"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

Friday, September 30, 2016

Content Knowledge Is Important in Teaching

Everyone including teachers and parents are very busy nowadays. Both time and attention are at a premium. Headlines therefore matter. Seeing an article with a title that says, "Study: Improving Teachers' Math Knowledge Doesn't Boost Student Scores", can thus leave an impression that either content knowledge is unimportant in teaching, or studies on education are simply spurious. The truth is: Content knowledge matters in teaching and studies on education are not really fraudulent. Oftentimes, it is the title that is grossly misleading.

Above copied from Education Week's blog

The above article on Education Week talks about a study recently released by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) entitled "Focusing on Mathematical Knowledge: The Impact of Content-Intensive Teacher Professional Development". The title of this study actually makes it clear that it is simply measuring the effect of a particular teacher professional development program. It is not encompassing enough to draw a general conclusion that how much a teacher knows does not affect learning. Knowledge matters. A previous study published in the American Educational Research Journal says so:

Effects of Teachers’ Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching on Student Achievement

  1. Deborah Loewenberg Ball
  1. University of Michigan


This study explored whether and how teachers’ mathematical knowledge for teaching contributes to gains in students’ mathematics achievement. The authors used a linear mixed-model methodology in which first and third graders’ mathematical achievement gains over a year were nested within teachers, who in turn were nested within schools. They found that teachers’ mathematical knowledge was significantly related to student achievement gains in both first and third grades after controlling for key student- and teacher-level covariates. This result, while consonant with findings from the educational production function literature, was obtained via a measure focusing on the specialized mathematical knowledge and skills used in teaching mathematics. This finding provides support for policy initiatives designed to improve students’ mathematics achievement by improving teachers’ mathematical knowledge.

Both studies involves thousands of students and hundreds of teachers yet what is being examined in each of these studies is distinct. The previous study simply looks at whether the content knowledge of teachers correlates with student's achievement. The recent study investigates whether a specific professional development program that includes Intel Math, Mathematics Learning Community, and Video Feedback Cycles has an effect on students' test scores. The details are important and, unfortunately, one does not get the full story without fully reading the article.  

Reading the above studies can actually provide important points regarding how enhancing teacher's content knowledge can impact students' learning outcomes. For example, the older study says, "Yet our results suggest that those who may benefit most are teachers in the lowest third of the distribution of knowledge, and that efforts to recruit teachers into professional development and pre-service coursework might focus most heavily on those with weak subject matter knowledge for teaching." Enhancing teacher's content knowledge works best with weak teachers. Beyond weak teachers, professional development aimed at improving teacher's knowledge needs to be targeted. And this is what the recent study shows: "The only teacher measure associated with student achievement was the Errors and Imprecision dimension, which was statistically significantly related to student achievement in the expected direction (estimate of association −0.20)." This dimension deals with:

  • Major mathematical errors (incorrect solution, incorrect definition, etc.) and/or Mathematical Content Errors allowing student errors to go uncorrected (except in cases where it is intentional).
  • Incorrect or imprecise use of mathematical symbols and mathematical terms.
  • Lack of Clarity in Presentation of mathematical tasks and unclear discussions or presentation of mathematical content.

Thus, it should not be surprising that the part of the intervention that targets specific problems in math instruction due to lack of content knowledge is found to have an impact. Misconceptions are real stumbling blocks in learning math in basic education. For interventions to be effective in raising students' math scores, these must address misconceptions held by students and teachers. As in the field of medicine, the intervention must come with an understanding of the problem so that the solution actually addresses the problem.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

"DepEd's K to 12 Is Not A Wise Move"

When asked about DepEd's K to 12, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said, "K to 12, I don't know if that is such a wise move. And, for example, I am told that at least 70,000 teachers will be thrown out of their jobs. So we don't necessarily have to do what everyone else abroad is doing. We should restudy this, I think it merits revisit." This was her response in an interview with Manila Bulletin on April 2016.

Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago will probably be remembered more with this quote: "I have realized why corrupt politicians do nothing to improve the quality of public school education. They are terrified of educated voters."

The senator is among the very few who tried to check the glaring errors of the Department of Education in the Philippines:

Miriam: P600M worth of books rendered obsolete by K-12

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has asked the Senate to probe the Department of Education’s alleged procurement of textbooks that have become obsolete because of the K to 12 program.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, thank you for the years you have served the Filipino people. May you rest in peace.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Adolescent Brain

My son is scheduled to begin middle school next year. It is a bigger school. Students do not stay in one classroom. Very likely, there is homework. There are indeed plenty of reasons to be worried. Yet, when I look at the people I have as friends on Facebook, I find classmates in high school and there are even a few from the latter years of elementary school. It is then becomes clear to me that these years signal a dramatic extension. Being social is no longer limited at home. Middle school in the United States primarily exists for the early adolescent stage as a preparation for the more demanding high school stage of basic education.

