Sunday, January 31, 2010

Education wrap-up

Tomorrow, Monday, February 1, I begin my student teaching at Vines High School in Plano. In two ways this means that this will be my last blog posting on education and education policy for a while. This post will contain a list of brief topics I had wanted to get to at some point. But first an explanation of why this will be my last posting for a while.

The most important one is time. Student teaching is a more than full-time activity. I find it hard to believe that I will have time or energy for anything else. Indeed, this will be my first full-time position since 1997 when I requested to go from full-time to part-time at the Cranfield University Computer Centre. (And, unlike in Plano which has loads of centres and theatres it's not an affectation for Cranfield, in England, to have a computer centre.) I will be less active with my Facebook presence, and I will be less active here.

The second reason for cutting down in posting about education policy was that during the Plano Student Teacher orientation we were advised to not make public statements about the school district. I suspect that if I examined the legal basis for this, I would find that as someone now affiliated with PISD I would not be allowed to say anything that could be taken as a reflection of PISD policy. So I doubt that I could be forbidden from blogging if I included appropriate disclaimers. But instead of trying to cut close to what is allowed, I will steer clear of anything that might conflict with policy. Only a few of my postings have specifically addressed PISD, and in those postings I think I've been very positive about the school district. It was my first choice for student teaching and will be my first choice when I hit the job market.

Once I am fully settled into a teaching position I will explore what kind of public posting would be acceptable. As I've said before I have absolutely no desire to stir up trouble. I should also point out that by refraining from commenting on education, I am much less likely to accidentally violate any confidentiality concerns. (Not that I think I am likely to make that mistake, it may be a concern of others I work with.)

So now I'll just produce a brief list of things that I wanted to address at some point.

In praise of Arne Duncan

I really like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I like his commitment to finding solutions that work. From his ideas about longer school days and years to his attempts to get usable data that enables us to see what (and who) works well and what (and who) doesn't. He's not making friends with many teachers' unions, but they aren't protesting too much because he does have a lot of money to through around.

There was an interesting profile of Duncan in the New Yorker recently. I didn't feel that it was fully up to the standards I usually see in the New Yorker, but it was still a worthwhile read.

Incentives to cheat

Cheating on the high stakes tests is something that has been going on for a while and has been excellently described in the first chapter of Freakonomics. And there are more reports coming in. The set of rules in place to present cheating is enormous. Administering and document these tests has become a huge undertaking, not least of all to prevent teacher and administrator cheating.

Instead of adding more rules to deal with particular avenues of cheating, we need to correct a fundamental design flaw. The people who have the most to lose by poor test scores are exactly the people who administer these tests. The teachers and school principals have much more at stake than the actual students. In some cases their jobs are at stake. Yet these are the same people who administer the tests. No matter how much we like to think about the integrity of teachers and school administrators, this is a terrible position to put them in.

I don't know exactly how it should be done, but this kind of testing should be administered by outsiders. Maybe contract with something like ETS or other organizations whose business depends on their reputation for fair administration of tests. Maybe use teachers for a different school district. What ever we do, we should not have the people who have most at stake with these test scores administer the tests.

Statistics, Not pre-pre-Calculus

Arthur Benjamin has proposed something that in a three minute video of his TED talk changed my view about math curriculum. It is a simple point that he makes better than I could summarize.

I haven't thought through this in detail, but as I watch kids, most of whom will not go on to calculus, learn how to factor or divide polynomials, I can't help thinking that Arthur Benjamin is on to something. One problem in changing things is that most people like me (math geeks who go into teaching) like algebra and analysis more than we like statistics. Although I would enjoy learning a branch of mathematics that I have no formal training in, it would certainly involve retraining, not to mention entirely new curriculum development.

A gripe about relevance

I have been told in my teacher training that I should try to make a connection between everything I teach and the lives of my students. I've been told that students don't like or do well in math because they don't see the relevance. I feel that math is being held to a higher standard than other fields. When in English students are taught the difference between a metaphor and a simile there is no demand that it be made relevant. In history it is great to teach about the Roman Empire, but exaggerating its relevance for most students is probably seen as a sham. In so many subjects we are teaching kids how to think about the world and ideas. Yet when it comes to math, people seem to feel that we need to pretend that all of the skills are immediately relevant for their lives.

It's good to learn mathematics because by studying it makes people smarter. It is about learning how to think in a particular way. Being able to think mathematically is very useful even if the particular skills taught are not. I believe that this is also true of the study of other fields as well. Each opens up a way of thinking that will benefit students for the rest of their lives. Insisting that it is practical and constructing contrived applications only communicates that we are lying about the need to study math. We need to tell our students the truth: Learning math makes your brain work better.

And finally, my résumé.

My student teaching is the last requirement before I can receive my Texas Mathematics 8–12 Mathematics Certification. So I will be looking for a job soon. Thus, I link to my résumé (PDF).


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  2. Best of luck, Jeff! Ah, relevance! I too have to try to make linguistics relevant to Spanish teachers. Or, harder still, the Spanish language to people who see no reason to learn it.

  3. Jon, Thanks.

    I find it disappointing that there is anyone in this hemisphere who doesn't see the practical utility of having Spanish language skills.

  4. Ah, statistics, wonderful stuff.

    Though, as to relevance, when I took calculus in high school they taught us things like how to build a corn silo for the lowest cost or calculating movie revenues and prices.

    My brother in law asked me about calculus and I showed him how it relates to the size of pipe necessary for a sink to drain correctly (and how to figure out how fast a sink that is a modified half sphere will drain) and a whole world of real applications.

    Hope Vines works out well for you. One of the things that made me sad about moving was that my youngest won't get to go to Vines like my oldest did.