"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Team, Partner and Subject Teaching

In a previous post, "Science and Mathematics Education: What Is the Current Situation?" I mentioned the following: "I have a friend who grew up in Singapore and one major complaint I heard from this person regarding education in the United States is the general lack of subject teachers. Teachers in US schools are assigned to teach an assortment of subjects while in Singapore, apparently, there is a math teacher, a science teacher, a reading teacher even in primary grades." It is assumed that subject teachers are experts on the subject they are assigned to teach.

Subject matter experts, of course, are not necessarily more effective teachers especially in an elementary school. One can not pluck a chemistry professor from a PhD granting institution and expect that person to be a stellar teacher of science in a primary school. A practicing scientists often has difficulty in fact in relating their work with non scientists. There is subject expertise, but for basic education, pedagogical expertise is likewise required. Expertise in a subject taught in primary schools is perhaps so much more than just knowing the material. The least it requires is being familiar with challenges and struggles primary school children face inside the classroom.

Britain has embarked on an education reform that places subject teachers in its primary schools as reported last year by the Telegraph. In "Specialist subject teachers parachuted into primary schools", Telegraph's education editor Graeme Paton writes, "From 2012, funding will be reallocated to allow more state-funded training places to be made available for subject specialist primary school teachers. They will get priority places over students taking general primary courses and schools will be offered the chance to train their own primary specialists." 

Subject teaching, however, means so much more than just a teacher teaching and focusing on one subject. The following illustrates what comes with subject teaching. The arrangement naturally forms a team of teachers handling a group of students. A partnership evolves among subject teachers. Each student in the class is now seen, observed and cared for by more than a pair of eyes.

There are schools in the United States that are not experimenting on subject teaching. For example, here is a recent article from the Chicago Tribune:

During the morning in Northbrook's Shabonee School, one class of grade 3 children receives math instruction from Sandy Olson, while the other class is learning reading with Melissa Metzinger (the teacher shown in the photo above). In the afternoon, the two teachers switch classes but not subjects. Metzinger continues to teach reading and Olson teaches the same math lesson one more time but with the other half of the third grade class in Shabonee. 

Casey Turner, a teacher in North Carolina, tells a similar story on her blog, "Second Grade Math Mania". She uses the word "team" on her article to describe subject teaching:

Copied from
Team Teaching in Second Grade
In the article, she basically shares what she has learned from this particular arrangement. One thing Turner highlights is: 
"The key ideas here are really TRUST and COMMUNICATION. I absolutely trust my co-teacher. We also talk DAILY about certain kids. We note behavior patterns between the two classes and we keep each other informed if someone is struggling."
Singapore basic education does place high in international ranking. Without doubt, this is partly due to effective teaching. Subject teaching is perhaps one reason behind effective teaching. One needs to be careful, however, in copying something. One may successfully copy the "subject" part but neglect the "team" and "partner". When this happens, what usually succeeds in one place does not appear transferable. It is due to transferring only one thing and not the whole.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Equity in Education

The top performing nations in the world in education pride itself by providing quality education to all. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports, "The highest performing education systems across OECD countries combine quality with equity". Ironically, most countries look at education as a way to become better than the rest. Education is seen as a tool to get ahead in society. This objective falls so far away from society's main goal of preparing its youngest members. Inequity leads to a school's failure and society pays heavily for this grave mistake in the future. Common sense dictates that schools with greater needs require more support and attention. Instead, the most effective teachers are attracted to schools with better resources and well prepared students. Facilities are usually updated in elite schools attended by children of the privileged class. Special programs are even provided for children who demonstrate high academic ability at a young age while academically unprepared kindergarten children are thrown into dilapidated schools with inexperienced and untrained teachers. With misplaced priorities and a total disregard for equity, one should not be surprised if schools are failing.

In America, the states can be graded according to how the government allocates or distributes resources for education. In terms of equity, quite a number of these states receive a failing grade:

Above figure captured from

The map above is indeed disconcerting. Eduardo Porter writes in the New York Times' article "In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich":
The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students,according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among the 34 O.E.C.D.nations, only in the United States, Israel and Turkey do disadvantaged schools have lower teacher/student ratios than in those serving more privileged students.
Andreas Schleicher, who runs the O.E.C.D.’s international educational assessments, put it to me this way: “The bottom line is that the vast majority of O.E.C.D. countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.” The inequity of education finance in the United States is a feature of the system, not a bug, stemming from its great degree of decentralization and its reliance on local property taxes.
Looking at education as a "Race to the Top" is a wrong way to address problems in basic education. "No Child Left Behind" sounds a lot better if only the government looks at how to level the playing field and not focus so much on test scores and closing schools.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Rebuilding Schools After Yolanda

