Spaced Learning & My GRE Prep

After battling mini math sections and losing to most of them, I need to rethink how I study. Though I have been studying for a couple of months and my exam date is a little more than eight weeks away, I have been making little progress in the quantative section. As some one who managed to evade math my senior year of high school and all throughout college, I have to re-teach myself most of the material on the GRE. I started to feel overwhelemed by this task and had no clue where to start. My plan has been to complete a practice math section and review the answers I got wrong (which, as I’ve mentioned previously, have been most of them). An obstacle I’m encountering is that because the math section contains problems from various categories (algebra, geometry),  I find myself quickly swinging from category to category and not sticking to a category and the in and outs to that category to actually retain any of the information. I’m going over each incorrect answer and reviewing the correct answer just to learn it in the moment and not make any real effort to actually know and understand it and problems like it. I have come to realize that I need to spend more time on focusing on one category at a time, slowly transitioning into a new category, and intergrating the previously reviewed categories, if I want to do well on the GRE. 

Education Nation Tip: Writing Skills and Social Media

When my 21 year old neice was in high school and started actively using Facebook, I constantly sent her private messages discouraging the use of shorthand text. I worried that it took away from her ability to effectively write and communicate. It’s okay to take your time and express your thoughts. Not everything has to have hashtags, abbreviations and fragmented responses. 

But we live in a society where shorthand and social media go hand-in-hand. This NBC News’ Education Nation tip is timely, educational and require’s a challenge that can involve family members and friends (though I wasn’t aware that fifth graders used social media–boy am I getting old!).


Christie Defunding Proposal, Jersey JazzMan & Inaccurate Data on Charter Success

I think charter cheerleading keeps us from having a real conversation about the structural problems related to race and economic inequality in America.

Woah, JerseyJazzman. This and other amazing gems in his scathing post about Chris Christie‘s plan to defund already underfunded public schools and the inaccurate Christie supporter who spews inaccurate data about schools to make charters look like they simply outshine public schools fair and square. 

Chris Christie’s Unfair Fairness Formula

​Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and Donald Trump supporter (and possible his VP nominee), proposed an education funding plan that would divert funds from underfunded inner-city public schools to well off public schools.

The plan advocates for equal state funding or a flat rate funding to all students, regardless of the amount of funding the student already receives from local property and income taxes. Under his proposal, each New Jersey student would recieve a flat rate $6,599 from the state; this excludes special education students, who would receive more funds.

What exactly does this mean?

Poor school districts, where parents can only afford to rent property and not own property, will see much needed “extra” state funding removed from their school budgets and sent to districts where spending per student already far exceeds the per student spending in poor districts. I placed the word extra in quotations because even with those state funds, the inner-city schools still can’t provide students with a decent  quality education. Students in these poor districts will see a decrease in the quality of education because districts and schools will be forced to fire teachers, aides and cut back on after school programs, extracurricular activities and classroom resources.

Meanwhile parents in the well off school districts will see a decrease in property taxes (meaning they bring home more money to their families) and an increase in the amount spent per student. A Rutgers University preliminary analysis featured in the New Jersey Education Policy Forum lays out how the already well off schools and families will benefit from this proposal and how the poorest schools will evidently be the losers (This report also disproves Christie’s claim that the 31 poorest schools have not in proved under the current funding plan).

According to Christie, this proposal will help ease taxation on middle and upper class families, while forcing lower class famlies to spend (or not spend) what they simply don’t have. He said that middle and upper class families have been footing the bill for 31 of the state’s poorest schools for years, but to no avail. Christie is essentially saying “now is the time for those middle and upper class families to take their money back and these poor schools, these poor, communities, these poor parents, these poor children will simply need to fend for themselves.” 

According to Christie, for these low-income school districts “Failure is still the rule, not the exception…That is an unacceptable, immoral waste of the hard-earned money of the people of New Jersey.”

This is an attack on the beauracratic public school system. I understand that public schools are entrenched with wasteful policy spending, however, it makes no sense to decrease funding  for these students. The obvious reason is that a decrease in funding will only increase their chances of staying in poverty. The cycle continues. But that’s not governor Christie’s problem or concern. How the hell is this proposal fair when it ensures that students in these low-income schools will make due with inadequate resources?  It makes no sense. 

