Saturday, April 27, 2013

A single item of educational reform

I've written before about my idea for one educational reform. It would be this:

We'll give you twelve years of education, take it when you're ready.

It would create a cascade of other educational reforms, all of which various efforts are trying to achieve right now.

First, schools would be able to dismiss students not ready for the educational setting.

This would include disruptive students. These students would absolutely be able to get an education, as long as the school didn't have to be the one to administer severe behavior management. They could come back when they can behave. Schools would be safer.  Classes would be more productive.

Schools should be able to dismiss under-performing students. Some kids just really and truly need to not be starting school at age 5, or for that matter, age 6 or 7. There's also a cognitive maturity level we expect at high school for which many students aren't ready. Sending these kids home for a year or two, or putting them in school half-time would allow them to perform better on the tasks they can handle, and give them time to do homework and let learning soak in.  There's also the possibility of getting a job.  That is also an education, for which the student is rewarded for their good work.  Where the student has to be on Saturday morning can greatly affect his/her choices of activities on Friday night.  Work is not evil, contrary to the opinion of many child advocates.

Second, with more students actually completing high school at a pace they can manage, we'll be sending more students on to college. I hear from about half of my students at the community college where I teach that they weren't ready to do college straight out of high school. (Many of them weren't ready to do high school in high school.) At 25 or 30, they are great students.  Rocket science opens up to them.

Third, schools would be able to maintain a high level of educational performance. We could actually define what a student entering 1st grade or a student entering high school should be able to do.  Students who need to get caught up could either wait or find a tutor.  It might be better to wait.  For a young student, it WOULD be better to wait!  This noise about a common-core curriculum would change shape.  Currently it is trying to define what a 6th grader, EVERY 6th grader should know.  Instead we should be able to say to students of any age "You are at level 6.  Would you like us to take you to level 7?"

Fourth, the state will be spending less on education, but getting more students 'finished'. When students come ready to study we don't have to spend money on people whose job it is to chase down disruptive or truant students.  We also wouldn't spend so much money on equipment purchases.  Manipulatives and lab equipment get destroyed by students unhappy about being forced to be in their particular educational setting. There are many educational activities that are not done in public schools because unhappy students don't respect property.

What to do with a student who needs time to cognitively mature?  Parents could pay for another educational setting, not at the expense of the taxpayer.  Parents could homeschool.  Smart schools could offer assistance with this, at the price of meeting with the family one or two times per month.  Where possible, parents could/should involve the child in the family business. There are ALWAYS a myriad of tasks to be done in a family business that could be done by a 2nd grader.

Now, here's my next educational reform.

We'll give you only eight years of education, take it when you're ready.

Why only eight years?  Because if we start later, it will not take twelve years to get someone ready for college.  At the community college where I work we get adults who show up for school for the first time because they need a diploma or a GED for a job they want.  They've never been educated, perhaps not even home schooled.  We have Adult Basic Education classes that start at 1-2-3, ABC.  How long does it take us to get them an 8th grade education?  About two years.  How long does it take for them to complete a GED or adult high school diploma?  About two more years.  If we didn't start educating until age 12 or later that it would take us much less time to get people an education.

I premise that one of the outcomes of our industrial manufacturing conveyor belt society is the view that the job of children is to be in school.  We THINK that all kids need to be in school.  This job of school is to prepare them for a job later.  No doubt, we do school as a society to prepare kids to get a job.  Ask any high school student why they are in school.  But do we really think that what is learned at age 6 will seriously affect job opportunities later in life?  Only if you believe that if a child doesn't learn to read at that age that s/he will be of no value at age 10.  This is a reflection of our industrial-manufacturing-conveyor-belt thinking.  The car that fails manufacturing performance tests can be fixed or junked.  We have to stop thinking of people as we do cars.  Kids end up with their self-worth defined by the expectations of their age-peers.  This can be a false positive as well as a false negative.

Decreasing the number of years of state-paid education would cause parents to seriously get involved with educational decisions involving their children.  They might decide that it could be cheaper to pay for K-4 education, or to homeschool the child during those years.  On the other hand, parents may want to pay for a private high school of their choice as better preparation for the child's future.  Either way, parents would be paying much more attention to school expectations and performance.

Here's the ice cream of the 'eight years' reform.  Let's say a student has not used a dime of public funds for education before college.  Perhaps s/he has been privately schooled or home schooled.  If that student can pass entrance and placement exams to show s/he is at the college level, we should give that student eight years of college, perhaps all the way to a PhD.  If a student began formal schooling at age 16 and was able to complete pre-college work in four years, then that student would still have 4 years left to work on college. An educated populace is a wealth-generating and tax-paying populace.

Why does 'wait until they're ready' or 'delay education' horrify some people?  Outside of that industrial-manufacturing-the-kids-need-to-be-in-school model that defines the self-worth of the child, I understand that as a society we treasure education, but what we're doing inside those buildings we call schools is not so much education as it is baby sitting while parents work.  One of the reasons parents work is to generate taxes that pay for the costs of state-funded education.  If we want to decrease the amount of money we spend on education then let's wait until the student is ready to be educated.  If we treasure education, then let's wait until the student is ready to learn. Let's learn to treasure families.  If they didn't have to work so hard to support state education, then they might actually have time to be parents.  That can only be good for society.

