STEM Beats - December 2011

This Guy's a Math Teacher

December 22, 2011

The sublimely inept customer service representative "Peggy" in those Discover Card ads is played by a math teacher near LA. Tudor Petrut was a well-known actor in Romania before coming to the US. He now teaches high school algebra and moonlights as "Peggy" on the small screen. His students reportedly love the Peggy schtick, and his ads have won him quite a following in the outside world (except, perhaps, among Eastern Europeans who might take exception to the fact that this 'Peggy' seems to be vaguely slavic).

The moral of this story is...well, I'm not sure. Really talented people go into math? At any rate, it's interesting to imagine Petrut in the classroom.

Hat tip: Alexander Russo.

How Is Your Local High School Doing? You Might Want to Ask Colleges

December 21, 2011

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle recently over just how many schools are failing according to No Child Left Behind. (The official, more charitable, phrase is “in need of improvement.”) The Secretary of Education said more than 80 percent would miss the mark. The Center on Education Policy, a DC think tank, looked into the matter and came up with a figure under 50 percent. The exact number may be less important than how we measure school success or failure. This has profound implications for school reform.

The current means of measuring schools' progress in No Child Left Behind, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), has few friends. Critics charge that it's complicated, statistically unsound and unhinged from reality. Is there a better way to gauge school progress?

Here's at least one possibility: See how well a school does in preparing its students for college. As a new report from the Data Quality Campaign makes clear, more and more states are able to do so. Many states now have the data to track a high school student beyond graduation. Did she enroll in some kind of post-secondary program? Did she need remediation? Did she make it to her second year? Schools want to answer these questions as they try to prepare students for college and careers.

In fact, AYP might have little to do with a school's track record in preparing students for college. A 2010 study of Florida schools found little correlation between a school's success in making AYP and its students' later success in college.

So what should states do with information on their schools' track record with colleges? Should states use it in their accountability systems? If so, how? That's a whole other kettle of fish.

Tags: higher education

Does Education Need a New Shock to the System?

December 19, 2011

Accountability was a shock to the American school system, writes Mark Schneider in a short paper for the Fordham Foundation. It spurred gains in math scores for more than a decade, but those scores have plateaued. Time for another shock, he argues.

Schneider chalks this pattern up to “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory borrowed from natural scientist Stephen Jay Gould via political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones. Complex systems like to remain static, the theory goes, until they are jolted into change by some big event—say, the meteor that transformed the earth’s climate and wiped out the dinosaurs. The systems lapse back into stasis until the next big jolt.

That’s what happened to our schools, Schneider suggests. He notes that Texas, which was the first state to put a strong accountability regime in place, reaped big test score gains soon thereafter—at least in math. Other states caught up when they created their own accountability systems. But Texas lost steam about 5 years ago, Schneider points out, and other states are following suit. The system has settled back into equilibrium.

So what new shocks do we need to prompt the next big gains? Schneider sees promise in common academic standards, among other budding reforms.

It's worth noting that common standards are in many ways an extension of, and (some would argue) an improvement on, the accountability reforms of the past 20 or so years. States all had to set standards, but their quality varied, and many states set the passing bar on state tests quite low. What's worse, all too few schools and teachers got the support they needed to put standards into practice in the classroom.

So in many ways, common standards might be an attempt to get more juice from the same orange. They aim to fulfill the promise of the movement for standards and accountability.

Sometimes we need to retrace our steps before we move on to the next new thing.

Latinos Face a "Blue Collar Ceiling"

December 16, 2011

A new report out of Chicago finds that Latinos in that city have hit a "blue collar ceiling" and will face a dim future as long as they lag behind in educational attainment. As goes Chicago, so goes the nation.

According to Crain's Chicago Business Report, the median income for men born in Mexico and working in Chicago is $28,000. It's $47,000 for Mexican men born in the US, which is still a far cry from the $65,000 median income of non-Hispanic white males.

According to The Chicago Tribune, the report finds that education gaps are a major cause of the income gaps. The high school graduation rate for Latino students in Chicago hovers around 57 percent.

This is a tragedy on more than one front. First, these gaps stunt the life prospects of thousands of young people. Second, they present a major economic challenge. The Trib reports that Chicago's Latino population has surged to 22 percent, up from 11 percent a year ago. That's a lot of talent--and earning power--to squander.

Chicago is, of course, a microcosm of the nation as a whole. The nation's Latino population has grown quickly, and it lags in educational attainment. What's worse, Latino students are much less likely than white students to go into science, technology, engineering or math (STEM), which offer high wages and low unemployment.

There is some good news to report. The percentage of Latino students who performed at or above the proficient level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose surged 7 to 24 percent between 2000 and 2011. Among 8th graders, it rose from 8 to 20 percent over the same period. Those numbers are still dismal, to be sure, but the positive trend does show that our efforts can pay off.

One thing is clear. We cannot prosper as a nation if we ignore the prospects of a large share of our population. Everyone counts.

Hat tip: Huffington Post.

Tags: minorities

Online Algebra Classes Are a Lifeline for Rural Students

December 14, 2011

Online Algebra I courses can be a lifeline for rural middle school students whose schools don't offer the course in 8th grade. A new study finds that the online courses can double students' chances of going on to more advanced classes later on.

All too many rural students don't even have the option of taking an algebra class in 8th grade. The study reports that about one in four rural middle schools does not offer algebra in 8th grade, compared to about one in five urban middle schools and about one in ten suburban middle schools. When we don't even give students the chance to get on the advanced track in middle school, we're stacking the deck against them.

The study does not attempt to answer the question of whether on-line or face-to-face courses are better, but it does give hope to those who see as a way of leveling the playing field for rural students.

Sarah Sparks at Education Week briskly summarizes the study here.