Monthly Archives: September 2015


GreatKids » Education trends, Math » Does our approach to teaching math fail even the smartest kids?

Here’s why the math education your children need is most likely not what their school is teaching.
by: Carol Lloyd

As sure as one plus one equals two, it happens year after year. Kids who have been bringing home A’s in chemistry and acing AP Calculus arrive at college with visions of STEM careers dancing in their heads. Then they hit an invisible, but very painful, wall.

According to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, as many as 60 percent of all college students who intend to study a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subject end up transferring out. In an era when politicians and educators are beside themselves with worry over American students’ lagging math and science scores compared to the whiz kids of Shanghai and Japan, this attrition trend so troubles experts it has spawned an entire field of research on “STEM drop-out,” citing reasons from gender and race to GPAs and peer relationships.

One theory for the STEM exodus is that American students aren’t getting a good foundation in math — a necessary skill in many scientific and technical curricula. After all, about a third of American high school seniors don’t score proficient in math. But here’s the kicker: STEM attrition rates are even higher at the most selective colleges — like the Ivy Leagues — places where kids need killer AP scores and grades just to get in.

So why do even the most accomplished students burn out of STEM programs when they hit college? One recent article in the New York Times explored possible reasons — from the alluring grade inflation in the arts and humanities, to what one engineering professor characterized as the boring, largely theoretical “math-science death march” of first-year requirements.

That may explain the phenomenon, at least in part. But math experts around the country point to another culprit. Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program Art of Problem Solving, is part of a group of math educators who sees the mystery of the disappearing STEM major from a different angle. It’s not that kids aren’t getting enough math, they say, but that we’re teaching K-12 math all wrong.

Rusczyk’s insight is based on a phenomenon he witnessed firsthand when he arrived at Princeton University and began studying math alongside kids who had attended the most prestigious high schools in the country. “These were kids who had never gotten anything but 95s and 100s on their tests and suddenly they were struggling and were getting 62s on tests and they decided they weren’t any good [at math],” he explains.

Next page: a math reality check
Call it the mathematical reality check. Suddenly, Rusczyk recalls, formerly accomplished students were faced with a new idea: that math required more than rote learning — it required creativity, grit, and strenuous mental gymnastics. “They had been taught that math was a set of destinations and they were taught to follow a set of rules to get to those places,” he recalls. “They were never taught how to read a map, or even that there is a map.”

Indeed, traditional math curriculum is to teach discrete algorithms, a set of rules that elicit a correct answer, like how to do long division, say, or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Then students “learn” the material by doing a large quantity of similar problems. The result, says Rusczyk, is that students are rarely asked to solve a problem they are not thoroughly familiar with. Instead, they come to think of math as a series of rules to be memorized. The trouble is kids don’t necessarily learn how to attack a new or different kind of equation.

Rusczyk watched many of his fellow students, long accustomed to being “quick studies,” as they soured on math after experiencing what they perceived as failure. They quit — transferring their hopes and dreams to a less numerically challenging field like sociology or graphic design.

Rusczyk, in contrast, felt far more prepared when faced with a problem he didn’t know how to solve. Despite having attended what he characterizes as an average public school without a lot of advanced math classes, he had participated in math clubs and contests. In math clubs, he’d become accustomed to facing harder, multifaceted problems where the right approach wasn’t immediately apparent.

Math as problem solving
Instead of just learning how to follow rules, he explains, “In math competitions, I learned how to solve problems that I hadn’t seen before.” Instead of math becoming something he accomplished in return for a perfect score, he came to see math as problem solving — an exciting pleasure that was a distant relation to the rote drudgery of memorizing algorithms.

When Rusczyk looked around him, he noticed a pattern. His classmates who had experienced this kind of difficult problem solving — usually in after-school math clubs — could survive the transition to college math. The ones who had only been exposed to traditional math curriculum, the ones who, as Rusczyk puts it, have experienced the “tyranny of 100%” — gave up too easily because they thought if they weren’t getting top scores, they weren’t meant to do math. “Suddenly, a solid B was a 40%, the top grade [was] an 82%, the next 68%, and no one is getting a 100%,” he recalls. “But they didn’t know this.” Rusczyk realized that these kids had been dealt a bad hand: “They were taught [math] is a set of facts, not a process.”

These fundamental ideas — that math isn’t about following rules but about solving problems, that math means fun mental struggle, not boring rote learning — forms the basis of his online math school and curriculum, which currently includes pre-algebra though calculus and one year (third grade) of his new elementary school program, Beast Academy. Unlike traditional math curriculum, The Art of Problem Solving books first give kids problems (not the explanation for how to solve them) and leading questions to get them to struggle with the ideas a little before they are given the foolproof algorithm.

His programs are designed for gifted math students, but he claims his ideas could help all kids, gifted or not. His observations offer a solution for parents who want to help their children keep those STEM doors of opportunity open. To this end, he has a clear message to parents assessing their child’s math experience. What should kids be learning about math? For younger children, it’s important to give them a love for math — just as we try to give kids a love for reading.

