This is a test … if this were the real thing, you would be on your own, with no test to help you…

January 21, 2011

Testing has a bad name among some progressive educators, and although I may be mixing apples and oranges here, I just read an article that claims researchers came up with study results that showed college students learned better through testing than traditional study.

(see link at end of blog)

Of course I think the tests that get criticized are the standardized ones that are used to measure and in compare educational achievement both within schools and between schools and in figuring out whether teachers and staffs should be fired (as in Obama‘s education policy).

But anyway, this article was talking about a study in which students read short passages on subjects such as math and science and then were immediately tested. A week later they demonstrated they had learned more than other students who used time-honored traditional methods, otherwise known as studying.‘

Gee, maybe if this really works we could cut out a lot of the homework and replace it with short quizzes at the end of the chapter or the page (most books have them, or at least they used to when I was in school — many teachers did not make use of them, many did).

Then there is the criticism of “teaching to the test”. The idea is that if students are simply just supposed to learn everything by rote memory or just supposed to spit back answers they might not really even understand, they have learned little to nothing. I think that might depend upon the structure of the test. I mean if you can pass a test and not really know what you are doing, then something is wrong with the test.

Multiple choice is probably the most bogus form of testing there is. I think there is probably some statistical advantage for the test taker if he or she can start out right. Depending upon what the subject matter is, you might be able to follow a pattern. I once took a multiple choice test in a high school English class on a novel I had not read. I passed the test with an A or B, I don’t recall. I guessed on the first few (well I guessed on them all), but I saw the pattern of the story. Well, worse than multiple choice is true or false, I mean you have a 50/50 chance at least, I would think.

In math multiple choice tests I have tried to round things off in my head when I was stumped as to the mathematical mechanics of working out the problem. Sometimes that seems to work, sometimes not.

Essay tests are what I do best at, except that when I wrote them in longhand in one of those blue exam books instructors often had a hard time reading them — I have a hard time reading my own writing in longhand (a forgotten art anyway, I understand). But essay tests, I think, are highly subjective, often dealing in opinion, at least somewhat. While some instructors are fair and only require you at least support your case, others will mark you down if you do not agree with them.

But back to the idea of testing, again, I think if the test is designed properly it ought to be able to measure something. One should not be able to get a high percentage of correct answers without demonstrating some knowledge of the subject.

The problem in real life comes when you have to use what you supposedly learned and demonstrated in the test on your own without the structure of the test. You have to design the problem and then solve it — and there you are, there is a realistic test. Present a list of facts and let the student solve the problem, showing the work done. This, of course would most likely be in math and science. They say students should be allowed to be creative. Well if you can find a different way from the norm to solve a problem and you show your work, that would seem good enough.

There is a lot of worry over whether students are analytical enough or if they are taught to be. I’m thinking that for the most part, some people are more or less naturally analytical and some are not. The ones who are may wind up in endeavors that require analysis, the others go into things where what is required is straight forward and analysis might get in the way or get you into trouble.

As far as studying, in the few math classes I took in college, I just worked out problems like crazy right up till the test. In my political science classes I knew what subject matter was going to be on my exams and I just wrote practice essays like crazy right up until the exam.

I think maybe reading things over and over again is not as helpful as actively doing something with the information.

I probably totally misconstrued that article I read — I got lost when they used the term “concept mapping“. I thought it was somewhat unclear or left some things out, but it got me to thinking anyway.

You can read it, if you haven’t already, and see what you think:

Changing the words takes the literature out of literature…

January 5, 2011

I don’t want literature turned into Orwellian newspeak. What makes literature literature as opposed to entertainment or drivel is that is says something about life, about the times in which it is supposed to have taken place, and it has staying power.

I’m saying this in reaction to something I just read about someone publishing a new volume of Mark Twain works, but he is going to take out the dreaded N word (well it is used some 200 or more times in Huck Finn) and other “objectionable references”, such as Injun Joe being changed to Indian Joe in Tom Sawyer. Oh, and that N word is being changed to “slave“.

While just using the N word does not necessarily make something literature — I often note that word is used quite often in literature of the past — changing the author’s original words degrades the work and does indeed take the literature out of literature. Twain said that the difference between one choice of a word and the right word is something like the difference between lightning bug and lightning.

