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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why textbooks suck

I take as my starting point LIFE: The Science of Biology, since it is certainly the best textbook ever written.

LIFE has chapters that start with a question. This is very good. Here are some examples subchapter headings:

1.1 What is Biology?
1.2 How do biologists investigate life?
2.2 How do atoms bond to form molecules?
3.2 What are the chemical structures and functions of proteins?
4.5 How did eukaryotic cells originate?
7.1 How does glucose oxidation release chemical energy?
10.2 How do alleles interact?
12.4 How is RNA translated into proteins?
19.2 Is cell differentiation reversible?
26.6 How do prokaryotes affect their environment?
32.2 What is a protostome?
39.3 How do plants deal with climate extremes?
45.3 How do sensory systems detect mechanical forces?
51.5 How does the mammalian kidney produce concentrated urine?


The textbook contains very pretty pictures and diagrams and lots of self-quizzes. It does not however give me a reason to want to know the answers to any of the questions posed by the subchapters. It presumes that the simple fact that a student has signed up for a biology course is sufficient grounds to decide that the students have these questions. Or, possibly, it assumes that the professors in giving a lecture, have raised these questions in the student’s minds.

In my experience as a student, my main question was usually how much more of this stuff I had to read (the book is over 1200 pages), and maybe I could just skip it and get by.

My experience as a professor was that the most prevalent student question was what exactly they would be responsible for on the test.

My experience as a department chair was that lazy professors answered that last question by copying the self-study questions in the textbook.

We would all agree that a good course motivates the students to have the questions that the textbook answers in their minds so they can consult the textbook for the answer at their moment of need. There are two assumptions that need to be made here:

1. That professors know how to raise these question in student’s minds in a natural way
2. That the book is well enough organized that finding the answer when needed is trivial

I always wondered, as a student why professors didn’t just hand out the textbook and say “read it” and there will be a test in 3 months, since their lectures were usually irrelevant. Sometimes it was the textbook that was irrelevant. The students needed to quickly figure out which one wasn’t going to be on the test.

But if real learning is not a conscious process, as some (i.e. me) insist, then textbooks could only be ancillary to what a student was doing. But what are students doing? They are sitting and listening, which is a conscious process.

Now let’s imagine a world in which students are doing something. And, let’s assume that they want to do what they are doing and are excited by it. And let’s assume that they know what success at doing something looks like. Then the textbook in that case, would look exactly the same as it had before, except that chapters would be indexed to the goals of the students and the tasks that they were pursuing.

In other words, a textbook is like a mass of answers to questions that no one ever has. Making sure that students really are asking the questions that one might want them to ask would mean making sure that they were pursuing tasks that naturally raised those questions.

This is the role of on-line education. It can create the environment for an answer to be relevant to the pursuit of a goal by creating scenarios in which those questions naturally arise. This scheme however, eliminates an important part of the school experience.

It eliminates the instructor. No more lectures in the world I am envisioning, just mentors who help students when they are stuck.

Instructors will object. Students would not.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sex, Math, and Videotape

Its that time of year again, where I rant about the absurd math score competition issue. This quote is from USA Today:


If there were a math-and-science Olympics for elementary and middle schoolers, USA students could hold their heads high — they're consistently better than average. In math, it turns out, they're improving substantially, even as a few powerhouse nations see their scores drop.

At the same time that I was reading this, I also saw this item (from Information Week):

One in five teen girls has sent a revealing photograph of themselves via cell phone or e-mail or posted nude or partially nude images of themselves online, according to a survey released this week. Eleven percent of them are 16 or younger.

How are these items connected?

What do we give school children to think about all day? We want them to think about the Quadratic Equation, and logarithms even though hardy any adult that they know knows what those are. They try to do math, but they don’t do that well at it. They know they are in a competition but that can’t figure out why it matters. (I assure you that no adult knows why it matters either, we are just sure that it does, kind of like who wins the discus throw matters.)

At the same time we give them lots of time to think about how people don’t like them, whether or not they are attractive, and what they can do to become attractive. Adults are horrified that they are doing this while they make sure that they all have the equipment to do it.

What is the problem? The problem is school. School enables children to set the standards for other children because children live in a world of children where the losers feel really bad about losing no matter what the game is. Children also learn to pretend that they care about the standards set by adults, like math scores, when all they really care about is getting into college.

