Monday, April 18, 2011

Educational Waste

I'm mostly cribbing from the blog Kitchen Table Math, but here are a few items I found troubling:

1. A comment about elementary math classes:
In the last few months, I visited over a dozen elementary schools. Mostly I visited kindergartens, but whenever possible, I visited the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades as well.

Over and over I saw schools where "math class" was the same template: children doing activities from Everyday Math on their own in chaotic, loud classrooms where students didn't have individual desks but had to sit at group tables (sometimes putting up their books and folders to act as little cubicle walls) while they waited for a teacher or an aide to interact with them. Uniformly, I saw half a dozen kids doing nothing at all in those times; another half a dozen chatting or playing but obviously not doing anything, and a precious few trying to block out the stimulus. Some read cheap fiction books.

No one could have learned anything in such a room even before you find out that the task at hand is some bizarre manipulative task in Everyday Math that had no goal or explained purpose anyway.
2. A New York Times story about the vacuity of some collegiate work:
"IN “Academically Adrift,” Dr. Arum and Dr. Roksa looked at the performance of students at 24 colleges and universities. At the beginning of freshman year and end of sophomore year, students in the study took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national essay test that assesses students’ writing and reasoning skills. During those first two years of college, business students’ scores improved less than any other group’s. Communication, education and social-work majors had slightly better gains; humanities, social science, and science and engineering students saw much stronger improvement.

What accounts for those gaps? Dr. Arum and Dr. Roksa point to sheer time on task. Gains on the C.L.A. closely parallel the amount of time students reported spending on homework. Another explanation is the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: the more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the C.L.A. measures.

Group assignments are a staple of management and marketing education. In dorm lounges and library basements around the country, small cells of 20-year-olds are analyzing why a company has succeeded or failed (Drexel University); team-writing 15-page digital marketing plans (James Madison University); or preparing 45-minute PowerPoint presentations on one of the three primary functions of management (Tulane University).

The pedagogical theory is that managers need to function in groups, so a management education without such experiences would be like medical training without a residency. While some group projects are genuinely challenging, the consensus among students and professors is that they are one of the elements of business that make it easy to skate through college.

Donald R. Bacon, a business professor at the University of Denver, studied group projects at his institution and found a perverse dynamic: the groups that functioned most smoothly were often the ones where the least learning occurred. That’s because students divided up the tasks in ways they felt comfortable with. The math whiz would do the statistical work, the English minor drafted the analysis. And then there’s the most common complaint about groups: some shoulder all the work, the rest do nothing.
3. This 2006 article (Richard Elmore, "Three Thousand Missing Hours," Harvard Education Letter):
One of the most remarkable things about American classrooms is how little real teaching goes on there. Over the past five years or so, I have spent at least three or four days a month in schools studying the relationship between classroom practice and school organization. I observe classrooms at all levels—primary, middle, and secondary grades—and in all subjects. One of the most striking patterns to emerge is that teachers spend a great deal of classroom time getting ready to teach, reviewing and reaching things that have already been taught, giving instructions to students, overseeing student seatwork, orchestrating administrative tasks, listening to announcements on the intercom, or presiding over dead air — and relatively little time actually teaching new content.

When my fellow researchers and I code our observations for teaching new content, it is not unusual to find that it occupies somewhere between zero and 40 percent of scheduled instructional time.

[He describes videos of American and Japanese lessons.] When American educators watch these two lessons they are shocked by the difference. Students in the Japanese lesson are fully engaged in new content for the entire class, while in the American lesson it is difficult to discern what the new content actually is, much less how much time is dedicated to it.
4. My son is in what seems to be a well-regarded public middle school. In the past few weeks, here are the assignments I've seen him working on at home: making a video about Edwin Hubble (it had very little information about Hubble in it, but the teacher said his was one of the best videos in the class); making a fake Facebook page about Edwin Hubble (same); and writing up a description of a fake dinosaur that he had imagined. I'm not too worried about his science knowledge (when he was 9, he demanded that I subscribe to Scientific American for him to read), but I'm not confident that the school is doing as much as it could to instill knowledge in its students.