Keen, Lament, Moan, Plaint and Hand Wringing

The lamentations have begun. I am having a growing personal concern around the way in  which class levels/subject structures and difficulty  are explained to students and their parents – most especially in middle and high school. It seems as though tracking is alive and well – it merely has a new name.  Not only is tracking in existence, it is the way it plays out which is alarming.

In middle school students have certain course work which is essential to high school success. While there is debate over when exactly Algebra needs to be completed the first time, there is no disagreement on the need for multiple exposures. This means a student should have middle school Algebra, high school Algebra and later, college level Algebra. They are NOT different courses. The re-exposure helps students develop the process and reasoning skills inherent in this stage of mathematics.  I have at various times used college level Algebra book problems with middle school students as the students understood the concepts and needed math grinding practice. The kids thought they were ‘cool’ years later, when I ran into some home on college break….well, they realized they had been duped and laughed about it!

Students need to be able to read and summarize, construct a five paragraph essay  (preferably longer and more concise) and know when and how to use a variety of charts, including the Venn Diagram by middle school. At high school, students need to be further applying these skills and developing more in depth study skills.  High school should not be in the business of providing ‘training wheels’.  Rigorous study skills should begin to be developed in Grades 7 and 8, alas, too many parents believe their child is remarkably special and can skate by.

Todays Honors English is remarkably the same as my high school English class years ago. Honors English is one step up from College Prep, which is the baseline to get INTO college and generally speaking, community colleges or state colleges.  College Prep gives students training wheels to get through Honors English.  College Prep is normal, regular English writing, reading, literary analysis, etc. In effect, College Prep is a level up re-do of what should have happened in middle school and did not occur or the student would not be taking it in high school. In other words, College Prep is ‘tracking’ and Honors is for students on their game.

AP English is COLLEGE Level English. It requires a student to  think and perform as a college student. It is imperative students know how to study – which is different in scope and depth from doing assigned homework. AP English is a foundation for getting through the undergrad years. It is not indicative of a smarter student (as the class tends to be sold to students and parents), it is indicative of a student who knows how to study, has high level persistence and is willing to put in the time and energy for the rewards of learning at a higher level and college credit.

Whether it is AP Engish or AP Biology, the underlying premise is the same – know how to study as the training wheels are off and no one is going to give you  more than an outline. A student needs to be able to take control of their learning. This is not the memorizing of facts and reading a chapter from a text book.

Instead of high schools being honest with the product they are trying to sell (remember, schools with both a variety and abundance of AP classes look better), they just keep marketing the product. Not all students have the essential ability to study at a college level by time they are in high school; Most high school students can and should be able to handle the rigors of so called Honors English.

To each and every parent who is led to believe only AP classes are appropriate for their child, I ask them to reframe the question. Do you and your child actually understand what AP means and what is expected for AP credit?  Have you had a frank discussion with your child about what may have to be given up in order to get through an AP class and are they willing to make the sacrifice at this juncture in time? As in college, college level courses require something ‘more’ and giving up an hour of TV may not be the only thing which must go.  Is the cost benefit analysis worthwhile to save on tuition of three units at a university?

Lamenting the need to give up a team practice or some other activity should not be a big deal to survive an AP class as scholar-athletes manage this routine in college for their scholarship. I know many, many high school coaches who would rather a student take an extra afternoon to study and miss a practice than to settle for C grades to ‘make it on the team’.  Notice the grade of C is low enough to get enough people on the team.

Part and parcel of taking an AP class is the fact it is not easy, there are sacrifices and the student has the maturity to deal with this issue. There is nothing wrong with taking Honors English and calling it a day.

There is something terribly wrong with parents who need to hire tutors to teach their child how to write an essay and study at a collegiate level, most especially after 3 months into the school year when the student has a C grade and needs to get it together.  A little thoughtfulness regarding when a student is ready for AP coursework will go a long way in benefitting a child in actually getting something from the  Honors or AP experience besides frustration and anger.


The education issue – it is so NOT what you think it is.

Today is Sunday 14 July 2013. I have been crying on and off since late last night when I found out the outcome in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin issue.