We must stop this. Stop teaching children that math matters when it does not. Math in these tests means algebra, trigonometry and such, which almost never come up in anyone’s life. And stop teaching children that getting other children to like them matters. This only results in stupid behavior by which they try to impress and gain favor. We must stop grouping adolescents in schools and pretending to teach them math that no adult knows or needs to know so they can instead engage in dangerous behavior that no adult condones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When You Can’t Afford Yale

A wealthy friend of mine is getting calls from his formerly wealthy friends who were recently employed at Lehman Brothers, and other brokerage firms, who are now no longer Masters of the Universe. They are looking for his help because they can no longer afford Yale tuition, nor the tuition at Riverdale and Spenser. What to do?

He has the ability to help them, and he sincerely wants to help. I understand their pain, and so does he. But my advice was “no.” (I couldn’t help thinking of the Risky Business line where the defeated Princeton applicant says I guess its the University of Illinois.)

This might seem like peculiar advice coming from someone who was professor at Yale for fifteen years (as well as a professor at Stanford and Northwestern for another fifteen years.) But, it is time someone set the record straight about these schools. Surely, no one currently employed by them will do so. Our current economic times demand the truth. These schools are simply not worth the money. There I said it.

While they will not admit it openly, the Harvard’s and Yale’s of the world are in a business that is different from the one economically struggling parents think they are in. The general public’s view is that these schools provide a superior education and provide a credential that is essential to upward mobility in the modern world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

These days, undergraduate credentials from an Ivy League school mean nothing. Our President-elect is considered to be a Harvard guy when what he did was attend Harvard Law. These days most people who want to succeed have graduate degrees. Graduate schools admit students from all sorts of universities that are much cheaper and much less elite than the Ivies. In fact, they strive to do just that to have a broad student body. You really don’t need to go to Yale to become a Harvard MBA. Our current President may have followed that path but his being a Bush was probably more important than his having attended Yale College where he didn’t do that well anyway.

However, the significance of graduate school in one’s life is not my real point. The Ivies are locked into an educational paradigm that really is of no value at all to most people. The real intent of a Yale education is to produce professors. Most professors at these places are excited by students who want to do the kind of research that they themselves do. These places aren’t called Research Universities for nothing. The idea is that a real education to any Ivy League Professor means becoming an intellectual of the type that that professor is. Professors at the Ivies are gratified by students who want to get PhDs in their subdisciplines and they really don’t care all that much about the rest. They will not admit this to anyone. It is an Ivy League secret.

If your son or daughter wants desperately to become a professor then sending them to a top Research University is a serous step towards opening their eyes towards doing research. If they do not intend to do research, then they can just go to any state college, collect the needed credential, and go on with their lives.

Send them to the existing public schools and help to create new charter schools that teach real world skills. Send them to a community college that teaches real world skills. Send them to a state university that charges next to no tuition. Let them learn about life by working. (There is a thought!)

In all cases their lives will work out just fine without Yale if they work hard, and you won’t have to beg friends for tuition money.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Girls Should Not Go To School

I was an only child. I went to an all boys high school. I had a girlfriend at summer camp each summer, but I really didn’t spend all that much time with the girls at summer camp. I went to an engineering school after high school. In those days there weren’t a lot of budding female engineers. So, when I got married a few years after college and began to get myself mentally ready to be a dad, I wasn’t even remotely ready to be the dad of a girl.

After a week or two of refusing to believe this had happened to me, I made my peace with it, but I had no idea what it meant. I didn’t know much about girls at all. I didn’t know what I should do, or what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be very involved in child raising so I made a decision. I would simply not let sex matter much. I would raise a child. I would do whatever I might have done if that child had been a boy. I would not try to make her into a boy, but I wouldn’t try to make her into a girl either. I would raise a person.

My wife was not the girly-girl type, so she didn’t care when I decided that there would not be dresses, nail polish, or jewelry for my daughter. This was easier said than done. The only female with whom I had had a life long, deep relationship objected, and objected loudly. My mother was no girly-girl either. She was a tough and successful business woman who never met a situation she didn’t want to dominate. But she liked clothing and jewelry a lot, especially since she was in the jewelry business. When my mother appeared, Hana was to be put in a dress and that was that.

The reason I didn’t want Hana to wear dresses, apart from the fact that I thought that they looked stupid on an infant, was confirmed immediately at Hana’s “coming out” party. (By this I mean her coming to New York as a baby to meet the family for the first time. We lived in California.)

“Ooh, look at how beautiful she is.” “She is going to win all the boys.” “What a gorgeous dress.”

I was not planning on raising a sex object. I was raising a person who would be her own woman and not exist to hear how beautiful she was from whomever was trying to get something from her. I may not have understood girls, but boys I knew.

I stood firm. After New York, no more dresses. I wanted a rough and tumble child, not a girl who was worried about dirtying her dress.

