Teacher Leader

Stop Patching Education!

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

This is the first in a series of rants from a frustrated educational writer.

At the intersection of politics and education the refrain is always the same.

In a recent flurry of solutions for the plight of education in America the potential answers are basically a summary of the usual suspects. The proposals include increasing school choice, incorporating more charter schools, allowing students to “backpack” their federal funding and, of course, more accountability through testing.

The problem with these cures and others of a similar ilk is that they do not address the fundamental problem—creating an educational environment which will produce more appropriate learning and graduates prepared for succeeding in the world of 2020.

The numbers tell the story

The biggest problem in education is waste. This form of mismanagement is not, however, related to the poor utilization of funding. Rather it is the incredible mismanagement of educational time. Foremost among these misguided actions is the totally outdated agrarian calendar that is at the center of virtually every school system in the country.

When looked at from a mathematical viewpoint the manner in which children in the United States attend school is appalling. The vast majority of academic calendars include 180 or so days of instruction spread over a 43-week period. Even a relatively small adjustment to that approach could create significant changes in potential learning. If that number were increased by a very modest 20 days (11%), the additional learning time would be remarkable. Twenty days over eleven years translates into (more…)

Is there a place for boredom in education?

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

In 2014 does all learning have to be entertaining?

In a recent Slate article Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Scholar at the New America Foundation, argues that is not necessarily the case. In response to an editorial in the New York Times Mr. Kakaes, strikes a blow for an occasional dose of tedium in math education:

“This weekend, after American students failed to impress on the international PISA exams, the New York Times editorial board ran a piece asking ‘Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?’ By ‘boring,’ the Times apparently means any math that is substantive in a traditional sense: ‘arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry.’ So let me answer the question: Anyone with an understanding of what math actually is believes it must sometimes be boring.”

Mr. Kakaes does agree with the Times on one point—there is a severe crisis in math education in this country. Unfortunately, he includes that newspaper’s editorial board among the mathematically challenged.

“(The NYT editorial writers) do not appear to understand what mathematics is, how it is used in the sciences, or why it is important. The Times’ solution, ‘a more flexible curriculum,’ is euphemism for (more…)

PISA Results: Good, Bad and Ugly

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The latest numbers from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been released and not surprisingly the handwringing began before the ink was dry. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the word “stagnation” in his appraisal. Others were even more pessimistic. On the surface the performance of the U.S. students was dreadful. There was little joy to be found in being ranked 20th in reading, 23rd in Science and 30th in mathematics among the sixty-five tested groups. All of these results were either the same or worse than the previous test three years ago.

Fortunately a more careful analysis of the statistics revealed that some of the worst case scenario conclusions were misleading.

The scoring was hardly comparing apples to apples. In many cases it was not even apples to oranges. Contrasting the U.S. scores to those coming out of Singapore which had the best in the world was more like apples to aged Kobe beef. Singapore is a city not an entire country. Making the outcome even murkier was that low performing students and their families are often sent elsewhere in order to maintain the city’s lofty status. It was the equivalent of taking the highest scoring school district in America and claiming it represented the achievement level in all fifty states.

The bad

But before anyone begins chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” the numbers coming out of PISA are worthy of deep concern. When Latvia and Viet Nam rank above you in measurements of academic prowess there is little room for rejoicing. The United States spends huge sums of money on education in comparison to many of the countries that performed (more…)

More than just numbers

By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

Perhaps because I am a former math teacher I cannot help myself. Maybe my extensive coaching background is what makes it even more compelling. Regardless of the precise motivator the fundamental conclusion seems so obvious.

Education needs to utilize data analysis more effectively.

Stats are bursting out all over

Data analysis can be a powerful tool for innovation in a multitude of endeavors. It can illuminate the path to better outcomes and accurately affirm success and failure. It is not, however, a static process. In order to maximize its effectiveness constant reevaluation is required. Otherwise conclusions made based on statistics can quickly become inaccurate and irrelevant.

One powerful example of such numerical evolution was evident in the aftermath of the gubernatorial election in Virginia. When the final results had been tabulated several newscasts explained the victory in these terms—the Democrat won the women’s vote by a larger margin than the Republican won the men’s. From there the speculation became focused on what specific issues had caused this “gender gap”.

But a day later another set of numbers presented a significantly different perspective. When one statistician divided the same voters into the category of either “married” or “unmarried” new conclusions emerged. A majority of married men and married women favored the GOP; unmarried men and women did not. Suddenly, because of these numbers the conversation and potential suppositions veered in a very different direction.

Similar numerical adjustments are occurring in the world of sports. A recent article in the Washington Post explained that the Nationals new baseball manager Matt Williams based a large portion of his improvement plan on the introduction of something new to the organization—data analysis. The plan is basic. An individual will be hired who will filter through the statistics provided (more…)

Attendance is a Two Sided Affair

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the second of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part three will address the issue of field trips and attendance.

Sometimes teacher training must take a backseat.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. 

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

An offer that can be refused

Educating requires life-long learning. When speaking to new teachers I would always share one comment. “Every year whether it was my second, twenty-second, thirty-second or fortieth, I was making adjustments to my teaching. It is never a finished product and anyone who thinks they know it all is wrong.” I began my career with ditto machines, trig charts, pointing sticks and a typewriter. Along the way I acquired Xerox machines that would print (more…)

Education is a True Team Game

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

While some people might dismiss the importance of creating the proper mindset within a school’s faculty as critical for improving academic success, the outcome of this year’s World Series may help change that misperception.

