts, co-teaches with the Blossoms lesson “The Power of Exponentials, Big and Small.” – Photo by M. Scott Brauer/Courtesy of MIT Blossoms

Richard Larson, a professor of engineering systems at MIT, got the idea from a teacher in rural China. She played a video of a science lesson for a few minutes, then taught an interactive lesson, then showed a few more minutes of the video.

Back in the U.S., Larson began creating “science and math videos that were designed to be interrupted, to be complemented by active learning sessions conducted by a classroom teacher,” writes Paul.

Larson himself starred in the first video, a lesson on triangles, random numbers, and probability that featured the professor sawing a yardstick into pieces. Today there are more than a hundred lessons available free on the BLOSSOMS website, covering topics in mathematics, engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry, all taught by experts in their fields.

Each lesson offers a series of brief video segments, plus a teacher’s guide to the classroom active-learning sessions. A lesson about mathematical models in epidemiology, for example, intersperses video segments explaining how infectious diseases are spread and controlled with role-playing exercises in which students see for themselves (via classmates who don red, green, or blue-colored hats) how taking preventive measures reduces the risk of contracting illness.

The lessons are now used in schools all over the U.S. and countries all over the world, including China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil.

BLOSSOMS is “teacher-centric,” notes Paul. The video and classroom teachers are “sages on the stage.”

Unlike other blended learning models, instruction isn’t self-paced. Students work as a team.

The “teaching duet” doesn’t threaten teachers, writes Paul. “Ed-tech enthusiasts who think they can do an end run around teachers will find that teachers are still the ultimate arbiters of what’s welcome in their classrooms: Witness the interactive ‘Smart Boards’ introduced with such fanfare into America’s schools, now functioning as so many expensive bulletin boards.”

U.S. schools rank low in innovation

U.S. schools are below average in innovation, according to an international report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Denmark, Indonesia and high-scoring South Korea are the most innovative, according to the study. 

“Innovation led to improved math scores for eighth-graders, a narrowing of the achievement gap and happier teachers,” researchers concluded.

U.S. innovation centered around more use of test data, external evaluation of secondary school classrooms and parental involvement, the report found.

Teaching innovations included requiring secondary science students to explain and elaborate on their answers and to observe and describe natural phenomena.

Primary teachers offered more individualized reading instruction and were more likely to ask students to interpret texts and explain their math answers.

Math and science teachers were more likely to ask students to relate what they’d learned in class to their daily life.

Poland have moved into the top ranks in school performance, writes Marc Tucker. He looks at what changed in Poland, which now outscores the U.S.

Completion, default rates can be misleading

Commonly used college quality measures, such as graduation rates and loan defaults, are inadequate and sometimes misleading.

Pretty or smart?

Verizon’s viral Inspire Her Mind ad is based on dubious facts and the dubious idea that girliness is the enemy of “pretty brilliant” in math, science and engineering, says Christina Hoff Sommers, the Factual Feminist.

That dad telling his daughter not to handle a starfish may know that 61 percent of marine biology majors are female. Maybe he wants her to consider a unisex field, such as chemistry.