Browsing the archives for the Education category.

Excellence in Education

conservatism, Education

If you want to find the best schools for your children, find out where Jonah Goldberg went. Then send your kids somewhere else.

Today’s he’s calling for public schools to be eliminated, because they’re bad and private schools are better. I went to public schools. My kids went to public schools. If Goldberg went to private schools, he’s a walking contradiction to his own argument.

See Dave Johnson for more.

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A Narrow Victory for Science in Kansas

conservatism, Education, science

[Update: Sally Cauble defeated Connie Morris by 54.15 to 45.85 percent of the vote. This means the anti-science board members will have no more than four members out of ten on the next board, even if the anti-science candidates all win in the general election.]

Here’s a spot of good news to start the day. Yesterday in a Republican primary election, anti-science conservatives lost control of the Kansas State Board of Education. But, so far, just barely. One anti-science incumbent lost to a pro-science challenger, which will deprive the right-wingers of their majority on the board. Another pro-science challenger is winning, but as of this morning that election hasn’t been called yet.

The Kansas Board of Education, which oversees statewide education policy, has ten members, and anti-science conservatives have held a six to four majority for the past two years. The six have blighted education in Kansas with right-wing policies on teaching evolution, sex education, and charter schools. Yesterday’s election results mean that the right-wingers will have no more than half of the seats, assuming they all win in the general election, and if the votes still being counted go to the pro-science challenger, the anti-science members of the board will be a minority.

From the Kansas City Star:

Kansas has long been a key front in the war over evolution and creationism, and Tuesday’s vote attracted national attention once again: National and international media covered the races, and in the weeks leading up to the election, out-of-state groups on both sides of the fray joined the debate.

This year, 16 candidates filed for five seats on the board; in previous years’ elections the field was less than half that number.

Last year, the board’s six conservatives pushed through science curriculum standards criticizing the theory of evolution. They hired Bob Corkins, an anti-tax lobbyist with no experience in the education field, as education commissioner.

This year, the board’s conservatives voted to encourage local schools to require permission slips for sex-education class and stress the teaching of abstinence.

As bad as the board is, apparently it used to be worse.

All the controversy had moderates hoping for a repeat of 2000, when voters kicked out of office board members who had voted to minimize the teaching of evolution, the age of the Earth and the big-bang theory. The new board members reversed those decisions.

Of the five seats up for re-election, only one was held by a pro-science Republican Democrat, Janet Waugh. Mrs. Waugh won her primary yesterday. [Update: Waugh is unopposed in the general election.] Pro-science moderate challenger Jana Shaver beat anti-science incumbent Brad Patzer. Pro-science challenger Sally Cauble is hanging on to a 54 to 46 percent lead over anti-science incumbent Connie Morris, according to the most recent news stories. The two remaining right-wing incumbents won their primaries.

The five Republican primary winners will face five pro-science Democrats in the general election in November, so it’s possible the anti-science portion of the board will shrink even further if some Democrats win. But Ms. Shaver’s primary win means that, no matter what happens in the general election, the anti-science members will hold no more than half the seats.

Of the election yet to be determined between Sally Cauble and Connie Morris, John Hanna of the Associated Press writes:

Morris’ race in western Kansas was the most closely watched. The former teacher has described evolution as “an age-old fairy tale” and “a nice bedtime story” unsupported by science.

Go, Sally Cauble!

The Big Issue appears to be the standards adopted by the current board for teaching evolution:

The standards say that the evolutionary theory that all life had a common origin has been challenged by fossils and molecular biology. And they say there is controversy over whether changes over time in one species can lead to a new species.

In other words, the “standards” mandate teaching children lies.

The school board contest was part of a larger effort by the intelligent design movement to introduce its ideas in public schools.

A suburban Atlanta school district is locked in a legal dispute over its putting stickers in 35,000 biology textbooks declaring evolution “a theory, not a fact.”

