July 24, 2007

New lows reached

Here we go again:

Jonathan, 10, and Ankur, 11, were among about 85 students from Jefferson and surrounding counties who participated in this year's Pepsi Summer Portfolio Institute at the University of Louisville last week.

The institute, which began about 13 years ago, is a place where students entering grades four through eight and teachers of elementary through high school classes creatively combine math and writing skills, often using technology that would intimidate the average adult.

The tech might, but I bet the math won't. Assuming there is any math, which there probably isn't.

In other classrooms, students and teachers used graphing calculators to visualize what happens as they time a bouncing ball, employed animation programs and storyboards to create Claymation movies, and used computers to work out story maps before composing reflective writing assignments.

Chanel Acklin, 9, hasn't started fourth grade at Jeffersontown Elementary yet, but she already knows how to use PowerPoint because of the institute. Her group took up-close photographs of themselves, combined them in a slideshow and had other students guess which photo was of which student, she said.

"That was pretty fun, but using the calculators is pretty hard because sometimes I forget things," Chanel said. "I'm glad I can do this though, because I'm pretty nervous about fourth grade and maybe since I've done it a little now, it won't be so bad."

See? No math. Just graphic calculators. And, the kids can't remember enough math to use them properly.

July 23, 2007

The WaPo Editors are Idiots

In an editorial promoting the use of discrimination to achieve racial and socio-economic balancing in school districts the WaPo editorial board make the following highly irresponsible statement:

And the evidence is strong that low-income students thrive in higher-income schools -- in fact, after the socioeconomic status of a student's family, the biggest predictor of academic success is the socioeconomic level of the school. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress given to fourth-graders in math, low-income students attending more affluent schools scored 20 points higher -- the equivalent of almost two years' learning -- than low-income students in high-poverty schools. Low-income students in middle-class schools did better than middle-class students in high-poverty schools.

First, "thrive" is a poor choice of words. Low-income students do not thrive in higher-income schools. The fact is that they fail in unconscionably large numbers even in higher-income schools.

Second, there aren't enough higher-income schools to place all the poor kids into so that the "magic aura" of the rich kids can rub off on the poor kids and magically boost their performance.

And third, the classification of low -income for purposes of NAEP includes income levels up to something like $40,000 which includes kids who are decidedly not all that poor. The WaPo editors also don't seem to realize that the poor kids in the higher-income schools aren't as poor on average as the kids in the poor schools. It is this differential that is attributable the tiny 20 point difference the WaPo Editors allegedly found in 4th grade NAEP math scores.

It is this kind of misreading of data which leads to silly education policies like that propounded by the WaPo editors. It's not like we don't have decades of busing data showing that this kind of racial balancing doesn't lead to increased achievement.

July 18, 2007

A plan for failure

I'm sure the Civil Rights Coalition for the 21st Century means well, but the executive summary of their latest report, A Plan for Success: Communities of Color Define Policy Priorities for High School Reform (pdf), makes it clear that they don't know the first thing about education and why minority students underperform.

The report is long on lofty goals and short on credible ideas how to achieve those goals.

The coalition's main plan is -- wait for it -- that schools serving minority populations need more funding because they are underfunded.

Why are there such blatant inequities in the distribution of education opportunities in America? One key problem is that many high-poverty schools, which predominately serve students of color, lack the funding and resources of wealthier schools and districts. A recent report noted that in thirty-one of forty-nine states studied, school districts with the highest minority enrollments received fewer resources than districts with the lowest number of minorities enrolled (Carey 2004). Another study determined that in schools where at least 75 percent of the students were low-income, there were three times as many uncertified or out-of-field teachers teaching English and science than there were in wealthier schools (Wirt et al. 2004).

Last I checked, warmed-over Marxism does not have a long history of success, yet it always seems to get trotted out front and center by organizations like this. However, that's not the main fault of this suggestion. The main fault is that it is almost categorically untrue that schools that serve minority populations have less funding than the average school district. Schools that serve high minority populations are typically found in big cities and big city schools are some of the most well-funded schools in the state. About the only schools that are funded better than big city schools are schools in the wealthiest of suburbs. This is a red herring, because there is no correlation between instructional spending and student achievement. Here's a plot of those variables for Pennsylvania's 501 school districts.

