75% of seniors aren’t ready for college math

Only 25 percent of 12th graders are prepared for college math and 37 for college reading, according to the latest Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Math scores fell over the last two years, while reading scores have been flat since 2009.

Remember that the weakest students have dropped out by 12th grade.

Low performers are doing worse while high achievers are improving, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week. The percentage of students scoring at the “below basic” level was higher in both reading and math, compared to 2013.

That may be a side-effect of the rising graduation rate, which hit 82 percent in 2014.

Racial/ethnic gaps are huge: 64 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Hispanics score as below basic in math; only 7 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics score as proficient or better. By contrast, a third of whites and nearly half of Asian-Americans are proficient or better.

Here’s more on the knowledge and skills required to score “basic” or “proficient” on NAEP’s 12th-grade math exam.

In reading, 49 percent of Asians, 46 percent of whites, 25 percent of blacks and 17 percent of black 12th graders are proficient or better.

“College for all” remains the mantra. Nearly two-thirds of high school graduates will enroll in college immediately: 55 percent will complete a degree within six years.

Remembering the butter — and the bread knife

Mamacita ran into a former student — now a father of three — in Kroger’s. He told her his fondest memory from eighth-grade English was making butter, just like pioneers did in “that olden-days book.”

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“My kids and I love to make butter, just like you showed us in 8th grade,” he told her.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy “was perfect for a low-ability class of 37 14-to-17 year old students, all boys, who hated reading,” recalls Mamacita. The boys saw no connection between books and the outdoors lives they led, which included hunting, farming, 4H, cattle raising and fixing things.

Using a churn was too complicated, Mamacita recalls. “We poured the cream into a big Tupperware thing and passed it all around the class and the boys shook it while listening to me read.”

When the butter “came,” the boys went into action.

(They) poured off the buttermilk and squeezed the butter until it stopped weeping. They sprinkled just a little salt into the butter and kneaded it in. Then they all washed their hands and whoever’s turn it was that day sliced the bread and they all put napkins in their shirt collars and tucked in. We used KNIVES to slice the bread and to spread the butter. Heavens to BETSY.

Other teachers criticized her “because watching sourdough rise, and making butter, weren’t proper English lessons,” she writes.

I maintained, and I still maintain, that anything we as teachers or parents do that makes learning come alive is a proper English lesson. Science lesson. History lesson. Math lesson. Life lesson.

Finally, the principal told her to stop. “There really wasn’t time, anyway, what with all the ISTEP prep the boys needed to do.”

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy


The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

Preschool kids work more, learn less

Preschool won’t close the achievement gap as long as teachers focus on kindergarten prep and neglect conversation, writes Erika Christakis in The Atlantic. “Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less,” she argues.

“A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool,” she writes.

Four-year-olds are asked to sit still and complete pencil-and-paper tasks that are beyond their motor skills and attention spans, writes Christakis. But it doesn’t work.

One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes,” Christakis points out.

A Vanderbilt study found low-income children who attended Tennessee’s publicly funded preschools started kindergarten with more “school readiness” skills than a control group. By first grade, teachers rated the preschool grads as “less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the researchers write. They blame burn out.

The average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” estimates Robert Pianta, a leading child policy expert. Research suggests higher-quality preschools could cut the gap by 30 to 50 percent, he writes.

Quality preschools “provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language,” writes Christakis.

. . . their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

. . . In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

Conversation is the golden key, she writes.

More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

The article comes from her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

If the name sounds familiar, it is. As associate master of a Yale college, Christakis wrote an email saying that college students could pick their own Halloween costumes. Under heavy fire for racial insensitivity, she resigned her teaching job at Yale citing a “climate” on campus that is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

Core confusion? Math scores drop

Math scores are down in grades four and eight on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the first decline in 25 years. Only 40 percent of fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders were proficient or better.

Fourth-grade reading scores were flat with 36 percent of fourth graders scoring proficient or above. Thirty-four percent of eighth graders were reading at grade level or better, a slight decrease.

The transition to Common Core standards may explain the math decline, education officials told the New York Times. The largest score drops on the fourth-grade math exams were on data analysis, statistics and geometry questions, which are not covered in that grade under the new standards.

In addition, “about a quarter of public school students are Hispanic, compared with fewer than 10 percent in 1990,” notes the Times.  Only 21 percent of Hispanic fourth graders scored proficient or above on reading tests, compared with 46 percent of white students.

The proportion of African-American students in public schools has remained about the same.

Illiteracy isn’t as joyful in the U.S.

Teaching reading in kindergarten is a mistake, argues an expatriate teacher in an Atlantic paean to the “joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland.

We’re not Finns, responds reading expert Timothy Shanahan. The “whistle a happy tune” approach won’t work here.

Most Finnish parents are well-educated and literate, he writes. More than one-third of children enter school already reading, according to a government study.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

In addition, the Finnish language may be the easiest language to learn to read, writes Shanahan. “The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode.”

The Atlantic story quotes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education, who claims, “There isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it.” The quote comes from a Defending the Early Years video.

As chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Shanahan looked at the research, he writes. “We found long-term benefits from early learning.”

How videos build better readers

Games, videos and other digital media can improve children’s reading argues Tap, Click, Read, a new book by Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine. Their work is funded by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

“An alarming number of children in the United States never become good readers,” Guernsey tells NPR. More than two-thirds of fourth graders — 80 percent of children in low-income families — are not “proficient” readers.

Reading isn’t just about decoding skills, says Guernsey.  Children “need to be able to understand the words they read and have a base of knowledge (in art, science, social studies and beyond) to help them make inferences and connect the dots.”

Children can “build background knowledge at the tap of a screen,” says Levine. A child who’s reading about penguins in Antarctica, can watch a video to make sense of the words she’s decoding.

In Beyond “Turn It Off,” the American Academy of Pediatrics revises its advice to parents on media use.

Where kindergarten is the new preschool

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In Finland, kindergarten is known as “preschool,” writes Tim Walker, an American who’s taught there. Children start school at six and learn by playing.

Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop.

“I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

. . . After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€.

Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.

Many of her 15 students will learn to read by the end of the year, Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah told Walker. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it.”

Kindergarten is “the new first grade” in the U.S., according to a University of Virginia study. As more time is spent on literacy, children spend less time on arts, music and child-selected activities, such as rotating between “stations.”

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas told Walker in an e-mail.

(She described) three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math — on the fourth week of school.

. . . (She) has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.”

Last year, the district tried to remove the “house station with dolls and toy food” from the classroom.