Pushing our Bottoms

Falling and Failing by pushing our bottom third into teaching.

According to McKinsey and Co., Finland, Singapore and South Korea have 100% of their incoming teachers coming from the top 1/3 of their college classes. The US . . . has a dismal 23%. Over 47% of our teachers graduate in the bottom third of their class. Worse still, of science and math teachers, few of US public school teachers have a degree in the area they teach.

What’s the difference between our international counterparts and the US? Pay, yes, but actual dollar to dollar comparison and standard of living adjustments reveal that the gap isn’t really that big.

The difference may be in the professional perception. Turns out those who graduate in the top third would like to work in professional environments where they can be rewarded for their efforts, primarily professionally. The gold star effect. You earn a gold star, others around you are also striving to earn gold stars and viola, bright, capable people flock to other bright, capable people.

If you work in a public school system in the US you have additional degrees required by the local and national unions to satisfy pay grade levels. That sounds admirable until you see the quality of degrees that qualify as “enough” to reach the next pay grade. You have seniority based on time, not results, you have contrast in the level of those who would teach and those who do teach. Despite “effort” by the state of Texas to attract more math and science teachers, several school districts have cut back on elementary school science classes. These classes are paramount to encouraging enthusiasm for science.

Why the cut? They “can’t find the talent.” Do you believe that? I attempted to volunteer to teach a math class in one such school and was turned down because I do not have the necessary qualifications . . . and I am not a member of the teacher’s union – nor am I interested in joining. For better or worse, that pushed me to teaching math for a private company who pays me 8 times what a school system could. But then again, I was offering my services as a volunteer.

If we are so desperate for quality math and science instruction, why in the world are we turning down highly qualified talent?

Imagine running a business this way. Would you hire consultants for your business who on average graduate in the bottom quarter of their college classes as our public school teachers do?

Why do we bother to offer public education? Are we really better off as a society offering a pretend education that leaves the student soft from sitting in chairs for 13 years? What is the objective? If we wouldn’t run a business without a stated objective, why are we running our schools that way? For all the ridicule No Child Left Behind has received, at least it states some objectives.

As tax payers, we are shareholders in our school systems. Why aren’t we demanding annual reports? Many of us will “invest” more in our local schools this year (through taxes, gift wrap and bake sales) than in our 401k. Yet which investment will garner more of our attention?

The potential for excellent public education still exists and there are many fantastic teachers in the system. But the system itself is sick. We need to allow businesses to take over and turn around our school systems. Without a financial incentive to do so, we will keep plowing resources into a losing asset at the cost of our children.

Unfortunately, while the education system presents a much bigger challenge than a failing General Motors, the consequences are less immediate, and most of us will just hope it gets better. If you could buy out the amalgamated American school system, what would you do to turn it around?

Image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass

More Math Education, Less Self Esteem Training



If you’ve ever struggled with your tax return, wondered how interest rates could stay so low, or tried to explain why raising taxes on employers is actually not conducive to job creation….

We need solid math education now more than ever. We are no longer an agrarian nation yet we teach math like we are.

Thirty years ago an ARM was attached to your body. Now it is attached to your credit report. An adjustable rate mortgage is not evil, but it is now maligned as so many folks feel like they have lost their homes to the ARM. In reality they lost their homes to poor judgment of risk. It’s kind of like building a house on sand, in a hurricane zone….

Smart or Foolish?

Which really brings us to a question of risk.

How risky is that (your idea goes here)?

Imagine for a moment that a stock you like has a 90% chance it will rise by 20%, and a 10% chance that it will fall to zero over the next year. Our current models for risk imply that there is a certain probability that an event will occur. So, we price the total cost of an investment based on those factors. So if you can buy at $10/share today, you can sell at $12/share or you lose the investment completely in one year.

The most straightforward approach is to price the total investment based on the proposed outcome proportion. To simplify, either the market rises 20% or it falls to zero.

$12*(90%) + $0*(10%) = $10.80

Since the $10.80 is above your purchase price, you are in the money and the investment looks good. But what did we really just do? We assumed that each dollar invested had equal probability and opportunity to earn that 20%. In effect, we implied that one share could gain 20% and one share could lose 100%. But that’s not really true. If one share gains 20%, all shares gain 20%. If one share loses 100%, all of the shares drop to zero. So, in reality, you either get $12/share or you get nothing. There is no $10.80. Average doesn’t actually exist. It is a construct.

