Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Local Control?

I know I'm supposed to believe that standardization, state or national rules, or anything beyond local control is of the devil, a corporate conspiracy, and of a piece with water fluoridation and the metric system on the list of communist conspiracies against our way of life. I get that.

But I'm still at a loss to explain why we leave some really fundamental decisions in the K-12 system to local control.

To give a really close-to-home example, my state doesn't require high school students to take four years of math. Many students stop after their sophomore year, so they can better focus on, uh, well, whatever the hell it is that they focus on for the next two years. The statewide high school exit exam doesn't test any math above the ninth-grade level, so the students can pass it early and spend two years focused on texting and football, or whatever. And apparently many of them do.

Then we wonder why so many recent high school grads place developmental in math, and we get mad at community colleges for teaching a "second" time something may or may not have been taught a first time.

The higher education that matters is regionally accredited. It's not local, and there's a good reason for that. Given how incredibly important good K-12 instruction is for success at higher levels, I'm perplexed why we leave decent instruction in the fundamentals to chance. "We don't believe in trigonometry here in East Englishmuffin." It's not up to you.

I understand a semi-reasonable argument for local control beyond the fundamentals. A school that gives the community the extras it wants will have an easier time getting higher taxes tolerated. Fair enough. But to just opt out of history, or math, or chemistry shouldn't be an option. Those aren't extras. They're the core. They should be the first order of business. Whether to field a lacrosse team could be a local option; whether to teach biology shouldn't be.

Developmental classes are designed on the assumption that the student has seen the material before; that's why they move so quickly. But if some districts are just opting out of the basics altogether, those students are in for a rude shock. And from what years of national studies of developmental ed have taught us, students who start out behind will have a much tougher row to hoe. It's possible, yes, but it's an extra burden that many students find unbearable.

I've heard economists argue that if you don't like the choices made by your local school district, you should just move. But that so badly understates the transition costs, and so grossly overstates the access to relevant information that most parents have, that it's just otherworldly. It's like those old physics word problems that start with "assuming no gravity..." Even granting a certain theoretical truth to the assertion, it's impractical to the point of silliness.

If we aren't teaching math in the latter years of high school, just what, exactly, are we paying for? What are they doing all day? And from a systems perspective, how much sense does it make to blow off math for the last two years of high school, only to teach it in compressed form in the first semesters of community college? Wouldn't it have made vastly more sense to get it right the first time?

Call me a stalking horse for standardization, if you must, but I think four years of required math and history and science in high school makes sense. Lacrosse is fine, and electives are great, but first things first. I'm tired of watching successive waves of students crash like the soldiers at Gallipoli. We know better. Frankly, I can think of worse uses for my property tax dollars than teaching math.

Even in those places that require 3 or 4 years of math allow students to opt out of things like "Algebra 2" in favor of "Business Math" and "Finite Math."

Neither of these is, in my experience, designed to improve students' ability in math.

Sure, students who have no intention of ever going to college exist in high school, but it's a much smaller population than opts out of Algebra 2 (one of the best predictors of student retention in tertiary education).
Hear Hear!

I periodically get into conversations with other scientists about whether the American education system ought to be more like, eg, the British education system, or the Russian, or the Chinese, or the Indian, all of whom produce students who easily out-compete Americans on many math and science metrics (including grad school admissions).

I think all of those "track" students early (around age 11) into college bound and non-college bound (more or less) and then specialize them a lot more heavily. In the UK, I know, your last two years of secondary ed are spent focusing on just 3 or 4 subjects.

But I'm a liberal arts college alum and really value the potentially greater breadth and greater equality of the American system.

I nominate your idea -- make them take four years of math and science and history, dammit -- as the best education reform suggestion I've heard in ten years.

Sometimes the obvious is just starting us in the face...
(Well, typically the obvious is staring us in the face by definition... I mean that I'm amazed this doesn't come up in any of my conversations even though it seems like any obviously good idea.)
High Schools are rated, and more importantly funded, on how many students graduate, not the quality of those graduates.

