Re: [asa] science education: Spitting in the eye of mainstream education

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Tue Jun 02 2009 - 16:48:49 EDT

I tend to like what they are doing. I think its a bad idea to teach for the
test. But a good idea to stress basics.

I am unhappy with what I've seen of my children's high school education.
I believe there is too much emphasis on trying to scratch the surface on
everything, and exploring nothing in any great depth. There's too much
emphasis on the memorization of facts and definitions and not enough on
principles and their application.

I guess we need to ask what is the purpose of most the courses taught in high
school. If the student doesn't go to college, what is the intended goal. If
they do what is that goal.

My view is that most subjects at a high school level and even college level
can be learned on your own in fairly short order, should you desire to, and
have learned the skills required to learn, examine, organize, and think
independently. That's what I would teach. I would require the teaching of
logic, plane geometry (the proof kind), and critical thinking. I am glad to
say that my children's high school requires far more writing than I was
required in the 50's and early 60's. I don't know if this is common. My
high school was a special science school. We took math, science, and
engineering, with no time for foreign language.


"Alexanian, Moorad" <> said:

> Spitting in the eye of mainstream education
> Three no-frills charter schools in Oakland mock liberal orthodoxy, teach
strictly to the test -- and produce some of the state's top scores.
> By Mitchell Landsberg
> May 31, 2009
> Reporting from Oakland Not many schools in California recruit teachers
with language like this: "We are looking for hard working people who believe
in free market capitalism. . . . Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal
zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply."
> That, it turns out, is just the beginning of the ways in which American
Indian Public Charter and its two sibling schools spit in the eye of
mainstream education. These small, no-frills, independent public schools in
the hardscrabble flats of Oakland sometimes seem like creations of
television's "Colbert Report." They mock liberal orthodoxy with such zeal
that it can seem like a parody.
> School administrators take pride in their record of frequently firing
teachers they consider to be underperforming. Unions are embraced with the
same warmth accorded "self-esteem experts, panhandlers, drug dealers and
those snapping turtles who refuse to put forth their best effort," to quote
the school's website.
> Students, almost all poor, wear uniforms and are subject to disciplinary
procedures redolent of military school. One local school district official
was horrified to learn that a girl was forced to clean the boys' restroom as
> Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian
schools, which they see as models of a "new paternalism" that could close the
gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly,
many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy
that proudly proclaims that it "does not preach or subscribe to the
demagoguery of tolerance."
> It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots
of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive
public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the
schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures,
they are among the very best in California.
> The Academic Performance Index, the central measuring tool for California
schools, rates schools on a scale from zero to 1,000, based on standardized
test scores. The state target is an API of 800. The statewide average for
middle and high schools is below 750. For schools with mostly low-income
students, it is around 650.
> The oldest of the American Indian schools, the middle school known simply
as American Indian Public Charter School, has an API of 967. Its two siblings
-- American Indian Public Charter School II (also a middle school) and
American Indian Public High School -- are not far behind.
> Among the thousands of public schools in California, only four middle
schools and three high schools score higher. None of them serves mostly
underprivileged children.
> At American Indian, the largest ethnic group is Asian, followed by Latinos
and African Americans. Some of the schools' critics contend that high-scoring
Asian Americans are driving the test scores, but blacks and Latinos do
roughly as well -- in fact, better on some tests.
> That makes American Indian a rarity in American education, defying the
axiom that poor black and Latino children will lag behind others in school.
> First graduates
> On Tuesday, American Indian's high school will graduate its first senior
class. All 18 students plan to attend college in the fall, 10 at various UC
campuses, one at MIT and one at Cornell.
> "They really should be the model for public education in the state of
California," said Debra England of the Koret Foundation, a Bay Area group
that has given more than $100,000 in grants to American Indian. "What I will
never understand is why the world is not beating a path to their door to
benchmark them, learn from them and replicate what they are doing."
> So what are they doing?
> The short answer is that American Indian attracts academically motivated
students, relentlessly (and unapologetically) teaches to the test, wrings
more seat time out of every school day, hires smart young teachers, demands
near-perfect attendance, piles on the homework, refuses to promote struggling
students to the next grade and keeps discipline so tight that there are no
distractions or disruptions. Summer school is required.
> Back to basics, squared.
> There is no secret to any of this. Portions of the American Indian model
resemble methods used by the KIPP charter schools or, for that matter, urban
