The Real Lesson of Singapore Math!

By now you’ve probably heard that Singapore and Shanghai are the two places on earth with the smartest kids in the entire world. We can see their PISA scores (go to page 5) are right at the top.

Case closed, right? Whatever they are doing in education, we in the US need to emulate that in order to catch up! Common Core! StudentsFirst! Teach for America! Race to the Top! PARCC! Bust those teacher unions! No more recess! All test prep all the time! Charter Schools! Turn the schools over to the billionaires (Gates, Bloomberg, Koch family, Walton family, and their hirelings and shills)!

But wait a second.

Have you noticed that an ENORMOUS fraction of the low-skilled, low-paid people living in Singapore are temporary foreign workers from various parts of Asia and Africa and are not allowed to bring their kids with them? Those kids are raised back in the workers’ homelands by various relatives, far away, and only get to see their parents at long intervals (somebody has to fly somewhere); back home, jobs are even scarcer and worse-paid, so the parents go elsewhere to try support their families.

Now, everywhere in the world, family income is very, very closely linked to children’s test scores in school. It’s one of the tightest correlations there are in the social sciences, as you can see in the simple scatter-plots I have repeatedly shown in this blog over the past 4 or 5 years. (Try using terms like “poverty” “income” and “scores” together in the search box on this page and be prepared to look through a lot of posts with such graphs, from all over!)

If one-quarter to one-third of the population of a country was legally not permitted to have children in the schools, and it was the low-paying 1/4 to 1/3 of the population, then the scores of the remainder of the kids would, quite naturally, be pretty darned good, since the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of the distribution just got cut off.

If we systematically excluded the poorest quarter or third of our American student population from taking PISA, we know that our scores would be pretty darned high as well.*

Hmm, maybe the leaning tower of PISA hype is falling.



*Let’s remember that this WAS official policy in many states of the USA up until 1865: a large fraction of the population (guess which one!) was forbidden to send their kids to schools at all and it was explicitly forbidden even to teach them to read privately. When Jim Crow was established from the 1870s to the early 1960s, school facilities for Blacks and Hispanics, BY DESIGN of the racist authorities, so inferior to those for whites that they were a national disgrace. Which is why the calls for going back to the good old days should be so infuriating. There WERE NO GOOD OLD DAYS.

Some Released PISA Questions

Yong Zhao and some other commentators have been criticising PISA for a number of reasons, one being that its sample populations are at times ‘gamed’ by two cities (Shanghai and Singapore – and that’s all they are, two cities that import their labor force from elsewhere and neither place educates or tests the children of that labor force) while ignoring the outstanding performance of certain individual US states on the exact same test. In her recent book “The Smartest Kids in the World” Amanda Ripley follows a handful of exchange students to and from the US and thinks that the PISA is a pretty good test and that it predicts real things about how societies are going; she appears to be a great fan of Poland these days.

Looking at some of the questions, I am beginning to have a lot less faith in PISA as a test itself and in those folks who claim that the sky is falling on American education based on our scores.

Some of the questions seem OK, some not. I have no idea whether these released items are of equal difficulty if written in French, Polish, Chinese, English, Arabic, Urdu or Swahili, but let’s pretend they are equivalent.

More importantly I read recently an argument that PISA is *not* in fact a test of creativity and original applications of things learned in school; instead, it IS things learned at school or else IQ-type logic puzzles, Even Rick Hess, a big friend of Michelle Rhee, apparently agrees, to my surprise.

Apparently there ARE tests of creativity that are, supposedly, quite reliable. I haven’t read scholarly critiques of THAT creativity test, but I’ve heard of the concept. I will need to  reserve judgment on the real records of the creativity test, but I did indeed recall that one PISA question I saw really was basically a little math/logic puzzle of a sort that I had seen in various puzzle books.  Let’s see if I can find it.

In any case, now that I’ve seen the sample questions, I have even less sympathy

Just now I went to look for some sample PISA items that have been declassified — i.e. it is legal to discuss and show them to people; nobody will lose their jobs for leaking their contents — as teachers and other school staff are threatened with, no matter how stupid a question might be or how many students complained that the problem didn’t make any sense at all and you saw that they weren’t kidding, yes, the problem makes no sense at all.

Let me show you one PISA test item that I think has a fatal flaw – it doesn’t make sense, because ALL of the answers are possible. Some have a higher probability of being correct, but that’s all.

