Saturday, May 7, 2011

E-books offer parents another solution for lost books

It happens a few times a year around our house.  A child has an English class assignment due the next day, but has either lost the relevant book or forgotten it at school.  (I'm talking about novels and other guided reading, not textbooks.)  Our options used to be to hope the local library was open and had an available copy of the book or to check the local bookstore*.  Now with ebooks we have another option to download the book instantly.  We have a Kindle and an iPod Touch, but of course an iPad, Nook or other e-readers would serve as well.

Within a few years, it's possible most reading will probably be done on on e-readers.  What will we do when our child loses his Kindle?

* Not such a good solution since our local bookstore shut down last month.

Friday, May 6, 2011

'learning to play a musical instrument can improve math skills' Really?

"learning to play a musical instrument can improve math skills"  Really?

When I've looked at this before, it was a correlative relationship but causation was not demonstrated.  So, it appeared that students with the perseverance and intelligence needed to learn a musical instrument also applied themselves in math class.  That's quite different from saying piano playing improves math skills.

Now this press release from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities comes out.
A study by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities says arts education is an effective tool for school reform, even as arts education funding has declined.
The "Reinvesting in Arts Education" study being released Friday examined recent data from schools in Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Chicago and New York City. It finds integrating the arts with other subjects is particularly effective at raising achievement in math and reading.
In the report, Education Secretary Arne Duncan writes that data demonstrates arts education improves achievement in other subjects. Visual arts instruction improves reading, and learning to play a musical instrument can improve math skills. Students engaged in the arts also had higher attendance rates.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the report.
The Knight Foundation funds arts programs.  I cannot seem to access the report now, but maybe I'll be able to read it later.

How valuable will a business degree be in the future economy?

In a piece titled The Plight of the MBA Generation, Doug French writes about the predicament of college-educated, unemployed (mostly) men who have lost the mojo that used to be associated with a business degree.  The author's treatment is a bit harsh.
A generation born at the tail end of the baby boom did what mom and dad told them they should: Get off the farm, don't be a barber, forget about being a mechanic. Go to college and then go be a doctor or lawyer or such. However, high barriers to entry and lack of mental horsepower kept most out of medical or law school. But a business degree means you will still be able to wear a shirt and tie to work, not get dirty, and push paper for a living. An MBA will make you unstoppable.
What's known as the FIRE economy ("Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate") fired up in 1980 and headed for the sky until 2006. Now there are 50-years-olds who may never work again. In an April 25 cover story, Newsweek described these out-of-work boomers as "Dead Suits Walking."...
Perversely, while the market tries to clear away malinvestments and the jobs that supported them, colleges continue to turn out more business majors than any other discipline. In 2007 and 2008 there were more than 335,000 business degrees granted — 100,000 more than a decade before, according to the National Center for Education Statistics....
The Federal Reserve's zero-interest-rate policy attempts to resuscitate jobs that are considered "professional" but are really just a mirage, much like the redundant shopping centers, housing tracts, and casinos built during the boom. In a bubble, there is a market for hail-fellows-well-met who look good in a suit and have connections from their frat days at State U.
Ouch!  But really, isn't propping up failing enterprises lacking in intrinsic merit usually the wrong course of action?  (I'm thinking of the educational world.)
Propping up Wall Street and the FIRE economy only fuels denial. Murray Rothbard wrote in Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure that government must never bail out businesses in trouble or prop up wages. "It will cause indefinite and prolonged depression and mass unemployment in the vital capital goods industries."
Related:  Why some employers value a solid liberal arts education  &  A liberal arts education need not be a "a waste of time and money"

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'47 percent of Detroiters are "functionally illiterate”'

Depressing.  The CIA and the United Nations put the United States national literacy rate at 99%, which is probably too high.  Apparently, there are some methodology issues with measuring literacy.
Jonathan Kozol, in his book Illiterate America, suggests that the very high figures of literacy may be due to poor methodology.[7] The Census Bureau reported literacy rates of 86% based on personal interviews of a relatively small portion of the population and on written responses to Census Bureau mailings. They also considered individuals literate if they simply stated that they could read and write, and made the assumption that anyone with a fifth grade education had at least an 80% chance of being literate. Kozol notes that, in addition to these weaknesses, the reliance on written forms would have obviously excluded many individuals who did not have a literate family member to fill out the form for them. Finally, he suggests that because illiterate people are likely to be unemployed and may not have telephones or permanent addresses, the census bureau would have been unlikely to find them (and that if they did, these people might be especially reluctant to talk to a stranger who might be a bill collector, tax auditor, or salesperson).

