School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Cups, Computers and Calculus at Virginia Tech

Large plastic drinking cups have always played a pivotal role in college life, but up until now that role mostly involved the consumption of cheap keg beer. But the math department at Virginia Tech has developed an entirely new use for these cups – and for an abandoned department store – all in the name of providing better math instruction to more students at a lower cost.

It’s called the Math Emporium, and according to Daniel de Vise of The Washington Post, it’s a place where “computer is king” and math course pass rates are rising.

Faced with massive overcrowding in required freshman math courses such as pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, Virginia Tech University decided to try something new. They renovated an old department store for $2 million, converting it to 60,000 square feet of teaching space with 537 computers arranged in six-person clusters. According to De Vise, there are no professors in the classroom – just a “sea of computers,” red plastic cups and four roving instructors. Students work at their own pace using a mastery-based program; when they need human help students place a red (beverage-free) cup on top of their computer monitor. That cup signals a math instructor to provide in-person assistance.

De Vise writes that Math Emporium is open 24 hours a day, offering seven courses with 200 to 2,000 students enrolled. Instead of the traditional model of 100 or so instructors teaching hundreds of class sections, a staff of 12 rotates the lab and provides instructional help to any student who needs it. De Vise reports that the lab serves 5,000 students in the fall, and 3,000 in the spring. This frees up precious classroom space for other courses using the more traditional approach of instructor or professor-led instruction and discussion.

The results so far are promising. Virginia Tech is saving money. De Vise reports the model cuts per-student expenses by one-third, and pass rates for those introductory math courses are higher now than 15 years ago.

Since its creation in 1997, the Math Emporium model has popped up at the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, and Louisiana State University.

Peter Haskell, math department chair at Virginia Tech, recognizes the inevitability of this new chapter in higher education given the game-changing nature of computers and technology. Says Haskell:

How could computers not change mathematics? How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.

My Take: Virginia Tech’s approach is in keeping with its stated mission to “Invent the Future.” While many initially were skeptical, De Vise reports that students now seem happy with the quality of their instruction. It appears to be a good match for certain types of courses and subjects where mastery depends mostly on practice. I liked this analysis from the senior instructor who runs the Emporium, Terri Bourdon: “You don’t have to have the big staff we have. You just have to have the philosophy that we have, which is that you learn math by doing math.” While this model won’t work in other types of courses or subject areas, it resolves a pressing need for large universities faced with overcrowded math classes.

Beth T. Sigall

April 25, 2012


From Floundering to Finally Making it at Georgetown

While it’s typical for some college freshmen to feel overwhelmed by their first encounter with the rigors of university-level academic work, one student’s take on this experience has caused quite a stir in the world of education policy. In I Went To Some of D.C.’s Better Public Schools. I Was Still Unprepared For College, Georgetown University freshman Darryl Robinson reveals his near-constant academic struggles and the extraordinary frustration he experienced playing catch-up with his better-educated peers.

In his writing, Robinson comes across as refreshingly honest and very likable. It’s hard not to respect his work ethic (he earned a full scholarship to Georgetown and was raised by his grandmother). As such, it’s equally hard to dismiss his observations as simply the typical angst of a first-year college student.

Robinson describes how he first noticed his academic shortcomings during an initial writing assignment, where students were tasked with analyzing the main character in a memoir. Robinson focused on the Xs and Os of the book – summarizing the plot and repeating facts. But his classmates seemed to know instinctively how to take their writing to the next level, offering original insight into the character’s thinking through their own independent analysis. Robinson’s D-minus grade brought home a painful reality. “Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts,” writes Robinson. “I could memorize and recite facts and figures, but I didn’t know how to think for myself.”

Robinson’s struggles weren’t limited to writing. He also couldn’t hold his own in chemistry lecture or lab, and describes being “lost from the first lecture on.” He ended up dropping the course (he hopes to take it again next year) despite receiving tutoring help three times per week.

While he understands that ultimately the success or failure of his academic life rests primarily on his shoulders, Robinson nonetheless places the blame for his education shortcomings squarely on his public school education. He states his teachers “[s]imply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.” Even worse, when Robinson did excel in school, including overcoming a speech delay, his teachers “didn’t trust that I’d done the hard work. They assumed I was cheating.” Why?

I suspect they thought my background – a black boy raised by his grandmother . . . because my parents couldn’t take care of me – wouldn’t result in success. Failure was more believable than achievement.

Robinson responded as any person would – he developed coping mechanisms for working the system to his favor, even though those mechanisms mostly were disconnected from meaningful academic engagement. “Once I got to high school, I maintained good grades simply by listening to my teachers and giving them what they wanted to hear: themselves.”

In Robinson’s view, because so many students arrive at D.C. public high schools lacking requisite academic skills, high school teachers spend significant time helping those students catch up. Thus, students like Robinson don’t have access to the rigorous college-prep coursework needed to make it at a place like Georgetown. “Any high school administrator in Washington [D.C.] faces a problem similar to my professors . . . [t]hey’re stuck correcting the damage done before we got there.”

