Showing posts from 2020

As We Move to Distance Learning

Fairfax County School Superintendent Scott Brabrand shared today with parents via email the district's plan for distance learning. With schools closed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, learning can only continue inside children's homes. In the email, the following provides briefly what is inside the distance learning plan: "The plan includes paper learning packets, video broadcasts, lessons/assignments and learning materials posted to Blackboard and completed individually or collaboratively, along with scheduled web chats." Related to this, Education Week has recently shared a quiz on personalized learning. One of the questions in the quiz is quite meaningful. And I answered it correctly, as my daughter and I paid her school a visit this afternoon.

The specific question is the quiz is as follows:

Since a great majority of those who took the quiz answered the question on how teachers become familiar with their students' lives outside school incorrectly, it may…

Are We Doing What Needs to Be Done?

Amid the current crisis, we do need to look at some positive sign. People are recovering. We can see this in the following graph. This is encouraging yet we know that we must still take action. Unfortunately, the question, "Are we doing what needs to be done", remains challenging especially for our leaders. Of course, there are actions that are obviously urgent. These include providing protection to our health workers. They need masks and disinfectants now, and not tomorrow. Hospitals need supplies likewise at this moment, and not in the future. These are the actions that are needed now, yet, what our leaders, it seems to me, are currently faster in achieving, is giving orders that place a substantial pause in our daily lives.

Just a couple of hours ago, the governor of Virginia has ordered schools to be closed until the end of the academic year. The school board of Fairfax county is scheduled to meet soon, I guess, to figure what can be done for learning continuity. Without…

Coronavirus Cases

Giving lectures online is so different from teaching inside a classroom. That is still an understatement. These are difficult times for teachers and students. Yesterday, I received a note from one of my students that made me feel both happy and sad:
Also, we all miss you a lot, too. It's not the best situation, but at least we still get to study chemistry, even if it is from home. My students are indeed still studying chemistry. And we could hope that they are still learning. But it is hard to focus on the material with so much going on outside. After all, it is not just the health status that we worry, but also the economy. I am currently covering kinetics in my General Chemistry class. This is the study of how fast chemical reactions occur so I could not avoid the fact that we are dealing with an unsettling dynamic situation in the world. This is how I started my lecture yesterday:


Right now, we have these questions regarding the corona virus. How fast does…

Virginia: No Standardized Testing This Spring

My fifth grader and eight grader do not know this piece of news yet but, apparently, the state of Virginia is planning to cancel the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests this Spring. This requires approval from the federal government since the state is required to administer these tests so the cancellation is not final yet.

Unlike the Nation's Report Card, which samples schools and students, Virginia SOL tests are required for all students. In order to graduate from high school 12th grade students need to pass these tests. A standardized test being used as a requirement for graduation does not make sense. It only highlights our lack in trust in teachers, who are in a much better position to assess where their students are. Standardized exams are like taking the pulse, a teacher's assessment is like an executive physical check-up. With the school closures, cancellation of standardized exams will take a huge load off the shoulders of both students and teachers. This will provide a …

COVID-19: A Lesson in Numbers

Our World in Data reports that there have been 4831 COVID-19 tests performed per million people in South Korea. The number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea currently stands at 159 per million people. Assuming that there is ample testing in Korea, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests is around 3 percent. This infection rate looks very promising. There is another piece of data that is equally reliable and this is the case of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, where virtually everyone has been tested. 696 out of 3711 people aboard this ship tested positive for the virus. This means a little less than 20 percent got infected. This is probably the worst case scenario since a cruise ship is similar to a Petri dish. The current fatality rate from the novel coronavirus for South Korea stands at about 0.9 percent, while for the cruise ship, it is 1 percent.  Thus, we have a range of numbers, for infection rate, South Korea provides 3 percent, and the cruise ship gives the worst case scenario of …

CDC Recommendations for ("against") School Closures in Response to COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued recommendations or considerations regarding school closure. The considerations based on data from other countries suggest that school closures will probably have no impact on how fast COVID-19 would spread. The CDC states, "Available modeling data indicate that early, short to medium closures do not impact the epi curve of COVID-19 or available health care measures (e.g., hospitalizations). There may be some impact of much longer closures (8 weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modelling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures.  In other countries, those places who closed school (e.g., Hong Kong) have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not (e.g., Singapore)."