Things went very well for a while. I loved Hana to death. I was almost over the girl issue. At Hana’s 2nd birthday party, there were two other girls present. There was an immediate leader and it wasn’t Hana. In fact, Hana was pretty much concerned with pleasing Miriam and imitating Miriam, a lot more than she cared about pleasing her parents. I noticed this behavior again on a regular basis when we moved next door to a girl named Annabee who was a year older than Hana. Hana, who by this time was toilet trained, became untoilet trained when she played with Annabee. Hana was also quite articulate by this time and she could pretty well explain that she was afraid to go to the bathroom when Annabee was around. She wanted to please Annabee and do whatever it was that Annabee was doing and who knew what would happen if time was taken out for the bathroom?

After about a year of this, and the realization that the stuff Hana was learning from Annabee was stuff it would have been just as well for her not to learn, my wife and I decided to eliminate Annabee from our lives. But this did not eliminate the problem.

What was the problem?

It was becoming clear to me that Hana was easily influenced by other girls who were more dominant that she. Hana was concerned with what they thought about her and wanted desperately to please them.

This became much clearer when she entered school. In fact, Hana went from being a lively, happy, verbally brilliant child to being miserable and anxious most of the time. When she thought about school what she thought about was not what she was learning at school but about her relationships with the other girls at the school. This manifested itself as who was being mean to her in the 3rd grade and then to worrying about what jeans she was wearing in the 6th grade, and then to learning to be the right level of enthusiastic on the softball team in high school.

She was so miserable at school that I decided, when she was 8, to take her out of school for a week or so and take her with me while I lectured in England. After work I took her on castle tours. She loved the trip (as well as subsequent trips – she says now that these were the best parts of her childhood).
But, on that first trip, all she could talk about was what one girl or the other was doing to her, or thinking about her, or planning. I pointed out that there were castles to be seen and that she needed to learn to be where she was and that where she was was England. But she was clearly being tortured.

All this was a long time ago. Hana has grown up into exactly the woman I had hoped she would be. She is female and behaves accordingly, but femaleness does not dominate her life. She likes jewelry and she wears dresses when appropriate. (She won that right when she was 8. My mother declared victory.) But, most of all, she became a person, which is what I was hoping for.

But all of this is just preamble. The real story starts now.

I was visiting Hana, who as I write this is the mother of an almost 3 year old boy and has another one on the way. She also runs a successful software consulting business and is, at the same time, a published author, which was always her real goal. So she is doing fine, and this is not about her.

While visiting her recently, I volunteered to take my grandson Milo to the park. Milo immediately started interacting with toys and kids in a way that made it clear that there was no role for me. So I sat and watched. What caught my eye was the mothers. They stood around and chatted with each other -- clearly they were all regulars. They were talking about their kids, no surprise, but what they were saying was indeed a surprise to me. They were saying more or less, that they were rotten mothers and that their kids weren’t so good either. Men don’t talk like that. I continued to listen.

I began to realize that what was going on was a continuation of what I had seen when Hana was growing up. Instead of competing about whether they had the right jacket on, they were now competing about who was the worst mother. Something was really wrong here so I asked Hana about it later. She said she witnessed this kind of behavior at every play group she attended with Milo as well.

I had, as a grown up male, frequently witnessed women competing with each on all kinds of things, the size of their ring, and the brand name on their pocket book, who had the latest fashion item on, and so on. I knew that women continued to undercut each other as they had done as children, but in more subtle ways. But I hadn’t realized they also competed in how bad they are at really important things.

What is going on here? Carol Dweck (professor of developmental psychology at Columbia) once said to me that little boys hit each other when they are angry but little girls undermine each other’s relationships. Indeed that was what Hana was concerned with when I took her on trips, I now realized. She didn’t know if her relationships in school would still be there when she got home. She loved the trips, at least in part, because they were a respite from the relationship breaking and mending that was going on at home.

I happen to be writing this on a boat in Greece, where various people come and go. And, I have noticed the same thing here. When there are more than two women on board, alliances form and the woman who is left out sulks while complaining of the bad things the others are saying about her. This happened so quickly each time various friends of the owner of the boat arrived, that I was really shocked by it.

But really it is the same thing, different place and time, that Hana feared while in school.

So now I come to thesis of this piece. I do not believe that girls should go to school. Here is why:
Girls are interested in relationships in a way that little boys are not. There is much evidence to support this. The reason is obvious. In a hunter gatherer society, women had to work together in ways that men did not. Establishing good relationships was probably the hallmark of success for females in primitive societies. This may be true today as well, but the instinct is very destructive in a society where men and women are equals.

