Science, math teachers love ‘The Martian’

The Martian could turn kids on to science and math, teachers hope. The astronaut hero, played by Matt Damon in the movie, is stranded on Mars, left for dead by his crew mates. He figures out how to survive and communicate with NASA, so he can be rescued.

“Teachers love it,” author Andy Weir, a programmer and space buff, told Ed Week. “It’s full of math word problems.”

Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has called the plot a “celebration” of scientific literacy. The Mars mission and Watney’s survival tactics—he creates water by burning hydrazine and he turns about a dozen Thanksgiving potatoes into a crop of potato plants using Martian soil and his own waste, to name two—are scientifically vetted and largely possible.

Teachers are turning the book into a study aid, says Weir. Some teachers “download illegal copies of the book and print it up as worksheets and stuff for their kids.”

A good simple algebra problem in the book is Mark has enough food to last this long and can grow potatoes at this rate. Every potato has this many calories. How long now until he runs out of food? It works out to be like a bucket with a hole in it [problem, in which the bucket is leaking and being refilled]. It’s exactly that same format just with calories and time. That’s a good one for 9th grade algebra.

Damon hopes the movie will inspire students.

I enjoyed the book without trying to follow the science, math or engineering. It was about ingenuity, grit and courage.

Straight Outta Homeroom

In Straight Outta Homeroom on the Reason site, Remy makes fun of zero tolerance rules and safety scares.

Learning to teach from a teacher

Medical school graduates work as residents to learn how to be competent doctors. The Boston Teacher Residency is training Renee Alves, 22, in an experienced teacher’s classroom, reports Christopher Booker for PBS NewsHour. She “will spend 10 months watching, emulating, and learning as much as she can” from Kayla Morse, who teaches third grade at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury.

Jesse Solomon, who taught math in Boston public schools for 10 years, co-founded the program in 2003.

One thing I saw a lot when I was teaching was– a number of brand new teachers coming into the profession. Smart, committed, hard-working, kind of willing to do whatever it takes– but not really knowing how to teach that first year.

My concern was always that they were learning on the backs on the kids that had them that year, right? So if you’re a first-year teacher in Algebra 1 class, you get another shot next year. For those kids taking Algebra 1, that was their shot at algebra 1. So had in my head that there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

Three of four residency graduates in the past 12 years are teaching in Boston — including Morse, who completed her residency four years ago.

The program “has shown success not only retaining more teachers but hiring more science and math specialists, and placing more Black, Latino, and Asian-Americans in the classroom,” reports Booker.

The program was redesigned when a 2011 Harvard study found that first-year residents’ students earned lower math scores than students of first-year teachers  from traditional programs.

Now, residents are concentrated in fewer schools, says Solomon.

So if you have, you know, seven math residents and seven math mentors and a math clinic teacher educator, you have 15 people all in the same school talking together on a daily basis about what, like, does good math teaching look like– for– for the kids in this school.

Residents assist a mentor teacher four days a week and spend the fifth day taking graduate classes to earn a master’s in education.

Ed schools try to reform themselves

It’s time to remake teacher education, declares Deans for Impact, two dozen deans of education schools. The group released The Science of Learning, a report by Dan Willingham and Paul Bruno on how to apply cognitive science research to classroom practice.

The deans have “committed themselves to a common set of principles, including data-driven improvement, common outcome measures, empirical validation of teacher preparation methods, and accountability for student learning,” writes Robert Pondisco.

Too often, teacher ed programs “fetishize theory, teachers’ dispositions toward learners, or soft pedagogical skills at the expense of subject matter depth,” he writes.

Schools of education have largely received a pass in our accountability-mad era. Attempts at even modest reform typically bring howls of protest. That reality prompted Robert Pianta, the head of UVA’s education school and one of the Deans for Impact, to write recently that he was “embarrassed that professionals responsible for the preparation of teachers seem to oppose so adamantly efforts to evaluate the competence of the workforce they produce.”

Of course, ed schools have pledged to reform before.

Schools vs. play

“When we see that children everywhere are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we tend naturally to assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all this, writes Peter Gray in A Brief History of Education in Psychology Today. There isn’t, he argues.

Gray is the author of Free to Learn, which is subtitled “why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant and better students.”

The teacher says, “you must do your work and then you can play.” Clearly, according to this message, work, which encompasses all of school learning, is something that one does not want to do but must; and play, which is everything that one wants to do, has relatively little value.

“Children whose drive to play is so strong that they can’t sit still for lessons are no longer beaten,” he writes. “Instead, they are medicated.”

Structured play makes recess ‘safe’

Children play at Concord Elementary in Edina, Minnesota.

A “recess consultant” will design “structured” play at two Edina, Minnesota elementary schools, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Playworks promises to teach children to replace “Hey, you’re out!” with “good job” or “nice try.”

The two schools have joined a growing number of districts that have hired consultants to remake the playground experience into more structured and inclusive play time. The games and activities, like four square and jumping rope, are overseen by adults and designed to reduce disciplinary problems while ensuring that no children are left out.