After rescue and relief, rebuilding comes next. Rebuilding must attempt to mitigate the effects of a typhoon. Otherwise, communities will face the same tragedy when the next typhoon hits. It is also important that the extra measures take into account what these communities really need. The Philippines, with all of its islands, has a significant fraction of its people living in coastal communities. Fishing is a major part of livelihood as well as source of food. It is foolish, for example, to impose "no-build" zones on coast lines. We need to listen to one of the leaders of fishermen in the Philippines, Salvador France:
France said about 10 million Filipinos or roughly 10 percent of the country’s population live in coastal areas, the Philippines being an archipelago of 7,101 islands and islets. Declaring coastlines as no-build zones is “stupid,” France said. (Business Mirror, 27 November 2013)
One may suggest then to build homes that can resist both strong winds and storm surges. Though ideal, construction of these homes may require resources that are currently not within reach. To tackle a gigantic problem, it is useful to focus on steps that are smaller in scale but can be effective in achieving the most important goal: Preventing casualties in these natural disasters. The loss of loved ones especially young children is far more devastating than damaged properties. With this emphasis, there are solutions out there that not only address disaster preparedness, but also other challenges the country faces. Here is one example.

Thousands of schools were destroyed by the super typhoon Yolanda.

The photo above is not of a school recently damaged by Yolanda, but the title relays the information that thousands of schools were destroyed (The word "destroyed" was used instead of "damaged"). The Philippine Daily Inquirer has a photo of a school. This one is from Cebu, another island affected by Yolanda in addition to Samar and Leyte:

Seeing what the typhoon did to this elementary school demonstrates convincingly that this structure cannot withstand the strong winds of a typhoon. It is crystal clear that schools in this area require better design and construction. The fact that these schools have been destroyed provides an opportunity to rebuild. This reconstruction, however, should go far beyond just providing rooms where classes can be held.

It is impossible to relocate and move people away from these vulnerable zones. It takes enormous logistics to evacuate an entire island ahead of an approaching typhoon. Evacuation shelters must be within the reach of these communities. It only makes sense that the government builds evacuation shelters that can survive these powerful storms. Not every home in these places can be made typhoon and storm surge proof. That is too much to ask, but surely, every effort must be exerted to build evacuation shelters that are reliable and safe. This is much less to ask. Evacuation shelters need not be for disaster purposes alone. These structures can be designed such that these serve a purpose even at times when there is no typhoon. In this respect, it makes sense to have the evacuation shelters and schools be the same structure.

Schools are usually built within the reach of everyone in a community. This makes evacuation orders easier to execute especially if it only involves a walking distance. Schools should be built with careful consideration of how many children live in a community. Schools can therefore be scaled according to the population of an area. Schools are supposed to have toilets that are adequate to serve the needs of all the children attending. Schools have rooms for a specific purpose like canteens and clinics. These rooms are important as well for an evacuation shelter. Some of these rooms can likewise be used as a warehouse for relief goods. Schools are therefore ideal evacuation shelters.

Bangladesh is one country that has always been in the news when it comes to deaths due to cyclones. In 1991, for example, almost 200,000 people died because of a cyclone and its accompanying storm surge. But after a couple of decades, the number of deaths has significantly decreased. This is not due to cyclones becoming less frequent. The decline in casualties comes from better disaster preparedness. In a report published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, "Empowering Communities to Prepare for Cyclones", one cannot miss the following photo:

Above photo copied from
"Empowering Communities to Prepare for Cyclones"
Making sure that these shelters work can likewise guide how schools should be constructed. After all, schools are expected to be places where children can be safe and secure. Being able to meet the capacity that is required means that these schools should not be overcrowded during normal times. These schools should not have multiple shifts. These schools should have working toilets, canteens and clinics. These are exactly the same things quality education requires. We must rebuild a school so that they can in fact serve as a proper place for education and as a refuge for everyone in harm's way....

