January 5, 2007

Mission Creep

The San Diego Union Tribune reports on a new private school opening its doors:

A private school planning to open this fall is centered around three tenets: academic excellence, global engagement and ethical responsibility.

Stick to "academic excellence," the other two aren't your job and you'll have a difficult enough job keeping your eye on the academic excellence ball.

The nonprofit Pacific Ridge School for seventh-through 12th-graders expects to charge an annual tuition of $19,000 and feature class sizes of 15 students.

Zoinks. That's obscene. It doesn't take $19k to educate a middle school or high school kid.

“We want to give kids a thoughtful education. We want them focused on big ideas and why their education is important, and not just on their grades, the SAT and what college they're going to get into.”

I just love meaningless education blather. How about some specifics.

Plans call for students to learn around oval seminar tables with their teacher, instead of in rows of desks that face the front of the room. Mullady said this setup demands participation every day.

“Everyone has a front-row seat,” she said. “This is a model that's prevalent in boarding schools and in East Coast independent schools. It develops critical thinking. It develops sophisticated participation and discussion. In most high schools in America kids can go through four years without ever being called on to speak.”

That's the ticket. Oval seminar tables. Order up a few million for our schools and our education woes will be solved. There's not a whole lot of "sophisticated participation and discussion" going on in K-12; the kids don't have enough background or domain knowledge to offer much more than blank stares most of the time. They are, by definition, novices -- they don't know anything. They need to be taught. Having bullshit sessions around oval conference tables is not a good means to that end.

The lessons in each subject will be interwoven. For example, if students are studying the European Middle Ages in history, they are reading Chaucer's “Canterbury Tales” in English and studying why half of Europe was wiped out by the plague in science, Mullady said.

“And in Spanish class instead of talking about what to order in a cafe, which, let's face it, doesn't stick with anyone, you're learning the vocabulary and ideas of what you're studying in those other classes,” she said.

I'm all for interweaving English and history classes. Trouble starts when you start trying to interweave math and science into the tapestry. There's too much to algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, biology, and physics to learn to be playing these games.

And, let me tell you, if you can't get "order[ing] in a cafe" to stick when teaching a foreign language, you're not going to get "the vocabulary" to stick either. They are two peas in the same pod.

For the high school years, school organizers hope to galvanize students to think globally. The educational program will involve a school trip to China during the freshman year, followed by a trip of each student's choice to another country before graduation.

So, "thinking globally" means lots of exotic field trips. Oh, brother. Why not just say, we're going to take a lot of fun (to teachers, boring to students) field trips. But, I suppose it's easier to justify the $19k in tuition if you sell it with lofty rhetoric.


Anonymous said...

"Oval seminar tables."

Harkness Tables.

I hope to get a post up on KTM about these things, especially for math. They started at Phillips-Exeter Academy in 1930 based on a monetary gift by Edward Harkness.

The concept is reaching critical mass. It's the new "thing".

Harkness described it like this:

"What I have in mind is [a classroom] where [students] could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where [each student] would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods."

Could be good? the devil is in the details.

High school? Maybe, but not for my son.

K-8? The new, improved face of discovery.

Math? Why force a square peg into an oval hole, unless the pedagogy is more important than the content.

We have an expensive private school in our area that now trumpets Harkness Tables and Laptop Learning. Oval tables with laptops all around. IM anyone?

Anonymous said...

Of course with a tuition that high, the students are bound to be high SES, and I would imagine there will probably also be a test to pass to further gain entrance.

With high IQ, high SES students the school could probably do nothing more than give the students the textbooks and they would probably teach themselves.

Just as gifted education relies on its students to make it look worthwhile, this school is doing nothing more than selecting the cream of the crop, throwing in the usual eduliberal ideas (small class size, field trips, and I imagine lots of multidicipline school projects that combine subjects like calculus and sculpting) then sitting back and enjoying the kudos that come when smart students do well.

Instructivist said...

That's creepy!

Anonymous said...

I sent a slew of comments yesterday when the comments were not working.. good thing.. I used my real identity and then got the heebeegeebees.. after all..I want to ask some tough questions.

So- I will repeat what I asked yesterday.
Give me some clues. I am in a high poverty 80% Free and Reduced Lunch School, 99% African American Minority Population..

I face the issue of Vocabulary every day. In fact I paid a consultant to evaluate the issues with SFA and she said " Language".. they do not have fully developed language skills so they need to go way back.. she said way back means going outside and looking at leaves and saying " this is a leaf"

I have a group of 4th and 5th that can't write complete sentences.. again she said " language"... "vocabulary"..

I need suggestions. I know what the problem is.. but what can you suggest about an approach that does not throw the baby out with the bath water and toss out SFA- but address the issues that 40 first graders did not know letter names or sounds.. and 50 forth graders can't write a complete sentence.. and by the way... we are a superior school.. we make our AYP every year...

Anonymous said...

Second: SFA- I want some findings in the exact same situation vs..DI.. poor minority kids.. does DI do a better job with the low of the low.. the ones with no phonemic awareness....we tried it in several small pullouts last year and it did not do sqaut to raise comprehension...

KDeRosa said...

Hi Anon:

Your comments from the other day are still available in the haloscan system, I can pull them back if you want. Here was my response:

Bad news. I'm not a teacher; however, I have read quite a bit about teaching children, especially low-performers. For what that's worth. Plus a lot of educators read this blog, so maybe they'll chime in.

Re dyslexia: Take a look at these two articles. It seems that the conventional wisdom among educators who are successful teaching lower-performing kids is that dyslexia is not the culprit behind many kids who show dyslexic-like symptoms.

Re SFA: I'm not that familiar with the nuts and bolts of SFA, but I do know that it is not that successful with the lowest of the lower performers like you have. You're better off using a better reading program like Reading Mastery.

Re teaching vocabulary: I don'thave an answer for you here. Vocabulary acquisition in low performers is THE problem behind their lack of learning. I'm still looking for an answer myself. I have heard good things about Reading Mastery Plus which has a built in language component, but I don't know how effective it is with the actual vocabulary acquisition issue.

The problem is that the acquisition of vocabilary cannot be accelerated very easily and these kids are slow learners.

DI is effective but you have to do it right. You have to teach all kids to mastery in very small (6-8 students) homogeneous groups. And, you need to use the language program as well as the reading program.

Joanne Jacobs said...

No wonder it costs $19,000 a year. Those tables are expensive!

Here's betting that in a few years the school will sell itself to parents based on the number of seniors who get in to Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech and Ivy League schools.

On the vocabulary issue, I think E.D. Hirsch argues in his new book that teaching content knowledge is a more efficient way to teach vocabulary than having students learn a list of words each week.

The charter high school I write about in "Our School" spends a lot of time teaching vocabulary to its students, most of whom speak English as a second language, so they can build reading comprehension. Entering ninth graders average a fifth- or sixth-grade reading level.