I Propose a New Educational Mandate

by Tedra Osell on January 8, 2012

To wit, a mandate that educational mandates be in line with actual current research on education rather than pulled out of someone’s butthole.

So, for instance, some teacher(s) at this school in Georgia thinks that “Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick” and “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week? 2 weeks?” are appropriate interdisciplinary math word problems. For elementary students.

Even if we agree to completely ignore the fact that these questions are blatantly offensive, have these educators never heard of stereotype threat? (See also.) The research on this has been around for almost twenty years, people.

Research also shows us that equality actually improves everyone’s performance; this nonsense may well be depressing white students’ learning as well as black students’. I can guarantee you that questions like that would make it a lot harder for me to get my kid to finish his math homework.

Speaking of whom, Pseudonymous Kid overheard me ranting talking about this earlier, and asked what stereotype threat was, so I gave him a brief explanation. Then he tells me that apparently the state mandated STAR tests have the students indicate race and gender on them. (And that “on the race question, “white” is separated from all the other categories—it’s right on top, and all the other options are underneath a dividing line.” God only knows what message that sends, but obviously PK finds it offputting.) Because apparently it’s important that we annually remind all students in California which of them belong to groups that stereotypically aren’t good at math/school/science/whatever. Before we have them take a test the results of which determine all sorts of things: what reading level a kid is at, school rankings (hm, maybe stereotype threat has a measurable impact on “failing” majority-minority schools?), whether kids qualify for certain kinds of programs, whether or not kids are “below basic, below basic, basic, proficient,  advanced,” at certain subjects, and god only knows what else.

I’m wondering, now, how many states have students fill in this kind of data on standardized tests. Does the SAT still do it? And for god’s sake, why haven’t we yet put demographic information (which yes, there are good reasons to collect it) at the end of the test or even have teachers fill it out so that we don’t emphasize this nonsense to the students themselves?

Obviously this pissy, difficult parent needs to file a complaint with the state department of education this afternoon.

{ 61 comments }

1

TW Andrews 01.08.12 at 9:36 pm

Whoever put together the “cross-curricular activity” should be summarily fired.

2

Tedra Osell 01.08.12 at 9:43 pm

Actually I think that they–and indeed, all teachers–should have to take annual classes in current research on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. issues in K-12 education and how to teach tolerance and non-discrimination. (And these classes should be paid for by the state, and the teachers should be paid for their time in taking them, and the classes should be taught by qualified individuals who are up to date on this stuff and do a good job teaching it themselves–perhaps this would be a good way to pay the best teachers “more” than mediocre ones, by paying them to teach best methods classes over the summers.) Firing teachers for making boneheaded errors just encourages them to “play it safe” and avoid “controversial issues” in class. Which is stupid and counterproductive. I mean, at least this teacher(s) were actually teaching something about slavery rather than pretending it never happened.

3

Witt 01.08.12 at 9:48 pm

I’m glad you’re posting on this. In my experience an enormous part of the problem is that people don’t know. And often they don’t know what they don’t know, nor do they understand how damaging their ignorance can be, and so they don’t take the appropriate steps to rectify it. (I don’t mean become an expert in every field; I mean stop and show your draft to someone who knows more than you do about X.) And even when they do know, inertia or discounting the true cost of the problem can cause them not to act.

Here’s another example. Not long ago an American psychology magazine (for psychologists, though not a journal) did an article spotlighting how some bright young researcher was going to do a study to see if pamphlets with childrearing information were useful to mothers who were young, poor and had some kind of mental illness.

Now, I haven’t seen the pamphlets, so maybe they were very good. But I was just boggled at the fact that anyone could seriously design, and other people could approve the design for, a research intervention that failed to take into account the fact that:
– Poor kids tend to go to lousy schools
– Lousy schools often do not produce fluent or comfortable readers
– Even if they did grow up to be good readers, people who are single parents, poor, and living with active mental illness might not have the time or breathing room to sit down and decode a pamphlet
– Research on adult learning theory and related issues has repeatedly found that adults* often learn best in experiential settings with competent facilitators and a variety of modalities.**

So — getting back to your post — YES school districts ought by gosh to take into account 20+ years of stereotype threat. I wish to goodness we had better systems in place for people to run a kind of “virus check” before they launched something new. I just don’t know how you institutionalize that kind of critical thinking.

*I would say people, but that’s an argument for another day.

(**I’m probably butchering the details here, but the point is that for most people, getting handed a pamphlet is not terribly effective.)

4

Lindsay 01.08.12 at 10:16 pm

I would suggest that putting the demographic questions on the back would reduce the response rate.

Agree with rest of article.

5

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.08.12 at 10:21 pm

Speaking of whom, Pseudonymous Kid overheard me ranting talking about this earlier, and asked what stereotype threat was, so I gave him a brief explanation. Then he tells me that apparently the state mandated STAR tests have the students indicate race and gender on them. (And that “on the race question, “white” is separated from all the other categories—it’s right on top, and all the other options are underneath a dividing line.” God only knows what message that sends, but obviously PK finds it offputting.)