Unlike colleges and Universities, public schools are effectively monopolies. There is little if any meaningful competition. Very few can afford private schools and many cannot afford to relocate to better school districts.

Fortunately enough of the best and the brightest students still manage to find a way to learn the skills they need to succeed.

Some don't, but changing that out come would require changing firmly entrenched special interests groups agendas.
DD notes, in a statement that applies to MANY states, that The statewide high school exit exam doesn't test any math above the ninth-grade level.

That is only half of the story. You can pass those tests without knowing any math at the ninth-grade level. Look at the exams that several states make public and the passing score and you will see what I mean.

As timfc notes, "consumer" or "financial" math classes often make up those other math credits, although my observation (via students) is that those classes are intended to reinforce the 7th grade concepts that some of those students need to master so they can pass the 9th grade test before the end of their senior year.

I disagree completely with JimC about the role of government funding of education in this problem. First, education was not better in this country before the government created universal access to schools. Second, there is no monopoly, effective or otherwise, where I live and I see no evidence in the entry placement scores of students entering our CC that private schools (of which there are many) do any better than public ones. Many are worse, possibly because they have an objective reason (money or religion) to keep the parents happy and absolutely no external measures to hold them accountable. They just blame us for unfair tests when their kids place into low level math classes.
Part of the reason is that in my state, we have SIX SOLID PAGES of unfunded government mandates, one mandate per line, that we as a local district are required by law to put into place with no money. We have increasing reporting requirements every year that require additional administrators, at the expense of instructional personnel or building maintenance. We don't really have electives. We're making choices between math and roofs.

Add to that that 75% of our students are Title I, and that means we have students coming to school hungry, students whose only meal of the day is free lunch, students who are massively exposed to lead paint (my county has the highest lead poisoning rate in the entire nation) with all of the developmental results from that, students who have been malnourished since birth, students whose mothers did not receive adequate prenatal care, students who are chronically truant beginning in kindergarten because of transportation problems and/or parental flakiness, students who have to get free clothes from the district before they can come to school, students who don't own winter jackets in the midwest and walk to school daily (our school weather cancellation policy is based on that knowledge), and a 30% mobility rate DURING THE SCHOOL YEAR (it's far higher in summer), with no other official avenue for addressing these problems beyond the school district.

There are days our district is so involved in feeding and clothing our children that we can barely get to educating them.

There are days I want to say, "Hey, sorry we're sending the CC (where I also teach) students who suck at math. But, community, how about you guys step up and care about the fact that children are LITERALLY STARVING in your community, instead of just whining about how they can't do trigonometry 18 years later?" Hungry children can't concentrate and don't learn well, and it's not like these problems are springing full-formed from the high schools. This is two decades of societal neglect of each impoverished child where often the ONLY entity attempting to help them is the school district. Which, granted, is failing educationally, but when you have so many "prerequisites" to tackle, like hunger and clothing and shelter, before you can start teaching, you can see the problem.

All that and the state is 3 months behind on its general state aid payments, reneged on $1.7 million in funding so far already for next year, and gave us six pages in unfunded mandates. We may or may not make payroll.
I have a very small observation but I think it speaks to this issue even earlier in the system. I'm in Toronto and my husband and I are touring schools for senior kindergarten (we have a junior kindergarten here as well, which is not mandatory). My son has been in a Montessori/daycare for two years.

So we hit the local french immersion orientation and they took us through a typical morning:

8:55 am - arrival of 20-ish 5 y olds
9:05 - 9:25 - mandated 20 mins of physical activity.
10-10:15 - recess
11:30 - snack
11:45 - dismissal

My husband and I were a little bit floored that the instructional time is: 10 min, then 35 min, and then 1 hr 15 minutes. That's not counting boots/coats/settling down time. That's it. The physed - both activity and recess - are mandated to combat childhood obesity or whatever.