Math that’s a challenge
“Kids smell fear,” he says. “And many elementary school teachers love reading but not math.” Once kids get older, don’t be afraid to push your child in a program that challenges him. “It’s supposed to be hard — if you’re getting 98% in a class… it may be too easy.”

He also recommends that parents look outside the classroom to provide the best place to challenge kids. “Math competitions, summer programs, math circles (programs which offer challenging math in non-judgmental environments) — whatever you can find that will give your kids a taste of why math can be fun.”

Finally, and most importantly, Rusczyk wants parents to give kids more time to explore their passions. “It’s terrible. Kids are so overscheduled — there’s AP this AP that — they’re doing all this garbage that doesn’t serve them in the long run.”

Rusczyk cautions that kids who love math and science often end up filling up their time with AP classes that aren’t central to their aspirations but more focused on GPA calculations (like AP Art History), and shortchange themselves when it comes to exploring math and science learning outside the classroom.

In the end, the skills required to solve a complex problem — to break the problem down into smaller parts, to approach it from different angles using different methods, to not getting intimidated or frustrated when the path isn’t obvious — are practical in any field of endeavor — from astrophysics to er, parenting. Ideally, math prepares kids to be better thinkers no matter where they land. For now, parents can use these skills to fill in their children’s math deficiencies, one problem at a time.


CCSS: Math.Practice.MP1
Lesson Objective
Encourage students to learn from mistakes
7 min
Questions to Consider
What does Ms. Alcala mean by “flow through” credit?
Why does Ms. Alcala review her favorite mistakes instead of the correct answers before passing back the test?
How does this grading strategy foster a class culture that values risks and learning from mistakes?
Common Core Standards

Awards of Excellence Winner!


What Research Can Help Your Students Score Higher on the Upcoming BIG Tests? 

School testing

This month, we’ll focus on how to prepare for existing state and national tests. I’ll focus on three things that can help your students improve their chances to score up to their potential. By the way, kids never score above their potential; they’re just not going to randomly make enough lucky right answers time after time after time (in statistics, it’s called regression to the mean).

But, they often underperform for a host of reasons, even when they should perform much better. While we could focus on dozens of variables that influence standardized testing, we’ll focus on these three: 1) brain chemistry, 2) priming, and 3) episodic memory triggers. Some of these suggestions got so many rave reviews that they are reproduced from an earlier bulletin!

The Research

Ten Minutes to Better Scores

Two laboratory and two randomized field studies tested a psychological intervention designed to improve students’ scores on high-stakes exams. These simple ten-minute activities can raise test scores. One well-designed study showed that writing about testing worries prior to taking the exam boosts exam performance in the classroom.

The study authors expected that sitting for an important exam leads to worries about the situation and its consequences that undermine test performance. What the authors tested was… whether having students write down their thoughts about an upcoming test could improve test performance.

This simple intervention, a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before taking an important test, significantly improved students’ exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test taking. Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores. It does it by more than 10% and it’s quick and free (Ramirez G, Beilock, SL., 2011).

Brain Chemistry and Testing There are three chemicals to focus on for optimal testing results: 1) dopamine (it generally facilitates informational transfer within limbic and cortical networks to promote working memory and reward-seeking behavior, says Luciana, et al. 1998), 2) noradrenaline (it generally promotes a more narrowed focus, sharper attention and improved memory. This system plays a specific role in the regulation of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, working memory, impulse control, and the planning of voluntary behavior), and 3) glucose (it provides short term energy and, in low to moderate doses, promotes enhanced memory (Krebs DL, Parent MB., 2005).

The Power of Suggestion

Can you influence testing outcomes by “prepping” their brain for success? It has long been proposed that motivational responses that were subtle could serve as priming to effect academic performance. A recent study showed that yes, it can be done and they can show you how to do it. “You can prep the brain several ways. One is by showing them the letter “A” in advance.” (I’ll tell you “how” in a moment.) The other one of our two “prepping” studies is to give peppermints to all kids for your final review, then use them again at the time of the big test. (Barker, et al. 2003). This raises attentional levels and provides glucose.

Location of the Test Itself

I have always advocated that we ensure that students taking the test take it in the room in which they studied for it. That’s the power of episodic or content memory. But, there’s more to it. Stress is an issue, too. Stress impaired memory when assessed in the unfamiliar context, but not when assessed in the learning context (Schwabe L., and Wolf OT, 2009). In short, if your students can’t be in the test-givers room to learn the material, at least bring them into the testing room and do a review there days before the event.

Practical Applications

Let’s “flesh out” each of the studies listed above. The first category is about enhancing brain chemicals. This is fairly easy to do.

Dopamine can be strengthened by 1) voluntary gross motor repetitive movements, like marching, relays, playing a game. It is enhanced by strong positive feelings like reunions and celebrations. Most of all, it’s enhanced by looking forward to something very good.

Norepinephrine is enhanced by 1) risk, like a student speaking in front of his/her peers, 2) urgency, like serious deadlines for compelling tasks, and 3) excitement, like theater, competition, comedy, the arts.

Glucose is enhanced by 1) food sources: complex carbs are best, but almost any source can do in a pinch, 2) physical activity: glucose is stored in the liver in the form of glycogen and released in the form of glucose, and 3) any time we are experiencing emotions.

