What if this is actually true…?

Last August, Kelsey Sheehy (@KelseyLSheehy) published “Failing a High School Algebra Class ‘isn’t the End of the World’  in US News and World Report. In the article she discusses the arguments of a couple of critics who are essentially arguing that it is time to reassess the long-held tradition that algebra is an mandatory part of a high school mathematics curriculum.

From the article:

“Algebra requirements trip up otherwise talented students and are the academic instigators behind the nation’s high school and college dropout rates, argues Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor at CUNY–Queens College and author of the much-debated article.” (Sheehy, 2012)

She continues:

“Hacker argues that students should understand basic arithmetic, but memorizing complex mathematic formulas bring little value to society. “There is no evidence that being able to prove (x ² + y ²) ² = (x ² – y ²) ² + (2xy) ² leads to more credible political opinions or social analylsis,” Hacker writes.”

Sheehy is referencing Mr. Hacker’s Op-Ed from the NY Times dated July 28, 2012, which has generated a rather strong response. The comments number 477 and are closed. Some of them are less than cordial. There have also been blog responses like this (which also got 20 comments).

The last paragraph of his piece makes no bones about his point-of-view:

“Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.” (Hacker, 2012)

It would seem that the policy-makers across the country would disagree with him, but I’m not sure our policy-makers are any more equipped to make that decision than Mr. Hacker.

I’m also considering Dan Meyer’s (@ddmeyer) rather engaging line: “I’m a high school algebra teacher. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it, but is forced by law to buy it.”

So what gives? If Algebra is driving up failure rates, driving down student motivation, and, as Mr. Hacker asserts, isn’t actually useful (a very debatable point but perhaps a debate worth having), why do we continue to insist that Algebra continue to be mandatory?

And if it is going to continue to be mandatory (which might be the right thing to do), what can we do to make it more universally accessible?

Perhaps the question of why algebra is mandatory should give way to the much more meaningful discussion: Why do kids hate it so much and how do we fix that problem?


“Useless” Math Class – Misconception #2

In a previous post, I commented on how struck I was upon reading an embittered writer’s rant about having to take a “useless” math class. I mentioned four main misconceptions that we math teachers have allowed to take root in the modern academic mindset. I will now address misconception #2:

“The influx of handy-dandy computerized technology has lessened the need for mathematically proficient common folk.”

This misconception is offspring of the belief that mathematics is all about number-crunching in it’s various forms. If that were true, then there would probably be more truth to the misconception than there is. However, mathematics more than number-crunching. It is also analysis. Analysis needs human beings.

To properly analyze requires human beings because everywhere you look, human beings are trying to use quantitative statements to persuade other human beings. And data and statistics are not trustworthy on their own. In fact, they are included in Mark Twain’s three flavors of dishonesty: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

So, modern technology is wonderfully convenient for helping us deal with this:

photo credit: Flickr user "justgrimes" - used under creative commons

photo credit: Flickr user “justgrimes” – used under creative commons

But is your iPhone going to help you figure out if this chart tells us ANYTHING meaningful?

photo credit: Flickr user "jurvetson" - used under creative commons

photo credit: Flickr user “jurvetson” – used under creative commons

Can you imagine what kind of statement this display will help support?

You know where the general public can practice developing comfort with basic logic and numeracy to debunk crappy arguments that are pitched to us by politicians and marketing departments? You guessed it…

In “useless” math classes… like the ones I teach!


Also if you are curious about my debunking Misconception #1, you can go and read all about it

Creativity in Education: The Growing Publicity

Podcaster Dan Carlin recommends a reassessing the value of a K-12 education... he's not the only one.

Podcaster Dan Carlin recommends a reassessing the desired outcomes of a K-12 education… he’s not the only one.

I’ve discussed before the ideas on the increasing need for instructing our young people in a spirit of increasing creativity and flexibility in their learning. Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) is my favorite speaker on this need. He has some fantastic TED Talks that make the point strikingly clear. His book, Out of Our Minds, is a fantastic manifesto relating to this issue as well.

Until today however, the only people I was hearing making this point were educators. Until today. Today, I heard a podcast from Dan Carlin (@DCCommonSense), who is a political commentator formerly from the radio who has spent the last several years podcasting exclusively. His podcast, Common Sense with Dan Carlin, comes out every other week or so and usually stays to topics like the economy, foreign policy, and governmental corruption. He tweets to nearly 10k followers and his podcast is downloaded by probably five times that many people. I am a regular listener and he normally doesn’t discuss the education system.

