"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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Some Highlights from the Education for All Global Monitoring 2013/14 Report

Here are some figures, tables and excerpts from 2013/14 UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring 2013/14 Report. These are especially relevant to the Philippines since the country is mentioned in this presentation (unfortunately, not in a positive light). The report goes beyond simple access to education, it now begins to address the quality of education. The report ends with a hopeful list of what can be done to address the global learning crisis and this list places the teacher in front to help solve the challenges.

First, the Philippines lands in the list of countries with the highest out-of-school children:

Second, compared to Indonesia, the Philippines has shown smaller progress in achieving universal primary education.

Inequality in education is markedly greater in the Philippines and continues to be an insurmountable challenge. Poor children are not able to finish school. This, of course, is only a question of access. In terms of quality, the inequality is only expected to be much more dramatic. As the report emphasizes, inequality in education has serious consequences:

"Differences in education inequality are one reason for the wide variations in growth rates among countries in the East Asia and the Pacific region over the past 40 years. The Republic of Korea reduced inequality in education 50% faster than countries such as the Philippines. This has resulted in very different paces of economic growth. Over the period, average annual growth in GDP per capita was 5.9% in the Republic of Korea but 1.5% in the Philippines." (Take note that the "per capita" number is used here and not the total GDP. True economic growth has to be felt by most members of society, not just the wealthiest, which is what total GDP hides.)

Poverty stifles education and malnutrition among young children, a more direct and reliable measure of poverty (not just some survey from some paid company), is still unfortunately high in so many countries including the Philippines:

So, what can be done. The following are the suggestions from the report and these are all dependent on teachers:

  1. Fill teacher gaps
  2. Attract the best candidates to teaching
  3. Train teachers to meet the needs of all children
  4. Prepare teacher educators and mentors to support teachers
  5. Get teachers to where they are needed most
  6. Use a competitive career and pay structure to retain the best teachers
  7. Improve teacher governance to maximize impact
  8. Equip teachers with innovative curricula to improve learning
  9. Develop classroom assessments to help teachers identify and support students at risk of not learning
  10. Provide better data on trained teachers

Sounds more like a wish list....

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Parents and Education

I think one could easily argue that parents have a great impact on a child's performance in school. In fact, some may even suggest that parents have greater influence than teachers do. How a parent influences a child's education occurs at different levels and in different areas. Thus, quantitatively assessing the effects of parents on a child's learning is extremely challenging. It is therefore wise to address this issue not in a broad or generalized manner so that one may pinpoint exactly which ways parental involvement makes a positive contribution. There are after all numerous avenues through which parents can participate in their child's education. What a parent does for a child's education is largely shaped by the parent's dream or aspiration. It was pretty obvious to me that for my mother going up the stage to place a medal on one of her children made her really proud and happy.

My mother on stage with my younger brother during his high school graduation
My father also made it clear to me that all he wanted was that we all finished school. My father did not finish high school. To see us graduate and accomplish something he did not was his dream. There is no doubt that both of my parents place a high value in education. Both believe as well that we could all make it by working hard and giving nothing less than our best.

Now, it turns out that there is evidence that a parent's aspiration is one of the factors that impact positively a child's motivation for learning. Here is an abstract of a paper published in the Journal of Educational Research:

The above study was quite methodical in deciphering relationships between what a parent does and how motivated a child is in learning. Motivation is a key aspect in learning. Children who are motivated to study are obviously more likely to stay in school. Parental involvement can come in so many different ways like being active in parent-teacher associations, establishing rules or schedules (when to view television or visit Facebook) at home, assisting in their children's projects or homework, and others. Thus, it is important to focus on a limited number of ways parents get involved in their child's education to gain useful insights on what works and what does not work. Doing so enables the above researchers to find what generally has a positive impact on a child's motivation to learn. It is the parent's aspiration.

It is not surprising to see that a parent's aspiration for his or her child plays a major role in learning motivation. What is surprising is that there are parents who do not have such aspiration. My parents probably never aspired that I actually pursue higher education to obtain a doctorate degree, but their dream that I finish high school was enough to propel me to take my studies seriously.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Do We Learn Online?

Of course, the answer is that some people do. The worldwide web can deliver as much content as any book does and with technology, it can be interactive, dynamic and almost limitless. This blog has been active for almost two years now. With more than 700 posts, this blog is certainly more than thousands of pages long. The blog covers topics under basic education emphasizing the role of evidence-based and peer-reviewed research in deciding what actions must be taken to address challenges and problems in schools in the Philippines and the United States. Currently, there have been more than 600,000 pageviews from about 350,000 visitors. Most of the pageviews and visits to this blog come from the Philippines. The important question then is whether readers from the Philippines are learning from the content provided by this blog. Four percent of 350,000 is 14,000. I grab the number four percent from findings reported by schools that provide courses online. Four percent is the fraction of registrants in massive open online courses (MOOCs) who actually finish.

Obviously, I am expecting too much. This blog after all is not from Harvard, MIT or UPenn. Reading this blog also does not grant the viewer a certificate of completion. This blog does not confer credits toward professional development. This blog does not perform any assessment so it cannot even determine whether a reader is in fact getting the main points of a post or not.