The study that I mentioned earlier used peppermint odor during simple skill practice, performance, memorization, and alphabetization. Participants completed the protocol twice–once with peppermint odor present and once without. Analysis indicated significant differences in the gross speed, net speed, and accuracy on the task, with odor associated with improved performance. The study results suggest peppermint odor may promote a general arousal of attention, so participants stay focused on their task and increase performance.

The Power of Suggestion

You can influence testing outcomes by “prepping” their brain for success with a positive suggestion. Sound like Star Trek “Vulcan” Mind Control? Or, is it more like “Obi Wan Kenobe”? It’s neither. It has long been proposed that motivational responses that were subtle could serve as priming to affect academic performance. The research study I mentioned above was conducted at a large research university in the USA. Here is what they started with:

23 undergraduates participated in Group 1 (were conducted in classroom settings)
32 graduate students in Group 2 (were conducted in classroom settings)
76 undergraduates in Group 3 (were conducted in laboratory setting)

The “mind games” manipulation came in the form of a “Test Bank ID code” (completely phony) on the cover of a test. The ID Code was needed because participants were prompted to view and write it on each page of their test. The letters used were “A” (the positive priming for group 1), “F” (the negative priming for group 2) and “J” (the neutral, control group 3). Students who got the “A” on their ID Code outperformed BOTH the “F” on the code and the “J” control group. Students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task, these results support years of research highlighting the significant role that our nonconscious processes play in achievement settings.

Location of the Test Itself

Stress before retention testing impairs memory, whereas memory performance is enhanced when the learning context is reinstated at retrieval. As a general rule, low-moderate stress is best for encoding and for retrieving, it is best to match the encoding stress level. I have always advocated that we ensure that students taking the test take it in the room in which they studied for it. That’s the power of episodic or content memory.

But there’s more to it. Stress is an issue, too.

The study examined whether the negative impact of stress before memory retrieval can be attenuated when memory is tested in the same environmental context as that in which learning took place. These results suggest that the detrimental effects of stress on memory retrieval can be abolished when a distinct learning context is reinstated at test.

Stress impaired the student’s memory when assessed in the unfamiliar context, but not when assessed in the learning context (Schwabe L., and Wolf OT., 2009). In short, if your students can’t be in the test-givers room to learn the material, at least, bring them into the testing room and do a review there days before the event.

Combine for Positive Synergy

Remember, the science is solid when you consider each strategy separately. But combined, these strategies may help you get to the next level. As Chef Emeril would say they could give you “BAM!” power.

BONUS: Here’s what to do after the interim tests (but before the big “Standards Tests”). We know that reflection and meta thinking can be powerful. Debbie Barber, a sixth grade teacher at Ackerman Middle School in Canby, Oregon says, “My kids have a chance to improve their scores by doing a test autopsy. They correct their mistakes and then write a half page reflection on why they did so poorly and what they should have done differently. They earn a half point for each corrected answer. Not only do the parents love it, the test scores have improved and the students are really taking ownership of their work!”

This is the potential of smarter, targeted teaching. But you have to commit to the process and ensure that it gets done. Don’t let anyone say, “I’ve heard of all that!” Get your staff on board and start making miracles. Is this awesome or not?

Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.” Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!


  • Barker S, Grayhem P, Koon J, Perkins J, Whalen A, Raudenbush B. Improved
    performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor.
    Percept Mot Skills. 2003 Dec;97(3 Pt 1):1007-10.
  • Arnsten AF. Through the looking glass: differential noradrenergic modulation of prefrontal cortical function. Neural Plast. 2000;7:133–46. [PubMed]
  • Ciani KD, Sheldon KM. (2010) A versus F: the effects of implicit letter priming on cognitive performance. Br J Educ Psychol. Mar;80(Pt 1):99-119.
  • Fulkerson, F. E.; and G. Martin. 1981. Effects of exam frequency on student performance, evaluations of instructor, and test anxiety. Teaching of Psychology; April, 8(2): 90-93.
  • Krebs DL, Parent MB. (2005) The enhancing effects of hippocampal infusions of glucose are not restricted to spatial working memory. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Mar;83(2):168-72.
  • Luciana, M., Collins, PF and RA Depue (1998) Opposing roles for dopamine and serotonin in the modulation of human spatial working memory function Cerebral Cortex Volume 8, Number 3, Pp. 218-226.
  • Schwabe, L, Wolf OT. (2009) The context counts: congruent learning and testing
    environments prevent memory retrieval impairment following stress. Cogn Affect
    Behav Neurosci. Sep;9(3):229-36.
  • Ramirez G, Beilock, SL. Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance
    in the classroom. Science. 2011 Jan 14;331(6014):211-3.

One Response to “What Research Can Help Your Students Score Higher on the Upcoming BIG Tests?”

  1. Karen McCollister

    Consider the implications to students in small group testing. This is powerful information.



Why Civics Is About More Than Citizenship

Amid stagnant performance on civics exams and abysmal youth voter turnout, one group has endeavored to make the U.S. citizenship exam a high-school graduation requirement in every state.

Kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a Halloween-themed naturalization ceremony.Patrick Semansky / AP

Only one in five Americans aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in last year’s elections, marking 2014 as having the lowest youth voter-turnout in 40 years. Some reason that young Americans are apathetic about public affairs. Others argue that cynicism about the electoral process is what’s keeping young adults from the polls: They’re so disillusioned with politics they’ve simply given up on it.

Given Millennials’ lifestyle habits and the general public’s ever-growing skepticism of people in power, perennially low voter turnout may seem inevitable. But perhaps schools are largely to blame for the rather pathetic participation numbers; perhaps young adults’ ignorance of civic affairs helps explain why so few of them cast their votes. Perhaps that means change is possible.

“The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be civically engaged,” the Fordham Foundation’s Robert Pondiscio said in a recent seminar with education reporters. It seems that the country’s public schools are failing to fulfill one of their core founding missions: to foster and maintain a thriving democracy.

This is the stated mission of the Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit that has been making headlines for its particular civic-ed strategy. The non-partisan institute is on a mission to make passing the U.S. citizenship exam—the one that immigrants have to take to become naturalized citizens—a high-school graduation requirement in all 50 states by 2017. Officially, the exam is designed to comprehensively assess one’s familiarity with American fundamentals, drawing 10 questions or prompts at random from a total pool of 100: “What is the supreme law of the land?” for example, or “Name a state that borders Canada.”

Even though all 50 states and the District of Columbia technically require some civic education, advocates say many districts don’t take those policies very seriously, and few states actually hold schools accountable for students’ civics’ outcomes. Just about a fourth of high-school seniors in 2014 scored “proficient” on the federal-government’s civics exam. Proficiency levels were equally lousy for eighth-graders. “U.S. performance has stayed the same. Or should I say: Scores have stayed every bit as bad as the last time the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) took the pulse of history, civics, and geography in public and private schools,” wrote the Washington Post Writers Group columnist Esther Cepeda, who hosted the aforementioned seminar with reporters, earlier this year. As with standardized tests in general, the NAEP exam certainly isn’t the ideal way to gauge proficiency but it’s the only source of nationwide data. And ultimately, surveys of American youth suggest that these test scores paint a pretty accurate picture of their civic literacy: A 2010 Pew Research study found that the vast majority of young adults struggle with basic questions about politics—who the next House speaker would be, for example. On a day like today—national Constitution and Citizenship Day—that makes for an especially discouraging reality.

Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, suggests that these low proficiency levels correlate with turnout stats. According to a 2013 CIRCLE survey of young adults, about 60 percent of the respondents who said they’d studied voting in high school cast ballots in the 2012 election, compared to only 43 percent of those who said they hadn’t; just 21 percent of the respondents said they knew their state’s voter-registration deadline.

Given those circumstances, the institute’s initiative may seem like a large undertaking—especially in a country whose politicians are nearly a decade overdue in rewriting the omnibus federal education law. Yet the citizenship-exam law has already passed in eight states, among them Arizona—where the nonprofit and much of its leaders are based—Louisiana, and Wisconsin. Moreover, another 11 state legislatures considered the proposal this year, and the group intends to get 20 additional states on board in 2016. Advocates are confident all will go according to plan.

The question is whether that goal will actually achieve the institute’s pledged mission of civic know-how among America’s future adults. The initiative has also raised concerns about what it represents. “It’s an empty symbolic effort,” said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at Mills College who oversees the Civic Engagement Research Group and is a vocal critic of the Foss Institute’s plan, in the seminar. “There’s not any evidence base to show that this will be effective … It’s something state legislators can pass and feel good about.” In a recent piece of commentary for Education Week, he argued that testing approach to civic ed is the equivalent of “teaching democracy like a game show.”

Aside from Kahne, critics have been scrutinizing the initiative for a range of reasons, both educational and political. For one, it comes with even more standardized testing for kids who are already overwhelmed by the stuff. For another, it sends the message that a multiple-choice exam is the key to being a successful citizen. In other words, it uses an arguably one-dimensional tool as a proxy for an idea of nationhood that, to many critics, is precisely the opposite—what should be a “continuum,” as Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, explained, that emphasizes “quality and not just facts.”

Indeed, civics is an abstract concept that means different things to different people, as does civic education. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definescivic education as “all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities.” The Center for Civic Education’s Margaret Stimmann Branson offers something a little more concise: “education in self-government,” which, she specified, requires that citizens are proactive. “They do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others,” she continued. And then there’s the Joe Foss Institute’s interpretation: the teaching of “how our government works and who we are as a nation, preparing them to exercise their vote, solve problems in their communities, and engage in active citizenship.”

What makes the subject challenging to apply in schools, though, is that things can get complicated once the basic facts and figures are peeled away. Teaching how a bill becomes law? Fine. Using a current piece of pending legislation to illustrate that lesson? Tricky. Asking students to think critically about that legislation and opine on its merits as if they’re the lawmakers determining its fate? Risky. Indeed, civics inherently intersects with polemical topics that some teachers are uncomfortable discussing in the classroom—often because they’re worried, perhaps for good reason, about losing their jobs. As Cepeda noted in the seminar, efforts to ramp up civic education in schools may have floundered because the subject is “a very politically touchy issue,” something with which politicians are wary of dealing.