Women are their own worst enemies in this regard. While Hana was busy thinking who did and didn’t like her, school was going on. Hana was not thinking about school or schoolwork, or learning. She was focused on the other kids. School was not about learning for her. Indeed, Hana tried very hard to not be the best in school, something she was surely capable of, because she would stand out and that would ruin her relationships.

She never did well in school, not badly, but not well. In fact, I made a point of putting her in a tougher high school program figuring that if she was going to be mediocre she could be mediocre in a better school. This is exactly what happened.

The same thing happened in college. There again, she was way much more concerned with what her friends were doing and who she liked and who liked her than she was with learning what school had to offer. Add boys into the picture and you get a girl who would prioritize the importance of what is being taught in class near the bottom of any list of concerns and priorities in school.

Of course, some girls do succeed in school by the standard measures, but those who do are often lonely and miserable because they have stood out in that way. They have chosen to be good students and have failed at relationships. Do some girls succeed at both? I am sure they do. But, that is really not the point. Even those who succeed at school are unhappy.

Girls have a way of making each other unhappy. This tendency comes naturally, but the school experience exacerbates it. If women lived in a society of their own, perhaps this wouldn’t matter as much. But all this undercutting and self-deprecation does not help them succeed in a society where half the participants behave differently.

The solution? Take girls out of school and put them into learning environments that are not inhabited by large numbers of children of the same age and same sex. A learning environment for girls should never include more than one other girl. The educational experience must be re-designed so that girls concentrate more on learning and less on relationships. Education needs to be divorced from socialization. Women are harmed by the idea that school is a place of socialization. No one has ever thought out coherently how that socialization should occur and what its goals are. Somehow we have just assumed it would happen properly but it clearly does not.

My experience with Hana has convinced me that school is a disastrous place to teach socialization. We need to re-design the system so that women can prosper in school and in life with less anxiety and more fun.

As I await the birth of my next grandchild I am again worried that it might be a girl. I feel confident in my own abilities to deal with her because I have grown and changed. But school and society have hardly changed at all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I had a dream

I had a dream last night. Mr Obama called me and asked if I could say very simply what I wanted him to do about education. Then the connection died. So here is what I wanted to say:

1. Do what you can to encourage the individual states to get out of the education business.

2. Create an environment where curricula studied in school would be determined by people other than state legislatures and colleges, both of whom have proven they know nothing about learning.

3. Create learning places that encourage learning to do things rather than knowing things.

You said in one of your speeches something I have been saying for over 20 years. Communication, Reasoning and Human Relations are the real important skills. Please: Teach them.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

CNN, the PKK, and why all education is the same

I saw a report on CNN that followed a reporter who had travelled with the outlawed PKK (Kurdish rebels.) She reported on their daily life which includes hiding in caves in mountains and having female leaders. Every day starts with -- guess what -- education! CNN showed their education methods which were, of course, the standard indoctrination sessions with one revolutionary telling the others what to think. Sounds familiar. Uh, yes. Sounds like school in all the rest of the world. Why is it that people who want to change everything never seem to want to change education? Perhaps they understand that all governments rule by discouraging innovative thinking. They don't want to change that.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How to reform the school system

Today I read one of those announcements that come from states from time to time about how they want to hire a head of their schools system who will lead reform. I don’t know whether that is what they really want, but let me simply explain who that person would have to fight in order to actually get any reform.

#1 The Colleges: The colleges prevent change by insisting on prescribing what courses must be taken by any applicant. The result is that no real innovation can take place.

First job for new reformer: Tell the colleges that their admission requirements will be ignored until they change them. No state university can reject all its in-state applicants, so the reformer will win.

#2 The State Board of Education Standards Committee: State Standards are always those set by Harvard in 1892. They must set some new ones that make sense for today or else stop setting standards which would be even better.

Second job for the reformer: Tell the State Board that when new sensible standards are set he or she will listen. Otherwise if its algebra and English literature and multiple choice tests one more time, you will be ignored.

#3 Special Interests: Book publishers, and test makers love the system the way it is. Why? Because they make lots of money on it.

Third job for the reformer. Find a way to convince these special interests to stop fighting change and start leading change. This can be done if the reformer understands what change is needed. That last bit is the hard part.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"engaged learning" (re-posted from Feb. 2008)

I realize that I have been barking up the wrong tree. Here I am trying to fix education when I suddenly realized that all you need is a good marketing campaign. Why do real change when you can just say that have done it?

It was tonight’s Presidential Debate sponsored by Cleveland State University that taught me this. Behind the speakers there is a sign that says: Cleveland State University: Engaged Learning. I noticed it because NBC has been using it for a backdrop in the last few days.

