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Saturday, August 27, 2011

It's good to be the good guy: Teaching in Korea

By Doug Lasken


For a while now, I've had to get accustomed to the characterization of my 25-year teaching career with the Los Angeles Unified School District as a series of reprehensible acts on my part. As a teacher, I've been the bad guy.

First, over the 16 years I taught elementary, I wanted to teach immigrant children how to speak, read and write in English. Prior to 1997 when the passage of Propostion 227 mandated that immigrant children in California should learn English, my views were considered reactionary and contrary to the best interests of Hispanic children. I was told bluntly that by refusing to teach exclusively in Spanish I was destroying the children's chances of success. One coordinator told me I was perpetuating "English as King." "No," I countered, "English is the common language of most of the world," but this was a non-starter in such circles.

It seemed to me also that I should teach the content of core subjects. In elementary, I thought kids should know their times tables, the decimal system, some rudimentary science, and the fundamentals of reading: phonics, spelling and basic grammar. In my 10 years as a high school English teacher, I believed that students should know grammar and should read some novels. I found I was wrong on all counts. It seemed that memorization of the times tables damaged a child's ability to do critical thinking in math, that, for older kids, concepts like measuring one's distance from a celestial object using parallax should never be taught, rather children should "discover" or "construct" it for themselves (an approach called "constructivism"), again to preserve "critical thinking skills."

With the coming of "Whole Language," I was advised that the teacher should sit back while the children teach themselves to read, which they will do if the stories are engaging and have nice illustrations, and I was directed in no uncertain terms to immediately cease all instruction in phonics, spelling and grammar, as these would -- you guessed it -- destroy all hope of reading with critical thinking skills.

Two years ago, as if to ensure fond memories after my retirement, LA Unified decided that novels were of no use to students. Elitist professors, we were told, had forced novels on the high school curriculum at the turn of the last century, and it was time to recognize that we are an information age now and kids need expository reading. So much for Brave New World. Let's assemble that hammock!

Every one of these pedagogical oddities was endorsed at every level of California's adult administrative empire, from the local school board and superintendent to the state board and state department of education, up to and including the federal Department of Education. Never before has so vast an assortment of adults been so completely in the thrall of critical thinking skills without apparently having any themselves. Test scores tell the story: American high school graduates' proficiency levels have fallen and are falling in all areas. No wonder the Obama administration is suddenly against all current testing (though it wants to spend billions on brand-new testing). Let's shoot the messenger.

In the years leading up to my retirement in June '09, I faced another set of negative characterizations, this one pertaining to the practical aspects of my profession. It seems that the nation's failing economy has been largely my fault because my motive for entering the teaching profession was to enrich myself at the public trough. To help me in this nefarious quest, I joined a teachers union, my partner in crime. The union and I conspired to jack up my salary over 25 years to about $70,000. I must confess further that my union buddies and I saw to it that I will receive a pension of about two-thirds of my highest year's salary for the rest of my life, plus...oh the shame...I will have medical coverage! Have you ever heard of anything like this in any other sector? No wonder the state and federal governments are going bust! You need look no further for an explanation.

Let me hasten to add that I'm no apologist for teachers unions. Clearly my perspective diverges from the current vilification of unions on the financial side, but let's be clear that the unions have been complicit in the destruction of American public school pedagogy. In Californina, the United Teachers of Los Angeles and its parent, the California Teachers Association, as well as the national unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have been 100% in support of the prohibition of English instruction of immigrant children, and the abandonment of direct instruction of content, via Whole Language and constructivist dogmas in science and math.

Well, as it happens, retirement has opened some interesting doors for me. I've been teaching in Seoul, on my second tour through the UCLA Writing Project, for whom I teach at South Korean private academies. I'm crazy for Korean food -- it really clears the nasal cavities -- but the compelling benefit of this job is that I went from bad guy to good guy. I love when that happens.

