Friday, November 21, 2008

Beauty Is Truth In Mathematical Intuition: First Empirical Evidence

Okay, this is just too cool.
[Scientists] have reported first empirical evidence for the use of beauty as truth and they have provided an explanation for this phenomenon, based on the processing fluency theory of beauty.

The Ethics of the Pedagogy / Social Policy Split

Is it ethical for national education organizations to focus on improving pedagogy and not on basic social and material inequalities that impact on learning?

For an example, I've looked to the The International Reading Association (IRA), but almost any education association would do.

From their website:
The International Reading Association (IRA) is a professional membership organization that promotes high levels of literacy for all by improving the quality of reading instruction, disseminating research and information about reading, and encouraging a lifetime reading habit.
If my earlier post about the vision difficulties of children is correct, then it would seem impossible to improve literacy for many kids without first dealing systematically with that pre-pedagogical challenge. In other words, the IRA's "mission" cannot be achieved unless we look beyond pedagogy. But they have explicitly limited their mission to efforts focused on pedagogy.

Some other examples from its website which I do not have time to look at more systematically.

See this brochure: The Role of Reading Instruction in Addressing the Overrepresentation of Minority Children in Special Education in the United States. As the title indicates, the brochure focuses only on instruction. There is no mention of any other issues. And none of the recommendations in the brochure point to anything other than pedagogy.

That brochure at least limits itself to pedagogy in its title. This one, Supporting Young Adolescents’ Literacy Learning, does not. Yet it looks only at instruction and says nothing about something as basic as vision care while at least seeming to give an overview of what is necessary to support "literacy learning" in general.

In this case, especially, is there a danger that people reading the brochure will assume that the problem really is all about pedagogy? Is there a danger that a brochure like this might actually have negative impacts on fights to improve literacy by pointing us away from basic issues like vision?

So, back to my question.

Is it ethical for national organizations like this that have at least some influence to limit themselves to pedagogy when, in many cases, there is substantial evidence that pedagogy may not be the core problem for many students?

And if there are at least legitimate questions about whether this stance is ethical, where can we draw a reasonable line where their responsibility to raise issues stops? Vision care seems obvious (that's why I picked it) but supporting an increased Earned Income Tax Credit for poor families (which might make a real difference) seems to go way too far afield, at least to me. (Or does it?)

This may seem like a pretty abstract "academic" question, but I think it's actually quite important. To the extent that there is movement towards an acknowledgement that schooling mostly can't be solved by dealing with schooling, where does that leave groups whose focus has only been on schools?

(Feel free to correct me about my understanding of the IRA's position--it's just an example.)

(oops--IRA not NRA. Fixed.)

On schools, there are no quick fixes

crossposted from Daily Kos

Whether a school is small or large, the essential questions in education cannot be ignored: What should students learn? How should they be taught? Are classes too large, especially for struggling students? Are teachers well-prepared in the subjects they teach? Do teachers have the resources they need? Do students arrive in school ready to learn? Until we answer these questions, the size of schools is not a relevant issue.

Forbes Magazine may not be on the regular reading list of most people here. It is certainly not on mine. And it is not where I would expect to find an insightful piece on education. And yet, the quote I have just offered, which contains the essential questions we should be asking about education, appeared there, in a piece entitled Bill Gates and His Silver Bullet. In it, Diane Ravitch explores the results of the Gates-funded initiative on small schools and finds it wanting. Because, as the piece is subtitled, On schools, there are no quick fixes.

Ravitch begins by reminding us that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started its endeavor back in 2000. It wanted to take our large high schools and break them up into small learning communities of 400 or fewer, in the belief that
its new small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because of the close relationships between students and teachers.
Gates argued to the National Governors Association that our high schools were obsolete and at the World Economic Forum in Davos that
the key to the success of the small schools created by his foundation was that they made everything "relevant," through hands-on activities and familiar topics.
The foundation poured several billion into the effort, and superintendents jumped on the bandwagon for the money, with new small schools being formed in cities across the country.