Now I know nothing about Cleveland State but I am quite sure that it has boring lectures, absurd requirements, many professors who don’t care, and students who are just looking to get through the system by jumping whatever hoops are put in front of them, just as is the case at every university I have ever known.

So I wondered if they actually did anything different at dear old CSU and I went to their website to find out. This is what engaged learning is:

At CSU, Engaged Learning means that whether you are a student, faculty member or staff, you can expect to be an active participant in your learning experience. You can expect to engage in ways that will differentiate your experience at CSU from older, larger, and less diverse learning institutions. You can expect your learning experience at CSU to be distinctive.

OK. Not bad. “How,” I wondered.

In four important ways I learned. From the website:

1. An engaged learning logo will be on all communications materials. CSU will unveil a new advertising campaign this Spring.
2. The $200 million-plus master plan is remaking the main campus of Cleveland State University
3. CSU offers more than 140 opportunities to be engaged on campus through a myriad of organizations formed around common interests.
4. A website for engaged learners where they can say what they like about their CSU experience.

And that’s it folks. No new kinds of courses. No new kinds of experiences so that courses and tests can be eliminated. No re-thinking of what college should be and what they students need to learn how to do. No change of any actual kind. Just money spent on advertising and buildings. Of course, this is real change from my experience. Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern don’t advertise (except for revenue producing programs.)

But the marketing phrase is so nice: engaged learning!

I wonder how much they spent on this in lieu of spending on building realistic learning environments.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Death to the Standardistas! (re-posted from Feb, 2008)

The more things change the more they stay the same. Or more accurately, the more we try to change things, the more people who misunderstand the problems in education try to keep things the same. Today’s case in point: entrepreneurship education.

Some months ago, we were able to gather some top business and academic people to sit for a day and do a high level design for a story centered, learn by doing, on line curriculum in entrepreneurship for high school, meant to take up the whole of one year. We heard about a foundation that was interested in funding entrepreneurship education so we sent them our design, which was, more or less an attempt to start a business in a Second Life kind of world and compete with other students in that world. Before that part, the students took on certain business analysis projects to get them ready, and in the final part they tried a real project on the web.

We were told by the foundation that looked at our design that we had not paid attention to the National Content Standards for Entrepreneurship Education!

Of course, we hadn’t. We had never heard of them. So, it was with some trepidation that I went on line to take a look. I say it this way because standardistas are always wrongheaded and evil. Why? Let me count the ways in which standards are a disaater.

1. They tell you what you must teach and therefore allow no possibility of doing things differently.
2. They are always testing-oriented.
3. They always say what the student must understand and must know and must be able to explain which is a code for we will tell him this and then he will tell it back to us.
4. They invariably do not allow for freedom on the part of the student to get interested in one thing while not being interested in another.
5. They are made by a committee that always insists on listing all the things any person in that field must know without realizing that knowledge comes after doing not before.

So, knowing my prejudices, now let me show you what I found. Here are some the skills listed that every students must have:

Explain the need for entrepreneurial discovery
Discuss entrepreneurial discovery processes
Use external resources to supplement entrepreneur's expertise
Explain the need for business systems and procedures
Explain the need for continuation planning
Value diversity
Conduct self-assessment to determine entrepreneurial potential
Maintain positive attitude
Explain the concept of human resource management
Explain the nature and scope of operations management
Explain the nature of effective communications
Address people properly
Treat others fairly at work
Interpret business policies to customers/clients
Use basic computer terminology
Compress or alter files
Explain the nature of stress management
Determine file organization
Explain the concept of scarcity
Explain the law of diminishing returns
Describe types of market structures
Read and interpret a pay stub
Explain legal responsibilities of financial institutions
Explain the rights of workers
Describe use of credit bureaus
Develop job descriptions
Encourage team building
Describe the elements of the promotional mix

There were well over one hundred of these. And, they would, if actually paid attention to, get my nomination for the most boring curriculum ever invented in a fundamentally learn by doing field. Further there would be lots of tests, each one saying explain this and describe that.

The lesson here is simple. As soon as standardistas get a hold of a curriculum it will be turned into the garbage that has always been our school system – one where knowing, explaining, and describing, always win out over doing and learning from one’s own mistakes. The facts and noting but the facts.

Too bad. I kind of like this field. Kids really would have enjoyed running their own businesses in simulation and in reality.

Note to Mr. Foundation Head: After you blow millions on garbage entrepreneurial education by boring and testing students to death just like we have always done, and don’t produce even one more entrepreneur, and don’t deter even one more kid from dropping out, don't come crying to me

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good News on Math? (re-posted from June, 15, 2007)

Today the New York Times published this editorial. I have abridged it and then I have a few questions to think about.

