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Rethinking the Need for Algebra

Tingley-021 color web“Is algebra necessary?” asks Andrew Hacker in an opinion piece in Sunday’s NY Times.  It’s a question thousands of ninth graders have asked their parents and teachers over the years.

Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, isn’t simply questioning whether students should be forced to take algebra, but whether the traditional three or four-year mathematics sequence is actually necessary.  Hacker argues that much of the content of higher mathematics is not useful in later life and careers, and that the logical thinking skills that math is purported to teach can be taught in other, more palatable ways.  In addition, he notes that failing at mathematics, particularly algebra, is a strong contributing factor to kids dropping out of school.

Hacker’s argument will surely raise the hackles of mathematics teachers and proponents of encouraging more STEM students.  Algebra has been touted as the gateway course in preparing students for college, prompting some schools to push the course back even earlier into eighth grade.  Unfortunately, the results have been less than heartening.

In 2002-3, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began a program of encouraging even moderately performing seventh graders to take algebra in eighth grade.  Nearly 90% of students enrolled in algebra.  A Duke University study published early this year found that students who were accelerated by the new initiative scored significantly lower on final exams in Algebra I and were no more likely to pass traditional succeeding courses in geometry of Algebra II.  The Charlotte-Mecklenburg policy was discontinued after two years.

California’s state board of education in 2008 enacted a similar policy of teaching algebra to eighth graders with similar outcomes.  Studies found that requiring struggling eighth graders to take algebra resulted in poorer results on state math tests and less likelihood that the students would take higher math courses.

AlgebraWhat about waiting until ninth grade to require all students to take algebra?  Chicago schools found  that more students completed algebra in ninth grade than in eighth, but that test scores didn’t improve and low-performing students were no more likely to attend college after high school than before. 

Chicago schools tried to divide Algebra I into a 2-year course without great success.  I myself found high school teachers in favor of offering a pre-algebra course to students having difficult in math, but it often became a course that no one wanted to teach and that few students wanted to take.  And I can also attest to the problems these same students had trying to amass three math credits necessary to attain a New York diploma. 

Professor Hacker acknowledges the importance of learning the problem solving skills that higher mathematics require, and suggests that instead of the traditional math sequence, schools could offer the equivalent of consumer math (my words) or “citizen statistics” (Hacker’s phrase).   He insists that these courses would not “dumb down” the curriculum.  My experience suggests otherwise. 

The problem, I think, isn’t algebra per se, but our inability to present mathematical concepts and skills in an integrated way that is developmentally appropriate and challenging for kids.  Sixth grade is often an entire year of review, and seventh and eighth grade move slowly.  The traditional high school math sequence has been the same for 50 years.  Math courses continue to be a mile wide and a quarter inch deep.

A student’s future success doesn’t depend on a specific math course.  It depends on how well we understand kids’ intellectual development and readiness to be challenged and how we can engage them in the process.  Despite enormous changes in technology and science, in many schools mathematics instruction hasn’t changed since 1965.


When Students Are Silent

Silence is a powerful tool, one that’s most often used in schools for compliance.  Even young students rapidly learn the silence rules:  be silent while the teacher or others talk, be silent during announcements, be silent during a test, be silent in the halls, be silent when working at your seat.  Some schools even try to regulate noise at lunch, one of the few times kids have to freely converse.  Some teachers actually believe that the only time kids are learning is when they’re silent.

But good teachers also know how to use silence as an opportunity for students to marshal their thoughts.  Wait time, for example, encourages better student participation when kids don’t feel pressured to Discouraged-boy-at-deskperform.  We know that when the classroom ambience is all about rapid questions and answers, only the most assertive students participate and only those who excel at recalling literal information perform well.  We know it’s better to ask the question first, and then choose a student to answer rather than the other way around so that everyone engages in thought.  And we know to discourage kids from raising their hands so that we can call on anyone and give him a few minutes to think about his answer or pass. 

We know how adults in schools use silence.  But what about students?  What does their silence mean?

Often teachers interpret student initiated silence as ignorance or hostility.  But University of Pennsylvania professor Katherine Schultz has studied silence in the classroom and believes that teachers who listen carefully to silence can actually encourage student engagement. Schultz says that “silence holds multiple meanings for individuals within and across racial, ethnic, and cultural groups.”  She adds, however, that “in schools, silence is often assigned a limited number of meanings.”  In fact, she says, student silence can mean a number of things, and teachers must listen carefully.  As a result of her research, Schultz suggests that “teachers redefine participation in classrooms to include silence.”