Here is the question:


A seal has to breathe even if it is asleep in the water. Martin observed a seal for one hour. At the start of his observation, the seal was at the surface and took a breath. It then dove to the bottom of the sea and started to sleep. From the bottom it slowly floated to the surface in 8 minutes and took a breath again. In three minutes it was back at the bottom of the sea again. Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one.

After one hour the seal was

  1. At the Bottom
  2. On its way up
  3. Breathing
  4. On its way down

In my opinion, the phrase “Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one” does NOT mean the same as “Martin took very careful notes and timed a seal that he had learned to recognize for precisely one hour. What’s more, the water was so transparent that Martin could see everything the seal was doing. At exactly 9:00 AM, the seal was at the surface and took a breath that lasted ____ seconds and then dove … and so on, and then it floated to the top where it surfaced at exactly 9:08 AM, and so on”

Notice the details I added. If you are out in cold coastal waters where I myself have seen some seals during my lifetime, you often can’t see down to the bottom if you are on top; even if you are underwater in scuba gear, you generally can’t see a long way; and if it took this seal THREE WHOLE MINUTES to swim to the bottom going, I suppose, straight down at speed that no human swimmer could possibly achieve without mechanical help of some kind, then it’s gotta be pretty deep water, right? You are going to have an impossible time seeing that seal.

And then how does mythical Martin actually know that it’s the exact same seal?

Come on, now. This is a bullshit question, made up by someone who hasn’t actually watched seals at all. I’ve only watched a few dozen myself, but it’s BS.

And plus: animals do NOT act like clocks. Their behavior is not metronomic: it is influenced by what goes on around them. Even though the problem says “Martin noticed that this whole process was a very regular one”, and even if we allow that that is true, nowhere in the problem does the wording imply the kind of clock-like precise repetition that is required to be able to answer the question.

Plus: it doesn’t really say how loong the seal is breathing, nor does it say how long the seal is at the bottom. All the numbers are very vague. It is impossible to answer the question with the information that is ghiven — we are being asked to guess what the problem-writer really meant.

In my opinion, repeating that pattern as being precisely 3 minutes and zero seconds plus 8 minutes and zero seconds, for exactly 60 minutes, is absurd and unbelievable. Animals are NEVER that regular, as I complained earlier. The cycle will shift, somewhat, and those odd seconds do add up. And, as I said, the writer never told us the elapsed time on the sleeping or on the breathing.

So the question is utterly bogus.

We could talk about the PROBABILITY that the seal was in one of those four categories, but only if we knew a whole lot of information. Any child who has ever observed animals knows that they will not keep up the exact same pattern for a full hour measurable to the exact second, no matter what. Not even if they are imprisoned in a cage or a zoo and go all insane and repetitive will they repeat to the exact second.


Published in: on April 9, 2014 at 1:09 am  Leave a Comment  

How Money Talks in Westchester County, New York

If you think it’s only in your school district that wealthy kids do better in school, think again. It’s all over the nation — and it starts when children are quite young and poor ones are often not spoken to or read to nearly as much by their parents, so that kids from poor families actually start preschool with a vocabulary disadvantage.

A recent article by Dave Greene, a teacher, author and activist in Westchester County, NY, puts that into focus by examining a local magazine centerfold that gives average family household income and a bunch of other data about schools so that home-buyers can figure out how “good” the schools are.

The old real-estate saying is that the three most important things about a house are its location, its location, and its location. That’s not quite true: it really should be, the average income of the other folks in the neighborhood (or AIOFN), AIOFN, and AIOFN.

It’s also true with the schools, as the data make clear — and it’s even clearer still if you put the data into a graph, which the original author did not do.

So I did.

Here are two such graphs:

sat and family income westchester co ny

I hadn’t realized that there were poor as well as rich areas in Westchester County, but apparently there are. The line of best fit that Excel calculated shows a very, very strong correlation: r-squared is 0.8819, which means that R itself is about 93.9% — about the strongest correlation you’ll ever see in the social sciences. The two variables here are average household income and average SAT score (these go from 600 to 2400).

The next graph shows average family income versus a composite score of college readiness as measured by the New York State Regents.

family income and college readiness westchester co ny

Once again, an extremely tight correlation between average family income and college readiness score.

Read the original article for the original data and its source. Here is my spreadsheet:

westchester raw data

Jack’s Famous 427-316 Common Core Math Problem

See below in Green for some corrections.

The math problem listed here has been making the rounds. It’s supposedly from the common core. If you haven’t seen it, it supposedly shows Jack using some number line to subtract 427 minus 316.