EDITORIAL
Good News on Math

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the teachers of New York are rightly proud of the city’s performance on this year’s state math tests. New York City students showed gains in every grade tested, outpaced students in most other of the state’s big cities and edged closer to the state performance average.
The new scores, which showed that 65.1 percent of city students are performing at or above grade level — are up from 57 percent last year.
The news is not as good for the city’s eighth graders. Only 45.6 percent of them were found to be proficient in math. These disappointing results suggest a need for stronger instruction in the sixth grade, where students may not be getting the skills they need to master more complex, middle school material.

And now for my questions:

1. Why is Mayor Bloomberg proud?
2. How would Mayor Bloomberg do on these math tests?
3. How would the writer of this editorial do on these math tests?
4. Why is the goal to prepare students for more complex middle school material?
5. What does mastering middle school math prepare students for?
6. Assuming the answer to #5 is high school material, what does that prepare students for?
7. Assuming the answer to that is college material what does that prepare kids for?
8. Given that most students never use the mathematics they learn in high school ever again the rest of their lives, why are we playing this silly game?
9. Could the answer to that be that Mayor Bloomberg wants to be able to say he did something important in education even if by any reasonable standard he clearly didn’t?
10. Since when does 35% of students failing constitute success at anything?
11. If every student in New York were good at mathematics in what way would our society be better off?
12. Why is the goal to beat other cities and states?
13. Is New York in competition with other cities and tests in some math contest we don’t know about?
14. What good happens in New York if it wins that competition?
15. What good happens to Mayor Bloomberg if New York wins that competition?
16. Why does the New York Times care about any of this?
17. Does the New York Times realize that every time they crow about nonsense such as this they make mathematics more and more important in the curriculum?
18. Are all the people at the New York Times experts in mathematics?
19. If they are experts in something else, like say writing, thinking, working at deadlines, preparing coherent reports, reasoning about hard political problems, and such, why wouldn’t those be important parts of the curriculum?
20. Could it be that when we emphasize mathematics we de-emphasize the very things the people at the New York Times are good at?
21. Does anyone care that the system is now totally insane?
22. Does the New York Times realize it is making matters worse in education with editorials like this?
23. Does Mayor Bloomberg or the New York Times actually care about education?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution (re-posted from Dec 2006)

Math and Science, oh my. What will we do? We don’t produce enough students interested in math and science. Something must be done. I hear this refrain so often my head hurts.

First my credentials: I was a math major in college. I got 98 on every math Regent’s test offered. (I lived in New York where testing ruled in the world in the 50’s too.) My mother always asked where the other two points went. I grew up to be a computer science professor. I am not a math phobe. But neither am I a math proponent. I never used math in my professional life. Never ever.

I always start any discussion on education by asking if the person I am talking with knows the quadratic formula. One out of hundred knows it. (The last few people I asked included the head of a major testing service, the secretary of education of a state in the US, various state legislators, and 200 high school principals. Then why do we teach this obviously useless piece of information to every student in the world? Because math is important, of course.

Really? Show me the evidence.

As a person who did graduate admissions for 30 years at three of the top ten universities in the country, I know what this hysteria is actually about. Nearly all applicants to graduate computer science programs (which is what I know – but it is true in most fields of engineering and science) are foreign nationals. We wonder why American kids aren’t interested in these fields – which is a reasonable enough question. But then we have come up with an extraordinary answer.

What we say is that we must teach math and science better in high school. There are now so many programs meant to do this it makes my head spin. Here are reasons why this is simply the wrong answer.

Do we really believe that the reason that there so many foreign applicants to US graduate programs is that they teach math and science better in other countries? China and India provide most of the applicants. They also have most of the people. And many of those people will do anything to live in the U.S. So they cram math down their own throats knowing that it is a ticket to America. Very few of these applicants are coming from Germany, Sweden, France or Italy. Is this because they teach math badly there or is it because those people aren’t desperate to move to the U.S.?

In the U.S., students are not desperate to move to the US, so when you suggest to them that they numb themselves with formulas and equations they refuse to do so. The right answer would be to make math and science actually interesting, but with those awful tests as the ultimate arbiter of success this is very difficult to do.

No change in education will ever happen in the US until the testing mentality is done away with. No average high functioning adult could pass them so why make kids do it? This makes no sense. What also makes no sense is the idea that math and science are important subjects. You can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is.

On the other hand, being able to reason on the basis of evidence actually is important. Thinking rationally and logically is important. Knowing how to function in a world that includes new technology and all kinds of health issues is important. Knowing how things work and being able to fix them and perhaps design them is important.

