Academics aren’t just a ‘white thing’

Standardized tests are a “racist weapon,” argues Ibram X. Kendi, a history professor at the University of Florida. “What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school?” he asks.

Image result for bell curve testing

“Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite,” writes Kendi. He prefers to measure literacy “by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment.”

A Mexican-American and a first-generation college graduate, Liz Reetz teaches sixth-grade social studies. Testing shows  how “our schools are not educating all students,” she writes on A Plus Colorado.

She “built a curriculum based on teaching students to think, read, talk, and write about history as it relates to identity and social justice,” she writes. Her non-elite students can handle abstractions, if they have “the opportunity to engage with ideas that are meaningful to them.”

Kendi’s ideas are dangerous, she believes.

“Equally intelligent in different ways” says to me: value survival skills in poor and brown people but leave the thinking about big ideas, governing, or improving the world to wealthy people and white people.

. . . You give the power to white teachers, white administrators, white legislators to say “you can’t hold me accountable for the fact that he can’t read, his intelligence is different” or “It’s not my fault she isn’t grasping algebra, her culture doesn’t value numbers or abstract thinking.”

The “notion that communities of color have fundamentally different kinds of knowledge” is racist and ahistorical, writes Reetz.

Pre-Columbian societies tracked the movements of stars and planets, understood complex mathematics, used chemistry and biology to create rubber, and engineered roads and buildings. Do not tell me that my culture doesn’t value abstract thinking.

Abstract thinking “is the heritage of humanity,” she writes. It’s not a “white thing.”

Baltimore County nixes ‘gifted, talented’

The “gifted and talented” label is on the way out in Baltimore County, reports Liz Bowie for the Baltimore Sun. The district eliminated accelerated classes for the brightest elementary students last year.

Replacing “gifted and talented” with “advanced academics” isn’t popular with parents of high achievers, writes Bowie. They fear their gifted children’s needs will be ignored.

Teachers say it’s challenging to meet the needs of high, average and low achievers in a single classroom.

One fifth of Baltimore County students have been chosen as gifted in third and fifth grades “based on achievement and other, more subjective criteria, including personality, creativity, curiosity and ability to concentrate,” she writes. (Most districts designate a much smaller percentage of students as gifted.)

In the elementary grades, teachers now teach different levels of students in the same classroom. They break students into groups by ability, and then work their way around the classroom, instructing each of the groups according to its level. Educators say the small-group model allows them to move students in and out of groups more easily.

Advanced students are placed in separate classes for fourth- and fifth-grade math and in middle and high school.

“Baltimore County school officials say too many children, particularly minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were relegated to lower-level classwork” under the old system, wrote Bowie earlier this year.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens' class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Baltimore County no longer has separate classes for gifted and talented students.

Johnathan Miles, a second grader, reads a book in Jessica Owens’ class at Lyons Mill Elementary School. Photo: Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun

“If you got the golden ticket, you would ride the train from third grade to 12th grade. If you didn’t, then chances are you weren’t going to step onto it later in your academic career,” said Wade Kerns, the school system’s coordinator of advanced academics.

However, the new policy hasn’t qualified more disadvantaged students for advanced academic work, writes Bowie.

In the 2012-2013 school year, before the program change, 21.15 percent of black children in the sixth grade were labeled gifted. Last school year, that declined to 19.69 percent. The percentage of Latino gifted students increased slightly.

For economically disadvantaged children, the percentage of sixth-graders labeled gifted declined from 19.41 percent to 18.73 percent.

Jeanne Paynter, a former head of gifted-and-talented education in the Maryland State Department of Education, told Bowie teachers may not recognize children with high aptitude or know how to differentiate instruction for very bright students.

She also said high-achieving black and Latino students often attend struggling schools with inexperienced teachers focused on raising low achievers’ test scores. “Generally what happens is the advanced group is going to wait and wait and wait until the teacher gets to them,” she said. “Every child should have the right to be instructed and grow and learn.”