That’s the second time Crooked Timber has made my jaw drop in as many days. This is the Californian STAR tests we’re talking about, isn’t it? One of the more “Liberal” states in the union, I gather. What in the Wide World of Sports is going on?

6

Harold 01.08.12 at 10:31 pm

Not only do educators and parents not seem to know the most elementary facts about how to impart new information — break things down into small steps, give lots of opportunity for cumulative success, focus on the positive, etc. They seem to have forgotten everything anyone ever learned about child development and age appropriateness.

7

Harold 01.08.12 at 10:33 pm

They know how to train cats to shake hands and walk on a leash, for heaven’s sake — why can’t they teach children?

8

Tedra Osell 01.08.12 at 10:40 pm

“They” is kind of a vague target, and “children” is a huge, huge category. We know some things about best methods, but we’re also learning new things all the time, right? And there are an enormous number of variables: ethnicity, gender, poverty, parental educational levels, mental and physical health, reactions to stress, cognitive processing, and so on. Training cats to walk on a leash is a ridiculously simple task and not at all like teaching millions of children multiple subjects for thirteen years.

The fact is that “they” (we) have been having and teaching children throughout the history of the species. But the kind of education we do now–formal, universal, abstract–is extremely new, and takes place in a nexus of political and social issues. So in addition to the incredible complexity of the educational issues involved, we have those to take into account as well.

9

Tedra Osell 01.08.12 at 10:50 pm

@Down and Out of Sài Gòn: Obviously what’s going on is that the state needs to collect demographic information, and no one has put together that the way we’ve done it ever since we began doing so (having the individual students provide it on the forms, much as individual adults provide it on census forms, job applications, etc) is at odds with educational goals and best practices.

I don’t really think it’s a “liberal” issue at all, except inasmuch as maybe wanting demographic information so that we can insure that students from historically disadvantaged groups are “keeping up with” the majority is a “liberal” goal? Although obviously that kind of information also gets used for the “conservative” purpose of arguing that historically disadvantaged groups are inherently less capable than the majority, so even there it cuts both ways.

If what you meant is that “liberal” CA (and believe me, CA’s reputation as a blue state elides an *enormous* disparity of political opinion here: most of the center and southern parts of the state are incredibly big-C Conservative with a big dose of libertarianism, and the more liberal, less-populated north coast and mountain areas is actually fairly liberal-libertarian) should know better, well, many liberals are as prone to exercise educational hobbyhorses without doing their homework as conservatives are. Also as prone to operate with a “whites vs. everyone else” framework on questions of ethnicity and race as conservatives, albeit from a different angle and with different reasons (even when liberals aren’t just being regular ol’ racists, which plenty of liberals are, what with being part of the broader racist culture and not having been raised under rocks, etc.).

10

Rich Puchalsky 01.08.12 at 11:11 pm

“we’re also learning new things all the time, right? “

Actually, we aren’t. I agree that math problems about slaves picking oranges and getting beaten are a really bad idea because they’re blatantly offensive, but that seems separate from whether the question of research on education is actually useful, and whether it actually teaches us anything, Short answer: probably not.

It may sound like a good idea to say that these questions are bad because they go against educational research. But we really have no idea what kind of fad will be supported by shoddy educational research next, and maybe the next thing that goes against the research will be something we value rather than something that we already know is blatantly offensive.

11

between4walls 01.08.12 at 11:12 pm

In my experience, when teachers fill in the races of their students, they get it wrong. My brother and I are mixed race and always prefer to indicate both races on these sort of forms if possible, but on the two occasions when teachers filled it out for us they picked one race or the other more or less randomly and without bothering to check with us.

Putting it at the end of the test would be an improvement but having the teachers do it will just lead to more complications.

12

Harold 01.08.12 at 11:12 pm

I realize “they” is a vague category — and that poverty, etc., etc. And I agree. But I am speaking from personal experience in the public schools here in Brooklyn in the 80s and 90s. Our son’s second grade papers used to come back with huge red x’s all over them, for example —-along with the injunction “try harder” — he had poor small motor coordination. My daughter’s pre-school director had the three-year-old children sit at desks with worksheets (she was a teacher in a public school who had taken time off to raise her daughter).” The parents demanded this. One teacher, on the eve or retirement, told us — “I ran the last play kindergarten in NYC. As for the local private schools, and even the fancy private schools — they were even worse. The public schools at least had some safeguards, and the teachers on the whole were drawn from the more educated sectors of the population. The funny thing is, though, despite all this anxiety — which I think came from the precarious economy and was not related to education at all — somehow the children learned anyway and grew up to be quite fine, I imagine.

13

LFC 01.08.12 at 11:34 pm

“on the race question, “white” is separated from all the other categories—it’s right on top, and all the other options are underneath a dividing line.”

Yes, this is bad. The dividing line (?!?) in particular is unbelievable. I understand they need demographic info but there has to be a better way to get it. Moreover, the white-category-on-top stuff is somewhat at odds with the reality that in some states, including CA, it will not be too long before Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, Native Americans etc are, taken together, the majority and ‘white’ is a minority category. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is already the case in CA, though I’m not sure.

