Snuffing out math talent

December 6, 2007

Could I cover one block of math? Family emergency, the teacher had to go, math practice assignment was all duplicated, I didn’t have a class at that time . . .


It was a class for kids generally not on the college-bound track, certainly not on the mathematics-intensive path. In a couple of minutes three kids told me they were there because they failed the state math test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). We got into the exercise and found it featured a whole bunch of algebraic equations that would tax my memory of the rules quite well.

As I was struggling to remember how to divide and multiply exponents in fractional forms, 15 minutes into the class a woman handed in the assignment. More than 30 equations done, each one I spot checked done correctly, all the work shown — even beautifully legible handwriting.

“You have a real facility for math,” I said. “Why are you here and not in the calculus-bound class?”

She said she had failed the TAKS math portion. I told her I found that highly unlikely.

“I can’t do story problems,” she said. “I can’t figure out how they should go.”

So here was a mathematics savant, relegated to remedial math because of a difficulty translating prose into equation.

In the old days, we’d take a kid like that, let her run as far and as fast as possible in what she was good at (higher abstract mathematics concepts), and work with her on the story problem thingy. If she’s stuck where she doesn’t learn new concepts, she probably won’t make “adequate yearly progress,” either. We have taken a kid with great math talent, and turned her into a statistic of failure.

It was a flawed sample, of course. 30 kids, one savant, three others not quite as fast but with roughly the same problem: Math is easy for them, prose is not easy, especially when it has to be translated into equations. 4/30 is 13%. Do we have that many mathematically capable kids who we flunk and put into remedial math — 13% of the total?

One way to make sure no child is left behind is to stop the train completely. If the train does not move, no one gets left behind.

No mail gets delivered, no milk gets delivered, people can’t go to far off places to study, or to sell. But nobody gets “left behind.”

Did I mention that the Texas Education Agency fired their science curriculum person in direct violation of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution? Is there a correlation there?

New assessment tool for teachers: Blowhard

June 27, 2007

Read about it here; slick as a whistle, if you ask me.

How it’s done right

June 1, 2007

If I need a lift, I go here. It’s how school should be — probably all the way through.

I don’t know the details of how or why this class is set up the way it is, but day after day they do things that other people use as textbook examples of what a good classroom ought to be doing, sometimes. And they do it day, after day, after day.

Carnival of Education, are you paying attention?


I wager right now that these kids will be the top performers on the standardized tests for at least the next five years, in their classrooms and schools. The Living Classroom weblog is a valuable chronicle for how to provide quality education.

Somebody should step up with the money to track how these kids do, especially against their contemporaries. Alas, this is exactly the sort of information that will be lost, due to “lack of funding.” Fortunately, one of the women involved in the classroom made the chronicles, and shared them.

Side note: Looking at the photos, ask yourself, “Does our town offer these types of recreational facilities for use?” Washington has traditionally led the nation in setting aside land for public recreational use — this class has taken full advantage of being in a town that had the foresight to put up public art and public beaches, and other public parks and places. There is a lesson here for city planners, and for mayors and city councils who wonder how they might support their schools, run by other governmental entities.

Dandelion, class activitiy for The Living Classroom

Inherent evils of public education

May 11, 2007

Public schools have serious problems.  Regular readers here should know me as a defender of public education, especially in the Thomas Jefferson/James Madison model of a foundation stone for a free people and essential tool for good government in a democratic republic.

Can you take another view?  Here’s one that should offer serious material for thought:  How the Public School System Crushes Souls.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pick the Brain.

Olla podrida — a Mulligan stew of issues deserving a look

April 15, 2007

Where do Ed Brayton and P. Z. Myers find the time to blog so much?

Here are some things that deserve consideration, that I’ve not had time to consider.

Dallas is only #2 on the national allergy list#1 is Tulsa.   This is a ranking one wishes to lose.

The Texas Senate passed a bill to change the current state-mandated test for high school students. Tests are not a panacea, and the current structure seems to be doing more damage than good, in dropout rates, and especially in learning.  What will take the place of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)?  No one knows, yet.  Much work to do — but there is widespread understanding that TAKS is not doing much of what was hoped.

