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Education Next Issue Cover

Teacher Gender; Hope in New Orleans; Miracle Math; PE in Schools; Newark's Cory Booker; National Standards



By Education Next

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Winter 2007 / Vol. 7, No. 1

Teacher Gender

Let’s agree that you can’t generalize from 8th graders, in the throes of puberty, to the effects of matching student and teacher gender at other ages. More research is needed. Now let’s move on.

What if Professor Dee (“The Why Chromosome,” research, Fall 2006) is right? What policy implications follow?

Matching girls with female teachers and boys with male teachers is both impractical and undesirable. Most teachers are female, and boys will come up short. We want boys to become adults who are able to work well with women, and we want girls to become adults who are able to work well with men. We all recoil from the anti-egalitarian idea that we can be comfortable and achieve at our best only when we are with “people like us,” in terms of sex, ethnicity, religion, social class, politics, or anything else.

Since boys are about a grade level behind girls in reading and writing and girls have just about closed the gap in mathematics and science, I’ll focus on raising the achievement of boys. What might male teachers be doing in their classrooms that female teachers are less likely to do?

I offer a number of testable hypotheses, which come from the work of Michael Gurian, William Pollack, Leonard Sax, KathyStevens, Michael Thompson, and Peter West. These ideas emerge from knowledge of the biology and psychology of boys and the craft knowledge of teachers, what Lee Shulman has called the “wisdom of practice.”

1. Boys learn more when teachers talk less, especially when teachers avoid great torrents of repetitive words.

2. Boys learn more when teachers use lots of joking and humor, the currency of male social life.

3. Boys learn more when teachers themselves are captivated by the great, universal themes that engage male minds and hearts–––facing adversity and danger, embarking on great adventures, attaining strength and competence, fighting battles for good and for glory, testing yourself and becoming a hero, and learning how to make the physical world do your bidding.

4. Boys learn more when teachers are neither awed nor enraged by boys’ physicality and displays of anger, and respond in calm and measured ways, using such strategies as assigning activities that help boys calm down and regain control.

5. Boys learn more when the teacher does not humiliate them by forgetting that genuine vulnerability and lack of confidence lie underneath their cocky displays of toughness and bravado.

6. Boys learn more in structured, authoritative educational environments, under clear teacher control, which provide them with safety and security from the power plays and put-downs of other boys.

7. Boys learn more when competition gets them excited, when they need to learn so as to do well for their team, when they get to be active, when they get breaks, when they are having fun, and when teachers make the point of the learning activity clear.

8. Boys learn more when teachers praise and mentor them and when they believe that the teacher understands, likes, and respects boys.

What we need is not gender matching but greater understanding of the biological differences between males and females and the different psychological worlds each sex inhabits.

Judith Kleinfeld
Professor of Psychology and Director of Boys Project
University of Alaska, Fairbanks


I have two major objections to Professor Dee’s assumptions and methods. First, he asserts that “the majority of arguments for single-sex schools and classrooms focus on the effects on interactions among students.” That statement may have had some validity 20 years ago, but minimizing distractions is no longer an empirically sound justification for single-sex education (and perhaps it never was). Single-sex education is more likely to have positive outcomes for 2nd-grade boys than for 11th-grade boys. And yet 11th-grade boys are, presumably, more distracted by 11th-grade girls than 2nd-grade boys are by 2nd-grade girls.

Recent research demonstrates that girls and boys learn in profoundly different ways. These differences are based in part on hardwired differences in how girls and boys hear and see, which in turn derive from hardwired differences in the cochlea and retina, respectively. Single-sex education works not because it minimizes distractions but because it creates an opportunity for knowledgeable teachers to take advantage of the differences in how girls and boys learn.

Second, Professor Dee’s analysis is based on a survey of teachers who had no training in best practices for teaching girls and for teaching boys. Women can learn to teach boys, and men can learn to teach girls if teachers have appropriate training in evidence-based best practices: that requires 7 to 14 hours over 1 or 2 days. Indeed, some of the most effective teachers at our boys’ schools are women, and some of the most effective teachers at our girls’ schools are men.

Professor Dee conjectures that perhaps we should have more men teaching boys, and women teaching girls. I recommend, instead, that we focus on training men how to teach girls, and training women how to teach boys.

Leonard Sax
Executive Director, National Association for Single Sex Public Education

Thomas Dee replies:

Both Dr. Sax’s and Professor Kleinfeld’s otherwise insightful commentaries seem to take as their motivation a dramatic policy prescription that I have explicitly not advocated, namely, the gender matching of students and teachers. My study does indicate that 8th graders in the National Education Longitudinal Survey (1988) performed better on a variety of outcomes when assigned to a teacher of their own gender. However, I am also careful to point out that there are a variety of rich, contextual explanations for why these “reduced-form” effects exist. As both letters indicate, one provocative explanation is that boys and girls have distinct learning styles, which may be more effectively accommodated by same-gender teachers as they are currently trained. However, there are also other possible explanations for these results (e.g., role-model effects and stereotype threat). A convincing research base that discriminated among the relative contributions of these various phenomena would provide the basis for targeted and effective interventions.