My high school classmates and I pose in front of the White House 
Not having gone through middle school, my recollections of basic education are indeed filled with memories from sixth grade and the four years of high school. And with results from brain research in the past few decades, I now understand why first year in high school seems to be extremely chaotic. First, the amount of gray matter is changing a lot through these years.

Above copied from

Nitin Gogtay, Jay N. Giedd, Leslie Lusk, Kiralee M. Hayashi, Deanna Greenstein, A. Catherine Vaituzis,Tom F. Nugent III, David H. Herman, Liv S. Clasen, Arthur W. Toga, Judith L. Rapoport, and Paul M. Thompson
Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. PNAS 2004 101 (21) 8174-8179; published ahead of print May 17, 2004, doi:10.1073/pnas.0402680101
As the human brain develops, networks are made efficient by coating with myelin, a white fatty substance. From the above figure, it can be seen that the frontal part matures last. This is the part of the brain where decisions are made. And it coincides with the years of middle school and high school. It is therefore understandable why this stage in life is exciting and stressful. In the Journal of Adolescent Health, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins concludes:
Among the many behavior changes that have been noted for teens, the three that are most robustly seen across cultures are: (1) increased novelty seeking; (2) increased risk taking; and (3) a social affiliation shift toward peer-based interactions
All three may lead to addiction, substance abuse, gang membership, teenage pregnancy and other problems. As an educator, however, these three can be viewed as excellent opportunities for learning. Discovery-based learning, game-based learning, and perhaps, most important of all, peer-learning and group projects cater to these behavioral changes.

Becoming an adolescent means becoming social and a photo of my son shown below, I think, captures this quite well....

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Last Night's Debate: We Can No Longer Be Informed

Years ago, I wanted to write an opinion article on the Philippines' Deped K to 12 curriculum. The Inquirer would not publish my piece without having a rebuttal from DepEd first. I guess the Inquirer was simply buying into Fox News' mantra of "Fair and Balanced Reporting". The main problem with emphasizing "balance" is sacrificing accuracy. When accuracy is set aside for attempting to look fair, there are dire consequences. And in last night's presidential debate in the US, it has become quite clear that mass media can no longer inform us. More than two years ago, Robert S. Eshelman wrote an essay, "The Danger of Fair and Balanced", in the Columbia Journalism View.

Above copied from the Columbia Journalism Review
In that essay, Eshelman concluded, "By now, we should have progressed to intense coverage of policy debates about how best to address climate change, not whether it exists. In this one case, balance has been the enemy of the truth." Watching last night's debate, climate change was indeed briefly mentioned yet the conversation stagnated on one pointing a finger on the other candidate as having claimed that climate change was just a "Chinese hoax", which earned a reply citing a solar energy company going bankrupt. How best to address climate change was obviously not something to be discussed.

With "fair and balanced", truth had also been compromised. Yes, there were plenty of lies during last night's debate, but fact-checking should not just be a counting contest on who said a greater number of lies. Telling a lie, whether once, twice or thrice, should not really be a matter of frequency.

Last night's debate, however, is only the tip of an iceberg. What has become clear this year and during the primary elections, is that people have learned that mass media no longer serves as a source of information. A Gallup poll in June 2016 shows that in terms of public confidence, mass media, either television or newspaper, are near the bottom with big business and the US Congress:

Above copied from Gallup
Only eight percent in the US have a great deal of confidence in mass media.

This is truly unfortunate since with the birth of the internet and widespread use of social media, we are even more likely to choose to stay within an echo chamber.

Some may have thought that last night's debate was an opportunity for education. My son watched the first few minutes. He then decided that it was boring and went to bed. And I am glad he did.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"

A restaurant offers free lunch if you buy a drink. What is on the menu, however, are foods with so much salt, forcing you to buy a lot of drinks. Of course, public schools in the United States provide free or reduced-price lunch to children from low-income families, and for most, the food is actually healthy. Nonetheless, someone still pays for this lunch. The National School Lunch Program, for example, is a federally assisted meal program. Nothing is really free. Free lunch for poor children is certainly for a good cause. But there are definitely examples out there that are not. There are instances where the intention is unquestionably right, but in the end, unintended bad consequences happen and these become the major result.