14

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.08.12 at 11:53 pm

Tedra@8: I think I get you. I guess I was using “liberal” (with scare quotes) to imply it was relatively liberal compared to (say) Georgia, if not compared to (say) North Holland or Québec. These days, I tend to refer to myself as a “social democrat with a liberal tinge”, because “American liberalism” can result in embarrassing situations like this:

well, many liberals are as prone to exercise educational hobbyhorses without doing their homework as conservatives are. Also as prone to operate with a “whites vs. everyone else” framework on questions of ethnicity and race as conservatives, albeit from a different angle and with different reasons

It’s all quite distressingly believable, Tedra. No jaw dropping here, just roll eyes. But as a man in a multi-racial marriage, I find it a little contemptuous. We don’t have kids yet, but if we did, we’d like our son or daughter to identify with whatever identity was comfortable for him or her. Could be mine, could be hers, could be a hyphenation between the two.

I have a quick question from across the Pacific Ocean. It’s quite common to get “dumb [teacher | | school | principal | school board]” stories from the US. But would that be because you have 14,000 little school districts spread across the country? Given so many, it sounds like there would always be one or two that would “leave the reservation” at any one time.

In Australia, there isn’t really any equivalent to school districts. Education is the responsibility of the States, there are six of them, and they have tighter control over the curriculum than their equivalents in the US. There isn’t much chance for schools to get their 3σ+ standard deviation on.

15

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 12:14 am

@Rich: ” Short answer: probably not.”

And you base this opinion on what, exactly? Shoddy research exists across all disciplines. Perhaps we should therefore just assert that research is a waste of time.

16

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 12:39 am

@Down and Out of Sài Gòn: I suspect part of the reason “teacher does something godawful” stories are so popular in the US is that the US has a pretty long tradition of teacher- and education-bashing and a really strong cultural belief that “common sense” (i.e., “what I believe/think/have experienced”) trumps “expert opinion” on most things. Which is a fine democratic tendency in some ways, and in other ways is deeply undemocratic and reactionary.

But of course there are also a ton of other factors, I’m sure. I tend to agree with you that probably one is the incredible diversity in school districts, teacher training requirements state-by state, and the freedom in some states/districts/localities to make exceptions to training requirements in circumstances of need, etc. My sense–which may or may not be right–is that teacher training requirements vary hugely and are generally not terribly rigorous. I know that in California they’ve gotten stricter over the decades (for instance, teachers have to past certain kinds of subject-matter tests to be fully certified, and from what I hear the subject matter tests are fairly rigorous), but I also know from having inquired that there are ways to waive some requirements, including testing requirements (e.g., by having an advanced degree, if memory serves–I once looked into this because I was considering whether I wanted to get a credential). Which in a way seems reasonable, but in another maybe isn’t: I have a Ph.D. in English, yes, but I’m kind of crap at formal grammar and always have to bone up on it before teaching it. And of course there are market forces that make it tough to have universally high standards for teacher training, including the sheer number of teachers needed and the relatively low starting salaries.

That said, of course, our attempts to have national standards don’t seem to be producing particularly awesome results, either. I’m not personally a huge fan of mandatory curriculums, tbh, and I am a big fan of letting teachers try new things, take creative approaches, and so on. I don’t think I have the answers, though there are definitely a few things that I favor strongly: smaller schools and classes (the research on this is actually mixed but I think there are reasons why, though that’s a long topic for another time); ongoing professional training, subject-matter expertise (maybe through requiring subject-area undergraduate majors) coupled with expertise in relevant child development issues (graduate work? Narrower credentials, e.g. certifications in K-3, 4-7, 8-12th grade teaching?); much lower teaching loads so that teachers can not only keep up their professional training but also have time for creative new class units, to respond to and communicate with parents, etc; staffing schools with trained nurses, psychologists, social workers, and so on.

All of which boils down, I think, to taking education seriously as a profession and a national priority. We tend to want to do it as cheaply as possible, unfortunately, and I’m afraid things will get worse as fewer adults have children, so that even well-intentioned non-parents lack real-world experience of how very demanding good education actually is.

17

Peter T 01.09.12 at 1:11 am

re Rich’s comment

I was an English as a Second Language teacher many years ago. And the teaching was very structured, and the methods very prescribed. Pretty much all the students learned to get by in English very quickly, and most became quite fluent. It was not the way I was taught languages (which failed badly). Thirty years later, my grandchildren are being taught the same way I was – yet we knew 30 years ago a better way to do it.

18

Rich Puchalsky 01.09.12 at 1:56 am

“Thirty years later, my grandchildren are being taught the same way I was – yet we knew 30 years ago a better way to do it.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Not that there was some Golden Age years ago — but that teaching methods seem to perform a back-and-forth random walk over time, and I don’t see anything that shows that we’re progressing. That’s not how any of the real sciences work. But “educational research” isn’t a scientific discipline. It’s a mixture of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, and it’s not really doing as well as any of its components, some of which themselves aren’t doing so well.