Harvard and MIT just came out with their report on the first year of MOOCs offered by the two institutions. The results are no different from those of the University of Pennsylvania, which were highlighted here in a previous article. Harvard and MIT offered the following courses:

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263

And the results are summarized in the following figure:

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263
It is also interesting to note the makeup of the course takers. These are mostly holders of bachelor degrees or higher:

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263
And most are young adults:

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263
There are also several thousands of registrants who come from the Philippines:

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263

Although both United States and the Philippines appear on the list of top 25 countries by numbers of registrants, both countries disappear when it comes to completion rate (not even in the top 30):

Above copied from Ho, Andrew Dean and Reich, Justin and Nesterko, Sergiy O and Seaton, Daniel Thomas and Mullaney, Tommy and Waldo, Jim and Chuang, Isaac, HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (January 21, 2014). Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1).. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2381263
These are courses provided by some of the top universities in the world yet the completion rate leaves a lot to be desired. The small percentages are indeed still large numbers in absolute terms since 4 percent of 800,000 is still a big number, 32,000. A student population of 32,000 is quite large in any decent size college campus in the US. This year, Georgetown University has about 7,500 students enrolled in its undergraduate programs. Thus, the reach of MOOCs is actually very substantial. One, however, should not discount the fact that these MOOCs are already coming from the best institutions of higher learning in the US.

It illustrates what one sees online almost everyday. One only needs to see which posts get so many shares and likes on Facebook, and compare their content with those provided by these MOOCs. One often sees "online learning" as a phrase, but the two seem to be not a match made in heaven. We are still quite a long way from learning online.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

When Should the School Year Begin and End?

The school year is currently under review in the Philippines. Moving the opening of school has been catalyzed by the expected integration of the Philippines with the other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015. The rationale is purely based on synchronizing with the rest of the region to enhance both student and teacher mobility among member countries.

I finished both basic and college education in the Philippines before heading to the US for graduate studies. Finishing the school year sometime in late March or early April means a slightly longer vacation since school starts in late August or early September in the US. School ends in late May or early June implies that someone coming to the US to study in the Philippines needs to settle with only a few weeks of summer vacation. With teacher training sessions, even with a lack of synchronization among countries, it is still however possible to find a week or two during which no country has school days.

Although the Philippines stands out among ASEAN countries with regard to the scheduling of the school year, there are countries in Asia or other parts of the world that do not have a September to May school year. Here are some examples (from World Stats and Facts):

  • Japan: Most Japanese schools run on a trimester schedule. The academic year begins in April and ends the following March, with breaks for summer, winter and spring separating the three terms.
  • Costa Rica: The school year in Costa Rica runs from February to December. Students have vacation for about two months, from December to February, and a few weeks off in July.
  • South Korea: The school year in South Korea typically runs from March to February. The year is divided into two semesters (March to July and September to February).
  • Australia: Students in Australia attend school for 200 days a year. Their school year lasts from late January to mid December. Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, it experiences summer while it’s winter in the northern hemisphere. Summer vacation for Australian students is from mid December to late January.
By the way, schools in Indonesia (a member of the ASEAN) actually have eleven months (from July to June) of schooling. Nevertheless, as long as the school year lasts for only ten months, synchronization to enhance student and teacher mobility is not a difficult issue to solve. Adjustments can easily be made. More importantly, a country should choose when its school year starts and ends based on conditions the country faces. Although the northern and southern hemispheres experience the seasons at different times, schools tend to hold their breaks during the summer season. The US, which is in the northern hemisphere, has its school break over the summer months July and August while students in Australia takes a vacation during its summer months of December and January. Summer months in countries where bitter cold weather occurs in the winter months are indeed excellent opportunities to spend time outdoors and with family. Summer months are better times to travel and have a vacation. In the Philippines, the months of April and May, during which there is no school, are the hottest and driest months of the year. Without air conditioning or even electric fans during the summer months in the Philippines, classrooms are expected to be very hot and therefore expose school children to heath risks, not to mention very poor learning environments. Even colleges do not have air conditioned classrooms. The Philippines should therefore not adjust its school schedule for a flimsy reason of synchronization if in exchange, students and teachers will only be burdened. 

The rainy season brings flooding. Quite a number of typhoons visit the Philippines during the months of September through December. A major flood in the Metro Manila area is perhaps not a good way to start school. Japan is quite creative in its school year. This perhaps is a better place to start thinking about the school year. Schooling in Japan is almost year round. There are no long breaks. Therfore, one idea is to have the first term of school over the months of November through March, a break in April, then a second term over the months of May through September. This scheme distributes the school closings over a period of very hot days in one break and very rainy days in another. In addition, the breaks have been distributed reducing the number of continuous days of no school. It allows for two periods over the year during both teachers and facilities can take a breather from students. Periodic cleaning and maintenance of schools can therefore be done twice a year. But most importantly, avoidance of a long break from school addresses a real problem in learning: Summer Learning Loss. 

Harris Cooper of Duke University and his coworkers have shown that summer vacations lead to learning gaps. Among their published works are the following:

Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school. A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65 (1, Serial No. 260), 1-118. 
Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66, 227-268.