Above copied from Escambia School District
A specific example has been recently examined by Max Eden who writes an opinion article on the Hechinger Report. Eden cites the following statistics to prove a point:
More than half of the countries in the OECD offer free college. They have higher levels of enrollment than the United States but lower levels of postsecondary educational attainment. Overall, the average attainment rate in the OECD countries with free college is 38 percent.
In countries that charge tuition, the rate is 43 percent. Among the most developed nations, the G-7, those where students are charged tuition (Japan, 59 percent; Canada, 58 percent; United Kingdom, 48 percent; United States, 46 percent) all have higher levels of postsecondary educational attainment than those where tuition is free (France, 44 percent; Germany, 28 percent; Italy, 24 percent).
Based on the above numbers, going through college is really so much more than just being able to pay tuition. For one, tuition is not the only thing that students need. There are living expenses. Second, and this should be obvious, paying tuition is not a guarantee for graduation.

The Department of Education in the Philippines always touts that the senior high school years added to basic education are free. Again, this is not true. These additional years require resources. The senior years are likewise not added as a mere appendix to the old curriculum. After all, the new curriculum is promoted by its advocates as a decongestion of the old one.  Sadly, as resources have been stretched far off their limits, quality in the first ten years have been sacrificed to make way for the new curriculum. Nothing is free, and in this case, students even face a lower quality basic education on top of spending two more years.

Recently, the Suspend K to 12 Alliance shared a message from a student regarding the new grade 11 of DepEd. To this student, the senior high school does not actually work towards mastery. Grade 11 subjects appear to be a repeat of what they have already gone through during the junior years of high school. In the sciences, how can a school system really offer advanced courses when there is not even enough teachers for the basic subjects.

Asking children to spend two more years on basic education is not free. And when it comes at the expense of quality, what is free becomes clearly a burden. The following is the post shared by the Suspend K to 12 Alliance.
Here's what a student from Visayas told us via a Facebook message: "Good evening po, I found this page and finally masasabi ko na ang mga hinanakit ko sa bagong curriculum na ito... I'm currently a grade 11 student from a private school here in Bacolod City and being a part of this experimental K-12 education didn't do anything good for me. It's already September 25, 2016 and starting from June na pumasok ako sa paaralan, ito yung mga observations ko... Of course, I could say na very unprepared ang Philippines despite all those intense advertising and sweet-talk, I know that basing on the current situation of the country ay talagang palpak ito at palpak nga talaga. Sabi nila "preparation" daw para sa college pero yung nakikita ko ay mali eh. STEM nga meaning yung kinuha kong strand stands for SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY ENGINEERING AND MATHEMATICS so why is it na yung subjects na nakuha namin noong junior high school pa ay paulit ulit lamang and the subjects that are supposed to be relevant to the strand ang dapat na tutukan ay hindi na natututukan kasi other subjects are also in the way. Sabi raw "mastery" but I can't help but think of it as stupid. Anong mastery ba ang kailangan mo sa Oral Communication subject (for example) if gusto mong kumuha ng engineering course? Sana yung mga "basics" iwan nalang sa Junior High School. I seriously have high (a bit) expectations sa Senior High School noong grade 10 dahil akala ko iba na eh. True, may addition ng mga subjects na hindi nakuha noong junior high PERO KAUNTI LAMANG and mostly nakuha naman namin noon. "Mastery" and proper preparation should happen kung college na. Instead of empowering the college education, why is it na binigyan pa ng bukol ang Pilipinas? For me, there's no need na for this because our upperclassmen even managed to get decent jobs even though wala silang K-12 noon so why can't we too? If Philippines will be the ONLY country without K-12 education then so be it. Instead of matching other countries, why don't we focus on improving our own curriculum of high school education which only have 4 years. Even the US have questions on their education, what if tinanggal nila 2 years sa kanilang curriculum? Susunod din ba tayo? The point is, there really is something wrong with the education here in the Philippines at dinagdagan pa ng 2 years. Only if they just thought of improving 4 years if high school education to match with the world, then adding 2 years would simply be unnecessary. I don't even think that some Senior High School students are taking this curriculum seriously."

Friday, September 23, 2016

Do We Know How to Evaluate Teaching

Given that teaching is one important factor that affects learning, it is surprising that we are so much in the dark when it comes to how to evaluate teaching. In fact, even in institutions of higher education where one may expect administrators to be more knowledgeable, practices known to be ineffective in evaluating teaching are still in place. Take, for instance, student evaluation of teaching. A number of universities, including Georgetown, are still using student course evaluations in spite of the evidence that student evaluation is not correlated with student learning.

How my students evaluated me
There is indeed a disconnect between educators and research when it comes to student evaluation of teaching (SET). A team of researchers from Canada has recently attempted to distill what we already know about SET and its relationship to learning outcomes. After a thorough and careful analysis of studies previously made on SET, the conclusion is that SET is not related to student learning.