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Hope in New Orleans

Kathryn Newmark and Veronique de Rugy’s brief mention of the comparatively rapid rebound of Catholic schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (“Hope after Katrina,” features, Fall 2006) casts the private school sector as “more nimble” than the public system. The superintendent of Catholic schools in New Orleans, Fr. William Maestri, offers an alternate explanation: “We believe that schools are magnets of hope in the midst of despair, and by reopening them, you ensure that people will come back.”

Forty-two days after Katrina devastated the city, 45 percent of the 107 Catholic elementary and high schools were back in operation, and 80 percent of the nearly 50,000. students were back in school classrooms either in the archdiocese, which embraces eight civil parishes (counties) in southeast Louisiana, or neighboring dioceses. By the end of January 2006, 75 percent of the schools had reopened and 86 percent of the total student population had returned. A greater contrast to the public schools’ record could hardly be imagined. Making the archdiocese’s recovery all the more remarkable is the fact that its schools suffered losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Catholic leaders said they never entertained doubts they could bring the school system back. The archdiocese pledged to accept any Catholic or public school students, whether or not they could pay the tuition. Some 300 public school students accepted the offer. The archdiocese has since applied for, and is hopeful of getting, displaced student tuition reimbursement from the federal government’s hurricane relief fund. The Catholic school system also decided to return tuition money to the family of any student forced to relocate to another school. “This was a fundamental moral point for us,” noted Fr. Maestri. “We couldn’t keep tuition for services that weren’t rendered, nor could we have parents whose children relocated to other schools pay tuition twice.” The Catholic schools have proved an extraordinary beacon of hope for the future of New Orleans.

Randy Young
Freelance Writer

Kathryn Newmark and Veronique de Rugy have made the most positive case for school choice in New Orleans. They could be right; I hope so. But there are problems they didn’t acknowledge.

First, the state of Louisiana’s Recovery District, which wanted to charter all the schools under its control, couldn’t find enough competent charter-school operators. Indeed, the National Association of Charter School Operators judged that only a small minority of applicants could be trusted to run a school, limiting the growth of choice in New Orleans.

Second, unable to charter all the schools, the Recovery District opened non-charter schools of its own. The people running those schools weren’t required to write charter applications, and I suspect few of them could have done it well. Thus, the state now oversees charter schools, plus other schools that probably couldn’t have met the standards charters were held to. The charter schools can be closed if they don’t perform well, and their staffs have jobs only as long as the schools survive, but it is not clear whether the same is true of district-run schools. Preoccupied with the need to open schools any way it can, the state is in danger of reproducing what New Orleans had before—schools that didn’t work and nobody wanted.

Third, national foundations really haven’t contributed much to the effort. The school redevelopment process has been underresourced, in my view. It is not too late for some big foundations to help out.

Fourth, it isn’t clear whether the Bring New Orleans Back model will ever be used. The state will eventually return all the schools to local control. If the new local authority looks like the one
Tulane president Scott Cowen’s group devised, and all the schools can be replaced if they don’t work, then New Orleans could become a model school district.

Things could work out as well as Newmark and de Rugy predict, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Paul Hill
Research Professor of Public Affairs
University of Washington


spread from math article
Miracle Math

In “Miracle Math” (features, Fall 2006), Barry Garelick contends that the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) briefly piloted Singapore Math and then abandoned the math curriculum for budgetary reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth.

MCPS incorporated the greatest strengths of Singapore Math into its revised mathematics curriculum in 2001, and the results have been excellent. The system’s new math curriculum is aligned with state, national, and world standards and has led to unprecedented student achievement. (Readers may see the unabridged version of Edwards’s letter at www.educationnext.org for more details.)

The article highlights one of Singapore Math’s strategies, called “bar modeling,” as an ideal way to solve math word problems. MCPS agrees and has incorporated bar modeling into the revised curriculum. The article also notes that the Singapore Math curriculum is sequential in nature and builds on students’ prior knowledge. The MCPS revised curriculum uses the same principle and techniques. Concepts of fact families are integral to Singapore Math, and one will find those same concepts in the MCPS math curriculum as well.

What Garelick didn’t discuss is how Singapore Math fails to fulfill the needs of American math education. For example, the measurements used in Singapore Math are metric. Therefore, if only Singapore Math textbooks are used, MCPS would have to provide additional materials to teach measurement. Singapore Math has little focus on computation with common fractions, a concept that is needed when solving customary measurement problems. Finally, Singapore Math does not include sufficient material on statistics and probability.

MCPS learned a great deal from its Singapore Math pilot and used its concepts significantly in the revised curriculum. Unfortunately, Garelick didn’t demonstrate a mastery of the “math facts” in Montgomery County in his opinion piece, and that is a disservice to the readers of Education Next.

