Illiterate in college

A star athlete, Dasmine Cathey got through Memphis schools without learning to read and got a football “scholarship” to the University of Memphis. By studying first-grade books and working with university-paid tutors, he went from illiterate to semi-literate — and nearly earned enough credits for a bachelor’s degree in “interdisciplinary studies.” According to The Education of Dasmine Cathey in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many Memphis football players read below the seventh-grade level. Few are good enough to play professionally. What if they’d gotten help in elementary school?

Cathey, who fathered two children with different girlfriends while in college, now drives a beer truck.

‘Alternate’ math confuses kids, parents

Canada’s K-8 schools are teaching a math curriculum that’s too confusing for parents to understand, reports Maclean’s.

Children are using  alternative methods, such as using grids, blocks, or strips of paper to multiply.  “We’re talking about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It shouldn’t be so overly complicated that even parents can’t understand it,” said Anna Stokke, a professor math at the University of Winnipeg. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Stokke began speaking out and soon parents from all over Canada were sending her similar stories of discontent: kids who couldn’t do their homework without help, parents who couldn’t make heads or tails of the assignments so they were hiring tutors, or spending hours looking up math sites on the Internet because the textbooks are so vague. She heard from teachers who felt pressured not to teach the traditional methods. . . . “I don’t have a problem with alternate strategies,” Stokke says. “But I fear they’re learning so many, that in the end they’re not mastering any.”

Many schools now offer Math Nights to show parents how to help their children with homework. A Catholic school offered an online course — 20 minutes a night, four nights a week for eight weeks — to get parents up to speed.

Thirty percent of Canadian parents now supplement their children’s education, reports Maclean’s.

But even students with good grades are confused, says Kim Langen, who runs an after-school enrichment program called Spirit of Math. “They’re really creative—but they don’t know what to do with it,” says Langen.

. . . Grade 5 students . . .  don’t know multiplication facts, have never encountered division, and just look at you blankly when you ask them what 23 + 7 is. In order to build students’ math facts, the ?rst 10 minutes of the 90-minute session is dedicated to drills—then, explains Langen, because they’re not bogged down on simple calculations, they can handle the high-level conceptual work.

Some teachers also have trouble understanding the new math, says Langen.

Class time isn’t shorter in U.S.

U.S. schoolchildren spend as much time in school as kids in high-scoring countries, concludes a report by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a longer school day and year, notes the Washington Times.

“Right now, children in India … they’re going to school 30, 35 days more than our students,” he said at an education forum in September, explaining one reason he thinks the American education system is falling behind those of global competitors.

“Anybody who thinks we need less time, not more, is part of the problem,” Mr. Duncan said.

Students in India spend more days in school, but fewer hours in class, totaling 800 “instructional hours” at the elementary level. Forty-two states require more class hours, the report found. Texas requres 1,260 hours a year for elementary students.

High-scoring South Korea requires 703 hours for elementary students, though many parents pay for after-school lessons. Hungarian students score at nearly the U.S. level despite requiring only 601 hours.

U.S. high school students average 1,000 hours in class each year.

In Poland, high school students need 595 hours in the classroom, the lowest of all the countries in the study, yet they top U.S. students on the math and science portions of the PISA exams, the most widely used measuring sticks for international comparisons.

Finland, Norway, Australia and other nations also show higher levels of student achievement while requiring less instruction.

Of course, it’s not just the time spent at school, but how it’s used.


Chicago fails to close achievement gaps

After 16 years of school reform, Chicago’s “racial gaps in achievement have steadily increased,” according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.  White and Asian students are making more progress than Latinos; blacks are “falling behind all other groups.”

Some initiatives, such as closing underperforming schools, may have hurt students, Jean-Claude Brizard, the new superintendent, told the Chicago Tribune.

If school closings destabilized certain neighborhoods, other efforts were ineffective — millions of dollars pumped into countless after-school initiatives and tutoring and mentoring programs geared toward African-American students, only to see math and reading scores languish and many students fall further behind.

The percentage of black students meeting benchmarks on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test has grown at a faster rate than whites’ progress. But the consortium looked at average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  “NAEP scores don’t just look at a percentage of students that pass a certain cut of points. It talks about the average scores, so it’s a much better way to look at trends over time,” (researcher Marisa) de la Torre said.