parochial schools.
> "What we're doing is so easy," said Ben Chavis, the man who created the
school's success and personifies its ethos, especially in its more outrageous
manifestations. (One example: He tends to call all nonwhite students,
including African Americans, "darkies.") Although he retired in 2007, Chavis
remains a presence at the school.
> A Lumbee Indian who grew up poor in North Carolina and later struck it rich
in real estate, Chavis took over American Indian in 2000, four years after it
was founded with a Native American theme.
> He began by firing most of the school's staff and shucking the Native
American cultural content ("basket weaving," he scoffed). "You think the Jews
and the Chinese are dumb enough to ask the public school to teach them their
culture?" he asks -- a typical Chavis question, delivered with eyes wide and
voice pitched high in comic outrage. There is no basket weaving at American
Indian now -- and little else that won't directly affect standardized test
scores. "I don't see it as teaching to the test," said Carey Blakely, a
former teacher at the school who is writing a book about it. "I see it as,
there are certain skills and knowledge that you're supposed to impart to your
students, and the test measures whether your students have acquired those
skills and that knowledge."
> In Lindsay Zika's eighth-grade classroom, the day begins precisely at 8:30,
when, without prompting, her students recite the American Indian credo:
> "The Family," they chant. "We are a family at AIPHS."
> "The Goal: We are always working for academic and social excellence.
> "The Faith: We will prosper by focusing and working toward our goals.
> "The Journey: We will go forward, continue working and remember we will
always be part of the AIPHS family."
> They recite this in a slightly robotic monotone. With barely a pause, they
shift to the school's mission statement, which is twice as long and includes
the promise that American Indian will develop students to be "productive
members in a free market capitalist society."
> To the test
> Another day begins.
> Zika starts with some comments about a recent history project, "Civil War
for Dummies," in which the students wrote primers on the Civil War.
> "These are very well done," she tells the class. "They're fabulous to read
 . . and they show that you guys understand the Civil War incredibly well."
> She moves to spelling. The students, seated in old-fashioned lift-top desks
in tight rows, pull out work sheets. Zika selects a shy girl, Alexandria Lai,
to lead a drill in which she says a word and others spell it.
> Zika is dressed in business attire: black glasses, black skirt, black wool
overcoat, her blond hair in a ponytail. She is the quintessential American
Indian teacher: young (26), well-educated (Notre Dame, Oxford), self-
confident, mature. A product of Oakland Catholic schools, she is warm yet
reserved, with an underlying sternness. "I think kids want structure," she
says. "They want strict teachers."
> By eighth grade, discipline is not really an issue. Classes are
preternaturally quiet and focused. Visitors may be startled to notice that
students do not so much as glance at them. They have been told to keep their
attention on their work. They do as they are told.
> Students who misbehave in the slightest must stay for an hour after school;
if they misbehave again in the same week, they have more after-school
detention plus four hours of Saturday detention.
> Under Chavis, the school also relied on humiliation to keep students in
line, ridiculing miscreants and sometimes forcing them to wear embarrassing
signs. When one boy was caught stealing, Chavis shaved his head in front of
the entire school. (The boy, Jeremy Shiv, now a straight-A student at
American Indian High, considers what Chavis did "pretty cruel.")
> A framed poster in a hallway quotes Chavis: "You do outstanding things here
and you'll be treated outstanding. You act like a fool and you'll be treated
like one."
> That concept isn't dead at American Indian, but it has been toned down.
> All American Indian students have 90 minutes of English and 90 minutes of
math a day.
> The grammar lesson today focuses on appositives, nouns that modify other
nouns. Student Isa Bey is asked to write an example on the board.
> "The extreme abolitionist John Smith was hung after a brutal revolt," he
> Zika smiles. "Historically, there's a problem," she says. "Grammatically,
it's correct." Chagrined, Isa erases "Smith" and writes "Brown."
> "I like that he's connecting it historically," Zika tells the class, "but
let's get it correct."
> At 10:05 a.m., the students switch to math. The move takes about 10
> American Indian's administrators believe that one of the secrets to success
in middle school is having one instructor teach all subjects except physical
education. The goal is to have that teacher stay with the same children all
three years -- a policy that seems to be more theory than reality, given high
teacher turnover.
> Time saver
> The idea is that students will form a deep bond with the teacher and gain
class time by having no passing periods. "We really see things in terms of
minutes," said principal Janet Roberts, who took over from Chavis.
> Five minutes per passing period might not sound like much, but over the
course of a year, American Indian saves the equivalent of more than a week's
worth of instruction.
> Math class begins with a warmup exercise to get students thinking
numerically. Then the class goes over the previous night's homework and moves
to new material.
> All students at American Indian take Algebra 1 in eighth grade, and the
school prides itself on its math achievement. Last year, every eighth grader
scored "proficient" or better on California's state algebra test. Statewide,
only half the eighth graders even took algebra and fewer than half of those