Some student silence, she says, is a result of cultural identity.  Other kinds of silence can be protective, so that the student doesn’t expose him/herself to unwanted attention or to hide perceived shortcomings in language or thought.  Other forms of silence may be a reaction to perceived lack of power or independence.  Still other silences may be a result of the student’s inability to connect to the classroom environment. 

Schultz says that teachers need to train themselves to look for reasons that students may choose to remain silent and then to modify their approach accordingly.  Participation, for example, doesn’t always have to be oral, nor does it have to be in front of a group.  Taking time to know your students rather than simply judging them is a big step towards engaging students in the classroom. 

We live in a constant cacophony in school and outside of school.  In addition, time is a precious commodity in schools, and teachers often feel pressured to set a pace that allows them  to “cover” the information that may appear on looming state tests.  Listening is getting to be a lost art, and silence a rare creative tool.  Schultz gives us something to think about if we can find a moment of silence to read her white paper (link above) and consider her ideas.




The Undroppables

Tingley-021 color webSocial media have proved to be a powerful force in influencing group thought and behavior.  Can it be a tool to help prevent school dropouts?

With a nod to the It Gets Better videos, which have been viewed more than 50 million times, a documentary film maker has begun posting short videos of kids who have plenty of reasons to drop out of school, but don’t.  Jason Pollock, 30, believes that these videos, called “The Undroppables,” may eventually have the same positive effect as those directed towards LGBT kids.

Pollock works with the Get Schooled Foundation, affiliated with MTV, to find students to film.  Last month Pollock posted the first 70 interviews to YouTube, and while they haven’t yet gone viral, Pollock is hopeful.  He plans to speak at school assemblies and uses Twitter and Tumblr to find more kids interested in being part of this project.  Eventually the interviews will become part of a larger documentary.  Time Magazine reports that Pollock believes that the documentary could be used in classrooms to motivate students to stay in school long after the YouTube interest has faded.

Time reports that 1.2 million kids drop out of school every year, so if Pollock’s vignettes make a positive difference, it’s a step in the right direction.  The stories shared by the kids in the videos make you shake your head and wonder how they managed to survive, let alone succeed.  It’s a question of resilience, of course, but where does that resilience come from?

There have been numerous studies of resilience in children, and several identify similar factors associated with it.  For example, a sense of competence and self-control along with intelligence and good communication skills can protect youngsters from falling into the trap of drugs or crime.  Studies show that kids with at least one dependable adult figure in their lives have a better chance of succeeding.  In addition, self-efficacy and hope are positive factors.  And of real importance are good school experiences.  That’s where we come in.

Posted below is one of the Undroppable interviews.  This one and others like it might be something you’d want to share with your staff.


The Problem with Teacher Absenteeism Is Not Poor Subs

So which is the bigger problem:  That substitute teachers aren’t professionally prepared or that the average teacher is absent 10 days a year?

In findings that will come as no surprise to people who work in schools, a group of Harvard researchers discovered in 2007 that there could be a link between teacher absence and student achievement.  Students whose teachers missed more than 10 days a year scored significantly lower on tests, the researchers discovered.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education this spring released data from roughly 72,000 schools that indicated that 37% of teachers were absent more than 10 days in 2009-10.  The Department points out that these absences could be due to numerous reasons, including staff development.  Still, the results for kids are the same whatever the reason for the absence.

In response to this data, the NEA is now calling for the “professionalization” of substitute teaching and for lifting the bans in some states that do not allow retired teachers to sub or reduce their retirement pay if they do.  

Of course we want qualified substitute teachers.  We want substitutes who are familiar with the school, its culture and its discipline program.   We want substitutes who have good classroom management skills and Students sleeping in class are knowledgeable about the subject matter.  We want substitutes who are good with kids.  But most of all, we want regular teachers in the classroom, not substitutes.

The students of teachers who miss 10 days of school – two weeks – actually miss even more instructional time.  If the absent teacher doesn’t leave good lesson plans (or leaves none at all), the substitute, no matter how good, can’t walk in cold and stand and deliver.  In addition, when the teacher returns, she probably won’t hit the ground running, but spend a couple of days catching up and reviewing.  And here’s another problem – when a teacher is absent 10 days during the school year, the days are most likely taken a day here, a couple of days there.  A lack of lesson plans coupled with general review when the teacher returns can result in kids losing not just 10 days of instructional time, but 15 or 20.