Over the last 20 years, graduation rates in Chicago have improved dramatically, the study found. Math scores improved slightly in elementary and middle schools while reading scores “have remained fairly flat for two decades.”

NCLB stands for No Chance for Latinos and Blacks, writes Coach G, who began teacher inner-city Chicago students in 1993. Even in the pre-reform era, two years before Mayor Richard Daley took control of the city’s schools, there was pressure to raise reading and math scores, Coach G recalls.

No Child Left Behind increased pressure to replace “rich curriculum with test prep,” he writes. Schools cut back on teaching writing: In many schools, the three Rs were reduced to two.  Other responses:

  • providing tutoring and other individualized services for on-the-bubble students who were just short of a proficient score the previous year, while neglecting the most deficient and most advanced students
  • preventing students from taking advanced classes if the content wouldn’t be on the test
  • enabling students’ self-defeating behavior
  • holding teachers accountable for results without providing them the support they need to achieve those results

Years ago, a testing guru told me the most effective way to raise students test scores is to teach writing. It even works for math scores, he said. Filling in bubbles? A waste of time after the first five minutes, he said.


Human tutors beat computers in Houston

Intensive tutoring — two kids to one adult — raised math achievement dramatically in Houston’s Apollo turnaround schools, while computer tutoring helped only modestly, writes Mike Goldstein of MATCH on Larry Cuban’s blog. MATCH helped hire and train the tutors.

Math tutoring for sixth and ninth graders raised achievement by the equivalent of five to nine months of extra schooling, concluded economist Roland Fryer in a study of Apollo’s results after one year.

In other grades, students who were behind took double math or reading, depending on the subject in which they needed help the most. Their classes used Carnegie Math’s  software featuring differentiated instruction based on previous student performance.

Computers are great for helping people learn what they want to learn. They’re not particularly good at getting someone to learn something they do not want to learn. For that, you need very skilled people (teachers and tutors) who can build relationships, use that to generate order and effort from kids, and then turn that effort into learning. A computer needs to start on “third base” — take effort and flip that into learning.

While the schools adopted a “no excuses” model, it was the intensive math tutoring that made the difference, writes Matt Di Carlo of the National Education Policy Center.

Late bloomers are rare

Children’s academic future is decided by third grade: Average students rarely turn into high achievers in later years. So warns K5 Learning after re-crunching the numbers in Fordham Institute‘s study, Do High Flyers Maintain their Altitude? (pdf.)

Graph of likelihood of becoming a high achiever in math in grade 8 vs grade 3 math achievement

While Fordham looked at progress for children in the top 10 percent, K5 Learning looked at the also-rans.  Children who performed in the bottom 1/3 in reading or math in grade 3 had less than a 1% chance of being high achievers by grade 8.  Even average students in grade 3, (between 40 and 60 percentile) had less than a 5% chance of becoming high achievers later.

Kids performing in the 60-70 percentile range in grade 3 had about a 8-9% chance of becoming high achievers by grade 8.

“High achiever” is defined as scoring in the 90th percentile or above in reading and math. It is possible to have a decent life with less exalted performance.

K5 Learning provides “reading and math enrichment.” If you hire a tutor, will your 60th percentile second grader turn into a Harvard-bound third grader? There are no guarantees.


The tutored rich

After paying for very expensive private schools, wealthy New Yorkers pay subject-matter and SAT tutors to ensure their children can compete for Ivy League colleges, reports the New York Times.

One mother paid $38,800 for tuition at Riverdale Country School and another $35,000 for a tutor to help her son through a single class, Integrated Liberal Studies.

Last year, she said, her tutoring bills hit six figures, including year-round SAT preparation from Advantage Testing at $425 per 50 minutes; Spanish and math help from current and former private school teachers at $150 an hour; and sessions with Mr. Iyer for Riverdale’s equally notorious interdisciplinary course Constructing America, at $375 per 50 minutes.

More than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, the Times estimates.

“It’s no longer O.K. to have one-on-one coaching for sailing but not academics,” says Arun Alagappan of Advantage Testing, whose 200 tutors bill $195 to $795 for 50 minutes.

More and more, parents are hiring tutors to turn B+ students into straight-A contenders for Ivy League spots.

