"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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

No Homework Policy

In the General Chemistry class that I teach there is homework. I do find that homework is one place where technology can really help. My class currently subscribes to Sapling Learning. For each chapter, there is a set of about 20 problems and students generally have a week to finish these problems. The platform allows me to monitor each student's progress and anticipate difficulties students may be facing with the course material. The problems are not repetitive as each one has been chosen to focus on an important aspect or point within the chapter. The homework also offers an interactive learning experience as it provides hints and explanations. This can indeed benefit learning. After all, educational psychologists have demonstrated that practice problem solving and distributed practice are the most effective learning techniques. 

For homework to be effective, it has to be done right. For instance, when students try to finish their homework an hour before the deadline, it defeats the purpose of distributing the work. It also does not help a student to learn what he or she may be missing way past the last lecture on a particular chapter. Feedback is necessary, but this is only useful if there is still time left to make adjustments. It is therefore not surprising to see that research hardly yields evidence in support of homework. One parent in the Philippines is certainly justified in asking teachers the following on a Facebook post:



Homework needs to be meaningful. Daniel Willingham has noted this on a post on his blog, "Important New Study on Homework":
There's plenty of research on homework and the very brief version of the findings is probably well known to readers of this blog: homework has a modest effect on the academic achievement of older students, and no effect on younger students (Cooper et al, 2006)
In a way, this outcome seems odd. Practice is such an important part of certain types of skill, and much of homework is assigned for the purpose of practice. Why doesn't it help, or help more? 
One explanation is that the homework assigned is not of very good quality, which could mean a lot of different things and absent more specificity sounds like a homework excuse. Another, better explanation is that practice doesn't do much unless there is rapid feedback, and that's usually absent at home.

A third explanation is quite different, suggesting that the problem may lie in measurement. Most studies of homework efficacy have used student self-report of how much time they spend on homework. Maybe those reports are inaccurate.
These explanations will indeed make homework not seem effective in learning. Designing homework problems and grading them is of course additional work for a teacher. Not doing this task diligently, unfortunately, can easily destroy the value of homework.  In elementary schools, there is plenty of time inside the classroom for students to practice. In the presence of peers and a teacher, instant feedback is possible. Making room for work to be done inside the classroom likewise provides ample opportunities for a teacher to assess where his or her students currently stand. For this reason, I am very happy that the school my children currently attend has a "no homework" policy. Valerie Strauss recently shares a story from another elementary school that has a similar policy in "What happened when one school banned homework — and asked kids to read and play instead":


The school mentioned in this article is Orchard School in Vermont.

And similar to the school my children attend, the principal at Orchard sees the following:
" Students have not fallen back academically and may be doing better, and now they have “time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions.”"
I hope teachers in the Philippines will likewise listen Ray Vargas, that unless you are giving a well-thought and worthwhile homework, "Give children their time at home with family and loved ones."



Sunday, February 26, 2017

We Forget What Threatens Us

We do not like stress and our mind seems preconditioned to erase memories of events that threaten how we look at ourselves. We naturally defend against anything that seems menacing to our ego. Our goal as always is to find comfort and satisfaction with who we think we are. Learning therefore becomes difficult when the challenges rise to a level that places our high self-esteem in peril. During these times, our brain may actually work against our own learning as it forces us to forget some of the things we might have just learned. Stress and a high academic self-concept can indeed combine to help us forget what our mind thinks is humiliating or just challenging. As a result, we cannot learn because of our pride and fear. A paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that this forced forgetting does happen in education. Undergraduate students enrolled in a multivariable calculus show diminished performance during stress if these students are also those who think highly of themselves.

Above copied from
Ramirez, G., McDonough, I. M., & Jin, L. (2017, February 20). Classroom Stress Promotes Motivated Forgetting of Mathematics Knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000170
Tenelle Porter in Humility Boosts Learning describes some of the work she has done with Schumann and Dweck. They find that intellectual humility, the recognition that what we know is only partial and that we still have a lot to learn from others, is very important in learning. It is true that students may do well in classes when they are trying to preserve a "smart" image, but such motivation fails when the subject becomes extremely challenging. The only motivation that can bring true engagement in learning is the acknowledgement that one still has a lot to learn. This is called the "growth mindset". Porter describes this specifically in the following paragraph:
"For example, if a student cares most about looking smart in school and enrolls in an advanced calculus class where he quickly realizes that he is unlikely to look smart, he may disengage from the course, stop trying to contribute in class, stop trying to understand the material, and perhaps withdraw from the class altogether. However, if he cares most about learning, he is more apt to persist in the course because it is a valuable learning opportunity."
In this respect, educators do find a great wall to overcome. Our society at the moment does not promote intellectual humility. Instead, we label ourselves, we label our children. We grow our egos but not our minds. As a result, we do not even want to listen to other people who do not share the same prejudices we have.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Death Penalty to Chemists