Above copied from Studies in Educational Evaluation
The above, unfortunately, is not really new. Nobel laureate Carl Wieman wrote in the Change magazine more than a year ago:
Student course evaluations. There are literally thousands of articles on student course evaluations, and within them one can find supporting evidence for all possible opinions. Student evaluations do provide useful information: They are often used to flag instructors who have anomalously low scores in order to understand and address the reasons for the negative student opinions, which is appropriate. However, they have several critical failings with regard to the criteria listed above that should prevent them from serving as the primary method for evaluating the quality of teaching. 
First, they have some fundamental limitations that transcend any details. It is impossible for a student (or anyone else) to judge the effectiveness of an instructional practice except by comparing it with others that they have already experienced. If all they have experienced are lectures, they cannot meaningfully evaluate the effectiveness of lectures relative to other practices. This prevents student evaluations from encouraging or rewarding the adoption of more effective research-based teaching methods when such practices are seldom used at an institution.
The criteria Wieman listed are validity, meaningful comparisons, fairness, practicality, and chance for improvement. The validity criterion is clearly not met as Wiemen pointed out, "There is another basic limitation of student evaluations that ask how much was learned in the course, which most do. People are poor at evaluating their own learning, because it is difficult to know what you do not know. The accuracy of this evaluation is also sensitive to the level of expertise of the respondent."

Wieman therefore proposes with Sarah Gilbert a more effective way of evaluating teaching. This proposal is published in CBE Life Sciences Education. This evaluation scheme basically looks at practices implemented by an instructor and gives points to those practices that have been shown by research as beneficial to student learning.
Table 1. Teaching practices inventory categories
I. Course information provided (including learning goals or
II. Supporting materials provided
III. In-class features and activities
IV. Assignments
V. Feedback and testing
VI. Other (diagnostics, pre–post testing, new methods with
measures, etc.)
VII. Training and guidance of TAs
VIII. Collaboration or sharing in teaching
The following are examples provided by Wieman and Gilbert:

Looking at the above table, one can already anticipate a problem. The third column lists references that demonstrate benefits of a particular teaching practice. This is research. The main problem is that there is a huge disconnect between research and practice when it comes to student evaluation of teaching. How much more if one considers the entire field of teaching practices.

Thus, for years to come, we can only expect student evaluation of teaching to continue....

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Yes, "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child", but First, "It Takes a Family"

"It Takes a Village" probably ranks high in the list of popular proverbs. Even Hillary Clinton used it as a title for her book. The proverb rings true especially in close-knit neighborhoods or communities. Unfortunately, with increasing isolation, we probably need to take a step back and realize that first, "It takes a family to raise a child." In education, numerous studies have strongly suggested that poverty profoundly affects learning outcomes. Perhaps, underneath this is the fact that the family deeply influences education. Such impact can be easily seen when one compares the academic performance of children who are in foster care against those who are not. The chasm observed in this comparison is actually much wider than the gap seen due to poverty.

Above copied from The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd
The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd has been examining the academic performance of foster children in the states of California and Arizona. And their findings clearly show that children in foster care are really struggling in education. In their latest study from Arizona, the gap in dropout rates due to foster care is very much evident:

Above copied from Arizona's Invisible Achievement Gap: Education Outcomes of Students in Foster Care in the State’s Public Schools
The gap is higher than the one correlated with poverty. And the same picture is essentially seen in math and reading scores in the elementary grades.

Above copied from Arizona's Invisible Achievement Gap: Education Outcomes of Students in Foster Care in the State’s Public Schools

According to the LATimes, the situation in California is very similar.

Above copied from the LATimes
Oftentimes, we easily see the broad picture but then we get lost in the details. Yes, "It takes a village to raise a child", but first, "It takes a family."

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Content-Area Literacy Instruction

In elementary grades, students are expected to learn how to read and do math. Standardized tests emphasize these two areas although in the state of Virginia, there are state exams on social studies and science as well. Both subjects entail accumulation of knowledge, thus, social studies and the sciences differ quite a bit from reading and math. Reading and math are, of course, part of social studies and science since we read to learn and we need math to comprehend events and concepts in quantitative terms. Thus, it is not far-fetch to suggest that social studies and science may help in reading and math. For mathematics, both science and social studies may actually bring life and perhaps, also excitement and relevance, to numbers. For reading, the path may not be as straightforward. From my own experience in college, I never did enjoy reading medieval history. I procrastinated at every reading assignment and if I did read, I hardly comprehended what I read.