Summer Learning: Why Aren’t we Outraged About the Summer Slide?

It’s Independence Day weekend, and it’s quite beautiful outside. I’m sitting on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, and I see families playing in the sand, friends riding bikes and couples going for walks. This weekend, for a lot of working adults, comes as a nice and relaxing break. While I have a fun weekend scheduled, I’ll be spending Monday, July 4th, studying for the GRE. Monday night will be spent getting ready for the work week, where I’ll be working on various projects that will require me to both work independently and with colleagues. I’ll have to work through a to-do list and manage and complete unexpected projects. At any given point, I’ll be doing a combination of any of the following:

  • reading
  • writing
  • editing or
  • thinking of and suggesting solutions

 Effective employees across the world will be using similar skills, inadditon to a few others. Many young students, however, will have a two month long summer break where they won’t engage in various educational and social activites that will excercise their brains.
We know that students, especially low-income students (particularly those living in suburban or rural areas), forget what they learned the previous year. 

…how can a system that claims to educate kids claim that students are learning when we don’t try to create an environment in which learning is continuous?

I don’t mean that summer should be an extension of the school year, where you have children sitting in a classroom most of the day. The summer season is a great time for both teachers and students to enjoy the outdoors. Students should be taking class trips to museums and reading books outside. They should be engaging in discussions on current events, where they first read about an event and discuss their opinion–  whatever that may be– with a group of peers at a picnic.

Sadly, we’ve conditioned our students and families to believe that education is to be paused, for the most part, during the summer vacation. For a lot of low-income families, this is more of a default, mostly because lack of funds and vision of how to incorporate educational aspects in everyday life.

Who’s Responsible?

Should school districts continue to provide students with an enriching summer educational experience? Afterall, it’s the teachers who  have to work that much harder in the Fall to reteach content already taught the previous year

Should the parents, financially disadvantage as they may be, find a way to provide their own children with a vibrant and varied experince that will keep their young minds active and academically and socially up to speed?

Or, should some other third party, such as a children or educational non-profit organization or youth center take on this challenge?

It’s expensive to keep a school open during the school year. It’s even more so during the summer months, because the cost to maintain a minimum level of saftey for a small number of students is far too high. Youth centers, and especially parents, are available year-long (presumably). One would think that this would route would make more sense. While I think it does, non-profit organizaions and low-income parents have the same issues schools have: lack of money.

So who should step in and prevent the summer slide? I think the best answer would be a combinantion of all three sources, with parents leading the pact.

The Funding Issue 

So, of course, the next big question is how does this get funded? 

We know that this is an issue that doesn’t just impact student’s in a particular city of state. We know that millions of students in communities across the country come back to school less knowledgable and focused than before  they left school for the summer break. But as a country, we choose to ignore this problem. We continue to unfairly evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, which attempts to gage how much a student has learned from content that ws covered rgar school year. We don’t take into consideration the time teachers spend at the begining of the year trying to catch students up to speed. 

Even more troubling is that the summer slide points to something that is even more troubling. It shows that students can pass test at the end of the year but not make any real use for them, so as along as students can continue passing a few exams, they cen get away with not retaining realinformation. The system as a whole seems to be ineffective and we need government support behind a real solution, if we want our students to truly learn.

I’m always troubled by the proverb “It takes a s village to raise a child.” Everyone seems to agree with this, but we won’t admit that we’re doing teachers and students a cruel injustice when we leave them alone for the summer with to real guidance as to how they can become multifacted learners, outside of the classroom environment.

Civics Education, Everyone!

How often do we engage students in the communities they live in?

How often are they given opportunities to play a role in changing local community policy?

Do educators and community leaders actively seek student involvement?

What happens to student engagement and core skills, such as writing and public speaking, when students play a role in local reform?

Jessica Lander’s recent Usable Knowledge post on the positive educational and social benefits of effective civic education outlines the ways in which the field of civics can demand that the players in the game master some of the skills that we deem most valuable in today’s society.

A friend of mine, who taught high school statistics for nine years, asked me, “What are professionals actually doing during the work day? The answer to this question may give us direction as to what students really should be learning.”

