Even hard scientists and engineers sometimes care more about understanding than real-world applications.
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For decades, federal desegregation orders were a potent force against Jim Crow laws in the South, helping to make the region’s educational systems the most integrated in the country.
Federal judges, often facing death threats and violence, issued hundreds of court orders that set out specific plans and timetables to ensure the elimination of racial segregation. Federal agencies then aggressively used the authority of the courts to monitor hostile school systems, wielding the power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to deny federal dollars to districts that refused to desegregate.
The pace of the change wrought by the federal courts was breathtaking. In 1963, about 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children. By the early 1970s, the South had been remade—fully 90 percent of black children attended desegregated schools. Court orders proved most successful in the South, but were also used in an attempt to combat de facto segregation in schools across the country, from New York to Michigan to Arizona.
Today, this once-powerful force is in considerable disarray.
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Psych 101 was about to start, and Pam Mueller had forgotten her laptop at home. This meant more than lost Facebook time. A psychology grad student at Princeton, Mueller was one of the class teaching assistants. It was important she have good notes on the lecture. Normally she used her laptop to take notes, but, without it, she’d have to rely on a more traditional approach.
So she put pen to paper—and found something surprising.
Class just seemed better. “I felt like I had gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” she said. So she shared the story with Daniel Oppenheimer, the professor teaching the class.
“‘I had a similar experience in a faculty meeting the other day,’” Mueller remembers him saying. “And we both sort of had that intuition that there might be something different about writing stuff down.”
It turns out there is.
It’s not news that for over 100 years, history has been taught as little more than a callous exercise in regurgitation and rote memorization, with teachers rewarding how much information students can cram into their already stuffed heads. But as we go farther into the 21st century, with changes almost too numerous to fathom, I find it mindboggling that any teacher would still treat history class as boring preparation for a quiz show. This is no way to make learning about the past relevant and engaging. It really never was.
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COMPTON, Calif. — A large color photograph of an iceberg on display in teacher Angel Chavarin’s fourth-grade classroom at Laurel Street Elementary may not be the typical prop for a language arts lesson. But Chavarin is hoping visuals like this will help his students better understand the concept of inferences, which are, in effect, “the tip of the iceberg.”
Inferences are not an easy concept for young children to grasp, and it may be particularly difficult for the students of Laurel Street, where more than 60 percent of students are English learners.
But it’s a skill Chavarin knows his students need to master as California, along with 44 other states, transitions to the new Common Core State Standards. Created in 2010, the Common Core aims to prepare American students for college and careers by emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving. While the Common Core does not dictate a specific curriculum or reading list, it encourages language-arts teachers to expose students to challenging literature and nonfiction texts as well as sophisticated vocabulary. When writing and speaking in class, students are expected to present arguments and provide analysis backed by evidence, not opinion. Reading comprehension should include more than proof of recall; students need to demonstrate their ability to grasp big ideas as well as the nuanced inferences embedded in the text.
But some educators, including those enthusiastic about the Common Core, have publicly worried about the repercussions of raising the bar for groups of students who are already lagging behind, like those still learning English. They fear that the achievement gap between native speakers and English learners will widen, particularly in schools where teachers have little training and few resources. “Schools here have been working hard to address this issue for some time,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. The Common Core “adds extra complexity. We’re worried that people will get overwhelmed.”
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Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts.
As I called their attention, students’ heads slowly lifted, their eyes reluctantly glancing forward. I then cheerfully explained that their next project would practice a skill they all desperately needed: holding a conversation.
Several students looked perplexed. Others fidgeted in their seats, waiting for me to stop watching the class so they could return to their phones. Finally, one student raised his hand. “How is this going to work?” he asked.
My junior English class had spent time researching different education issues. We had held whole-class discussions surrounding school reform issues and also practiced one-on-one discussions. Next, they would create podcasts in small groups, demonstrating their ability to communicate about the topics—the project represented a culminating assessment of their ability to speak about the issues in real time.
Even with plenty of practice, the task proved daunting to students. I watched trial runs of their podcasts frequently fall silent. Unless the student facilitator asked a question, most kids were unable to converse effectively. Instead of chiming in or following up on comments, they conducted rigid interviews. They shuffled papers and looked down at their hands. Some even reached for their phones—an automatic impulse and the last thing they should be doing.
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Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, show how separate and unequal education is coming back.
Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow.
What right should students have to talk about God in homework, assemblies, club meetings, and graduation speeches? This is the question at stake in a new law in Tennessee and other states across the country. On Thursday, Governor Bill Haslam signed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which affirms that religious students should have the same free-speech rights as secular ones. At first, this might seem uncontroversial; religious expression has always been protected by the First Amendment. So why did two Republican state legislators feel the need to write the bill?
"Christian conservative groups have for many years been frustrated by what they see as a hostile environment for religion in public schools," said Charles Haynes, the Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. "They are convinced—with some justification—that there’s a lot more that public schools can be doing to protect religious expression."
In Tennessee, legislators pointed to one case in particular as the motivation for creating the bill. In October, a teacher told a Memphis fifth grader that she couldn’t write about God in an essay about “her idol.” In defiance, ten-year-old Erin Shead wrote two essays—both about the Almighty, although only one was about Michael Jackson—and her mom sought legal help. The elementary schooler was later allowed to turn in her God essay (and earned a score of 100%, as local news organizations dutifully reported at the time).
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“I hate the Common Core,” the mother of two complained when I told her I write about education.
“What, specifically, do you hate?” I asked.
“The math. It makes no sense! I can’t help my kid with his homework and I don’t understand the new methods at all.”
What I told this mother, and what I wish I could explain to every parent frustrated with the nonsensical math homework coming home in our children’s backpacks, is this: The confusing math methodology everyone is complaining about is not part of the Common Core State Standards.
The Common Core is a set of “standards,” lists of competencies or skills that kids will need to know by the end of a given school year. Standards require what skills will be taught, while curriculum dictates other details such as how a given skill is conveyed to a second grader. For example, the Standards require second graders to know that “100 can be thought of as a bundle of ten tens—called a ‘hundred,’” but curriculum dictates the textbook, or teaching methodology, or philosophy used to teach that skill. The confusing math that has been coming home in our children’s backpacks is a result of Everyday Math, a curriculum based on critical thinking skills, (so-called “fuzzy math”) developed at the University of Chicago.
Read more. [Image: Patrick Giblin/Flickr]