Browsing through my Facebook feed this morning, I came across a post made by a chemistry professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. The post touched on a proposed bill that would bring back the death penalty in the Philippines. Similar to the war on drugs, the reimposition of the death penalty seemed to cater to a natural propensity to take drastic actions when facing a crisis. The previous Aquino adminsitration had allowed a dramatic increase in crime rates. The Philippines Statistics authority, for instance, shared the following data, "For the entire 2014, the total number of reported crimes was 1.2 million, up from 1 million in 2013. In 2012, only 218,000 crimes were reported." This increase in the crime rate had been quickly attributed to widespread drug abuse instead of a weak police force, crumbling judicial system, widespread poverty, and failing basic education. Ignoring the root causes of crime, lawmakers had simply leaped off the walls of reason as they tried to reinstate the death penalty.



As Professor Guidote pointed out in a later comment, even the simple organic compound, ethanol, could be regarded as a precursor or an essential chemical for dangerous drugs. Part of the proposed bill did mention precursor and essential chemicals although acts involving these only required fines and imprisonment, not the death penalty.

Above copied from HB 4727
Nevertheless, the bill as proposed seemed ill-thought-out or simply hasty. Lawmakers and, of course, the general public do need to listen to experts. Formulating the correct solutions to problems society faces requires experts. Unfortunately, in times of distress, only the voice of demagogues, not those of experts, is heard. It is very easy to take advantage of popular desires and prejudices especially at a time of crisis. For this reason, it is really important that scientists speak. The problem is that even when a scientist speaks, his or her voice is often ignored.

This brings me back to a post on this blog three years ago:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Learning Science in Everyday Life"


There seems to be a disconnect between science and what is popular. Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times"Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates." It is ironic when a great number of issues and challenges the world currently faces require a science perspective, scientists are deemed irrelevant. The perceived chasm between what is discussed inside the classroom and what happens in the "real world" perhaps originates from the fact that it is usually not straightforward to abstract. This definitely brings back memories on how a lot of people during my childhood thought that all I knew was from "books", implying that I virtually had no practical value.

Along this line, it is not surprising to see a great need to engage students in science. The popular notion seems to be working against science education. Popular media as well as social networking have had greater impact on how the public should think. In the Philippines, a major television news outlet broadcasts a case of "flesh-eating" curse in the province of Pangasinan:

Philippines' ABS-CBN reports that there is a mysterious flesh-eating illness that is slowly spreading across the province of Pangasinan in the Philippines
The above spread very quickly especially on Facebook and a past prophecy made by Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj claiming that such an illness will originate and spread from Pangasinan became an "instant hit". What is popular in the real world is usually not vetted properly. A science education is supposed to help the public develop not just critical thinking skills, but also the ability to recognize which sources of information are reliable. "Says who?" apparently was the most common comment made by SciJourner managing editor Alan Newman to articles submitted by students, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Polman, J. L. and Hope, J. M.G. (2014), Science news stories as boundary objects affecting engagement with science. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 51: 315–341. doi: 10.1002/tea.21144).

SciJourner is a science literacy project from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. SciJourner basically provides an opportunity for teenagers (middle and high school students) to write and publish news articles. In order for an article to be accepted for publication, the following must be met:
Above copied from Polman, J. L. and Hope, J. M.G. (2014), Science news stories as boundary objects affecting engagement with science. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 51: 315–341. doi: 10.1002/tea.21144
The following is among the recent articles:

When I was younger, I had my ears pierced. I remember being so excited because I’d get to wear earrings like my grandmother did. A few weeks after, my ears still had not healed. In fact, they were worse than when I had first gotten them pierced. My earlobes were turning purple and hurting badly. I did everything I was told to do to keep them clean and healthy, but they were not getting better. My mother took me to the doctor, who found out that I’m allergic to nickel. This means that I cannot wear jewelry with any kind of nickel alloy.
Jewelry, especially earrings, can affect those with nickel allergies. Photo Credit: Sarah Gebken.
My allergy is fairly mild compared to other people. MeredithWestrich, a student at a St. Louis County high school that has an allergy to nickel, says, “When I was younger I tried to play the flute, but I had an allergic reaction.”
According to WebMD, people with even more extreme allergies cannot eat certain foods with high nickel content, such as chocolate and fish, because they cause health problems.
The skin rash that goes with metal allergies is known as contact dermatitis, according to MayoClinic.org. This is when the skin comes into contact with nickel and breaks out into a rash, is raised, or turns a red in color where contact with the metal took place. With contact dermatitis your skin may feel itchy. It can also cause a painful burning sensation.
Sarah Stein, a faculty member at a St. Louis area high school, has experienced this with a necklace and says, “One of my eyes swelled shut and I had a rash on my face and neck for about 6 weeks.”
Also, according to MayoClinic.org, nickel allergies are the most common cause of contact dermatitis and affects about 8% of the population. The effect of nickel allergies is more common in women than in men.
Nickel allergies are on the rise. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), somewhere between 10–15% of Americans having an allergy to nickel, and most of that 10-15% are women. Experts are not completely sure, but they think the rise has to do with cheap jewelry having higher nickel content.
Nickel is used in many pieces of costume jewelry. Costume jewelry is cheap and easily produced with nickel. According to NIH, 31.8% of allergic reactions due to nickel happen due to the use of costume jewelry. Many costume jewelry companies use nickel so their profits will go up instead of using more expensive metals such as gold. Unfortunately, for those of us with nickel allergies, that means buying more expensive jewelry and being unsure of what contains nickel and what does not.  
There are technologies out there to help those of us with nickel allergies. A sophisticated technology that is in the process of becoming an option is a nanotechnology created by scientists at Harvard in 2011. JeffreyKaup, a nanotechnology expert at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and his colleagues have been working to develop a cream that could act as a barrier to nickel products. This product only uses ingredients recognized as “safe agents” unlike other nickel allergy treatments on the market today. They have tested this cream on pig skin and live mice but have not yet on human subjects. So far, the experiment results look promising.
With my nickel allergy I tend to just avoid jewelry all together. Occasionally I’ll wear a necklace or bracelet, but only for a couple hours. Recently I have had to start thinking of my class ring and worrying about what metal to get. I got the metal lustrium but I had to do a little research before I made the decision. 

When asked if she would use medicines in the future to help nickel allergies, Westrich says, “I had to take medicine when I was younger, I think it was steroids, but I haven’t tried anything recently. I might try treatments again if I have another really bad reaction.” Sarah Gebken

Programs such as SciJourner can help improve scientific literacy. Unfortunately, major news outlets and social networks can easily work against these efforts.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How We Misunderstand Inquiry Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is of course the foundation of doctoral work. One learns strategies not just content as one formulates new and important questions, collects data and makes observations to answer these questions, and in the process, advances human knowledge. For this reason, success in graduate school is weakly correlated with an undergraduate's academic record or scores in standardized exams. Inquiry-based learning requires a great deal of motivation, discipline and independence. Obviously, inquiry-based learning when mentioned as part of basic education is not exactly how a doctoral student works on his or her dissertation. Nonetheless, inquiry-based learning in either elementary or secondary education still requires motivation, discipline and independence. And similar to graduate school, one would expect that doing well in inquiry based-learning is often not correlated with a child's current academic performance.

Inquiry-based instruction is often found as a common model for advanced academics programs in the United States. One problem is that people tend to equate these programs with doing well in school. To see the difference, one can compare a traditional classroom with online learning. Students who do well inside a traditional classroom are not necessarily going to perform well in an online setting. Online learning, similar to inquiry-based instruction, requires motivation, discipline and independence. A student who does well in a traditional school does not necessarily have the motivation, discipline and independence required to learn on his or her own.

Inquiry-based instruction does go deeper than direct instruction. And in more than one way (after all, this is how doctoral students learn), inquiry-based learning is regarded more highly. However, by its very nature, inquiry-based instruction is not as generally applicable as traditional instruction because of the level of motivation, discipline and independence inquiry demands from a student. Not every straight "A" student is expected to thrive in an inquiry-based classroom. Conversely, there are students who have learning disabilities that can do well in such a setting. Thus, it is a gross misunderstanding for education policy makers in the Philippines to craft its new K to 12 curriculum as inquiry-based:

Above copied from K to 12 Toolkit
It is absurd to suggest that inquiry-based approaches will work for all students all the time. In an interview of six high school teachers from Canada and the United States, Oppong-Nuako and coworkers found that what teachers often employ is a mix between direct and inquiry-based instruction.