A lot of writers have been dumping on it.

I think they’re missing something — there are at least TWO errors in the work of this imaginary Jack.

The idea of trying to figure out where someone else got something wrong isn’t the worst idea in the world. However. what Jack was allegedly doing would need to be done in the head, because this method is so unwieldy if written out — as many people have pointed out. Also, if that was a carefully printed out number line, then I hope the problem is entirely imaginary, because unless we are teaching about logarithmic plots, then mathematicians take care to make sure that scales are linear (meaning that the distance from 100 to 200 equals the distance from 0 to 100, which are each exactly ten times the distance from 90 to 80 or from 57 to 67.)

As a mental exercise, number lines like this are not an entirely useless method.

Nobody seems to have pointed out that Jack made two math errors, not just one.

Since this problem asks 427-316, if you are doing this in your head, you could either count backwards from 4 by 3 units, or ask yourself how far it is from 3 to 4 — obviously 1. Writing the number line out is a lot of work, but saying silently to yourself, “427, 327, 127″ isn’t much work. So far so good.

But it’s not only in the mathematics that the imaginary Jack made an error:

I’m not sure, but it seems like the problem writer wanted Jack to confuse 16 and 60. This is not hard to do when HEARING the number, but more difficult if you are SEEING it written out. So this makes the problem a bit more, well, problematic, because nowhere in the problem is there any hint that Jack tends to hear poorly.

So this imaginary Jack mistakenly counts backwards in the tens place by tens by going 127, 107, 97, 87, 77, 67, 57 — which appears to be his final answer. Maybe. I can’t quite tell on this sheet.

So that means that “Jack” made another error in leaving out the decade 117.

Since it looks like this problem was written by some low-paid contract worker (think of “call centers” in Malaysia or India) with little scrutiny afterwards, we don’t know if the intention of the  problem writer was for the student to realize that Jack is both hard of hearing and mis-counted by skipping the 117? If so, you are really asking a lot of a kid looking at the problem — and notice, if I’m right, then a whole lot of adults missed that point as well.

Did they really intend for the problem to be that difficult?

Sounds like an error on the part of the error-writer, but I could be wrong.

ADDED LATER: If the writer were aware that there were two mistakes in the problem, shouldn’t they have written “Find his error(s)” rather than “find his error”?

Post-p0st script:

It turns out that I misinterpreted the problem by assuming that some of the writing was done by ‘Jack” when it was really done by the parent-engineer.

Here is more or less how the problem looked originally, minus all the blank space:

dear jack 427-316 problem

So it was the PARENT who missed the decade 117, not ‘Jack’.  We see that ‘Jack’ counted back from 427 by hundreds three times to arrive at 127. Then ‘Jack’ counted backwards six times by ones from 127 to 121, which I’ve indicated by writing in the unwritten numbers below in red:

dear jack 427-316 problem sort of fixed


The mistake that imaginary ‘Jack’ made was neglecting to count backwards by ten one time; thus his answer was ten too large.  The parent was the one who counted backwards from 127 by tens, six times, which I can sort of excuse, because the distance between the single units (127 to 126, then 126 to 127, and so on, is nothing like 100 times as small as he distance from 427 to 327).

I think the parent over-reacted, however, and made an embarrassing mistake.

My mistake was thinking that the numbers the parent wrote on the number line were ones that appeared in the original problem.

So, lots of errors all around.

I agree with my still-working math department colleagues that the Common Core standards in math for the middle school are not too bad, as written – they even include positive ideas about approaching math from many different angles (ahem), which I’ve espoused for a long time. It’s all the stuff that the CCSS are bound up with that is the problem: the constant top-down directives, the idea that every single teacher and every single student in the nation is supposed to be on the exact same page every day (which contradicts much of the verbiage of the standards), filling out umpteen useless data sheets and other paperwork every day, and the fact that a teacher’s job is tied to a random-number generator known as “Value Added”.
Another critique of this math homework and the parent’s reply can be found here.
Published in: on March 23, 2014 at 10:24 am  Comments (29)  

Suggestions for Improving the Remake of Cosmos – A Different View of Giordano Bruno

If you haven’t looked at any news about the intersection of science and popular culture recently, you may have missed the fact that astronomer and popularizer of science Neal Degrasse Tyson  is starring as the replacement for the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, in an updated remake of the series COSMOS, about, uh, the cosmos we live in.

(I got to see a preview of the film a week or so ago at the National Geographic HQ in DC; email notices were sent to probably every single amateur astronomy group in the US.)