Some of the common work activities me and my friend both engaged in were drafting material, explaining next steps, and the status of projects via email, conducting and creating clear, concise and well organized research reports and giving presentations, short or long, on either our own ideas or research results.

I now often ask myself this question and have noticed that some of these daily tasks seem to have a common denominator:


This makes perfect sense, considering people don’t usually work in a bubble. But the jeey point here is we’re being asked to master various forms of communication, both written and verbal, throughout the work day. Knowing one skill, say verbal communication, isn’t good enough. We need to know how to effectively communicate with others in a concise manner. More importantly, we need to know that our written and verbal communication is to the point where we can confidently communicate with any member in or outside the organization.

So when Lander’s recalls her students rewriting and drafting emails, proposals and material for their presentations, when she recalls them going over their presentations for people who are the gatekeepers of change, it seemed to have given her students a realistic opportunity to want to put those skills to use. It gave them real reason to put those skills to use. It seemed act as an inside look to what being an active and engaged citizen looks like. Or rather, they were, in fact, being active and engaged citizens and that level of engagement opened their eyes to that democratic right.

Lander’s can clearly see the enormous potential civic education has. She notes throughout the post how what her students were doing was very hands on and practical, how it requires them to go beyond the five paragraph essay, as she says, and how it would take more than just a creative, dedicated, and passionate teacher in a classroom for students to really reap the benefits of this kind of engagement. It would take community involvement. In order for students to get the most out of civic education, they would need to leave the traditional classroom, so to speak.and actually emerge themselves in the issues of the community and then work on communicating why those are issues and how best to solve them.

What was troubling, but not surprising, was how the students had to go up against bureaucracy in their own school system:

We found, to our frustration, that our school’s administration barred us from asking for a meeting or otherwise directly contacting a number of district and state officials.

Relinquishing even small amounts of control can be difficult. But if school systems are committed to fostering civically engaged young people, they must be ready to take seriously the voices and ideas of their students.

The schools administration, in this case, proved to be stopping real education. More confusing is if district and state officials aren’t willing to speak with students in the neighborhoods they cover, who are they speaking to?…I digress.

The reality of this assignment is what makes it so successful and beneficial. Lander’s assignment is not like most assignments, wherein a student asks a teacher why an assignment needs to be done and the teacher says something along the lines of “it will make you a better writer” but there’s no real context, there’s no real vision attached to the assignment. Therefore, to some students, the purpose doesn’t seem real. As the title of the post suggests, the students’ presentations were being reviewed by real people who had the power to make real change and could really possibly take the students’ views and arguments into consideration. More than anything, the students were interacting with local leaders and business professionals in the same way those leaders and professionals would interact with one another.

Talk about preparing students for the future!

I’ll end with this well said nugget from the post:

When successful, civic education should be transformative. After all, civic engagement is about seeing needs in the community, knowing how to make change, and believing you have the power to do it. On that day, my students came away sure in their voice and confident that their voice was heard.

On Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope

I recently read Joel Klein’s Lessons of Hope. As the last former chancellor of New York City Department of Education, Klein has a valuable perspective. His book, which is essentially a memoir of his time as chancellor, is great for those who want to get a detailed view point of someone who has made radical (mostly exceptionally positive) changes to a local, but large school system.

Under Klein’s leadership, New York City’s families were able to receive many benefits, such as the expansion of smaller schools and the overhaul, restructuring and closing of very big and deeply troubled schools. Klein also made  an aggressive push for princnipal authority, which I loved. It was shocking to read that principals couldn’t pick their own assistant principals and that senior teachers could have more say in where they teach simply because of their time spent in the field. Even more shocking, the politics that comes with one of the largest unions in the country is unreal. I believe in unions and disagree with the idea that if teachers do their jobs well, they wouldn’t need policy in place to provide job security. Teaching is far too complex. Students’ lives, personalities and learning capabilities vary, and there are countless other factors that affect teaching outside of a teachers control, which makes teaching difficult and deserving of protection. But, the United Federation of Teachers union’s contract goes beyond a level of reasonable protections. I’ve written about this before, and this book only gave me added confirmation: teachers’ unions and their contracts make it suchu that teaching truly isn’t a profession. Klein talks about this a lot and it’s certainly true if anyone takes some of the ridiculous rules aprroved under teachers’ contracts in the last fifteen years. Teachers have too much protection that can create in imbalance between teacher protection and learning quality, with more weight being put on teacher protecion. If the goal for teachers is to improve education, than to a certain extent, the union and it’s members are counterproductive.