Yesterday, he went there. He referenced Sir Ken Robinson and went on to echo much of what I find exactly correct about Robinson’s message. Says Carlin: “[The education system in the United States] was put into place 100 years ago to make good factory workers out of people, basically, to count change back at retail establishments, to be able to read the directions on the machines at the assembly line at auto assembly plant. Whatever is was, we were trying to create a level of middle class job-seekers that had the minimal skills required for their employer.”

He goes on to add, “The economic situation is such now that that is not the right kind of education for our students to have. [Our schools need to create] a different kind of person. You don’t need a person who is trained for a job. You need a person with a firm foundation that will enable them to be flexible and creative.”

And he doesn’t blame the teachers: “It isn’t that anybody in teaching doesn’t see the value in creativity. People who do are as stuck in the machine as any of the rest of us. If you are a teacher who is saying, ‘my goodness, the worst thing that is happening at my school is that the music programs are getting cut,’ what the heck can you do about it? Right? You’re trapped in an inflexible system just like we are when we talk about problems the government has.”

In his latest podcast, he expresses concern over whether or not the needed changes to the education system are going to be realized. Carlin’s skepticism is pointed at the structures that would likely put up roadblocks in the path of true progress in this regard: state and federal governments and the teacher’s unions. Whether or not he is correct in that regard is a matter of debate, but at the very least, innovation in education is lagging the innovation in most other areas of society.

So here we are. The days of industrial education should be coming to end. Many of us in the educational community are becoming aware of it and now those outside of the educational community are echoing the message. People from all over, in different fields, are recognizing the problem and are understanding the solution. At least Sir Ken Robinson and Dan Carlin seem to agree.

Our education system is designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.

The quotes are taken from Dan Carlin’s podcast entitled “Pie-in-the-Sky Cynicism” released 30 Jan 2013. It is currently available for free on iTunes.

Why aren’t more people talking about this?

About a week ago, Common Dreams reported on growing boycott of standardized testing coming out of Seattle.

I heard about it through an e-mail from a former professor of mine. When I posted it to Facebook, it got 2 likes, 1 share and a single comment (that also got 2 likes). Not a lot of interest.

There is also a growing number of post-secondary institutions that are shying away from ACT and SAT results when making admissions decisions. You can read the list of schools here. It isn’t a short list.

So, why isn’t this story of more intrigue to people? Standardized testing has become the means through which we make most of the decisions across the country. Whether you support them or not, why isn’t a growing boycott a bigger story?

To me, this is a great opportunity. If more school’s get on board and some momentum can be  built, this a fantastic chance for conversation to begin. Not a conversation about which test to give, or what content to test, but instead whether or not standardized testing is an effective means of evaluation.

I’ve talked about this before. In The Growing Case Against Standardized Testing, I reveal my hand as a skeptic of testing as it is currently done. I would love the conversation to get going because I think that educational community needs to produce answers to some key questions:

1. Do we have an agreed upon definition or description of a “successful” school? Have we done any studies to demonstrate the standardized testing process is an accurate predictor of a school’s “success”?

2. Why do we have so much faith in the standardized test results? What have we done to ensure the fidelity of the results?

3. Why is important that students get tested so often?

4. Do we have an agreed upon definition of a “successful” student? Are we convinced that test results are a predictor of current or future success of an individual student?

All of these questions get at the heart of Standardized Testing. There is a growing body of evidence that is piling up against the standardized testing model as an effective means of evaluating anything… a school, a student, a teacher, a leadership team, or a community, but policy makers seems to be taking no notice.

So, I ask again: when a major public school system has schools that are boycotting the tests and major universities are ignoring the results, why aren’t more people talking about this?

Advice for the MEA, Part 2

This is part two of a two-part series. If you find yourself getting lost and need some background, then please go back one post and pick the story up from the beginning. And on we go…

So, in my last post, we established that the public face of the MEA is one that is dedicated to lobbying, healthcare, benefits, and otherwise interacting in the political and legislative process.

But, the new MEA, the right-to-work MEA, the MEA that has to sell its services to attract members should consider being able to answer one very important question:

What is the MEA going to do to help me become a better educator?

Education is what my job is all about and it is the “E” in the MEA. The MEA is fighting to help me become a better paid educator. The MEA is fighting to help me become an educator with a good healthcare plan.

But what if my main objective is to become a better educator? Can the MEA help me there?

