Archive for March, 2012

March 30, 2012

Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers

by Grace

Differentiating instruction in today’s mixed-proficiency classrooms is tough on teachers, and it’s certainly not always best for students.

83% [CORRECTED*] of teachers surveyed said that in practice, differentiated instruction is difficult to implement.

Malcolm Unwell explains it this way.

Perhaps there is a student who is just learning English in your class. And perhaps that student sits next to another who wants to have an in-depth discussion about Shakespeare. Should these two students prove difficult to teach at once, a normal person might consider what the root problem is — that they shouldn’t be in the same class. But the wise education bureaucrat knows that any problem here must be the teacher’s — he must not have differentiated his instruction enough.

Separating students according to ability is traditionally known as “tracking,” and it is frowned upon by the educational establishment.  Having students of varying ability in the same class is known as “inclusion,” and it is smiled upon.  While I was earning my MAT, I quickly realized that advocating tracking was simply not a valid position to put forth in education world, or “thought world” as E.D. Hirsch described it.  Tracking is unfair, and undemocratic.  It perpetuates the pattern of hegemony and domination present in the larger culture.

A local school administrator told parents that tracking students before 8th grade would permanently scar them.  Consequently, in our local district almost all classrooms up to 9th grade are mixed proficiency.  The elementary math program requires that the teacher spend the first part of class on a lesson geared towards all her students, with the expectation that everyone will learn something from it.  In reality, some struggling students still don’t comprehend it and some advanced students are bored.  After this whole group introduction, then the teacher is supposed to differentiate instruction for all proficiency levels.  Problems are “adapted for multiple ability levels”

These problems are sometimes referred to as “low threshold, high ceiling” problems because all students can understand the problem and solve some part of it (low threshold), but even the highest-ability students in the class will not easily complete it (high ceiling).

So teachers present adapted versions of the same problem, tailoring them to personal proficiency levels.  In theory it sounds nice, but in practice it must be much more challenging than teaching to a homogeneous group of students.  I always think of how inefficient it is, especially when reformers call out for longer school days.

It is now unacceptable to simply teach a lesson to a class, and assess the students according to how well he demonstrates his knowledge of the content.  Different students should have different lessons with different assessments.  Needless to say, this is completely unworkable  in practice.  It is doubtful, really, that any teacher actually does this.  If one did, it would likely be a chaotic disaster in which learning is incidental or nonexistent.

In this differentiated instruction environment, all students can be “successful”.  But parents should be aware that it may be at a “low threshold” of success.

* The percentage was off by 1 point before I corrected it.

Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs

March 29, 2012

Can webcasts replace 200-student college lecture classes?

by Grace

Webcasts instead of large lecture classes could produce better results and cut costs.

Glenn Reynolds writes in Popular Mechanics:

… Now that webcasts are a routine feature of corporate training, perhaps it’s time to make better use of the Web for education. Take the top teachers in a field and let students at multiple colleges access their lectures online. (Sure, there’s not a lot of interaction that way—but how much is there in a 200-student lecture class anyway?) Once the basic information is covered, students can apply it in smaller advanced classes, in person. Would this save money? Possibly—and it would almost certainly produce better results.

This seems promising, especially if the webcast professors speak clear English.  I still hear stories of college lecturers with heavy foreign accents that create problems in understanding the lesson.

I recently participated in a webcast that was probably better than if I had attended the same presentation in person.  The expert speaker covered the issues clearly while I was able to view the relevant images on my computer, switching screens at my convenience.  We were able to submit questions during the webcast, with some being answered right then and others answered later via email.  It was all very convenient.

Read more: Can Technology Fix the College Debt Crisis? – Glenn Reynolds on the College Bubble – Popular Mechanics

March 28, 2012

Phonics instruction helps boys close the gender literacy gap

by Grace

Phonics instruction helps boys close the gender gap on reading skills according to recent research findings.

The use of more traditional phonetics-based lessons helps boys catch up with girls – even doing better on some tests – and prevents some children from needing ‘special’ schooling, according to new research findings.

Better for low-income students

A study of synthetic phonics also found children from disadvantaged backgrounds do as well as those from better off homes.

Fewer students assigned to special education classes

“We found children were performing well who might otherwise have ended up in special teaching arrangements,” she added.

Whole language replaced phonics instruction
Beginning in the 1960s, synthetic phonics was replaced in favor of whole language and later balanced literacy instruction.  Instead of learning the sounds that make up words (phonics), students were taught to guess at words based on content and pictures (whole language).

