The Evil that Schools Do

Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to education reforms in the past 20 – 30 years knows that rote memorization, or drill and kill, are the single worst things a developing child can be exposed to.   Not only does rote memorization take the joy out of learning, it undermines children’s ability to understand numbers and arithmetic operations.  Teachers forcing children to memorize math facts to automatic recall are committing what can only be characterized as educational malpractice.  In this modern era the focus in education is on deeper understanding, critical thinking, and developing 21st Century skills, not on creating a generation of robots who mindlessly repeat steps they don’t understand.

Too bad those promises aren’t based on actual science.  You know data, from actual studies, conducted by actual scientists and peer reviewed, that show that rote memorization undermines learning.  Because the studies, the actual science and data, show the opposite.

The Journal of Neuroscience recently published a study conducted by two professors of neuroscience from the University of Ontario. The scientists observed something rather amazing during their study:

Students who performed well on the math section of the PSAT showed more activity in brain areas linked to memory of math facts. Those with lower math PSAT scores had less brain activity in those areas and more in areas associated with processing number quantities.

The findings suggest that the high-achieving students knew the answers by memory, while lower-performing students were calculating even low-level problems.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Children who knew their math facts to automatic recall, or rote, did better in math than those who didn’t.  College professors and high school math teachers have observed this for years, but have been scoffed at, belittled, and worse by the folks peddling programs they claim foster deeper understanding and critical thinking.  Turns out the college professors and high school math teachers were right.

I don’t think anything will change as our country has sold it’s soul to the promise peddlers and has spent literally hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars developing techniques employed by these folks to undermine parent opposition to their programs.  Virginia has fully embraced these programs and openly advocates giving calculators to children, starting in kindergarten.

There’s just too much money and too much influence at the highest levels of government for anything to change.

Virginia Virtucon recently noted that students in Prince William County lag far behind students in Fairfax and Loudoun in their performance on the PSAT and in the number of students who qualify as National Merit Scholars.  Virtucon wanted to know why.

Prince William County is run by folks who honestly believe mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms are dangerous as they undermine student learning and critical thinking skills, and they teach that to our teachers.  The science says mastery of math facts and the standard algorithms actually improve student learning.  Virtucon, I think perhaps we’ve found part of the answer to your question.

I don’t expect anything to change.  Education in the United States and Virginia is run by folks who are making money by the boatload selling programs that they claim help students develop deeper understanding, critical thinking, and 21st Century skills.  Unfortunately, what they claim their programs offer will actually leave our children even further behind.  The evil that our schools do will live after them.

Why Johnny Can’t Subtract

Many parents and teachers have complained to me that their children can’t subtract.  While most of us managed to get through grade school generally getting subtraction, the whole concept seems to be beyond our children’s abilities.

In the past I’ve blamed Math Investigations and it’s approach to teaching subtraction.  But those complaints have continued this year, even with our new instructional resource.  In fact, the complaints have gotten louder, with many parents upset that Connects moves through material quickly and doesn’t give kids the time to understand and learn procedures.

This pace, which is leading to frustration and a profound lack of understanding, is intentional.  Not because of Connects, but the PWCS Math Department.

Read the rest of this entry »

The VA DOE Loves Calculators

The VA DOE loves calculators, because arithmetic is hard and having calculators means teachers don’t have to teach arithmetic and the DOE doesn’t have to test for arithmetic fluency.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trust Nothing You Hear from the Education Establishment

When it comes to education we parents have to trust that the teachers and education administrators in our public school systems won’t do anything that will harm our children.  While I think most of our classroom teachers have our children’s best interests at heart, I doubt everything I hear from the education administrators & bureaucrats.

I’m sorry to say that, but I have seen far too much evidence that the education administrators at the local, state, and federal level are corrupt and will willingly and knowingly lie or distort facts, to trust a word they say anymore.  Unfortunately, debunking their lies usually requires a degree of professional skepticism coupled with a willingness to dig into and understand details, something our elected officials are unwilling or unable to do.