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Gaming Special Education

Seeing schools accommodating children with special needs or learning disabilities is indeed comforting. The point is to ensure that these children likewise receive the support they need in order to become positive contributors to society. The same standards of career- or college-readiness is therefore applied to special education. In the US, states provide additional support in terms of staff and resources to schools based on the number of special education students enrolled. These include students with learning disabilities as well as English language learners. Having schools actively identifying students with needs is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a good sign that schools are taking disability seriously. Unfortunately, there is a flip side. There are standardized exams which gauge learning outcomes. One of these is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). States can exclude special education students from this exam. The current policy of the NAEP (issued in 2010) states that "At the national, state, and district levels, the goal is to include 95 percent of all students selected for the NAEP samples, and 85 percent of those in the NAEP sample who are identified as Students with Disabilities (SD) or English Language Learners (ELL)." Since then, the percentages of students being excluded from the NAEP have gone down:

At the national level, schools are indeed complying. At the state level, there seems to be some states still well below the desired 85%. These are Delaware, Georgia and Kentucky. And there is an obvious odd one, the state of Maryland.

Above table copied from
With a substantial fraction of students in Maryland being excluded from the NAEP, it is important to correct its scores on the NAEP. The NAEP has estimated that the "real" score of Maryland, if only the state had complied with the policy of inclusion, is about 10 points lower. As a result, instead of being ranked as number 2 in Grade 4 reading for the entire country, the state drops to number 12.

2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Grade 4



Reading Score


Reading Score
Maryland232.1New Hampshire230.7
New Hampshire232.0Connecticut228.7
Connecticut229.6New Jersey227.8
New Jersey228.7Virginia227.4
Kentucky224.4New York223.1
North Dakota224.1Delaware222.8

Is this gaming? A high ranking in the above table perhaps does not bring more dollars to the schools in Maryland, but it does bring prestige. It probably makes parents in Maryland feel comfortable and proud with their schools. It is misinformation. It sends the wrong assessment to the public. An assessment is supposed to show weakness as well as strength. An assessment is a guide. Incorrectly administering a test serves no purpose when the results do not really resemble reality.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

From Zero to Eight

First came "Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters". This report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation made the case of how important reading is for learning. Children learn to read before the age of eight (preschool through third grade) while children read to learn after that. In a new report, "The First Eight Years", the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlights the status of third grade students in the United States. It is not pretty.

The results on cognitive knowledge and skills, and physical well-being. With only 36% scoring respectably in science. math and reading, and only 56% in "excellent" or "very good" health, it is highly likely that there is significant overlap between these groups. Children in poor health are likely to be among those not having the cognitive skills and knowledge required at age 8. Looking at income, it is apparent that children from poor families are much more likely to be behind in all areas.

It should be obvious that the above four areas are not really separate from each other. It therefore lends support to the importance of holistic development. The care of a young child must be "comprehensive and coordinated for all children from birth through age 8", is one of the strong recommendations made in the report. "Patchwork of disjointed services" do not work as well.

In early childhood education, doing something is sometimes equivalent to doing nothing. In these cases, only a comprehensive and coordinated approach works....

Monday, November 25, 2013

Diversity in Preschool and Elementary Years

Though we were poor, my parents managed to send me to a private elementary school. In fact, all throughout my education in the Philippines, I would find myself as among the poorest kids in school. Obviously, school for me was so different from home. I brought to school my experiences and perspectives from home but I also saw what other children had. These classmates were growing up in an environment different from the one I had. Socio-economic status shapes the thinking of a child. With a range of experiences, children from different backgrounds enter school with different mindsets, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, it is foolish to segregate children according to socio-economic class during the early years of learning. Children can learn from each other. More importantly, teachers who teach not only rich children but also poor children, and vice versa, are given the proper environment and opportunity to develop learner-centered teaching skills. In this respect, elite preschools that cater only to the children of the wealthy or programs like Head Start in the US which provide preschool programs only to children in need, are both bad examples of early childhood education.

A program for teacher education at Northwestern University specifically focuses on diversity:

Preparing Teachers for Diversity

The idea that socio-economic diversity is good for schools is not just an opinion. It is in fact backed by evidence. There is one chapter in Richard D. Kahlenberg's "The Future of School Integration", that specifically deals with the advantages of having both poor and rich children in one classroom. The chapter written by Dianne Reid is "Socioeconomic Diversity and Early Learning: The Missing Link in Policy for High-Quality Preschools". Reid's findings are summarized in the following table and discussion:

Above table and discussion were copied from
"Socioeconomic Diversity and Early Learning: The Missing Link in Policy for High-Quality Preschools"