While most people were focusing on the race issue and profiling and men being black in America and all the other horrible parts of this great country which need to be fixed by voting, I was upset at how the focus had shifted from cause and effect of our choices in voting to the substantially more serious and saddening issues of literacy, reasoning and the ability for so many to be mis-lead.  I am talking about The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It has been a couple  of weeks now and people are finally starting to see the issue in the light of day.

No matter how the case against George Zimmerman played out, the issue behind the case was missed by most – except for the lawyers and those who actively read and follow what is really going on in the United States. Lawyers have specialized training to understand the process of law and think differently – which is why we go to them when we have problems. Lawyers think about issues in a specific manner – which is good. Without this ability, we would have less public defenders and fewer people willing to put in the good and necessary fight for everything from civil rights to euthanasia to all manner of other issues.  Organizations such as ACLU, The Southern Poverty Law Center, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, The American Humane Society and many others are staffed with wise and thoughtful lawyers who put their wisdom to practice in a country gone mad with all manner of strange belief systems.

At the end of the day, what happens in this country RESTS on our shoulders. Whether we choose to be involved, vote, have a voice in our democracy or not plays itself out all the time.  What played out on 13 July 2013 was a result of our lack of paying attention and getting caught up in the ancillary issues.  This lack of attention is what worries me. The ability to be so easily distracted is due to a lack of reasoning skills and literacy.

Lack of literacy does not allow a person to read or pay attention to politics – good, bad or indifferent. Lack of literacy and lack of reasoning (algebra) does not allow some one to think about being  manipulated and how to find more information.  Lacking literacy and reasoning RUINS LIVES – in fact, in some cases it kills people and ruins the lives of others around them.  Lack of knowledge allows us to be racist, xenophobic, and all the other things which hurt our society.

If you think grades in school matter, you are wrong. Grades are an arbitrary sampling of knowing pieces of information. Reasoning and literacy are what matter – and, sadly, not easily testable.  Literacy and reasoning are ongoing – as in ‘the rest of our lives’.

The loss of Trayvon Martin is terribly sad. The ruination of George Zimmerman’s life is equally terrible. Even though George is alive, he does not have a life worth living due to the court of public opinion.  There was and will be no winner from this situation.

The group which won, and continues to win is ALEC – they put the stand your ground laws in place with the NRA.

While people got all crazy about other issues and being distracted by wars, etc. ALEC went about its business with nary a blink of the eye.  AND then-kaboom. We had an incident play out in front of us which demonstrated the meaning and intent of ‘stand your ground’ and none of us liked it.

My own friends have come out and chastised me for not ‘understanding’. It hurts. Not only do I understand and I am heartbroken as no one should lose their life walking down a street, I understand what happened and how a community (Sanford) allowed its police force to operate with impunity until this most recent issue. I can also understand how and why George Zimmerman acted – which, I am guessing, is what happened with the jury.  Was the decision/outcome optimal? No. In fact, there was no optimal outcome.

You see, our legal system metes out punishment and rewards based on ideas beyond our comprehension. Kenneth Feinberg (The 9/11 Commission) wrote about this in his book ‘Who Gets What’. The world is not fair – in fact, what Mr. Feinberg wrote was, “Some people wish to be heard”.

Being able to better understand our legal system and fix how representation works requires literacy and logic. We will only be able to fix the current state of things when we educate our population. Until we pursue education with all due purpose, we can not begin to understand what needs to be changed and why.  We limit our ability to use logic and reasoning and operate on a level which does not necessarily change the system but makes us feel better for a bit.

Change comes about from affecting knowledge.

Cake Mix for the Easy Bake Oven

As a child, my grandmother had me in the kitchen cooking right along side her. My grandmother Rose was a Russian/Polish/Moving Border immigrant just around the outset of the revolution(s) over ‘there’. She grew up into her teens in the middle of no where. She taught me to cook without a cook book – it was by taste and what was at hand. Trust me, NO ONE ever starved at Rose’s table – ever! I ‘inherited’ the recipes as I was the oldest grandchild and had the time to observe, process, replicate everything from tzimmes to matzoh balls to soup, etc.  The time I spent with my grandmother is some of the most memorable moments in my life.