The following graph from Cooper et al. illustrates how much learning loss occurs over the summer:

Over the summer, poor students lose more. The situation for math is worse. Unlike reading where a family may be able to make up for what a child is missing from school, math exercises are not really household favorites. Idleness becomes worse with time. Breaks are necessary, but long ones can be detrimental.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

When Non-educators Provide Answers

One would not ask a plumber to work on one's dental filling. One would not even request for a professional opinion from someone who works on pipes on what should be done with one's tooth. That would be stupid. Yet, in education, individuals who have no experience in teaching are not only quick to offer their opinion, but are even confident with their misguided suggestions. Take, for example, those who think that schools are run like prisons. These people try to malign school systems by stating that classrooms are nothing more than places where students can no longer question and must simply accept what is taught. These people have not even tried teaching in a classroom where pupils can not sit still or keep quiet. To suggest that order and discipline are unnecessary for teaching simply illustrates a complete lack of practical knowledge regarding classrooms. Still, these individuals think they hold the key to reforming education.

Another pervasive thought among non-educators is an aversion towards rote learning.  Skills are seen as the means and end for education. There is no need for content. Again, this thinking comes from ignoring what learning really entails, and more importantly, how the human brain works. One would have thought that with the preponderance of computers, people would be able to relate easily to the difference between memory retrieval and processing. These are two tasks a computer does. In fact, even web browsers store previously viewed content. In this manner, retrieval takes much faster. Is it too difficult for us to realize that recalling something we already know takes much less effort than trying to come up with the answer from scratch? Nevertheless, some still blindly believes that skills are way above content. The fact that any expert in any field became an expert because of their experience and knowledge in their specific trade does not matter.

Memory is very important. In chemistry, it helps to know what the element symbols are. In biochemistry, it helps to have the structure of each amino acid at one's fingertips. With mastery of content, the brain can then spend its energy more on higher skills. This is the point that most people who hate memorization fail to see. The important thing is that neuroscience highlights the importance of having content locked in memory. There is research-based evidence that shows why it is important that young children do memorize addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of numbers. This was not after all a crazy idea handed down to us by our teachers and parents four decades ago. Here is a recent paper from the The Journal of Neuroscience:

The bottom line is that fluency in arithmetic counts. A brain that does not have to exert any effort to figure out that 5 time 5 is 25 by simply retrieving this information from memory can do a better job with determining what x is in (x + 1)(x + 1) = 25. The authors of the above study conclude:
...From an educational perspective, our results provide the first neuroscientific evidence demonstrating the fundamental importance of fluency in basic mental arithmetic in the acquisition of college-level mathematical skills. Furthermore, they significantly extend our understanding of the relationship between simple arithmetic and higher level math competence beyond that revealed by behavioral data alone. Specifically, the relationship between PSAT Math and functional brain activation during single-digit arithmetic was significant even when controlling for PSAT Critical Reading, revealing neurocognitive mechanisms specific to PSAT Math not evident from reaction time analysis alone. 
In conclusion, the present data are the first to demonstrate that brain mechanisms associated with elementary arithmetic skills are related to performance on a broad ranging, educationally relevant measure of math competence at the end of high school. Thus, the importance of early arithmetic skills for math competence is not only evident at a behavioral level. Their acquisition appears to impact the construction of neurobiological architectures across development, which may in turn support the acquisition of high school-level math skills that have significant consequences for progression into higher education. Finally, the present findings demonstrate how neuroimaging data can inform our understanding of educationally relevant issues and thus demonstrate the power of an educational neuroscience framework.
This again illustrates why it is important that our views on education are backed by evidence. Otherwise, we would be millions of miles away from the truth.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Expanded Learning Time in a Middle School in Massachusetts

Each hour is 60 minutes. 240 minutes add up to four hours. Devoting one hour for each subject means in a period of four hours, four subjects can be covered. These four subjects can be regarded as the core. Adding other subjects like physical education, recess, and lunch means that even if children begin their schooling as early as 7 in the morning, a school day cannot end before noon. This is one reason why multiple shifts in schools are not good for education. Classrooms are important and this school need must be met as soon as possible before any educational measure is implemented. 

Edutopia, What Works in Education, a site of the George Lucas Foundation has been highlighting a middle school in Boston, Massachusetts. The school, Clarence R. Edwards Middle School, ten years ago was facing the challenges of English language learners and low scores in the state's standard exams in math, English and science. Since 2006, the school added hours to its instructional time in the hope of saving the school. The following suggests that such approach is working:

Figure captured from http://www.edutopia.org/stw-expanded-learning-time-research
Part of the additional three hours per week at Edwards are to ensure that students are given enough time to cover the core subjects. The four core subjects are English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. Each of these subjects is given an hour of instruction per day. In addition, as Vanessa Vega and Youki Terada of Edutopia point out in their article, the following initiatives made possible by the extended time are among the reasons why education at Edwards has improved significantly in the past six years:
  • Enrichment Programs: Fine arts, sports, physical education, and career apprenticeships with community organizations
  • Academic Leagues: Additional instruction targeting areas where students struggle most
An example of an Enrichment Program is the Citizen Schools.
The Citizen Schools day is long, rigorous, and fun. The program begins at the end of its host school's regular class day, usually between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. and leads with an Opening Circle. In this team-building call-and-response exercise, a Citizen Schools professional goes through the day's schedule, concluding by yelling out "Teach!" to which the students reply in unison, "Back!" Teach Back is a basic precept of Citizen Schools, shorthand for mastering a subject so thoroughly that you can teach it back to others. A similar pep-type rally signals the 6 p.m. end of the Citizen Schools day. 
The first hour or so of the Citizens Schools session is spent in classrooms where students read, write, and do their homework assignments. This session -- called AIM (Aspire, Invest, Make the Grade) -- enables students to work individually with team leaders on academic areas in need of improvement. Periodic breaks and snacks of orange slices and string cheese keep adolescent blood sugar in balance. 
Thursday is Exploration Day, devoted to the kinds of events and outings that try to be as entertaining as they are educational. In-school programs include presentations about nutrition, science, history, and antigang education. Exploration Day's real fun, however, comes during trips to coastal-cleanup events and visits to bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks, miniature race car tracks, and even a laser-tag arcade. The latter activity, especially, may not necessarily qualify as pure education, but the virtual reality gunfight is layered with a lecture on lasers. (http://www.edutopia.org/citizen-schools-after-school-program)
The following is a video:

The additional programs are additional. These do not replace the the formal instructional hours devoted to the core subjects. Clarence R. Edwards Middle School shows what works. It does present challenges. It requires time and effort. But this is what a true education reform looks - it is so much more than just sound bites.

