Thursday, October 29, 2015

American Schooling Is Getting Worse

The news from the education front is not good. We should not jump to stark conclusions from one year’s test results, but American schoolchildren in the fourth and eighth grades are not doing well. Their proficiency in reading and math has, on a year-over-year basis, declined.

At a time when mathematics is becoming increasingly important for future careers, American children are falling further behind. The question is not whether they can compete with the children in Singapore or Helsinki. They are doing worse than their own cohorts did two years ago… and worse than every other time since the tests were first given in 1990.

Surely, this is why President Obama offered up his own solution to the problem: don’t test the children so much. After all, if they don’t take tests they cannot fail at the tests. It's like saying that we can reduce the crime rate by not arresting so many people.

One must also note that many parents have opted out of the tests… because they do not agree with what Washington is trying to impose on them under the name of Common Core.

Brilliant… this is what seven years of Obama education policy has gotten us.

For the first time since 1990, the mathematical skills of American students have dropped, according to results of a nationwide test released by the Education Department on Wednesday.

The decline appeared in both Grades 4 and 8 in an exam administered every two years as the National Assessment of Educational Progressand sometimes called “the nation’s report card.”

The dip in scores comes as the country’s employers demand workers with ever-stronger skills in mathematics to compete in a global economy. It also comes as states grapple with the new Common Core academic standards and a rebellion against them.

As for language skills, the results are also discouraging:

Progress in reading, which has been generally more muted than in math for decades, also stalled this year as scores among fourth graders flat-lined and eighth-grade scores decreased. The exams assess a representative sampling of students on math and reading skills in public and private schools.

But, what does it all mean? Several interpretations offer themselves:

Education officials said that the first-time decline in math scores was unexpected, but that it could be related to changes ushered in by the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. For example, some of the fourth-grade math questions on data analysis, statistics and geometry are not part of that grade’s guidelines under the Common Core and so might not have been covered in class. The largest score drops on the fourth-grade math exams were on questions related to those topics.

The stagnating performance could also reflect the demographic changes sweeping America’s schools and the persistent achievement gap between white students and minorities, as well as between students from poor families and their more affluent peers.

One hypothesis is that it is the fault of Common Core. The Times considers this possibility:

As states have adopted the Common Core — guidelines for what students should know and be able to do between kindergarten and high school — many teachers have adjusted their curriculum and instructional methods, particularly in math. Students are asked to use math to solve real-life problems and find different ways to come at the same answer rather than simply repeating formulas.

Some educators suggested that some of the changes have sowed confusion among teachers and students that could be reflected in the national test scores. “Right now, what’s going on in many states is a wholesale change in math instruction,” said Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard. “We don’t know what’s happening with that in classrooms.”

One has had occasion to comment on this before, but the point should be made again: children learn math better by memorizing and applying formulas by rote. By forcing them to think about all the different ways they can find the same answer and by casting the multiplication tables in terms of solving real life problems, teachers are slowing down the learning process.

The Times also notes that some of the topics on the eighth grade math test were not covered in the new Common Core curriculum. This suggests, if I read it correctly, that Common Core is less challenging that previous teaching methods.

And then there are demographics. America’s schools have very recently seen an influx of poor, uneducated children from Mexico and Central America. Surely, these children are dragging down the scores, but their presence might also be slowing down the pace of classroom instruction.

The Times does offer the following on demographics:

About a quarter of public school students are Hispanic, compared with fewer than 10 percent in 1990. As a group, the scores of Hispanic students trail those of white students; this year, for example, 21 percent of Hispanic fourth graders scored at a level deemed proficient or above on reading tests, compared with 46 percent of white students.

The proportion of African-American students in public schools has remained fairly stable, but an achievement gap with white students remains. On the fourth-grade reading tests this year, just 18 percent of black students were deemed proficient.

America’s schoolchildren are also increasingly poor. Students from poor families often arrive at school with smaller vocabularies than students from middle-class or more affluent households, and are faced with challenges like hunger, homelessness and parents working several jobs, all of which can interfere with their learning in school and the academic support they receive at home — and ultimately their test scores.

Of course, the problem is not the difference between the percentage of Hispanic children in 1990 vs. the percentage today. The scores increased every year from 1990 until 2013. Thus, we should be looking for a more proximate cause.

In fact, the scores are compared to those from 2013. The Times has the statistics:

The average fourth-grade math score this year was 240 on a scale of 500, down from 242 in 2013, the last time the federal assessment results were released. The average eighth-grade math score was 282, down from 285 two years ago.

In reading, the average fourth-grade score of 223, compared with 222 in 2013, was not a statistically significant difference. The average eighth-grade score fell to 265 from 268.

Also, it is frightening to see that when it comes to reading proficiency among fourth graders, white children score 46%, Hispanic children score 21% and black children score 18%. The scores are appalling.