The net effect is that the corrupt liars are setting education policy in this county, state, and country and our children are suffering because of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blame the Teachers, Part (3)

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

I think PWCS is wrong.  I don’t think our teachers are at fault for the problems that continue in our elementary level math program.  I don’t think our elementary level teachers have the autonomy the school division says they do because they have to teach to the test.  Not the SOLs, the CFAs. Read the rest of this entry »

Blame the Teachers, Part (2)

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

During the Math informational presentation at the January 2 2013 school board meeting PWCS staff made a number of statements that I felt deserved a bit more clarification.  This is part (2) of that series.

Read the rest of this entry »

Blame the Teachers

Blame the teachers.  That’s the advice from PWCS for anyone with concerns about the Math program.

According to PWCS staff, teachers developed the assessments and have the authority and autonomy to select and use any materials they want in any order no matter what the recommended pacing might suggest.  Teachers can even disavow instructional materials entirely, if they so desire.  Lesson pacing is just a suggestion, not set in stone, and teachers can teach lessons in any order they want based on what they believe will best meet the needs of their diverse community of students.  Our teachers teach the curriculum, not a textbook.

Any concerns or questions anyone has with what’s being taught, the manner in which it’s being taught, the order in which it’s being taught, what’s being tested, or how responses are being graded needs to bring those concerns to the attention of their child’s teacher.  Central office, and the Math Department, exist solely to create learning environments to enhance teacher professional development and student learning.

Got that teachers?  According to PWCS, when it comes to Math, it’s all on you.

If any teachers are feeling like they just got thrown under the bus by PWCS, watch out for the tires, they sting.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Times in the Kelly Center Tonight!

There is a school board meeting tonight, January 2, 2013, and it should be interesting.  There will be a Work Session on the CIP following the regular meeting.  Both the meeting and work session are open to the public.

Read the rest of this entry »

Accentuating the Positive or Misleading the Public?

Most of us who have ever worked for a private business have experience in trying to highlight the things we do well.  A restaurant with an extensive wine list will emphasize the variety of wines they offer in adverts, and maybe not mention that they don’t serve dessert.   A business that’s received awards for processing the greatest volume of home mortgages won’t mention how many of their mortgages ended up in foreclosure. A weight loss company will advertise that they have the greatest numbers of customers reach their goal weight of all the national weight loss programs.  They just won’t mention that it’s only 5% of their customers.

Business people know that highlighting what you do well attracts new customers and brings old customers back.

But what about government entities, like the police, fire and rescue, or public schools?   Government entities exist to serve the public; the money they receive to perform their duties comes from the taxpayers.  Unlike private companies, who are subject to the whims of free choice and will lose customers and go out of business if they don’t do a good job, government entities will still get taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they do their jobs.

Because government entities are going to get their taxpayer money no matter how well or poorly they perform their duties, the public requires that government entities report various measures of their performance.  Police departments are expected to report crime statistics, and police chiefs are held accountable when crime rates increase.  Fire and rescue departments are expected to report response times, and held accountable when slow response times jeopardize public safety.   Public schools are expected to report test scores, and, in theory, held accountable when scores don’t meet community expectations.

What would you think if a school division selectively reported test scores to highlight success and failed to report when test scores were below expectations?

Several weeks ago PWCS reported on the ACT scores for several of our schools.  The press release was titled, “Prince William ACT Scores Exceed National Scores” and stated the following:

August 22, 2012

Students in Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) scored above the national composite average for the fifth straight year on the college benchmark ACT. Students in four Prince William County High Schools exceeded the state average while overall Division scores remained the same as last year. Battlefield, Brentsville District, Forest Park, and Osbourn Park students achieved composite scores of 23.5, 24.0, 22.4 and 23.4 respectively, exceeding the state composite score of 22.4 and joining other PWCS schools in besting the national outcome of 21.1.

PWCS students exceeded the national average score in all four content areas–English, mathematics, reading, and science–on the ACT administered last year. More students ever took the test. The number of PWCS graduating seniors taking the ACT has increased each year since 2007-08, with a 28 percent increase overall from that year to 2011-12.
ACT scores assess high school students’ general educational development and ability to complete college-level work. Unlike an aptitude or reasoning test, the ACT is designed to be an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The ACT consists of multiple-choice questions. ACT results are reported on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score. Visit the ACT Web site for more information.>

Sounds great, right?