Monday, January 13, 2014

American High Schools Are Taking More Advanced Courses in Science and Math

Caralee Adams in Education Week writes "High School Students Taking More Math and Science Courses":
"High school students are being told to take more rigorous math and science courses if they want to be prepared for college and get lucrative jobs in STEM careers. 
New data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest they are taking that advice."
The data Adams is referring to is summarized in the graph below:

Above figure captured from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013037.pdf
 To understand what the above numbers mean, the following pieces of information are important:

First, what is a Carnegie credit? The most widely used credit systems in U.S. secondary education are based on the Carnegie Unit system. Carnegie Units were proposed in 1906 as a basis for measuring school work. A unit would represent a single subject taught for one classroom period for five days a week.(Structure of the U.S. Education System: Credit Systems, U.S. Department of Education, 2008)

Second, what qualifies as an advanced course in math or science? To answer this question, one must get acquainted first with "pipeline measures". The following are pertinent descriptions of what these measures entail:

The pipeline measures are built on the assumption that students who complete advanced level coursework have mastered the skills of lower level courses and gained experience with more complex and advanced subject matter. In turn, these students should have a greater understanding of the subject area than their peers who reach only lower levels of the pipeline.
The categories for math are as follows: 
• The no mathematics or low academic mathematics course level included − 1 = no mathematics or low academic mathematics (other general mathematics, mathematics 7, accelerated mathematics 7, mathematics 8, accelerated mathematics 8, general mathematics 1, general mathematics 2, science mathematics, mathematics in the arts, vocational mathematics, technical mathematics, mathematics review, mathematics tutoring, consumer mathematics, other actuarial sciences, other applied mathematics, basic mathematics 1, basic mathematics 2, basic mathematics 3, basic mathematics 4, pre-algebra, algebra I–part 1, algebra I–part 2, or informal geometry). 
• Middle academic mathematics course levels included  
− 2 = algebra I/plane geometry (other pure mathematics, algebra I, plane geometry, solid geometry, unified mathematics 1, unified mathematics 2, geometry–part 1, geometry–part 2, unified mathematics 1–part 1, unified mathematics 1–part 2, pre-International Baccalaureate [IB] geometry, IB mathematics methods 1, IB mathematics studies 1, discrete mathematics, finite mathematics, algebra and geometry, or other mathematics); 
− 3 = algebra II (algebra II, unified mathematics III, or pre-IB algebra II/ trigonometry); and  
− 4 = algebra III/trigonometry/analytic geometry (algebra III, trigonometry, analytic geometry, trigonometry and solid geometry, algebra and trigonometry, algebra and analytic geometry, linear algebra, independent study, statistics, probability, probability and statistics, or Advanced Placement [AP] statistics). • Advanced academic mathematics course levels included  
− 5 = precalculus (introductory analysis or IB mathematics studies 2); and  
− 6 = calculus (calculus and analytic geometry, calculus, AP calculus, IB mathematics studies/calculus, or AP calculus CD). 
The categories for science are as follows: 
• 1 = no science or low academic science (unified science, physical science, applied physical science, other geological sciences, earth science, college preparatory earth science, or miscellaneous physical sciences);  
• 2 = secondary physical science and basic biology (basic biology 1, basic biology 2, other biological and physical sciences, independent science study, outdoor education, other systems science, futuristics, environmental science, IB environmental studies, energy and environment, astronomy, other astronomy, other astrophysics, atmospheric sciences and meteorology, meteorology, introductory chemistry, chemistry in the community, organic biochemistry, physical chemistry, consumer chemistry, chemistry independent study, other chemistry, AP environmental science, geology, geology–field studies, mineralogy, oceanography, general physics, other physics, electricity and electronics science, acoustics, other planetary science, other rocketry and space science, or aerospace science); 
• 3 = general biology (general biology 1, general biology 2, honors biology 1, other biology, pre-IB biology, ecology, marine biology, advanced marine biology, zoology, other zoology, vertebrate zoology, invertebrate zoology, animal behavior, human physiology, advanced physiology, pathology, comparative embryology, or other life sciences);  
• 4 = chemistry I or physics I (chemistry 1, pre-IB chemistry, or physics 1);  
• 5 = chemistry I and physics I (highest completed courses include one level I chemistry course [see above] and one level I physics course [see above]); and  
• 6 = chemistry II or physics II or advanced biology (chemistry 2, IB chemistry 2, IB chemistry 3, AP chemistry, physics 2, IB physics, AP physics B, AP physics C: mechanics, AP physics C: electricity/magnetism, physics 2 without calculus, advanced biology, field biology, genetics, biopsychology, biology seminar, biochemistry and biophysics, biochemistry, botany, other botany, cell and molecular biology, cell biology, microbiology, microbiology other, other life sciences specialized areas, anatomy, IB biology 2, IB biology 3, or AP biology). 