What's the mathematical goal for kindergarten? To be able to COUNT - not write, but count - to 30. In both languages, granted, but still. That's for the full year.

It was really eye opening.

At Montessori, he right now understands place value to the thousands and can count up as high as he wants to go, can add and multiply (not by rote, but by grouping physical objects, so it's not fully fledged) and is subtracting now (Montessori teaches that after multiplication).

Now they have the luxury of many more hours in the day but...still. Makes me wonder if the bar is just set too low.
Ms. Neurotic,

Young children learn through play; regimenting them into traditional "instructional time" is frequently not just useless but counterproductive. (And yes, some young children read, do math, etc., very early, but typically because it's a game for them.)

Personally, I'm considering whether to opt my child out of kindergarten entirely in a few years (in my state we can do that) because the kindergarten is too academically-focused to be age-appropriate, in an effort to provide "rigor" and "better prepare" students for future academics. (I think the right fix to this problem would be earlier intervention for children who need help; a bad instructional system at age 5 will provide some gains, but not nearly enough for the at-risk students, and it's starting early on turning at-risk kids off to school by being developmentally inappropriate.)

The kindergarten that you're looking at sounds very age-appropriate in terms of instructional vs. physical play time (and I hope a good portion of that instructional time is devoted to learning-through-play rather than actual instruction), and is exactly what I would want for my child.

(Also, among students from supportive home environments, reading and math before first grade do not translate to later advanced academic achievement; the 2-year-old reader and the 6-year-old reader will have the same outcomes in high school, so I wouldn't worry a lot about "counting" being the kindergarten goal ... the real educational goal of kindergarten in most cases is to practice being in school and learn social skills.)
To follow on what Eyebrows (?) said, when my kids were in kindergarten in Japan (actually American kindergarten age is the last year of their pre-school) the kids got almost no "classroom instruction" at all, and certainly no math. They learned things like listening to directions and sitting still and relating to their peers in an appropriate fashion. Those Japanese kids then go on to learn both math and a much more complicated writing system than English and they actually do learn it--even the ones that will never go to college. So count me skeptical about the value of early instruction.
Call me a wacky historian, but I don't want our high schools teaching four years of history. They do it so poorly, even with the best of intentions. Too many people already hate history (or so they tell me when they learn what I do for a living).

Four years of writing-intensive social sciences in the curriculum (geography, history, civics, mandated community service)? Maybe. Perhaps giving them some elective wiggle-room in that list, so they can pursue history of interest to them that isn't just slightly warmed-over nationalistic jingoism? Of course, then you have to fund enough teachers to offer all of that, and give them the skills to do so.

Four years of math? Bring it on, along with enthusiastic and capable instructors, who actually KNOW something about math education. I'm teaching a math/education double major right now who's horribly frustrated by a math curriculum that's gone so far past anything useful for secondary school education that this future teacher will struggle to assemble a real and useful approach to the classroom once employed. And don't even get me started about how many math-phobics are training to become K-8 teachers where they'll teach math by rote right out of the useless textbooks because they don't understand anything and are scared of the whole field. That's setting our students up for success at high school, college or university -- NOT!

Then, as Eyebrows noted, we have students who're starving, literally as well as figuratively. We know of K-12 students whose homes don't boast of a single book or who've seen both parents lose jobs due to strikes and the recession. Schools are being asked to do a lot more with a lot less. Every "accountability measure" and mandated test is one more bite taken out of the pie. And there's hardly a crumb left!
This has veered so far from the original topic of local control, I don't even know where to begin. Sure, our K-12 systems are challenged by undue regulation, lack of resources, under-privileged kids, etc. Still, the issue is really what do school districts get to decide for themselves, in terms of their curriculum? Despite all of the challenges, there still should be a baseline curriculum that students need to graduate high school, and that should include at least 3 years of substantive math up through Algebra 2. Any district that is not doing this for their students is doing them and their community a great disservice.