But the results have not been as Gates predicted. There are several thousand Gates-sponsored small high schools, more than 200 in New York City alone, many focused on particular themes: "leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice. " And yet,
On Nov. 11, the Gates Foundation convened a meeting of leading figures in American education to admit candidly that the new small high schools had not fulfilled their promise. The foundation acknowledged that "we have not seen dramatic improvements in the number of students who leave high school adequately prepared to enroll in and complete a two- or four-year postsecondary degree or credential."

Ravitch describes research funded by the Gates foundation which in 2005 reported that students in traditional schools were better learning mathematics than in the Gates small schools, and additional research the following year that showed students in the Gates funded small learning communities
had "higher attendance rates but lower test scores" than other high schools within the same school districts in both reading and mathematics.
She credits the foundation for its honest self-scrutiny, noting that many advocates of educational reform unfortunately
defend their ideas against all critics, regardless of what evaluations show.

And yet Gates is still making claims for his efforts that are not supported by the data. He claims that in New York, at least his schools have improved graduation rates to 70% as compared to the city wide average of 50%. Before going on, I would note that even 70%, were it a true improvement, is still nothing about which to brag. Unfortunately that figures is deceptive, because as Ravitch notes
hat the small schools in New York City were permitted to restrict the admission of English-language learners and disabled students, meaning that the large schools got a disproportionate share of students with high needs.
Further, some of the small schools funded by Gates were playing games through "credit recovery" which allowed students to get full credit for classes they may not have fully attended and/or by doing projects out of school. And even Bill Gates had to acknowledge that less than 40% of the graduates of his small schools were ready for classes at the City University of New York.

Perhaps it is unfair to heavily criticize the Gates-funded effort. Except some schools and districts are so desperate for additional funds that they will willingly jump on board any educational bandwagon for the additional funds, even for endeavors such as those supported by Gates that lack any demonstrable evidence that they will achieve their purported goals. I will return to some thought on this in a bit.

Ravitch is not opposed to small schools in every case, and offers examples of where they might be useful, especially for students who need intense remediation and lots of extra attention, although the smallness can come at a cost of the variety of electives and course offerings that many students associate with high school. And historically, one of the disadvantages of small schools was seen in rural areas which could not offer the same educational opportunities as big-city high schools. And, as Ravitch notes,
The press for small schools, now taken up by almost every big-city district, has diverted our attention from the need to strengthen curriculum and instruction, beginning in elementary schools.

There are many problems in how we have attempted to do educational reform in this country. We seem to want to find universal solutions. By now, we should be able to realize that our children are not all the same, which means we cannot attempt to educate them in one, standardized fashion, even within a single community. And certainly the needs of our communities can vary: our ethnic makeups, the socioeconomic status of the families, the relationships between school and community (which can be very different between rural and urban schools for example), the supportive structures in the community outside of the school, the percentage of English Language Learners, and so on.

On schools, there are no qick fixes. There is no one size fits all, in school models, in methods of instruction, in selection of curricular materils, in courses that should be required. Somehow many people in their eagerness to address the failings of our public schools - and I will acknowledge that there are many such failings - seem to be willing to totally ignore anything that might raise cautions about the approaches they wish to impose upon those of us attempting to make a difference in our public schools.

I applaud the willingness of people like Bill and Melinda Gates to put money into finding alternatives that can make difference. Here I largely agree with Ravitch, who concludes her piece as follows:
The good news is that the Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, has pledged to devote its attention to what happens in the classroom. The first thing it will learn is that there are no quick fixes. If it targets its dollars wisely, exercises a measure of humility, and continues to evaluate its efforts rigorously, it can make a positive difference.
There is an additional caution I would offer, both to those who would offer their funds and their support, and those inclined to accept such offerings. Be careful that you do not so narrow your focus to that which you passionately support and blind yourself to the realities of our schools and our students. For far too long our schools and students have suffered because of our insistence in imposing yet another vision of a magical solution. Even when we see something that is successful in one context does not mean it is replicable in another - too often we look only at part of the broad picture in which that success occurs, that is, if we are not so narrowly focused on what we consider success that we ignore the weaknesses of the model we wish to replicate.