Last year, in Dover, Pa., voters ousted school board members who had required the biology curriculum to include mention of intelligent design. A federal judge struck down the policy, declaring intelligent design is religion in disguise.

A poll by six news organizations last year suggested about half of Kansans thought evolution should be taught alongside intelligent design. …

… Control of the school board has slipped into, out of and back into conservative Republicans’ hands since 1998, resulting in anti-evolution standards in 1999, evolution-friendly ones in 2001 and anti-evolution ones again last year.

Late-night comedians have been making cracks about Kansas, portraying it as backward and ignorant. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” broadcast a four-part series titled, “Evolution Schmevolution.”

I’ll update with the result of the Cauble-Morris election as soon as I know it. [Update at top of post — Cauble wins!]

Update: Another story on the election, from the New York Times. See also commentary from The Talking Dog (a highly evolved critter, I must say).

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So Much for “School Choice”

Bush Administration, Education

Everybody bookmark this. And be ready to retrieve it every time the righties wheeze about the “failing” public schools.

The Education Department reported on Friday that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private school counterparts fared better.

The report, which compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores in 2003 from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools, also found that conservative Christian schools lagged significantly behind public schools on eighth-grade math.

The study, carrying the imprimatur of the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Education Department, was contracted to the Educational Testing Service and delivered to the department last year.

The Bushies put the study through extensive peer review. Apparently unable to dispute the presented facts, they’ve dismissed the report as being “of modest utility.” Of course, if the report had found that private schools were better … well, you know. The Republicans would be pushing for complete demolition of the public school system so that children can be herded into private schools and receive the proper religious indoctrination.

The report mirrors and expands on similar findings this year by Christopher and Sarah Theule Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team at the University of Illinois who examined just math scores. The new study looked at reading scores, too. …

… The two new studies put test scores in context by studying the children’s backgrounds and taking into account factors like race, ethnicity, income and parents’ educational backgrounds to make the comparisons more meaningful. The extended study of charter schools has not been released.

Interesting tidbit:

The report separated private schools by type and found that among private school students, those in Lutheran schools performed best, while those in conservative Christian schools did worst.

Reaction from anti-public school activist:

Joseph McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, an umbrella organization that represents 80 percent of private elementary and secondary schools, said the statistical analysis had little to do with parents’ choices on educating their children.

“In the real world, private school kids outperform public school kids,” Mr. McTighe said. “That’s the real world, and the way things actually are.”

In the real world, ideologues out-bloviate non-ideologues. They don’t need no steenking data to tell ’em what goes on in the real world, hombres.

Back in the 1950s, at least in the Bible Belt where I come from, conventional wisdom said that public schools were better than parochial schools. Somehow, the desegregation wars of the late 1950s and early 1960s caused a whole lot of white parents to change their minds. The school prayer flap of the 1960s added more alarm to the mix. Since then the movement to destroy the public school system (MtDtPSS) has moved on from its segregationist roots, and now it’s a movement to destroy the public school system because too many public school teachers are godless liberals. And in recent years, the MtDtPSS has come full circle; anti-public school activists have been working overtime to persuade African American parents to support voucher systems and send their kids to the proper indoctrination facilities private schools.

I’m not saying that all private schools exist for the purpose of indoctrination, but that that indoctrination is the essential motivation of the MtDtPSS.

Anti-private school activists argue that vouchers would create market competition and cause all schools to improve because they are competing. But Milwaukee has had vouchers for 15 years now, and that’s not how it’s worked out:

An investigation this June by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found problems in some voucher schools that—even to those numb to educational horror stories—break one’s heart. No matter how severe one’s criticisms of the Milwaukee Public Schools, nothing is as abysmal as the conditions at some voucher schools.

Some of them had high school graduates teaching students. Some were nothing more than refurbished, cramped storefronts. Some did not have any discernible curriculum and only a few books. Some did not teach evolution or anything else that might conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

At one school, teacher and students were on their way to McDonald’s. At another, lights were turned off to save money. A third used the back alley as a playground.