Notice how R2 is 0.0101. That indicates that the correlation is random. The scatter plot shows that pretty clearly when instructional expenditures are between $4000 and $7000. Then we see a somewhat odd phenomenon when instructional expenditures are over $7000, representing funding at about the 95th percentile. At this high level of funding you see two distinct trends.

The first is an offshoot of highly funded schools that perform above the regression line. These are your wealthy suburban school districts. The second offshoot is the highly funded schools that perform below the regression line. These are your big city schools. Notice how increased funding has not resulted in superior academic performance for these schools at all.

Increased funding is not the answer to the woes of schools serving minority and low-income populations.

The report also suggests that academic achievement can be increased by attracting better teachers. That's problematic as well and I'll save that discussion for a future post.

The report also lists a bunch of vague bromides, lacking specifics and any indicia that enacting such bromides have been successful in the past. But that's pretty much it. More money and non-specific bromides are the answer to our education woes. Why do these organizations even bother?

July 17, 2007

The Freep doesn't get it

The Detroit Free Press has a typically silly editorial today on education and the plight of minorities who tend to drop out of school in disproportionate numbers.

If you could take a class photo of the 1.2 million young people who drop out of high school in this country each year, one detail would be obvious -- and troubling.

Students of color, usually poor, dominate. It's true in Detroit, where one recent report estimates that city schools graduate only 24.9 % of students who start 9th grade, and shows up in every major study of the dropout population. Failure to complete high school is an epidemic problem among poor minorities, the population that's most in need of education to escape poverty.

Actually, not completing high school is an epidemic problem among poor white students as well. More accurately not completing high school is a problem for all students who don't have the cognitive ability to master academic material on the K-12 level as it is currently taught, i.e., poorly.

The sad truth is that you have to be smart to do well enough academically to graduate high school. That's the way it's always been.

Brett over at DeHavilland Blog has an excellent post on Thomas Jefferson's views on education and his thoughts on student ability at the turn of the 19th century:

2) Every child is entitled to three years of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic.


5) Students at grammar schools study "Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic."

6) After a trial period of one or two years, the best student at each grammar school is selected for six years of further instruction. "By this means . . . the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go."

200 years ago, the state of education was such that only a tiny fraction of students (the geniuses) had the cognitive ability to acquire a high school by the then-current pedagogical means.

By and large pedagogical techniques haven't improved since then. You still need to be pretty smart to acquire the watered down academics that pass for a k-12 education today.

Education continues to be brutally discriminatory against the dumb.

If you want to increase the percentage of kids that graduate high school, the simple answer is to improve teaching. Such improvement requires innovation and that innovation is not forthcoming from today's education monopoly.

If the editors at the Detroit Free Press really cared about the educational plight of poor kids they'd be lobbying for better schools. Unfortunately, based on this editorial they don't even know what a good school is.

Nationally, minority students are four times as likely to be enrolled in one of the 2,000 high schools that have been identified as producing approximately half of the nation's dropouts, according to the Campaign's report, "A Plan for Success."

Anyone daring to dismiss this fact as just another minority problem isn't paying enough attention to the population trends. The minority students who are either dropping out of school or getting a grossly inequitable education are also the growing segments of the U.S. population.

The Detroit Free Press thinks that the problem is that the schools that minority kids are going to are worse than the schools that middle class kids go to. They aren't. Educationally, they are the same. The education provided at both schools is for all intents and purposes is the same. The problem is that a higher percentage of kids in the schools that minorities attend do not have the cognitive ability to take advantage of the poorly implemented education being offered.

The Detroit Free Press thinks that the tired bromides set forth in the Campaign for High School Equity's "A Plan for Success" are the answer. We'll take a look at them in the next post.

July 16, 2007

The Hungry Poor Kid Myth

Apologists for our poor education system are quick to find excuses for the system's poor performance. One of their favorite excuses, no doubt because it carries a powerful emotional appeal, is that poor student performance among the "poor" is due to hunger caused by lack of food.

That appeal is alluring to many, including most of the Democrats running for President in '08, who think that poverty in 2007 is like poverty back in Dickensonian times with hordes of malnourished children attending school (in between an hour of sleep and their sixteen hour workday as a chimney sweep or boot black).