In particular, if you look at: “smaller schools and classes (the research on this is actually mixed but I think there are reasons why, though that’s a long topic for another time); ongoing professional training, subject-matter expertise (maybe through requiring subject-area undergraduate majors) coupled with expertise in relevant child development issues (graduate work? Narrower credentials, e.g. certifications in K-3, 4-7, 8-12th grade teaching?); much lower teaching loads so that teachers can not only keep up their professional training but also have time for creative new class units, to respond to and communicate with parents, etc”

all of that pretty much boils down to “the more time the teacher has for each student the better, and more experienced and knowledgeable the teacher is, the better”. Which has been known to people for as long as there have been teachers.

19

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 2:31 am

Yes, it does boil down to that in many respects.

Nonetheless, it is also true that “we did things right 30 years ago” is not that simple. For instance, 30 years ago we did not have integrated schools. We did not have as many language groups as we do now. Most importantly, probably, we had a *much* less stratified society, a standard 40-hour work week, teachers had prep periods and weren’t expected to teach to standardized tests, there were good jobs waiting for high school graduates who didn’t go on to college, and we were still as a society pretty damn comfortable with the idea that girls were bad at math, brown-skinned people were destined for blue-collar jobs, boys who acted like fairies deserved to be bullied, girls mostly didn’t “have to” go to college because they were going to get married anyway, girls who got pregnant should be kicked out of school, and so on.

In other words, it actually isn’t that simple.

Moreover, I find it absolutely appalling–and quite illustrative of the American anti-education bias that I refererred to upthread–that on a blog primarily populated by educators and the educated we’re talking about K-12 education as if it’s not complicated, not particularly worthy of respect, and not actual a real area for real research.

20

Harold 01.09.12 at 2:32 am

Peter @ 17, this is what I was trying to say. They knew how to do early childhood education when I was young — But the succeeding generations forgot. Finland still does it the right way — from methods learned in the United States.

21

jeer9 01.09.12 at 2:33 am

High stakes standardized tests are the worst. Both parties are pushing them because it’s very difficult to argue against the concept of accountability. (And even if you bring up US scores as compared to other nations which show that our public education is quite good, you’re using the same damn scantron tests which you’ve already asserted are flawed.) The latest methodology being promoted where I teach (a very red region of California) is PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) in which teachers meet after-school for an hour each week to discuss strategies that will make test-taking more successful. Curriculum is stream-lined, units that might emphasize a bit more critical thinking are jettisoned if those areas aren’t represented on the test, favorite novels are set aside if they don’t fit into the test-taking calendar, etc. Seniors are pretty much ignored since they are no longer tested (which is why I enjoy that grade level; that, and their greater (?!) maturity as well). Since our high school is mostly white and fairly wealthy on the demographic scale, our scores have risen considerably – as they will do if most of the school’s emphasis is on the test (exit exam and STAR). It doesn’t hurt that the school also offers monetary and extra-curricular rewards to the students who improve markedly. Teaching still remains a great profession (how can one not get pleasure from reading and discussing Frankenstein and Hamlet every year?) though the ironies abound (perhaps not much more so than any other career). Our latest staff meeting involved incorporating more rigor into one’s courses, really challenging the students, while we were also being cautioned privately about our student failure rate, which with seniors affects the graduation rate which in turn affects the school’s evaluation. Somewhere Joseph Heller is smiling.

22

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 2:40 am

@jeer9, I feel every word you are saying. PK’s gifted classes are taught by really good teachers, but the emphasis they put on the stuff that’ll be on the tests … let’s just say I grit my teeth. A lot.

23

Rich Puchalsky 01.09.12 at 2:51 am

“in a blog primarily populated by educators and the educated we’re talking about K-12 education as if it’s not complicated, not particularly worthy of respect, and not actual a real area for real research.”

It’s not just K-12. Higher education up through Ph.D. level is just as bad. And of course I didn’t write anything about education not being worthy of respect, or teachers not being worthy of respect: I wrote that educational research wasn’t worthy of respect. And really, it isn’t. If you look just a short distance down this very blog you’re see an article questioning the value of lectures … this is roughly equivalent to physicists having to decide whether they are pro or anti atoms or pro or anti the ether.

If you want to hitch disapproval of these math questions about slavery to the idea that people really should have known about some educational theory, then you have to be prepared for some future theory that says that girls really are bad at math, or something. I don’t see anything intrinsic to the field that keeps it from reaching that conclusion or any other one.

24

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 2:58 am

You know, Rich, there’s a link addressing the “girls are really bad at math” thing in the original post. Read it.

Also, perhaps your inability to see anything intrinsic to the field that keeps it from just random conclusions has to do with the lack of respect that keeps you from actually investigating the field?

In any case. If you think that education isn’t a field that’s worth talking about, please refrain from commenting on posts in which people are talking about education, mkay?

25

Rich Puchalsky 01.09.12 at 3:03 am

“In any case. If you think that education isn’t a field that’s worth talking about, please refrain from commenting on posts in which people are talking about education, mkay?”