Some states insist that schools use only certified teachers as substitutes.  Unfortunately, in some areas of the country, there are simply not enough certified teachers to comply with the regulations.  In one school in which I worked the math department volunteered to cover the classes of a colleague who would be absent for several weeks due to illness.  The teachers knew that we would have great difficulty finding a competent substitute, and the department felt it would be better all around if they picked up their colleague’s classes.  It was a rare, beautiful, professional gesture and it worked.  And luckily, the union let it slide.

I also worked in a private school in which teachers’ schedules were set up so that they had free periods to cover for absent colleagues.  On the plus side, we rarely had to hire substitutes.  On the negative side, no instruction took place during that time; basically teachers ran a study hall.

Of course it would be great to have a cadre of fully qualified substitute teachers who could appear in a pinch to take over a classroom.  But really -- if more than a third of teachers in any school are absent 10 days or more, the problem isn’t training qualified subs.  It’s that more than a third of teachers are absent every day.




Duncan: Kids Connect through Extra-Curriculars

Tingley-021 colorSecretary of Education Arne Duncan was in town last week participating in a panel discussion at the College of William and Mary.  The official topic was “College, Cost, & the Commonwealth:  A Presidential Roundtable,” and it was an interesting as it sounds until Duncan spoke up.

The panel was composed of presidents or chancellors of several colleges and community colleges, and a lot of the questions were fielded by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, the chief bureaucrat at the DOE.  Kanter was necessary, of course, because she has at her fingertips all the statistics and mechanics of the department, and she took pains not to steal the spotlight from Duncan, even though he appeared just vaguely interested in the topic.

Most of the discussion traveled the usual route.  Duncan said that a generation ago, the United States was first in college graduation rates.  Now we are 16th.  He said that he believes that everybody who works hard should have the opportunity for some kind of higher education, although 40 states cut funding for colleges last year. 

Kanter brought up the usual drivel about schools “partnering” with business, a comment that provoked some in the mainly university audience to note that such partnerships usually come with strings attached that may in fact limit the independence of the university.   She also opined that she believed more college Arne Duncan students were working today than in her generation (which looked to be mine as well).  Frankly, I find that hard to believe since just about everyone I knew in college (including me) was working someplace either on campus or at the local restaurants.  The difference between then and now is that college expenses at state schools were so low in those days that a student could actually earn nearly enough money for tuition and living expenses by working during the summer and during school.  Today, of course, the gap between what a student can earn and what college actually costs has widened tremendously, making it virtually impossible for most students to graduate without substantial loans.

The panel also talked about the importance of community colleges, noting that many community college students eschew four-year schools because they prefer specific training in an associate’s program or even a certificate program.  A year at a community college, one president noted, typically costs one-third of what it would cost at a four-year institution.

What was never discussed was how four-year colleges themselves could cut costs to become more affordable.

Duncan, the only guy on the dais in shirtsleeves, failed to inspire until the discussion moved to K-12 schools and how they could better prepare students for college or careers.  Suddenly the Secretary became engaged and eloquent.  “A lot of people drop out of high school not because it’s too hard, but because it’s too easy,” he said.  Schools are failing to connect with kids, he said, noting that he is a “big supporter” of extra-curricular activities like sports and music and clubs.  People may not like to hear it, he said, but often the only reason kids come to school is for sports or drama or music or whatever turns them on.  Unfortunately, he noted, extra-curriculars are the first to be cut when schools are faced with tight budgets.   Kids need mentors, coaches, and role models, he said.  “Any kindergarten teacher can tell you which kids don’t have support at home,” he said, noting that that’s why schools need to provide kids with some adult connection.

His sudden burst of interest left me wishing the panel discussion had been about K-12 education and not about college costs.  It would have been interesting to ask the Secretary, for example, how all those tests kids have to take help them connect to school.  Or whether schools would have to cut extra-curriculars if states didn’t have to send money that might have gone to schools to testing companies instead.  Or whether it’s really necessary to test every kid every year.   Because when the Secretary talks about K-12, he doesn’t sound like a bureaucrat, but like a school person who wants to do the right thing and wishes the path weren't as cluttered as it is with regulations, turf issues, personalities, and self-interest. 

Baby Tech

“Can I play on your phone?” 

It's a chronic request from the kids when there’s down time – waiting for food at a restaurant, riding in the car, watching a sibling’s soccer game, wandering around the mall.