Parents and students have complained about the new, structured recess.

Caroline Correia’s fourth-grade son, Liam, doesn’t like the limited choice of games.  “He feels like that’s not playing anymore,” she said.

Roughhousing is “essential to childhood development,” writes Virginia Postrel in response to a ban on tag that was imposed — and then rescinded –– in Mercer Island, Washington.

Rowdy, physical play teaches kids to communicate verbally and nonverbally; to take turns; to negotiate rules; and to understand when they can use their full strength and when they need to hold back.

“Maybe we should think twice about making recess as joyless and authoritarian as the rest of the school day,” writes Robby Soave on Reason‘s Hit & Run.

Structured playtime may contribute to the campus safe-space movement, he suggests. “Is it any surprise that teens who have never enjoyed anything approaching actual freedom — who spent their purported free time being coached by paid consultants on the ‘right way’ to play with others — cringe in horror when they arrive at college and are finally on their own?”

‘Proficient’ doesn’t always mean proficient

Lyndazia Ruffin, a fifth grader, last month at West Broad Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. Photo:Andrew Spear, New York Times

A test score that’s marked “proficient” in Ohio may be “approached expectations” in Illinois, reports Motoko Rich in the New York Times.

Two-thirds of Ohio students at most grade levels were proficient on Core-aligned reading and math tests designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, said state officials. education-test

But “similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track.”

In California and North Carolina, state officials combined students who passed with those who “nearly passed.”  Florida’s education commissioner “recommended passing rates less stringent than in other states,” reports Rich.

Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help.

Setting common standards and using common tests was supposed to end all that. It hasn’t.

“That mentality of saying let’s set proficient at a level where not too many people fail is going to kill us,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank. “The global standard of what proficient is keeps moving up.”

Ohio will scrap the Parcc exam and hire a developer to come up with another set of tests, writes Rich. “Three other states similarly scrapped the Parcc test after administering it this year, creating an increasingly atomized landscape across the country.”

8% more students, 84% more staff

Since 1970, schools increased staff by 84 percent, while enrollment went up by 8 percent, notes Matthew Ladner on Jay Greene’s blog. That’s a 60 percent increase in teachers and a 138 percent increase in non-teaching staff.

Are kids “learning so much surrounded by so many adults compared to the past?” Ladner asks. Here are NAEP scores for the same period.

Pre-K fails in Tennessee

The benefits of Tennessee’s pre-K program for at-risk children disappeared by the end of kindergarten, concludes the TN-VPK Effectiveness Study. By the end of second grade, children who attended TN-VPK did worse on many achievement measures compared to the control group, Vanderbilt researchers found. The pre-K group did no better on non-academic measures.

All the children came from low-income families. The control group was made up of children whose parents applied for pre-K but didn’t get a slot.


Many of the pre-K grads and the controls attended low-performing schools. Most fell behind in reading and math in the early grades, the study found.

Tennessee rolled out pre-K quickly, said Dale Farran, co-principal investigator. Quality varies. “What might you get from the same pre-K program if you had a common vision and could push the quality up?”

On paper — if not in reality –TN-VPK is a high-quality program, writes Abbie Lieberman on EdCentral.

TN-VPK meets nine out of 10 of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) quality benchmarks. The state requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with specialized training in pre-K, classes are small and have low student-teacher ratios, and the state has comprehensive early learning standards in place.

However, Tennessee spends only $5,895 per pre-K student. Oklahoma’s pre-K program, which spends $7,8678, “has been shown to have a positive impact on student achievement.”

Effective preschool programs don’t come cheap,  writes David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, in the New York Times.

Consider what’s happening in Boston. A randomized study showed that prekindergartners there gained between four and seven months’ progress in reading and math, and those gains persisted: 27 percent more of Boston’s preschool children scored “proficient” or better on the state’s rigorous third-grade exams.

Boston spends $10,000 for each preschooler, according to Kirp. “You get what you pay for,” he concludes.

The kind of early childhood education that changes disadvantaged children’s learning trajectories is intensive and expensive. We might be able to afford it for the neediest kids, the ones who are not developing language skills and a base of knowledge at home. But, if it’s not going to be done well, why do it at all?

Universal pre-k may widen achievement gap

“Universal” pre-k could widen New York City’s achievement gap, writes Robert Pondiscio.

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a prekindergarten class at Public School 130 in Lower Manhattan

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a prekindergarten class at Public School 130 in Lower Manhattan

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $300 million program to provide free, full-time pre-K to all children is not reaching the neediest children, reports Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s pre-K program added only 195 kids from the bottom 20 percent of ZIP codes this fall, according to Fuller’s data. “Middle-income neighborhoods are showing the greatest gains in registration, while enrollments have actually fallen in nineteen of the city’s thirty-four poorest zip codes,” notes Pondiscio.

“We just don’t have the evidence to back why we would heavily finance pre-K in middle class and upper class communities,” Fuller told ProPublica. Children from low-income families need early education the most, he wrote earlier, but the city’s program advantages well-off communities.