Since growing up I often ‘barter’ for cooking lessons. Not the high-end stuff with every other person who wants ‘cuisine’, rather with the parents and grandparents of students I tutor. Amazingly the best cooking EVER comes from people who do not have some recipe book, know the ‘tricks’ and are recent immigrants who often can not translate into English so I have to pay special attention to what they are doing in the kitchen. Parents laugh when I offer to do one or two hours of tutoring for kitchen time – in their country women would be expected to know how to cook, feed a family, etc.  In America, land of Easy Bake Ovens, this is not the case.

I bring this up as American’s have some notion/misconception of everything being fun, easy, free time enjoyable. Nothing is supposed to take effort, be a challenge, have expectations, well maybe school testing. As a tutor I  work with students who experience great frustration at having to limit TV and computer game time in order to grind the numbers for Algebra.  Often the parents are as bad….not the immigrant parents as they still understand what it means to strive for something.  American culture robs us of the ability to do activities for the right reasons.

When I served in Peace Corps Namibia 1998-1999, I still remember the two, almost three-year old who walked me to the water pump in the dark as cattle were coming home, showed me how to pump water AND was the one stirring porridge the next morning over a fire he banked. I would be horrified to let an American child near matches….We reap returns on the expectations we set for both students and teachers, not the ones we dream about and never enforce. If we ask teachers to teach to a test, we get test scores.

If simple life experiences require an Easy Bake Oven, we are doomed. Not only do we lack the skill set to take on a larger challenge – helping a child navigate through a real kitchen, we lack the ability to develop creativity. How do you help a child develop and learn real world kitchen skills? Certainly not with Easy Bake…..No offense to Hasbro.

In Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, there is a section regarding the cake mix the family packed on their trip to the middle of who knows where on the continent of Africa.  It is a metaphor  for all the things the family did not know and would learn, often through horrific and life changing circumstances. If we can not get past the metaphor of the Easy Bake Oven, we are doomed as common core rolls out. Students will actually need to apply themselves, think, reflect, correct, alter course and re-apply.  The world is NOT a mix it up and one pass through the oven door.

The Price of Tutor A and Tutor B

The more I tutor, the more I confirm some of my worst fears regarding educational practices.

Each time I have a student with a teacher who tries to teach a cute ‘story’ method for doing an actual math procedure I wish to just puke.  The most recent technique I have been ‘learned in’ is the cake method or cupcake method as new terminology for being able to discern factors and use the factors to obtain a product….as in doing multiplication.  I have already been ‘learned in’ the ‘flip it over, flip it over’ song for the word reciprocal as in, “I am dividing one fraction by another and need to use the multiplication sign AND the reciprocal of the fraction”.

It is not clear to me which is worse – the teachers not being comfortable enough with math and the appropriate vocabulary to use in describing a math process, the inability to explain a process via analogy and then use the appropriate verbiage or the idea of teachers dumbing it down.  No matter how you look at the situation, it is unfair to our students.

In light of STEM (M is for math!) and the common core standards rolling out in at least 40 states, it is going to be increasingly important for teachers to step it up. I do not know if this means teachers going back to school to be ‘learned’ in the ways of math or what it will take, I just know it is wrong to short change our students.

In addition to using made up words and phrases to teach math, many teachers do not expect habits of mind from students so they can go to algebra and progress further. Students should have syntax by Grade 6 – this means you solve a problem/equation down the left side of the page and not across.  It means things such as writing neatly, not skipping steps and doing the ‘scratch math’ on the far right side of the page so the actual work of math looks neat, tidy and can be ‘read’.

I had a student upset and angry with me for NOT writing out the equation from the word problem in algebra. I asked the student to pick out the three most important words in the word problem and we would assign the variable and construct how to do the problem.  This was upsetting as the ‘tutor’ at the library read the word problem to them and gave them the equation.  The student was being ‘cheated’ by the tutor as the tutor clearly already knew how to do the math – the student needed to learn. Skipping the ‘thinking’ process for the student did not make them better understand math and it did not make the tutor a better tutor since the student just had to solve the equation.

As a tutor, I have to explain what I do and why my rates are what they are versus the tutor at the library or other tutor who will charge far less.  Tutor B can charge less as they are not actually teaching math.  In fact, sometimes I think teachers are not even teaching math and so tutors don’t feel obligated to do more themselves.