There is a previous post on this blog, "How to make a child hate reading" in which an article by Alfie Kohn published in the English Journal, "How to Create Nonreaders", is highlighted. To recap, Kohn provides ways teachers can kill the love of reading in children. Here is the list:
  • Quantify their reading assignments.
  • Make them write reports.
  • Isolate them.
  • Focus on skills.
  • Offer them incentives.
  • Prepare them for tests.
  • Restrict their choices.
Literacy instruction using topics in social studies and science can indeed backfire if such exercises do any one of the above. But learning to read to learn is important. And it appears doable, at least from a study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Fourth Grade: Conceptualization, Design, Implementation, and Efficacy Testing of Content-Area Literacy Instruction (CALI)

Carol McDonald Connor, Jennifer Dombek, Elizabeth C. Crowe, Mercedes Spencer, Elizabeth L. Tighe, Sean Coffinger, Elham Zargar, Taffeta Wood, and Yaacov Petscher

With national focus on reading and math achievement, science and social studies have received less instructional time. Yet, accumulating evidence suggests that content knowledge is an important predictor of proficient reading. Starting with a design study, we developed content-area literacy instruction (CALI) as an individualized (or personalized) instructional program for kindergarteners through 4th graders to build science and social studies knowledge. We developed CALI to be implemented in general education classrooms, over multiple iterations (n  230 students), using principles of design-based implementation research. The aims were to develop CALI as a usable and feasible instructional program that would, potentially, improve science and social studies knowledge, and could be implemented during the literacy block without negatively affecting students’ reading gains (i.e., no opportunity cost). We then evaluated the efficacy of CALI in a randomized controlled field trial with 418 students in kindergarten through 4th grade. Results reveal that CALI demonstrates promise as a usable and feasible instructional individualized general education program, and is efficacious in improving social studies (d  2.2) and science (d 2.1) knowledge, with some evidence of improving oral and reading comprehension skills (d  .125).
The effects are very significant especially in improving both social studies and science knowledge, and there is a smaller but still significant improvement in reading comprehension skills. Obviously, the key to success lies in the implementation. This is summarized in a figure provided in the paper:

a. In the connect lessons, students will connect a concept in social studies (e.g., state government) with something that is current, in their life, or in the news (e.g.,the current governor). The idea is to begin to build the concept while building enthusiasm and motivation. b. Clarify lessons will focus on reading and how to read and learn from secondary sources in social studies.These lessons tie back to the connect lesson to maintain enthusiasm and motivation, and help students continue to feel connected to the topic. c. The research lessons will teach children about primary sources (photographs, journals, letters) and how to read and use them to elaborate on secondary sources (textbooks). For science, this would be experiments. d. The apply lessons will focus on making connections and drawing conclusions through projects (e.g., posters) and writing. The goal is that children will learn the concepts covered in each unit as well as how to read and learn from expository text.e. In the appraise lessons, teachers and students will reflect on what they had learned (notes from October 11,2010).i. Note. This phase was ultimately dropped and incorporated into the apply lessons. 
Copied from 
Acquiring Science and Social Studies Knowledge in Kindergarten Through Fourth Grade: Conceptualization, Design, Implementation, and Efficacy Testing of Content-Area Literacy Instruction (CALI).
Connor, Carol McDonald; Dombek, Jennifer; Crowe, Elizabeth C.; Spencer, Mercedes; Tighe, Elizabeth L.; Coffinger, Sean; Zargar, Elham; Wood, Taffeta; Petscher, Yaacov
Journal of Educational Psychology, Sep 12 , 2016, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000128

Each of the above steps requires a thoughtful attention to how young children are motivated to read. Reading Rockets has a list of practices that help motivate children to read:

Classroom Practices that Affirm Motivation
Interest/Intrinsic motivation
I enjoy it.
It's fun.

I chose it.
It belongs to me.

I can do it well.
I like to be successful.

Social interaction with peers
I can do it with others.
I enjoy relating to my peers.

Thematic units
I want to understand.
I like to learn new things.

Looking through this list, one can then guess what elements in Content-Area Literacy Instruction are very important. For one, attention is indeed given to relevance. It is the essence of the first step, Connect.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Top Dog - Bottom Dog Phenomenon

My first year in high school was challenging. Coming from sixth grade, the highest class in an elementary school, it was indeed quite a shock to hold the lowest status when I entered high school. At the moment, I do have concerns about my son who is presently in fifth grade, which marks the end of elementary school in Virginia. I worry about the changes he will encounter when he goes to middle school next year. Such anxiety unfortunately is supported by evidence from research. First, there is an achievement dip upon going to middle school.

Above copied from EducationNext
Second, sixth graders in middle schools often experience more instances of bullying and fighting.

Indeed, a recent paper published in the American Educational Research Journal suggests that middle school does have significant influences on both school climate and learning outcomes. Sadly, the influences are not positive. The effects are largely described as "top dog - bottom dog" phenomenon. The change occurs partly because of a sixth grader has just lost the status of being a top dog in an elementary school and is now a bottom dog in middle school.