It seems that most states get this now and have moved to (or are moving toward) these math requirements for all high school graduates. Sure, it is tough to do, and many students will find it supremely challenging to complete 3 years of a sequence that leads to Algebra 2. However, there is little alternative if we hope to prepare our children for the future.

In my state (WA), many districts have just moved to requiring 3 years of math, and encouraging a 4th year. Many high schools offer something like "Algebra 2.5" for Seniors, where they go over similar topics, in a little more depth. So, students who were a little shaky at the end of Alg 2 have a better command of the concepts after "Alg 2.5".
I would agree with you if it weren't for the role of politics, but politics plays an enormous role in the teaching of children. What if your standardized education was being organized by a (right/left) wing partisan and not someone with your students' interests in mind.

At least with local control the whole system cannot be co-opted, since people are not likely to agree on curriculum design (another argument for retaining local control, as it turns out).

It's a question of best or safest.
Requiring students to take more math and science in high school has the unfortunate side effect of causing these courses to loose rigor. When our state university added chemistry and another year of math to their entrance requirement, enrollment in these courses increased. Unfortunately, many of the new students were just after a grade and the pressure was on teachers to make the course easier. With weaker students in the class the teacher now cannot cover what was once covered, so the top students come out less prepared than before.

One reason schools might not want to require more math and science courses is the shortage of qualified teachers. Our school encourages students to shadow workers in the community instead of taking coursework. I preferred to put my children in calculus and physics so they would be better prepared for college, but if everyone did that the school would have to find and hire more teachers. That would be much more expensive than having them doing an internship in one of the local businesses.

Janice, were you suggesting that the math education students are required to take too much upper level math in college? I teach college science and sometimes hear students complaining that they have to take coursework that goes well beyond what they will be teaching. Many of the upper level courses, however, are essential to understanding what is behind the topics covered in lower level courses. The understanding gained in these courses will enable the teacher to understand and incorporate many of the reforms that are taking place in STEM courses.
Schools are prisons.
I think we're long past overdue for a discussion of what, other than warehousing, high school is actually for.
At least with local control the whole system cannot be co-opted, since people are not likely to agree on curriculum design (another argument for retaining local control, as it turns out).

Happens at the textbook level, I'm afraid. Publishers design textbooks to be acceptable in Texas and sell them to the rest of the country. As no one else has comparable purchasing clout, textbooks get designed to Texas standards; if you don't like the treatment of a subject, good luck finding an alternative.

Up in Canada the province of Ontario has had two provincial curriculums in the last decade, under both right- and left-wing governments, and they both managed to keep politics out of the classroom. Given what I know of small-town politics, you're actually more likely to get interference when everything's local.
I'd like to second and amplify what David said about increasing requirements causing less rigor in those classes.

I'm a high school math teacher who taught for two years at a low-SES high school with district-imposed math requirements of 3 years of math consisting of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. An optional 4th year of pre-calculus and 5th year of AP calc were also offered. In my two years there, I taught everything except AP calc at least once.

There was TREMENDOUS pressure on me to pass seniors in Algebra 2 regardless of their math comprehension because "they need this class to graduate" and one of the things NCLB grades us on is graduation rate. My second year in the school, that was the only category that caused us to be a "failing" school (we passed all of the standardized-test based categories, which are based on sophomore-level math and English). (Oddly enough, one of the other similar-population schools in our district failed pretty much all the academic categories but passed the graduation rate one, and we are both considered equally "failing" in terms of years toward sanctions. As far as I know, no investigation into how we can fail the same kinds of students in such opposite ways is being launched, we are just both in Big (but equal) Trouble.) I have no idea if this was solely due to me refusing to pass kids who never came to class and never achieved more than 40% on a math test all year or not. (I was willing to work with students outside of class extensively and also could set them up with free tutoring by college students after school. One senior legitimately passed despite his simultaneous enrollment in Algebra 1 and half of Geometry through credit recovery, so I don't think I was being unreasonably harsh on these kids.)