This study was conducted in Scotland, and in January it was reported that thousands of primary schools in the UK have signed up to participate in an initiative to increase funding for phonics instruction.

UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb on the phonics funding program:

This is an open invitation to all schools to improve the way they teach systematic synthetic phonics – the tried and tested method of improving the reading of all our children, especially the weakest.

Some evidence from The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading evidence paper.

The importance of a systematic approach to phonics instruction

Recent inspection evidence from a sample of 12 primary schools supports this view….

In 2006, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned the Universities of York and Sheffield to conduct a review of the experimental research on using phonics to teach reading and spelling. Torgerson, Hall and Brooks found that systematic phonics teaching “enables children to make better progress in reading accuracy than unsystematic or no phonics, and that this is true for both normally-developing children and those at risk of failure” (2006)

In Australia, the committee for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy produced the report ‘Teaching Reading’ (2005). The committee concluded: “The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations […] that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. …systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they experience reading difficulties. […] Moreover, where there is unsystematic or no phonics instruction, children’s literacy progress is significantly impeded, inhibiting their initial and subsequent growth in reading accuracy, fluency, writing, spelling and comprehension.”

In England, Jim Rose (2006) in his ‘Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, Final Report’ emphasised that beginner readers should be taught using a systematic approach to phonics and cautioned that evidence submitted to the review suggested that, for almost all children, diluting the approach by using a mix of approaches can hinder children’s progress….


March 27, 2012

Liberal arts skills are profitable for college graduates

by Grace

It turns out that employers are looking for the skills that liberal-arts studies instill — critical thinking, logical reasoning, clear writing.  College graduates who tested best at liberal-arts skills were “far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest.  The problem is that many college graduates seem to lack these critical qualifications.

“Most senior managers are unimpressed with the entry-level job applicants they’re seeing, reports a new survey.

Note to recent college grads and the Class of 2012: You may not be as ready for the working world as you think you are. At least, that’s the opinion of about 500 senior managers and C-suite executives in a study by Global Strategy Group, on behalf of worldwide architectural firm Woods Bagot.

In all, a 65% majority of business leaders say young people applying for jobs at their companies right out of college are only ‘somewhat’ prepared for success in business, with 40% of C-suite executives saying they are ‘not prepared at all.’ Not only that, but even those who get hired anyway may not rise very far. Almost half (47%) of C-suite executives believe that fewer than one-quarter (21%) of new grads have the skills they’ll need to advance past entry-level jobs.

And what skills might those be? The most sought-after are problem-solving (49% ranked it No. 1), collaboration (43%), and critical thinking (36%). Also in demand is the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively in writing (31%). Technology and social media skills came in at rock bottom on the list, valued highly by only a tiny 5% minority of senior managers. The kicker: According to the poll, new grads fall far short of the mark in every one of these areas — except tech savvy, the least desired. …”

Get off the Internet and go read a book!
It might be that some of that time students spend waste creating snazzy PowerPoint presentations, socializing on Facebook, and editing Tumblr photos would be better spent in more reading, writing, and studying for classes.  According to data presented in Academically Adrift, students are spending less time on these academic pursuits.

Evidence that liberal arts skills pay off

A new survey should prompt renewed focus on a fundamental higher-education truth: The skills that liberal-arts studies instill — critical thinking, logical reasoning, clear writing — are crucial for success.

The Social Science Research Council study involved 925 college graduates who took the standardized Collegiate Learning Assessment as seniors. It found those who tested best at liberal-arts skills were “far more likely to be better off financially than those who scored lowest,” according to USA Today.

They were three times less likely to be jobless, half as likely to live with their parents and far more likely to avoid credit-card debt.

March 26, 2012

‘Thought freshman year was expensive? Wait till senior year.’

by Grace

It’s usually prudent to assume that college costs will rise over the four (or five or six) years that your child attends college.  Grant-based financial aid is likely to remain stagnant or decline, while college costs are likely to rise.  This advice is from SmartMoney‘s 10 Things Financial Aid Offices Won’t Say .

“Thought freshman year was expensive? Wait till senior year.”

Your kid just got her award letter and scored a large four-year grant covering most of her tuition, with a small loan for the rest. So you’re set, right? Not necessarily. Two problems can get in the way. First, the amount of federally subsidized loans a student can borrow typically increases slightly each year; as a result, the college may expand the loans it offers in subsequent years and downsize grants. Second, many parents and students assume that four-year merit-based awards will keep pace with tuition hikes. That’s not always the case. “Not all schools can afford to be that generous,” warns Willamette’s Hoban.