Below is a summary of the findings provided by Tony Pals and Victoria Oms:
  • When evaluating the impact of top dog versus bottom dog status in sixth grade, students reported better learning environments as top dogs than as middle and bottom dogs. Sixth-grade top dogs (e.g., K–6 schools) were 7.6 percentage points and 5.1 percentage points less likely to report bullying than otherwise similar middle and bottom dogs, respectively, and 14.7 and 12.7 percentage points more likely to report that they felt safe in school than middle and bottom dogs, respectively.
  • Conversely, eighth-grade students showed smaller differences in student experiences as top dogs (e.g., 6–8 schools) than they did as middle dogs (e.g., 6–12 schools). This indicates that moving from elementary to middle school hurts students because they lose the top dog status they previously held.
  • The benefits of top dog status are larger in schools with longer grade spans. At the same time, sixth-grade bottom dogs in 6–8 schools do not report higher rates of negative experiences than bottom dogs at 6–12 schools, providing evidence that students may benefit from schools with longer grade spans, such as K–8 schools.
  • Results also showed that for sixth graders, bottom dog status hurt academic performance and top dog status improved academic performance, indicating that declines in academic performance upon entering middle school are in part due to the top dog/bottom dog phenomenon.
  • In particular, sixth graders who are top dogs experience a significant improvement on reading and math exams compared to those who are bottom dogs. In the 2011 academic year, the effect of top dog status for sixth graders was the equivalent of moving from the 44th to the 50th percentile in math and the 46th to 50th in reading. Top dog status did not improve reading exam scores in eighth grade, but it did increase math scores compared to those of middle dogs.
Unfortunately, the state of Virginia cannot change its school structure that easily. Reorganization will require a great deal of change in infrastructure. Thus, all I could hope for is that school administrators are indeed aware of the struggles bottom dogs face. And that this awareness leads to providing a safer and more welcoming learning environment to sixth graders in middle schools.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Should We Hire or Train Teachers?

With the extension of basic education in the Philippines from ten years to K to 12, plus a growing population, there is an obvious need for additional teachers. It is one reason why some argue that the Philippines should have started K to 12 only at kindergarten and not at first year high school. This would then have given ample time for the government to prepare for the two additional years in high school. If only those who finished kindergarten in 2013 are expected to go through the entire new curriculum then the government has at least ten years to prepare for the senior high school years. Unfortunately, the government has chosen a half-baked approach, forcing grade seven students into the new K to 12 curriculum four years ago. As a result, the challenges of both a low enrollment in higher education and a shortage of teachers have come too soon. With these difficulties, the government once more has chosen to take a band aid approach. DepEd secretary Briones is planning to use more than 15 billion pesos to hire teachers in 2017.

Above copied from InterAksyon
Teachers need to be trained specifically to teach especially with a new curriculum. Without the training, a professional often returns to how he or she was taught. Classroom instruction likewise requires much more than having the knowledge and skills in a subject for teaching entails establishing a relationship with students. Simply hiring professionals who have never been trained for teaching is not necessarily a good approach and in the state of Utah, this in fact is very contentious.

Above copied from KSL
Billions of pesos should be used to attract and train new teachers. The government can use the money to support aspiring teachers through scholarships and stipends especially in subject areas where the shortage is much more serious. This is not a band aid approach but one that demonstrates ample planning and a clear long term vision. Doing otherwise simply wastes time and money. Moreover, it does not make sense to claim upgrading the standards of learning while downgrading the standards of teaching.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

We Need to Be More Thoughtful on Matters Concerning Education

Psychologist Daniel Willingham does not hold anything back in his recent blog post as he criticizes a New York Times' article authored by Nicholson Baker. In both social and print media, people seldom claim to be experts in the natural sciences except when they really are. In stark contrast, with education everyone seems to think that they know everything. Willingham therefore implores editors of American periodicals to exercise great care so as not to misinform the public regarding education. As a tip, Willingham provides a list of items that can serve as good warning flags:
  • Technology is poised to revolutionize learning and schools.
  • Competition would solve all problems in American education.
  • American education is the best in the world and all challenges in educational outcomes are due to poverty.
  • Teachers are fools, and the teacher’s unions are organized crime syndicates dedicated to protecting them.
  • All of America’s problems in education can be traced to standardized tests and if teachers were simply allowed to teach as they wished, all would be well.
Any article that centers on any one of the above items should not be published since any one of these is patently untrue.

