Curving our way to mediocrity

The Uruguayan graduate student was talking to a fellow graduate student about the mathematical understanding of her students. Her view was that these Ivy League students were no stronger than Uruguayan math students of her past. In Uruguay, they do not use the grading curve. That Uruguayan student took one class where every student in the class failed. If you don’t get it, they don’t give you the grade. If you don’t get it, then you don’t get credit for it. In America, we will curve your grades so that if you are at the top of the pile of people who don’t understand the material, you may well get an A.

But maybe all those curved grades result in our current math/science crisis. The math graduate in the background says, “you have to learn some math and science. There’s actually stuff to learn. If you don’t know last year’s material, you can’t understand the new information being presented to you.”

College math proves difficult for some people because they do not understand concepts that are fundamental to their discipline. American math education exposes deep flaws in our educational approach. Maybe in history, those curved grades do not matter. In history, if you didn’t learn much, you can move along. Next year you can catch up.

But that doesn’t work in math. If you didn’t learn that math even though your teacher gave you a “B,” you often cannot go forward.

I love Thomas Sowell


So many tests, so little benefit. One problem with education today to be the near absence of cost-benefit analysis. Those PARCC tests? How much did they cost? Was anyone asking? What did we get for our PARCC test money? So far we are over half a year out since they took the computerized versions of those tests and we still don’t know what happened. We don’t even have all the test results. Because that test cannot be compared to other state tests it replaced, we know less than we would have known if our students had never taken the test.

Maybe we would have been better off using the money to feed chickens. Decent-sized chicken portions in school lunches would be a clear win. Big chicken legs or PARCC tests? I would vote with the chickens. I know many parents, teachers and especially students who would happily have fed chickens personally to avoid that test.

Where were the cost-benefit analyses that could have shut the test down? We shoveled out money and, worse, classroom minutes for that test. Did anyone stop to wonder how much bang we were getting for our buck? And whether we should have been spending our money on chickens instead?

And now for something completely different

Page One of the Holiday Letter:

December, 2015— Greetings from the Starbase!


Discerning readers will realize that the map in Star Wars: The Force Awakens leads directly to Earth. Syllogistically speaking, if Ms. Q is even now drinking tea with Luke, and Ms. Q is on Earth, then Luke must be on Earth also. They expect to have their hands full shortly. The Full Moon falls on Christmas this year, and recent resurgences in local werewolf populations can only be cause for grave concern. Combined with the naturally greater vampire threat that occurs due to long December nights, Ms. Q thinks this letter may have to be dedicated to preventative measures designed to protect our readers.

Luke naturally objects, noting that the long history of discrimination against vampires and werewolves has never been justified by events, but may be simply more fall-out from sensationalistic media coverage. How many actual humans have been sucked dry or past the point of no return by vampires? How many dismembered and partially eaten corpses can truly be blamed on werewolves? A careful google search on “How many people were killed by werewolves in 2015” turns up not a single name, although admittedly Luke and Ms. Q did not go through all 2,470,000 search results. The same search for vampires shows no deaths in the recent past. As Luke observes, if you can’t trust Google, who can you trust? So, taking our cues from a front-running presidential candidate, should we require them to be registered? Should we build tall fences around our cemeteries and demand that Hungary pay for them? Some of our werewolves and most of our chupacabras come from Mexico. Can we add werewolf and chupacabra defense systems to the tab we present to Mexico for our spiffy, giant, new fence? What will we do if these creatures do not come in? The humane deportation of vampires can only be done at night. We doubtless do not have the necessary personnel. If the FBI does not have an X-Files unit, they will need one now.

“Trust no on,” Ms. Q mutters. She still remembers the X-Files, which is returning, and none too soon. How many households are stocking silver bullets in high-volume clips? How many average folk can whittle a stake?