Some people just want to be entertained and have no real use or interest in literature, just like apparently a whole lot of people just want entertainment fare on television and the movies, skip the quality.

But a society that strips itself of its literature (and I include written and other forms, such as movies), strips itself of its soul and its historical understanding of itself.

Now certainly requiring school kids, especially young ones, to read works that have offending words in them is a touchy subject. There needs to be explanation, and perhaps it needs to be figured out which books are age appropriate.

Strangely, though, I read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was real young and just thought it a highly entertaining story. I already knew that he was using a no-no word (or words), but my parents had explained the deal with that word to me already.

I hate to admit it, but I did not know until I took a college literature class that Huck Finn was considered THE American novel.

I have to assume learned people, historians and others, have concluded that Twain was, besides being quite colorful in his descriptions, accurate in his depiction of Americana of the era in which he wrote.

If you change his words, it’s no longer accurate.

I understand there have been past attempts to tone down or water down Twain.

What’s the point?

If students can’t handle literature, how can they handle life?


The item that induced me to make this post is:;_ylt=AlG6DxmG.qqcjJvlAUdD8Fqs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTNyZjNmdWttBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMTEwMTA1L3VzX3JldmlzaW5nX21hcmtfdHdhaW4EY2NvZGUDbW9zdHBvcHVsYXIEY3BvcwMxMARwb3MDNwRwdANob21lX2Nva2UEc2VjA3luX2hlYWRsaW5lX2xpc3QEc2xrA25ld2VkaXRpb25yZQ

LA Times story puts education establishment on the spot — but is it libel???

August 19, 2010

I almost feel sorry for teachers, being as they are in a profession that is often so much maligned.

While certainly poor teachers who eat up taxpayer dollars do a disservice to their students, inflicting irreparable harm on young minds, stunting their intellectual growth forever, all teachers, most, we hope, are not poor in their abilities.

But there is a lot of mediocrity out there.

Some will tell you it’s the relatively low pay they receive in relation to their required years of education, but that is not much of a defense for individual mediocre teachers. If you already are a teacher and you are mediocre, more pay will not improve you and if you are mediocre, you were when you began. But, hey, most of us just do the best we can at our professions, regardless of however other folks might rate us.

But what brought all this to mind was an article I just read in the LA Times in a series it’s doing on teachers in the LA school district. I’m not sure whether to be proud of the paper for doing a civic duty by exposing the system, calling the school authorities to task for not really measuring teacher performance and just passing them along to quick tenure, or appalled at what seems like a possible case of libel.

The Times has taken it upon itself to do some kind of statistical analysis of teacher performance it calls a value added rating system or something like that. I don’t really care about that gobbledygook, but the idea is that it purports to show how year after year poor teachers get poor results and good teachers get good results, but the district ignores, according to the Times, these facts and basically just does the old Lake Woebegone thing and rates nearly all teachers above average.

The shocking thing to me is that it actually named an individual math teacher and compared him to another named individual math teacher in the same school and said one’s students consistently year after year started out ahead of the game and by the time the year was over were behind whereas the opposite was true in the other teacher’s class.

First I am wondering about the validity of the Times’ analytical methods.

But assuming they are valid, I am wondering about another factor brought out in the story. Most, if not all, the students are Hispanic. The teacher with the better results has an Hispanic surname. The one who lags behind is a Mr., Smith — actually both their full names are given. And that was the shock.

Now, as a former working journalist, I’m usually pretty hard core about naming names when things are in the public domain. And I have pretty much always thought that truth is the best defense against libel.

But taking the last point first, I can only hope for the reporters’ sake that what they have come up with is the truth.

And as far as naming names, that is a service to students and their parents and potential students and parents. And it does put the teachers and school officials on the spot, forcing them to face up to a problem.

The teacher exposed as a poor performer was confronted by the Times and was quoted as responding in what seemed to me with a contrite answer, saying basically he would try to do better. The guy was 63 and had begun teaching in 1996, the article said. Sounds like he made a career change — sometimes things don’t work out as you might have hoped ; oh well, he can retire soon.

I would encourage you to call up the LA Times on line — I can’t do one of those fancy links here but just Google: Who’s teaching LA’s kids, LA Times, Aug. 14. They’re doing an ongoing series of stories, as I understand it.