We should not teach misconceptions in science and we should not try to shortcut the thinking process in math. These mistakes, along with multiple choice tests do not benefit our students.  School reform has many trees to clear from the forest of my disbelief.  It would be different if I had this situation once in awhile……I have seen it across the bay area of  N. California and now in S. California. I saw it in New York. Places I have not seen this messiness: Namibia, Kenya, Sweden.  I know this messiness does not happen in many places as the students excel at math.  We need to meet the competition and  in our training, there can be no short cuts.


When will I use Algebra?

Over the course of my teaching and learning career (I am correctly classified as a lifetime learner!), I have significantly enjoyed the question regarding when/how will I ever use Algebra.  Of course the question is rhetorical as no one will ever ask you about a co-efficient in the parking lot or the process of distribution…..instead, life  ( or at least a life filled with self efficacy) will expect you to be able to use these concepts at various times.

I write this blog as a career changer (pharmacy tech), health care for all advocate (just got zapped with $10K from Anthem/Blue Cross and I am HEALTHY – the bill is just to ‘prove’ my health) and America watching elected people debate a debt ceiling (the news has actually had to explain the issue to American Citizens), all issues which use Algebra and other math to think through with some degree of clarity.

To start, I will explain self efficacy. First off self has to do with the person you see in the mirror as opposed to other people you see with your eyes.

People with a high self-efficacy are generally of the opinion that they are in control of their own lives; that their own actions and decisions shape their lives.                  Albert Bandura as quoted in

Self efficacy is an idea put forth by psychologists which assumes you wish to learn (know) information about the issues which impact your life and the choices/decisions you make which impact your life.  This  means knowledge is indeed power – knowledge allows you to transform your own life by understanding information and making better decisions (or at minimum, making decisions you feel confident about).  So, Algebra is a manner of thinking logically and an approach to understand various numerical processes.

Algebra allows you to understand (and start to ask better questions) regarding the medication doses and timing of doses you take when you are ill. There is actually a methodology to why antibiotics are given at certain scheduled times in specific amounts. There is also a reasoning as to the intervals of chemotherapy for cancer.  These doses and intervals are based on research performed by scientists and doctors who passionately believe in promoting health. The doses and intervals can be altered for the right reason……….which means if the patient has the ability to think about doses and intervals related to side effects (nausea as an example), doctors will often work with them to maintain their health and get through the side effects.  Not all cancer patients choose to have chemotherapy. Yes, amazingly, chemotherapy is a choice and a very personal one. It is an issue of quality of life and length of life – both of which can be better approximated and understood via math.

Another example of Algebra and health has to do with the choice of eating well (healthy) and having reasonable amounts of exercise or taking a medicine to, for example, reduce cholesterol. It is known within medicine that after a patient takes five to seven medicines simultaneously, the various effects can and often are counter productive to ‘maintaining health’ and ‘sustaining life’.  This relationship is because each medicine we take has various effects on one or more body systems.  This is WHY your pharmacist always wants to know all of what you are taking, even if it is prescribed by various different doctors.

The above paragraph relates to health care for all. Most of the money spent on health care is not for disease states which can be cured, but most  which can be brought into a state of remission- OR conversely, avoided in the first place from leading a healthy life.  Aside from antibiotics, there are very few ‘cures’ out there.

Remission is the state of absence of disease activity in patients known to have incurable chronic illness

A person with knowledge is able to make a better decision regarding how they are medically treated (or not in the case of DNR’s) and in what circumstances, conditions they desire to live.  Some people actually believe having mental capacity is reason to avoid medications which may diminish their thinking capacity even if it means they have to give up something else in their life.   These concepts are called choices and can be made by people with an understanding of how their choices will affect their lives.  Doctors and pharmacists take an oath to do no harm – they do not take an oath on how you choose to live your life when you are in a disease state.  A great doctor and/or pharmacist will explain options to you and let you make the decision about YOU (unless you are unconscious in the ER and then they do everything humanly possible to keep you alive).   All of the various options and choices actually have percentages or estimates of success and knowing Algebra allows you to interpret what these numbers mean when you are told.