In a way, that’s one reason why the Joe Foss approach makes sense: As a multiple-choice test about facts, it is by definition as objective as these things get. And the exam itself is, arguably, so easy that debating the merits of it as a required exit high-school exam almost seems silly. Pondiscio even went as far as to say that the exam is too easy to make sense as a high-school requirement; “it should be an exit exam” for elementary-school students, he contended. (To be sure, some questions are pretty obscure. No. 67, for example, asks applicants to name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers. One of the accepted options: “Publius.”)

Acknowledging the exam’s limitations, Lucian Spataro, a former president of the Joe Foss Institute who continues to serve on its board, reasoned that it simply serves as a first step toward getting kids’ civic literacy to an acceptable level. It’s part of what will inevitably be a long-drawn-out and challenging process. Spataro used similar logic in justifying the testing approach: It incentivizes teachers, he suggested, to give the subject more attention. “If it’s tested, it’s taught,” he said. (Ironically, this teaching-to-the-test reasoning is one of the main reasons No Child Left Behind is so unpopular.)

Sparato, a former educator and an engineer by training, lamented what he said is a disproportionate emphasis on STEM in America’s classrooms. “You’re going to have to have all the disciplines on the frontburner—not just the STEM disciplines” in order to retain “the United States’ competitive edge,” he said. “You need to be a well-rounded student to be a well-rounded citizen … This can no longer be the quiet crisis in education.”

Few would doubt Sparato’s characterization of the civic-ed problem as a “quiet crisis”—a term coined by the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (who, coincidentally, founded iCivics) and regularly included in the Foss Institute’s promotional materials. But the citizenship-test strategy “is the exact opposite of what we want,” says iCivics’ Dubé, who got involved with the organization after her own son participated in its educational activities as a fourth-grader. In contrast with the Foss Institute, iCivics—which O’Connor founded in 2009—sees itself as a technology-focused endeavor, giving teachers free access to interactive, role-playing games and activities to use in the classrooms. The program, according to Dubé, reaches an estimated 3 million children annually and is used by roughly half of the nation’s public middle-school teachers. iCivics, Dubé stressed,  based on a four-pronged definition of civic ed: “skills,” like teaching kids how to write effective argumentative essays using primary sources; “knowledge,” which has to do with facts and understanding how the system works; “dispositions,” such as being able to engage in dialogue about difficult issues while managing their socioemotional behaviors; and “actions,”—putting these tools into effect by going to the polls, for example. In other words, the Joe Foss emphasis—what iCivics would probably define as “knowledge”—seems to highlight a small, though important, fraction of that endeavor. “Some of the things happening politically are a result of people not knowing,” how to make a difference, Dubé said. “It’s important that we show [students] that that big machine that seems like it has nothing to do with you matters more than you think.”

“Any movement for civic education,” she continued, “is a good thing.”

The two biggest challenges to civic literacy among today’s young adults, according to Dubé, are quality and equity. To improve the outcomes, educators need to show students that the information is relevant and easy to digest, she said. They need to know it will make a difference in their lives. And, she argued, iCivics’ effectiveness has to do with its focus on gaming; it’s about employing the element of mystery and playfulness, encouraging kids to compete and discover. That, she said, is “what might overcome that disaffection.”

In general, disaffection seems to be a major obstacle in Arizona. Home to one of the highest rates of undocumented immigrants, the state is notorious for its harsh treatment of those believed to be in the country illegally. It’s also one of the few states where high-school  dropout rates have actually increased, a trend that’s been largely attributed to specific districts, such as Tucson and Mesa, and the high percentage of Latino students.

Arizona also happens to be the epicenter of the country’s civic-ed efforts. O’Connor was an elected official and judge in Arizona before being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Reagan; she started iCivics in response to students’ poor outcomes and what she described as widespread misperceptions of the judiciary’s role. The Foss Institute, too, has Arizona roots: The Grand Canyon state spearheaded the move toward making the test a graduation requirement.

And, in an interesting juxtaposition to the Joe Foss initiative, Arizona’s Tucson school district is currently immersed in a high-profile battle over Mexican American Studies course—one that integrates topics ranging from social justice to multiculturalism. The course was banned after the state’s attorney general called the curriculum “very racially oriented and designed to create negative feelings about the United States.” A challenge to the ban’s constitutionality recently went to a U.S. appeals court, which largely rejected the plaintiffs’ complaint but said that they had enough evidence to merit to take the case back to trial in Arizona’s district court in Tucson. “Once that law goes away I think things are just gonna bloom because really people have to acknowledge the facts, the demographics—and at the end of the day, we have to prepare the youth for a multicultural era,” Tony Diaz, a Texas professor and activist who in response to the ban has spearheaded a nationwide effort to get ethnic studies into schools by “trafficking” books into classrooms, told me earlier this year. “If this law stays on the books I do not even know what to think for America. I cannot even imagine that [policymakers] would ultimately condone this law—it would not be America. Everything I have ever believed in this county would be a farce.”