One school is located in an old leather factory, another in a former tire store, a third is above a vacuum cleaner shop and hair salon. …

… The summaries show that a disturbing number of schools are beset by two overriding problems: inadequate facilities and unqualified teachers. (I’ll leave concerns about fraud and scams to the district attorney’s office.)

At the Sa’Rai and Zigler Upper Excellerated Academy (K4–1), principal Sa’Rai Nance doesn’t even have a teaching license. She said she opened the school after she had a vision from God. Nance also said that “excellerated” is a fusion word combining accelerated and excellent and is “spelled wrong on purpose.” The word “upper” refers to “the upper room where Jesus prayed.”

Carter’s Christian Academy (K4–1) is described as “essentially a small storefront building with a couple of tiny rooms redone as classrooms. …There were no visible books or toys or paper.” The school’s two teachers have high school diplomas, and the highest-paid teacher makes $8 an hour.

At Grace Christian Academy (K4–7), one staff member privately told reporters “that there was no curriculum. Several classrooms were using worksheets downloaded from the Internet. …There were few books or schools materials on [the] shelves or anywhere in sight.” In at least one case, the summary continued, “the teacher was giving inaccurate scientific information to kids. [Principal Reginald] Armstrong says teachers use Biblical principles. He taught his class the story of Adam and Eve recently, from a literalist position.” Armstrong has a teaching license, but none of the other teachers do.

Among the several reasons Why Market Forces Don’t Work in this situation is that the really excellent private schools generally are way disinterested in taking voucher students. Conversely, private schools eager to get voucher money are, um, often not so hot.

See also Steve Gilliard and Echidne.

Update: Flaming idiot Pejman Yousefzadeh of RedState links to the same article and concludes it proves private schools are better than public schools. He manages to do this by extremely, um, selective editing — excerpting commentary by Kevin Drum, stripped of context, and leaving out the data that showed public schools outperform private schools.

Kevin notes that public school students do less well in secondary school than do private school students. There might be several reasons for this that have nothing to do with school performance however. Kevin Drum writes,

But what does seem to show up over and over again is the effect of concentrated poverty. Nearly everything I’ve read suggests that when the number of kids in poverty reaches about 50% in a school, teaching becomes nearly impossible — and that this matters much more in secondary school than in elementary school.

Private schools can dismiss disruptive students and expel non-performers. The poorest of the poor don’t go to private schools, vouchers or no vouchers. ESL students don’t go to private schools. Don’t bother trying to explain this to Yousefzadeh, who suffers a serious lack of critical thinking skills. Maybe he went to a private school.

Seriously, if you google for information about public versus private school you find all manner of “reports” claiming that private school students are “better prepared” or more likely to get advanced degrees than public school students. As for the first claim, there is always a curious lack of supporting data compiled from independent and disinterested sources.. As for the second — if you’re talking about elite “prep” schools like Phillips Academy, sure. If you’re talking about some of the places described above, like “Carter’s Christian Academy” — I doubt it.

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First Amendment Confusion

Civil Rights, Education

Earlier this week a foreign-born college student was arrested for posting threats to kill President Bush. As I blogged here, a number of rightie bloggers immediately jumped to the conclusion that the student was a “liberal” (in fact, the news story didn’t identify the student’s political orientation) and predicted that liberals would jump to the defense of the accused student’s free speech rights, because that’s what liberals “always” do.

When the predicted liberal tide of outrage against the student’s arrest didn’t materialize, this guy wrote, “Well of course you’re not going to openly after we preemptively accuse you of it.” Well of course, he couldn’t possibly be mistaken about what “liberals” always do, huh? (Off topic, but this post by the same blogger reveals a certain, um, confusion about what liberals actually believe.)