I found it curious that the good teacher who is described as relating well to his students had the Hispanic name, while the other guy with the Anglo name was described as not doing well in captivating the young minds. I mean that sounds almost like someone is trying to or inadvertently making a case for separate but equal, you know, the old segregated schools.

Then again, maybe the Times is on to something and is putting the entrenched establishment on the spot.

It’s important stuff. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.


I can only hope none of my former teachers read this, but while it is often said that people often have that one teacher who made the positive difference, I can’t recall any. As I said, there is a lot of mediocrity out there. That is not to say that I did not have any competent teachers.

ADD 1:

I just read over some letters to the editor in the LA Times, and some teachers commended the paper for its story(ies), but several others objected, especially to the part where teachers were accused by name as being poor performers. I have to say even though I once worked as a journalist I would object too. What makes the writers at that newspaper qualified to judge teachers or even understand the statistics and material they supposedly uncovered? That does not mean I don’t think they should report about the subject, since there is an ongoing concern over whether our children are getting a proper and effective education, but it seems that the Times has moved into character assassination. One teacher asked in a letter what the Times staffers would think if their own performance was rated in public — noting the fall in the newspaper’s circulation. Another teacher said that there are two kinds of teaching. In one you teach to the test (teachers are now pressured into doing that). In the other, teachers actually try to give their students knowledge about a subject. There is a difference, I think. I, the writer of this blog, have often witnessed in school students who can pass tests but know little and seem to have little critical thinking skills. When I was taking Spanish, I noticed that while some students always aced the written quizzes, they could not compose a Spanish sentence on their own or ad lib dialogue. In math, I was often slow at the mechanics of the whole thing, but I usually knew what was called for in word problems. I will say, however, if you have really learned a subject, you should probably be able to pass standardized tests but also be able to go beyond the testing game.

A little help might go a long way to make students better at math…

May 18, 2010

Fear of and failure in math has had a profound effect on my life, and I know that I am not alone.

But my discomfort with math prevented me from going straight to college when I got out of high school, and, in fact, it even kept me from enrolling in a college prep program when I signed up for high school.

I did eventually complete my four years of college well into middle age.

But whether we go to college or not, we all need a good working knowledge of math.

As far as I know, it’s a settled fact that some of us are math oriented and some of us are not. And I am pretty well convinced that I am not. But that does not mean I do not understand any of its concepts or how to work out relatively simple problems.

In fact, I noticed early on that I was pretty good at word problems, with my main hang-up being I might get lost in the actual mechanics of calculations (such as long division, or worse yet, fractions, or even worse, fractions and long division combined).

So, if I could just do better at the mechanics of it, I think I’d be as good or better than some who whiz through already printed out problems. That’s because I think in some instances I might be able to interpret word problems quicker than some who speed through problems already laid out for them.

Beyond not being math oriented, I think my initial problem in the lower grades was that I was somewhat lazy about the whole thing — all those rows of problems we were always given.

Also, like so many pupils, I was intimidated by fractions — they looked so strange. And it didn’t help that the tone from most of my teachers was that fractions are hard.

(And let me break away from my main point to say that as far as teaching things like fractions, I think a little real world practice could help — have pupils use a ruler to measure things and let them get used to using those lines between the numbers that represent fractions — that way they form a mental picture of what a fraction is. Pictures of pies are nice, but cutting up a real pie and relating the pieces to the fractions they represent could help. )

Also, it seemed that we did not stay with fractions for any length of time. We’d do them for a couple of weeks or so and then never see them again until the next year when they again reared their ugly head.

And did you ever try to get your folks to help you? Oh, my God! I wouldn’t advise it for anyone.

A few times my sister was forced into helping me and that helped. One of my brothers did too, and that helped. But they had their own work to do and did not have the time nor interest to be my constant tutor, and they may have not had confidence that I was really paying attention. And I was the pesky little brother, baby of the family — still am at 60.

But let’s stop right here. That’s the key for people like me (and again, I know that I am not unique in this). We need tutoring. Of course we have to want to be helped too. But I think the easy availability of help encourages most of us to seek it out.