Reid started the chapter with a quote from Steffani Allen, director of early childhood education in Norman, Oklahoma (the state in the US that is considered to have the best preschools in the country):
“We know that each child brings different strengths, styles, and experiences into the mix, and that sparks cognitive growth. The diversity in experience and knowledge among the children naturally creates a larger scaffolding for learning, expanding a child’s base of knowledge and problem-solving skills. That’s why so many of us believed so strongly in the concept of universal preschool, instead of just targeting kids based on need. We recognized that if you put peers together in a classroom—all at-risk or all wealthy, all black or all white—you would automatically limit their experience and their learning.”
In the Philippines, Aquino's "universal kindergarten" captures the need to provide basic education to all:

What Aquino and the education policy makers in the Philippines had missed, however, is the fact that quality early childhood education is not as trivial as requiring all children to attend kindergarten. Quality education requires so much more than just a law.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sometimes, Things Are Really Simple But We Insist on Making Them Complicated

Teaching quantum mechanics to students who have not seen the subject before can be extremely challenging. Take, for example, one of its postulates (A postulate is a statement that is assumed true without proof.):
This is the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, which describes how a system evolves in time when acted upon by a force or energy. For a situation like this, I try to remind my students of the time they were in kindergarten and the teacher taught them that 1 + 1 = 2. This is no different. Being able to accept nature the way it is can be very difficult especially when our mind has been conditioned to rationalize all the time. There are building blocks which we must assume as starting material. How we connect or assemble these blocks to create something is indeed a skill, but we must not confuse skills with fundamentals. 

In General Chemistry, there are likewise fundamental concepts. An example is the Law of Definite Proportions: "A chemical compound always contains exactly the same proportion of elements by mass". One can illustrate this with the following hydrocarbons: methane and octane. By mass, methane is about 75% carbon and 25% hydrogen. Octane, on the other hand, is about 84% carbon and 16% hydrogen. In order to grasp these percentages, a student needs to be able to work with atomic and molecular masses. These are among the basic principles in chemistry. Without providing students the opportunity to work with these rudimentary, and sometimes referred to as "rote learning" practices, it is inappropriate, for example, to expect to students to tackle the problem below:
Why is compressed natural gas (mostly methane, CH4) advertised as friendlier to the earth’s climate than gasoline (take octane, C8H18, for example)? The heats of combustion of methane and octane are 800 and 5000 kJ mol-1, respectively.
The question does require a higher level of thinking, but it is inappropriate to ask when students do not even know how to evaluate percent compositions of compounds.

It is important to identify the fundamentals. In arithmetic, addition of numbers is as rudimentary as counting. Students nowadays in American grade schools unfortunately not only have to contend with the challenge of learning to add, but also using strategies recommended by curriculum writers. Take, for example, the following strategies:

  • Make a 10: For example, to solve 5 + 7, a students is advised to add 5 to 5 to make 10, then subtract 5 from 7, that is 5 + 7 = (5 + 5) + (7 - 5) = 10 + 2 = 12.
  • Make doubles: In this strategy, it is assumed that a student can do doubles easier, to solve 5 + 7, one breaks 7 first into 5 + 2, thus, 5 + 7 = 5 + 5 + 2. 
The above can be extended to adding several numbers. An example is shown below (from Thorn County Primary School):

There are children who can in fact add 7 + 8 + 3, without doing the steps recommended or in this case, "commanded", in the above exercise. And it can confuse students. Of course, in later years, being able to distribute terms in a sequence is necessary. For example, in algebra, it is useful to understand that 7x + 3 + 2x + 4 = 9x + 7. For arithmetic, we need to be more careful. Oftentimes, strategies are designed by people who already understand the process. This does not necessarily mean that it is helpful for beginners. 

These strategies require that particular attention is given to each student individually. These are in fact prescriptions. Some may be appropriate, but definitely, these are not generally applicable. Ill-advised approaches also proliferate in reading. One of the fundamentals of reading is vocabulary. Yet, primary school children are likewise bombarded with strategies and interventions. First, these interventions come with their corresponding benchmark assessments. Without administering properly and correctly the assessments, these interventions may in fact harm not help a struggling student. Unfortunately, some teachers are excited to embrace seemingly fashionable strategies such as, "sound it out", "relate the story from beginning to end", without realizing that these interventions are sometimes very specific. These are interventions, no different from medicines or procedures prescribed by a physician. The wrong medicine can make things worse when prescribed and administered incorrectly or inappropriately. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