Texas high school is building $60 million football stadium

Voters approved this $60 million high school stadium in a 2009 bond election.  Although as a native Texan I have a special appreciation for the excitement of Friday night football, this simply boggles the mind.
Everything is bigger in Texas. And that includes high school football.
Allen High School, located in a growing suburb of Dallas, has approved the construction of a new stadium to house their football team that will break ground next month. The price tag is a whopping $60,000,000 and comes at a time when most school districts are slashing budgets just to keep their doors open.
So how does a school of 5,000 students justify a new, state-of-the-art stadium that seats 18,000 and a video scoreboard?
It’s because football is big business in Texas. Heck, they have the largest high school band with 800+ people (see video) so you can see that they go all out in Allen, Texas.
Allen High School is one of the largest schools in the state and their football team is one of the best. The Allen Eagles are winners of the Texas 5A state title and finished as the No. 2 team in the RivalsHigh Top 100 football rankings in 2008.
Reported by The Pigskin Doctors

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

This just in - college junior reads his first book ever!

I guess NCAA champion college basketball players like Kemba Walker don't have to read books in college, or ever.  But  the other 99% of students unlikley to land generoous NBA contracts should be reading more books, and writing.papers.  Sometimes I do wonder.
Before the Final Four, Crump suggested that Rhoden’s book would be the first that Walker had ever made it through cover-to-cover. After the win over Kentucky, Walker confirmed this. “That’s true,” he said. “You can write that. It is the first book I’ve ever read.
UConn Star Guard Reads First Book

Wikipedia co-founder argues for the importance of 'memorizing facts'

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, explains in an EDUCAUSE essay why he disagrees with the notion that "the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary".  He appears to be channeling Daniel Willingham in promoting the idea that a rich base of knowledge is the foundation for critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Sanger's essay also includes his thoughts on group learning and constructing knowledge (fodder for future posts), but in this post my focus is his view on the topic of memorizing facts.   I should note it's been my observation that when "educationists" and others object to "rote" learning, much of the time they are really arguing against the need to practice.  They seem to be in denial of the unfortunate reality that practice is often a "dull" but unavoidable exercise in the acquisition of knowledge.
Whenever I encounter yet another instance of educationists' arguments against "memorizing," the following rather abstract yet simple thought springs to my philosopher's mind: Surely the only way to know something is to have memorized it. How can I be said to know something that I do not remember? So being opposed to memorizing has always sounded to me like being opposed to knowledge. I realize this argument likely seems glib. The thing educationists object to, of course, is not the remembering or even the memorizing but rather the memorizing by rote — that is, by dull repetition and often without experience or understanding.

In a December 2008 interview, Don Tapscott, a popular writer on the subject of the Internet and society, argued that the Internet is now "the fountain of knowledge" and that students need not memorize particular facts such as historical dates. …This view is common enough among the Wikipedia users I have come across; they sometimes declare that since the free online encyclopedia is so huge and easy to use, they feel less pressure to commit "trivia" to memory....

But to claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge. Finding out a fact about a topic with a search in Wolfram Alpha, for example, is very different indeed from knowing about and understanding the topic. Having a well-understood fact ready to recall is far different from merely getting an unfamiliar answer to a question. Reading a few sentences in Wikipedia about some theories on the causes of the Great Depression does not mean that one thereby knows or understands this topic. Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.

Moreover, if you read an answer to a question, you usually need fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer.… 

Since an ever-expanding amount of information and research is frequently updating our understanding of disciplines, there is no reason to insist on memorizing facts and figures — and no reason to insist on a core of basic knowledge and books that should be mastered.

But this argument seems fallacious. It implies that the new information has either replaced or made trivial the old information. And this is obviously not so in most subjects.And to return to my point, unless one learns the basics in those fields, Googling a question will merely allow one to parrot an answer — not to understand it.