Community college aged kids have the option of not going to college at all. High school aged kids do not. If your area is like mine, you are seeing maybe our top 50% or 25% of students. Yes, it might be better to have made those kids take more math (I've tried to get them to do so, and it would be nice to get some system in place) but I really don't think making them sit in a class with the other 50% to 75% of their high school peers and trying to learn Algebra 2 is going to have at all the same level of learning they'd have in an "elective" Algebra 2 class. It's really comparing apples and oranges.

I wish I knew a good solution to this problem, but I'm pretty much convinced that just requiring everyone to take more math in high school to get a diploma won't work unless students are allowed to fail high school without blaming the school for it.
Anonymous wrote, "I'm a high school math teacher who taught for two years at a low-SES high school with district-imposed math requirements of 3 years of math consisting of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. An optional 4th year of pre-calculus and 5th year of AP calc were also offered."

My story is pretty similar except my school required 4 years of math with at least passing either a serious algebra/pre-calc course or AP stats.

I was never pressured by the administration to pass a student who did not deserve it.

We're a title 1 school, many of our students are hungry, have broken homes, homes without books, and yet we made AYP every year and our students went to college at a 90%+ rate.

So, when I say, "all students should take Algebra 2" I'm saying it as someone who has taught "all students" algebra 2. We were able to recognize that, often, their lives were difficult (taking the train 1.5 hours to come to school because your parents died and your sister landed in jail) but we asked them to do their best to put it aside at the classroom door. We also had an advisory time built into every day where we could talk about, work on and try to alleviate what we could.
We need local control and national curricula that are enforced by school inspectors with the power to toss out the local school board.

Not state, national curricula, otherwise, Texas
The unstated premise of your post is that requiring a national curriculum would result in a mandated 4 years of math, science, history, etc. education.

I'm not sure why you believe that. I don't think that national curriculum-setters are going to be any more immune to pressure to require fewer years of math than local schools are...and their bad decisions might have more wide-ranging consequences.

Although, realistically, there would probably be little difference - they would impose a minimal national requirement, which wealthy schools would exceed and which poor schools would struggle to implement successfully.
Depending on the local climate, mandating classes will either cause the students to learn more, or it will just bring down the quality of the classes. I'm not even really talking about grade inflation; that's such an entrenched part of high school in many places that another dollop of it from the newly-required Algebra 2 class won't even be noticed.

The counterintuitive problem is that many teachers are extremely uncomfortable with teaching a difficult class and then grading very easily so as not to damage their school's graduation rate; understandably so, and you'd think it was a generally good thing that they are uncomfortable with the idea. However, that really just causes them to do something even worse: dilute the class material itself so that they feel okay with giving students good grades; after all, they did well on the (extremely simple) assignments. I was a victim of this in my own (fairly recent) high school education; our AP Biology class was more about texting and school spirit than bacteria, freshman Biology was less rigorous than many elementary school classes, and I didn't learn math in more than a technical sense until I hit Calculus.

If students are going to focus on football and texting, they will do it whether they're in Algebra 2 or not, and won't learn Algebra 2 in the process. The current policy of not mandating 4 years of anything is an informal tracking system that allows higher-level classes to actually be higher-level.
i see that most people are missing the point, and that is that most parents dont want to put in the work to assure that their kid is smart.

90% of kids will take the easy way out.

80% of today's parents will let their kids take the easy way out.

forcing kids to take math & science is more pressure and work for parents. in the end, parents are lazy, and are satisfied in blaming their child's lackluster performance on either the [ill-perceived] 'failed' school system, their child's imaginary learning disability (that will have no bearing in their first hour of post HS education), or their child himself/herself.

i think a lot of parents do the minimal amount of work for their child to graduate, and then it is up to the child to perform by his/herself once they get to post high school education. basically, that means that parents can push their responsibilities off onto their children. mom & dad can either put in more work and make sure junior gets an 'A' or 'B' in calculus, or they can let him take 'Yearbook' and then junior can pay for his own CC calculus course, and the work will be all up to him.
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