Nationwide, the average private college price tag jumped 4.4% for 2009-10 from the previous year with the average total cost for resident students at private colleges now just over $39,000. Assuming a steady 4% annual price increase and, say, $15,000 in aid each year, the $24,000 difference you paid on your student’s freshman year could grow to $29,000 by senior year.

If your child receives merit-based aid, ask whether the college can adjust it for tuition inflation. And, make sure your child maintains a top GPA; otherwise, they could lose their merit scholarship.

March 23, 2012

‘Exploding pension costs are the single biggest threat to local government’s ability to deliver needed services’

by Grace

It’s an issue that Democrats, Republicans and independents agree on: controlling skyrocketing pensions.

Politicians representing diverse constituencies are united under the umbrella of New York Leaders for Pension Reform, a group whose goal is cutting pension costs.  Members include New York City Michael Bloomberg, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Branson, and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

“Exploding pension costs are the single biggest threat to local government’s ability to deliver needed services,” Astorino said in a statement released by the group Wednesday. “It will be impossible to provide any real property tax relief while operating under these debilitating labor costs that automatically increase every year at an unsustainable rate.”

In a small step to remedy this pension problem, last week Governor Cuomo won passage of Tier 6 reform legislation that he grandly labeled a sweeping pension reform plan that will save state and local governments and New York City more than $80 billion over the next 30 years.

Not so fast.

E.J. McMahon writing in The Torch calls Cuomo’s grandiose claims hyperbole, especially because taxpayers will see no benefit anytime soon since the changes only affect new employees.  And the “billions” in savings are based on the assumption that the Tier 6 structure remains unchanged for 30 years, a highly unlikely scenario.

Even using Coumo’s assumptions, New York City will only save 6% off the projected $359 billion in pension contributions over the next 30 years.  Clearly, this legislation only puts a small dent in the skyrocketing public pension costs that are eroding educational opportunities for New York children.  I foresee no change in time to help my child who is attending a public school where pension costs have risen more than 50% over the last two years and now account for 7.2% of the total budget, up from 5.1% in 2010-11.

The fundamental flaw in New York’s public pension system remains unresolved: like similar systems across the country, it exposes taxpayers to massive open-ended financial risks.  Pension accounting is incredibly arcane and opaque, setting up a proven moral hazard for elected officials who customarily have little regard for long-term consequences.  Unfortunately, the governor did not address this problem, or even acknowledge it.

You can read the entire article after the break.

read more »

March 22, 2012

New York’s flawed teacher evaluations are a step towards a ‘choice-based educational system’

by Grace

Many school principals and teachers are protesting the new teacher evaluation system scheduled to be phased in this year in New York State, believing it has been rushed into place.  They have concerns that it is flawed and that its introduction has been “confusing, contradictory and, frankly, disastrous.”  From what I’ve seen, I would agree there are serious problems, ranging from questionable state test data to the diversion of scarce resources for implementation.  However, I wonder if many parents are like me, willing to go with this flawed system because we’re so frustrated with things as they are, including the tenure system and the practice of laying off teachers based solely on seniority.

Walter Russell Mead writes about the growing public pressure.

But just because current methods of teacher evaluation are, to say the least, imperfect, doesn’t mean teachers can escape growing public pressure to show results. Teacher unions would like for virtually all teachers to have lifetime tenure and for evaluation to play little or no role in their lives. Principals don’t want parents nosing into administrative decisions or complaining that their kids are getting stuck with subpar math teachers. Pointing to the deep and real flaws in everything from standardized tests to score students to individual teacher assessments is, among other things, a way to stave off public pressure for more accountability in the schools.

The public wants a look inside the “black box” of the American school. Some parents are too ignorant, too dysfunctional or just too laid back to care, but increasingly parents want to make sure that their kids are getting the best available teachers—or at least avoiding the turkeys.

This pressure isn’t going away; school districts and teachers are going to have to live with it. Demand for parental choice is growing, and it will grow further as more educational opportunities arise. Between charter schooling, homeschooling, and new forms of online education, there are now opportunities that simply weren’t available thirty years ago.

He predicts this is one step on the road to school choice.

Ultimately most parents are going to insist on the right to choose which schools their children attend. Schools will have to provide information about their teachers and their success in order to attract pupils. Today’s crude and often unfair bureaucratic evaluation methods are a baby step in the direction of a choice-based educational system. More and better steps will come.