In fact, long-established case law says that speech inciting violence — the “clear and present danger” test — is not protected by the First Amendment. If the student clearly was seriously attempting to incite presidential assassination and not just joking (I haven’t seen what he wrote), then he’s going to have a hard time defending himself on First Amendment grounds.

Also earlier this week, Glenn Greenwald commented on the First Amendment rights of journalists who report on something the government is doing secretly that appears to be illegal. In this case, a conservative ranted that publishing a news story “against the wishes of the president” amounted to treason.

This confusion could be resolved, I believe, by reassuring the ranter that this is still the United States of America and we have not, in fact, been annexed by North Korea. Not yet, anyway.

Different day, different story: Some not-liberal bloggers are complaining that the First Amendment rights of high school students were violated — Eugene Volokh wrote,

Tyler Harper wore an anti-homosexuality T-shirt to school, apparently responding to a pro-gay-rights event put on at the school by the Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. On the front, the T-shirt said, “Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned,” and on the back, it said “Homosexuality is Shameful.” The principal insisted that Harper take off the T-shirt. Harper sued, claiming this violated his First Amendment rights.

Harper’s speech is constitutionally unprotected, the Ninth Circuit just ruled today, in an opinion written by Judge Reinhardt and joined by Judge Thomas; Judge Kozinski dissented. According to the majority, “derogatory and injurious remarks directed at students’ minority status such as race, religion, and sexual orientation” — which essentially means expressions of viewpoints that are hostile to certain races, religions, and sexual orientations — are simply unprotected by the First Amendment in K-12 schools. Such speech, Judge Reinhardt said, violates “the rights of other students” by constituting a “verbal assault[] that may destroy the self-esteem of our most vulnerable teenagers and interfere with their educational development.”

You can read the majority decision in Harper v. Poway Unified School Dist. here. If you read it you might notice what Volokh left out — prior incidents of physical altercation in the school caused by gay-baiting. From the decision:

[Assistant Principal] Antrim believed that Harper’s shirt “was inflammatory under the circumstances and could cause disruption in the educational setting.” Like LeMaster, she also recalled the altercations that had arisen as a result of anti-homosexual speech one year prior. According to her affidavit, she “discussed [with Harper] ways that he and students of his faith could bring a positive light onto this issue without the condemnation that he displayed on his shirt.” Harper was informed that if he removed the shirt he could return to class.

When Harper again refused to remove his shirt, the Principal, Scott Fisher, spoke with him, explaining his concern that the shirt was “inflammatory” and that it was the School’s “intent to avoid physical conflict on campus.”

Harper actually demanded that he be suspended; the Principal refused to do that, and instead just detained the high schooler in his office the remainder of the day to keep him out of trouble.

Harper sued, and the district court concluded that “balancing the needs of the School to keep all their students safe coupled with the foreseeable vision that other students may feel free to exhibit these types of expressions that would interfere with the work of the school and violate the rights of others against [Harper’s] interests does not tip the scales sharply in [Harper’s] favor.”

The judges went on to cite prior case law, such as Tinker v. Des Moines School District 393 U.S. 503 (1969) and Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986). Both cases deal with speech that disrupted school discipline. The primary issue was not, as Volokh suggested, speech that hurt people’s self-esteem, but speech that was causing students to become unruly and engage in shoving matches in the hall. The title of Volokh’s post — “Sorry, Your Viewpoint is Excluded from First Amendment Protection” — is, IMO, fundamentally dishonest, as is this post by another blogger, which whines that the school only banned the T-shirt because it was anti-gay.

In the past schools have banned all sorts of “speech,” including tattoos and gang colors, because the “speech” was causing discipline problems. A couple of weeks ago Volokh commented on a California school district that banned flags and patriotic clothing, U.S. and Mexican, because the students were using the symbols to taunt each other. The school said the ban was temporary; I take it some discipline problems erupted after passions were inflamed by the immigration marches. Volokh complained that California law says “high school districts can’t restrict display of the American or Mexican flags just on the theory that it might be used in a threatening (or ‘harass[ing],’ whatever exactly that means) way — it can only restrict such display that is itself threatening or harassing.” But I infer the school district was able to demonstrate there was a clear and present danger of threatening and harassing going on, not just hypothetical threatening and harassing.