Ultimately teaching is about relationships - between faculty and students, among the students (whose cooperation with one another should be encouraged since ultimately our learning should be applicable to the broader social context in which they should be applying what we teach them), and all with the curricular material. We may well need to try multiple approaches, and then be brutally honest in examining the results, which will not all be as salutary as we might hope for those approaches about which we feel positively passionate.

Our schools ARE in crisis in many ways. And here we might remember that the last time our nation faced a truly monumental economic crisis, in the 1930s, the administration of FDR tried many things in the hope that some would work. Perhaps we should acknowledge a similar need for addressing our current series of crises in our public schools - we will need to try many things to see what works, where, how, and why, and not be in too much of a hurry to declare that we have found the one magic solution that will solve all our problems.

So let me end as I began. Ravitch, who is an acquaintance and whom I consider a thoughtful critic and observer of education even when we disagree, has in the paragraph with which I began offered many critical questions we need to consider in any attempts we make at educational reform.

But in all we do, we need to remember what was the subtitle of her piece, and which I chose for the title of this:

On schools, there are no quick fixes.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

'Cascading Effect' Of Childhood Experiences May Explain Serious Teen Violence

Adverse experiences early in life can lead to minor childhood behavior problems, which can grow into serious acts of teen violence, according to new research. This "cascading effect" of repeated negative incidents and behaviors is the focus of an article in the journal Child Development. . . .

The researchers tracked 754 children from preschool through adulthood and documented that children who have social and academic problems in elementary school are more likely to have parents who withdraw from them over time. That opens the door for them to make friends with adolescents exhibiting deviant behaviors and, ultimately, leads them to engage in serious and sometimes costly acts of violence.

The developmental path toward violent outcomes was largely the same for boys and girls . . . .

Dodge and his colleagues in the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group also found that the cascade could be traced back to children born with biological risks or born into economically disadvantaged environments, both of which make consistent parenting a challenge. They determined biological risk by assessing the temperaments of the children in infancy, based on mothers' reports; those at risk were irritable, easily startled and difficult to calm. These children are more likely to exhibit minor social and cognitive problems upon entering school. From there, the behavior problems begin to "cascade," he said.

"The findings indicate that these trajectories are not inevitable, but can be deflected at each subsequent era in development, through interactions with peers, school, and parents along the way," said Dodge, who is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. "Successful early intervention could redirect paths of antisocial development to prevent serious violent behavior in adolescence," Dodge said.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A “Crisis Point” for Service Learning?

Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, blogged the other day about the recently released report “Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools” by the Corporation for National & Community Service. The report shows, among other things, the decline in the practice of service-learning in K-12 schools from 32% in 1999 to 24% today. Peter commented that:

It's my sense that the movement for service-learning has reached a crisis point. It isn't included in federal education law; it isn't a priority in an era of concern about reading and math; the federal funding has been cut (in real terms) since 2001; and the quality of programs is so uneven that outsiders could be reasonably skeptical about its value. On the other hand, the best programs are superb; they fit the outlook of the incoming administration; and there is strong support for service-learning in the Kennedy-Hatch Serve-America bill that both Senators McCain and Obama promised to sign. That bill would direct most resources to poor districts, which today are much less likely to offer service-learning. So we could be poised for improvements in quality, quantity, and equality. Or else service-learning could falter if Kennedy-Hatch isn't fully funded and the grassroots movement continues to shrink.