Incentive pay for teachers:  Despite a cantakerous and troubled roll-out in Houston’s schools, and despite widespread discontent with the execution of incentive pay programs that appear to miss their targets of rewarding good teachers who teach their students will, Texas has identified 1,132 schools in the state that are eligible for the next phase of the $100 million teacher incentive program.   Some administrators think that, no matter how a program misfires, they can’t change it once they’ve started it.  ‘Stay the course, no matter the damage,’ seems to be the battle cry.  (And you wondered where Bush got the idea?)

Saving historic trains:  History and train advocates saved the Texas State Railroad earlier this year; now they want $12 million to upgrade the engines, cars and tracks, to make the thing a more valuable tourist attraction and history classroom.  Texas has spent a decade abusing and underfunding its once-outstanding state park system.  Citizens are fighting back.

Maybe you know more?

Test-driven? Or character-driven?

March 19, 2007

If you have anything to do with education, especially primary and secondary education, or the testing required by modern ideas of what education should be and the “No Child Left Behind” Act, go read this column by Colman McCarthy:

Test-Driven Teaching Isn’t Character-Driven
No Child Left Untested is politicians’ answer to better education. What about better people?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Is There Life After Breakfast?

District goofs, asks teachers to return “incentive” pay

March 10, 2007

That the program was not well thought out, untimely, and poorly understood, almost guaranteed that the Houston Independent School District’s ballyhooed incentive pay plan would get jeers.

But it gets worse. The District programmed the formula incorrectly. It has asked about a hundred teachers to return as much as $2,790, each. Could you make this stuff up?

Motivation? That’s not a game many educational institutions seem to know much about.

Utah’s legislature boosts education across the board

February 27, 2007

Gifted with a surplus of funds due to a good economy, the Utah legislature hiked education spending in almost every category, providing pay increases for teachers, more teachers, more schools, more books, more computers — adding more than $450 million, raising the total state education check to $2.6 billion for elementary and secondary schools.

Much of the increases will be consumed by rising enrollments.

Through much of the 20th century Utah led the nation in educational attainment, but fell in state rankings as population growth accelerated especially through the 1980s and 1990s. The Salt Lake Tribune’s story sardonically noted:

The budget package increases per-pupil spending by more than 8 percent. But because other states may also boost school funds this year, fiscal analysts can’t yet say whether the new money will move Utah out of last place in the nation in money spent per student.

Classroom size reduction is excluded from the increases, because the legislature thinks earlier appropriations for that purpose were misused, according to the Associated Press story in the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune:

The extra $450 million will have little effect on reducing classroom size, however, because even as Utah hires more teachers, every year brings more students.

Lawmakers said they were withholding money for reducing classroom sizes until legislative auditors can investigate reports that districts misappropriated some of the $800 million dedicated for that purpose since 1992.

Every teacher and librarian should get a $2,500 pay raise and a $1,000, one-time “thank-you” bonus. Starting pay for teachers in Utah averages barely over $26,000 now.

Read the rest of this entry »

If California can’t pass a ban on spanking . . .

February 23, 2007

. . . what are the chances Texas would ban corporal punishment in schools?

The Washington Post reports a California lawmaker abandoned her efforts to get a ban on spanking (by anyone, not just teachers), after rather massive opposition developed. She had never introduced the bill.

Instead, San Francisco Bay area Assemblywoman Sally Lieber introduced a more narrow bill on Thursday she said would help district attorneys more easily prosecute parents who cross the line from punishment into physical abuse.

Lieber is seeking to classify a laundry list of physical acts against young children, including hitting with a belt, switch or stick, as unjustifiable and grounds for prosecution, probation or a parental time-out _ a class on nonviolent parenting.

The Texas bill banning corporal punishment in schools is still seriously dead.

Teacher incentives demotivate Houston teachers

January 26, 2007

Advocates of using pay to improve teacher performance grow excited over the addition of federal money to supplement local district pay incentives. But maybe they shouldn’t.

Contrary to other provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), there is little research to demonstrate that paying a few teachers more will improve student performance. Cheapskates looking for quick solutions advocate pay incentives, though, and some districts have plunged headlong.

Houston is reaping the whirlwind at the moment. Incentive pay went out earlier this week, and disparities showed up immediately.

The Houston Chronicle’s columnist Rick Casey very briefly explains in today’s edition:

It would be appropriate, in a way, for Houston teachers who are upset that they didn’t get bonuses to protest by calling in sick.

Or by stamping their feet and crying.

Or by holding their breath until they turn blue.