But according to a new study/survey from the UK that excuse is two all-beef patties short of a Big Mac.

The Food Standards Agency found that contrary to popular belief, nutrition, access to food and cooking skills are not much different in poorer families.

Such a finding is apparently "surprising" to public health experts.

Public health experts said the results were surprising but showed everyone needed to eat a better diet.

There had been concern that diets among those on the lowest incomes were extremely poor and they faced more barriers to healthy eating.

Don't let the facts get in the way of your Marxist rhetoric.

Today, the "poor" eat like the rest of us, i.e., too much and not healthy enough.

But a survey of 3,500 people on low incomes found that the food they were eating, although not particularly healthy, was similar to the general population.

That means -- you guessed it -- the poor are turning into a bunch of fatties just like the rest of us.

Levels of obesity were found to be very high - 62% of men, 63% of women, 35% of
boys and 34% of girls were overweight or obese - but the FSA said this also
mirrors the high levels within the general UK population.

You might want to bookmark this study for the next time you read about how malnutrition is the cause of all our education woes.

Read It and Weep

The Weekly Standard has a very long and thorough article on teaching reading and Reading First that you need to read:

Whole language and other aspects of constructivist theory swept through the education schools, starting with the flagship Columbia Teachers College, where Dewey's progressive influence had never waned, where courses on reading pedagogy to this day concentrate on erecting a "theoretical framework" for instruction rather than teaching teachers what actually works in classrooms, and where the school's publishing affiliate, Teachers College Press, churns out dozens of constructivist treatises every year. Smith and Goodman crisscrossed the country on the ed-school lecture circuit, where they were welcomed with open arms and standing ovations by professors and students alike. Whole language clearly appealed because it allowed teachers to do essentially what they liked in their reading classes, and it relieved them of the arduous work of ensuring that their students had mastered specific literacy skills.

Good stuff.

July 15, 2007

Some Things Don't Change

It's good to see that the New York Times is still cranking out deeply flawed education articles. Today's flawed article is on the continuing discrimination by big city schools in the name of diversity. The Times is for diversity-based discrimination, so I wasn't exactly expecting a balanced article. I didn't get one. Today's article focuses on San Francisco's failed attempts at discriminating on the basis of race without making it look like they were discriminating on the basis of race in order to comply with the law.

The San Francisco experience is telling because after the recent United States Supreme Court decision restricting the use of race-based school assignment plans, many districts are expected to switch to economic integration plans like San Francisco’s as a legal way to seek diversity. As many as 40 districts around the country are already experimenting with such plans, according to an analysis by Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research group.

At one time in certain parts of the country, we had de jure segregation. There were actually laws in place that mandated racial segregation. That's real discrimination and the Brown line of Supreme Court decisions put an end to that. That was a good thing, but it did not end segregation because the various racial and ethnic groups had already segregated themselves voluntarily, i.e., lunch table segregation. This is de facto segregation, i.e., segregation in fact. The important distinct is that de facto segregation is voluntary; there are no laws requiring any sort of segregation. In the absence of discriminatory laws, society still voluntarily segregated itself.

This state of affairs was deemed unacceptable to the do-gooders who run the public schools who convinced themselves that in order to achieve their racial utopia it would be OK to discriminate on the basis of race. The result was busing. And in the ensuing 20 some odd years we found out first hand that it didn't work out too well. In fact, it failed miserably to achieve the educational advantages it was supposed to. Defense's exhibit one: NAEP. 35 years of flat scores.

Despite this history of failure, many big city school districts and the Times still think this brand of discrimination is desirable and would like to see it continued despite the Supreme Court's recent rulings which are slowly declaring the discriminatory practice unconstitutional. This Times story is a puff piece on how some school districts are creatively attempting to continue these discriminatory practices under a thinly-veiled disguise -- economic integration. Instead of condemning the unconstitutional practice, the Times laments the fact that the ruse isn't working in San Francisco.

Apparently, if you call it "diversity" discrimination is OK even when it continues to fail to achieve the desired outcome of improving educational achievement. Diversity becomes the goal, not improved education. The Times explains:

The purpose of such programs is twofold. Since income levels often correlate with race they can be an alternate and legal way to produce racial integration. They also promote achievement gains by putting poorer students in schools that are more likely to have experienced teachers and students with high aspirations, as well as a parent body that can afford to be more involved.