I believe they can. If I were in charge of the MEA, here’s what I’d do. I would begin a major change. The MEA is dedicated to providing Michigan students with the very best educators in the world. So, we are going to cut our lobbying budget in half and instead, the dues that you pay us will be redirected to providing monthly professional development conferences. We will bring in the foremost educational reformers who will provide expert analysis and research-based techniques for improving instruction, assessment, scheduling, sequencing, community relations and instructional leadership.

Also, we will be altering the job descriptions of our building representatives. From now on, local EAs building representatives will be co-observers who will assist the administrators see to it that each member gets observed and evaluated by multiple sets of eyes. The building representatives will be thoroughly and continuously trained to ensure that they are of the highest quality.

Also, the MEA will continue to produce the legislative critique journal, the MEA Voice, but it will also be providing two top-notch professional educational journal for a modest $3 per month cost each. In either the elementary or the secondary version, this monthly journal will include an article from each of the 6 main core areas (math, science, ELA, social studies, fine arts, and foreign language) written by MEA members, approved by a board of 15- to 25-year veteran teachers.

Also, for far too long, the plight of the first-year teacher has been ignored, so in the new MEA, local officers will be personally responsible for the mentorship of the first-year teachers. They will meet weekly with the first-year teachers. The MEA will make sure that Uniserv directors’ offices have a room dedicated to creating a library of effective resources for consumption by first- and second- year teachers. Under the guidance of the local president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer, the first- and second- year teachers will be expected to read books quarterly and be observed by local union members who the staff elects as exemplary teachers to offer support and feedback to the young teachers. The MEA will sponsor a weekend conference that all first- and second- year teachers MUST attend in order to remain in good standing. The conference will be free to all first- and second- year teachers. It will include rap sessions with exemplary teachers, opportunities to observe master teachers, group sessions evaluating student work, and a keystone address by a cutting-edge expert in the field of education.

So, why should you join the MEA? Because, we are going to provide you the resources, the support, and the community to help you become the very best educator you could possibly be. Without us, you might be great, but you are doing it on your own. With us, you will become the very, very best.

How different a message would that be?

MEA, I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but there it is.

Now, let’s go have a great 2013.

Advice for the MEA, Part 1

I am a member of Michigan’s largest teacher’s union: The Michigan Education Association (MEA). (It actually represents several other groups of public and private school employees as well).

The last quarter of 2012 was a tenuous time for those actively involved in union activities. Proposal 2 (which would have constitutionally protected collective bargaining and union workplace procedures) was campaigned for the November election and the public voted it down more than 2-to-1. Then, during the lame duck session, the Michigan Legislature passed a series of “right-to-work” laws that give current union members the ability to remain employed in their current positions while ceasing to pay dues to a union. The reality of 25% to 40% of members accepting the new option is putting the MEA in a tricky position.

It has to sell it’s services.

MEA, I know you didn’t ask, but I have some advice for you. You provide a service to your members. No time would be better than now to begin to convince your members how vital your services are. I have spent some time trying to get a sense for what the mission of MEA is, not from reading the mission statement, but instead by looking at the publication: the MEA Voice. The journal that gets mailed to each member. THe contact that you keep with your members is contained within. In inspecting the MEA Voice, I have made a few observations.

1. The MEA Voice for December 2012 is a 24-page document (including the cover). In that document:

  • The cover is dedicated with a pretty cool picture of a rocket from a school’s rocketry program, which is competing against a quarter-page, bright red, “CRISIS” statement about legislation in the lower right corner.
  • The table of contents treats the rocketry program like a footnote to the huge picture of picketing, campaigning members in the middle of the page
  • The fantastic rocketry program is explained in a 2-and-a-half page article, which is split across the 5-page list of names of members who gathered at least 24 signatures for the Proposal Two petition drive.

All of this reveals one possible conclusion: The MEA is much more interested in the political side of education than it is about the academic side of education. At least that is what one could deduce from the organizations main publication.

But, I understand, 2012 was an election year. The lame duck session was very stressful and eventful. What about a non-election year. How about April 2011? That was 6 months past the 2010 mid-terms and a year-and-a-half from the 2012 elections. Surely if the MEA were going to publish some good academic articles, it would be then, right?

Well, here are some observations from that issue.