Are you still horrified at this idea?  Do you think it is also the school's job to socialize children from a young age?  Do you think that will not happen if a child is left to the skills of the (presumed incompetent) parents?  *sigh*  Most parents simply don't choose to be cooped up with their kids all day long.  Moms quite naturally gravitate towards other moms of kids the same age.  Kids quite naturally gravitate towards other kids.  Family interactions often involve grandparents and cousins and their parents.  Humankind survived thousands of years without compulsory education.  People learned what is necessary to know, and sometimes paid others to teach them skills.  Teens and young adults were apprenticed to learn skills, and sometimes communities gathered up the kids to teach reading, speaking, writing, and accounting skills.  It worked then.  Compulsory public education isn't going to propel humankind to a higher plane of existence.  It could have quite the opposite effect.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pre-Algebra Math Curriculum

Yes, I occasionally get to exchange some email with Harold Jacobs, my all-time favorite math text author.  Publisher WH Freeman forwards email to him from their website from people with questions about his texts.  He received an inquiry from Michelle, who asked about a good homeschool curriculum leading up to the algebra book by Harold Jacobs, and since Mr. Jacobs hasn't taught math at that level and doesn't have experience homeschooling, he forwarded the question to me.  Michelle was wondering about Math-U-See and Saxon.  She was also asking about some fun things to do in math.  Here is my reply:

I have not used Math-U-See.  I'm aware that the author has worked hard to develop a good course.  Folks generally stay with it through algebra and geometry.  I don't get many kids with a Math-U-See background.

Saxon is fine for kids who like hard work for the sake of hard work.  It's ok up through the Algebra 1/2 book, but the algebra book takes the idea of cycling back to review one step too far.  It strikes me as somewhat helter-skelter, and I refuse to teach from it or to tutor kids from it.  The subsequent high school books are just as frustrating.  Still, I know some kids who had a good guide (parent who was good with math) to get them through algebra with Saxon, and were fine.

Here's what I DO use for pre-algebra:

1.  The homeschool group I administrate uses the reproducible worksheets from Steve and Janis Marcy,  These include everything that might be taught in general math and pre-algebra, but don't include instructions. They are thorough and complete, however, covering all of the needed topics.  A savvy parent will enjoy these. If they need directions I have kids write directions on the back of a sheet.

2.  The Mental Math series on Amazon:
These are also reproducible.  They are a nice balance to developing proficiency with a calculator.  Kids DO need to develop proficiency with a calculator!

3.  There are a lot of $6 workbooks that can be found at Barnes and Noble, sometimes Toys R Us for keeping things fresh over the summer, and these are JUST FINE for regular use.  Each book focuses on a topic, like fractions, decimals, graphing, etc.  Use them up, throw them away, buy them again for the next kid.  There also are some very good supplemental books by the Critical Thinking publishers.  Here's one:

4.  I have recommended as an online website for use by adults needing to refresh and re-learn concepts from pre-algebra forward.  The ALEKS folks have been diligent at filling in the gaps and developing coursework, and the system is VERY good at diagnosing gaps in learning and understanding and drilling to fill those in.  At $20 per month, it is the cheapest math tutoring I know.  I've sent some folks out to ALEKS to polish some skills before they enter classes at the community college, and I've learned that if ALEKS says they know the material, then they know the material.  The ALEKS folks have developed their online materials for kids as soon as they can read.  I haven't reviewed that level, but I wouldn't park a kid in front of a computer for a long period of time, anyway.  Some will eat it up, however.

The most important part of pre-algebra is showing where it is used all of the time.  That's where homeschooling is excellent, if parents aren't stuck in the classroom paradigm, thinking that math education has to be done at a table with a book.  Going to the grocery store, shopping online for a good deal, measuring and weighing and cutting in the kitchen and Dad's shop, comparing cellular contracts, talking about the good deal vs. the right fit, on and on.  If parents know how to use the math in everyday life, the kids will be just fine.

When to start Algebra?  Whenever the student is ready.  The big rush is to put it into the 8th grade for everyone.  Huge mistake.  It just means I'll be teaching at the community college until I die, if I like, cleaning up the mess made by pushing it too soon.  I would say that if a young student has competence in all of the topics in anyone's pre-algebra text and is hungry for more, then let him or her begin, but without the necessity of finishing in a year.  I've had students as young as 6th grade in the Jacobs book (I have one now that age), but I find that as bright as they may be, they need more time to digest and complete homework.  For that reason, I have designed a Decompressed Algebra series, which takes two years to complete the book, and provides lots of opportunities for data gathering and analysis, along the lines suggested by exercises in the book.  

Good, solid, math fun?  Play games!  The card game War is how my kids learned to sequence and count.  I've developed matching cards for fractions-decimals-percents, and my pre-algebra class has been playing Go Fish with these for two weeks.  Yahtzee, Sequence, Rack-O, Flinch.  Checkers, Chess, Go, Oware.  These are every bit as important as drill and practice.

But you knew all this!