Except for what’s missing – like how PWCS fared when compared with Virginia as a whole on the ACT and how the other seven Prince William County public high schools fared on the ACT.  One look at those scores and you understand why.

PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT.  Let me say that again, and in bold, because it’s really important. PWCS scored below Virginia averages in every content area tested on the ACT. The other 7 PWC high schools that weren’t listed in the press release scored below county and US averages in every content area tested on the ACT, with the exception of Woodbridge HS, which scored above US averages but below state and county averages.

Unlike the SOL, the ACT is a voluntary test, so these scores represent our top tier students, the students we’d expect to go to college.  And in that top tier group, ACT scores only exceed state averages in 4 of our 11 high schools; that’s 36%.   The other 7, 64%, are below state averages.

Still feel like cheering?

We saw the same approach with SOL scores.  PWCS reported how well our students performed relative to state averages.  A school board member reported on his facebook page that PWCS had exceeded state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, and proclaimed success!

What we weren’t told, again, was the most telling.

Yes, pass rates were above state averages in 21 of 28 areas tested, but we were below state averages in 7 of the 9 areas tested in High School.  That kind of explains why our SAT and ACT scores continue to lag behind state averages.

Yes, quoting the school division’s press release, “PWCS students achieved higher pass rates than the state on all elementary math tests”.   Unfortunately, pass rates were below state averages in 4 of the 9 areas tested for Math, and below state averages in all of the High School level math subjects tested on the SOL.

Yes, Reading scores went up after several consecutive years of declining, but they were up by the same margin statewide, so that increase may be due to a testing irregularity as opposed to the results of improved instruction.

When compared with other school divisions in our area, our test scores only exceeded Manassas and Manassas Park.  Our pass rates were below Fauquier, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford on just about every subject tested on the SOL. We’ve been below Fairfax and Loudoun for years, but Fauquier and Stafford have only recently begun to kick our butts. At one point a few years ago our SOL scores in Math were close to Loudoun’s. Not so much anymore.

Which bring me to another, final point.  Why do we compare ourselves with Virginia averages and then declare success when we do about average for Virginia?  We’re one of the most affluent counties in the state.  Like our neighbors in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Stafford, our citizens tend to be highly educated.   We should be doing better than average for the state.  We should be one of the top performing school divisions in the state. But we’re not.

I can understand accentuating the positive.  I totally get that.

But our schools are struggling, especially at the high school level and especially with high school Math.  Our SAT and ACT scores show that.  They have for years.

So do our SOL scores.  They have for years.

But you have to be willing to look at the scores to see that, and I’m not sure PWCS is willing to do that. They’re too busy accentuating the positive to step back and admit that there might be some negative. From what I’ve read, our school division appears to believe that things in our schools are just peachy keen and that average for the state is an acceptable goal.

I think it’s unacceptable.

Lions and Tigers and Math SOL scores – Oh My!!!

Word on the street is that PWCS’s pass rates on the revised and “more rigorous” Math SOL are abysmal, and hysteria has broken out across the county.  OK, hysteria might be a bit of an exaggeration because most of us are already in a summer vacation frame of mind and getting all hot and bothered when it’s 90 degrees out at 8:30 in the morning is impossible, but there has been a massive outbreak of vigorous finger pointing and hand wringing.

Told ya so.  Just saying.        Told.      Ya.      So.

We, or I to be more accurate, typically take a break from posting articles to the blog in the summer.  The snark and sarcasm factor tends to increase exponentially as the school year comes to a close, and we, or I more specifically, haven’t wanted to subject you to that.

Plus, my blog, my rules.

But I decided divert from that policy to actually put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, to comment on this mass outbreak of finger pointing and hand wringing over the “holy cow they’re low” pass rates for the Math SOL exam.  So here goes, but be forewarned, it’s my summer vacation and the snark is running freely.

Anyway, are our pass rates lower for the Math SOL this year?  Read the rest of this entry »


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