That victory by the Boston Red Sox was good for baseball. One of the sport’s most storied franchises had waited 95 years to win a championship on its home field. It was an emotional boost for a city that has endured so much pain at the hands of terrorists. And it was great fun for the casual fan to watch a group of men who looked like characters from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy celebrating their title-clinching victory like a group of excited little boys.

But for education this Boston team could also serve as a model for success.

A little bit of historical background

In 2012 the owners of the Red Sox spent huge amounts of money on a team filled with superstar talents and a big name flamboyant manager. They watched that group crash and burn finishing in last place. The next season, with more than $2500 million of “great” players discarded, a number of unknowns taking the field on a (more…)

The Hidden Attendance Problems

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

This is the first of three posts on student attendance and classroom disruptions from the perspective of the classroom teacher. Part two will address the issue out-of-school teacher training and the third will discuss field trips.

Some attendance problems are self-inflicted.

In an excellent three-part series Mel Riddile created a substantial argument for the direct correlation between good attendance and academic success. No teacher would disagree with this premise. To this point he began his second article with a quote from my book:

“Successful teaching cannot begin until students are regularly attending class.”

In one blog Dr. Riddile referenced the various responsibilities required of the states, courts, districts and schools in ensuring that students attend on a regular basis. Another outlined the strategies he employed as a principal which resulted in significant improvements at the school.

While every item mentioned was critical to achieving the goal of improved attendance there is another area of major concern that needs to be addressed in much greater detail.

Absenteeism can take many forms

Before continuing a few realities concerning the sanctity of the school day need to be addressed. A stream of distractions, interruptions and diversions to the traditional day are both inevitable and in many cases (more…)

Making Faculty Meetings Time Well Spent

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

If Charles Dickens had spent a few decades attending faculty meetings, he might have written:

“They were the best of times; they were the worst of times”.

Certainly during my career I experienced both.

Not all meetings are created equal

In a recent post Mel Riddile explained his philosophy on the overall purpose of a faculty meeting:

“Faculty meetings should be teacher-led, and, like student homework assignments, should add value and help to improve and enhance classroom instruction.”

His comment brought to mind a parallel strategy I employed with my students. On the first day of school I would distribute the homework assignment sheet for the initial two weeks. I then announced:

“You will notice that each of the daily assignments appear to be somewhat random. On Tuesday, for example, you will be doing problems 2, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 25 on page 47. Let me explain what I am doing. I have determined that these are the specific problems you need to be able to solve correctly in order to master this topic. One thing I do not believe in is busy work.  Consequently I will only ask you to work on the problems that are necessary for you to become academically stronger. You will never be assigned something like problems 1-40 and then discover that they are all basically the same.”

I would then make a contractual agreement with them.

 “So here is the deal I always make with my students—for my part I will never assign you (more…)

Not the Best Administrative Fix

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

Creating arbitrary rules is rarely the best solution in education.

Two days into the new school year a former colleague told me of a sad revelation. “Apparently the new thing this year from the administrative staff is a directive that every teacher is to be assigned three preparations.”  She explained that the second-year principal had instructed all department chairs that whenever possible teaching schedules should contain three different subjects. The goal of this exercise was to ensure that the distribution of courses within the faculty would be more equitable.

This is not a totally new approach for achieving this somewhat mysterious objective in the school. Four years earlier the previous principal announced a doctrine to address the same issue. This one stated that every educator should teach “at least one high-level and one low-level course”.

The rationale given in both cases was similar. These requirements were designed to stop inappropriately “rewarding” teachers with more seniority by assigning them the “easy” classes while giving less experienced faculty members the most challenging courses which usually contain the largest number of at-risk students. The most common explanation given is that such “balance” will improve staff morale and instruction especially for the most basic courses.

Unfortunately, such plans are far more likely to increase the problems they are supposed to diminish.

A false sense of equality

When actually enforced such mandates often result in diminished classroom success for both students and teachers.  From the teacher’s perspective, the problems are obvious. While there are a few individuals who prefer multiple preps as an antidote to boredom, they are in the minority. The reality is readily apparent. Creating lesson plans, assessment tools and grading for three different classes is far more time consuming than for two or one. Rare is the teacher who complains of having copious spare time to spend (more…)

What is Too Much Help?

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The contradictory nature of comments drew my attention.

“This is the perfect school – really. They do great things – very innovative, research-based practices. They support us a huge amount. Too much, really. Part of the problem is how much support I am given. I am constantly being observed and offered little suggestions. I have to sit down and take apart my thoughts of each class with my mentor, my department head, and fellow teachers. I don’t have the time for that. I just got assigned yet another mentor who wants me to start writing self-reflections. My reviews have been outstanding, but yet, as all new teachers (defined as under 3 years’ experience) have, I have many mentors and an abundance of help. It’s killing me.”

The speaker, a first-year social studies teacher, was reflecting on his first week of school.

Drowning in a sea of good intentions

There is little question that inexperienced teachers need as much support as possible. As stated in previous posts there are few professions that treat their newest practitioners in the same manner as education. No law firm, medical practice or public accountant would assign their least knowledgeable employees the same workload as the savviest. And yet on a regular basis first-year teachers are given the same number of sections, students and preparations as their veteran colleagues. Sadly, in many cases they are not given their own classroom, while being assigned some of the most challenging students and classes in the building.

But while solutions to these problems do exist—give these educators fewer classes and more time to observe and plan—the realities of fiscal restraints work against their implementation. Consequently, (more…)