Gone are the days of a student who was excellent at math and science just getting by in English and history; now, everyone is expected to be strong in everything (including fencing, chess, woodworking and violin).

I noticed this when my daughter was at Palo Alto High. The top students were expected to take AP classes in everything — though I don’t think any of them had  tutors. I wonder if the college craziness has escalated in the competitive public schools too.

Michael Ruse compares intensive tutoring to athletes bulking up on steroids.

In London, Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin are advertising for a $100,000-a-year tutor for their children Moses, five, and Apple, seven, reports the Daily Mail. Slackers need not apply.

American Resident quotes the ad:

“The ideal candidate will have received a classical education, including Latin and Greek, and be familiar with such elements as the history of thought from a philosophical perspective. He or she should also be musically fluent and play at least one instrument well. In addition, language skills are essential and the Tutor should have fluent French and at least one other of Spanish, Italian, Mandarin or Japanese. The Tutor will also need to be fit and healthy, enjoy many sports and pastimes both indoors and out, including painting, art, or art history and drama, as well as sports such as chess, tennis, fencing or a martial art.” ….. when the tutor collects the boy from school, they might stop by an art gallery on the way home!”

Ex-Pat Tutor thinks it’s a bit too much to ask, even for $100,000.

Unbundling the schoolhouse

It’s time to “unbundle” the schoolhouse, writes Rick Hess in Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform, edited by Hess and Bruno Manno. Without necessarily “reforming” the whole school, it should be possible to provide high-quality services, such as algebra instruction, virtual tutoring or parent engagement, Hess and Manno argue.

The “whole-school” assumption that every school must find ways to serve every academic need of every individual student has overburdened educators and institutions. As a result, they have trouble doing anything especially well.

Specialized providers of tutoring, language instruction, art and music classes, etc. shouldn’t be limited to serving only affluent parents — or starting their own charter school — Hess and Manno writes.

Also in the book: Chris Whittle on the emergence of transnational school providers; Checker Finn and Eric Osberg on “educational savings accounts” which permit parents to customize services; Joe Williams on empowering parents to make smart choices; Doug Lynch and Michael Gottfried on informing parents about the quality of specialized education services; Jon Fullerton on data systems that support choice andBurck Smith on introducing cost sensitivity into K-12 schooling. Ted Kolderie and Curtis Johnson discuss the policy implications.

Reading what?

Good readers need background knowledge — not just skills — concludes John Merrow after talking to E.D. Hirsch, Mike Smith and Linda Katz about reading development.

(Hirsch) explained what is called “the Matthew Effect” to Virginia’s legislators . . . “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” . . .  the more you have learned, the more you are capable of learning and likely to learn. The reverse is also true: the less you know, the harder it is for you to acquire knowledge.

“You have to read about something, whether it’s baseball or Patrick Henry or space travel or a pet dog,” Merrow concludes.

And it’s important that all children have common reading experiences — shared content. Finally, closing the vocabulary gap is best done in situations that replicate how vocabulary-rich children in the study acquired their larger vocabulary — through conversation, not in cold classrooms where drill is the M.O.

Merrow is touting the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

I’m tutoring two first-grade boys, one of whom has really struggled. On Monday, he doubled his reading speed. On Thursday, he enjoyed reading.

The lessons of Kumon

Kumon is booming in New York City and its affluent suburbs, writes  Paulette Miniter in City Journal. Parents who pay high taxes for public schools and/or private school tuition are paying even more — $85 to $150 a month — for Kumon classes.

. . . John LaMagna of Cortlandt explained why he had brought his son to Kumon. “It helps with the basic fundamentals of reading and math, which kids just don’t learn today,” he said. “Multiplication tables up to 12—like I did as a kid.”

Toru Kumon, a Japanese high school math teacher, “believed that kids needed to have a strong foundation in the basics — phonetic awareness and those memorized multiplication tables, for starters — before they could excel at a more advanced level.”

The curriculum consists of more than 20 defined skill levels for math and reading. New students take a free placement test, get started at a skill level below their current abilities, and move up in small increments. In order for students to advance, they must achieve a perfect score on a test within a set amount of time. The idea is that a child who demonstrates both speed and accuracy shows full mastery of the material.

Students complete worksheets at home and visit a Kumon center once or twice a week. U.S. enrollment has doubled since 2001.