Lets get serious. We don’t need more math and science. We need more people who can think.

We need to teach job skills, people skills, and reasoning skills. And we need to make education exciting and interesting. We need performance tests not competence tests. If we did all that we would get more Americans interested in math and science because we would get more Americans actually interested in being in school.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Accountability! (re-posted from Dec, 2007)

The following is from an article on the front page of the New York Times (Dec 23, 2007):
Mr. Obama, for instance, in a speech last month in New Hampshire denounced the law (NCLB) as “demoralizing our teachers.” But he also said it was right to hold all children to high standards. “The goals of this law were the right ones,” he said.
When Mr. Edwards released an education plan earlier this year, he said the No Child law needed a “total overhaul.” But he said he would continue the law’s emphasis on accountability.
And at the elementary school in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton said she would “do everything I can as senator, but if we don’t get it done, then as president, to end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”
But she, too, added: “We do need accountability.”
Accountability must play well in Peoria because every Democratic candidate is simultaneously for it while being against NCLB. The question is: how can you hold both positions?
Here is how. By not understanding the issue.
Accountability must mean to voters, I assume, that teachers will be measured by how well they teach their students. Those fearless Democrats, always willing to hop on an uncontroversial point of view, are all quite certain that the voters know what they are talking about. No matter how stupid NCLB is, no matter how mean spirited, no matter how awful for both teachers and students, its very horror rests on the premise that no one seems to be disputing, that the federal government has the right to tell the schools what to teach and to see if they are indeed teaching it.
How is this premise wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. It assumes that all schools should teach the same subjects
2. It assumes that some subjects are more important than other subjects
3. It assumes that all important subjects can be easily tested
4. It assumes that seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
5. It assumes that all children have the same educational needs

Needless to say, I have some problems with these assumptions and so should the Democratic Presidential candidates. I can excuse the voters for not understanding these issues, but I will not excuse President Bush and his cohorts, who I sincerely doubt give a hoot about education, nor will I excuse the Democratic challengers who should know better.
Let’s take them one by one.
all schools should teach the same subjects
Why is this wrong? Because kids in New York come from, and will live in, a different world than their compatriots in New Mexico. In New Mexico, I was asked if we could teach Casino Management and Land Use. Yes, we could, but not if there is federal accountability about algebra and twenty other subjects that make it impossible to fit these subjects in.
There is no right set of subjects. The fact that the President of Harvard in 1892 thought there were and thought he could say exactly what they would be in the 21st century does not make it true. (OK, probably he wasn’t thinking about the 21st century in 1892, but we all seem to think he must have been because we are still teaching the same stuff.)
some subjects are more important than other subjects
Yes, we have electives. But they don’t matter. Because accountability means making sure that we teach what does matter first. What matters? The stuff that we are holding people accountable for. Since this seems to be math and science these days, for no good reason I can discern, this means that we will get to the stuff that would excite kids and keep them in school and, horrors, might teach them some job skills, after we are done with the important stuff. Sorry candidates. I absolutely guarantee that none of you know the quadratic formula or the elements of the periodic table which is of course, the stuff of accountability since it is so easy to test. Then, how can that be the important stuff? How about how to see what voters are thinking and then say it to get elected? That is the important stuff in your lives. Why not teach that?
all important subjects can be easily tested

Yes, there are right answers in math. But are there right answers in whether we should invade Iraq? No? Does that mean we can’t teach how governments actually work and how to get reasoned arguments to be heard? Is there a right speech candidates should make? Does that mean we can’t ask students to give speeches because we can’t easily assess them? Do we only teach subjects for which there are clear right answers? We do now, which is one reason why school is a deadly experience for one and all and will remain so as long as accountability is the key word in government.

seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
Admit it candidates. It really is all about competition isn’t it? You are all the winners of the school competition. You went to Ivy League schools and did well. Well, hooray for you. I taught at Ivy League schools and I was profoundly unimpressed with the test taking, grade grubbing, students I found there. The goal of education is not to say who won and it is not to tell Harvard whom to admit. The goal is provide real world skills, some of which may not be so easy to assess until the graduate actually shows up in the real world.

all children have the same educational needs

There is a 50% drop out rate in many high schools because we have forgotten that not everyone is going to Harvard and that going to Harvard is not the goal of education. Some children simply need to learn about ethics and business and child raising and how the legal system works, how to take care of their health and how to understand when politicians are saying things that make no sense. Why wouldn’t those subjects be critical? I bet not one of you thinks any of those are more important than math and science. How about the student who has a passion for the environment, or doing social good, or being a good parent, or, perish the thought, running for office? Couldn’t we teach those subjects simply because students have said they want to learn them? Does every school have to be the same?