Besides the admonition, Willingham never fails to provide to cite consequential findings from research. This recent post is no exception as he brings us back to an important study published in Science almost a decade ago. Our experiences are obviously very limited yet we are often tempted to use these as evidence. Baker's article in the New York Times is an example. We may think we know what actually goes on inside schools in the US, but there is in fact research work that provides a picture much more comprehensive than what we may have experienced through our own schooling or by our children. For instance, what do teachers do most of the time is a question most would not hesitate to answer or comment on. But here is what research actually tells us:

Above copied from
Pianta RC, Belsky J, Houts R, Morrison F. Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms. Science (New York, NY). 2007;315(5820):1795-1796. doi:10.1126/science.1139719.
These are the findings from 2007. Did you know that a significant amount of time in fifth grade classrooms is spent on skills? Did you know that teachers spend a lot more time on management and transition than on analysis? Did you know that technology plays a very small role in a fifth grade classroom?

Moreover, in terms of classroom climate, the following is often missed perhaps because of our prejudices:

"Not to be overlooked is the fact that these classrooms are typically emotionally warm and positive places for the children enrolled and there appears to be a somewhat more pronounced emphasis on instruction than there was in 1st and 3rd grades."

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Millions of American Students Are Performing Above Their Current Grade Level

More than half of parents in America think their children are above average academically. Of course, it is not statistically possible for more than half of the students to be above average. It is stupid and yet, we, as parents, often cling on a single test score just to prove that our child is special. Our society is fundamentally competitive and the school simply serves as a breeding ground to amass an advantage over others. This obsession is so great that we sometimes reduce schooling to just reading and mathematics, for these are the subjects that come with standardized tests. First of all, standardized tests are normally designed to spot failures and not success. The scope of the items tested in any finite exam is finite, not unlimited. Most standardized exams are therefore more reliable in pinpointing deficiencies and not excellence.

Above copied from NPR.org
Unfortunately, even researchers in higher education misinform parents. In a non peer-reviewed paper, a group of workers from various universities specializing on gifted or talented education, claims that a large percentage of American students are performing above their grade level. Anya Kamenetz adds a nice damper to this report. She quotes Andrew Ho of Harvard:
...Andrew Ho says this report from Makel and his colleagues isn't nearly as surprising as it might seem. Ho is a student measurement expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has a word for the findings: "obviousness." He points out that large numbers of students will score both above and below the cutoff of a standardized test.
It's also important to note that a score on a single test is not synonymous with being ready to achieve at a given grade level — academically, socially or emotionally....
Browsing through Makel's paper shows that the researchers have indeed based their conclusion: Millions of American students are performing above grade level, on one piece of data, scores in standardized exams. Makel and coworkers have probably read what Alfie Kohn had to say regarding standardized testing and yet, have chosen to ignore these important findings from research:
Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, elementary school students were classified as “actively” engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as “superficially” engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning. Similar findings have emerged from studies of middle school students (also using the CTBS) and high school students (using the other SAT, the college-admission exam). To be sure, there are plenty of students who think deeply and score well on tests—and plenty of students who do neither. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.
Makel and coworkers have used standardized test scores in state exams to conclude that "Between 30 percent and 44 percent of Florida students scored at or above the next grade level in the spring of their current grade levels. For example, 42 percent of seventh-graders would have passed eighth-grade reading." A snapshot of reading scores in the NAEP, however, provides a different picture - in 2015, only 2 percent has reached the advanced level:

Nonetheless, it is irresponsible to assume that teachers in our schools do not regularly assess and that they do not adjust according to what their students need. Teachers do. Teachers figure out oftentimes with their own tools where their students are and teach accordingly. On more than one point, the work by Makel et al. is a sad blemish to education research.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"I'm Appreciated, I'm Able, I'm Awesome, I'm Amazing"

Geneva Dixon says in a Huffington Post article that one of the eight things we must do in the US to save public school education is to "Stop talking about saving the planet and live it". It does make sense that for one to be aware of nature or the environment, one must spend more time outdoors. There is really a limit to what one could learn on pen and paper. Ironically, schools tend to overestimate what reading and writing can really accomplish. Even in developing one's self-image, students are sometimes provided writing exercises that are supposed to spark an examination of one's values. And indeed, there are claims that these exercises can even help a student combat stereotyping oneself into one of those types deemed to underperform in schools.

A student whose race, socio-economic status, or disability falls into one of these academically challenged stereotypes does risk developing a self-image that is self-fulfilling. Each day is a challenge for these students. Will they be accepted or sentenced to a life of failure?

At the elementary school my son attends, banners are posted above the main doors. The banners say, "I'm Appreciated, I'm Able, I'm Awesome, I'm Amazing".

Why these signs are posted mean only one thing. It is a reminder to all of us that each child needs to be valued. It symbolizes this particular school's effort to emphasize a growth mindset among everyone. As research shows, helping students develop a healthy self-image goes far beyond just academic exercises.

A paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, "New Evidence on Self-Affirmation Effects and Theorized Sources of Heterogeneity from Large-scale Replications", shows that interventions such as writing exercises do not really help. In contrast to previous studies, the effects seen in a better designed experiment are seen to be insignificant:

Above copied from
New Evidence on Self-Affirmation Effects and Theorized Sources of Heterogeneity From Large-Scale Replications.
Hanselman, Paul; Rozek, Christopher S.; Grigg, Jeffrey; Borman, Geoffrey D.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Aug 8 , 2016, No Pagination Specified. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000141

This should not be surprising. If a child's understanding and awareness of climate change, pollution, biodiversity, overpopulation, and other environment concerns cannot really be distilled in reading and writing exercises, why should one expect that a child's poor self-image can be corrected by purely academic activities. Our sense of self is a product of so many encounters with other people. How a child views oneself is shaped by the treatment he or she receives from peers, teachers and parents.  The banners "I'm Appreciated, I'm Able, I'm Awesome, I'm Amazing" are posted above those doors to remind all of us that the school is one place where we help children construct images of themselves. And we do this by how we treat them, less so by what we ask them to read or write.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Providing a Laptop and Online Math Lessons

Resources are indeed important in delivering quality basic education. Those of us who have given to poor students in schools recognize right away and unmistakably the immense gratitude and excitement we receive from beneficiaries. How we help can also come in different flavors. It could be "high touch" where we sacrifice our own time and spend considerable effort to help educate or it could be "low touch" where we simply provide tools that may help students to learn. Either way, the response is particularly positive, from students, their parents and teachers. Whether what we have contributed is effective or not, however, remains to be addressed. We can easily make students smile. Making students learn more is a different question.

Lynch and Kim at Harvard recently reported a study examining the effects of a "low touch" intervention. They provided free subscriptions to an online math lesson and a laptop to poor children. More than 200 students (which include elementary, middle and high school pupils) participated in the study. These students were randomly assigned to three groups: (1) Free subscription only, (2) Free subscription plus laptop, and (3) Nothing (control). At the end of the intervention period (one summer), family and student engagement in mathematics was measured. For this outcome, the results were not surprising: There was significantly greater engagement especially for those who receive a free laptop. Who would not be thrilled to receive a free laptop anyway? The more important question of whether the intervention effectively improved learning outcomes was addressed by examining scores in the Fall math standard assessments. The results were summarized by the authors in the following graph:

Above copied from
Kathleen Lynch and James S. Kim
Effects of a Summer Mathematics Intervention for Low-Income Children: A Randomized Experiment
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 0162373716662339, first published on August 19, 2016 doi:10.3102/0162373716662339

I added a red line to show where "0" (no effect) lies. Below this line, scores are lower than average, above this lines, scores are higher. The effects of the intervention on math scores are statistically insignificant if students are treated as one group. The intervention has no effect on how much math students have learned. However, when the students are separated between elementary and high school, there are some effects, as demonstrated in the above figure. Providing free subscription to an online math lesson over the summer apparently led to poorer performance among elementary school children.

Clearly, helping alone is not sufficient. It is probably necessary but not sufficient. How we help counts as well.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Recovery High Schools and the Drug War

The Philippines is currently waging a war against illegal drugs. Both international and local media have been quick to underscore the number of lives that have been lost so far, nearly two thousand over the past two months. The drug epidemic is real. The Philippines ranks top among Southeast Asian countries in terms of methamphetamine (or shabu) abuse. While the current focus of Philippine authorities is curbing the supply side of the problem, the demand side is unfortunately rarely discussed even by those who criticize the hardline approach taken by the government. The reason perhaps lies in the fact that rehabilitation is both difficult and expensive.

In the United States, "recovery high schools" are beginning to emerge. Treatment clinics as these are mostly short term are thought to be inadequate for drug abuse rehabilitation. Thus, high schools can provide a longer period and a much more personal environment to address drug abuse among adolescents. These schools of course help not only in avoiding relapse but also in providing basic education.

Above copied from Pew Charitable Trusts
Indeed, results from these schools are very promising. There is just one big problem: The price tag. These schools spend about $16000 to $18000 per student per year. This is about 60 to 80 percent higher than the amount spent in an ordinary public high school in the United States. One reason for the high cost is that classes in these schools are of much smaller size: fewer than 15 per classroom. The small class size is needed for the obvious reason that students with a drug problem require greater attention.

There is no escape that rehabilitation requires resources. Recognizing that drug use and abuse is not just a criminal problem but also a health issue requires us to take rehabilitation seriously. The Philippines needs resources to address its drug problem in a much more humane fashion. Helping the Philippines should not stop at merely criticizing the Duterte administration in its current actions against the drug problem of the nation.