Klein also introduced me to some amazing educators and administrators, such as Shimon Waronker and Jim Liebman. Jim Liebman’s efforts, though not directly concentrated in the classroom, helped  streamline student information that was previously unavailable to teachers and parents. He also led a well organized human resources effort designed to help teachers receive an assortment of student information that could help them better understand their students’ academic history. I thought this was not only thoughtful but imperative for a healthy relationship with teachers. It’s a strategic move that acknowledges that teachers need to be supported in many ways; an effective, efficient HR team and informative student data being a couple  of them.

Shimon Waronker transformed M.S. 22 as their principal. Later while attending Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Waronker thought of a truly innovative way to better the current school structure. In the school Waronker envisioned, a handful of teachers would work with the same group students throughout their elementary school experience. It was exciting to read and think about, and later in this review, I play around with a suggestion inspired by this model.

But first, let me step back and revisit the union issue. As Klein consistently bumped heads with the UFT throughout his tenure, he routinely outlines some of the obstacles they put before him throughout the book. One particular issue the UFT was in favor of, but I don’t understand what long term good could come of it, is social promotion. I’ve suggested readings on this a couple of times before. I continue to believe that it doesn’t makes sense to promote a student who is behind his grade level. He’s not ready for the next learning level,  which hurts students who are at grade level (by learning at a slower pace to accomodate the students who are academically behind), and in the long run, the student himself. We need to do more about how students are perceived when it comes to grade “promotion.” We need to be careful   about the language for sure, but I think the answer really does lie in classroom and school structure.

I understand the negative stigma that comes with “getting left behind” or “held back.” As Klein and Shimon Waronker think about different school structures, maybe the answer to this left behind stigma is a new grade school structure. Shimon Waronker’s model, mentioned in a previous paragraph, could be a possible solution. Klein was enthusiatic and open to this kind of structure, and we certainly need educational leaders who are willing to think outside the box when it comes o improving the quality of education students receive.

While there were some extraordinary and much needed changes made during Klein’s administration, there were also some low points. While, Klein admits to some of the more public facing mess ups, there are some areas that I don’t think he thinks he did wrong.

On Accountablity and Professional Developemt

Klein undoubtedly is a fan of accountablity. With such a large education system and such heavy and some ludacris teacher protections, how can anyone blame him. I certainly don’t. Like any job, employees should be held responsible for the quality of their work because, at a minimum, good quality of work is what they’re paid to do. However, for reasons mentioned earlier in this opinion, teaching and gaging the effectiveness of any teacher is far more complex  than in other professions.  Not everything can be quantified and I don’t think our accountability measures can be truly effective because of this. I hoped that Klein would use this push in accountability to provide teachers with deep assesments and professional development. I wanted their to be a section dedicated to other ways accountability can be used, outside of holding teachers responsible for their work that is so difficult to evaluate to begin with. More explicitly, I wanted a detailed section dedicated to PD as a result of his accountability agenda. I wanted a examples and stories that followed a teachers growth prior to and after being held against Klein’s accountability measures. This folds into a more deeper look at Klein’s PD efforts. 

On Professional Devlopment

First off, let me start by saying that it’s amazing that Klein provided math and education coaches for schools. Lord knows it’s neccessary, and I can imagine it as a very useful resoure. It shows that education leaders actually want to see change. Jim Liebman’s programs also are a great contribution to professional development. Both should be applauded. But with the increase in accountability, which includes erroneous methods that may be more faulty than acknowledged, their should be an even larger push in increased quality professional developemt. I have written about and heard too many teachers say that professional development can be a waste of time, that it doesn’t take individual teachers weaknesses into consideration and even that it repeats too much material ripped out of a graduate student’s textbook, information that some teachers have seen many, many times before.

