Sunday, December 28, 2008

Scarsdale and AP Tests

How do you rank high schools? U.S. News & World Report does it by calculating the ratio of students taking AP (Advanced Placement) exams to the number of graduating seniors. U.S. News & World Report has documented their methodology and you can see for yourself. Of course, this allows schools to "game the system" by forcing all seniors to take AP exams. (Newsweek magazine has their own list and they too like AP tests.) But who says taking Advanced Placement courses provides children with the best education? The Advanced Placement tests are a money making project of the College Boards.

It's been reported in the New York Times, "Scarsdale Adjusts to Life Without Advanced Placement Courses," by Winnie Hu (December 6, 2008) that Scarsdale is de-emphasizing Advanced Placement courses because Scarsdale High School believes it can provide a better education for its students without AP courses. They offer "Advanced Topics" classes instead.

Schools cannot allow the College Board to control education. The College Board is a corporation headed by a CEO who is not an educator; he is a former politician. School districts need to provide their students with the best education possible to face a complicated and uncertain future, and that won't happen by taking direction from a corporation.

If the Plano Independent School District wants to offer a superior education to its students, then the Plano ISD needs to identify its own list of the best high schools in America, ignoring U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek, and consider what features of the truly superior schools PISD might duplicate.

Plano could share its list and charge fees for details from the PISD analysis of the best schools. Maybe Plano would not rank in the top 10 or even top 50 of the best high schools in America on its own list, but it could certainly put itself squarely in the national picture of education by thinking independently, by establishing relationships with the very best schools in America, and by liberating schools from the shallow assessments of for-profit magazines.

Plano ISD needs to think for itself.

Robert Canright

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Math Rankings and Math Facts

The Decemeber 10, 2008 Wall Street Journal reported the latest international rankings for math in "U.S. Students Make Gains in Math Scores," by John Hechinger. (The New York Times ran a similar article on December 15.) The international ranking system is called Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

4th Grade:
1. Hong Kong
2. Singapore
3. Taiwan
4. Japan
5. Kazakhstan
11. USA

8th Grade:
1. Taiwan
2. South Korea
3. Singapore
4. Hong Kong
5. Japan
9. USA

These international tests are administered every 4 years. The Journal reports, "Two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, sought to have their schools' test results broken out separately. Both reported results outpacing the rest of the nation." The WSJ then says, "Massachusetts fourth-graders scored roughly as well as those in high-performing Taiwan and Japan."

Why did these two statess outperform the rest of the nation?

"Alice Seagren, Minnesota commissioner of education, said the state in 2003 revamped its education standards, which include a focus on learning math facts, such as the multiplication tables, in early grades."

"Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of education, said the state in the early 1990s developed new assessments and standards that, as in Minnesota, stressed the mastery of math facts..."

A child cannot master math without mastering math facts. When I ran for the Plano ISD school board in 2008 I recommended we pay better attention to teaching math facts.

Education all across America has systemic problems in teaching math. Fixing math instruction is not that hard. Getting rid of bad attitudes towards mathematics within the colleges of education is the challenge. The colleges of education consistently misguide every generation of teachers.

The parents and their elected representatives, the school board trustees, need to clean up the mess in math instruction because the school administrators have been misguided and are unable to correct themselves.

Robert Canright

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Economics, Not Science, Finance, Not Math

Texas is now requiring high school students who started as freshmen in 2007 to take 4 years of math and 4 years of science, which is called 4x4. You will notice that it is Wall Street financiers who are ruining our economy, not scientists, not engineers, and not mathematicians.

You will remember our recent Presidential election had one candidate say he did "not know enough about economics." The economy is in the toilet in part because too many citizens do not know enough about finance to understand when they are getting a loan they cannot afford to pay.

The problems facing America today were not caused by a lack of Math and Science education, but by a lack of education in Economics and Finance. Students of History know the Roman middle-class was driven into bankruptcy before the Republic was over-thrown by the powerful and ambitious. We should study History well enough to avoid losing our republic like the Romans lost theirs.

The Texas 4x4 is a terrible, misguided plan. If we value our future, we need to correct the 4x4 mistake, improve the electives in Economics, and add an elective in Finance.

Robert Canright

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Grammar and Writing: What Happened?

First, a couple of stories. A lady I know handed me a copy of her son's business plan written for a college course. She said she did not understand why the paper got an 87. She saw nothing wrong with it. I took a quick look and handed it back, saying nothing. She prodded me for my opinion and I told her I found multiple grammatical mistakes on the first page and important information missing from the table of contents. I thought an 87 was generous. The lady had a masters degree from a well known Texas university and she could not spot grammatical mistakes.

A young person I know came with a college paper. The student said the college grader told him to rewrite it, saying if she were to correct it she would just pour red ink onto the paper. The student said his mother, college educated, read the paper and could not see anything wrong. I spent 2.5 hours correcting the paper and it was indeed bathed in red ink.

I talked with this student and discovered he had A's in high school English from a Plano high school, commended scores in the English TAKS test, and above average SAT scores in writing. There is something wrong with the way writing is taught in public schools.

There are serious deficiencies in the writing skills of college students, both entering and leaving college. If you are a student at the University of North Texas and you want to major in journalism, you have to pass a test on grammar, spelling, and punctuation before you can take a journalism course. Obviously a high school diploma means nothing in regard to writing.

I have studied numerous books on grammar and writing. I know there are good books and good courses on writing, so what has gone wrong in Texas?

I recently finished a Teaching Company course, "Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writers Craft" by Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa (Ph.D. Univesity of Texas). Dr. Landon said that for all the great books written about crafting good sentences, teaching students how to write good sentences is now unfashionable. In Lecture 24 he quotes from a paper by Dr. Robert J. Connors, "The Erasure of the Sentence," who said that sentence based writing approaches are considered "...scientistic and therefore suspect, mechanistic and therefore destructive."

It seems as though every subject requiring skill is declared boring and dropped from the school curriculum or diminished to the point where students with good grades are at best marginally competent.

What is wrong in Texas is part of a nation-wide corruption of standards. It is a shame because there have been some remarkable works, like "A Lesson from Hemingway" by Francis Christensen in his Notes Toward a New Rhetoric that are very intelligent.

We need to admit the writing program in Texas public schools is flawed and fix it.

Robert Canright