These elementary school kids have been using technology since they were old enough to sit up in front of a computer.  Now even younger children may have access to technology.  How about an iPad case that serves as a teether for kids as young as 6 months?

From the folks at Fisher-Price, who brought to these kids’ parents the plastic tree house, the farm, the castle, and hundreds of other toys, now comes an iPad cover that “allows its user to gnaw on its brightly
Tech-baby colored handles and drool onits protective screen, while also manipulating apps for counting and singing" says Nicole Laporte in the NY Times.

Fisher-Price isn’t the only toy company working to discover how early they can sell technology to the parents of very young children.  LeapFrog, maker of the LeadPad, a touchscreen tablet for kids as young as three, is also in the early tech race along with Hasbro and Crayola.  The companies engage in a process they call “spelunking,” which entails inviting children and their moms into the lab where researchers can observe kids’ readiness for various technical toys.  The results are toys like the Apptivity Monkey, a stuffed animal with a plastic iPhone case embedded in its stomach.  The Monkey is due out in August.

Wanting to give your kid a leg up is nothing new, of course, but it’s  hard not to be a little skeptical about baby tech.  Remember the early claims that Baby Einstein products would make your child smarter?  I actually bought one of those videos for a grandchild, only to discover that I could have made the same thing with a few minutes and my iPhone.  Maybe it made me smarter.  And by the way, the Baby Einstein website now proclaims, “…we’re making everything we do in 2012 about happiness.”

One skeptic of baby tech is  Dr. Ari Brown, author of Baby 411.  Brown says that babies need to learn how to communicate and problem solve using all their senses.  “While technology can offer a virtual way to learn some of these skills, they will never replace the value of interacting with humans or being able to manipulate and play with toys in one’s hands,” says Brown.

I have to admit to being ambivalent about the early introduction of baby tech.  For example, how is giving an infant an iPad to watch a movie any different from plunking her down in front of the TV?  Is downloading an alphabet app different from watching Sesame Street?  Can kids develop creative play on a machine better than with other kids and inanimate objects?  Will early introduction to technology add to childhood obesity as kids opt for the machine rather than for active play?

My biggest concern as I observe kids and readily accessible technology is what seems to be a growing inability to amuse themselves without tech and to feel at loose ends if they don’t have something in their hands to occupy their minds.  I also wonder if easy access to hand-held tech signals the end of intelligent (or even semi-intelligent) conversation at the table as everyone is looking a the phone while waiting for the meal to arrive.

It's possible, of course, that baby tech is really designed for the baby's parents.

About Leadership

Tingley-021 color webI wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, as a principal or superintendent, what I was going to do over the summer – as if we locked the schools when the kids left in June and opened them again sometime in late August or early September.  People always expected me to say something like, “The whole family is going to Maine for the summer” or “I’ll be taking courses in Ohio for a couple of months” or maybe “I’ll be working in the garden and then drinking margaritas at the side of the pool.”

But if you’re a school administrator you know that there’s a lot to be done over the summer.  Final reports, school maintenance, staff development, hiring personnel, meetings, conferences, etc. – all kinds of activities to wrap up the old year and get ready for the new one.  But if you’re smart, you will take some time to refuel – to exercise, to travel, to spend time with family – whatever it takes so that you can reopen in a few months with energy and commitment and courage.

Summer provides more time to read and reflect.  Currently I am reading Robert A. Caro’s latest biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of PowerThe book is the fourth in a series of biographies Caro has written about Johnson, and all of them have been award-winners.  This one will be no exception. Lyndon-B-Johnson-9356122-1-402

Like David McCullough’s biographies, this one reads like a novel.  It focuses on the years from 1958-1964, and it describes in fascinating detail Johnson’s move from the powerful leader of the Senate to the powerless vice-president in the Kennedy administration, derided and isolated by members of the cabinet, particularly Robert Kennedy.  We see the assassination of President Kennedy though Johnson’s eyes, and we begin to understand the transformation Johnson had to go through to assume the presidency.  The story is thoroughly researched, but personal.  If you lived through that period, you will be riveted by the descriptions of what went on behind the scenes and how personalities influenced the course of our nation’s history. 

The development of leadership has always been of great interest to me, particularly in the cases of some who have had to rise to the occasion like Johnson or like Truman and Lincoln.  We learn something from studying the progress of these men.  And every time I read one of these well-written political biographies, I think, Why can’t kids’ history textbooks be written more like these?  Why can’t they just tell the story?  Why don’t textbook writers understand that kids really do want to know what happened next, and that our history is the story of the men and women who went before us, not the chronology of wars and acquisitions?