I’m old enough to remember some damnfool arbitrary school clothing rules; my public school district wouldn’t let girls wear pants, for example. My high school principal pronounced a ban on T-shirts that said anything, including “Have a Nice Day” or “Visit Miami Beach.” Some situations are hard to call, I’m sure. Some principals are more authoritarian than they need to be. But it’s fairly obvious Harper Tyler was trying to incite something that wasn’t in the curriculum. (See also Jill at Feministe.)

Here’s some more context that may or may not muddy the waters — Tyler wore his T-shirt the day after the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance held a “day of silence.” Participating students wore duct tape over their mouths to symbolize the silencing effects of intolerance. They “spoke” in class through a designated representative. With the permission of the school, the Alliance had put up posters to raise awareness of harassment. A series of “incidents and altercations” had occurred when the Alliance held a day of silence the year before. So, this rightie blogger asks, if the school is so worried about “disruption” why would it allow the Gay-Straight Alliance to hold its protest against intolerance if it had incited disruption the year before?

This is not a question to dismiss out of hand. I’d like to see the posters and observe the students to get a better sense of what went down before I formed a firm opinion. If in fact the posters were not inflammatory and only conveyed the message “please be tolerant of us,” should they be censored because they might incite a violent reaction in bigoted students? In other words, in the interest of discipline, should speech requesting tolerance, and that is not insulting to another group, be treated the same as speech that is hateful and derogatory? If so, is that not giving in to the bullies?

On the other hand, if I were a teacher I’m not sure I’d put up with the tape-over-the-mouth stunt in classrooms if it got in the way of teaching. Maybe real teachers would disagree.

Seems to me the school has three choices. It can ban all displays of opinion on clothing and posters, including “Have a Nice Day.” It can exercise no restrictions and only intervene after fistfights have started. Or it can exercise critical judgment and restrict speech that seems to be intended to start fights. And in the case of the latter, judgments will be subjective and some people will always disagree with the call.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not a school principal.

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No Excuse Left Behind

Bush Administration, Education, NCLB

I realize we’ve got sexier issues to think about today — lies, corruption, global thermonuclear war — but I’d like to take a moment to reflect on No Child Left Behind. If education issues aren’t your bag, feel free to skip the details between asterisks (***) and go right to the conclusions.


When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000, he talked a lot about education. He promised to be The Education President. This was an odd issue for a Republican to run on, considering the Reagan/libertarian wing of the party long had wanted to eliminate the Department of Education and leave public schooling entirely to the states. But, conventional wisdom said, talking about education made Bush more palatable to suburbanite soccer moms. It was a big part of his “compassionate conservative” shtick.

In 2000, and again in 2004, the Bush campaign touted education reform as among Bush’s biggest achievements as governor of Texas. His ads claimed “dramatic results” in Texas education. In fact, CBS reported in 2003 that much of this “success” came from cooking the books — reporting false dropout rates and test scores. But that didn’t stop Bush from continuing to brag.

The centerpiece of President Bush’s education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, was signed into law about four years ago. Bush is proud of this act. He mentioned it frequently during the 2004 campaign. The Department of Education building in Washington DC — I don’t know what they do in there, but it’s one big mother of a building — is festooned with NCLB banners, and the entrances are decorated with cheery “little red schoolhouse” facades. The building serves as a billboard promoting NCLB.