I’m not talking about education? Oh, I’m not agreeing with *your view of* education.

Yeah, I’ll leave you to it.

26

Mitchell Freedman 01.09.12 at 3:28 am

What knocked me out about the questions, besides the outrageousness, was the incredibly sharply directed malice. The slave’s name in the second example was “Frederick,” as if the writer was making a sharp dig at an escaped slave named Frederick Douglass.

27

paul 01.09.12 at 3:38 am

Research also shows us that equality actually improves everyone’s performance; this nonsense may well be depressing white students’ learning as well as black students’. I can guarantee you that questions like that would make it a lot harder for me to get my kid to finish his math homework.

“They Too Needed Emancipation” as US Grant said at the close of hostilities. A bonded society encompasses everyone in it, not just those referred as slaves.

+1 to Mitchell Freedman: I caught the Frederick reference too.

28

Belle Waring 01.09.12 at 3:53 am

It’s more like this, Rich:
Tedra’s OP:
a)Holy shit look at these racist-ass Georgian teachers. That poor parent, and poor kids WT ever-lovin’ blue-eyed F?!
b) Especially ironic given that educational researchers have known about stereotype threat for night on 20 years.
c) And it was just recently shown that parity between genders in math performance causes not only girls’ scores but also boys’s to improve. Who knew? Science!
d) If teachers don’t know these things, and it would appear they don’t, we should teach them, at state expense, and give them time off to learn.
Rich:
There’s no progress in teaching research at all. Some stuff works, other stuff works, trying to discern what methods are best via scientific study and teach them to teachers is a mug’s game. Progress in the area is wholly illusory.
Tedra:
Then maybe you shouldn’t bother commenting in threads that are, in large part, about how advances in teaching research could be more widely and effectively promulgated?

29

Matt McIrvin 01.09.12 at 4:00 am

30 years ago was 1982. I was in public school then, and I remember that it was common knowledge at the time that US public education was a disastrous failure.

30

Belle Waring 01.09.12 at 4:18 am

Also, everybody, my fellow coastal-living, latte-sipping elites, some of whom are so elite you even live in Europe, I was born in Savannah, Georgia, and though I lived much more just on the other side of the state line in S.C. spent much of my young childhood there, and go back almost every year, and I just want you to know, white Georgian people are really racist. (Sorry, fellow white Georgian people! I’ve thought racist stuff too in my life! And this isn’t true of everyone, by any means, plenty of nice folks of all races in the state.) But if you want my seal of approval to have stereotypical views like, ‘shit, Georgia’s racist,’ you go right on. In all fairness, South Carolina’s more racist. IN YOUR FACE, GEORGIA! I’d go around chanting “we’re number one” but cough*Mississippi*cough.

31

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.09.12 at 4:42 am

Rich: I disagree with the statement that “educational research isn’t worthy of respect”. I have two “educational” qualifications: a CELTA (for ESL teaching), and a “Cert IV” in Training and Assessment (used for vocational training). Neither one nor the other are theoretical certificates, and do not involve the research found in (say) a Bachelor of Education. They’re there to teach you how to be an instructor in certain fields, and for adults. FYI, neither qualification would be sufficient for K-12 teaching in Australia.

On the other hand, their material is informed by research. For example, one of the clearest things I learned from a Cert IV is that the lecture – where the teacher yaps on at the students sans interaction – is often the dumbest way to teach in the universe. It’s even dumber when students don’t come from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. It’s positively imbecilic when the students are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. The latter statements are also informed by research done only in the last 40 years or less; indigenous Australians weren’t even citizens until 1967.

So why do people still continue to lecture, when it’s almost a settled matter? It’s almost like a conference calling for papers on the topic “Phlogiston – still bullshit after 400 years.”

Education theory does often seem to go over the same ground, and I share your frustration at the “lecture” thread. But a lot of the frustration comes from the fact that (a) education research is done, and (b) ignored by politicians and public servants, so (c) more education research is done, which is (d) ignored again. And repeat. Tedra: does that sound like the situation?

Matt@29: if US public education was such a disastrous failure, why do I observe you using complete sentences with impeccable grammar today? Admit it, sir: you’ve been indulgin’ in hyperbole.

32

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 5:21 am

“30 years ago was 1982. I was in public school then, and I remember that it was common knowledge at the time that US public education was a disastrous failure.”

I remember that it was broadly agreed that US public education was a disastrous failure despite the fact that, in CA at least, we had excellent public schools in the 60s and 70s. But then we had Prop 13, and tax revolts, and the beginning of the backlash against public spending that we are still dealing with today.

It has long been my opinion that a major part of what happened to public education was integration. Not in the “those people ruined our schools” sense, but in the “if we have to share than we will take the ball and go home, plus omg public schools are suddenly sooooo dangerous!1!!” sense.

33

Matt McIrvin 01.09.12 at 5:23 am

My point was, mostly, that because of this I tend to be suspicious of things everyone knows about whether public education is better or worse than it used to be. In the 1980s, there was a lot of handwringing about how US students weren’t learning math any more, and at the same time my dad was telling me that my high-school math education was almost commensurate with what he had gotten as a college graduate in the early 1960s. It didn’t quite add up.