What is very surprising is that the least inquiry teaching is observed in science and math classes. Most inquiry classrooms are found in English classes. Science and math are both dominated by direct instruction, which again rans opposite to the Philippines' DepEd K to 12 curriculum, which states:
As a whole, the K to 12 science curriculum is learner-centered and inquiry-based, emphasizing the use of evidence in constructing explanations.
We do totally misunderstand inquiry-based learning. We mistakenly equate it to a program designed for "smart" students. It is not "smartness" that is required in inquiry-based learning, it is "grit", a combination of motivation, discipline and independence. With this mistake, we may push students into a program that is not really suited for them.

In the Philippines, inquiry-based learning has been unfortunately equated to a better curriculum. This one is a much bigger mistake. There is a practical reason why inquiry-based learning is often limited to Advanced Academics programs in the United States. Inquiry-based learning requires so much more resources. Thus, the Philippines basically designed a curriculum that cannot be applied to all students, and in addition, cannot be provided to all.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How And Why We Track Students

Every morning a group of children leaves the School-Age Child Center at Mason Crest Elementary School to attend classes at another school, Belvedere Elementary, which offers Advanced Academics as well as an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. For a child, it must be cool to be seen boarding that bus. but a brochure from the Fairfax County regarding the Advanced Academics Program seems to try as much as possible to correct that perception. It says: "We Label Services, Not Children".

Above copied from
Level IV Services: Central Screening and Selection for FCPS Families Grades 2-7



Still, getting into an advanced program does not stop a child or even a child's parent from thinking of being "smarter than others". Labeling services and not the children may actually sound good, but in a recent study in Germany scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, looking at what happens after schooling shows what really counts in a child's self-concept, the certificate.

Above copied from Dumont, H., Protsch, P., Jansen, M., & Becker, M. (2017, February 13). Fish Swimming Into the Ocean: How Tracking Relates to Students’ Self-Beliefs and School Disengagement at the End of Schooling. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000175



The certificate given to a student in Germany after finishing basic education comes in three varieties: Hauptschulabschluss, which allows a student to go into vocational training, start entry-level work in the public sector, or attend a full-time vocational school; Realschulabschluss, which gives the student the option for internship, work in the public sector at entry and executive level, or further school-level education at secondary level II; and the Abitur, a prerequisite for college enrollment. The recent study by Dumont et al. shows that tracking may indeed shape a child's academic self-concept either through a contrast or assimilation effect. With the contrast effect, a struggling student placed in a class with low achievers would no longer feel behind his or her peers. This effect is therefore positive for a child's academic self-concept. With the assimilation effect, being placed in a gifted group can easily boost a child's self-confidence. This likewise is an effect considered positive for tracking.

It turns out that what really counts is what a child realizes at the end of schooling. Services do label the children....

Here is what I posted a year ago.

Tracking Promotes Inequity in Education

"...In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids. And we have to make college affordable for every American...." The word "every" appears twice in the above two sentences of Obama's last State of the Union address. The word "every" speaks of equity, the most important principle in public education. Of course, equity is very difficult to achieve especially in a world where competition reigns supreme. Inequalities persist. Educational systems all over the world may claim efforts to promote equity yet cling on schemes that not only fail to support but also undermine such efforts.

The relationship between socio-economic status and educational attainment remains strong. Research is clear on one factor that increases the influence of poverty on education: tracking. Citing previous published papers in this area, an international team of researchers reminds us of the following in a paper published in the American Education Research Journal:
Research on the effect of tracking has shown two processes by which this transmission of disadvantage occurs. First, empirical research suggests that the more and earlier the schooling system is stratified, the more young people’s expectations are determined and constrained by their early achievement (Buchmann & Dalton, 2002; Buchmann & Park, 2009). Second, stratification tends to be associated with lower educational expectations among less privileged students (see Brunello & Checchi, 2007; Mateju, Smith, Soukup, & Basl, 2007; Pfeffer, 2008).
The paper then presents new findings using data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Their conclusion:
"The results from this study provide broad support for our hypothesis that socioeconomic status differentials in educational opportunities are larger in countries with ability or curricular stratification."
Tracking exacerbates inequity. Yet, educational systems continue to stratify. The new K to 12 curriculum of the Department of Education in the Philippines is one glaring example:

Above copied from Suspend K to 12 at change.org
It is is timely to reiterate a previous post on this blog:
The last two years of DepEd's K to 12 offer four different tracks. Young students are therefore required to consider what career they want to pursue later in life. The tracks share a set of core courses, but the differences still matter and the question of how pupils can thoughtfully consider which track to choose remains to be addressed. In 2014, a study made by the Department of Labor and Employment in the Philippines recommended the opening of several jobs in the Philippines. One of the occupations listed as suffering from shortage is guidance counseling. With K to 12, this shortage clearly would be felt more strongly... ...It is not straightforward to predict what the future holds especially in terms of careers to choose. This only highlights the importance of a basic education that does not confine students to a limited set of options. The shortage in guidance counselors combined with the high specificity of tracks in senior high school are obvious weaknesses in DepEd's K to 12.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

United States Basic Education Falling Behind Other Countries

Headlines are often composed to capture people's attention, sometimes without faithfulness to the truth. Reading the entire article is usually necessary to extract what is real and what is simply sensational. And when we read, we frequently look for confirmation of our prejudgments. Thus, it is not surprising that even with real news, we tend to gravitate towards the fake pieces of an article. For instance, it is so much easier to believe that schools in the United States for both elementary and high school education are falling behind school systems in other countries. After all, one can easily reach this conclusion by simply looking at one number, the average score of American students in an international standardized exam.

Above copied from the Washington Post
The headline maybe valid. US students currently rank 40th out of 73 countries in an international math exam. Thus, US basic education is indeed falling behind. But there is really so much about education that it cannot be captured by a single number. And in the case of basic education in the United States, one really needs to dig deeper into these test scores. Dale Hansen of the Huffington Post did take a second look at these scores and found that if one considered the poverty rate in each US school and separated the scores according to this category, the US actually came on top of the list:


Above copied from 
Hansen's analysis agrees well with the findings made by PISA regarding the variability of test scores in the US:


Differences are explained by a school's economic status. Thus, there are failing schools in the US and these schools unfortunately are those where the majority of students live in poverty. This is the real news. Not knowing the real news prevents us from proposing the right solution. Relying on sensational headlines only forces us to pick the wrong people to solve the problem. Our misguidance only leads us to the wrong people to tackle the real challenges of basic education which is clearly manifested in how the nation's leaders gather people to discuss the issues of basic education in the United States. Valerie Strauss in his recent article in the Washington PostHere’s who Trump invited to the White House to talk about schools. The list says a lot about his education priorities, points out:
The 10 invited teachers and parents were, according to the White House:
* Carol Bonilla, a Spanish teacher at a private school
* Bartholomew Cirenza, a parent of seven students in a public school
* Kenneth Michael Smith, a parent and president of a dropout-prevention program
* Aimee Viana, a parent of two students at a private school and a former principal
* Kathyrn Mary Doherty, a parent of a student at a private Catholic school
* Laura Lynn Parrish, a parent of a home-schooled student
* Julie R. Baumann, a fifth-grade teacher at a public school
* Jane Quenneville, a principal of a public school specializing in special education
* Jennifer Jane Coleman, a parent and a teacher of four home-school students
* Mary Caroline Riner, a parent of a student at a charter school
Keep in mind that more than 80 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend traditional public schools... ...What does this tell us about the education priorities of Trump and DeVos? Exactly what supporters of public education had expected: that the Trump administration would focus on promoting alternatives to traditional public education rather than working on helping improve the schools that most students attend....
The problem does not lie in the public education system. The problem lies in poverty and lack of equity. US schools are now segregated, segregated according to income. Schools that serve more children in poverty need our help. These schools need resources so that their teachers can better attend to the needs of poor children. These challenges cannot be addressed by those who work in private schools or parents who home school their children. These issues can only be addressed by those who firmly believe that the only purpose of a school to ensure that every child learns, including those who come from poor families.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Learning to Avoid Fake News

A lawmaker in California has recently introduced a bill that requires teaching Grade 7-12 students how to tell fake news from real news. The proposed bill states "The Instructional Quality Commission shall develop, and the state board shall adopt, revised curriculum standards and frameworks for English language arts, mathematics, history-social science, and science that incorporate civic online reasoning. For purposes of this section, “civic online reasoning” means the ability to judge the credibility and quality of information found on Internet Web sites, including social media." How does one teach "civic online reasoning"? This is actually challenging because we are often gullible for news we would like to see. We always gravitate towards finding support for our own biases and prejudices. The Associated Press quotes a teacher from North Carolina, Bill Ferriter, who offers this advice, "encourage students to first use common sense to question whether a story could be true, to look at web addresses and authors for hints, and to be skeptical of articles that seem aimed at riling them up."