Most interesting of all is that which is well known in medicine – it is by far cheaper and cost effective to PREVENT the problem than to treat it after it happens. This is akin to why one warms up before exercising.  This gets right back to health care for all. It is more cost effective for  one to live a healthy life from the get go than to have to deal with obesity, diabetes, etc. when one does not eat and exercise.   Again,  a modest amount of Algebra is necessary to understand calories (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and how to make better food choices to promote ones own health.

If all of the above has not already provided some ideas as to why Algebra is important, let me add the debt ceiling debate.  We as the American populace voted in our congressional representatives. We as voters created a divided congress as the house and senate are configured in numbers by who(m) is voted into the position.  The numbers alone of Democrats and Republicans demonstrate an imbalance so it is no wonder the debt ceiling caused a great debate. As the populous, it is up to us to vote in more mid-range politicians to cut down on the level of disparity between extremes.  Not only is this Algebra, it is basic statistics.  We got the government we deserve by voting them in – for good or for ill. Many may think math plays a too subtle role in what I stated in this paragraph, they just have not read enough by Malcolm Gladwell.

If the above is not enough to convince you that getting a good dosing of Algebra by Grade 8 is beyond important, just think about what you know (or don’t know) about debt and why we even have a debt ceiling.

Or this:

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The Made-up ‘Secret Sect’ of Obtaining an Education

For the past four months I have been tutoring a student who is a junior in high school this year. This student needed help with making up a deficiency (public school district in N. Ca did not follow through on paperwork – there is no ‘deficiency’ and student passed CAHSEE with flying colors which was my first warning flag of things to come) in algebra and then geometry.  I also helped this student do the summer work assigned by teachers for AP U.S. History and Honors English. 

All this time I kept trying to sort out what was wrong with the picture – how did a typical student who is polite and mild mannered end up with math craziness.  The family is intact – there are two adult working parents. The mother dotes on the student and at the same time sets high expectations about the arc their life SHOULD take.  The parents are involved at school and still it seemed something was amiss.

When school started, I noticed a pattern…..this student had their schedule rearranged at least 10 times in three weeks – I would have to write out a play manual to be sure, but I believe it was closer to 12-15 moves.  The administrators, at one point, pulled the student into their office to suggest taking a ‘leadership’ class as it would look good applying to college when there was no science class available to fit into the students schedule. The parents were not contacted before this sleight of hand.  When I found out the student was sold a bill of goods and, in effect, the school was calling the student stupid/less worthy, I talked with the parents about how to circumnavigate the problem and advocate for their child, which they did immediately.  Ultimately, after multiple parent contacts with administrators and teachers, I believe the schedule is resolved for now. 

The horrible part is this student now needs to catch up on three weeks worth of work in two classes from the beginning of school as they settle in for the year.  Sadly, this story plays itself out everywhere and I know for a fact this happens in Alameda (student is not in Alameda) where I live as I had to deal with it as a middle school teacher in Alameda. It amazed me how schedules (recently and in the past) could be done in ways which lacked any wisdom for the student(s) at hand.  I have seen students placed in classes which were not ‘full’ as that is what is available, not the class which was appropriate to advance the students education, so the current situation is in no way new, just different.  I had hoped one of the education reforms to happen over the last five years would be making it mandatory that schools have schedules in place.

The parents of this student invited me to Back to School Night so I could meet the teachers. I felt honored as this gesture made me, in effect,  a family member and an active participant in this student’s future.  I was even introduced as the tutor.  The evening gave me a real sense of what to do to help this student.

After Back to School Night, we all went out for a snack. It was then that I was able to confirm some of what I felt at the school – it is being ‘run’  by a particular group of parents with a particular agenda (which need not be mentioned as you can pick the obvious ones). 

 One of the questions the mother had for me is to explain what MLA and APA is since the English Teacher mentioned students would do a couple papers in this format.  I explained the MLA and APA are style guides which stipulate the exact way for citing quotes and doing footnotes.  I explained how there are various different style guides and the two they were told about are the most prominent although there is also The Chicago Manual of Style and so on.  At that moment it clicked – the school was being run by people who assumed EVERYONE had equal access to such things as a formal education. The school catered to the upper ends of the student body.

Imagine how the student I tutor felt being at Back to School Night and not knowing what was being explained, much less possibly being embarrased to ask a classmate or the teacher.  Imagine how the parent(s) felt.  Who would the parents ask without being embarrased?   All the teacher had to do was state students would be using The Modern Language Association or American Psychological Association style guides.