(Personally, I suspect that English composition training for college-bound students really did decline between about 1960 and 1980, but this is mostly on the basis of reading back issues of campus newspapers.)

34

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 5:26 am

@Down and Out: yes, I am inclined to agree with you.

@Rich: please don’t pull the trollish “omg you can’t handle disagreement” move. What I can’t handle, or rather refuse to, is the sniffy “this topic is soooo dumb move. If its dumb, leave it alone. I won’t put up with that kind of affectation. Also what Belle said.

35

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 5:28 am

@Matt: agreed about “the good/bad old days” oversimplifications, and apologies for the misunderstanding.

36

Matt McIrvin 01.09.12 at 5:29 am

…Of course, a large part of the answer is massive, massive inequality between districts. The one where I went to school was famously rich and good, though about half of the schools I went to were at what was then the poor and disreputable end of the county. So it’s very difficult to generalize, and this is actually symptomatic of part of the problem.

37

LFC 01.09.12 at 5:39 am

Also, everybody, my fellow coastal-living, latte-sipping elites

I never sip latte. I barely know what it is. When I hear someone order a double-caramel-machiatto-tall-skim-latte-whatever, I have absolutely no idea what they are drinking. It sounds rather disgusting.

To the ‘coastal living’ charge, though, I must plead guilty.

38

b9n10nt 01.09.12 at 5:49 am

Oh Thou Farcical Public Education:

Professional Learning Communities are, theoretically, teacher-led efforts at professional collaboration. But then of course in practice PLC means district administrators putting us in a room, telling us to find ways to Raise Test Scores, and leaving.

So those of us not entirely burnt out and cynical decide to play along. Data driven analysis? Ok. Data from standardized tests? Sure. But then we have no time to meet (2 hrs per month is typical) and we have incredibly thin data (as in, no consistent/rigorous means to find out which teachers are Doing It Wrong: feelings could be hurt).

And besides you read fairly significant summaries of best practices from education policy wonks and you learn/remember:

* depth trumps breadth (i.e. don’t “cover” “material”) and

* don’t teach subjects in isolation (i.e. interdisciplinary learning is cognitively richer) and

* give pre-teens and teens ever greater amounts of autonomy (given that motivation is absolutely central to student success) and

* keep kids in school year-round

* etc…

I mean, I love the idea of decoupling instructors from summative assessments (standardized tests) but even by that narrow criteria standardized testing fails until these assessments guide students’ pacing (I wanna say, “except with math” but I can’t: how many kids in geometry have mastered algebra?)

Sigh. There’s got to be a better way. How about: ending the concept of grades. Mandate that peer groups matriculate a program of civics and community service-as-socialization together and that’s that. How about: one matriculates through levels of reading, writing, and maths only when one has demonstrated mastery at the level-just-completed and can choose a normal vs. fast pacing and these courses are interdisciplinary and project based. How about trade schools and community service for those who don’t want to or can’t handle the (ideal) rigors of secondary education. + smaller schools, more teachers, more prep time and a pony in every copy room!

/non-constructive and mostly OT rant

39

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.09.12 at 5:51 am

Belle – I’m half-tempted to put Queensland against Georgia in the ‘more racist than thou’ stakes. We even had some slavery in the late nineteenth century.

But these days, it’s more institutional neglect and absentee paternalism, rather that racism “from the gut”.

40

b9n10nt 01.09.12 at 6:05 am

Those strike-throughs are not de moi .

[I've fixed them for you. Don't begin a line with a hyphen, because our software understands Textile, and any hyphen later in the same line will turn the intervening text into strike-through. If you want bullet-points use an asterisk. CB]

41

Belle Waring 01.09.12 at 6:45 am

Like I say, South Carolina houses Georgia in the Southeastern Division, but Mississippi wins the Nationals every goddamn year. They’re the NY Yankees of racism.

42

Tomas 01.09.12 at 9:42 am

This post reminded me of something I always found weird when I was in the states: the inclusion of “race” on all kinds of forms with no clear purpose. It always made me think.

I understand, of course, that race has been an important issue in america and in some situations (college applications under some form of affirmative action) might be relevant, but as I remember it, it went FAR beyond that. I am sure someone can enlighten me, but why is it a accepted question to put on just about every form in the states? Is it an issue discussed?

43

Tomas 01.09.12 at 9:51 am

Well, besides here obviously…

44

Tim Wilkinson 01.09.12 at 2:08 pm

re: Textile (@40)

I don’t think that’s the whole story, CB. Often these strikethroughs start if you have a hyphen which is immediately followed by an alphanumeric char (or other visible char possibly), but not immediately preceded by one. And the second of the pair needn’t be on the same line as displayed – only before the next para mark.

(Also of asterisks at the start of a line (i.e. para), only those with a space after become bullets; those immed. followed by an alphanum. char. do show up as asterisks.)