It would be appropriate, in a way, because it would be an immature response to an immature accountability system.

I’m not being snide about HISD’s bonus formula, despite some of the anomalies that have been identified, including no bonus for a teacher whose entire class passed the TAKS test nor for a teacher who had been recognized as bilingual teacher of the year.

There are several articles available on the payout, the way the plan is structured, and the problems. I understand the Houston Chronicle also has a web site featuring details of the payouts, including teachers by name, and amounts paid.

This is a great de-motivator. Who thought this through? No one.

Other sources:

We don’t need another heroic teacher

January 19, 2007

Freedom Writers arrives at local movie screens this weekend, putting another hero teacher out there as a model, teaching us all that even poor, tough kids from troubled schools can achieve great things, if only someone will take the time to get through to them some important lessons about life.

Frankly my dear, we don’t need another hero teacher.

But I’m not the first to think that. Bronx 10th-grade history teacher Tom Moore wrote an opposite-editorial page piece published today in the New York Times — Friday, January 19, 2007 (free subscription required, and free probably only for a week).

He writes:

While no one believes that hospitals are really like “ER” or that doctors are anything like “House,” no one blames doctors for the failure of the health care system. From No Child Left Behind to City Hall, teachers are accused of being incompetent and underqualified, while their appeals for better and safer workplaces are systematically ignored.

Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.

He’s right. Go read it. (Still working out solutions for middle schools . . . perhaps this weekend.)

Tip of the old scrub brush to reader R. Becker.

Freedom Writers Foundation home page here.

Carnival of Education 101

January 12, 2007

Postcard of Little Rock's Central High School

Little Rock’s Central High School, portrayed in a postcard (courtesy of Curt Teich Postcard Archives and the University of Arkansas Libraries)

Just a postcard to remind you that the 101st Carnival of Education is up over at I Thought a Think. There is a new Congress; many state legislatures are gearing up. It’s a good time to discuss education policy. Perhaps more to the point, if we don’t contribute to the discussion now, policy changes will go on without our contribution. Read the posts, and take action.

A century of the Carnival of Education

January 4, 2007

Not in years — but the 100th Carnival of Education is up over at Teaching in the Twenty-first Century.

What is that in scientific notation? In binary?

Howard School, Oregon - photo by Bruce Johnson

  • The Howard School, a one-room schoolhouse in Oregon’s Ochocos Mountains area, about 30 miles east of Prineville, Oregon. The school appears to be abandoned, an Oregon Ghost. Photo by Bruce Johnson, who holds the copyright. Used by permission. (More great photos of Oregon available at

Sad sign of schools in trouble: No recess

January 2, 2007

Here’s one indicator that testing has gone way too far and is damaging children rather than improving their education: A bill in the Texas House of Representatives requires school districts to consider recess.

Like Dave Barry, we can’t make this stuff up. Rep. Mike Villareal, who represents part of Bexar County in District 123 (near San Antonio) has a bill in the hopper, H. B. 366, which requires districts to have advisory groups to stress the value of recess. (Text of the bill is below the fold.)

Would schools be so crazy as to cancel recess? Yes, that’s been our experience. Cancelling recess gives an elementary school an extra 30 minutes of class time every day. So, to impress administrators somewhere, some schools cancel recess. Despite studies showing that recess boosts learning and test scores, schools are cancelling recess.

Nuts. (Quick, what battle is that from?)

Read the rest of this entry »

Proposed end to corporal punishment in Texas

January 1, 2007

Last August I noted in this column the Dallas Morning News story about Everman, Texas, where the local school district not only allows paddling — corporal punishment — but appears to endorse it as a key part of education.

Now comes a new legislature, and Texas State Rep. Alma Allen has filed a bill to ban corporal punishment, H. B. 379. To assuage those who argue that corporal punishment is necessary to maintain classroom discipline, the bill authorizes teachers and other school employees to use physical restraint to protect students from injury, and to get contraband.

Of course, this is the similar to the bill Dr. Allen introduced in the last session. It went nowhere, and without a dramatic change in tone in the state, this bill is likely to die in committee, too. But watch that space anyway.

Allen is a life-long educator representing District 131 in Houston. She holds an M.Ed from Texas Southern, and a D.Ed. from Houston. She retired as an administrator in the Houston Independent School District.

The full text of the bill is below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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