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A Curmudgeonly Perspective on Bond Elections and School Funding November 6, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education, Politics.
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Tonight, the election returns were coming in, and as usual, virtually all propositions were approved by voters.  The one that was the most interesting to me, though, was one that I did not have the opportunity to vote on – a $559 million bond election for the Leander ISD.  I watched a live, five minute segment on this particular bond on one of the local news channels.  During the segment, the reporter was at the site of the group that was supporting this bond.  When a sufficiently large enough number of precincts were reporting to guarantee that the bond would be approved, the segment showed the group popping a bottle of champaign and toasting their success.

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Civics quiz September 20, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Economics, Education, Politics.
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Here is a great quiz on civics, history, and economics:  http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/resources/quiz.aspx

 I made an 80% (48 / 60), and I was surprised at how much I didn’t know – the questions are not that complex or obscure.

This is the press release that describes what this organization is testing – effectiveness of universities in teaching civics.  http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/resources/content/failing_america_9-18-07.pdf

 Not a single college surveyed (including Ivy League schools, and other public and private universities) had seniors that scored at least 70% on this test.  In other words, no university can claim that its students can pass a general civics test, even after 16 years of education.

Slow Child Left Behind September 7, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education.
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With regard to my posts this week castigating public education, I have a few (slightly) less abrasive remarks.

If you are in the business of testing children with a minimum skills test, what is wrong with holding those children to a standard of higher than 60% mastery?  Isn’t the definition of “minimum” skills those which are required?  If all skills on the test are required, doesn’t it make sense that 100% mastery is expected?  Allowing for nerves, misunderstood questions, and other test day events that could bring scores down, I can see reducing the expectation to 90%, but scores much lower than that start to say that the material has not actually been mastered.

At work, if I achieve 60% of the minimum expectations of my employer, I get fired. 

If a child has not mastered even the minimum skills required for his or her grade, should he or she be promoted to the next grade?  I propose a new policy – “Slow Child Left Behind”.  If you don’t make 90% on the basic skills test after a couple of tries, you get to remain in your current grade until you can pass the test.

Follow up from “Exemplary schools” post September 5, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education, Parenting.
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This morning over breakfast, I was still thinking about my post from last night on the concept of “exemplary” meaning that 1 in 10 students cannot make 60% on a basic skills test for their grade level.

At breakfast, I asked Ruth a paraphrase of the question that I pulled from the TEA’s website for 3rd grade math:  Which of the following has the most sides – circle, square, triangle, or octagon?  Ruth said, “Octagon.  It has 8 sides, like a stop sign.  Ask me a harder one.”

Keep in mind that she’s on her second week of kindergarten, not finishing her 3rd grade year.

Defining “an education” September 3, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education.
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There are doubtfully any among us who would say “an education” is anything less than very important in life.  This collective opinion manifests itself in myriad ways:

  • That most people in our country believe that “an education” is not only a right of the people but also a central responsibilty of the government to provide
  • That “a college education” is perceived as a way of rising above one’s societal peers but that vocational training is widely perceived (if not openly proclaimed) to be a path for a lesser class of people.
  • That, over time, society tends to introduce longer school years and earlier matriculation ages, believing that more time in school is tantamount to better education.
  • That curricula have evolved to include training in morality, life skills, and values-related topics in addition to (and indeed, instead of) core academic subjects.

These manifestations of public opinion are not necessarily healthy for the educated in the long term.  In fact, they beg the question: What, exactly, do we consider to be “an education”?  Let’s start by looking at what the State of Texas considers to be “an education” in high school.

In Texas, to graduate from high school, a student must take 16.5 credits, which are accrued during a typical four-year high school program, so they amount to just over 4 classes per year.  That means that if you were to take out “home room”, “activity period”, “teacher’s aide period”, “lunch”, and excess physical education and other non-academic classes, you could start at 8am and be finished with the necesssary requirements for a high school education by noon every day.  (And let’s face it – we don’t even need to argue here that the material in those four classes each day is, pardon the pun, elementary.  How difficult is it, really, to receive a grade of 70 or greater on a history test administered by a coach during homecoming week of football season?)