Luke sighs. That kind of thinking has led to our problem, he points out. Whether born or made, in his view, the ACLU is overdue at getting involved in the fight against the racial profiling of preternatural creatures that has led countless vampires, werewolves and others to live in fear, casting entire communities as suspect simply because of what they look like and where they come from. Civil rights legislation to protect the rights of these individuals seems overdue. Perhaps Ms. Q could write a letter to her representatives in Congress?

She agrees to write the letter. She adds her first piece of advice to this letter and post. Readers, remember: You never can tell when an insanity defense will come in handy. Especially around the holidays, we often need some excuse for our doings.

Eduhonesty: Sincerest wishes for a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy New Year or whatever your personal holiday from Ms. Q to everyone on Earth or in Cyberspace, including the vampires, werewolves, (vegetarian) chupacabras, etc. Peace and Happiness to everyone on Earth’s outer colonies, and to all alien life forms reading this letter. We wish each and every one of you a Wonderful New Year without regard to when your New Year starts or how long it takes your planet to circle the sun. If your planet does not celebrate holidays, we hope you will nonetheless accept our desire for your continued health and happiness. May the joys of this time brighten your days.

Peace and Happiness and a Blessed Year to all.

Do you have any questions?

(For new teachers especially.)

Some questions should be avoided. “Do you have any questions?” is one of those questions. Students often trot out their ‘no’ without thinking. Even students who have questions may say “no.” Asking questions shifts the spotlight; many students want to stay out of that light as much as possible. Students may be afraid of looking dumb, reasoning that if` no one else is asking questions, maybe everyone else understood the lesson. Questions also extend lessons and students may not want to be the voice that added five or ten more minutes to a particular topic.

“What questions do you have?” will be a more effective question for teasing out areas of confusion.

In general, teachers should avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. You might want to lead in with a yes or no question, but then a follow-up question should come on the heels of your first, easy question.

“Did Austria-Hungary have to enter the First World War? Why do you believe they had to enter the war? (Or not.)

Other options:

“Do you agree?”
“What do you think?” This question leads naturally into, “Why do you think that?”

Mary Budd Rowe suggested a questioning strategy that I like: Ask your question, such as “Why did Germany enter the First World War?” pause for a number of seconds, and then say a student’s name,: “Anne-Marie.” That brief pause causes all students to reflect on a possible answer since they do not know who you will name. This technique puts students on the spot and should be used mercifully, but all of your students ought to be focused on your lesson and questions, so don’t feel too guilty if poor Todd has no idea what you asked or what the answer might be. Todd will probably be readier next time.

Eduhonesty: If creating class participation sometimes feels like pulling teeth, one of the first places to start should be your questions. Are you asking questions that demand thinking? Are you asking enough of these questions? There’s nothing wrong with the occasional yes-no question to give a kid a quick success, but simple questions should usually be followed immediately by questions of a more demanding nature. If an administrative observer happens to be in the room, these questions should always have a follow-up critical thinking question.

Worth adding to your pile

(For new teachers and anyone else who is interested.)


You may see one of these old books in a pile of educational discards somewhere. They are often thrown out now because they were produced to be used when an overhead projector and whiteboard were about as close to high tech as some classrooms could manage. Sometimes they are stacked behind stages in dusty unofficial archives and storage areas in older schools. These books don’t have educational standards listed. They have no references to the Common Core. They harken back to a time when teachers prepared their own lessons based on their interpretation of standards and their personal sense of students’ academic needs.

Eduhonesty: THESE TRANSPARENCIES CAN BE GREAT! I always put a piece of white paper beneath them to use with my document camera. I supposed you could photograph them and insert them into documents to project onto your SMART or Promethean board. They make great visuals for opening and closing activities. Many directly tie into common lessons about topics such as metaphors and similes. You get a vivid picture to use as a launchpad for descriptive paragraphs.

Old transparencies are some of the best discards you will run across. Kids are attracted to compelling visuals and a great deal of thought once went into the images selected for these books. Transparency books may work well for both history/social studies and English/language arts. If you see one of these books in the freebie pile, do yourself a favor. Grab it and start leafing through the pages with your next few months’ lessons in mind.