In one respect I think Peter is missing more prosaic reasons for the decline: NCLB pressures. It’s not just the focus on “reading and math.” Schools have curtailed and narrowed curricular offerings, focused on the so-called “bubble kids” who, if passing, help a school reach AYP, expanded test prep, and, especially in urban schools, fixated on instrumental models of teaching and learning that marginalize more wholistic notions of the educated child. In such an age of standardized accountability, of course service-learning offerings would be minimized and marginalized. And especially when a reform effort at the K-12 level is not rooted deeply, it becomes a casualty of another innovative pedagogical and curricular offering left behind in an age of all too many things left behind.

But what really caught my eye was Peter’s sense of a “crisis point.” I am much more in tune with service-learning in higher education, where service-learning is riding the wave of “engagement”: a scholarship of engagement; community engagement; civic engagement; pedagogies of engagement. Peter has his ear much closer to the ground of K-12 education, and if he feels this way, it says much about how a national movement (which is how I would describe the service-learning field) has been shunted, if not derailed, by the accountability and standards movement. Perhaps it is just his way to put pressure on stakeholders to prioritize the “Serve America” bill currently in Congress; or perhaps it is a simple descriptive detailing of the state of affairs in service-learning circles around K-12 education. If in fact it is the latter, then I can only point once again to the worry of any pedagogical innovation to the dust bin of “faddism” ($). The report, of course, points out the positives, especially the continued increase in “service” across K-12 education. But the decline of academic linkages bodes ill for “engagement” in higher education as accountability (through such testing as the Collegiate Learning Assessment) makes its way into the academy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

New student-led program aims at dropouts

Faced with nearly half of Chicago Public Schools freshmen dropping out before they graduate, education leaders plan to announce Thursday a student-led program to help struggling students at eight high schools.

The initiative is the brainchild of a group of students that looked at the problem during the last year and calls for setting up individual plans to keep students in school, setting up retreats to help them stay focused on graduating and having students review curriculum to make it more meaningful.

It comes after more than 52 Chicago high school students spent the last year surveying more than 1,325 students and hundreds of parents and teachers about the district's dropout problem.

The group found that students blamed themselves for dropping out of school. Nearly one-quarter said a lack of motivation or laziness by students was the main reason for the high dropout rate. Many others said teenage pregnancy was another issue.

But when pressed by the student researchers, the survey found that students said they were not being engaged or motivated by teachers or the curriculum. They also cited safety concerns, said Hennessy Williams, a Kenwood Academy junior who helped conduct the surveys.

"When you encourage somebody, they can go a long way. When we were doing our interviews that's what was mostly coming up --that they wanted some support," said Williams, 18.

Williams and the other students worked as part of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a coalition of youth leaders from community organizations and high schools throughout the city.

The program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the non-profit Communities for Public Education Reform, took students to districts in five other states. The high schools taking part in the test program are Dyett, Gage Park, Kelly, Kelvyn Park, Kenwood, Perspectives, Roosevelt and Senn.

Among the initiatives, the program asks schools to develop leadership teams made of students working with adults to offer student input on issues. They will conduct focus groups to review curriculum and textbooks to make them more relevant, officials said.

The schools will offer retreats three times a year to struggling freshmen who have been identified by teachers, principals or other students. Students will get one-on-one counseling from teachers, counselors and upperclassmen to help develop four-year plans with the goal of graduating high school.

Number of U.S. Hungry Kids Jumped 50% Last Year

Some 691,000 children went hungry in America sometime in 2007, while close to one in eight Americans struggled to feed themselves adequately even before this year’s sharp economic downturn, the Agriculture Department reported Monday.

The department’s annual report on food security showed that during 2007 the number of children who suffered a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat was more than double the 430,000 in 2006 and the largest figure since 716,000 in 1998.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Non-Election Edition: The Death of a School

Via Progressive Historians, "Open Campus"
Jane Cooper Elementary sits gutted in one of the worst parts of one of the most impoverished and dangerous cities in the richest nation in the world. In the late 1990s, Mayor Dennis Archer's office identified this neighborhood as having "more children, more people living in poverty, a greater proportion of high school dropouts, and a larger percentage of violent juvenile offenses than the city as a whole." Which, in Detroit, is saying quite a bit.