Brian Edwards
Director, Public Information Office
Montgomery County Public Schools



Barry Garelick replies:

Mr. Edwards’s statement that “the system’s new math curriculum … has led to unprecedented student achievement” would make sense only if there were a baseline for comparison. According to [former MCPS parent] John Hoven, “Superintendent Weast terminated the long-standing Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) math testing program that could have provided a basis to judge his success or failure against his predecessors.”

MCPS-style “statistics and probability” does not teach the basics of how to make reliable statistical inferences from imprecise data. Singapore Math (SM) does that in high school; MCPS math never does.

The legacy of “bar modeling” from the SM pilot shows up in MCPS now only as a passing mention in teacher’s guides. This is not enough to get across the nuances and techniques for students to solve the multistep problems in Singapore Math.

Finally, Mr. Edwards’s statement that “Singapore Math has little focus on computation with common fractions” is inaccurate. Singapore Math covers fractions extensively. Here is a problem from the 5th grade text: “3/7 of the apples in a box are red apples. The rest are green apples. There are 24 green apples. How many apples are there altogether?” And here is a question for Mr. Edwards: How many MCPS 5th graders can solve that problem?


PE in Schools

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) is pleased that research (“Not Your Father’s PE,” research, Fall 2006) is being done to study the impact of physical education on individuals’ participation in physical activity and their weight status. However, the purpose of physical education is broader than those two outcomes. As defined by the National Standards for Physical Education (NASPE, 2004), desired outcomes also include the development of knowledge and motor and behavioral skills, and the valuing of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression, and/or social interaction. The goal of high-quality physical education is not just to increase physical activity for a week, but rather, for a lifetime.

This exploratory study asks some important questions, but its results should be viewed tentatively. The article assumes that whatever policy is established at the state level will equate to what happens in the physical education classrooms across each state. However, education in this country is locally controlled. The authors are making a big leap from state-level policies to student reports of active time in physical education classes without examining the intervening steps, such as policies set by school districts, school requirements, and the number of available minutes in a class period. Additionally, the combination of two data sets (i.e., from the “National Youth Risk Behavior Survey” and the “Shape of the Nation Report”) makes it difficult to interpret the study results.

NASPE hopes that the study, and responses to it, will lead to additional research on the long- and short-term outcomes of high-quality physical education programs.

Jacalyn Lund
President, NASPE

Charlene R. Burgeson
Executive Director, NASPE


Newark’s Cory Booker

David Skinner’s article (“Home Is Where the Heart Is,” features, Fall 2006) provides excellent coverage of the challenge facing Cory Booker, the newly elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in his effort to revitalize the school district. Newark’s school system encompasses nearly every structural impediment possible, including a tradition of patronage, mismanagement of resources, large numbers of failing schools, and lack of public trust. The situation clearly calls for direct mayoral involvement. As we’ve learned from other urban systems, the key lies in the mayor’s willingness to assume responsibility for the performance of the district.

To turn around Newark schools, Mayor Booker has to take bold actions and willingly be held accountable by the public for the results. Is Mayor Booker willing to spend political capital to leverage broad support and harness community-wide resources for school reform? He will need to broaden the expertise of the school management team, create competition for the traditional public schools, ensure incentives for school personnel to be responsive to their student clients, implement academic standards, and weed out incompetent teachers and principals. He will benefit from state legislation that enables him to take over the school district and frees him from regulatory and collective bargaining constraints during the reform’s start-up phase.

If Mayor Booker integrates school improvement into his overall strategy to enhance the quality of life in Newark, he will join the handful of mayors who have shown that improving the schools is good electoral politics. Mayoral leadership can reduce the institutional insulation of public schools, sharpen the focus on accountability, and improve the organizational and fiscal conditions to support teaching and learning. When mayors are committed to leading public schools, the entire school system tends to benefit. The children of Newark are waiting for the mayor to take this decisive step forward.

Kenneth K. Wong
Director, Urban Education Policy Program
Brown University


National Standards

The appeal of national standards for K–12 public education is understandable (“National Standards,” forum, Fall 2006). The notion of a set of academic aspirations for all America’s children is neat and clean and simple. And it provides an antidote to the confusing and often confused landscape of academic standards and assessments assembled by the states. Given the global competitiveness America must maintain, national standards seem commonsensical. We are a nation after all, and a nation should coalesce around a shared sense of what its students need to know in order to compete and succeed in the 21st century.

But beneath the veneer of the appeal there are problems, and perhaps even threats. It is fair to ask if national standards and assessments might start us down the road to a national K–12 system of public education, effectively turning on its head a system defined today by state and local policymakers and resources.

There may be something to be said for such a scenario. If the current system were getting the job done, this discussion probably would not be taking place. But nationalizing public education will surely widen the already troubling gulf between the American people and their public schools.

Most people view public education through the prism of their own experiences. National standards might reinforce the notion that all that matters is “how well my child and his school are doing” and make it even more difficult to get Americans to ask an equally, if not more, important question: “How well is my nation doing?” Rather than seeking a national remedy for the problems that afflict the system, we should seek to refresh and restore the public’s relationship with its schools.

Gene Hickok
Senior Policy Director, Dutko Worldwide
former U.S. deputy secretary of education




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