I thought it was pretty good, and particularly liked the way that Tyson explained what the scientific method really is — using not a single word in the various definitions of “scientific method” that students are often expected to memorize in their middle-school science courses.

Unfortunately, even though I have a full set of the original Cosmos VHS tapes, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the original. So I’m not one to compare them. Again, I liked it, and am looking forward to the rest of them.

But I do have some criticisms or comments about this remake:

1. Looking back, I think there were probably too many special effects, but I’m probably in the minority on this one.

2. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Fox “News” are despicable, and that they actively promote anti-scientific hogwash of all sorts. I was really surprised that the Fox network co-sponsored these shows. (I realize that fox ‘news’ and network are 2 different groups, but they have mostly common ownership, right?

3. I was surprised that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno. I thought I remembered he was a minor, dissident priest burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for believing that there were other solar systems with people in them, among (most likely) other heresies. In the first episode, Tyson points out that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his theories about other solar systems, while recently proved to be correct,  was merely a lucky guess.

So if Bruno wasn’t an astronomer or a scientist, then why spend so much time on him?

A Jesuit friend gave me additional background on Bruno; apparently he was very fond of making enemies. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll probably find out that he had a famously prodigious memory, and that he made money teaching important and wealthy people how to memorize things.

My attention has also been drawn to another article, making suggestions about how they could have improved the episode, by putting in the person from whom Bruno may have originally learned about infinite space:  Thomas Digges.

Here’s why Digges’ ideas were important: if the earth is the center of the solar system, as it is in the Ptolemaic system, and everything rotates around the earth exactly once a day, then the stars simply can’t be spread out into infinite space, because their rotation would be faster and faster the farther away from the earth that they happened to be located, which didn’t make sense. So Ptolemy and Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church believed the stars were all located on more or less of a sphere — one that was larger than the rest of the solar system, but not too far away, on a cosmic scale. So there couldn’t also be solar systems around those stars.


(zame source)

However, when Copernicus worked out the details of a sun-centered solar system, then it was just the earth that was spinning on its own axis once a day, and revolving aroudn the sun once a year, just as the other planets did in their turn. And with this new system, there was no need for the stars to be located along an invisible black sphere – they could certainly be other suns, and the universe could well be infinite, just like the mind of God .

The second article makes it clear that Digges, about whom I knew nothing at all, could have profitably been the cartoon hero of the first Cosmos episode.

The relationship between science religion gets interesting. While the Catholic church continues to condemn basic things like birth control or divorce, it has abandoned the idea that you can calculate the exact beginning of the universe by adding up all the phrases like this:”And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — a method that is a lot less reliable than going out, taking cross-sections from old and young trees, comparing them and lining them up by comparing relative sizes to known climate events, and cross-referencing that with sediments in ponds and lakes, and to layers of ice in Greenland and other places. You know, doing it scientifically. Unfortunately for us, there still are some people who claim that the ONLY evidence they believe comes from certain sections of the Bible (but in fact they discount the rest).  Some of these people hold their hands over the ears of their children when they visit the Grand Canyon if an actual geologist is giving a talk explaining how the various layers of rock were laid down over the past few billion years. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has actual scientists and astronomers on staff. Even Galileo thought he was a good Roman Catholic Christian until his dying day…

universe-and-man-larger-300x253(apparently this drawing was made in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Diggs, Bruno, Galileo or Copernicus)

In any case, I’m skeptical of all accounts of the beginning of time — we just don’t have a tremendous amount of evidence. Yet. A case can certainly be made that there was a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and it seems to me quite clear that the Earth was formed over 4 billion years ago (we even have zircons and other rocks and minerals that seem to prove it), but what on earth caused that Big Bang? Are there other universes, as was illustrated in the movie? We can make a case for dark matter, but there might be other explanations for the effects that lead astronomers to believe that there is some sort of unknown, invisible substance in and around our galaxy that causes things to rotate in ways that they shouldn’t, otherwise.

(If you didn’t know, celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin, who lives in the DC area, was one of those who discovered those strange rotational speed anomalies back when I was a kid by taking very careful measurements of redshifts and blueshifts of stars orbiting in spiral galaxies. Last time I asked her, a couple of years ago, she said she thought it was entirely up in the air whether the best explanation for this phenomenon was dark matter or that we simply don’t understand the laws of gravitation fully in the first place.)

