It Feels Kinda Like Vindication–The NY Times Takes Baby Steps on Education

It’s as if the NY Times is reading my blog. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I criticized NY Times op-ed writer (and former editor) Bill Keller for repeating the zombie myth about U.S. education–students are doing worse today than in the past (for those of you keeping score at home, this is false). So when I heard that the Science section of the Times would be dedicated to science education, I steeled myself for a humongous bolus of stupid.

Fortunately, I was wrong, as two articles are definitely worth noticing. The first describes how Massachusetts gained world-wide prominence in mathematics–something I might have mentioned once or twice (boldface mine):

Conventional wisdom and popular perception hold that American students are falling further and further behind in science and math achievement. The statistics from this state tell a different story.

If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, according to Timss — the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)

Massachusetts eighth graders also did well in mathematics, coming in sixth, behind Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

Let’s continue:

But behind Massachusetts’ raw numbers are two decades of sustained efforts to lift science and mathematics education. Educators and officials chose a course and held to it, even when the early results were deeply disappointing….

“Ed reform” was the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by a Republican governor, William F. Weld.

The three core components were more money (mostly to the urban schools), ambitious academic standards and a high-stakes test that students had to pass before collecting their high school diplomas. All students were expected to learn algebra before high school.

“It was a combination of carrots and sticks,” said David P. Driscoll, deputy education commissioner at the time.

Also noteworthy was what the reforms did not include. Parents were not offered vouchers for private schools. The state did not close poorly performing schools, eliminate tenure for teachers or add merit pay. The reforms did allow for some charter schools, but not many.

Then the state, by and large, stayed the course.

In other words, curriculum and using tests to improve the curriculum are really important:

Dr. Rees, the Braintree schools’ science director, said the standards helped make sure that teachers across the state covered the same subjects, laying the groundwork for subsequent grades.

“There’s a logic to that, a progression,” she said. “You start learning about solids in kindergarten. In first grade, you learn about solids and liquids, and then in second grade, you start to learn about solids and liquids and gases.”

The MCAS has helped Braintree figure out what works and what doesn’t. Middle school students were struggling with chemistry questions on the eighth-grade MCAS. The district changed the order of instruction, covering concrete science concepts in sixth grade and moving some chemistry topics to seventh. “And it worked,” Dr. Rees said. “They’re doing better on their chemistry.”

Maybe it’s all a fluke. Or maybe Massachusetts’ success simply has to do with Governor Dukakis’ cleanup of the Harbor and other environmental programs. But the 1993 education reform might be worth adopting elsewhere–and maybe Massachusetts’ standards should be used for the Common Core Curriculum too.

But it gets even better.

There’s a second article that discusses pedagogy–how to teach (boldface mine):

The technique under study in Tampa, called interleaving, has become an especially hot area of interest among researchers. It mixes distinct but related problems or ideas — long division, say, and multiplying fractions — in daily homework assignments.

Most textbooks and schools do the opposite, concentrating or “blocking” lessons to drive home skills by having students practice one at a time, over and over. This is the equivalent of shooting 100 free throws in a row for basketball practice, or running through just the A minor scale for an hour’s music lesson.

“The result is that you feel you’ve learned the material really well; people prefer blocked practice, when you ask them,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But they do much better on later tests when they practiced interleaved, or mixed, sets of problems or skills. It’s completely counterintuitive.”

Dr. Bjork and others have shown that studying mixed sets of related things — paintings, birds, baseball pitches — greatly improves people’s ability to make quick, accurate distinctions among them, compared with studying as usual, in blocks. Others have found the same improvements when the items being mixed are specific kinds of problems, like calculating volumes, or exponents.

A growing number of cognitive scientists now believe that this cocktail-shaker approach could improve students’ comprehension of a wide array of scientific concepts, whether chemical bonds, parallel evolution, the properties of elementary particles or pre-algebra.

The Tampa experiment is sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences in the Department of Education, which uses randomized, controlled trials — similar to what the Food and Drug Administration demands in approving new drugs — to determine which educational methods work and which do not. It is the first rigorous, classroom-based test of interleaving in mathematics.

You mean to say that how one teaches might be important? Who coulda thunk it?

Overall, a very good series.

The only problem is that this shouldn’t have been relegated to the Science section; it should have been a front-page series. Despite the nonstop propaganda of the education ‘reformers’, there are U.S. education success stories. We don’t have to blow everything up out of unnecessary despair, but, instead, nationally adopt the systems that work.

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2 Responses to It Feels Kinda Like Vindication–The NY Times Takes Baby Steps on Education

  1. Pingback: The Charter School Con (More Kinda Feels Like Vindication) | Mike the Mad Biologist

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