Almost all of the states that have already adopted the Foss graduation requirement, as The New Yorker’s Vauhini Vara points out, lean toward the right. Even the institute’s CEO, Frank Riggs, a former Republican U.S. representative, acknowledged in an interview with Vara that the institute has “the image of a more conservative organization.” But, Riggs added, the institute has “been very, very careful to promote our citizen-education initiative as a bipartisan, good-government initiative.” In its advocacy of the citizenship-test requirement, the nonprofit—which is named after a World War II Marines fighter and former North Dakota governor whose wife remains on the organization’s board—is certainly careful to avoid political (and, presumably, Anglocentric) rhetoric. Still, for what it’s worth, an analysis of the institute’sleadership page suggests that all the institute’s executives and board members are white, and many of them have right-leaning political affiliations and are powerful and likely wealthy. They include Sandra Froman, a former National Rifle Association president; John Elway, a former Denver Broncos quarterback who’s now one of its vice presidents; and Danforth Quayle, who served as vice president under George H.W. Bush.

The Joe Foss Institute describes its mission as simply “promoting an emphasis on civic education in schools,” though tax filings indicate a mission that’s a little more specific than that. Its IRS 990 form for 2013, the most recent year for which federal tax filings are publicly available, lists two grants to outside organizations. One was a $26,000 donation to the Dreyfuss Initiative, a nonprofit it described as having a similar mission: “to promote patriotism and education in schools.” (The other hefty donation went toward an educational program whose curriculum, according to its website, “is designed to teach character, life skills, and leadership to urban students,” largely thanks to a “team of full-time primarily ethnic staff.) The Foss Institute on its website also refers to its eponymous founder as “A True American Patriot.”

Today, it seems that the increasingly popular conception of good citizenship is proving you’re “American.” Proving not just that you’re knowledgeable about civic life and how to play a part in it, but also assimilated and patriotic and good at memorizing facts. Maybe it in part explains the controversy that exploded in Oklahoma over the AP U.S. History exam, which provoked criticism from right-leaning policymakers for its supposedly inadequate emphasis on “American exceptionalism.” (The College Board later made a sentence-by-sentence revisionto the curriculum to appease critics’ concerns.)

There’s also the question of how deep such lessons ultimately go. Educators often cite limited social-studies instructional time as a key reason why so many students underperform on assessments in the subject. Yet, as Cepeda noted in her column, researchers tend to question that rationale, suggesting that there’s little correlation between the amount of time dedicated to a subject and students’ performance. “To me, this points directly to the quality, rather than the quantity, of instruction,” Cepeda wrote in her column. Is preparing students for the citizenship exam—which would likely entail rote memorization and out-of-class practice tests—really the highest-quality option?

Peter Levine, the director of CIRCLE, echoed Cepeda’s logic in a February op-ed in Education Week. It doesn’t make sense to ask educators to engage kids in civics through the test used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he wrote, noting that the NAEP scores aren’t as dire as some make them out to be. “The priority should be to give students frequent opportunities to read and talk with one another about pressing social and political issues, identify civic problems that interest them, deliberate about possible solutions, and when their deliberations suggest a promising course of action, pursue it.”

CIRCLE describes this approach as “deeper learning.” It’s the kind of stuff that can’t be taught in a textbook—that can’t be contained in a lecture nor tested in a multiple-choice exam.

Similarly, some advocates—such as the Webby Awards creator Tiffany Shlain who last year founded “Character Day”—emphasize that “citizenship” is simply one component of a much broader goal: character development. The annual Character Day even, which this year takes place Friday, brings films and discussion guides to thousands of teachers and schools around the world, including all of San Francisco’s public schools in an effort to foster dialogue about and act on diverse philosophies about the best way to lead a “happy, fulfilling, and purposeful life,” Shlain, a filmmaker, recently told me. “Non-academic skills like teamwork, persistence, adaptability, taking initiative, and curiosity, among others, are really important for both career and life.” Character Day, somewhat like iCivics provides access to free resources—such as online modules on values ranging from “social intelligence” to “appreciation of beauty”—to children, parents, and educators. There’s no curriculum or framework or rules. Teachers are encouraged to get creative.

Asked about the Joe Foss approach, though, Shlain said she sees its point. “I think there are some things that have fallen by the wayside,” she said. “Knowing about your country and about how things work—it’s empowering, ultimately … My focus is different, but I think [the citizenship-test requirement] is a good thing. You have to know about how the government works in order to make change, and a lot of people don’t.”

PARCC Scores are out!

UPDATED: PARCC Sets Cut Scores for Test, But Won’t Say What They Are

Dig-Computers-Classroom.jpgBy guest blogger Catherine Gewertz

The PARCC testing consortium made a pivotal decision Wednesday: It established the cut scores for its test. But it chose not to disclose most of those scores, or to say what portion of students performed at each of the five achievement levels.

At a meeting in Washington, PARCC’s governing board voted to approve the cut scores for the English/language arts and math tests in grades 3-8. But it disclosed only one of the scores that mark the thresholds between the levels of mastery. On a scale of 650 to 850, students will need to score a 750 to reach Level 4, which in grades 3-8 connotes a “strong command” of the standards, and in high school signifies college readiness.