"Common sense" is difficult to teach because it often goes against our instincts, but the last phrase, "articles that seem aimed at riling them up", could be something helpful to think about. When an article raises your emotion, it may be wise to be critical. We find a lot of these articles on social media. Just today, I saw a post showing a photograph of students in a museum with their eyes fixed on their smartphones:

Above copied from The Telegraph
The photo is not fake but this became viral when people started adding the comment that it is a picture of how our society is now trapped in our little gadget, the smartphone. That perspective, however, is grossly misleading, as another photo shows on Twitter (also reported in The Telegraph):

Above copied from The Telegraph
Unfortunately, the above was retweeted less than a hundred times while the first one went viral. The second piece of the story was not that hot and did not really rile us up. This illustrates how difficult it is to avoid fake news. Fake news are "hot". Watching our emotions can help us spot when we are looking at a piece of misinformation. And this is not even about politics.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Promotion or Retention?

Richard DuFour states clearly that "the purpose of our school is to ensure all students learn at high levels". The purpose of education is learning and not competition yet we often compare students against each other instead of focusing on each student's progress. As a result, when a student fails to meet the standards we think is appropriate for a given age, we agonize on whether to promote or retain without even considering the fact that learning takes time and the amount of time varies naturally from one child to another. We frequently equate the speed a child learns with smartness in spite of knowing that a child's background greatly influences a child's performance in school. Thus, when a child fails, we do not even consider the possibility that failure often means requiring more time, allowing a child to grow. In fact, the National Association of School Psychologists has long stated its position regarding retention: "Given the frequent use of the ineffective practice of grade retention, NASP urges schools and parents to seek alternatives to retention that more effectively address the specific instructional needs of academic underachievers." Retention, however, has been considered as ineffective mainly because of its "social effects". These effects, unfortunately, are not direct outcomes of retention, but of our own perception of what retention means.

Above copied from Social Promotion vs Grade Retention - Presentation
With a social setting that is naturally detrimental to the practice of retention in basic education, it is not possible to extract the real effects of retention on basic education. Retention without the social stigma often associated with it is a common strategy we employ in real life. When we fail in learning a task, we try and try again until we do learn. Yet, with formal schooling, as a society, we simply equate retention to a complete failure. It is therefore surprising that most studies in the United States find retention as grossly disadvantageous. A recent study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology shows otherwise:



All outcomes which include math self-concept, self-efficacy, anxiety, relations with teachers, parents and peers, school grades, and standardized achievement test scores benefit not just in the short term from retention. Of course, the above results are not expected to be easily transferable to a society that has long regarded retention as a bad thing because, sadly in this case, our perception does matter. Unless we focus on the fact that a school's job is "to ensure all students learn at high levels" and unless we stop perceiving basic education as a contest or race, retention will remain detrimental and we will never find a better alternative to address the needs of academic underachievers.




Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Tribute to Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour's tenure as head of Stevenson High School in Illnois is uniquely marked with multiple National Blue Ribbon School awards. His life is a true example of actions speaking louder than words. His message for school reform is simple: Work together and make education a reality for all. All means all, no exceptions. I have not met DuFour in person, but with a few words on an email to the principal of the school my children currently attend, he showed his unrelenting encouragement and support for people who care about basic education: "The blog by your parent could have been written by a Michael Fullan or John Hattie. Incredibly impressive." That meant a lot coming from someone who had not only brought great things to a school or a school district, but had also inspired so many education leaders like our principal at Mason Crest Elementary School.

Above copied from Solution Tree

I am reposting the article that DuFour commented on. This article in so many ways demonstrates his legacy as the school that takes student learning seriously, Mason Crest Elementary School, is also the 2016 recipient of the first Annual DuFour Award.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Actions are supposed to speak louder than words, but words are seen in media much more often. Worse, society with its limited attention span and general lack of critical thinking is now at the mercy of sound bites. What works in education is therefore frequently missed as a careful and thoughtful attention to details is usually absent.

Twenty years ago, the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools published a report synthesizing education research to find what it takes to reform schools successfully. The main authors of the report drew the following diagram to highlight what is necessary for improving schools.


Above copied from
Successful School Restructuring. A Report to the Public and Educators by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools  Fred M. Newmann and Gary G. Wehlage

At the center, the main goal or focus must be student learning. This vision alone, however, is not sufficient. The first layer required to achieve this goal is, of course, teaching (or pedagogy). This component requires research- and evidence-based approaches that promote high quality learning. It starts with proven or promising practices that can be implemented by a teacher inside a classroom. These practices therefore require a teacher who is competent. Higher quality student learning as well as authentic pedagogy place a high demand on teachers. The school therefore must be organized in a way that helps a teacher meet these challenges. Finally, parents, administrators and the community, in general, need to be on board.