But at last the method in the madness is revealed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textile_%28markup_language%29

(If I can be excused a quick experiment:)

*bold text*
_italic text_
-strikethrough text-
+underlined text+

%{font-size:18pt}font size%

%{color:red}text in red%

# Chapter 1

* bulleted list

** 2-level

|Table | with two columns |

|and two | lines |

“Link to Wikipedia”:http://www.wikipedia.org

!http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Filepath/Wikipedia-logo-en.png!

Brand ^TM^

Text ~subscript~

45

Tim Wilkinson 01.09.12 at 2:10 pm

The fancier stuff doesn’t work then.

OK sorry carry on.

46

krippendorf 01.09.12 at 2:57 pm

The problem with educational research is that the questions it can answer are limited by the nature of the beast and the political and cultural climate.

The debate over whether or not to hold kids back in school or to promote them despite failing grades or test scores (“social promotion”) is a good example. We have evidence — from educational research, even! — that in the US, the proportion of kids who are below grade relative to what you’d expect based on their age has increased over time, that retention is more likely among boys than girls (hypothesis 1: boys are more likely to have attention issues that affect their academic performance; hypothesis 2: boys are more likely to be held back by parents for the advantages that age, size, and coordination confer in sports and socially), that grade retention is more prevalent among the poor and students of color, and that some states and local districts are more likely to socially promote than others.

We don’t know, however, whether kids who are falling behind academically are better off if they are retained or if they are socially promoted. Or, less crudely, we don’t know which outcomes respond better to retention and which to social promotion, nor do we know which types of kids benefit from grade retention and which from social promotion.

Why? Because these questions can’t be answered with observational (survey) data; and randomized research designs (i.e., randomly assign “failing” students to either social promotion or grade retention, track their progress) are expensive and politically infeasible. So, we get research that is less than definitive, and educational practices that are based on local fashion, current fads, and what parents and school boards “know” is best for their kids (even if the next district over “knows” the other practice is better). But a blanket condemnation of educational research is a bit like blaming medical researchers for not knowing how to treat diseases that may (or may not) respond to stem cells.

@42 and others. If the race questions are at the back of the test, response rates go down (and nonresponse isn’t random). If teachers fill out the race questions, you’re getting information on how others classify the student, not on how the student sees him or herself, and the correlation between other-reported and self-reported race isn’t as high as you’d think. Ironically, the lefty recognition of this distinction could be behind CAs threat-inducing test design.

47

Salient 01.09.12 at 3:54 pm

If the race questions are at the back of the test, response rates go down (and nonresponse isn’t random).

…and after a couple years of testing proctors’ response to this phenomenon will be to emphatically remind everyone to fill in their race at the end of the test, defeating the purpose. The only thing I can remember about the testing inflicted on me in elementary school is that we absolutely, absolutely, absolutely had to both bubble in and print our full name in the space provided for that purpose. Both. You have to do both. Or else, some unspecified catastrophe will occur. I don’t even remember which subjects they were testing us on.

48

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 6:00 pm

@Tomas: I’m not sure what forms you’re talking about, but fwiw, there are a lot of situations (job applications, school stuff, health stuff) where demographic data gets collected to see how we’re doing on equality. I *suspect* the reason we go this passive route (collecting data after the fact) is that more active and probably useful approaches (explicitly inviting applications from members of marginalized groups) are Highly Controversial when they’re not outright illegal.

Don’t know if that answers your question, though.

49

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 6:03 pm

If the race questions are at the back of the test, response rates go down (and nonresponse isn’t random). If teachers fill out the race questions, you’re getting information on how others classify the student, not on how the student sees him or herself, and the correlation between other-reported and self-reported race isn’t as high as you’d think. Ironically, the lefty recognition of this distinction could be behind CAs threat-inducing test design.

Ah, yes, this is a good point. Still, you could direct the teachers to ensure that the students fill out *all* the identifying information–name, etc–*after* the test is finished. On a different page, even, to make sure that they aren’t squeezing in one last bubble or two instead. Or they could fill it out at, say, the beginning of the year with other random crap and it could be put away for the teacher to append to the test later or something.

50

Tedra Osell 01.09.12 at 6:07 pm

Oh and in re. retention of boys–my experience is that teachers, especially at “high performing” schools, explicitly recommend to parents that they retain boys from, say, K-1st grade. I was asked to retain PK because he wasn’t actually reading on his own yet before first grade started (cue enormous eyeroll). The real reason for this is that retaining boys boosts test scores in the early grades and its easier to have very young children do a lot of sitting and “doing their work” if the boys are about a year older than the girls; for high performance schools especially, this is probably one of the very few ways to ensure that their already high test scores improve every year, as mandated by law. It’s such a common practice that it has a name: “red shirting.”

Obviously I refused to redshirt PK, who was right on the cusp of moving from sounding easy words out to actually starting to read. By the end of the year he was the best reader in class.

51

djr 01.09.12 at 8:45 pm

If teachers fill out the race questions, you’re getting information on how others classify the student, not on how the student sees him or herself

Given the goal of collecting the data, knowing how the teacher classifies the student might be (more?) relevant.