When certain cosmologists tell us precisely what happened “Between 10–43 second and 10–36 second after the Big Bang”,  we should keep in mind that we weren’t there to witness it. Sure, those accounts are in accord with a very complex physical model that right now is the most=accepted standard model. I won’t do a John Dobson and accuse those cosmologists of dishonesty; this is the best model we have right now, according to people who have studied his stuff very hard and very carefully. Is there actually ‘dark energy’? I am more skeptical about that. Perhaps; but the evidence is built on such a long string of extrapolations from very difficult observations and calculations that we should keep in mind that it very well may be that future observations with better instruments of some sort will change that model. In fact, every single time scientists have devised and used new instruments to look at and examine the universe (under our fingernails or up in the sky or in the center of the earth), all of humanityy learns new things that we never imagined could possibly be.

Who could have dreamed of paramecia, amoebas, viruses, or the genetic code of DNA before the microscope — at first very crude ones, but now of the electron or x-ray diffraction or scanning tunneling varieties? Each improved microscope showed us much more than the previous ones and are responsible for the fact that we no longer have a third of our newborn children dying of diseases before they reach their fifth birthday.

Galileo’s first, crude telescope showed us the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus,  the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, and clouds of stars in the Milky Way — all complete and utter surprises. The 60-inch and 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar first showed us that many of those mysterious ‘nebulae’ in the night sky were actually other galaxies, millions or billions of light-years away.

I’m sure all of this will be illustrated quite well in this series. I need to figure out how to record it — just changed to a cable service bundle after getting rid of separate DSL, telephone, and satellite dish services…

Read the articles and let me know what you think.

Recent Claim About Wall Street Bonuses

You may have seen a claim that the Wall Street bonuses for a year are more than a gazillion minimum-wage workers make in a year. I figured I should check it out. Here’s what I found.

It made me want to vent, so I did. Here’s what I posted as a comment on facebook:

  • The math is about right. Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr. To keep it simple, I won’t count deductions for FICA or Medicaid or any other taxes at all, nor will I count any work done off the books or nor food stamps nor help from family members, and I will pretend that an average minimum-wage worker is able to find 40 hours of such low-paid work, 50 weeks a year, so that’s 2,000 hours of work per year. At $7.25/hour that’s theoretically $14,500 per year of income. Now, let’s compare that to the 26.7 billion dollars of bonuses given to a few thousand highly-compensated Wall Street number pushers. $26,700,000,000 is what 26.7 billion looks like; if you divide that by $14,500 total annual income per low-paid worker, you get very close to 2 MILLION PEOPLE (my calculator says about 1,841,379. Which is more than all the people in Philadelphia. Or than in San Francisco and Indianapolis combined. Or more than the population of any of twelve different US states. And don’t pretend that those Wall Street guys actually work thousands of times harder than all the rest of those poor low-wage slobs! They’re just really good at bending the rules behind closed doors and inside fancy legal and mathematical jargon so that they end up getting such insane rewards, shafting everyone else.
  • Guy Brandenburg In actual fact, the services of banks could be done by nearly anybody with enough education to read spreadsheets or translate words on the page into formulas (which we try to teach kids in Algebra 1 & 2, so it’s not that complicated). The legal jargon? You kind of need specialists to translate that into clear plain English — it’s impenetrable, and intentionally so. Then you have some committees of knowledgable people to decide if it’s a good idea to invest in project X or not, and so on. Again, it’s not rocket science. All that fancy stuff about credit-default-swap collateral, multi-second currency trading, junk bonds, and arcane statistical theories, didn’t help the economy. All that fancy stuff simply is brillianltly designed to make a handful of people very, very rich and nearly collapsed the economy, throwing millions of people out of work and/or out of their homes. We all know about stuff hidden in fine print. Our overlords have become very good at using math to intimidate people as well. The people who actually
  • Guy Brandenburg do the work on the projects: dig the basements, pour the concrete, wire the lighting, do all the plumbing and then work at the machines or computer terminals inside the structure and guard the place and clean it up and run the lunch counters and fix the streets and run the public transit systems and bring the gasoline or diesel fuel to the gas stations and so on… those are the people who actually make the project work and produce a profit for whoever got the loan. Again, a committee of reasonable people could easily decide whether5 the project is likely to be a good idea or not. You don’t need to earn BILLIONS in order to have the privilege of making those decisions — and never to be harmed financially or in any other way if your decisions all go wrong — as we have seen. We all have heard many stories of rich business or bank executives with golden or platinum parachutes after they retire from a company they drove into he ground. Not a single one of the wall street/banking types who bankr5upted the country a few years ago has even been indicted.
    Let me add: according to one official study from the bureau of labor statistics, there are about 3,550,000 people working at or below the minimum wage. Another way to look at this is to see if we divided all those bonuses by all those workers, how many months of their labor would that be? To make things simple, I’ll pretend each worker puts in 170 hours per month, at $7.25/hour, meaning he/she earns $1,232.50. Now, there are 3.55 million such workers, so if I used my calculator to multiply the last two numbers, I get that all of America’s minimum-wage workers, combined, earn a total of $4,375,375,000, which you can think of as around 4.4 Billion dollars, per month.
    (By the way – I learned in Econ 101 at Dartmouth College that unlike the wealthy, these low-paid people spend every bit of that, so it gets put right back into the economy! It does not end up in Swiss accounts or Cayman Island tax havens! (In algebraic terms, the savings and expenditure lines cross, meaning that poor folks each year on the average go deeper and deeper in debt, without comine even close to meeting their real needs, while the wealthier folks easily satisfy their every extravagant whim and then some, and proceed to save large amounts of money that is very often not re-invested in anything, as we see right now when large corporations are flush with cash and are not investing in retoolling or construction or hiring) (Or the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer) (Which means that if we redistribute that money to the low-wage folks, then the economy takes off and people are happier because they can pay their bills (including those student loans or medical stuff) and that creates even more jobs… )
    So let’s divide all those bonuses by that monthly total. Rounding, I get that this relative handful of highly-compensated Wall Street leeches are given BONUSES alone — on top of their annual salaries, and not counting any commissions or stock options or any other fees they earn — an amount equal to what all the minimum-wage workers in the entire UNITED STATES earn in about six months.
    Who knows how many months it would be if we included all the rest of these rich parasites’ compensation?
Published in: on March 13, 2014 at 11:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Mendacity of Charter Schools