  • The cover shows a group of adults standing in a group looking up at the camera with the headlines “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: ‘Ed Reform’ vs. Building Effective Schools. How to best help students.” A good start…
  • A letter to the members all about legislation and concerns about it.
  • A flash back to a 1934 essay about how public policy is conspiring against public education.
  • A top ten list in which the only item on the list regarding good teacher was a paragraph dedicated to an award-winning social studies teacher from Kalamazoo (which came in at #7… one spot below the save-the-date for the MEA member golf outing at #6.)
  • The first real article is a 4-page spread on the cover issue in which all of the pictures show protesting members with signs.
  • 3 pages about health care, 2 about retirement, 6 pages dedicated to officer elections, and exactly NO advice for a young teacher trying to get better. Also, there was no notices of conferences, workshops, or professional development (aside from some advertising space given to local university programs.)

In fact, I went looking through the rest of the available issues. Here’s what I found:

  • February 2011 – One page (out of 24) dedicated to a column on good ELA instruction. It was pg 22. Last of the whole magazine. For the record, it got the same amount of paper and ink dedicated to it as the one-page ad for the member golf outing.
  • December 2010 – One-and-a-half pages about an effective band teacher.
  • October 2010 – A notice of a instructional support PD conference appears on pg 3, and 2 pages dedicated to school improvement at Adrian High School. (This amidst the 6 pages dedicated to supporting Virg Bernero as Michigan’s next governer.)

You get the idea. A trip around the website says the same thing.

The MEA is a political organization that is now in the position of having to market itself to its prospective members. It is clear to me what the MEA does to support its legislative beliefs. it is clear to me what partnerships the MEA has for healthcare and retirement services.

But what if I don’t want to be a member of a political organization? What if my goal is to excel as an educator? What evidence do I have that you will support me in that venture?

In Part 2 of this series, I will complete my (unsolicited) advising of the MEA.

What 2012 Has Taught Me #4 – The Politics of Education

Photo Credit: Flickr user "DonkeyHotey" - Used under creative commons

Photo Credit: Flickr user “DonkeyHotey” – Used under creative commons


I’ll start here: 2012 has taught me that there is no political flagship that is holding a monopoly on the truth.


“Liberals” and “Conservatives” have been fighting for as long as I can remember in Michigan over the politics of education. “Liberals” and their unions promote themselves as the defenders of education. “Conservatives” (like our current Governer Rick Snyder) promote themselves as the reformers of education. Then come in all the other pieces: charter schools, state-mandate curricula, retirement and benefits, data, graduation rates, standardized testing… blah, blah, blah. “Conservatives” say one thing. “Liberals” say another thing.

It used to matter a lot to me, like… a lot. In general, I am a “conservative” thinker. I believe in fiscal responsibility, but I know a lot of “liberals” who believe in that, too. I believe in the dignity of all human beings, which is the basis for my anti-abortion beliefs and my skepticism over the death penalty, but I know “liberals” who believe in that, too. I believe we should seriously reduce our military presence around the world. I know a lot of “liberals” who believe that, too.

My masters class this semester was taught by an educator who introduced himself as “the most radical professor in the department.” And in his extreme “liberalism” he showed us video after video of lecturers and speakers who supported his “radical” ideas of supporting lower classes, promoting racial equality, and progressively educating in ways that support all students and give opportunities for social advancement.

Speaker after speaker. Speech after speech. Lecture after lecture. Talking about the dignity of all human beings. The talent that exists in underrepresented populations. The methods and means for effectively educating them. The results that demonstrate the effectiveness. Presented as though those beliefs were “liberal.”

And here I sat: A “conservative” mostly agreeing with all of it. The only part that I disagreed with was the part about those being “liberal” ideas. They didn’t sound like it to me. I knew “liberals”. I also knew “conservatives”. The respect for human dignity at all levels of human life from the super talented and successful to the severely disabled, from the oldest people to the very youngest people (so young they still needed to live inside the womb for a while longer) seemed to be an idea that existed among both “conservatives” and “liberals” and also was willing to be sacrificed by the most politically powerful “liberals” and “conservatives.”

So, 2012 has taught me that the “liberal” and “conservative” labels are as harmful as they are misunderstood. Calling someone a “conservative” means a lot to people who fancy themselves “liberals” because they need an enemy. The same is true for “conservatives” who label someone a “liberal.” The labels work well when the desire is to place blame.

I don’t know what I am anymore because I don’t know what those labels mean anymore. The more time that we spend working to define those words, the more time we waste that could be better spent solving problems. Good education isn’t “conservative” or “liberal.” Once again, there is no political flagship that is holding a monopoly on the truth. 2012 has taught me that there isn’t much value in pretending that it does.