U.S. students win Math Olympiad — again


U.S. Math Olympiad team members Ankan Bhattacharya, Allen Liu, Ashwin Sah, Michael Kural, Yuan Yao and Junyao Peng. Photo: Carnegie Mellon University

It’s hard to miss the hype for the Rio Olympics, writes Michael Mazenko on A Teacher’s View. But very few know that U.S. mathletes won the 2016 International Math Olympiad in Hong Kong last month. For the second year in a row. U.S. students beat competitors from China (Shanghai), South Korea, Singapore and Japan.

This is “just one more example of how in America we are ignoring our best and brightest,” writes Mazenko.

“This year’s IMO featured an unusually large number of non-standard problems which combined multiple areas of mathematics into the same investigation,” Po-Shen Loh, coach of the U.S. team, wrote in the New York Times:

The most challenging problem turned out to be #3, which was a fusion of algebra, geometry, and number theory. On that question, the USA achieved the highest total score among all countries, ultimately contributing to its overall victory — a historic repeat #1 finish (2015 + 2016), definitively breaking the 21-year drought since the last #1 finish in 1994, and the first consecutive #1 finish in the USA’s record.

Here’s IMO 2016 Problem 3:

Let P = AA2 … Ak be a convex polygon on the plane. The vertices A1, A2, …, Ak have integral coordinates and lie on a circle. Let S be the area of P. An odd positive integer n is given such that the squares of the side lengths of P are integers divisible by n. Prove that 2S is an integer divisible by n.

It’s as impossible for me as the gymnastics floor exercise. Does anyone have a clue how to tackle this problem?

Learning music develops the brain

Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel leads the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Photo: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Studying music may improve young children’s auditory and language-processing abilities, according to early findings of a study published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. That could help kids learn to read.

University of Southern California researchers began following 45 children from lower-income bilingual families (most are Latino, one is Korean)  when the children were 6 and 7, reports Jackie Zubrzycki in Education Week.

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA at the Heart of Los Angeles music program class in Los Angeles. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

Yashelyn, 9, plays violin in the Youth Orchestra LA. Photo: Eric Grigorian/ Education Week

The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is teaching 13 of the children to play musical instruments using the El Sistema approach developed in Venezuela. Another group plays soccer and the third has no after-school activity.

After two years, brain scans showed the music students “had more-developed auditory pathways than their peers,” writes Zubrzycki. “The authors write that this development in auditory processing also affects students’ ability to process speech and language — which means it could have an impact on students’ academic progress as well as their musical abilities.”

Poor neighborhoods perpetuate poverty

Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life, reports Alvin Chang on Vox.

“Research shows it’s like breathing in bad air; the more you’re exposed to it, the more it hurts you,” he writes. “And it isn’t just because of the lack of opportunity.”

Living in a high-stress environment changes your brain and your children’s IQ. 

Blacks are much more likely than whites to live in poor neighborhoods — and less likely to climb the economic ladder.

“If you’re black and your parents grew up in a poor neighborhood, then you probably ended up in a poor neighborhood too,” writes Chang, citing research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey.

A brain in your pocket — but what’s in your head?

Carrying a brain in your pocket may weaken the brain in your head, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham

Thinking is hard work, so people have strategies to avoid it, known as “cognitive miserliness,” he writes. In familiar situations, they do whatever they did the last time. If memory won’t work, “you can often get away with heuristics—quick, cognitively inexpensive processing routines that provide an answer, often a good one.”

Nowadays, there’s a third strategy:  Look it up online. Currently, 64% of US adults own a smartphone.

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According to three studies, “people who are more cognitively miserly are more likely to search information out on their smartphone,” effectively using it as an external memory.

Smartphone use is negatively related to cognitive ability (as measured by brief numeracy and verbal intelligence tests), Willingham adds.  “It may be that low-cognitive-ability people seek information—look up a word meaning, calculate a tip—that high-ability people have in their heads.”

It’s not clear whether smart phones are “making us more cognitively miserly” or whether misers are “simply taking advantage of a new opportunity,” he writes. “What are the costs and benefits of either change?”