Before this past Thursday evening, the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) District is actually followin…

Reactive or Proactive: Fairfax County Schools' Decision-Making

The novel coronavirus is truly new in so many aspects. Data currently available indicate that children do get infected, but exhibit only mild symptoms. Data from China suggest that children can be transmitters of the virus. Infections of the virus among children, however, remain low. Thus, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is markedly different from influenza. Yet, how effective nonpharmaceutical interventions such as school closure are to delaying and minimizing an epidemic is based on what we know regarding influenza. Thus, a proactive measure at this point truly requires guidance from health officials. Fairfax county, in its update late yesterday afternoon, noted that schools would be closed on Monday to give teachers the opportunity to prepare for distance learning in case schools are closed. They did not announce that schools were closing today. Late in the evening, the superintendent decided to close schools. The decision was visibly influenced by parents an…

Lessons on Coronavirus

While Princeton University has moved to virtual instruction up till April 5, Sarah Schwartz shares in EducationWeek lesson plans for science, math, and media literacy from K-12 schools. One lesson graphs world data on Coronavirus from the World Health Organization. Another looks at possible sparks of prejudice against Asians because of the outbreak and why such a reaction has no scientific basis. And a third one encourages not just to repeat what is seen in social media, but actually evaluate whether these are simply exaggerated or real.

The current outbreak is a real threat but during these times, reliable information is a must. There are a lot of numbers involved so the data do provide an opportunity to construct math lessons. Take, for instance the following graph that explains why slowing down an epidemic is helpful.

The above illustrates how nonpharmaceutical interventions (frequent washing of hands, staying home if one is not feeling well, covering coughs and sneezes, social dis…

Amidst the Spread of Coronavirus, Should the Philippines Close Its Schools?

The mayor of Navotas in the Philippines actually suggested not just a closure but the granting of passing grades to all students for the current school year. The end of the school year in the Philippines is April 3, about a month from now. Navotas has no recorded case of coronavirus infection so the suggestion is part of a preventive measure. Italy and Japan have closed schools but these countries have far more known cases than the Philippines does. Whether school closures are beneficial or not is an important question to raise. In the Philippines where online learning is not accessible to all, education pays a hefty price if schools are closed. Experts provide some specific guidelines on when it may be good to close schools: If five percent of students are absent in one day, it maybe wise to close schools. The point here is that it should be clear that there is an active transmission of the disease in the community, therefore, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly. In thi…

Let Students See What We Mean

Language could be a barrier. I remember in college the first time I heard the word "stochastic". Wow! I had no idea then what that word meant. And that word had a significant weight on what the instructor was trying to tell me. I wished the instructor had just used the more familiar synonym, "random". I probably would have understood more. It is true that science requires precise and accurate language, but in a lot of cases, it is possible to use more familiar words instead of low-frequency but non-technical words. Chemistry requires the use of the word "covalent", but it does not require the use of the word "commensurate" in place of the word "equal". In a classroom where students' needs ought to be considered, we must try our best to help children succeed, and not add unnecessary hurdles to learning. In science, this is particularly important especially when the students are not native speakers of the medium of instruction.


Education for All, Healthcare for All

Yes, these are nice slogans, but these are no different from "Make America Great Again" if these are not backed by practical considerations. Education for all, as monitored by UNESCO, is hinged on several measurable goals: enrollment in preschool, enrollment in primary education, enrollment in lower secondary education, adult literacy, gender parity, and quality of education. And with these measures, only a third of countries around the world have met these goals.

These are all goals, but none of these measures really tell us how we are going to meet these goals. For "education for all" to become a reality, we obviously need resources. Saying that we are providing access to all must be accompanied by actually having the supply to meet the demand. And in this regard, UNESCO does recognize a huge stumbling block:

Teachers are one of the most influential and powerful forces for equity, access and quality in education and key to sustainable global development. However,…


The New York Times has the following headline: "Japan Shocks Parents by Moving to Close All Schools Over Coronavirus". It seems like responding to a health concern has now been closely tied to politics. The stakes are high. And in a sea of uncertainty, the consequences for either doing too little or doing too much are severe. Right at the heart of this precarious situation is the unreliability of data. It is the reason why even experts are so cautious with their assessment. Still, there are pieces of data that one can deem reliable. Both fatality rate and confirmed cases, for instance, are skewed toward older age.