Change will come, but I’d really like to know how many generations will it take.

March 21, 2012

Purdue scholarship chart clearly spells out basics, but the devil is in the details

by Grace

Basic information about Purdue University merit scholarships is clearly spelled out in an easy-to-read chart.  However, understanding important details below the surface calls for further scrutiny.

Here is Purdue’s chart.

Click to enlarge.

I like charts.  They’re quicker and easier to use if I’m trying to pull out key information about how much college is going to cost.  Click the image on the right to see another chart showing all categories of financial aid at Purdue.

Purdue is a state school ranked #62 on the USNews list of national universities.
 It is particularly strong in engineering, included in the top ten of USNews Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs Rankings.  Other well-regarded areas include business, education, and health sciences.  Cost of attendance is $23,468 for Indiana residents and $42,480 for non-residents. (The maximum Trustee scholarship of $16,000 would put a significant dent in that non-resident tuition bill.)

Some details about Purdue scholarships

Considering the risks of losing merit financial aid, I would think long and hard before encouraging an out-of-state student to accept a scholarship to attend Purdue as an engineering major.  The stress of keeping up good grades in that environment could be overwhelming.

March 20, 2012

Postponing remarriage to get more college financial aid

by Grace

There are a many “tricks” that will increase your odds of getting college financial aid, including postponing remarriage so that household income looks low.

I Do! (In a Few Years)
The Fafsa asks a seemingly absurd question: “Who is considered a parent?” Yet frequently families react with frustration when I explain how the government defines parents for financial aid purposes. If both parents are alive and married to each other, they check off the “married” box and include their information on the Fafsa.

If there has been a divorce or legal separation, you need to determine who the student lived with more than 50 percent of the time the previous year. That’s the custodial parent. Only the custodial parent’s income and assets appear on the Fafsa; the noncustodial parent’s income and asset information don’t (though a child support question and another untaxed income question can reflect household support).

This is true even if the divorce arrangement says the noncustodial parent has to pay for the whole expense, or things are split evenly.

Here’s the surprise for some stepparents: Let’s say mom, the custodial parent, marries stepdad. Both mom and stepdad’s income and assets appear on the form. Maybe when they married they had a deal: he would pay for his children, she would pay for hers. Not happening. Of course, I don’t recommend holding off on saying, “I do!” (again) until after all the children have their degrees, but be aware of the rules.

March 19, 2012

Ohio to stop state funding for college remedial courses

by Grace

Remedial instruction is expensive and students are more likely to drop out of college.  Ohio’s response is to stop paying for it.

The annual price tag for remedial education in American colleges and universities is at least $3.6 billion, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington. It’s also a reason that many college students quit in frustration, contributing to high dropout rates.

In a largely overlooked but precedent-setting move, cash-strapped Ohio has said it’ll soon stop footing the bill for remedial courses. The state’s 2007 budget quietly mandated that the government phase out money for remediation at four-year universities beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, and eliminate such funding altogether by 2020.

The gap between the skills with which students graduate from high school and what colleges expect them to be able to do has come under increased scrutiny, as federal policymakers push states to increase college graduation rates. At least 13 other states, including Florida, Missouri and South Carolina, have tried to slow the spiral of spending on remedial education, typically by restricting funding to colleges and universities that provide a lot of it….

Nationwide, some 44 percent of students at community colleges and 27 percent at four-year institutions had to take at least one remedial course in 2008, the last year for which data are available from the U.S. Department of Education. Even if students pass such remedial classes, research shows they’re less likely to graduate than their peers who start directly in college-level classes.

A high school diploma does not necessarily signify college readiness.

At Kent State— where just more than half of first-year students in 2006 had to take remedial courses in math, English or both — remediation costs more than $750,000 a year, an amount that Provost Robert Frank calls “non-trivial.”

“We are receiving students who successfully graduated from high school who aren’t ready for (college) math, writing and chemistry,” Frank said.

Ignoring the obvious solution
To address the remediation issue Ohio colleges are reaching out to private high schools that tend to produce college-ready students, or partnering  with community colleges that offer remedial course.  But there was no mention of actually tightening admission requirements to make sure that only qualified students are allowed in.  It seems the colleges are happy to take tuition payments from remedial students, but with decreased state funding the only alternative may be to raise prices for all students.  And so the higher education bubble continues to grow.
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