In all public schools, from the lower grades to the higher grades, as well as at junior colleges, there should be fully-staffed tutoring centers, and staffed with professionals, as well as student helpers. I think that might be more important than new teaching methods or endless worksheets.

(And it does no one any good, the individual or society as a whole, for students to be passed on from grade to grade without proper mastery of the basics, of which math is one.)

I would not have been able to get through my minimal requirements in beginning algebra without some tutoring help from the junior college I attended. That help allowed me to go on and complete intermediate algebra, for which I had no tutoring, except from some fellow students. But by this time I was well into middle age and motivated to complete college. (Motivation always helps.)

I’m not trying to write some sob story here and say boo hoo for me. I’m hoping that some teachers and some school board members and some parents and some voters might read and identify and get something out of it and that in some way it might contribute to the improvement in the way we teach math in this country.

I should mention here that things may have changed drastically since I was in school, but from what I have read and observed, not that much.

By the time I got to eighth grade I was still treading water in arithmetic. We added, subtracted, multiplied and divided and did some word problems, to include some fractions. And I’ll always remember my math teacher. He would just shake his head at how poorly most of us did (the better students were in a different class) and then say things like: “I don’t know what you’re going to do when you get to high school and have to take algebra”.

Not only was I doing poorly at math, I was getting no encouragement whatsoever, and not extra help either — teachers had no interest or time to help you after class.

I was supposed to take college prep classes in high school. But I told my counselor of my fear of math and he let me slip by. You see, to take college prep classes, I would not only have to take higher math (algebra and so on), I would have to take biology and chemistry and such. Instead, I took something called “General Math”, nothing but grammar school level work. I took a science class but had difficulties, not because I was not interested, quite the contrary — but math is an integral part of science. (I took ag science, but in my day that was a misnomer, since real science was only touched lightly.)

In my senior year my counselor put me into a class called “Senior Math”. I think all the kids that took algebra but flunked algebra were in it. They at least knew how to begin. The teacher refused to help me. He said I was too far behind and he did not have time.

While the onus is on the student (along with his or her parents), someone at the school level needs to take time. And if there is no time, we need to find out why and do something about it (like forcing some of those so-called math teachers who spend more time working as coaches do the job they are supposed to be doing).

My main complaint against many math teachers is that they like to help students who do not need help and do not have patience to help those who do.

We need quality teachers and we need enough of them and we need support from those who make the policy, such as school board members and legislators and those who vote for them.

Please, any math teachers who read this (to include one of my brothers), do not think I am indicting all teachers. But I’ll bet you good teachers know what I am talking about.

I only present this from the perspective of an ex-student myself and of someone who is intelligent enough to understand math but who is not math oriented.


Please don’t tell me calculators and computers have eliminated the hard work. You need to know what you are doing and not have to depend upon a machine that could turn unreliable. And calculators do not solve problems by themselves — garbage in, garbage out.

I’m a little unclear about the anti-ethnic studies law in Arizona…

May 13, 2010

This is what I don’t understand about the new Arizona law to ban ethnic studies (said to be aimed at primarily one program in Tucson public schools).

Is Chicano Studies or whatever it is called taken only by Hispanics or do all students take it or is at least open to all students?

(Please see Add 2 at the bottom of this post)

When I went to college I was required to take an ethnic studies class. As it turned out,  I took Black History. I am white. I believe the whole idea of the class was not to promote black pride but to inform white boys like me (as well as minorities) about the history of blacks in America. The emphasis in the class as I recall was on the law, to include Supreme Court decisions, and the civil rights movement. The class was taught by a black man from Africa.

I see nothing wrong with ethnic studies being required, particularly if the idea is to let us whites know about the struggles of other ethnic groups, but it is a whole different ball game if ethnic  minorities (or ethnic group members, minority or not) are taking separate classes about their own ethnicity at the expense of accepted U.S. History and national unity. I never thought that ethnic studies were intended to promote race pride at the expense of American patriotism.

I read several stories about this current situation but have not yet gotten in straight what is or was going on in Tucson.

It is true that U.S. History as taught in the past concentrated primarily on the perspective of those of white European descent, but then again that is our history — you can’t change that. But ethnic studies requirements have or were designed to give us all a fuller picture of history and a better appreciation that this nation has attempted to overcome racism and ethnic strife that has not only caused problems in America but continues to cause upheaval all over the world.