Sydney H. Schanberg provides a thumbnail explanation of NCLB in this Village Voice article from 2003:

The president’s No Child Left Behind law requires every public school system to administer rigorous annual testing of students, starting in the third grade, in such subjects as English and math. If the test scores of any segment of a school’s population — such as Latinos struggling with English or disabled students in special-ed classes — do not meet the proficiency levels set by the law, the entire school is listed as “failing” and students can choose to transfer to a school in the district that is doing well. In other words, averaging the test scores of the entire student body might produce a successful result, but the scores of the struggling segment will still, under the law, brand the school as “failing.” In addition to placing new financial and space demands on successful schools, the law’s requirements will also lay serious new money burdens on the ones with troubles, for such things as additional teacher training and additional classes.

In February 2004, Rep. George Miller, Senior Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, released this statement:

The Bush budget continues to renege on the commitment to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act. This year the Bush Budget underfunds the No Child Left Behind Act by $9.4 billion. As part of this shortfall, the Bush budget underfunds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program by $1 billion, eliminating afterschool programs for over 1.3 million children. The Title I program is underfunded by $7.2 billion. The Bush Budget leaves nearly five million disadvantaged children without extra academic help and services. Cumulatively, President Bush and the Republican Congress have underfunded NCLB by $27 billion since its enactment.

Naturally, during the 2004 campaign, whenever a Democrat complained that NCLB was underfunded, the Bush campaign accused that individual of being against education.

But an op-ed in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Elaine Garan says there are, um, more problems.

In the past year alone, the revolt has included suits filed by the state of Connecticut and the National Education Association, as well as state legislation in Utah, Virginia and other states seeking to trump the federal law.

Dissatisfaction covers a wide range of issues, from complaints that it is underfunded to allegations that it is unconstitutional. There are objections to the inequities of standardized testing and its restrictions on the curriculum, and to the unfair penalization of teachers and schools for factors outside their control. There also have been serious questions about flaws in the scientific research determining the programs schools can use, as well as alleged conflicts of interest surrounding the awarding of grants for the law’s Reading First initiative.

Naturally, Bush Administration officials have not been working with states and educators to see how the Act could be improved. That is not the Bush style. The Bush style is to use a combination of bullying and bullshitting to keep naysayers in line and prop up allegiance to the holy NCLB exactly as it is. “The Bush administration has expended enormous time and energy scrambling to put out brush fires of resistance and keep angry states and districts under control” writes Garan.

And then came Katrina.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings initially expressed unwillingness to grant waivers to schools affected by Katrina. For weeks, schools waited in limbo until she reluctantly agreed to allow automatic one-year waivers from accountability standards — but only for those Gulf Coast schools that were destroyed or severely damaged. In effect, the secretary’s compassionate flexibility amounted to this: Schools that no longer exist and have no students to teach, much less test, will not be punished [for] failure to meet their “adequate yearly progress” targets.

Further, schools that have taken in the traumatized student refugees of Katrina will not receive automatic exemptions from federal punishment if they miss their standards.

(Can somebody explain the point of this? If not to destroy public schools? That’s the only plausible explanation.)

A news google of “No Child Left Behind” showed other interesting consequences. Thanks to the budget demands of NCLB, schools are cutting Gifted and Talented programs. Teacher certification requirements are causing hardships for rural schools. Because NCLB emphasizes math and reading standardized test scores, educators complain they are being forced to shortchange science, history, and other subjects to make time to “teach to the test.” (More here.)

More than a quarter of the nation’s schools failed to meet standards this year, says the Department of Education. But here’s another kicker — the Act requires schools to bring students up to a certain level of proficiency, but leaves to the states to decide what that “proficiency” is. Therefore, the Act rewards states with lower standards and punishes states with higher standards. Several states are considering lowering standards so as not to incur the draconian NCLB punishments for failure.

In spite of all this, the Bush Administration is proud of NCLB and proclaims it is “working.”


Conclusion: The NCLB is a big, expensive mess, yet it remains one of the Administration’s finest domestic policy achievements. How can that be?

From the Administration’s perspective, what’s not to like? NCLB is a wonderful program. The title of the Act is both catchy and warm/fuzzy at the same time. It provides an excuse for the President to get his picture taken with children (more warm/fuzzy). And even though in the long run it is unlikely to result in better educated children, I’m sure eventually some numbers will be creatively crunched, or cooked, to make it look as if something is being achieved, which to the Bushies is all that really matters.