In an effort to explain why teacher quality is so low, Klein puts some pressure on the schools of education that attract, accept and are producing inept graduates. He also points to the fact that the UFT puts limitations on merit pay, which detracts smart people form joining the profession. While both these points may be true, they both entail fallacy, to a certian extent. He almost makes ut seem as if good teaching is something people are born with. These arguments don’t take proper, insightful and personalized professional development  into consideration. Klein’s low-performing-education-graduate-school-student argument suggests that if a teacher doesn’t graduate at the top of her class, if she graduates near the bottom of her class, she’ll just be a mediocre teacher, if that. There doesn’t seem to be room for quality OF to make that teacher better at teaching. What I wanted him to say in response to the quality of the teacher pool is that in addition to his suggestion that schools of education play their part by increasing their standards and strengthening their curriculum, we as the teachers’ employers will try to equip every teacher with the unique professional development to become a phenomanal teacher who earns her bonuses and high salary based on the quality of eduaction she provides her students. Unfortunately, this argument never came.

As for his higher-salaries-will-attract- smarter-teachers argument, that also may be so, but it’s flawed because it assumes that smart people know how to teach what they know. They too could benefit from high quality professional development. He’s clearly in favor of higher performing students, possibly because they could be an easier and more inexpensive group to train. But this doesn’t match up with the reality of the high demand for teachers, which can’t only pick from the top of the graduating class to meet that demand. With that departments of education must face the fact that

This brings me to my next accountability-professional development-realted issue. There are some points in the book where he compares the quality of education at some charters schools to the quality of education at some traditional schools. He said that some of the better performing charter schools that raise students’ test scores proves that minority, low-income students can overcome poverty with the right education and that public schools should stop making excuses for their students’ learning capabilities.

This is an unfair comparison because teachers in charter schools often have a few important advantages teachers in traditional schools don’t have. They inlcude:

1) Size matters: charters tend to have exponentially smaller school systems that make it easier to provide teacher specific professional development and student specific learning. The teacher to student ratio tends to be more manageable than traditional schools. A teacher with fewer students is more likely to teach to her students abilities.

2) In school support: charter schools tend to have the budget flexibility (in terms of allocation) to provide its teachers and students with better in school services, such as experienced and knowledgeable nurses who are capable of identifying potentially serious health issues and program coordinators whose main focus is to improve either social or academic programming.

3) Money: it always comes back to money. Because class sizes tend to be smaller and teachers tend to receive more focused and useful professional development, some charter schools tend to be more productive. Top that with the fact that charters attract a high-level of philanthropy, while also receiving public dollars for each student and you have a recipe for a more sucessful and goal-oriented school.

4) Students: while most inner-city charter schools take in a large number of minority and low-income students, these students tend to be either smarter or have “willing to learn” mentalities than their public school classmates. Some of their parents tend to be more able to focus on school quality options and are more aware that other options are available for their child and are able to go through the application process, as you need to apply to charter schools. Klein’s traditional-schools-make-excuses-when charters are producing the better-results-with-the-same-kids-argument is weak because they aren’t the same kids. It’s too simplistic to call all kids from low-income minorities the same because of those two attributes. This argument completely ignores nuances of poverty and family capabilities. It lumps all students into one bucket, and it doesn’t acknowledge that charter schools may be attracting a certain type of student or certain types of families within the larger umbrellas of low-income and minorities.

With that said, some traditonal school teachers and principals are not making excuses, but actually have less money, control and support to do better for their students. A huge part of this is the beauracratic system and not  the schools. They’re operating under a completely different system and set of circumstances. All things are NOT equal between teachers at these two school structures. What is equal id that they have the passion to enter a challenging and needed field. Because they’re working under different conditions, both should be held accountable, to a certain degree. But the results of the accountability efforts should not be compared without regard to the difference in conditions.