But again, if the idea of the Tucson program was to use public education dollars to promote the pride of one race, that does not seem wise or right. But if  it is open to or required of all as a needed supplement to standard U.S. History, I would not think that should be outlawed.

ADD 1: (May 13, 2010)

A friend and former boss of mine turned me onto the fact that columnist Dough MacEachern of the Arizona Republic newspaper has written extensively on this subject, so I am going to try to read up on this for more info. If you’re interested you could google: ethnic studies, MacEachern, Arizona Republic.


ADD 2:  From what I have now read since beginning this post, the ethnic studies program in Tucson schools has been put together and run by people who some might regard as left-wing activists. Just as having history written by white European ethnocentrists can have a misleading effect on the truth (what we should all be after, the truth, that is), so can history slanted another way. I’d say: let’s be objective and pile on the facts and have discussion, but leave out the slant (well possibly except as needed for some good old fahioned patriotism — you have to believe in something good about your country). I have also now read in an article from the Christian Science Monitor that the ethnic studies classes are supposedly open and attended by students of ethnic groups other than the ones under study. And it notes that the Tucson district is 56 percent Hispanic in enrollment.



I know there have been charges that the Tucson program promoted racial strife. Well of course that would be wrong, but the program could be changed to do away with that I am sure.

Instability a problem in public education, and a choke in supply could up demand…

April 19, 2010

Every year about this time in California teachers get layoff notices. It’s required by state law that they get these notices if it looks like local school district budgets will not be able to take care of their salaries for the next school year.

Quite often their jobs are saved — not always of course.

Most often it is the newer teachers, lower on the seniority list, who are affected.

Just how we can expect to attract quality teachers in such an unstable environment is beyond me.

I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but one of the major problems in California is the convoluted method of school funding. Some of the money comes from local taxpayers, some from the state and some from the federal government.

Local school districts like to think that they should have some control over their own schools, but when much or most of the funding is from outside sources, that control has to be ceded to those who fund the schools.

State and local regulations require that the local schools do all kinds of things that cost a lot of money, but state and federal funding is not stable from year to year.

Right off the bat I see a way — although it would in reality not work — that school districts could make their funding more stable and not have to put their teaching staffs in a panic once a year. They could forego state and federal funding and depend entirely upon local funding. Then they would have complete control.

Unfortunately, too many taxpayers I have heard have this attitude: “I no longer have any kids in school so I am not interested in school funding”.

If there is to be public education then it is the responsibility of the public. Most of us (not all) benefited from public education. At the time, we were too young to be paying the taxes that supported it. But then we grew up and it became part of our responsibility.

But of course education costs more these days than it did in the horse and buggy and one-room school house days. Totally local funding would likely not be practical in a lot of areas and then there is always the problem of rich districts being able to afford better schools than poor districts. And that is why we have state and federal funding.

An article I read in the Sacramento Bee today said that along with this instability fewer students in California are enrolling in teacher preparation programs — although that does not seem to be the case at the University of California at Davis, but an official there said students are “nervous”.

Another teacher preparation program official said one good thing in all of this is that more students are going for multiple subject credentials, thus making them more employable.

I also think that maybe what we need here is a true teacher shortage. That might force districts to pay more and offer better working conditions.

And while I am not the one to give career advice (when I look back on my own life), I would say to prospective teachers and even veteran teaches, welcome to the real world where things just don’t seem to stay the same and where, sad to say, supply and demand and the search for talent and specific skills tends to determine employment and salaries in the workforce (I’m talking about the total workforce, not the teaching workforce).

I’m pretty dubious about paying teachers or paying them extra based on performance, because how does one judge a teacher’s performance? Most of the time it seems to be assumed that the number of A grades produced in the class indicates teacher performance. Well that would certainly seem to indicate something, but what? If you have a group of smart pupils they would tend to do well regardless. If the grading is too easy then that would have an effect to.

To me, it seems the effort ought to be put into ensuring teachers have mastered the subjects they are to teach. It is assumed that if someone has gone through a teacher training program that they probably had the interest to want to impart knowledge and that they have learned something about how to do it. And we all know that the truth is some people are just born teachers; they have something that is inside them, something that really cannot be taught.