One is confident that poverty plays an important role in some cases, and one suspects that there is more poverty among black and Hispanic students than there is among white students. And, what happened to the Asian students? You know, the ones who are being brought up by the dread Tiger Moms. What are their proficiency rates?

If the poverty rate in minority communities has recently increased and if the schools have been forced to use Common Core teaching methods, one is obliged to say that much of the fault must lie with the presidency of Barack Obama.

To keep it all in balance, we also must note that many of these schools have adopted Michelle Obama’s signature healthy foods program. Since many children are refusing to eat these so-called healthy meals, one might also conclude that they are doing badly on their tests because they are malnourished.


Ares Olympus said...

NYT: Education officials said that the first-time decline in math scores was unexpected, but that it could be related to changes ushered in by the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. For example, some of the fourth-grade math questions on data analysis, statistics and geometry are not part of that grade’s guidelines under the Common Core and so might not have been covered in class. The largest score drops on the fourth-grade math exams were on questions related to those topics.

If Common Core is the problem, then its good not all states have went with it. Minnesota for instance skipped the Math standards. Has the Minnesota Math scores also gone down?

NYT: A study released Monday showed that some items included in the national assessments are not covered by the Common Core before the grades in which they are tested. “Knowing other kinds of math isn’t going to help you unless you’ve been taught it,” said Fran Stancavage, an author of the study. “The Common Core moves the sequence around, so there are lots of things that used to be taught before fourth grade that are now showing up in higher grades.”


It all does sound a mess. And what's most important? Do we want schools to maximize the number of students who can pass the lowest levels of proficiency, or do we want to put more effort for the most motivated and gifted students who are bored by low standards push the limits on top, like the international Mathematical Olympiads.

Apparently our home team won the international competition.

I can almost vote against the bottom feeder standards, at least if it means wasting more and more time testing students, and then having teachers "teach the test" until the diminishing returns of that break down.

I'd also be interested in seeing how technology helps or hinders learning. Some districts have more access to technology than others, and that pushes students into more and more one-on-computer learning, which is perhaps better for upper grades, but might help create students who are less able to listen as well as taking initiative without getting prodded on every step.

So much responsibility, and everyone knows the right way to do things, and the teachers are left trying to satisfy everyone, and risk failing all?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

When self esteem is viewed as the greatest good a child can have, standards go in the tank because failure to meet them is viewed as mean. That's why we're where we are. Sad, but true. Many parents cannot comprehend that emotions are fleeting. Every hiccup is viewed as the "great event" that will burn in their psyches forever.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Maybe here's one good reason why Minnesota didn't adopt the math standard. Apparently a commutativity property is too advanced for Common Core third graders.

I can see how such testing will generate rational resentment, long before irrational numbers are explored.
5x3 may not look like much of a puzzle but this particular maths question may just be the most challenging one you come across today, if parents’ online reactions are anything to go by.

According to one post doing the rounds on image sharing site, Imgur, a US third-grade school pupil correctly answered the question ‘15’ - as expected - only for the teacher to mark it incorrect as part of the country’s controversial Common Core standards.

Having highlighted the solution behind the question as 5+5+5, the correct answer, in fact, should have shown five groups of three instead.

tnxplant said...

I think there is more to the issue than uneaten lunches.

My kindergartner grandson eats breakfast at home, a snack at school, and then goes to lunch. The noisy lunchroom distracts him from eating. He will sometimes eat his fruit and drink milk. The rest of his home-prepared lunch goes back home for an after school snack, at which time he is "starving", as he puts it. (He quickly refused to eat anything offered by the free school lunch program.)

In spite of that, he is doing quite well in his class and loves kindergarten. He is quickly learning to read. He comes from a stable upper middle class home with a married mother and father, both of whom are college educated. The home environment is critical. Sure, some students can overcome it, but they have big obstacles from the beginning.

Also, I think the common core math standards are putting the cart before the horse. This won't turn out well.

Anonymous said...

There's more to worry about when it comes to children:

This man is in prison for having sex with children.

Having sex with children is still illegal in the US.

But consider how the entertainment industry is encouraging children to dress like hookers and hustlers. Rap music sexualizes young children with raunchy lyrics and beats. Pornography is now available to children all over the net. Walt Disney promotes slutty fashion for kids.

US education teaches kindergarteners and elementary school children that homosexual fecal penetration is wonderful.

When children are being so sexualized, it means children are sexual creatures too. And if we go that route, it means children should have the right to have sex. When that happens, will pedophilia become legal? Everything that is happening in our culture in entertainment and schools is headed in this direction.

And there was a piece in Salon that tried to normalize the feelings of a pedophile.

And there's always been a close link between the homosexual community and the pedophile community. Many prominent homos have also been pedos. Like Allen Ginsburg.