PARCC’s governing board did the same thing Aug. 14, when it voted to approve cut scores for the high school tests. All officials would say is that each test will be scored on a scale of 650 to 850, and that students would need to score 750 to reach Level 4. They would not disclose the threshold scores needed to reach Levels 2, 3 and 5. They didn’t reveal, either, what portion of high school students scored at each of the levels on the exam.

PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin would say only that states are still finalizing their data, so it’s too early to disclose how students performed on the test, which was given for the first time this past spring.

He didn’t say why PARCC wouldn’t release the actual cut scores, and testing experts were baffled by that as well. Several psychometricians we consulted said they had no idea why PARCC couldn’t disclose the scores that students would need to meet to reach each performance level on the test.

UPDATE: PARCC decided Thursday afternoon to release the rest of the cut scores. Updated “mock” score reports on its website, which had earlier had placeholder numbers for cut scores, now show the actual cut scores the board approved, according to PARCC assessment chief Jeff Nellhaus.  They are: 700 to score at Level 2, 725 to score at Level 3, and, as previously reported, 750 to score at Level 4. The cut point for Level 5 will vary somewhat by grade and subject, but will be around 803, Nellhaus said during a webinar for the Education Writers Association.

“Cut points on the reporting scale ought to be something they’re willing to let go of,” said one assessment expert who’s very familiar with PARCC’s work to establish cut scores. “I can’t understand why they wouldn’t do that.”

That same expert said, however, that the consortium’s decision not to release “consequence data”—how students scored on the test, given the newly established cut scores—was understandable. He said that some states might still be finalizing data—for example, making sure that if they’re reporting scores by subgroup, that they’re placing students correctly into those groups.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia administered the PARCC exam. States are keeping one another apprised of when they will release test results, and they anticipate doing so between mid-October and the end of November. The consortium has developed score reports that many or all of its states are likely to use.

By contrast, the 18 states that used the Smarter Balanced exam last spring are each reporting results their own way. California is the most recent to do so; it released its results yesterday.

When Smarter Balanced set its cut scores last November, it released the scale, the cut points, and the projected proportions of students it expected to perform at each of the four categories on its test. (The student-performance data were only projections, since Smarter Balanced established its cut scores based on data from the 2014 field test, not from the operational test in 2015.)

PARCC’s decision to delay the disclosure of its cut scores and its student-performance data prompted some questions and skepticism in the assessment world. Douglas McRae, who oversaw the design of California’s assessments in the 1990s as a top executive at CTB/McGraw-Hill, said he is uneasy about PARCC’s “lack of transparency and data.”

When California established the cut scores for its STAR program in the early 2000s, he said, the cut-score recommendations made by panels of experts, as well as those made by the department of education’s staff, were blended into a memo that was sent to the state board of education, and became part of the public record for the regional meetings it held to gather public input on the cut scores. How students would perform at each test level based on those recommended cut scores was also part of that record, he said.

“It’s very unusual for a test-maker to announce final cut scores and not release estimated proportions of kids at each level [of the test],” he said in an email to Education Week.


Games for Learning


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Hands-On Apps for Diverse Learner

Using games to teach can increase student engagement and add meaning to learning. Hands-on apps give children the ability to mix tactile play with a digital experience. Thanks to augmented reality, more and more apps in the market blur the line between digital and analog. For example, Bloxels, new from Pixel Press, uses color-coded blocks that can be scanned in with an iPad camera to create a video game level. Osmo is another digital/analog blend. The kit includes a stand and a reflector for an iPad camera, enabling users to play with physical tangram puzzles or word games.

Hands-On Game Jam

This summer, I organized a hands-on game jam day at the A. Harry Moore School at New Jersey City University, which serves students from ages 3- 21 who have low-incidence disabilities. Many of the students are in wheelchairs.

For the opening whole-group session, I showed a BrainPOP video about video games. Next, everyone was given a hands-on task: to explore the “playability” of objects. Each table had an assortment of plastic cups, ping-pong balls, string, tape, and other items. The goal was to make a simple game out of everyday objects. A cup would no longer serve its intended purpose for drinking water. Instead, it became a basketball hoop, a phone (attached to a string), and a hat! This theme reoccurred throughout the day. Tactile and kinesthetic learning would be paired with game-like activities. For more on the playability of objects, check out Institute of Play’s Beta Game Kit.

Teachers next hosted 30-minute breakout sessions in different classrooms, taking care to ensure that students were as active as possible in playing, creating, and designing.

One room featured Compose Yourself, a new game from ThinkFun (publisher of the coding board game Robot Turtles, Laser Maze,MakerStudio, and other fun learning toys). Compose Yourself was designed by music composer Philip Sheppard. As with many good games, Compose Yourself emphasizes play first. After all, writing music is hard. To play, choose cards from the set. Each is transparent and adorned with a measure of music notes. They can be flipped around or turned over. Enter one of the four accompanying codes on each card into a computer browser and listen to a world-class orchestra play the melody back! Students can then download and share their compositions. They can also print out their songs. This enables children to play with musical compositions. This video shows you how to play Compose Yourself.

Playing With Tech

Constructasaurus, playable for free on BrainPOP Jr.’s GameUp page, was next. Developed by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, it gives students the opportunity to build a dinosaur. Once built, the dinosaur is “tested” — too top heavy and it might tip over! This game activity worked well on an interactive whiteboard.