I suppose if the goal is to "promote achievement gains" the programs might be desirable. But, if the goal is to actually achieve achievement gains, the programs aren't working, shaky statistical shenanigans later in the story notwithstanding.

Putting poor students in schools with experienced teachers is not a guaranteed way to increase achievement. It depends on what those teachers are teaching.

Putting poor students in classes with "students with high aspirations" seems cruel to me since the poor students will likely not achieve as well as these brighter students. The message they get day in and day out is that they aren't as good as these high aspiring students.

And, last I checked putting poor kids into a school with "a parent body that can afford to be more involved" won't make a whit of difference if the poor kid's parents can't afford to be (or otherwise aren't) involved.

This is pretty shaky rhetoric by the Times. I suppose they thought the reader might see right through it, so they backed it up with an "expert" who was willing to lie for them.

“There is a large body of evidence going back several years,” Mr. Kahlenberg said, “that probably the most important thing you can do to raise the achievement of low-income students is to provide them with middle-class schools.”

No there isn't. There isn't a large body of evidence (not even a small body of evidence) that says anything of the sort. This is an outright lie.

The Times backs this up again with more shenanigans:

The achievement gains have been sharp, and school officials said economic integration was largely responsible. Only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight in Wake County, where Raleigh is located, scored at grade level on state reading tests in 1995. By the spring of 2006, 82 percent did.

I guess the Times forgets that between the years of 1995 and 2006 a little law called No Child Left Behind was passed that encouraged states to goose their tests to make it appear that students were achieving at higher levels in order to comply with the law.

I'm too lazy to check for myself on this Sunday morning, but I'll bet that student performance in North Carolina schools increased by a similar margin state-wide and failed to make the same gains in the NAEP.

The article goes on to describe some amusing ironies that these ham-fisted programs have wrought with the introduction of northeast Asian immigrants and how the populace does whatever it can to play along with the nonsensical rules. Apparently real people aren't quite as concerned about segregation as the Times thinks.

July 11, 2007

What I did on vacation

Everything but blogging, apparently.

Sorry for the unannounced, longer than expected hiatus. It wasn't really planned; it just kind of happened.

And, it really wasn't a vacation. Unless you count keeping up with education news as work, because I did take a vacation from that. It appears that I didn't miss much since this time of year tends to get a little slow, education-wise.

So what did I do?

A lot. Unfortunately most of it was mundane.

  1. I cleaned out my garage. This was a much-dreaded, but much-needed, undertaking. I don't have any before photos, but I'll post an after photo tomorrow. Or at least an almost-after photo since I'm not quite done.
  2. I finally finished labelling and terminating the almost 50 CAT-5e cables that run through my house. For you non-nerds, these cables are for Ethernet and phone service. I did this in preparation for ...
  3. I stuck it to the man, and switched to DSL. A bigger pain in the ass than it should have been, but I managed to cut my broadband bill in half and performance is about the same.
  4. I started beta-testing Windows Home Server. This required me to build a new computer, decommission a few old ones, cannibalize spare parts, juggle a dozen hard drives, and transfer a good 2 terabytes of data. Everything seems to be running smoothly now and I have a warm fuzzy feeling since all my household computers (five and counting!!) now get automatically backed-up every night and all my data files now have redundant storage. In addition, I can now access all my data from anywhere and can remotely control almost any computer in my house from anywhere I can get Internet access.
  5. I continued my never-ending project of logging and digitizing about 60 hours of home movies. I'm half-way done. Nothing like enduring hours of video shot by my wife of my kids when they were infants. It's for the greater good I suppose. In the end, I'm certain I can probably make an exciting 20 minute video out of all that footage.
  6. My cell phone finally gave up the ghost, so I bought a Treo and am learning how to use it.

Those were the big projects. I'll spare you the small ones. And, as you can see, most of the big projects aren't finished yet. They will be by the end of the summer. That's the goal. So, blogging may be a little lighter than usual until that time, but since I'm over the hump I think I'm now motivated to jump back in the blogging world.

I'll start off tomorrow by recounting my experience teaching my first grader (now a second grader) for the past 9 months.