"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, February 21, 2010

News flash: People are willing to pay higher taxes for better schools and teachers

The things that "everyone knows" are usually utterly ridiculous nonsense that someone with an agenda is trying to cram down your throat. For example, "everyone knows" that the public option in health care is unpopular. Except that between 51 and 76 percent of the population supports it (depending on how it is defined), which used to be a majority when I had math.

"Everyone knows" that a big reason for New Jersey's budget problems is overspending on schools, especially those overpaid and over-pensioned teachers. "Everybody" wants to make sure that teachers share the pain over budget cuts. (Like fewer, older books, crumbling school buildings and increased classes sizes aren't pain enough.) "Everybody" is sick and tired of paying teachers more than they're worth for working from 8 to 2:30 every day. (Then, of course, going home and lazing around.)

Except that in Nevada, where schools are mediocre and the teacher's union is much less effectual than the NJEA, teachers have a 77 percent approval rating from voters, who oppose cutting teacher pay by 83 percent. In fact, 65 percent percent prefer raising corporate taxes to cutting teacher pay in order to make up the budget gap. I hope this will encourage the NJEA to commission a similar study and shut down Mr. Christie's attacks.

New Jersey has real financial problems. But grown-ups know how to look for the real causes of problems and find real solutions, instead of running around making up scapegoats; and in turn punishing the children for the failures of those so-called grown-ups.

Time in school > time spent learning

Before I became a schoolteacher, I used to have an honest job in a real office. Most bosses in these situations operate under a number of ridiculous counter-intuitive assumptions such as (a) if you had your butt in your chair in the office you were, ipso facto, working; (b) if you were anywhere outside of the office you could not possibly be working; and (c) the only conceivable times when work might get done were the very same hours that the boss was in the office, not before and not after. The idea that one might work in different times, places and in different ways did not occur to most supervisors in those days, probably because they hated their own jobs and could not imagine doing them without physical compulsion and social pressure. Nonetheless, the fallacy continues--being present means you're doing work. This delusion is particularly rabid in the public schools.

A few days ago the New York Times reported that

[d]ozens of public high schools in eight states will introduce a program next year allowing 10th graders who pass a battery of tests to get a diploma two years early and immediately enroll in community college. Students who pass but aspire to attend a selective college may continue with college preparatory courses in their junior and senior years...The tests would cover not only English and math but also subjects like science and history.

“One hope is that this board exam system can prepare students to move on to careers, to higher ed and technical colleges and the workplace, sooner rather than later,” said Howard T. Everson, a professor of educational psychology at CUNY, who is co-chairman of the advisory committee. In that respect, the effort is similar to the growing early college high school movement, in which students begin taking college-level courses while they are still in high school and earning college credit through nearby community colleges.

...Its backers say the new system would reduce the need for community colleges to offer remedial courses because the passing score for the 10th-grade tests would be set at the level necessary to succeed in first-year college courses...

...Kentucky’s commissioner of education, Terry Holliday, said ...“We’ve been tied to seat time for 100 years. This would allow an approach based on subject mastery — a system based around move-on-when-ready.”

...Supporters include...National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

I'm not sure what this all means. On the one hand, some students will avoid wasting time in high school sitting through instruction on things they have already mastered or subjects for which there are good substitute courses in a community college setting. On the other hand, are we headed for a two-tier class-reinforcing education system, such as has been traditional in Europe, wherein certain students are predestined for laboring trades and others for university work at an age too early to truly assess an individual's intellectual capacity, clouded as it is with issues of maturation and social adaptation?

A quick commercial

My son works for Wolfram Alpha, an online computation engine which attempts to understand and answer any question asked in plain language, the answer to which is susceptible to computation. One of the side effects of this powerful tool is that astute math students who discover it could use it to simply do their homework for them. This is because WA doesn't just answer questions, but shows you how it computed the answer. The smart math teacher (of smart math students) will take account of that and figure out how to incorporate it in their instruction. Here is Conrad Wolfram, one of the key figures in this project, explaining how computers can be integrated into math instruction to promote higher-order learning. (Sorry, this is a YouTube video, so it cannot be viewed within New Milford High School, for reasons which defy rational explanation.)

I am not a math teacher, and my math instruction ended just short of calculus, but I can appreciate the concept of moving math away from mere calculation toward the analysis and the solution of real-world problems and questions. This is akin to where I would like to see Language Arts education to go--away from the study of literature and mechanistic writing skills such as forming paragraphs and punctuating them, and toward locating and de-coding real-world texts for real world purposes, and synthesizing the material found there with other material, such as what the writer generates into a text with a real audience. You know, like writing a comment on a blog and stuff.

And in any case, I'm way proud of my son and the people he is associated with.