On Competition

Okay. I swear I’m almost done. My last complaint sort of rides off of my last point. Klein consistently called the NYC public school system a monoply. He was right in saying that and that’s why Bloomberg brought him on. What I do not understand is througout the book he uses the word competition to describe the relationship between the various types of schools that he helped create, but mainly charter schools and traditional public schools. I think there should be competition, as to drive out the underperforming schools and provide families with more options. But their is only an emphasis on competition and hardly any emphasis on a concious effort to encourage different school types and structures to collaborate and work on how to make all schools in the system better. In other words, why didn’t I read about a policy or push for a policy that pushes leaders and teachers at all levels and at various schools to find time for constructive collaboration and exchange ideas on an ongoing basis? Perhaps there are dilemmas an underperforming school, be it charter or public, can help the sucessful school solve and vice versa. I need to read into whether this was a mandate for those who wanted to open up charter schools. If it was,Klein failed to emphasis it.

Learning, collaboration and brainstorming should be key and should be constantly happening between all schools that receive tax dollars. Ideas should constantly be exchanged and expressed from people at all levels of experiences, school structures, environments and backgrounds.

I’m deeply troubled by why the opening of various types of schools wasn’t used as a learning experience for surrounding schools but rather encouraged to be competitors. If for whatever reason this collaboration idea was some how knocked by unions, I wasn’t under the impression that it bothered Klein at all. I want competiton and collaboration. I want to try to continue to make public schools better. I think they’d benefit from those two “C” words. I think a healthy balance could be nice. I also think that, based on the tone of Klein’s book, the lack of emphasis on professinal development and the emphasis on competition, that he’s given up on public schools. And as somone who is truly innovative, creative and passionate about education, I really hope he hasn’t.

Despite some of what I perceive to be major faults, hearing Joel Klein’s side of his tenure is extraordinarily insightful and imperative for all parents, teachers and students effected by his administration. This book is undoubtedly a must read for anyone (which should be everyone…) interested in education policy.

More From Paul Tough!

I can’t wait until my copy of Paul Tough’s recently published book, Helping Children Succeed comes in the mail. I wrote a brief review on his last book, How Children Succeed, which I loved for it’s ability to connect  learning behavior and attitudes, both positive and negative, to nereoulogical processes. For now, I’ll just read his recent NYT article that features an adaption of one of the sections from Helping Children Succeed.

To Math or Not to Math

Over the weekend, I listened to “Decoding the Math Myth,” a podcast hosted by American Radio Works where Andrew Hacker, retired Queens College professor and political scientist talks about his book The Math Myth and Other Stem Delusions. As someone who struggled in math and who has only used basic arithmetic as an adult, this subject appealed to me.

I especially enjoyed Hacker’s push against high school curriculum that often encourages students, who want to at least be considered by good colleges, to take pre-calculus or calculus, without other options. He argues that classes along the lines of numeracy and citizens statistics could be just as challenging, and, in Hacker’s mind, more fruitful. To a certain extent, I agree. At the outset, mastering statistics seems as if it’s not only difficult but applicable to various fields, but research in particular.

I then listened to the follow-up podcast, “Is Advanced Math Necessary?” Where Standford professor Keith Devlin argues that Hacker has a rudimentary understanding of advanced math and that Hacker does not even know the history of math and how it connects to higher order thinking. While I do t think Devlin’s response is clear in the American Radio Works podcast, his Huffington Post article on the subject seems to be a more organized and clear outline of how Hacker is uninformed on the subject of advanced math and how this lack of expertise led him to misguided views. In explaining the reason and use of the first algebra textbook, Devlin shows how Hacker’s claims actually favor algebra:

The focus was on how to think about problems, and had nothing to do with manipulating symbols. That is algebra. It is exactly the mental toolkit that Hacker says repeatedly is crucially important and should be taught in schools.

Without realizing it, Devlin argues, Hacker actually wants to change how it’s taught in classrooms and not simply so away with it. Devlin largely agrees with Hacker, especially in the idea that high school math, whether it be alegebra, calculus or statistics, needs to be taught in a way that seems practical and  not in such away that seems as if it’s being taught for math’s sake.

I’d like to take Hacker’s point of replacing algebra with classes like numeracy and citizens statistics in a slightly different direction. It would be great to see colleges favor advanced math courses that include not only calculus or statistics but also numeracy because they’re all beneficial for growth in there own ways. In his American Radio Works podcast, Hacker outlines a math class he taught that involved real world problems, which allowed students to see why they were learning that level of math and how it can be used in the world the see around them.