This is from “Better Living Through Mathematics” by way of Diane Ravitch’s blog:

What’s my problem with charter schools, you ask? I don’t know where to begin, but here it is in a nutshell: chutzpah. You open a school, take all sorts of private money to fund advertising and publicityexclude students from enrolling through a variety of strategies, and then expel those for whom you cannot or will not provide essential services or are discipline problems, underpay inexperienced teachers and work them to death so there is high turnover, then you instruct your teachers to “teach to the test” AND then have some students who might not measure up stay home on the day of the test, and then give your students copies of the test before they take itshut up your students in computer labs to be “supervised” by $15 per hour aids, then rake off money for your shareholders and hire all sorts of corrupt ex-government officials to promote your cause, scream when you are asked to pay your share for the space you use to displace kids in public schools, AND then pat yourself on the back when your test scores show up marginally better than the local public school, which doesn’t do ANY of these things….

and you have the chutzpah to say you are “outperforming” public schools?

Correct Answers to High School Common Core Questions?

After wading through various hardware, software and connection problems on my iPhone, laptop and desktop, I have attempted some of the released model sample high school Common Core English and math questions.

I am profoundly underwhelmed by the questions and by the supposed genius of David Coleman — their mastermind and Rhodes scholar, who however has never taught any classes ever in any K-12 level.

You can look at them for yourself here.

The English section compares two poems about Daedalus and Icarus (the waxy feathers flight melt-in-sun myth). One poem was originally by Ovid, a Roman poet, but we are reading it in one particular translation into English. The other one is by a modern author.

I actually read quite a bit of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Latin about 50 years ago while a student in a DC public school and two high schools elsewhere. (This except was taken from that enormous work which goes on and on.) I don’t have any of Ovid memorized*, but while taking the ‘test’ I kept thinking more and more that a halfway decent argument could be made for every single one of the proposed answer choices, but even more than on other IQ- type tests, I was being asked to guess what David Coleman or one of his acolytes would think was the correct answer.

(As an example: with a little effort I could write a well- defined polynomial function such that the number that comes after 0, 2, 4, 6, is not 8 but -22.31415777 instead. I remember well a student telling me the next number in that sequence should be 0, since she guessed that the pattern just repeats. Frankly, she was at least as right as me!)