I have an idea. Why not just keep the federal government out of the education business and simply leave schools alone? Educators have enough trouble fighting the silly standards that colleges impose upon them without having to put up with whatever version of accountability you choose to proffer after your election.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Just the facts, ma’am (reposted from March)

Another brilliant revelation from our heroes in Washington :

“Students who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college compared to students with less mathematical preparation.”

Would you like to know why this is true (and I have no doubt that it is true)? The answer is given further down in the article:

“The report also cited findings that students who depended on their native intelligence learned less than those who believed that success depended on how hard they worked.”

See, this is an easy one. If you work harder you get into college. Now the question is: why are we making the thing that students have to work harder at – Algebra II?

We know why this panel decided that. At stake is a $100 million federal budget request for Math Now and guess who was on the panel?

I dunno. People who might receive that funding would you guess? You betcha. A panel of university folks who are just dying for that grant money to be approved worked on a very well funded study that proved that the nation would not succeed without that grant money.

My favorite part of the Times’ article was the following:

Dr. Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the panel “buys the notion from cognitive science that kids have to know the facts.”

No, Dr Faulkner, as a graduate of your esteemed institution, and as a founder of the field of Cognitive Science, let me suggest, with all due respect, that it is you who needs to know the facts.

The first fact is that you are a chemist, and I am pretty sure don’t really know much about Cognitive Science.

The second fact, is that there is plenty of work in Cognitive Science that shows that background knowledge helps one interpret the world around one, and thus reading, for example, is facilitated by understanding something about the world you are reading about.

The third fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever, that accumulation of facts and background knowledge are the same thing. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Facts learned out of context and apart from actual real world experience that is repeated over and over are not retained.

The fourth fact is that kids don’t like math much and it is clear why. They find it boring and irrelevant to anything they care about doing. If you think math is so important, then why not teach it within a meaningful context, like business, or running a school doing the kind of math you had to do to do that – which certainly wasn’t algebra II. There is plenty of evidence that shows that teaching math within a real and meaningful context works a whole lot better than shoving it down their throats and following that with a multiple choice test.

The fifth fact is that there is no evidence whosoever that says that a nation that is trailing in math test scores will somehow trail in GDP or whatever it is you really care about. This is just plain silly, but we keep repeating the mantra that we are behind Korea in math as if it has been proven that this matters in some way. Nothing of the sort has been proven.

The sixth fact is that there are lots of vested interests who need to keep teaching math. Let me name them – tutoring companies, testing companies, math teachers, book publishers, and many others who make lots of money when people are scared into thinking that their kid won’t get into college because he or she is bad at algebra II.

The seventh fact is that nearly every grown adult has forgotten whatever algebra he or she ever learned to pass those silly tests, so it is clear that algebra is meaningless for adult life. I ask every important person in public life that I meet to tell me The Quadratic Formula. No one has ever been able to do so.

The eighth fact is that any college professor who is honest will tell you that algebra almost never comes up in any college course, and when it does come up it usually needn't be there in the first place.

I know this is a hopeless fight, but algebra really matters not at all in real life and the country will not fall behind in any way if we simply stop teaching it. That is not a fact, it is just a former math major’s, UT graduate’s, and Computer Science professor’s, point of view.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Censorship Is Alive and Well in Education!

For years, before blogging was common, I wrote a column, posted on various websites since 1992 or so, called Education Outrage. In it, I made fun of, or simply criticized, the various folks -- newspapers and politicians usually, who opine about education and seem to only make things worse. Then District Administration, "the magazine of school district management" http://www.districtadministration.com/ created a site called The Pulse, http://blogs.districtadministration.com/thepulse/ which is "Education's Place for Debate." I was invited to be one of the bloggers on that site which included an interesting group of folks. My first post created a stir and included comments from readers that I shouldn't be allowed to post there. Gary Stager, who seems an honorable fellow, kept me on nevertheless. Then their site crashed and when it came back up in a new format, my old posts were nowhere to be found. When I complained about this, I was told I would hear from the publisher and there had been a glitch. There hadn't been a glitch with Gary Stager's old posts I noted. Nor was there ever a letter or e-mail from the publisher. So, I guess school people are back doing what school people do, making sure "debate" represents only approved points of view.

Many people linked to my old posts, so in this blog I will post my old ones from the Pulse and from the original Education Outrage and other places if they are still relevant to today. And, I will attempt to link back to those who linked to my posts.

Eventually I will write some new ones.