Thursday, January 9, 2014

What Principals Do That Works

What do principals exactly do? Well, as a student, I remember that being called to the principal's office is often not a good thing. I have this image that principals deal with trouble makers. Principals also spend time talking with parents. When I spent weeks over the summer inside elementary schools in Paete, Laguna, I saw that a large fraction of a principal's time is really spent on administrative and management tasks. Principals sit on the local school board and are right out there in front tackling infrastructure projects, literally begging politicians to build a classroom or two.

This photo was taken with school administrators in Paete, Laguna in 2005. In Paete, principals are affectionately called "apples".
Principals do impact learning inside the classroom beyond their administrative tasks. Principals are, of course, the leaders of the teachers, the teacher of the teachers. Instructional leadership is obviously part of the job description of a principal. Republic Act 9155 enumerates the responsibilities of a principal:

Consistent with the national educational policies, plans and standards, the school heads shall have authority, accountability and responsibility for the following: 
(1) Setting the mission, vision, goals and objectives of the school;
(2) Creating an environment within the school that is conducive to teaching and learning;
(3) Implementing the school curriculum and being accountable for higher learning outcomes;
(4) Developing the school education program and school improvement plan;
(5) Offering educational programs, projects and services which provide equitable opportunities for all learners in the community;
(6) Introducing new and innovative modes of instruction to achieve higher learning outcomes;
(7) Administering and managing all personnel, physical and fiscal resources of the school;
(8) Recommending the staffing complement of the school based on its needs;
(9) Encouraging staff development;
(10) Establishing school and community networks and encouraging the active participation of teachers organizations, nonacademic personnel of public schools, and parents-teachers-community associations;
(11) Accepting donations, gifts, bequests and grants for the purpose of upgrading teachers' learning facilitators' competencies, improving ad expanding school facilities and providing instructional materials and equipment. Such donations or grants must be reported to the appropriate district supervisors and division superintendents; and
(12) Performing such other functions as may be assigned by proper authorities.

It is obvious that a significant amount of the above duties pertain directly to the principal acting as an instructional leader. While the responsibilities placed on the shoulder of a principal are quite broad and general, the important question to ask is what actions or tasks that a principal does as an instructional leader actually contribute positively to student learning. To answer this question, one must select only those activities that clearly belong to the realm of instructional leadership. Fund raising and establishing networks can take a substantial amount of a principal's time. In the United States, only about 10 percent of a principal's time goes to instructional leadership. Based on the limited time I spent in the schools of Paete, I would say that the situation in the Philippines is similar. Specific actions taken by a principal that can be regarded as instructional leadership include curriculum development, teachers' evaluation, classroom observations, professional development of teachers and staff, and teachers' coaching. These are activities that are clearly related to what happens inside the classroom. Seeing that only a small fraction of a principal's time goes to these activities makes it even more important to know which ones actually work. Fortunately, there is one scientific study recently published that answers this question. The results are significant since the findings also reveal practices that can actually harm learning inside the classroom. The study is published in the journal Educational Researcher:

Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433-444.

This study is unique because the data come from first-hand observations. These are not from surveys or questionnaires filled by the principals. These are data obtained by persons who have been trained to observe what a principal does during the day. Relationships between what a principal does and learning outcomes can therefore be elucidated without bias or false reporting. And the findings are significant:

Like time on the school’s educational program and teacher evaluation, time spent directly coaching teachers is positively associated with achievement gains and school improvement, especially in math. Yet coaching appears to be a rare practice among observed principals, which may reflect principals discounting the effectiveness of coaching or their own capacity to coach effectively. In contrast, informal classroom observations or “walkthroughs” are more common but negatively associated with achievement gains and school improvement, at least in high schools. For a subset of schools we also had survey data indicating whether the walkthroughs were viewed by teachers as professional development. In schools where walkthroughs are not viewed as professional development, walkthroughs are particularly negative; while in schools where they are viewed as professional development, coaching is particularly positive. In other words, different use of walkthroughs seems to be associated with different results. In short, our results suggest that time spent engaging in instruction is not itself sufficient but rather that the effects of instructional leadership activities are conditional on the type and quality of those time investments.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Long Term Trends in US Basic Education

The following graphs are from "The Condition of Education 2013", a report from the National Center for Education Statistics in the US. With reforms in education appearing and disappearing as fast as fashion styles, it is useful to look at trends that have stood for a longer time period. There may or may not be a correlation between these trends, but clearly in the past two decades, there are trends that seem to survive.

Preschool Education (Enrollment has been growing over the past three decades)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Skills and Everyday Life in the 21st Century

When we think about our thinking too often, we may in fact stop thinking. This is just my guess based on the fact that we all have limited working memory capacity. But it is true that when facing a task, if we spend so much time contemplating about the task instead of actually working and accomplishing such task, we end up finishing nothing. Metacognition is useful, but focusing on it at the wrong time and in a wrong way can be counterproductive. 