When and Where Students Acquire Skills

Nowadays, there is an obvious increased emphasis among education reformers on students acquiring skills. There is that favorite phrase "21st Century Skills". A committee from the United States National Academies concluded that these skills can be divided into three categories: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Interpersonal skills include teamwork and communication while intrapersonal skills are exemplified by resilience and conscientiousness. Among these skills, conscientiousness has been shown to be most strongly correlated with positive life outcomes: fruitful employment, educational attainment, good health, longer life expectancy, and low criminal behavior. The following figure compiled by Heckman and Kautz in their recently released working paper, "Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition", shows that in fact only conscientiousness appears to correlate with job performance in a statistically significant manner:

Copied from
"Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition"
While cognitive skills appear to be important, the above chart shows that character also counts. Of course, life is not just about job performance. It is only expected that other character skills become significant in other activities.

It is important to categorize and determine where and when students can optimally acquire and learn skills. Cognitive skills, which include both fluid intelligence (the rate at which people learn) and crystallized intelligence (acquired knowledge), are developed and acquired by a child even at an early age. Character skills, on the other hand, seem to take more time. These appear to be much more malleable even beyond the adolescent years. This distinction is important if a more effective basic education is desired. One of the authors of this new working paper, Nobel laureate James Heckman, is a strong advocate of early childhood education programs so it is not surprising that this new paper supports the previous finding of how effective high quality preschool programs are. This new paper is indeed an extension of Heckman's previous work. It goes one step further than just analyzing early childhood education and looks at the overall picture of basic education, from preschool to highschool, from cognition to character. The recommendations are provided quite early in the document:

Copied from
"Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition"

The first insight is extremely important. It shows what is necessary for schools to emphasize when student outcomes are not good. If a child is not learning cognitive and character skills then the only intervention that might work is one in which the school provides the missing influence of a good home. Teachers do not only teach a curriculum. Teachers are the children's parents inside the classroom....

Friday, November 22, 2013

Not How, But Why?

It was in my senior year that I got introduced to the Greek word telos, which means purpose or goal. It sounded Greek and perhaps complicated especially in a philosophy class, but I think it is really no different from how a child thinks. Asking why is really common among children. Focusing on the goal often hinders an appreciation and understanding of what is in fact occurring. It is in a way related to an intrinsic desire to reach the finish line without actually going through the race. It is the inherent distaste for delayed gratification. As a result, a procedure involving numerous steps or progress that occurs in very small increments become very difficult to accept and learn.

The obsession with why and not how prompts people to cling on finding a reason before knowing and understanding what just occurred. People are, for instance, quite quick to blame. Here are examples:

The desire to arrive at a purpose-based explanation on why something happens is extremely strong. This desire is present even at an early age. One purpose of basic education should be extinguishing this obsession so that the human mind may in fact pave a way for understanding. Unfortunately, this seems to be very difficult. Here is an abstract of a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:

The authors used the word "tenacious" to describe teleological bias. In this study scientists who are professors in top universities in the US were asked to discern from a list of statements which are true and which are false. An example of a list of statements was shown in the above paper:

This test was administered to top scientists as well as professors in the humanities, undergraduate students, and members of the Boston community. The results were summarized in the graph below:

Scholars in the sciences and the humanities are indeed less prone to embrace unsubstantiated causal explanations, but they are not perfectly immune. Upon examining where these experts made a mistake, the instances are usually in a field that they knew so little about. Timing also seems consequential. When scientists are pressed for an answer, they also make more mistakes.

Seeing how strong this cognitive bias is, it should then be appreciated that it is important to look not just at when science is first taught, but, more importantly, how science is taught in the elementary years. Science is about how, not why. Keleman and her research group have a forthcoming paper in Psychological Science. Wray Herbert of the Huffington Post provides a preview of this paper on his blog. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Why Do Giraffes Have Long Necks?
Anyone who has seen this majestic creature in the wild, nibbling away at the top of an acacia tree, has to marvel at the wonder of evolution. The giraffe's long neck is a perfect adaptation to the animal's natural habitat. Clearly the giraffe evolved this uncommon and helpful trait in order to reach those nourishing leaves. That's how natural selection works. 
If you're a 6-year-old. 
As appealing as this explanation is, it shows a complete misunderstanding of the concept of adaptation by natural selection, a key concept in the theory of evolution. What's wrong with the 6-year-old's idea is not its focus on the neck's function. It's the mistaken notion that an individual giraffe, by its own effort and action, can transform its essential nature in a beneficial way.... 
"The End", "The End", I think we stress that too much that we miss the entire story.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Where Have All the Good Teachers Gone?