Knowing that the stories of Icarus, Perseus, Minos, the Minotaur, and Daedalus were made up and embellished by various Greek and Roman authors from a basis of ??possibly some distorted historical facts or else pure patriotic propaganda or ??? And knowing how pompous and full of c#%p I thought most Roman poets were, I gradually came to the conclusion that the best answer to just about all of those questions was one of these (take your pick):

1. Who cares?
2. None of the above.

3. I don’t feel like playing your little obscure mind game.

4. I reject your rule that in today’s society with ubiquitous electronic devices that are often (but not always) able to connect students to world-wide, instantaneous sources of information, students would be prohibited from doing so and would be obliged to parse two long, stupid and very ambiguous and pretentious pieces of literature, and guess what DAVID COLEMAN was thinking.

Did I mention that I’m not very impressed with either poet’s work?

When I got to the math section, I began to throw up my hands again. I mean, who in their right mind wants to solve math problems by writing on a keyboard the way they want you to?

It takes much more time and is much more technically difficult to solve problems on a keyboard than it is with a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil. (Graph paper would be nice but not required.) for example- just try writing a proportion and factoring equations and drawing and labeling a diagram via Mouse & keyboard? It’s nuts!

It’s fairly simple, and cheap, to give students a piece of paper and a pencil and eraser. It would take time for an experienced teacher to look at the student’s efforts, naturally, and figure out how much the child understands. But- woo-woo — that wouldn’t produce large bucks for Pearson, Apple, Microsoft and a whole bunch of corporate profiteers.

And this is how teachers are going to be judged– by “improvements” in scores on this sort of cockamamie, poorly thought out test? I think if a teacher could somehow teach well enough that 90 % or more of his or her students actively boycotted the test, he or she should be given a nice framed certificate and a pat on the back and have his or her suggestions for improvement to schooling taken seriously for a change!!



*I’d be glad to recite the first few lines of the Aeneid if you like. Poor Vergil wrote book after book of this supposed founding myth of Rome, but by the end of the work, the hero had barely even reached Italy!

Published in: on February 10, 2014 at 10:07 am  Comments (6)  
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More Problems With Value-Added Measurements for Teachers

I finally got around to reading and skimming the MATHEMATICA reports on VAM for schools and individual teachers in DCPS.

At first blush, it’s pretty impressive mathematical and statistical work. It looks like they were very careful to take care of lots of possible problems, and they have lots of nice greek letters and very learned and complicated mathematical formulas, with tables giving the values of many of the variables in their model. They even use large words like heteroscedasticity to scare off those not really adept at professional statistics (which would include even me). See pages 12 – 20 for examples of this mathematics of intimidation, as John Ewing of MfA and the AMS has described it. Here is one such learned equation:
value added equation
However clever and complex a model might be, it needs to do a good job of explaining and describing reality, or it’s just another failed hypothesis that needs to be rejected (like the theories of the 4 humours or the Aether). One needs to actually compare its track record with the real world and see how well the model compares with the real world.
Which is precisely what these authors do NOT do, even though they claim that “for teachers with the lowest possible IMPACT score in math — the bottom 3.6 percent of DCPS teachers — one can say with at least 99.9 percent confidence that these teachers were below average in 2010.” (p. 5)
Among other things, such a model would need to be consistent over time, i.e., reliable. Every indication I have seen, including in other cities that the authors themselves cite (NYC–see p. 2 of the 2010 report) indicates that individual value-added scores for a given teacher jump around randomly from year to year in cases of a teacher working at the exact same school, exact same grade level, exact same subject; or in cases of a teacher teaching 2 grade levels in the same school; or in cases of a teacher teaching 2 subjects, during the same year. Those correlations appear to be in the range of 0.2 to 0.3, which is frankly not enough to judge who is worth receiving large cash bonuses or a pink slip.
Unless something obvious escaped me, the authors do not appear to mention any study of how teachers’ IVA scores vary over time or from class to class, even though they had every student’s DC-CAS scores from 2007 through the present (see footnote, page 7).
In neither report do they acknowledge the possibility of cheating by adults (or students).
They do acknowledge on page 2 that a 2008 study found low correlations between proficiency gains and value-added estimates for individual schools in DCPS from 2005-2007. They attempt to explain that low correlation by “changes in the compositions of students from one year to the next” — which I doubt. I suspect it’s that neither one is a very good measure.
They also don’t mention anything about correlations between value-added scores and classroom-observations scores. From the one year of data that I received, this correlation is also very low. It is possible that this correlation is tighter today than it used to be, but I would be willing to wager tickets to a professional DC basketball, hockey, or soccer game that it’s not over 0.4.
The authors acknowledge that “[t]he DC CAS is not specifically designed for users to compare gains across grades.” Which means, they probably shouldn’t be doing it. It’s also the case that many, many people do not feel that the DC-CAS does a very good job of measuring much of anything useful except the socio-economic status of the student’s parents.
In any case, the mathematical model they have made may be wonderful, but real data so far suggests that it does not predict anything useful about teaching and learning.
Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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An Announcement from the Washington Teachers’ Union on Value-Added Measurements

This is a recent statement from Liz Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, about errors in the DCPS teacher evaluation system.

 wtu logo

 IMPACT Flaws Affect Teachers, Students and Parents

Newly reported mathematical errors in the calculations of D.C. public school teachers’ IMPACT scores call the entire teacher evaluation system into question.