Those who are learned sometimes seem to create an artificial secret society around how education works – whether it is intentional or an oversight, it is all too common and it dramatically affects a number of students and their families.  Whether it is understanding a style guide or figuring out the best way to apply for college or what requirements are best suited to apply for college (extra year of science or math vs. leadership), the most important service is to stop making higher education some sort of experience that feels or is literally out of reach by the vocabulary we use and the way we speak to families of students at school or they way we treat students.

The students whose parents ‘run’ the school are not the ones who are affected by all the mismanagement noted above as the parents would not tolerate it – nor would they allow their child to be ‘talked into’ a different class.  It should be unacceptable for any student and their family.  When teachers and administrators work in a manner to assist students and parents, the rising tide will lift all boats – until then, only the super tankers seem to gleen the benefit.

x(squared)2 + 2x – 8 = 0

Until this morning, I was beginning to think it would not be in my lifetime where anyone thought to compare results, outcomes and unanticipated consequences of educational change in the classroom.  My friends who are teachers and/or  adjunct professors at various community colleges and universities  have shared the sentiment in the above article with me. At first I assumed it was the typical teacher/professor gripe upon grading assignments which indicated we did not teach what we thought we taught and then realized this was not the case.  The complaint was coming from too many different people in too many different places and TOO OFTEN to be an off moment (teachers and professors are merely mortal after all).

At least in a few places, schools of all kinds are being held accountable to what they produced, not just how much they produce……because, in reality, the marketing talk from all schools, especially  charter schools should be much more transparent.   Being able to graduate high school in America is such a low bar it really is not much to be proud of anymore for students or the teachers who help the students get to graduation.  It has been said to me by many teaching friends, there just is not that same level of fulfillment of achievement when students graduate each year.

“You’re always very excited with the kids who are crying on graduation day, assuming they are going on to bigger and better things,” said Josh Thomases, who oversees academic programs for the city’s education department. “But heretofore that assumption has been largely untested.”

“For the school’s own survival you are going to help kids get over that hurdle,” he (Mr. Gaskins) said. “But they may not have a solid enough base to really show they’ve mastered the subject.”

In most school systems, what happens to students like Ms. Croslen after they obtain their diplomas is of little concern. But the New York City Department of Education acknowledges that despite rising graduation rates, many graduates lack basic skills, and it is trying to do something about it.

Considering the data mining we can do for everything else in this country, tracking high school graduates should be simple – probably less complex than anything Fedex or UPS does on a daily basis.

This year, for the first time, it has sent detailed reports to all of its high schools, telling them just how many of their students who arrived at the city’s public colleges needed remedial courses, as well as how many stayed enrolled after their first semester. The reports go beyond the basic measure of a school’s success — the percentage of students who earn a diploma — to let educators know whether they have been preparing those students for college or simply churning them out.

Illinois began tracking how its high school graduates fared in college several years ago, after dismaying reports about freshmen floundering at state schools. Officials in Denver and Philadelphia are now following suit.

Until this article, I was always speculating, based on what I ‘felt’ which was not even a good qualitative measur,e but it was in my gut.   I DO NOT feel vindicated, in fact, I feel horrified to know so few were concerned until now about the quality of students we have been letting graduate.  As I have stated before in other blogs, betraying students and their parents trust in what they believe they are learning is the biggest disgrace of all.

Unfortunately, many teachers and principals are okay with the numbers racket and not being truthful because, at the end of the day, as I have been told, it is just a job and I should not take it so seriously.  For me, education is a serious affair since the students I teach will one day be tailors for NASA uniforms in space exploration, mechanics for electric cars, neurologists with lasers, farmers to feed a nation healthy and local food, etc.  Teaching is not just a job – it is a calling, but not for game players.  I have given up teaching jobs which required too much playing with the grades and/or lying  for the simple reason I have to go home and live with myself and see myself in the mirror in the morning.  My experience with charter schools indicates it is about the API and AYP numbers, which is how the school is judged, not the ultimate outcome of what the students graduating high school go on to achieve.  Thankfully, Arne Duncan and President Obama have indicated I was onto something by stating what is important is how many young adults we GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE.  Now, those are numbers I will watch.