I’d rather see that teachers be paid well and that poor teachers be culled out before they get into the classroom.

Too often we see poor student performance and blame it on the teachers.

The responsibility for learning is on the student. Unless we have simply hired incompetent teachers, I would suspect the main problem in low student performance has more to do with student attitude and the attitudes of parents and the social surroundings.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think teachers and other school personnel should have to be cheerleaders and self-esteem promoters. There’s too much to learn these days with the explosion of knowledge and technology. We really do not have time for that folderol.

Students do better where there are expectations and discipline — gee, you think?

March 6, 2010

Gee, if you have some discipline and you have  (great)  expectations or requirements to learn students tend to do better than if not. And students actually prefer to have those expectations put upon them.

I don’t really know if that is true, but it seems to be.

What brought this to my mind was a story I saw in the CBS Evening News. It was about a charter school in Harlem that seems to be having good results because there is discipline and tough requirements, such as reading 50 books per year. The story was short on details, and I looked it up on the web and did not get any more details. But it seems like a fairly simple premise — you have to have some expectations and you have to have some discipline — oh and you have to have teachers willing and able to work in such an environment. The story said this school only hires motivated teachers and then gives them support — but the story was short on details, like I said.

We get these stories from time to time. A few years ago there was a similar story about a teacher in Chicago. In both of these cases these were in schools with a predominantly black enrollment, the concern seeming to always be that minorities are falling behind.

But public education or the problems it faces is not about minorities. It‘s about everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color.

There probably is a lot of learning taking place in public schools each day and no doubt great things are happening here and there. And as my mother is fond of saying: “a good student can do well despite teachers (or something like that).”

I shouldn’t have used quote marks — that was just a paraphrase. But what she would say is basically good students strive to learn whether their teachers or schools are good or not.

But certainly it would help if the teachers and the schools were up to the challenge.

There are all types of excuses (and some have validity), such as low pay, lack of parent interest, reduced school budgets….

The sad fact is that, at least here in California, the expectations for first through twelfth grade have not been terribly high for decades.

I was always puzzled why at least one young man I knew in high school actually flunked — didn’t graduate. I mean, like Woody Allen said: “half of life is just showing up”. That’s pretty much the way it was when I was in high school, and you didn’t even have to show up every day.

Since then they have tried to institute exams for graduation, but they are quite controversial because students have a hard time passing them.

And really it is unfair to administer these exams after years of low expectations. I think it would take more than a decade of improved curriculum and higher requirements before students would be ready to take these exams.

College professors constantly fret that students come to them unprepared in the basics — you know: reading, ’righting, and ’rithmetic.

As far as discipline goes, while it is not helpful to have unreasonable discipline, there has to be order and strange as it may seem, students want it and expect it, but seldom get it.

I have had some connection with the public schools in the past, having been a parent, a newspaper reporter on the schools beat, and even serving a short and miserable stint as a substitute teacher. On more than one occasion, I have heard students lament the lack of discipline. They not only want other kids to behave, they want to think that someone cares enough to make them behave.

I have a theory about the discipline and teaching problems in public schools. Too often the entrenched establishment just wants to get through it all to retirement and has no interest in rocking the boat, so they pretend everything is fine and do nothing to change it.

And if that is what the public wants, or if the public is too apathetic, things will never change.

But it is a serious problem. Other nations (China?) are looking to surpass us.

The next time you go to buy something on sale at a certain percentage discount, just watch the clerk try to figure out the price without ringing it up on the computerized cash register — they often don’t have a clue.

I believe in public education. Freedom depends upon it. We don’t want to go back to a society where only the well-to-do can get basic or advanced education.

But in far too many public schools we are not getting our money’s worth.


About these success stories: you seldom see a followup. There was Jaime Escalante who had great success teaching algebra to students in the inner city in LA.  At 79, he is now suffering from cancer. A story I just read said that one of his students originally had the goal of being a cashier and wound up being math professor at Arizona State. But you wonder how long the good results last and why what these few teachers do can’t be replicated elsewhere.

P.s. P.s.

And maybe I am behind the times. I understand that the schools my grandchildren attend are pretty big on discipline and that the teachers contact parents immediately if homework is not being done. I can only hope that things are changing.