The only flaw that I can see is that NCLB hasn’t resulted in any big defense industry contracts, but give ’em time.

And through it all we see the Bushie modus operandi — create a stupid program; refuse to work with anyone outside the bubble to improve the program; instead, campaign relentlessly to punish anyone who badmouths the program; and even if it fails, declare the program a great success and exploit for its PR value.

Now, given that in more than five years the Bush Administration has failed to achieve anything substantive — this includes job and economic growth — don’t forget the debtwhy does anyone still support this clown?

There is no rational answer to that question. Clearly, people who still support Bush do so because they want to. He represents something to them that they desire, desperately. And they’ve invested too much of their egos into supporting him to let go without serious existential angst. So they continue to make one excuse after another for the ongoing catastrophe that is the Bush Administration.

A die-hard Bushie cannot be reasoned with. However, Bush’s falling poll numbers tell us there are more reachable people out there than I used to think possible. Truly, a couple of years ago I figured the absolute basement of Bush support would settle out at no lower than 40 percent, but we’ve pushed it lower than that.

The day may come we can leave Bush and his minions behind. Let’s hope.

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Dyscalculia and Me


Lots of people are razzng Richard Cohen today for his column “What Is the Value of Algebra?” Background: Los Angeles high school students must pass a year of algebra and a year of geometry in order to graduate, and this requirement is causing inordinate numbers of students to drop out in their senior years. Cohen points to one student who failed algebra six times in six semesters, and who finally abandoned her books and disappeared from the school. He writes,

I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time — the only proof I’ve ever seen of divine intervention — somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again. I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know — never mind want to know — how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later — or something like that.

Now, I detected some tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating humor in Cohen’s article, but some of my favorite bloggers were quite upset by it. PZ Myers of Pharyngula writes,

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.

Shakespeare’s Sister:

I’m not being cheeky. I’m genuinely wondering. Because he seems to have struggled so mightily with basic math that it suggests a possible undiagnosed learning disability, which isn’t a funny thing. It also sounds like the girl in his linked column to whom he’s directing the bad advice that math doesn’t matter—a girl who failed “algebra six times in six semesters, trying it a seventh time and finally just despairing over ever getting it” and subsequently dropping out of school—may well have an undiagnosed learning disability, too. And that makes his column not just ridiculous or ill-advised, but tragic.

The ever-gentlemanly Kevin Drum is a little kinder:

Cohen’s serious point isn’t really whether algebra is useful or not, it’s whether it should be required to graduate from high school. That is, if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout? I don’t really have an opinion about this, but it’s a serious question.

On the other hand, Cohen says he can’t do percentages either, and if that’s the case then maybe he should go back to high school.

Sorry, I’m with Richard. Yes, being math-impaired is a learning disability, and I have it. I recognized this years ago, and through all these years I have managed to work around it quite nicely, especially with the help of calculators and Microsoft Excel. I can even calculate percentages with Excel (something I really did have to do in my professional life), although not with a calculator. I’m not sure why that’s true, but it is. Before Excel, I had to ask people to do percentages for me.

I don’t believe I was born math-impaired. I blame the way math was taught in elementary school back in my day. We cave children would sit scratching page after page of the same rote math problem on our stone tablets, and there … is … nothing … more … mind … numbingly … boring than that. Working the problems was easy, but I would have rather watched paint dry than do it. By the time I was in third grade I was falling behind, and by fifth grade or so I had full-blown math phobia, and from then on I was hopeless.

On my PSATs I was in the 90-something percentiles in everything but math; in math I came in at 3rd percentile. Yes, that’s third, not thirty. I am not making this up. (As I remember I left most of the test blank because I was utterly baffled by it, but one of the few questions I did answer I actually got right. This must have saved me from first percentile.) In college I chose to major in journalism mostly because there wasn’t a math requirement.