Another classroom remixed the party game HedBanz. The facilitating teacher adapted the reverse-charades guessing game to also include objects, and students were given blank index cards to make their own variations. Teacher-facilitated modifications helped achieve the goal of keeping everyone engaged in a playful experience.

The gym featured Sphero, the robotic iPad-controlled ball. Students were given the chance to maneuver it though an obstacle course. Not surprisingly, some children opted to play around with the Sphero, guiding it outside of the planned obstacles. Keeping with the spirit of play and fun, this was encouraged.

I ran the Makey Makey session. The kit essentially hacks a computer’s keyboard to a tiny, external device. Next, attach one end of the color-coded alligator clips to the Makey Makey device and the other end to a low-conductive object, like fruit, Play D’oh, or aluminum foil. Doing so turns everyday objects into computer keys, such as the space bar or the arrow keys.

Using one of the many Makey Makey-themed Scratch projects, I turned bananas into a drum kit. When students walked into the room, they were greeted with me playing the banana cowbell. At first, one of the children remarked that it was “all weird and awkward” to use anything but the keyboard attached to the laptop. After I explained basic circuitry, I handed her some Play D’oh. I then challenged her to make a customized video game controller. By the end of the session, she remarked, “This was fun!” As it turned out, the girl who began as a skeptic played a round of Pac-Man using her hacked game controller!

Keeping the Fun in Game-Based Learning

Games should serve as a tool for teaching and learning. Don’t let the constraints of rules create a structure that is too rigid. Students require freedom to play within the game’s system. Hands-on, tactile play is an engaging solution to keep game-based learning fun!

What’s your experience with diverse learners and game-based methods? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

What time should school start?

Sleep Study

Research: Early School Start Times Hurt Students, Hinder Performance

study shows early school start time is detrimental to student health and achievement

How about starting high school at 10 a.m. and college at 11? That’s among the recommendations from a new study examining the impact of early start times for students. Researchers from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical Schooland the University of Nevada, Reno reported that students could improve their learning and have fewer health problems if schools accommodated the unique circadian rhythms of young people. In fact, the study they’ve published suggested that modifying start times would be less expensive than other kinds of interventions schools are using.

“A common belief is that adolescents are tired, irritable and uncooperative because they choose to stay up too late or are difficult to wake in the morning because they are lazy,” the study noted. “Educators tend to think that adolescents learn best in the morning and if they simply went to sleep earlier, it would improve their concentration.”

Not so, reported researchers in “Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘let teens sleep, start school later’.” As they explained, the conflict between “social time” — the timetable by which we’re expected to perform in work and school — and biological time is never greater than when we’re adolescents. Young people need at least nine hours of sleep every night along with later wake and sleep times, the researchers wrote.

By forcing students to get up “too early in their circadian cycle,” schools are “systematically restricting the time available for sleep and causing severe and chronic sleep loss.” The result: “poor communication, decreased concentration and cognitive performance, unintended sleeps, decreased motor performance, increased risk taking and changes in mood pattern, specifically depression.”

The researchers pointed to previous sleep study research in advising schools to consider synchronizing class start times to adolescent biology. At the age of 10, the “biological wake time” is about 6:30; so school should start between 8:30 and 9, the researchers wrote. At 16, the wake time is 8, so the school start time should be between 10 and 10:30. And at 18, the wake time is about 9, so the start time for classes should be between 11 and 11:30.

One school district tried that and liked what it found — at least for a time. Back in 1997 Minneapolis Public Schools shifted its high school start time from 7:15 to 8:40. The research on that program looked at data on 50,000 students collected before and after the start time was changed. “The self-reported student evidence indicated that students liked the change, slept an hour longer compared to students in two other similar school districts and reported their attendance, achievement, behavior and mood improved,” the report stated. On top of that, the researchers added, nine in 10 parents were “very positive about the later start” and reported that their children “were easier to live with.” Since then, start times at most of those high schools have reverted somewhat. While several start at 8:30, some start as early as 7:55.

Compared to other efforts to improve the health and learning of students, such as running smaller classrooms, changing the start time is a comparatively cost-effective approach, the researchers asserted. “The synchronization of education to adolescent biology enables immediate advances in educational attainment and can be achieved with a relatively simple step that does not require new teaching methods, new testing or large additional expenditure.”

The research was published in the latest issue of Learning, Media and Technology.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at

High School Graduation Rates

The Truth Behind Your State’s High School Graduation Rate

The nation’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high — 81 percent. It was such big news, President Obama touted it in his State of the Union address.

So what’s the truth behind this number? Our months-long investigation into how states are raising their rates, with reporters from 14 states, found a mix of the good, the bad and the ambiguous: In some places, questionable quick fixes like mislabeling dropouts or sliding them off the books; elsewhere, powerful long-term strategies to help struggling students make it.

That 81 percent, it’s a complicated number and every state is different. So, we’ve compiled graduation info from each state (with help from the policy gurus at the nonprofit research group Achieve).

Look up your state to learn more about what’s happening in high schools near you.