It also won't do to make the facile reply that there is no such thing as "the basics."... But in most fields, there is certainly a body of core knowledge.

To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics. To return to my "glib" argument, surely the only way to begin to know something is to have memorized it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The gender divide for PhDs

The gender divide in geography and history was the subject of this post, with middle school boys trouncing girls in the National Geographic Bee.  Now I learn that women obtained 42% of the PhDs in history in 2009.  That compares to 34% in 1989 and 40% in 1999. For all disciplines combined, women earned 43% of all doctorates in 1999 and 47% in 2009.  This trend is consistent with the relative decline of men in most measures of academic achievement.

Percentage of Ph.Ds awarded in the U.S. to Women in 2009, Selected Disciplines

Found at Ann Althouse

More at Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED)

Monday, May 2, 2011

'Race To Nowhere' - the problem is students have to memorize too many facts

The Wall Street Journal reports that Race to Nowhere has been playing in New Jersey and other places.  It was was recently screened in Tuckahoe and other locales in Westchester County, but I have not seen it.
The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy....
The movie's recurring theme is that American kids are under intense pressure to succeed, forced to complete up to six hours of homework each night and therefore increasingly driven to mental illness. The movie is promoted with the tagline, "The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture." 
The dark side is illuminated with powerful anecdotes—we learn of one young California girl who, we are told, committed suicide after a disappointing grade in math. But the achievement is tougher to spot. The film reports that as hard as kids compete to win acceptance to name-brand colleges, they come out of high school without knowing much. The University of California at Berkeley, we are told, has to provide remedial education for close to half of incoming freshmen before they can handle a college course load. The film notes that American kids score poorly in international tests. If they work so hard, how do they learn so little? 
I don't see these as the serious problems confronting American education today.  On the other hand, I do see the excessive emphasis on trying to teach "critical thinking skills" that detracts from time needed to provide students with a strong "base of knowledge" as a factor in holding down student achievement levels.
Ms. Abeles argues that U.S. education is focused too much on giving kids "things to memorize and regurgitate," instead of developing the critical thinking skills that will be most useful in solving problems and thriving later in life. 
Jeanne Allen, who leads the Center for Education Reform in Washington, reports that her sister back in Bergen County is one of those Jersey parents receiving a blizzard of email pitches to see the movie. Ms. Allen says that if U.S. tests are flawed it is because they demand that kids memorize too few facts, not too many. "You can't teach critical thinking," she says. She argues that kids cannot possibly develop problem-solving skills without a base of knowledge. How can one analyze a piece of literature, she asks, without knowing any vocabulary? Can students solve math problems without being able to multiply and divide?

Low divorce rates correlate with high education levels

It's probably no surprise that lower divorce rates correlate with higher education levels which correlate with higher income.  Many southern states, having lower education rates, have the highest divorce levels.  I find it slightly humorous to see the state that is home to Jersey Shore, the television  show where debauchery reigns, has the lowest divorce rate in the country.  This chart comes from Jacob Langenfeld at New Geography.

Wyoming is an interesting case.
An outlier for divorce seems to be Wyoming whose high divorce rate (a 2008-2009 average of 16%) places it outside of the bunch in many of the graphs. This may be because of the state’s “quickie” divorces. An article by Wyoming News discusses the reality of Wyoming’s label as “Splitsville” where many couples unhappy with their marriages travel to call it quits. The state lacks laws that force a couple to separate for some time prior to the official divorce, making the state more appealing for those who don’t wish to remain together. With all of the proper paper work in line, a couple could easily end it in Wyoming. Where Las Vegas is the home for a fast espousal, Cheyenne may be the new destination for a speedy separation. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A working definition of mastery

From Catherine Johnson at Kitchen Table Math:
I define "mastery" of subject matter informally as remembering and understanding -- along with novice-level ability to apply the knowledge you've acquired.

Following the research in cognitive science, I see problem-solving, critical thinking, and analysis as capacities that develop after you've acquired knowledge.
This is incredibly useful in thinking about how I'd like the schools to teach my children.  It is consistent with Susan Wise Bauer's description of a classical education.
A classical education, then, has two important aspects. It is language-focused. And it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.