“Our lunches taste better than that.”

When I write about the slimy chicken and tasteless rice and vegetables, some teachers always look mystified. They eat their school lunches. Those lunches will never win culinary awards, but the food tastes O.K. In some schools, the food even tastes pretty good, as kids choose between sandwich bars and the pizza stand.

But financially-challenged districts face budgetary hurdles that other districts do not, and the food contract goes to the lowest bidder, who then has to try to produce lunches that will make that bidder a profit. Those bidders make elaborate promises, but in the end, the food will not be produced with love or with an eye to getting back a repeat customer. Those student-customers are like citizens in the old Soviet Union in search of shoes. You have your choice of the brown, brown or brown or you can go buy the same brown shoe down the block.

In the absence of love, cooking can still taste fine when the right ingredients are thrown into the process. But in lowest of the low-bidder cooking, these ingredients are the cheapest ingredients available. Eat one of the apples, if you doubt me.

The new, healthy school lunch menu: A great idea in districts with money.

One Lunch to Rule Them All

I want to put something on my readers’ radar for after the break. A colleague of mine was complaining to me yesterday about the fact that all kids in her school get the same lunch — whether they are in 1st grade or 8th grade. They all receive the same lunch.

She also complained about the slimy, skinless, steamed chicken, but that complaint’s old news to me. I’ve eaten that chicken. We are serving versions of that chicken all across America. One saving grace is that the chickens who sacrificed their lives to deliver that pale imitation of food were at least tiny creatures. You don’t have to eat too much of that chicken, even if they give you two whole pieces.

But enough of the chicken. If you want to read more, put “lunch” in the search bar. Or go to September 4, 2014 to start.

I never worked in a K-8 building, only middle schools and high schools. So I never considered age and portions. But my colleague is right: Giving the same food to a first grader and an eighth grader simply seems wrong. I can’t imagine they have the same needs. I know my kids did not eat as much when they were little. I know some eighth grade kids, especially athletes, who act ravenously hungry on a regular basis. I remember an older father who once expressed concern about a teenage boy in his household.

“He’s a glutton,” he said to me, looking for advice on how to stop the nonstop, near-inhalation of food.

“Is he gaining weight?” I asked.

He wasn’t. I explained that if the kid was not adding pounds, then he appeared to be eating about the right amount of food.

Eduhonesty: Readers in K-8 schools, if your school is serving the same lunch to all, maybe you should have a conversation with the administration. I’d provide data to back up what you want to say. Maybe you should eat those lunches for a week or two. Write down the estimated calorie count. Check on recommended caloric intakes for different ages.

But try to rescue the older kids if they need your help. Right now, I am convinced school lunches are not helping America’s obesity problem. I’ve talked to students about this. The first thing they do when they get home is to raid the fridge and the cupboards because they are starved, looking for snacks, leftovers and quick noodles. That can’t be helping America’s young to learn to eat healthy food.


In poorer districts saving money on that school lunch contract, we are probably promoting overeating, rather than teaching improved nutritional habits. Slimy chicken, unbuttered rice and unsalted vegetables will never lead our kids in the direction we want them to go.

Taking advantage of Star Wars

I suspect a rare phenomenon may be unfolding. We may end up with a cultural reference in the near future that nearly everybody understands. All across America, I expect to see classrooms where every single child in the room has seen the new Star Wars movie. The film’s a true tribute to the original Star Wars, and the plot, casting and directing are spot-on, reminiscent of the original trilogy.

If I were teaching English, language arts, or social studies, I would leap on this opportunity. So many lesson themes might use this film as a launching platform. Discussions of power dynamics, family dynamics, and friendship spin easily out from the new Star Wars. Depending on where I was at in the curriculum, I might ask students which character in the film they most identified with and why. That could be a short answer question to open the class or you might flesh it out with further questions and go for a full essay.