Black teachers identify more gifted blacks

Black achievers are about half as likely to be placed on the “gifted” track as whites with similar test scores, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

The teacher’s race makes a difference, reports NPR. Black teachers identify 6.2 percent of black students as gifted in reading, while non-black teachers saw only 2.1 percent of black students as gifted, researchers found.

Because of racial gaps in test scores, many districts rely more on teacher referrals to identify gifted students, researcher Jason Grissom told NPR. “That opens a big potential door as a driver for disparity.”

It’s not clear why black teachers find more gifted black students, writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay.

Perhaps black teachers are more likely to recognize brilliance in a black student and suggest that the student be screened for giftedness.

Parents also play a big role in lobbying for their children to enter these programs. Another possibility is that black parents feel more comfortable advocating for their child with a black teacher, demanding that their child be screened for giftedness.

And finally it’s possible that black children perform better for a black teacher, and are more likely to demonstrate how brainy they are in these classrooms.

There’s no white-Latino “giftedness gap,” the study found. White and Latino students with the same scores were equally likely to get placed in a gifted program.

Testing every child for giftedness could help close the gap in access to accelerated programs, suggests Grissom.

The Asian advantage

Why do Asian-Americans do so well in school? asks Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column. What’s the “Asian advantage?”

It’s not IQ, writes Brooks, citing Richard Nisbett’s book about intelligence.

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Chinese-American and white children with the same IQ scores were followed into adulthood by researchers. Fifty-five percent of the Chinese-Americans entered high-status occupations, compared with one-third of the whites, Nisbett writes. Chinese-Americans with a 93 IQ did as well as whites with a 100.

In The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou note that many recent Asian immigrants are educated professionals. But working-class Asian-Americans tend to do well in school too. That’s certainly true of the children of the Vietnamese boat people.

The “model minority” may be a myth, but Asian kids walk into a math or science classroom knowing their teachers will expect them to excel.

Kristof credits the Confucian emphasis on education.

Immigrant East Asians often try particularly hard to get into good school districts, or make other sacrifices for children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study.

There’s also evidence that Americans believe that A’s go to smart kids, while Asians are more likely to think that they go to hard workers.

Asian-American parents have high expectations for their children. A B is an “Asian F,” kids joke. (Kristof says A-, but I think that’s extreme.) And a B is “a white A.”

Asian-Americans also are likely to grow up in two-parent families.

“The success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” he concludes. “Ditto for the success of Jews, West Indians and other groups.”

But their success does not “suggest that the age of discrimination is behind us,” he argues. The “black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace” will not be reassured by the success of Asian-Americans. “Because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

Shouldn’t that kid be reassured by the success of West Indian blacks?

Your child is not special

Your Child Is Not Special writes J.P. Fugler, a speech and debate teacher in Texas. The straight A’s mean nothing.

He had a perfect GPA once because he avoided classes that might be difficult. When he got a 70 in the required keyboarding class — his family didn’t have a computer at home — he asked the teacher if he could come in early or late to practice.

Every day for six weeks, he practiced before and after school. “I went from being the slowest typist in the class to the fastest,” Fugler writes.”My grade skyrocketed to a 100.”

That doesn’t happen today. Blame for a low grade “is shifting from the student to the teacher,” he writes.

Parents think their special child deserves success. Hard work is for those other kids who aren’t gifted.

Flugler requires freshmen to study Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and understand Greek philosophy.

For the first time in their lives, some struggle in my classroom. Encountering a new feeling of inadequacy, they panic. Then, panic turns to blame. There is no introspection or attempt to change behaviors that led to failure. Parents take up the fight.

Children can fail “now or later,” writes Fluger. Now is better. Later, the stakes will be higher.

Effort isn’t enough: Kids have to learn

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” theory — students work harder and learn more if they believe they can “grow their brains” — is red-hot in the education world.

Everyone says they believe in the growth mindset, even when they don’t really, Dweck writes in Education Week. A “growth mindset isn’t just about effort.” It’s about learning and improving.

The student who didn’t learn anything is told, “Great effort! You tried your best!”

Instead, a teacher might say, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

Dweck has a fear that keeps her up at night, she writes.

. . . that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!”

She calls for “telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”