 Over the objections of parents and teachers, former District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee instituted IMPACT, a teacher evaluation system that relies heavily on standardized test scores. The Washington Teachers’ Union negotiated checks and balances in the contract that mitigate some of the harm caused by IMPACT, but teachers’ input is limited by a District law that gives the chancellor control over teacher evaluations. Chancellor Kaya Henderson has modified IMPACT to make it somewhat less dependent on test scores. However, IMPACT remains an arbitrary and fundamentally flawed formula, and Henderson continues to use it to make decisions about teacher pay and teacher firings.

Now DCPS is telling us there are two different errors in the way the District has calculated IMPACT scores. Some teachers who got high scores weren’t that good, and some teachers who received low scores weren’t that bad. In other words, we now know that IMPACT’s flaws are even worse than we feared. As AFT President Randi Weingarten said following the revelation of these miscalculations, it should be clear to all now that you can’t simply take data, apply an algorithm, and use whatever pops out of a black box to judge teachers, students and our schools.


These miscalculations have created a significant problem for everyone in the community—teachers, students and parents—because IMPACT scores determine which teachers are retained, rewarded and even fired. Nearly 600 DCPS teachers have been fired in recent years, according to education reporter John Merrow, most because of IMPACT scores. High IMPACT scores can earn teachers a bonus of up to $25,000, and the annual cost of the program, according to the Washington Post, is $7.2 million. Some teachers’ IMPACT scores aren’t affected by student test results because their students are in untested grades or subjects. This arithmetic mistake appears to have affected 1 out of 10 teachers whose evaluations include student test results.

By making decisions based on IMPACT scores, Chancellor Henderson is wasting tax dollars and turning teacher quality into a roll of the dice. Roll a six and the teacher gets a bonus, roll a one and the teacher is fired. Either way, your child loses.


This is just the latest example of the top-down approach that started under Michelle Rhee, who brazenly ignored the needs and opinions of community members. DCPS needs to listen to parents and teachers, and focus on getting things right from now on.

The “my way or the highway” approach led to mass teacher firings and school closings. We’ve seen budget mis­calculations that led to the firing of hundreds of teachers, and we’ve seen fake estimates of the costs of closing schools used to justify ripping the heart—the neighborhood schools—out of many of our city’s neighborhoods.

Under Rhee and Henderson, the mantra has been, “Trust us, let us worry about the details, and don’t ask ques­tions about how we make decisions.” This latest miscalculation—and the apparent attempt to release the news when parents are focused on the holidays and family get-togethers—shows that DCPS leadership can’t be trust­ed to make the right decisions.

Releasing bad news at this time of year is a tried-and-true PR trick to bury bad news during the holiday season. Two years ago, after what a Washington Post reporter described as “months” of freedom of information requests and “general nagging,” city officials released a report on erasures on student tests—an indicator of cheating. Although the report was dated July 2011, officials delayed the release until New Year’s Eve. This year, the bad news comes just days before Christmas.


DCPS needs to work with teachers and parents—not with technocrats and bean counters—to figure out how we can help provide better schools for all children in D.C.

Ask Chancellor Henderson and Mayor Vincent Gray to change the high-handed way DCPS operates and involve teachers and parents in the decision-making process.

We deserve to know which teachers were fired or forced out because of these miscalculations.

We deserve to know which teachers were allowed to remain, or were rewarded, because of these miscalculations.

Chancellor Henderson needs to investigate the mistakes, address the consequences and take responsibility for the actions that have hurt the quality of teaching in the city.

Going forward, DCPS has to set up a better, more formal way to work with parents and teachers to develop a better school system and evaluation system to improve teaching and learning in D.C.’s public schools so that we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.


SAVE THE DATE: The Washington Teachers’ Union invites parents and community members to join us in February at our “Getting Teacher Evaluation Right” conference to discuss IMPACT and other issues that affect teacher quality. Details to follow.

Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

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