It takes about a paragraph and a diagram to describe roughly what is needed to reform schools successfully and yet, the message here is still quite long. There are clearly quite a number of factors. It helps to look at one factor at a time. For this purpose, a picture may help. The following photo is from Mason Crest Elementary School.

Above copied from the Facebook page of Mason Crest Elementary School
The photo came with the following description:
"As a School that embraces the Professional Learning Community at Work process we abandon the idea of the isolated classroom teacher and create collaborative teams who take collective responsibility for ensuring that all students learn at high levelsThe picture shows a weekly hour long language arts planning meeting where the fourth grade team (10 teachers) are planning together to ensure that everyone deeply understands (the curriculum) what it is all students are to learn. Each grade level has one hour of math and one hour of language arts planning each week!"
The study from the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools actually points out that one way to enhance a school's organizational capacity is to shape schools into professional learning communities. Schools unfortunately do not become professional learning communities overnight. Success depends on human resources, leadership, and favorable structural conditions.

One obvious structural condition is time. Teachers require time to meet and work together. In Mason Crest Elementary School: Each grade level has one hour of math and one hour of language arts planning each week!  That statement came with an exclamation point. In addition, teachers would need more time with their students in their classroom to assess better where the students are. After all, student learning is the main agenda in these meetings.

This need for time is highlighted in a recent report from the National Center on Time and Learning:

Above copied from National Center on Time & Learning
Likewise, the Center for American Progress points out that teacher collaboration happens more readily in schools with expanded learning time (ELT).
Above copied from Center for American Progress
"By providing more time for teacher collaboration and more time for students to grasp difficult content, high-quality expanded learning time schools are already succeeding in the early stages of implementing the Common Core. These schools are using the extra time to prepare teachers for the transition to the new standards and curricula and are devoting their additional class time to richer instruction and deeper, more personalized learning—exactly the kind of learning that the standards are designed to deliver. The potential wide-ranging effects of expanded time on schools—from increasing time on task for individual students, to enabling a much broader and deeper set of learning activities in classrooms, to facilitating the development of effective professional learning communities among teachers—make it clear why a well-designed ELT school is so well-positioned to successfully implement the Common Core. As states, local school districts, and schools confront Common Core implementation and consider options for moving forward, we strongly encourage them to consider the benefits of expanding the school day or year to support teachers and students.
Obviously, time is only one of the important factors. A successful professional learning community cannot flourish without autonomy and authority. Teacher collaboration cannot thrive without mutual respect and interdependence. Providing time is, of course, a good place to start. A school that gives adequate time and support for teachers to work together and learn from each other is a school that takes student learning seriously. How much time and effort we devote on a task can sometimes be taken as a measure of our commitment. In the case of improving schools, this is apparently true.




Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Military Training in Basic Education

I went through military training during my high school and college years in the Philippines. Presidential Decree 1706 signed by Ferdinand Marcos made national service an educational requirement. The requirement was removed in 2002, but recently, current Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte announced his intention to make military training mandatory again.

Above copied from the Philippine Star
The Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, was quoted in the news as stating that military training in schools "instills patriotism, love of country, moral and spiritual values, respect for human rights and adherence to Constitution." Of course, Lorenzana did not offer any evidence to support his statement, because if he did, he would find that research actually says otherwise.

Here is a finding from Germany:








    Military experience is an important turning point in a person’s life and, consequently, is associated with important life outcomes. Using a large longitudinal sample of German males, we examined whether personality traits played a role during this period. Results indicated that personality traits prospectively predicted the decision to enter the military. People lower in agreeableness, neuroticism, and openness to experience during high school were more likely to enter the military after graduation. In addition, military training was associated with changes in personality. Compared with a control group, military recruits had lower levels of agreeableness after training. These levels persisted 5 years after training, even after participants entered college or the labor market. This study is one of the first to identify life experiences associated with changes in personality traits. Moreover, our results suggest that military experiences may have a long-lasting influence on individual-level characteristics.