An article in the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology reports that nearly 90 percent of cases are in the age group of 30 to 79 years old. Consequently, the majority of the fatalities are also in this age group. What is worth noting is that even the fatality rate goes up with age, reaching more than 1 percent for 50 years or older:

The fatality rate remains low, 0.2 to …

Learning Civics

Civics is formally the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. And citizenship is about being a responsible member of a community or society. In the seventies when I was in high school, we were required to complete several hours of service for every school year as part of the government's Youth Civic Action Program (YCAP). Obviously, whether a student learn what civics entails depends on what the student does to fulfill such a requirement. I probably did not learn that much since most often, it felt simply like forced labor with no obvious opportunity to experience what it really meant to be a citizen. One year, I was scrubbing concrete steps of stairs with hydrochloric acid in a newly constructed building for our high school. I was not taught how to handle carefully the acid and I was made to work without gloves or a mask. At the moment, there is a bill in the Philippines Senate that aims to establish a citizenship program, giving college and senior high school students th…

A Picture Tells A Story

Images are powerful. Pictures can send a powerful message. At least, this has been obvious to a school teacher in South Africa who was dividing his class based on whether a child speaks English or Afrikaans. After a photo of his classroom went viral on social media, the teacher was suspended. More often than not, we need to see an image to see clearly something that is wrong. A picture can tell us right away, without any debate, that labeling children according to the language they speak is wrong. Labeling and segregating children in schools is wrong.

Yet, graphs seem to be not as powerful, like the ones shown below for the school district my children attend.

Gifted and Talented labels are being given at a much higher frequency to Asians and Whites in Fairfax county, essentially separating these children from Blacks and Hispanics. This segregation has been true for sometime now but there still has been no concrete action or policy taken to address this problem. Here is another graph t…

Standardized Exams Cannot Measure Excellence

We would like to measure the fruits of our effort. We would like to gauge how our schools are doing. Thus, we have standardized exams that are supposed to be much more objective than grades given by teachers. Consistency unfortunately does not automatically translate to accuracy and there are obviously limits in how much information test scores can actually provide. First, a single exam given to all students has an intrinsic limitation in coverage. Consequently, these exams are often geared toward determining deficiencies and not mastery. It is indeed a huge mistake to equate standardized test scores with excellence. In fact, recent research has shown that a standardized exam like ACT (originally American College Testing) cannot reliably predict college graduation rates.

The above graphs show how college graduation rates correlate with high school grade point averages (left) and scores in the ACT exam (right). Each of the gray lines is a high school. The ACT graph has much less variab…

An Important Survey from Fairfax County Public Schools

Parents of students enrolled in elementary and middle schools in Fairfax county now have the opportunity to have their voices heard with regard to the county's Advanced Academic Program. This time, the county is asking every parent not just those who have children deemed talented or gifted. It is an important survey as it poses questions regarding equity in the county's schools. I sincerely hope that every parent responds to the email and fill out the survey.

Here is the email (The links on the image below will not work on this blog - you will need to open the email that was sent to you by Fairfax County Public Schools).

The important equity question on the survey are as follows:

And to help you answer honestly the above question, how you answer these other questions may help:

How Do Senior High School Students in the Philippines Perform in a General Mathematics Test?

The PISA 2018 results placed 15-year old students in the Philippines near the bottom (outperforming only one country, the Dominican Republic) in its mathematics exam. These results show that mathematics education in the Philippines is failing in the first nine or ten years of basic education. Senior high school students in the Philippines are between 17 and 18 years of age and because of DepEd's K to 12, now have the opportunity of two more years of basic education. It is therefore important to see if these added years make a difference. With different tracks in senior high school in the Philippines, it is appropriate to gauge how students perform in a test that involves only general mathematics. With PISA, there is likewise a question of alignment between the test questions and the curriculum in Philippine schools. Thus, constructing an exam that is completely aligned with DepEd's K to 12 curriculum can avoid this problem. Leo Mamolo of Visayas State University did such an as…

What Causes the Black-White, Poor-Rich Gaps in Basic Education?