This is not a bashing of those who are currently in the teaching profession. It is simply a rehash of what I heard from some people during the past week regarding teachers in the United States. It was "Gender Summit" after all in Washington, DC. The gender summit is a conference that discusses how both research and innovation are improved through inclusion of gender. It is both a celebration as well as a discussion of remaining challenges with regard to the role of women in science, technology and policy.

Photo captured from Gender Summit web site
The Gender Summits are dedicated to supporting and advancing excellence and effectiveness of research and innovation at all levels, through the inclusion of gender. 
Throughout my basic education years, clearly more than ninety-percent of the teachers I had were female. The situation in the United States is similar. The National Center for Education Statistics in the US reports the following in 2008:
Among full-time and part-time public school teachers in 2007–08, some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44 percent were under age 40, and 52 percent had a master’s or higher degree. Compared with public school teachers, a lower percentage of private school teachers were female (74 percent), were under age 40 (39 percent), and had a master’s or higher degree (38 percent).
It is true that in several areas in science, females are still underrepresented. But it is true that things are improving. The percentage of women in these pivotal roles are beginning to approach the percentage of women in the general population. Thus, opportunities for women have indeed changed during the past decades. These new career opportunities, of course, draw talent. One hypothesis then is that: Before, opportunities were quite limited. One of these few opportunities available to women is teaching. Thus, in the past decades while I was an elementary school student, due to few openings in other fields, bright and the "cream of the crop" female students in college chose teaching as their future profession. It is obvious then that the teaching profession must keep up with the opportunities that are now available. The teaching profession must be made more attractive than ever so that it continues to draw good people.

Within the educational setting itself, there is likewise competition for talent. Better pay and working conditions are now attracting teachers in the classrooms to a career of writing curriculum. Curriculum development pays better than teaching inside classrooms. Unfortunately, this activity is taking some of the more effective teachers away from the classroom. In American Prospect's article "The State of Work in the Age of Anxiety: The 40-Year Slump", one of the featured workers in the "age of anxiety" is a teacher, Kameelah Rasheed. Here is her story:

I’ve been involved with teaching, tutoring, and working with youths since I was about 11. I was in the Bay Area, in a small town called East Palo Alto. Even though it borders Stanford University, it wasn’t a town that was very affluent, and it wasn’t a town that people paid attention to insofar as providing programs and educational support. My little brother was in special education, and my mom would go to his class every single day and notice all these things that were going horribly wrong: classes that were too large, teachers who weren’t doing what they needed to do. She worked a long time to make things better. Seeing my mother advocate for my brother but also for other kids made me fall in love with the thought of teaching and working with kids.
I got scholarships to go to Pomona College in Claremont, California. I had a lot of people push me toward Ph.D. programs and law programs, and for a long time I worried that mentors felt like I let them down. Their questions were, “How did you come from a poor neighborhood and go to these great universities, and do so well at these universities, and win all these awards and then become a teacher?” The assumption was that if you are a black kid who made it to great colleges, you should not waste your time becoming something that anyone could become. You should spend your time becoming something that’s extraordinary. Teachers aren’t seen as extraordinary.
I got my master’s degree at Stanford in education and taught for two years at a charter school in California for $52,000 a year. Then in 2010, I moved to Brooklyn and started teaching history at another charter school. The first year my salary was $65,000, and thereafter it was $70,000. There is a hiring freeze for history teachers in New York City, so there’s no way for me to teach at a traditional public school here. Last year, I taught in East New York at a charter school designed for over-age, under-credit kids—kids who have been in and out of juvenile facilities, in and out of shelters and other social systems and programs. My salary was $65,000, and then I had a stipend on top, so it evened out to about $72,000. The bureaucracy of the school and the lack of transparency were difficult, and the inability of the administration to respond to the needs of kids was exhausting. Teachers would see the holes in the administration’s duties and fill them to make sure each kid has what he needs, even though you know it’s not your job and you don’t have the time to do it and attend to your personal needs.
I have student loans, but I’m very lucky because I got scholarships. I have $20,000 in interest-free loans I pay back to Pomona College. That’s $200 a month. I took out about $9,000 in loans from Stanford. In total, I have about $30,000 worth of loans, and they should be paid off in the next two years.
I was preparing to teach again this year, but this opportunity arose to develop curriculum and work with teachers on how to integrate technology for both traditional public schools and charter schools. The salary is $80,000. I’m going to help develop some curriculum around social studies, work with social-studies and English teachers at schools to help them know their curriculum, and figure out how to improve their teaching. I’m going to help them use Google apps to compile data and use these tools to make their days easier. Instead of inputting things into a grade book, they’ll be able to put in student scores in a Google app and then use the same system to generate a letter for parents, a letter for students, archive the information, and then share it among a wide cross section of people at the school level or at the district level.
This is an anecdote, yet it does help provide a better and fuller picture of what basic education is up against. It shows why it is truly urgent that society does something with the teaching profession.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