    Military training results in lower levels of agreeableness. Psychologists define agreeableness (from Wikipedia) as:

    Agreeableness

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Agreeableness is a personality trait manifesting itself in individual behavioral characteristics that are perceived as kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm and considerate.[1] In contemporary personality psychology, agreeableness is one of the five major dimensions of personality structure, reflecting individual differences in cooperation and social harmony.[2]
    People who score high on this dimension are empathetic and altruistic, while a low agreeableness score relates to selfish behavior and a lack of empathy. Those who score very low on agreeableness show signs of dark triad behavior such as manipulation and competing with others rather than cooperating.
    Agreeableness is considered to be a superordinate trait, meaning that it is a grouping of personality sub-traits that cluster together statistically. The lower-level traits, or facets, grouped under agreeableness are: trust, straightforwardness, altruismcompliancemodesty, and tender-mindedness.[3]

    Agreeableness seems to be a very important trait. Low agreeableness is associated with "selfish behavior and lack of empathy". And this is what military training in basic education really accomplishes. Compulsory military training in schools is an anathema to basic education.



    Saturday, February 4, 2017

    Teaching Children in the Philippines about Space Missions

    It is not straightforward to measure how much this blog affects Philippine basic education. Seeing that the Supreme Court has not even issued a ruling regarding K to 12 is of course disheartening. There is no doubt that this blog is read in the Philippines. I could only hope that its main messages of the importance of equity in schools and the effects of poverty on education are getting through. This week, I heard from someone in the United States who apparently has noticed this blog. That person is Jason Getz, who currently serves as Community Relations Director for the Challenger Center. On Challenger Center's website, this is their primary activity: "Challenger Center transports students to a cutting edge Mission Control room and a high-tech Space Station. Whether their mission is flying to the Moon, intercepting a comet, visiting Mars, or studying the Earth from the International Space Station, students see classroom lessons brought to life in the engaging, dynamic, simulated learning environment." Jason is exploring to open such a station in the Philippines for elementary and high school students.

    This is quite fortuitous since Philippines president Duterte has been recently reported to have an interest in launching a space agency in the Philippines.

    Above copied from ABS-CBN News
    Whether the plan to create a space agency in the Philippines materializes or not, having a Challenger Center in the Philippines can help inspire students to choose a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Having a simulated Mission Control room and a high-tech Space Station in the Philippines accessible to school children in the Philippines is certainly a dream only at this point. Fabian Dayrit, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila University and a member of the Philippines National Academy of Science and Technology, has expressed willingness to help Getz in touch with groups that may be interested in helping build such a center. One possible partner definitely worth exploring is the Mind Museum. The websites of the Challenger Center and the Mind Museum do demonstrate that their goals are aligned: Both intend to bring science education to life.

    Above copied from the Mind Museum

    Above copied from the Challenger Center

    I am definitely crossing my finger and hoping for the best.


    Wednesday, February 1, 2017

    Autistic Children Have the Right to a Quality Basic Education

    Article XIII of  the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that education is a basic right. In mentioning education, the treaty explicitly defines education as "enabling a person to participate effectively in a free society". Before the US Supreme Court is a case involving an autistic child. Emma Brown of the Washington Post summarizes the case in one question: "...whether public schools owe disabled children “some” educational benefit — which courts have determined to mean just-above-trivial progress — or whether students legally deserve something more: a substantial, “meaningful” benefit."

    Above copied from the Washington Post
    After US president Donald Trump announced his nominee for the Supreme Court, Tenth Circuit Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, the above case becomes even more important. Gorsuch is a member of the panel that ruled in favor of a school district against parents who were asking for help for their autistic child. In that ruling, Gorsuch's panel wrote:
    We sympathize with Luke's family and do not question the enormous burdens they face. Our job, however, is to apply the law as Congress has written it and the Supreme Court has interpreted it. Though IDEA is certainly evidence that Congress intends that States, acting through local school districts, provide assistance to disabled students and their families, the assistance that IDEA mandates is limited in scope. The Act does not require that States do whatever is necessary to ensure that all students achieve a particular standardized level of ability and knowledge. Rather, it much more modestly calls for the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress towards the goals within that program. The findings of every factfinder in this case indicate that this standard has been met here. For this reason, we are constrained to reverse the district court's judgment and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
    Gorsuch is apparently satisfied with "some" benefits, excluding the fact that education involves meeting standards. A meaningful education is one that "enables a person to participate effectively in a free society". Every child is entitled to this meaningful education. US president Trump has already nominated someone who has no experience in public education to head the Department of Education. Now, he is nominating someone to the highest court who believes that schools are expected only to yield "some" benefits to children. These nominations should really teach us that elections have consequences.