The ending to Robinson’s story is mostly a happy one, and certainly a testament to his character. After attending tutoring twice a week, regularly seeing his professors during office hours and spending practically all of his time outside of class studying, he is now making As and Bs. In his words, he has gone from “floundering to finally making it at Georgetown.”

My Take: This compelling narrative serves as a Rorschach test for those seeking to identify and remedy what ails public education. For some, Robinson’s experience is the predictable and unfortunate consequence of a public school system focused entirely on high-stakes testing. For others, this episode is illustrative of a culture of low expectations that permeates our K-12 system, particularly for minority or low-income students. We expect less, so we lower standards, leaving students like Robinson unprepared for college work. Some view it as an indictment of public charter schools (Robinson’s school was a charter school) although he doesn’t; he states his school was considered the top choice for his neighborhood. Finally, some view Robinson’s experience as typical of the difficulties in making the leap from high school to college. College is the formative academic experience where students ostensibly are taught to think, work and learn on their own. That’s a big leap for anyone and many struggle with it.

While no single explanation captures every issue Robinson encountered, in my view the critical lesson here is how our K-12 system is outdated and not designed to meet the needs of today’s students. As explored in previous posts, writer Seth Godin develops this framework persuasively in Stop Stealing Dreams. According to Godin, “large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Unless we radically overhaul how we think about education, with particular focus on its purpose, our schools will continue to produce students like Robinson who are frustrated because they aren’t prepared for life and work in the twenty-first century. It’s up to us as parents to start asking these questions, instead of just assuming that we should keep doing what we’re already doing.  So, why are we learning what we’re learning? What should we be learning? Will our students be prepared? What is the purpose of school? These are tough questions, but we have to ask them if we want to improve the college experience of Robinson and students like him moving forward.

Beth T. Sigall

April 16, 2012

Arts Education Alive and Well

Critics of No Child Left Behind often point to the demise of K-12 arts education as an unintended victim in the federal government’s ten-year effort to bring every child to grade level in reading and math. Detractors claim that NCLB has forced teachers to devote precious instructional time “teaching to the test,” leaving less time to arts education, recess, and other equally important endeavors.

According to Education Week’s Erik W. Robelen, the data suggest otherwise. Robelen reports on a new study from the National Center on Education Statistics (NECS) that crunched the numbers on art instruction over the past decade. The panel found the availability of arts instruction at the K-12 level has remained high and virtually unchanged over that time.

Yes, there were some ups and downs – time spent on dance and drama instruction declined, while incorporation of these genres into other venues increased. Overall the highest availability for arts instruction was in music (over 90 percent), while instruction in visual arts saw a slight decline, although still widely available. Observed the Commission:

It is gratifying that, even in times of narrowing curriculum and economic hardships over the last decade, schools still see a strong value in access to arts education and continue to prioritize making it available to their students.

Some worrisome disparities do exist in availability of arts instruction for high-poverty high schools compared to low-poverty high schools, less so for elementary schools.

My take: For years we’ve been warned K-12 arts instruction was on the verge of extinction because of the onerous testing requirements of NCLB. Same with recess, field trips and other less measurable but equally important learning experiences. Why is there such a disconnect between perception and reality? Was this a case of the occasional anecdote driving the narrative? Whatever the reason, I’m thrilled arts instruction remains a vibrant part of our K-12 system, as it should be.

Beth T. Sigall

April 12, 2012

Another Option in the UnCollege Movement

Nate Hindman of The Huffington Post writes this week about a new player in the world of college-isn’t-the-answer-for-everyone arena, this time in the form of [E]nstitute. This latest entry in the UnCollege movement hopes to tap into the market of budding entrepreneurs who would rather jump right into the working world than drift through a traditional four-year college experience that doesn’t meet their needs. The program inserts college-aged students (age 18 to 24-years old) into a two-year apprenticeship program working in some of New York’s hottest start-up companies. Instruction includes on-site work as well as lecture series, panel discussions, guest speaker dinners, projects, readings and real-life simulation projects.

The inaugural class of 15 students were chosen from over 300 applicants from all over the country (11 percent previously had attended an Ivy League school). Hindman writes that founder Kane Sarhan describes the typical [E]nstitute applicant this way:

Many of these kids have been in school, realized it wasn’t for them, and found other people like them who have always learned differently and are really interested in something alternative. And we’re definitely finding kids who are on the entrepreneurial side, who have built stuff, and who may not have the best grades, but are running non-profit groups or businesses on the side that are making money.

My take:  As explored in previous blog entries, [E]nstitute continues a promising trend in higher education of providing students alternatives to the traditional four-year, brick-and-mortar college experience by developing learning options that better meet the needs of students. The result is a good one: more choices, more flexibility, and more connection to real-world work experiences. [E]institute’s motto “learn by doing” captures this movement well.

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