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Middle School Muddle: Middle schools and math

Written by Admin Tuesday, 15 January 2008 07:45

Prospective and current middle school parents might want to question math curriculums more aggressively. What topics are covered and what kind of background and training does your child's math teacher have?

Chances are the answer to both questions could be not enough.

A new study, Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century,’’ by Michigan State University researcher and Professor William H. Schmidt, reminded me why I should be paying more attention to math issues during middle school tours.All too often, middle schools offer an unfocused curriculum taught by unprepared educators who can't help middle school kids make the transition from arithmetic to real mathematics, Schmidt's study found.

Teachers in five other countries are more prepared to teach math than middle school teachers in the United States, the study says.Schmidt believes the existence of a coherent and challenging math curriculum should be a deciding factor for judging the quality of a middle school. Kids who don't get the math they need will have trouble with math in high school and won’t get very far, he warns.

Any parent touring middle schools in New York City can quickly discern wide variation in the way math is taught. Some schools offer more and push students to learn high-level math, like the well regarded NEST+M, which offers a challenging program of Singapore math. Some middle schools provide Regents-level math and others don't.

School of the Future offers a curriculum map for 7th grade, promising a linguistic/real life approach to mathematics.’’ One school I toured handed out a sheet noting that math is part of the 6th-grade curriculum; another simply said it offers “high-quality instruction, without further explanation.

It's easy to get confused and skip the math questions if you don't know what to ask.That's one reason Schmidt has long pushed for specific content standards laying out what every child is expected to learn and know by every grade in mathematics. If such standards existed nationally, parents would know what to expect. The standards would inform teacher training in math, he says.

“It’s incumbent on education schools and on our society to deem math education important enough to have such standards,€™™ Schmidt told me during an interview about his study last week.

“It’s logical,’’ he explains. With clear standards, you would have the whole system organized instead of arbitrary and hit and miss. If you follow Schmidt's logic, choosing a middle school with a particularly strong art or music program should not mean sacrificing math education. Each and every middle school would offer similar math curriculums with properly trained teachers.

Parents who want to know more about math requirements can consult the New York State math standards, which describe should be taught in each grade. That they are somewhat confusing to follow comes as no surprise to Schmidt.

“The problem is the standards are not very accessible to parents,’’ Schmidt says. “And they can be so full of jargon it's difficult for parents to agitate for them.

School officials may tell you it's really hard to find enough highly trained and math teachers, says Schmidt. "But your child shouldn't have to suffer as a result.''

Parents, says Schmidt, should ask questions about math and demand answers.

It's one small way to push for change.

It's too easy to say that this is the DOE's way of shortening the school-to-prison pipeline, right?

Update 1/12: That was fast. After lots of negative feedback, the city has abandoned the plan.

Since the DOE has demonstrated that it will do whatever it wants, a good way to predict future DOE initiatives is to pay attention to what DOE officials say ought to be done. So when DOE bigwig Christopher Cerf participates on a panel about the "dismal" state of teacher evaluations and decries teachers' "deep antipathy" to being evaluated in a meaningful way, we can assume that somewhere inside Tweed, someone is thinking about new ways to rate teachers. Unfortunately for those of us who think the influence of test scores should be limited, Cerf also said he is "unapologetic that test scores must be a central component of evaluation,"
Education Week reports from the panel.

In fact, Cerf said at the panel that DOE leaders are working on an evaluation system that will look at how far teachers raise their students' test scores. As I recall, one of the papers presented at the Research Partnership conference in October drew on data that showed how far individual students progressed within each classroom, so evidently the bones for such a system must already exist. I imagine the larger obstacle for the DOE will be getting the UFT to agree to use a new evaluation system that relies on hard data instead of observation by other teachers. Of course, the UFT hasn't been much of an impediment to any of the DOE's other initiatives, even when those initiatives appeared not to be in the best interest of teachers.

New York State's number 1, no thanks to NYC

Written by Admin Friday, 11 January 2008 03:46

Can we stop testing now, Chancellor Klein? New York rates the highest among all 50 states in a new Education Week report that looked at education funding, policy, and student achievement.

What's that? "The state's rating would have been even better without the lower student-achievement scores of New York City," the Post reports the survey's director as saying. Oh. Back to the bubble sheets.

Randall's Island playing fields deal being argued today

Written by Admin Thursday, 10 January 2008 09:31

Six months after filing suit over the city's deal to lease most of the Randall's Island playing fields to private schools, Harlem residents are enjoying their first day in court today. Norm Siegel, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, is trying to expand the lawsuit to make it a broader attack on the city's proclivity to issue no-bid contracts. But the Sun reports that "in the end, the case will turn on a narrow issue: whether the city circumvented the community board and City Council in approving the lease agreement." It's probably best for the plaintiffs that the key legal issue is technical and not moral: contradicting their claims, the head of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation says the deal will create even more access for public school families than they had in the past. Construction on the fields began this summer.

Volunteers needed for Saturday professional day in Brooklyn

Written by Admin Thursday, 10 January 2008 07:47

Lyons Community School, a new secondary school in Brooklyn, is holding a career exploration day this Saturday (1/12) and is looking for volunteers to present about their fields. The event, which runs from 12:45 to 6 p.m., is open to all New York City middle and high school students; it's free, although the school asks for a $5 donation to defray expenses. To volunteer, contact Natalie Sherwood at 646-894-7984. For more volunteer opportunities in the city's schools, take a look at Volunteer Match and New York Cares. And for more events, check out the Insideschools calendar.