First, no one asked me to stay clear of English because the kids don't know it. In fact, it seems that their status as ESL students is considered a reason to teach them English. Who would have thought? I was paid fairly, and no one seemed to begrudge me that. Forget constructivism here: they want information, skills and methods. Here's another bonus: a special bond between teacher and student is prized. I will transliterate it roughly as "cho." I was encouraged to interact with my students in a number of ways, for instance by going out to lunch with them (sometimes the company paid), by staying after class to tutor, and by discussing essays late at night via email. One night, the students, the school director, another teacher and I went out to see the new "Harry Potter" movie. The next morning, my class read David Denby's review of it in The New Yorker.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the morbid fear in the US of going beyond tightly restricted bonds, where the supposition is that teachers (especially males) -- in addition to being lazy and self-serving -- are predatory. In fact it seems that in Korea, the teacher is prized as a key element in enhancing civilization and culture.

Not to say teachers get a free ride in Korea. In the realm of the private academies, the moms see to it that a teacher who does not deliver disappears pronto. But the default position is that teachers are a key element in the human endeavor. Would that not seem to be the rational view for any civilization?



Doug Lasken is an English teacher, debate coach, consultant and freelancer. Reach him through his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ 


Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Barbie and Jim Brady agree: Math is hard

By Laurie H. Rogers

Omigod! I’m so happy. The mystery is solved. I can finally go back to the peaceful life I left in 2007 when I first realized that Spokane has a serious math problem. Last week, I arrived home from Canada, to multiple emails and phone calls suggesting that I read the Aug. 14 Spokesman-Review article on college math remedial rates. Ever the accommodating advocate, I did, and now I know the truth.

The reason we’re staring at an entire generation of students who lack basic math skills is that math is hard. No, no, it’s true. Jim Brady, from Spokane Falls Community College, reportedly told SR reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner that math is hard, and Lawrence-Turner must not have been able to locate a credible contrary view – anywhere in the country. Plus, Jim Brady is dean of Computing, Math and Science at SFCC. He’s in charge over there, so his opinion must be right.

How easy and obvious. And only three syllables. My world has been magically simplified. I feel a bit silly, though, having completely missed this for four and a half years. I never thought math is hard – certainly not basic math. I thought the district makes math hard – impossible, actually – then turns around and blames everyone else. I’ve argued that for years, to little effect at the central office and school board, and to nearly dead silence at the newspaper. Now I see why they view me with such disdain. I was wrong; why bother talking with someone who’s wrong?

Math is hard. No wonder no one wants to hold the district accountable for the area’s low pass rates on state math tests, high college remedial rates, low levels of math skills in graduates, and high levels of math anxiety across the entire city. If math is hard, that would be totally unfair.

The advocates I know across the country will be relieved to know the problem is solved and we can return to our families. They’ll feel sheepish knowing how wrong we were – about math, about the problem, and about the solution. Indeed, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland says, we’ve been “wrong from beginning to end,” and you can’t be more wrong than that.

It turns out that the math problem isn’t the awful curriculum, distracting learning environment, excessive constructivism, or administrative micromanaging, as we advocates have been saying. Those issues – and the scientifically conducted research on those issues – weren’t mentioned in the newspaper’s Aug. 14 article. They weren’t important enough for the newspaper to examine them at all over the last several years.

The problem isn’t ineffective teachers, as the Spokane superintendent is always saying. It isn’t poverty, as instructional coaches shouted out earlier this year in my community forums. It isn’t a lack of patience on the part of parents, as district administrators frequently interrupted us to claim. It isn’t a money issue (so adding more dollars to the budget won’t fix it). It isn’t too much local decision-making (so a federal takeover of public education won’t fix it). It isn’t due to weak standards, unmotivated children or uninvolved parents. And it isn’t a data problem (so a new $2.5 million data system won’t fix it). We advocates always knew all of that.

