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

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Tue Jun 02 2009 - 19:02:33 EDT

Bill:

Thanks for your comments to Moorad.

I agree with you entirely that just memorizing facts and definitions,
without an understanding of the concepts, is non-productive. (Note,
however, that this doesn't imply that memorizing facts and definitions
should be entirely thrown out of the educational system, a mistake which
liberal educators made starting in the 1960s. Some knowledge must be
internalized in order for higher-level thinking to proceed. Obviously, for
example, the alphabet must be memorized, and as one moves up through the
grades, other things as well.)

I also agree with you entirely about the teaching of basics, such as logic,
plane geometry, and critical thinking. To that I would add the rigorous
teaching of English grammar in the old, analytical way. I also think that
students should not be able to get through high school without some sense,
at least in outline, of the history and geography of the world -- and I mean
the world, not just the U.S.A. (my impression being that social studies in
the U.S.A. in most grades is heavily Americocentric).

I agree with you also that the curriculum in high school needs to be thought
out in light of some clear sense of the purposes and goals of a high school
education. The problem is that public discourse about ends is so scattered
these days that it is hard to come to any consensus about what a high school
education is for. That's the price one pays for radical pluralism in
society. Everyone makes fun of the America of the 1950s, but its high
schools could be far more effective because America was a simpler, more
focused society back then, and there was wider consensus about what high
schools could and could not do, should and should not do. The problem with
endless social self-questioning is that it paralyzes all institutions.
Institutions by their nature can only be effective if they have a clear
sense of their limited tasks and if the people who work in them are
convinced of the goodness of those tasks. The culture of protest of the
1960s, which has morphed into a more general radical relativism and cultural
pluralism, has undermined institutional effectiveness by making it
impossible for citizens to agree on common ends. How can one run a public
school system when there are no agreed-upon public values (beyond the value
that no one should force values upon others)?

I won't knock the teaching of science at your high school, which I am sure
was excellent, but I disagree with the ends of your high school as you have
described them. I don't think that at ages 14-17 students should be that
specialized. Any system in which there is "no time for foreign language" is
not an educational system, but a system geared at producing technological
specialists. Languages are part of a general education, both in practical
terms -- think of how handy Spanish is in parts of the U.S.A., for
example -- and as part of the general cultivation of humanity. And what
about history, geography, civics? What about art and music and drama? What
about health and physical education? Math-science whizzes shouldn't be
allowed to abandon the cultivation of their general humanity at age 14 so
they can get on faster to do well at M.I.T. and make big salaries with some
corporation. They need to learn how to be good human beings and good
citizens, not just how to be good scientists and engineers.

Cameron.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Powers" <wjp@swcp.com>
To: "Alexanian, Moorad" <alexanian@uncw.edu>;
"AmericanScientificAffiliation" <asa@calvin.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, June 02, 2009 4:48 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] science education: Spitting in the eye of mainstream
education

>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.
>
> bill
>
> "Alexanian, Moorad" <alexanian@uncw.edu> said:
>
>> http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-charter31-2009may31,0,7064053.story
>>
>> 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
> punishment.
>>
>> 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
> writes.
>>
>> 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
> seconds.
>>
>> 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
> improve."
>>
>> 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
> Descartes.
>>
>> 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 @latimes.com
>>
>>
>> If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at
> latimes.com/archives.
>> TMS Reprints
>> Article licensing and reprint options
>>
>>
>> Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times
>>
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