One skill an excellent teacher brings to any classroom is the ability to assess his or her students' knowledge and skills. It is called testing. These tests are not the standardized exams, but tools that a teacher uses to probe how much the students have learned in the class. It takes training and experience to write a good test. This is not too different from performing a technical procedure in which only those who have received adequate and proper training are expected to do the job correctly. With this in mind, let us take a look at the following questions:
  1. "Thinking about your last year in school, about how often, if ever, did you work on a long-term project that took several classes to complete?" 
  2. "Thinking about your last year in school, about how often, if ever, did you use what you were learning about to develop solutions to real problems in your community or in the world?"
The above two questions are from a recent Gallup poll, "21st Century Skills and the Workplace". The first question is straightforward. Respondents can easily return to their schooldays and recall how many long term projects they had performed in school. The second question, however, is not as straightforward.

Paul Bruno, in a recent blog article, "Teachers Already Use Lots of Real-World Examples", writes:
I don't have a survey finding to back this up, but I'm still extremely confident that virtually every student in the country applied their learning to real-world problems not just in their last year of school, but in their last month of school. In fact, in their last year of school they might have done so at least once almost every day. 
The examples are endless. English teachers have students write persuasive essays about current events, math teachers have students use math to optimize resource allocation, and history teachers ask students to apply the lessons of the past to today's dilemmas. 
In the last month of school my 8th grade science students had to apply their knowledge of electricity to evaluate the safety and energy efficiency of their homes. My 7th graders had to use information about sexually transmitted diseases and human body systems to evaluate the safety of their own - and hypothetical - lifestyle decisions. 
These aren't exceptions; they're the norm. As far as I can tell there aren't any teachers who don't tie real world problems into their classes. If students are saying otherwise, it's likely because such activities are so common that they're taken for granted or because the term "real world problem" is too vague.
The above perspective is important in my opinion before one looks at the responses to the questions in the recent Gallup poll. Otherwise, as Paul Bruno points out, "This is the kind of survey that lends itself to misinterpretation."

With this prelude, I would now like to share with the readers of this blog the findings of the Gallup poll, "21st Century Skills and the Workplace".

First, here is a review of the "21st Century Skills" that the Gallup poll considers:

Downloaded from INNOVATIVE TEACHING AND LEARNING RESEARCH: 2011 Findings and Implications
The seven "21st Century Skills" defined by the Innovative Teaching and Learning Research are knowledge building, self-regulation and assessment, collaboration, skilled communication, problem solving and innovation, global awareness, and ICT use. The major finding of the poll is "Real world problem solving is the significant driver of higher work quality." This explains the significance of the second question, "Thinking about your last year in school, about how often, if ever, did you use what you were learning about to develop solutions to real problems in your community or in the world?"

And hopefully, we also keep in mind "When we think about our thinking too often, we may in fact stop thinking...."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Biology and Ecology Apps

Replacing a chalkboard with technology only makes sense if the new medium offers new possibilities. Colorful images invite attention and coupled with interactive features truly work together to engage a learner. This exercise is not identical to a teacher providing a lecture but it does provide learning opportunities similar to opening and reading a book.

The following are two examples of applications now available and are free to download. One does not really need an IPad or android to access the contents of these applications since the respective web sites likewise provide images and information to viewers. The only difference perhaps with the app is that one can easily access it anywhere and swipe from page to page.

The first example is appropriate for young learners. It is from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Its web site already provides a lot of information regarding endangered species, from tigers to whales. Each animal comes with an overview, why they matter, threats, what WWF is doing, and how can you help sections. This content has been   placed together into one app for the IPad allowing young children to flip through with guidance from their parents. Here is a preview of  the app called WWF Together:

Brad Spirrison of appolearning provides the following review:

Why we love this app

We can't get enough of this one, and neither will your kid. WWF Together offers stunning wildlife images and useful information on species, habitat, environmental concerns, and more to help paint a picture of the struggles many wild animals face around the globe. Kindergartners and 1st graders will like flipping through the app with mom and dad. Older kids should be fine on their own.

What it teaches and how it works

Kids click on one of a dozen animals to learn facts and see additional photos. Major problems facing each species are also highlighted. Students may also click on an animated globe to learn about dozens of other wild animals facing habitat loss or related concerns.

Why your kid won't be able to put it down

So much thought and care went into the development of this app, and it's apparent on every page. Starting with the large inviting pictures and continuing through the carefully crafted prose, this app is clearly a winner.
For older kids (Grade 6 through 8), Julene Reed also of appolearning points us to an application that may appeal to adolescents and teach the foundation of living systems, the cell. This app runs on both IPad and Android systems. There is also a web version that can run on desktop or laptop computers. The app is the HudsonAlpha iCell, which allows students to explore bacterial, plant and animal cells:

Snapshots of the HudsonAlpha iCell app
Here is Reed's review of this app:

Why we love this app

This app is excellent for providing students with information about cell structures in an interactive, 3D environment. The ability to manipulate the cell structures, enlarging them and rotating them, as students learn about different parts of the cell is engaging and provides great interactivity.

What it teaches and how it works

Basic cell structure with information on different parts of a cell is provided in a 3D environment for plant, animal, and bacterial cell study and comparison of the three types of cells. The 3D models of the cell organelles have been updated and improved from an earlier version of the app. When students tap on a cell organelle, its name and a short description appear on the screen. The ability to choose from three levels of difficulty is especially adaptive for students in different grade levels. Zooming in on the cells and rotating them in a 3D fashion is a really engaging aspect of this app. DNA researchers at the HudsonAlpha Institute developed this app. Students will learn extremely accurate information about the different parts of a cell.