Finding common experiences has become more of a challenge lately due to the proliferation of games, shows and movies in our expanding, media universe. I’d seize this chance to discuss a film that is likely to become a shared experience for whole classrooms. Have fun!

P.S. And see the film before too many spoilers get out there.

Skepticism is healthy

(For new teachers and anyone who is interested.)

We are over a decade into the NCLB testing experiment now with precious little or nothing to show for those efforts. I believe that part of the reason has been a shift towards “student-focused” classrooms — not that there is anything wrong with focusing on students. But what ought to be a thought-out approach to classroom education sometimes now becomes the equivalent of a faith-based approach. Teachers are told to avoid whole-group instruction in favor of small groups. Often, this approach will work best, but NOT always. When no one in the class can add fractions, whole group instruction is wholly appropriate, and whole group instruction saves time. Teachers are told to create groups with the goal of having stronger students help weaker students. Mostly, this idea has merit, but sometimes those stronger students don’t exist — or they are not strong enough. Teachers may be discouraged from giving homework because “the latest research does not favor regular homework.” Whose research? In what subject area? Does that really apply to mathematics? Does that even make sense?
Teachers are told to give 50% credit for assignments that were never turned in. The research suggests this prevents students from becoming discouraged, we are told. Well, yes, students almost can’t lose under that system. Of course, you can’t win either, unless you actually do the work. The work is a prerequisite for learning.

Eduhonesty: This post is especially for new teachers. I want to suggest you treat the various techniques you were taught in education school with skepticism. I am not saying those techniques are wrong. I am saying that they almost never fit all situations or student groups. Each class has its own character. Regular, small group work may work well in one class and hardly at all in another. If students in your classroom can’t wander the room on a gallery walk without losing focus, then you need to lose the gallery walk. Or reformat your approach so that fewer students are up at one time.

Too many studies conducted in education have led to sweeping pedagogical declarations without enough scrutiny being given to whether the conditions of the study can be duplicated. If you are teaching a different population than the study population and if you do not have a teacher’s aide and cooperating special education teacher, unlike that teacher in the study, don’t be surprised when a recommended technique does not work. If I study bird watching behavior in cats, I can’t automatically apply my results to dogs or snakes. The real world will intervene often in our lives. If our “cooperating” teacher does not cooperate, the fact that he or she technically exists is irrelevant.

I’d like to suggest a radical approach: Do it your way. If the computer program you were handed is above everybody’s head, find another, more appropriate program online. Or do one problem at a time from your assigned program and then create a worksheet to review different versions of that one problem until students understand what they are doing. Watch out for current educational theory. That theory is too often misunderstood and misapplied by administrators who view children as interchangeable parts.

More on bells and whistles

I have gotten some negative feedback from the post of a few days ago regarding our efforts to make engaging lessons. Teachers naturally come back to say that all lessons should be as good as the teacher can manage. I am not disagreeing with that. These are young lives in our care and we owe them best efforts.

Let me see if I can better articulate what I want to say.

I’d like to take a specific wham at that “engagement” piece. Yes, our students should be engaged by our lessons. But if you are convinced that that engagement is your responsibility, Id say you need to take a step back. That engagement should be a shared responsibility.

If Manny does not like your lesson, he needs to suck it up and learn the new material. He needs to take responsibility for his own learning — because no one else can do that learning for him. You can help. You can show Manny how to organize materials. You can remind him to write down assignments. You can provide targeted interventions for problem behaviors, and you should do so. But if Manny keeps leaving his backpack in his locker despite your best efforts, that’s on Manny. If Manny is not listening to the science PowerPoint that you spent five hours creating the night before, that’s on Manny. If Manny is distracting his group during the day’s enrichment activity, that’s on Manny.

Eduhonesty: Teachers should not be forced to take responsibility for behaviors or outcomes they cannot control.