52

between4walls 01.09.12 at 9:52 pm

@djr- In addition to the annoyance to the student caused by being wrongly classified by the teacher, there’s plenty of ways the teacher’s classification could make the data less relevant. For example, say you wanted to evaluate the English skills of Hispanic students vs. other students, and you have a kid (as our class did) who has a non-Spanish last name, but is in fact from a Latin American family and speaks Spanish at home. If the teacher classifies them as not being Hispanic, based on their assumptions, that could make the data less useful.

53

between4walls 01.09.12 at 9:53 pm

@djr- sorry, typo, that would be “say you wanted to evaluate the Spanish skills…”

54

Sebastian 01.10.12 at 1:24 am

“I remember that it was broadly agreed that US public education was a disastrous failure despite the fact that, in CA at least, we had excellent public schools in the 60s and 70s. But then we had Prop 13, and tax revolts, and the beginning of the backlash against public spending that we are still dealing with today.”

We still have lots of excellent public schools in CA, just like in the 60s and 70s. We just still have lots of super crappy ones just like in the 60s and 70s. Average non–immigrant scores have been up, immigrant scores have held steady. Real (inflation adjusted) spending per pupil is WAAAYY up since then. The idea that prop 13 ruined the schools in CA is a complete myth.

The problem is that we have very uneven levels of schooling in CA, and one would have expected that the decades of work to equalize the spending across districts would have helped that. But apparently it didn’t.

55

Peter T 01.10.12 at 4:55 am

Lest I be accused of endorsing Rich’s views, my example was meant to illustrate the extreme difficulty of translating even proved good practice into widespread use. the tangle of public and political prejudices, administrative indifference, ignorance and competing issues makes it almost impossible. There are other similar fields – in my experience, most criminology is wasted, even though much is good and (where it is used) produces better results.

56

lurker 01.10.12 at 6:04 am

Does anyone else think that the racial aspect of this sort of obscures the maybe even more depressing (and depressingly common) thing that here is an environment where someone’s razzle dazzle holistic learning strategy is to make a worksheet where objects from the social studies script are robotically mashed into the math script? At least the kids will learn something about racial politics from this awful class.

57

zrichellez 01.10.12 at 5:09 pm

The California STAR test collects many data points of student personal information.(see http://star.cde.ca.gov/star2011/aboutSTAR_subgroups.aspx)
In addition to race, it categorizes children by parental education level, economic status, special program participation (i.e. migrant education, GATE, etc), ethnicity for economically disadvantaged, and more. I pinged one of my PK’s teachers about the STAR form regarding who fills out/provides this information- teachers?, students?, the school? The response was:
“All that information is pre-printed on each student’s answer document. It’s in a barcode type of format that will be scanned by the computers. The students do not fill any of that information out themselves.”
It would seem to me that if parent education could be in the bar code, so could race. The purpose of children starting in grade 3 self identifying is not clear to me. If you really wanted interesting information of how they see themselves, include categories like Parolee, Manny Ramirez, Jedi Knight, James Bond, or Wayne Gretzky.
Further to your point of should race matter. Go to great schools dot org and start looking at test scores cross referenced with ethnicity. And then with percentage participation in Free lunch (a poverty indicator) and you will see race shouldn’t matter but it does. To be further depressed in LA, overlay a crime map to school districts test results. Do these kids really have a chance for a better life? Maybe but it doesn’t look like an equal chance. To anyone New to California, Proposition 13 is insane. It must be repealed. Now. Add to your matrix property values. Its a very sad sad picture.

58

Stuart Buck 01.12.12 at 2:45 am

Elsewhere, I see that “the two teachers who wrote the questions were trying to create a cross-curricular assignment, mixing social studies with math.”

Apparently these kids had just got done discussing slavery in social studies, and then had math word problems that incorporated the same concepts. Very dubious, but it doesn’t seem quite as weird as if a math teacher just started writing word problems about slavery, a propos of nothing.

59

Stuart Buck 01.12.12 at 3:12 am

Also, Belle at 30, I take your point, but it might not apply here. We know that the principal and at least one of the teachers involved are Hispanic. Beaver Ridge Elementary School is a very poor minority school (87% of the students are poor, 24% of them are black, and 62% are Hispanic). This is not the sort of school where one would typically find that all or most of the teachers were white.

That doesn’t make it a good math problem at all, but so far the details don’t seem to fit the storyline of “racist white math teachers brought up slavery just to be mean.”

60

purple 01.12.12 at 4:02 am

Education is a political battlefield; since we have awful politics in the U.S. then we can be assured of an awful education system. When you have philistines like Bill Gates shaping policy then you can pretty much forget about anything but a narrow technical focus.

61

YarEd 01.12.12 at 3:24 pm

Some years ago the Canadian federal prisons used a skills test that had a section on similes. It included this one:

Mare is to colt as squaw is to:

A….
B…
C. Papoose
D….

Given the large number of aboriginal Canadians in the prison system you would think this would have been immediately removed. But no, I couldn’t convince the bureaucrats involved that this could have any impact on anyone.

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