National Assessment of Educational Progress 2013

The results are out. This is the report card for basic education in the United States. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered every two years, provides a glimpse of how students in America perform in math and reading. This year 2013 shows incremental improvement in both areas. The scores are a bit better than those in 2011. Still, less than half are deemed proficient. More importantly, the gaps have not been reduced. Highlighting this is the following figure which shows that only one state (Maine) has reduced the gap between the scores of white and black Americans:

One has to go back 10 years to see yellow/orange in the map above.

Gaps narrowed in five states during the period 2003-2005. The report includes scores as far back as 1992. Using the gaps then, the following states have shown improvement:

There are 16 states here that have narrowed the gap. This shows that states have done a better job during the decade 1992-2002 than the most recent one in reducing the achievement gap between black and white American children. By the way, scores are improving across the board. A gap narrowing therefore does not happen because white children are performing worse. Both groups have higher scores this year compared to twenty years ago. The gap between poor and rich children is equally stubborn:

Another trend worth noting is this. Scores are indeed improving across the board, but the gains in math are much higher than in reading. Here's 4th grade math:

And here's Grade 4 reading:

The above does provide an important lesson. While math is learned primarily in school. Reading is not. Reading is learned both at school and home. Reading is much more difficult to address than mathematics since the home does play a major role in this subject. Here, the gaps are likewise expected. These gaps are important because the differences inform us on how external factors like poverty affect education. Without mitigating the effects of socio-economic factors inside the classroom, the gaps are here to stay....

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Parallels between Disasters and Basic Education

For the Philippines, there are indeed similarities between how the country is affected by typhoons and the current predicament of its basic education system. Both have been perennially plaguing the country and both seem to be insurmountable challenges. The parallels go even further than this. Take the following as an example:

Here is an article from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 2006:

And here is a recent column from the Philippine Star:

At least, the one from basic education is only about fudging pupil to classroom ratios. With the disaster, the number of human lives lost is being manipulated.

There are other features disasters and schools share in common. One is trying to get credit for building schools and providing relief aid. In front of a school building we may find, for example, the name of a Philippine politician (the specific name of the congressman is removed here for the sake of fairness since this practice is really widespread in the Philippines) taking full credit for a construction project:

And here is a recent editorial from the Manila Standard Today:
The editorial continues... "Some packs, however, do not come faceless or nameless. In the past few days, social media has been abuzz with accounts and photos of relief packs -- or vehicles bearing them -- containing the names, faces or political colors or emblems of certain politicians and political parties."

Another feature is the lack of coordination and cooperation between local government units and the national government. First, here is the scenario in schools, captured by a news article in the Sun Star:

And here is a Yahoo! recent headline:

In the midst of these similarities, there is one very important parallel between disasters and basic education in the Philippines: Lack of equity. Those who are in need, those who are poor, those who are weak are the ones who suffer most.
And in a previous article in this blog, "Poverty Crushes Education", the following photo of Sidney Snoeck is highlighted to prevent us from romanticizing poverty.

There is more than one thing that disasters and basic education in the Philippines share in common. It is only natural that the proper solutions to these two problems are likewise parallel. For instance, these solutions must start with one important principle: EQUITY.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Learning Network: "Teaching About the Typhoon in the Philippines"

The New York Times has a series in education called The Learning Network. Its mission is to provide materials for teaching and learning that are based or derived from the content of the newspaper. This past week, the Learning Network shined a spotlight on the recent super typhoon that devastated the islands of central Philippines: "Teaching About the Typhoon in the Philippines". The lesson starts with a powerful video:

This video comes with the following warning: "Please preview this Times video as there are many graphic images." The video is then followed by suggestions for lesson plans. Starting with the basics, a class can begin exploring the news to find out more about what happened. Students can also get acquainted with Tacloban City, what it was before the typhoon struck. Some of the contents in the New York Times that can be used to dive deeper into this catastrophic event is an article "Messages to and from Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan".  The recent typhoon also provides an opportunity to discuss in class science lessons on hurricane, typhoons or cyclones. One can extend this further into environmental science and climate change.