But now we know that math is too hard. We must therefore stop expecting things from the leadership. It isn’t fair to be angry about a failed K-12 math program or a failed college remedial math program, not fair to hold Jim Brady or the superintendent accountable for failing to accomplish something that’s obviously impossible. Now we can understand why Mr. Brady and his SFCC colleagues chose recently to align the SFCC math program with Spokane’s failed K-12 math program so that everyone can feel great about math. All of SFCC's remedial math students will be able to continue scaffolding their prior knowledge in order to achieve group consensus on reaching an equitable and socially just number and level of advanced skills, self-constructed in a metacognitive and collaborative stream of child-centered, deeper conceptual, problem-solving alignment.

What a relief. We no longer need to wonder about those privately schooled, homeschooled, and tutored students who do achieve in math, who don’t test into remedial math in college, and who don’t believe that math is hard. They must be anomalies. Perhaps they’re gifted, weird, bionic, or maybe not even real. Honestly, we can’t expect all of the children to be bionic or not real.

Besides, there are more important things in life than math. Things like shopping and movies, taking showers, making a perfect soufflĂ© like Gordon Ramsay on TV, and monitoring one’s horoscope. And there are tons of jobs our graduates can get that don’t require math, like answering the phone, sweeping the floor, and cleaning swimming pools. People also could babysit, mix drinks or lifeguard. There are lots and lots of non-math jobs out there. Lots.

I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders, like I just ate a cream puff or a sugary confection. There’s a humming in my ears and I feel a bit lightheaded. I hear Barbie in the background, burbling “Math is too hard” each time someone pulls on the string. How funny and cool that she’s back with us. She really was way ahead of her time.

I did – just for a second – see a small dark shadow out there – insignificant really, what looked like hordes of foreign students pouring across the border to nab seats in our colleges, take jobs in our businesses, and drag American jobs overseas, never to be seen again – but that must have been the sugar rush one gets from eating a Twinkie or reading the local newspaper.

At last I get it. Jim Brady says math has been hard for decades, and I believe him. It’s of no consequence that America’s public schools have depended on the current version of reform math for 22 years now, and on other incarnations of reform math off and on for generations before that. Why make this complicated? Why persist in wrong-headed thinking? Why be antagonistic and difficult, or risk being labeled a nutjob, whacko or conspiracy theorist? Why make everyone feel so awful? Let’s be happy.

I’m sure grammar is too hard, too. The district wisely chose to channel its resources away from grammar to more important things like equity and social justice. Cursive writing also is hard, and history is hard (too many numbers) – and civics. Who can even keep straight all of those branches of government? Especially nowadays.

You know what? The whole damn thing is too hard. I mean really. It’s time to face facts. They can’t teach our children because it can’t be done.

And with this simple concept, pioneered by Barbie, confirmed by Jim Brady, voted on by the school board, implemented by the district, and delivered solemnly to us by The Spokesman-Review, we could reform and transform our entire society.

Numbers in general are hard, don’t you think? All of those pointy edges. You have to add them and subtract them and … what’s that other one?… I’m getting a headache already, just thinking about it. And why should we? They’re all on the Internet. We can find them if we need them. Like, there’s a 3 and a 7 and a 5. And another one – I forget it, exactly, but it has a circle on top of another circle, like glasses, except sideways and with no arms. I think that’s all of them.

Now I can go back to more important business, like figuring out why so few graduates can get into college or get a job. It’s a national problem. I think Jim Brady should run the Federal Reserve. Math is hard there, too. It’s also hard in Congress, where they have so many zeroes. Let’s all take a break from math, take a nap and not worry about it. Someone will do it for us. Like WALL-E. He’ll do it. I love that little guy. The space dancing in WALL-E was so cute, and I’m glad he lived.

I’m hoping that Barbie, Jim Brady and the newspaper will confirm that weeding the garden is hard. I could really get behind them on that one. Also cleaning. And driving. And walking. And thinking. I’ve been doing way too much thinking.

Surprise me, Mr. Brady. Your comments have been a true gift. Give me more. I think my birthday is coming up soon.



Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (August 2011). "Barbie and Jim Brady agree: Math is hard." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/

This article also was posted August 24 at EducationViews: http://educationviews.org/2011/08/24/barbie-and-jim-brady-agree-math-is-hard/