But I digress.  Take some time to refuel this summer, to read and reflect. Get a little distance between you and the daily job.





It Was a Dark and Stormy NIght

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

                                                        --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

Tingley-021 colorEvery year since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the most dreadful opening sentence to the most dreadful (fictitious) novel.  The contest drew a handful of entries the first year, but today thousands of writers enter and the results are announced by media here and in other countries.  I actually knew someone who won the contest  a few years ago (her entry had something to do with snow that came down over brown hills “like Parmesan cheese being shaken over enormous meatballs”). 

Writing intentionally awful stuff takes some skill.  Here’s last year’s winner:

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories” (Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, Wisconsin).

And here’s the runner-up:

“As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself Snoopy-stormy-night that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this … and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words” (Rodney Reed, Ooltewah, Tennessee).

Intentionally creating a few dreadful sentences as the opening of a dreadful novel requires skill.  The operative word here, though, is intentionally.   We’ve all seen examples of writing that is unintentionally dreadful -- which brings me to my current quandary.

I belong to a book club that reads widely and well, and each month I look forward to the intelligent discussion that each book engenders.  Recently one of our members, a college professor, asked if we would consider reading and critiquing a novel written by one of her respected colleagues at the college.  He would provide copies, she said, and he really really wanted our candid criticisms.  We agreed.  How bad could it be?

How bad?  Bulwer-Lytton bad.  Page after page of BL awfulness.   A book-length BL dreadfulness that makes you want to leap out the nearest window after ten pages.  The pure dreadfulness of it, of course, is not intentional. It just is.

So what to do?  Do people who say they want candid criticism really want candid criticism?  Should we just soft-pedal our comments and act like it isn’t that bad?  Should we take the diplomatic, self-effacing approach (it wasn’t my kind of book, but maybe others would find it more interesting).  Or should we just send him an application for the BL contest?  And, yes, we should have known better!


Suspended for a Year. Is it Fair?

Tingley-021 colorSo the four seventh grade boys who bullied bus monitor Karen Klein will be suspended from school for a year.  In addition they are required to perform 50 hours of community service with senior citizens.

The punishment leaves me shaking my head.

Look, what the boys did was awful.  They were mean, hurtful, and downright ugly.  But like it or not, the bus monitor and the school district have some responsibility for what happened.

As I noted in my blog last week, putting some of the blame for the ugly incident on Ms. Klein is not a popular position to take.  She’s a senior citizen, hard of hearing, and she’s had her own share of difficult things to deal with over her lifetime.  And I am by no means excusing the dreadful behavior of the boys in question.  But a year’s suspension?  Seriously?

One has to ask why the school district has monitors on the buses.  What are their responsibilities?  How are they trained?  What are they supposed to do when kids behave badly?  Surely the district doesn’t expect them to sit there and take the abuse.  And what if the target of the abuse wasn’t the monitor, but another student? Would Ms. Klein have taken some action then?

DisciplineI do not mean to be unkind, I really don’t, but if Ms. Klein was unable to do her job, why did the district continue to employ her?  My guess, as I said last week, is that the incident caught on video a few weeks ago wasn’t unusual, but the culmination of allowing kids to behave badly with impunity over time.

After the incident, a similar district in upstate New York revealed that on average 4 kids a day are suspended from riding buses for inappropriate behavior, usually reported by the drivers.  The district does not employ bus monitors.    As I noted earlier, the problem with the seventh graders on Ms. Klein’s bus isn’t unique to her school district.

Despite the kids’ untoward behavior on Ms. Klein’s bus, one has to wonder if the punishment would have been the same if Ms. Klein had simply done her job and reported the incident.  But with all the notoriety surrounding the incident, did district leadership overreact? 

Sure, take the kids off the bus for a year.  Assign them 50 hours of community service of any kind, not just with senior citizens.  Maybe prohibit them from participating in extra-curriculars.  But separate what was allowed to happen on the bus from their academics.

It’s reported that the kids will attend an alternative school next year with other miscreants.  In my experience sending kids to alternative schools rarely improves their attitudes or behaviors.  In the meantime, Ms. Klein has received over half a million dollars in donations from sympathetic people who viewed the video.  I’m sympathetic too – but I have to say that everyone has to share in the responsibility for what happened – kids, parents, the monitor, and the administration. 








Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.