In addition to passing these courses, Texas students must also pass the “Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills” (TAKS) test.  This is a controversial test that supposedly tests students for the basic knowledge they need to be considered “high school graduates”.  Keeping in mind that the TAKS covers just basic knowledge, it is disconcerting to know that the Texas Education Agency’s “Student Guide to Graduation” states that students pass when they can answer:

  • 58.9% of English questions
  • 55.0% of Math questions
  • 54.5% of Science questions
  • 50.9% of Social Studies questions

Therefore, the TEA passes students that cannot answer even 60% of the questions on a test of basic knowledge.

Even more surprising, though, is that students are not even expected to get more than 60% of these basic questions correct when they are allowed to use such a resources as a dictionary and thesaurus on the English section of the test, a graphing calculator on the Math sections, and various other resources like rulers, frequently-used formulas and the Periodic Table of the Elements that are all printed in the test booklet itself.

It is difficult for me to agree with the state that this level of expectation constitutes “an education”. 

Go Small Schools! July 26, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education.
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Here are some results from a new Department of Education study thst compares “rural” schools with “urban” schools.  Rural schools account for about 1/3 of all US public schools and are defined as schools in areas with fewer than 500 people per square mile.

  • At all grade levels, rural students did better on national science tests than children in cities
  • In math, rural kids did better than urban students at every grade level.
  • Rural fourth- and eighth-graders read better than their urban peers.
  • Among teachers, rural educators were more likely to report being satisfied with teaching conditions in their schools, even though their salaries were lower
  • Rural schools tend to be smaller and have lower student-teacher ratios than other schools

Kindergarten pre-game concerns July 10, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education, Parenting.
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With our first kid merely weeks away from beginning kindergarten, I have begun to try to imagine what she is going to encounter in school.  Though I know she’ll do fine in school, both academically and socially, I have some concerns, mainly surrounding the things I have not seen over the last several years.  For example:

  1. I’m not close to a single other family that shares my views on education and the methods and importance thereof.
  2. Despite living and working in a highly-educated, tech-savvy, university town, I hear very little discussion among parents on topics related to academic achievement.
  3. When parents do talk about school, typically, the conversation is usually more centered on special programs, fundraisers, or athletic events that are peripheral to academics.
  4. Despite working at one of the largest technology employers in Austin for nearly ten years, I never personally saw a school representative inquire about things like field trips, guest lecturers, or career-focused curriculum development.  Note, we at the company did a tremendous amount of outreach and the schools were always happy to have it – I just never saw that initiative coming from the schools themselves.
  5. Few parents – even educated professionals – seem to place more than nominal value on knowledge.  In the past two days, I’ve had coworkers chide me (goodnaturedly, of course) for being able to divide 16 by 25 in my head and for using the word “née” in conversation. 
  6. I’ve never heard anyone outside of the school system express pride in their school being “Recognized” or “Exemplary” by the state.

It is not fair to our kids or to their teachers to go in to school thinking that it is not going to work, and I do not think this way.  I do think, though, that evidence of complacency and apathy of education shows in the priorities that people have.  When the most educated people I’m around on a day to day basis deprioritize academics, it makes me wonder what school will be like where a purer cross section of educational levels is represented.

For our soon-to-be-kindergartener, I don’t worry about the academic or social concepts she’ll learn in school – I worry about the opportunity cost of what she could be learning, but doesn’t, because the environment is one that either values education less than I do or prioritizes it lower than I do.

Thoughts on reading and rewards July 8, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Books, Education, Parenting.
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Reading has been on my mind a lot lately, especially a Ruth is starting to read more on her own and as we have the first day of school quickly approaching.  I have a semi-formulated (or semi-unformulated, depending on our outlook) plan for creating some structure and incentives around reading at home.

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Calculus for the rest of us – Part 3 July 3, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education.
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The last two posts on Calculus for the rest of us (part 1 here, part 2 here) have focused on describing a real world use of calculus – finding the distance your car travels when you press on the gas pedal in different ways. 

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Calculus for the rest of us – Part 2 July 2, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Education.
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The last “Calculus for the rest of us” post calculated how far you drive when driving at the same speed for a certain amount of time.  If you make a chart of your speed over time, you’re looking at a horizontal line between the time you start (hour zero in the example) and the time you finish (hour twelve in the example).

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