In the United States, gaps are obvious in public school education on a variety of measures. On average, Blacks score lower in standardized tests. With regard to school suspensions, Blacks receive a lot more than Whites do. In gifted programs, Blacks are underrepresented. Blacks are also more likely be retained in a grade than Whites do. On the other hand, white students are more likely to be enrolled in advanced courses than Black students. The same gaps appear between children of low- and high-income families. Thus, it is convenient to blame out-of-school factors for these gaps since  correlations between gaps and race, and between gaps and socio-economic status, are fairly strong. It is sadly a convenient excuse. By scratching deeper into data, researchers have found that most of these gaps are actually products of our discretion. This is the conclusion made by Kenneth Shores, Ha Eun Kim, and Mela Still in a paper to be published in the American Educational Research Journal. We are …

School Choice: Ignoring Evidence

It all seems fashionable now to reject evidence except when the evidence supports what we want to believe. The economy must be doing very well. We are told to just glance at the stock market indices. The numbers are indeed in record territory. These numbers, however, do not really tell the complete story. Stock prices are probably high because there is an excess of capital due to federal measures as well as tax breaks. In fact, considering not just the price of shares in publicly traded companies but also their earnings paints a very different picture. We may actually be approaching a moment of rude awakening. Ignoring evidence, simply because we want to, will not lead to better outcomes. What is happening in the stock market unfortunately has been happening for a long time in education. Diane Ravitch's new book, "Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America's Public Schools", is in stark contrast with Trump's approbat…

If You Are Chinese, You Should Not Attend School

Yes, it does sound not just silly but profoundly offensive, but a university in the Philippines has just made an announcement asking all its students who are Chinese nationals to self-quarantine from January 31 to February 14. I am also seeing posts on social media that there is a shortage of face masks in the country. And social media Rappler shares concerns of some celebrities regarding the inaction of the government, adding volume to the statement, "It's the government that will kill us." Misinformation spreads faster and people are quick to draw policies based on misinformation. This is what happens when the educational system of a country is failing.

First, the correct policy for any school is to tell its students that if they are feeling ill, they should not attend school. A self-quarantine measure based on nationality does not make sense since those who are infected do not necessarily belong to one race. Second, face masks are not generally intended to protect an …

We Do Not Want Our Children To Learn With Poor Children

I might have been quite different from my classmates in college. Ateneo, after all, is an elite school attended mostly by children from wealthy families. Back then, while my classmates were focused on a paper they were writing for either philosophy or theology, my mind was often wondering whether we had something for our next meal. Clearly, I probably had a perspective different from what most students in Ateneo had. I was therefore offering diversity. And diversity is good. Plenty of research shows that diversity is good in education. But poor children do have worries other than their homework. Just imagine if my classmates finally figure out how many shirts or pairs of pants I actually have. As a result, we often exhibit behavioral issues in schools. Advantaged parents therefore have a reason to want their children enrolled in schools with less underprivileged students. Not wanting your child to be in a classroom with either less privileged pupils or Blacks or Hispanics is definitel…

Elections Have Consequences

The words of Emma Lazarus, "Give me your tired, your poor...", are now truly silent. The United States Supreme Court just ruled (narrowly, 5 to 4) in favor of Trump's policy of using public benefits against those who are applying for permanent residence. It is now lawful for the government to deny a green card application based on the use of public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, and others. With how the Trump administration views immigration, it is not unlikely that reduced or free lunch in public schools or even education itself will likewise be denied to the tired and the poor in the near future. Trump is the president of the United States because of electoral votes and the Supreme Court has tilted to the right because of Trump. Elections have consequences. However, this is sadly just the tip of the iceberg. If these are merely consequences of an election, then all we have to do is to wait for the next election. The bigger problem is that a c…

A Response to "Lawmakers Should Refrain from Prescribing a Curriculum"

The following is a YouTube video from Glenn Davis, responding to the previous post on this blog:

Virginia Delegate Glenn Davis addresses concerns on mandatory coding curriculum, education and class electives during the 2020 General Assembly session. In 2013, Glenn was nominated without opposition and was overwhelmingly elected to represent the citizens of the 84th House District in the Virginia General Assembly, where he serves on the Appropriations, Education and Public Safety Committees.

Lawmakers Should Refrain from Prescribing a Curriculum

It would be absurd to suggest that a legislative body can create or amend laws of nature. Yet, in education, lawmakers seem confident enough to dictate what should be taught inside a classroom. The Subcommittee on Education of the Virginia legislature is currently considering a bill sponsored by Del. Shelly Simonds that requires "each student in grades six, seven, and eight, starting in the 2025–2026 school year, to complete at least one semester-long or year-long computer science elective course or introduction to technology course." Before the election, Simonds was serving as member of the school board and before that, she was teaching Spanish in an elementary school. It is unfortunate that despite her experience as an educator, Simonds thinks a lawmaking body can serve as an authority on education. There are plenty of reasons why Virginia House Bill 694 should not be passed, and even the chief executive officer of, Hadi Partovi, says "no", when asked th…