Of course, there are also lessons on relief aid. All of us could probably use a lesson or two on how to extend aid to victims of typhoons. Aid works both ways - it makes us feel better knowing we have contributed - and hopefully, it does help the victims. It is only the latter part, however, that measures the effectiveness of our aid. We can bring clothes, food, and other items. And these are not simply what we could do without. In some cases, these are really all we could afford. Giving something material, seeing with our eyes what they are, makes us connected to the people in need. But we do need to pause and study this further. Before you pack those bottles of drinking water and canned goods, think about these:
  • How far are you from the Philippines? Washngton, DC, for example, is thousands of miles away from Tacloban. Relief goods transported via container ships will take four to five weeks to reach Manila. How much longer it would take for the goods from Manila to reach the victims is an open ended question. 
  • The weight of the relief goods sent determines how much energy will be spent in the transportation. If these typhoons are indeed getting stronger because of human activity - wasting energy and emitting more carbon dioxide probably does more damage than the help being provided by the aid. Would you actually board a plane, especially now with baggage fees, with the relief box you are about to send? 
  • There are local businesses in the Philippines. These stores, for example, sell bottled water, canned goods. Buying these items there support the local economy. 
With the above, it should become clear that with regard to disaster relief donations, cash is really the best aid.

There is math in these lessons. There is indeed a lot to learn about typhoons.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Lesson We All Need to Read and Learn

Almost a year ago, a category 5 typhoon packing sustained winds at 175 mph hit the southern island of the Philippines. The typhoon internationally known as Bopha was locally called "Pablo". While the devastation from the recent super typhoon Yolanda was attributed to storm surge, Pablo destroyed homes in Mindanao with rainfall that triggered landslides. Unlike Yolanda, Pablo did not receive ample media coverage. Patrick Fuller of CNN in "Two months on, Typhoon Bopha's victims still homeless" wrote:
...Bopha didn't get much traction in the international media. Competing against Syria for the headlines, the story appeared to drop off TV screens within days. 
With scant media coverage, the job of NGO fundraisers was made even more difficult. Barely any British NGOs launched public appeals in the full knowledge that levels of public sympathy just weren't high enough. But if a category 5 super typhoon -- the largest on the scale -- does not warrant donor attention the future looks very bleak.
Bamforth takes a hard line on the indifference shown by the international community to the disaster.
"The paradox is that while donors view the Philippines as more developed and less deserving, when a disaster like Bopha strikes, those development gains become very fragile as people's levels of vulnerability increase so dramatically," he said. 
Mindanao is one of the poorest regions of the country. Development has lagged behind other parts of the country, hindered in part by various long running insurgencies spanning four decades which have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people....
The media coverage of Yolanda is clearly much bigger. Unfortunately, the important lessons of this natural disaster are falling on deaf ears. Worse, some people are refusing to listen. Criticisms of the rescue and relief effort of the government are frowned upon as if those who are criticizing are not helping. But those who are criticizing are also helping. The critics are not just advertising what they have donated or have done as a volunteer. The critics care. In fact, this is one reason why they are very much disappointed with the Philippine government. While the Philippine politicians are preoccupied with their image, these people are more concerned on what needs to be done.

Lessons can be missed. One joke I am fond of relating is when I make a mistake, I will make the claim that I was probably absent when that lesson was taught. And I was probably absent when the lesson below came out:

To read please download
Yes, this lesson was not from Pablo. It was from Sendong. Sendong hit Mindanao a year before Pablo did. Sendong, internationally known as Washi was only a tropical storm. But with flash floods and landslides, more than 1000 people in Mindanao lost their lives. The above lessons compiled by BALSA Mindanao, a broad Mindanao-wide network of church and church-based organizations, schools, disaster response NGOs, local executives, professional groups, youth and students, women, partylists, and concerned individuals, can be summarized with the following questions and answers:

I will leave the remaining three questions as questions:
11. Is there a possibility of a disaster like Typhoon Sendong happening again in Mindanao or in any part of the country?
12. What are our demands to the Aquino administration in order to mitigate or avert tragedies such as typhoon Sendong?
13. What are the survivors’ demands to the government?
So we have Sendong, then Pablo, now Yolanda. Any questions? I hope this time we listen to the lessons....