scored "proficient" or better.
> Today's lesson is Chapter 14: probability.
> "What is probability?" Zika begins. "Rebecca?"
> "The chance you have of getting something," Rebecca says.
> "Yeah," Zika says. "This is an important skill in life."
> Zika displays a confidence in math that is rare for someone who majored in
political science. "I like teaching math the best," she says.
> They move on to factorials, and before long, Zika has the students doing
rapid-fire exercises in which she gives them a number and they figure out its
factorial on a whiteboard and hold it up for her to see. (A factorial is the
product of all positive integers less than or equal to a given number.) The
students are generally correct and seem enthralled.
> One of the most common questions about charter schools is whether they
"cherry pick" the best students and most motivated families.
> Charters are required to take all applicants -- or, if they have more
students than seats, to hold a lottery. American Indian has never done this
and was denied a charter to open a new school last fall in part because
school district officials said administrators were "unable to describe" the
selection process.
> Roberts and Chavis say they have never had more applicants than seats, so
they never held a lottery. They also say that they attract a representative
sample of students from local elementary schools.
> But Ron Smith, the principal of nearby Laurel Elementary, who sent both of
his own children to American Indian, says that's not the case for students
from his school.
> Of those who go from Laurel to American Indian, "I'd say 70% are
academically strong, and 30% are a cross-section. . . . They have kids who I
know could go anyplace in the state and succeed."
> The school could not provide its students' elementary school test scores,
so it is hard to say if they were above average. Roberts did provide three
years of middle school scores for all students who entered American Indian in
2004 (with names removed for privacy), showing their progress in math and
English from sixth to eighth grade. Of the 51 students who entered American
Indian's middle school that year, only six scored lower than "proficient" in
both math and English at the end of sixth grade.
> It's impossible to tell whether the students were academically strong at
the start of sixth grade or were brought up to grade level by the rigors of a
year at American Indian.
> Of the six who scored below "proficient," three left the school and the
remaining three showed some progress by the end of eighth grade.
> It isn't clear why the students left. American Indian insists that it has
never expelled a child but says some leave because their families move or
decide the school is a poor fit. Of the 51 students who made it through their
first year, 39 finished.
> "They've had a reputation among the local public schools as being very
interested in kind of recruiting kids who are going to do well, and getting
rid of kids who won't," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland
Education Assn., the teachers union. Both Chavis and Roberts strongly deny
this and say their method works with all children. "Give me the worst middle
school in America and let us run it," said Chavis. "I guarantee it will
> When math ends at 11:40, Zika switches to science. With no lab equipment
and an emphasis on textbook learning, it is hard to imagine that American
Indian will turn out the next Darwin or Edison. The students have brought in
paper towel tubes and, after a discussion of the American space program, Zika
leads the class outside, where they have about five minutes for a rare
experiment: making rockets. It doesn't go well. With so little time, the
experiment more or less fizzles, and then it's lunch. Zika admits it was a
mistake; the next day, she'll have the students discuss what went wrong and
try again.
> After lunch, it's history (Reconstruction and its legacy), and then
preparation for a philosophical debate. "Isa, how do you know you're really
sitting here? How do you know you're not a brain in a dish hooked up to a
machine?" Zika asks.
> "I am because I think I am," pipes up Terae Collins, paraphrasing
> This is as fun as it gets.
> At 2:10, the students have P.E. -- running and calisthenics. No games.
> The class returns at 2:50 for some last-minute homework instructions.
School ends at 3. Most stay and do homework until 4 -- just because they can.
> A face appears at the door. It is De-Zhon Grace, a boy who was in Zika's
class until Barack Obama was inaugurated as president.
> Until then, De-Zhon and his mother had been fairly happy with American
Indian. "I'm a single mom, and I'm trying to raise an African American young
man, and I'm very serious about his education," said Chaka Grace.
> But on Jan. 20, De-Zhon stayed home to watch the inauguration with his
extended family. And that crossed a line for Roberts, who believes that
nothing -- absolutely nothing -- should get in the way of class. According to
De-Zhon's mother, Roberts said the boy would receive extra work as punishment
and that she might rescind his recommendation to a private high school.
> That, said Grace, "took it to another level for me. . . . I felt that was
evil." She pulled her son out of the school.
> De-Zhon, a neatly dressed, well-spoken boy who came back for a visit,
conceded that he misses American Indian.
> "I miss my class; I miss my teacher," he said.
> There are no televisions at American Indian -- no computers in the
classrooms, either -- so there was no way for students to watch the
inauguration. But Roberts wants to be clear: They wouldn't have been allowed
to watch it anyway.
> "It's not part of our curriculum," she said.
> Love it or hate it, it's the American Indian way.
> mitchell.landsberg
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Received on Tue Jun 2 16:49:06 2009

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