Why your kid won't be able to put it down

Kids will love exploring the cells in this virtual environment in ways that are not available in other situations. Being able to see these basic units of molecular structure and their parts gets kids excited about the wonder of science.

The above two are indeed among the best apps out there. These are clear illustrative examples of new things technology can make possible for learning.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Project PAG-ARAM

The Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) in coordination with other groups namely Bulig Visayas, Teachers Cooperative of Valenzuela City, Penson and Company, Inc. (P&CI) and Ating Guro Partylist has initiated the Project PAG-ARAM, An initiative to raise school supplies for children and materials for teachers in Yolanda-affected areas. The main objective of the project is to provide the school needs of students and teachers in typhoon Yolanda-affected areas of Eastern Visayas, Northern Cebu, Northern Panay and Northern Palawan. The project aims to collect as many donations as possible from schools, students, teachers, parents, individuals and organizations through the following schemes.

Needed donations. Notebooks, papers, pens, art and coloring materials, school uniforms, shoes or slippers, school bags, underwear for children. Chalk, eraser, Manila paper, cartolina, pentel pens or markers, lesson plan, record book, plywood and paint for improvised blackboard and other materials for teachers.

Adopt-a-School scheme. Schools and organizations may participate in our Adopt-a-School program by providing a recipient school in the disaster area with all the supplies and materials needed by teachers and students (for this particular donation, we will be providing the list of schools with all the details as well as the contact persons).

How to donate? Donations may be sent to our office or in any drop-off points. Schools and offices will be designated to be the drop-off points in a division or districts or cluster of municipalities. For those who wish to help in the form of cash, donations may also be deposited to bank account Teachers Cooperative of Valenzuela City, Account # 003850110952 BDO Karuhatan Branch, Valenzuela City (kindly inform Ms. Fely Matus, Treasurer at 09064078384)

The donations within the first week of January will be distributed to some schools in Leyte on January 15 to coincide with the launching of the project and the opening of classes. However, all other donations will be accepted until May 30, 2014 or before the start of school year 2014-2015.

Donors from NCR and the rest of Luzon may call our project coordinators Ms. Olive De Guzman at 0917-8167130 and Ms. Marilou Felipe at 0908-8723343. Those from Visayas and Mindanao may also send their donations to Sto. SPED Center, cor. Sto. Nino and T. Claudio Sts., Tacloban City or communicate with TDC leaders in Leyte, Ms. Cristy Diomaro-Gallano at 0939-9198894 or Ms. Mae Novilla at 0919-3584585.

For other details, interested parties may contact our hotline numbers, 3853437, 4350036, 0923-8643887 and 0998-9842737 or visit our FB Page www.facebook.com/pages/Teachers-Dignity-Coalition-TDC (to link you to Project PAG-ARAM). Initial drop-off points are the TDC and Ating guro Partylist respective offices, 117-C Matatag St., Bgy. Central, Quezon City and Door E 4012-A Corner Diam St., Gen. T. De Leon, Valenzuela City

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Cost of Testing

Tests serve a very good purpose in education. Tests assess how much students have learned. Tests come in various kinds. There are take-home tests in which time is not a factor. These tests usually allow students to look up information. There are "open-book" exams given inside a classroom. These begin to be under time pressure and students need to seek information from the text readily and familiarity with the book is an advantage. There are essays. In math and science, there are numerical problems. There is also the multiple choice exam. Standardized tests are usually of this type since these are much easier to grade. Multiple choice exams do not give room to the subjectivity of a grader. Good multiple choice exams, however, are much more difficult to write. With regard to style and content, a test can be either tailored to assess how quickly a student could retrieve information and answer the question. These tests factor speed. On the other hand, exams can be written such that there is really no time pressure but the questions are so much more difficult. These exams examine the depth of a student's knowledge and skill. Tests are useful not simply as an assessment tool, but also as a motivation factor. Students do take their work in school more seriously if there are tests.

While it is clear that tests are important, there is now an impression that tests are bad for education. There is, for example, that derogatory phrase "teaching to the test". Looking at any sport, a beginner learns the rules then does some practice. Playing the game is the test and here it is clear, one must be taught the test in order to learn the game. If tests in schools reflect and represent what students must learn then "teaching to the test" is in fact teaching correctly. Unlike sports, however, the objectives of education are not as focused. Schools are supposed to prepare children for so many things like life itself. Thus, there are the skills like collaboration, perseverance and creativity that are quite difficult to measure by tests. Thus, a focus on tests may neglect these very important skills.

High stakes testing dramatically changes the role of exams in schools. When teachers' pay and the survival of a school are dependent on exam scores, the role of exams in education can change so much such that tests can do harm to schools. “Testing More, Teaching Less: What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time,”, a report released by the American Federation of Teachers presents data from two "anonymous" school districts showing how much money and time are being spent on testing:

To read this report, please visit
The following figures summarize the time and money spent on testing by an "Eastern" school district:

Above figures copied from
The American Federation of Teachers states the following in the press release announcing the report:
Redirected time and money devoted to excessive testing could be used, for example, to focus on problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and to restore subjects not tested and/or that have been cut, such as art, music, physical education and foreign languages. The financial savings could be used for any number of instructional needs, including the purchase of assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. These assessments will cost between $20 to $35 more per test-taker than the current $20 per test-taker in a typical state, the report said.
Tests are good for schools, but we can make exams bad if we use them for a different purpose.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Improving Teacher Quality in the United States

Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch wrote recently on EducationNext an article entitled, "Gains in Teacher Quality". It highlights an apparent improvement in academic scores over the past few decades of individuals joining the teaching force in the United States. One item Goldhaber and Walch noted is the higher score in the scholastic assessment test (SAT):

Above figure copied from
"Gains in Teacher Quality"
The above trend has been shown about six years ago by a study released by the Education Testing Service (ETS):

To read the report
please download
This ETS reports looks at the academic records of Praxis test takers. The Praxis Series ® assessments provide educational tests and other services that states use as part of their teaching licensing certification process. The ETS study also notes the increase in the academic performance (in terms of SAT and GPA) of Praxis test takers. The following figures are copied from "Teacher Quality in a Changing Policy Landscape: Improvements in the Teaching Pool":

Worth noting are the SAT scores of future teachers in math and science:

Of course, good academic scores do not guarantee effective teaching. It is likewise important to note as well that physical, special and elementary education teachers remain relatively weak compared to other teachers. But the trends are positive and are nonetheless promising.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

To Be A Student For A Day

Now that I have been teaching for decades, it is not straightforward to imagine how it is to be a student inside a classroom once more. In a university setting, a professor does attend seminars. And in our department, every semester, each faculty member is assigned to sit and observe one lecture of another professor. Still, attending a lecture once or twice a week is still not identical to attending several lectures in different disciplines, one after another, within the span of one day, and do the same every day of the week for months. Of course, I can make the excuse that younger people have more energy and stamina. Nonetheless, the required engagement, attention and focus can be overwhelming. This covers only the academic part. Both high school and college life have a social dimension and this can be equally taxing. Hopefully, a student does not have to worry about preparing breakfast, lunch bags, and picking up their kids from school like I do now. The life of a student is indeed dramatically different from that of the instructor.

English teacher Scott Clausen of Burr and Burton Academy attending a biology class, experiencing what a school day is through the eyes of a high school student
( photo captured from BBA Student for a Day Project )
To teach with considerable attention to where the learners are, it is necessary to have the perspective of a student. I can exert effort in trying to recall my high school days so that I can imagine how it is to be a student. Instead of simply imagining, five teachers at Burr and Burton Academy in the state of Vermont decided to go through a day as a student in order to see high school once more through the eyes of a student. The experience was indeed enlightening and what the teachers thought and discovered during the exercise were captured in the following video:

BBA Student for a Day Project from Adam Provost on Vimeo.

All teachers were once students and thus, can all relive the past, but spending a day right now as a student can still be an excellent eye opener.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Does Knowledge Affect Learning?

A computer with an extremely fast processor is certainly powerful. But without memory or data to work with, such computer is not really that useful. In education, skills are one part, but there is also content. Standing in front of a classroom, a teacher may try to bring the lesson closer to what the students have already experienced. A good teacher often tries to bring the topic to a much more familiar territory. Learning can come easier if not everything is new. Lessons learned inside a classroom are usually not entirely from scratch. Formal basic education in a classroom does not begin in day one, the day a child is born. It starts years after. And every year inside a school builds on previous years. A child's knowledge affects how that child learns.

Esther Quintero of Shanker Blog recently wrote an article describing the research work of Tanya Kaefer (Lakehead University) Susan B. Neuman (New York University) and Ashley M. Pinkham (University of Michigan), "Pre-existing Background Knowledge Influences Socioeconomic Differences in Preschoolers’ Word Learning and Comprehension". The work addresses the following questions:
  1. Do poor and middle class children possess different knowledge about the world?
  2. Do differences in knowledge influence the children’s ability to learn in the classroom?
  3. If differences in preexisting knowledge were neutralized, would the two groups of children learn similarly?
To answer these questions, specific lessons on birds are used. The answer to the first question is shown in the following table. These are results from tests that involve dichotomous questions. Thus, someone without any knowledge about birds should score 50%, assuming all the answers are random guesses.

The above copied from

Middle income children do show greater background knowledge regarding the topic of birds. For comparison, results from a Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III (PPVT) specific on birds are also reported indicating that poor children are indeed weaker in receptive vocabulary in this particular domain of birds.

The second question is addressed by designing a lesson that does require background knowledge. This lesson is described as follows:
For this study, we created an 18-page illustrated storybook about four birds that lived in a house together. The book had a total of 238 words, and shared a common plot and story grammar, including the setting (i.e., house), problem, response, and resolution. The story featured the adventures of four types of birds (all extinct): the moa, faroe, cupido, and kona.
The above copied from
These are species that are obviously not familiar to young children but the passages and pictures contain items that can be related to general characteristics of birds. Tests on vocabulary as well as reading comprehension in these lessons also reveal that poor children do not perform as well as those from middle-class families:

The above copied from
The last question is perhaps most interesting. What if the learning is from scratch? In this study, it is important not to make any reference to anything children may have encountered or experienced before. Thus, the lessons are slightly different (no reference to birds):

The above copied from
And the results highlight the fact that although vocabulary (words in context, since there are really no lessons out there that are in a vacuum) is still different between the two groups, the poor children perform at the same level as rich children in reading comprehension tests:

The above copied from
Knowledge does affect learning and children as they march through year after year inside a school are building their knowledge, not just skills. The gap created by the difference between the experiences and background knowledge of children from various income groups needs to be taken into account. Otherwise, schools really just become another place where scores depend on a child's socio-economic status.