UFT to develop yet another school grading system

Written by Admin Thursday, 10 January 2008 03:01

Lots of people have complained about the progress reports, saying their dependence on test scores gives short shrift to other important features of schools, including safety, class size, and the arts. UFT President Randi Weingarten plans to do something about it.

According to the Sun, Weingarten is developing a school grading system to rival the DOE's. In an attempt to predict what that grading system would look like, the Sun gives a rundown of Weingarten's opinions on the progress report grades:

She has praised the education department's emphasis on progress over absolute achievement — but denounced its reliance on just two years of test scores. She has praised the letters A, B, C, D, and F, saying "ratings help us make decisions" — but she also indicated support for giving more than one grade to each school. "Moving forward," she wrote in the same recent column, "the progress reports should give more weight to conditions like class size and safety, access to advanced courses and the availability of enrichment activities."

One would also think that a UFT-designed report card would give significant weight to teaching conditions at the school. Currently, how teachers feel about the support and professional development they get is condensed into just a few questions on the teacher surveys, which make up just 5 percent of the total progress report grade.

New and improved vocational schools may be on the way

Written by Admin Wednesday, 09 January 2008 04:24

In October, Comptroller William Thompson issued a report lamenting the declining status of vocational education. But now with a new head of Career and Technical Education, the DOE may be planning to bulk up vocational school options, the Sun reports. Students in the city's CTE schools and programs post higher Regents scores and graduation rates, despite the fact that CTE schools are not funded as well as other schools. According to the Sun, rumors are swirling that the DOE plans to build and open "model" CTE schools to seize on these strong results.

The DOE's new head of CTE programs, Gregg Betheil, was until recently a senior vice president of the National Academy Foundation, which coordinates vocational programs in a number of NYC schools, including the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Erasmus, where every student participates. Betheil also worked as a teacher and technology coordinator at Martin Luther King before it closed; according to a 1998 Village Voice article, he was the "champion" of integrating technology and education and inspired students.

I've liked the vocational schools I've visited. Kids are engaged in their work and generally seem happy to be at school. This feeling was especially prevalent at George Westinghouse High School when I visited this fall. There, as at many larger schools, enrollment has declined in recent years as kids enjoy more high school options. But the DOE has not slammed Westinghouse with "over the counter" transfers, as it has other, non-vocational large schools. I wonder whether this is because of the DOE's bias against vocational education. Let's hope that if that bias is truly changing — and it should — the DOE doesn't start filling vocational schools with kids who aren't looking for career-based high school programs.

Do we need Backpack Solutions 101?Ask any middle school parent the biggest adjustment their child faces when they leave elementary school, and they are likely to talk about organizational skills.

Or, lack of them.Changing classes, remembering which book to bring home, writing down all the homework in a planner, locating that planner -- all of these tasks can overwhelm 6th graders used to staying in one elementary school classroom and being a bit more coddled.

Apparently, this phenomenon has become so common that pricey tutors and personal organizers have organized a side business -- backpack help for $100 an hour or more.

Seems there is barely a skill related to learning or growing up that can't be outsourced these days.According to a recent New York Times article, parents are shelling out whatever it takes to help their children succeed in school. Most often, its boys who seem to have more trouble organizing and multi-tasking. As the mother of two offenders, I mined the article eagerly for tips. One of my colleagues gave a copy to his chronically disorganized son. He promptly lost it.

For a brief, irrational moment, I considered contacting tracking down the backpack organizers for an appointment. I'm sure their lines were flooded.

Then I wondered if all middle schools should offer a mini-course on backpack and perhaps even locker organization at the start of 6th grade.

My 7th grade son could have used one. He lugged a crammed backpack that may have weighed more than he does throughout his first year at Clinton School for Artists and Writers, which, like many Manhattan middle schools, requires a breathtaking climb because it occupies top floors of an elementary school.

"You will break your back," I insisted, watching him tote textbooks and notebooks for every class, even when there was no homework. Loose change, torn papers, dog-eared permission slips and old exams mingled with soccer gear. The thing smelled.

"I don't want to forget anything," he replied.

My soon-to-be 6th grade son has the opposite problem. He rifles through his backpack searching for a book, his folder, a notebook he needed - only to discover he left it at soccer practice, in music class, at school or at a friend's house.

I am taking comfort in the belief that even without tutors and courses, some middle schoolers eventually do learn their own lessons.

On a recent night, my 7th grader came home carrying only one thing -John Steinbeck's The Red Pony with a permission slip tucked neatly inside. I immediately assumed he lost his backpack.

"I didn't have any other homework," he explained. "So I left my backpack in my locker."

I didn't ask if it was organized.

Some parents are threatening to sue the DOE over the changes to the G&T admissions policy, according to an article in Crain's New York (subscription required). "We feel that redress in the courts is really the only way to get out the message of what the DOE is doing," a PS 166 parent who sits on the District 3 Community Education Council said in the article. The article doesn't specify on what grounds parents are seeking redress, but it's clear that many are frustrated by the change and frightened about where their kids will end up in the fall -- so much so that they are "shelling out thousands of dollars for consultants to help them navigate the application process."

The Crain's article makes sure to point out that not everyone's buying into the "collective madness" in G&T-heavy districts. Still, come the end of March, when parents find out whether their kids have made the 95th percentile cut, I predict the madness will be contagious.