I do consider it a disability, but if you’ve got to have a disability it’s a relatively benign one to have. I think that was Cohen’s point. He’s not opposed to math education. Nor am I; I am humbled and grateful that so many people can do math and are scientists and doctors and accountants and whatever. Civilization isn’t possible without them. But if you don’t have legs you’re not going to be a dancer. If you don’t have eyes you’re not going to be a graphic artist. I was never going to be a scientist. That’s how life is. I accept it.

Back to Kevin’s question — “if you find yourself completely unable to fathom algebra, should you be condemned to spend the rest of your life as a high school dropout?” My answer is emphatically no. But the real issue, IMO, is math education, and whether math is still being mis-taught. The Los Angeles Times story by Duke Helfand to which Cohen refers says that hundreds of Los Angeles high school students are dropping out without diplomas because of the algebra requirement. “The school district could have seen this coming if officials had looked at the huge numbers of high school students failing basic math,” writes Helfand. Teachers complain that they spend much of the class time reviewing math concepts students should have mastered in fourth grade. And 44 percent of Los Angeles high school students flunk algebra the first time they take it.

It is absolutely pointless to try to teach algebra to teenagers if they’ve had math phobias festering, untreated, since grade school. Fuhgeddaboutit. But in all these years have educators actually come to terms with math phobias, how they form, and how to treat them before it’s too late? Not that I’ve seen.

So instead of getting irritated with algebra invalids like Richard, Gabriela and me, go yell at educators. Dyscalculiaics are made, not born. Usually.

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Another Rightie Myth Debunked

Education, Social Issues

Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times:

A large-scale government-financed study has concluded that when it comes to math, students in regular public schools do as well as or significantly better than comparable students in private schools. …

… Though private school students have long scored higher on the national assessment, commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card,” the new study used advanced statistical techniques to adjust for the effects of income, school and home circumstances. The researchers said they compared math scores, not reading ones, because math was considered a clearer measure of a school’s overall effectiveness.

The study found that while the raw scores of fourth graders in Roman Catholic schools, for example, were 14.3 points higher than those in public schools, when adjustments were made for student backgrounds, those in Catholic schools scored 3.4 points lower than those in public schools. A spokeswoman for the National Catholic Education Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Now, for how many years has conventional wisdom been telling us that private schools are better than public schools? That the way to “save” public education was to give kids vouchers to pay for private schools? That parochial schools in particular were better because they could educate kids with lower per-pupil costs?

That last part always was a howler, because parochial schools generally don’t provide special education, and public ones must, and special ed programs are expensive. (Years ago I worked with a woman who had sent her children to Catholic schools, and only after her daughter had graduated high school did she learn that public schools would have worked with the girl to correct her speech impediment. Catholic schools didn’t bother. Boy, was she mad.) Also, parochial schools can bounce kids with behavioral problems, and as a rule public schools can’t until the little darlings get sentenced to juvenile detention.

Kevin Drum writes,

The study analyzed only the math portion of the NAEP test, and the results from the 4th grade test are shown below. The red line shows the average public school score, and the raw scores for most types of private schools (the black bars on the graph) are higher than the public school average. However, much of this difference is due to the fact that private schools attract better kids in the first place, not because the schools themselves are better.

So what would happen if both types of schools had similar student bodies? Those results are shown for private schools in the gray bars in the graph, where test scores are controlled for demographics, and they’re considerably lower than the public school average. In other words, if you took two similar kids and sent one to a public school and one to a private school, the kid in the private school would probably do a little worse than his public school twin. (Note that a difference of 10 points is roughly equal to one grade level.)

The 8th grade results are better, with most private schools scoring about the same as public schools. The only exception is the conservative Christian schools, which continue to score considerably lower than public schools — although the sample size is small enough that the results aren’t conclusive.

Worth bookmarking, I say.

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