MathWe averaged all of the shares to simplify our decision, but we didn’t account for the actual risk. So we missed the point.

This isn’t a question about modeling stock prices and returns – there are certainly more elaborate methods to model prices – it’s simply to illustrate our tendency to dumb down the basic math and therefore the real risk of various proposals, because, most of us don’t really have the tools to understand the math.

Indeed the more I teach, the more I see, most of us don’t have the tools to balance our checkbooks. A few months ago I had a student tell me that he went to a school (NYC) that operated much like a Montessori – he was able to discover math at his own rate….

Well, he’s 25 now, a graduate of a very prestigious college, well employed, and he genuinely does not understand the purpose and function of fractions. Sure, he recognizes them when written out, but ask him to perform operations with fractions or to interpret a word problem, and he is two steps away from toast. Here’s the killer, he believes he is good at math because his teachers told him he was smart.

Sadly, this is nowhere near an isolated incident.

So, he has great self esteem, but he can’t calculate his mortgage payment on his own. As a consequence, we have ever more elaborate financial products rolling off the line and fewer and fewer people equipped to understand them. This is what leads to catastrophic failure – of banking systems and of entire economies.

We need more math education and less self esteem training. You bomb your multiplication tables, guess what, no gold star for you. Get back to the drawing board. You need those multiplication tables. As a society we cannot afford to both PAY for public education AND ignore the lack of results of that education.

No Child Left Behind gets a lot of grief in teaching circles, but the fact remains, we have a HUGE gap between those who understand math and those who can’t function in an increasing complex society. Which costs us more, under-educating the average population who then make catastrophic miscalculations or creating a super class of teachers and testing students on performance?

If we were just farmers growing crops and bringing them to market, we might be okay. But we offer the average high school grad an adjustable rate mortgage and a 401k. Perhaps it would be good idea to equip them with the tools to understand the consequences of their choices, never mind the innovation curve….

Education Issues – State v Federal Standards

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett is behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative and hopes you will be too….
Mr. Barrett sees common education standards as essential to creating the work force of tomorrow and he wants to Standardsnarrow the gap in education quality among the states. All of which sounds ideal . . . if we can agree on what those standards are. And if we can avoid the common trap of dumbing the standards down so most students in most states can pass – for the sake of passing.

I am all for setting a minimum bar. After all, how can we expect workers to understand the difference between a 401k, Roth IRA, and Keogh Defined Benefit Plan if they can’t do basic math? Labor needs have changed. It is not sufficient to be able to lay brick. Now even a brick layer needs to understand the various mortgage options he has when purchasing a home, the investment choices he has within his retirement account and the economic consequences of his union membership.

The more technology within a field the more precision and understanding for math concepts is needed. Do you want Homer Simpson running the nuclear power plant?

But the setting of standards requires that we come to a consensus on where we want the country to go and we have reason to believe that we know how to get there. With the sensitivities now displayed in textbooks, it’s hard to imagine that any knowledge can be imparted. Can we get everyone together on what is important? Whose values trump?

Without a single responsible party, or a genuine leader, the push for standards falls apart. In all fairness, states can work together the create mutually agreeable standards without involving the federal government, but the slope to federal intervention is slippery, particularly with a federal government that is increasingly centralized. In societies of the past this has typically been the work of a wise elder. We need to find a wise elder.


If you have a suggestion for a “wise elder” please include it in the comments box. If you are filling in a comment box for the first time, don’t fret, the name/email are just to verify that you are human – not spam. That information is not retained or used.

The winner will be interviewed here for his/her suggestions on education standards. If I can figure out how to host you and the person you nominate for lunch, I’ll do that too. Let’s amp up the conversation on education. Please nominate a Wise Elder today!

Image courtesy of U.S. Army CERDEC

Education Issues: Quantity, Quality?

So let’s go for a drive.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to cross the US by car . . . say from Chapel Hill, NC to Berkeley, CA, or Boston, MA to Berkeley, CA or Atlanta, GA to San Diego, CA, you have seen that there are many choices to make along the way. Do you go Interstate Highway all the way, do you detour to Route 66 (recommend in limited portions, it ain’t what it used to be)?

Do you take the most direct route . . . well, actually, what is the most direct route? If it is winter, heading across on I-50 is a BAD idea with a U-Haul. Actually, even in late April that’s a bad idea.

Some choices are better than others. So as a rational person, you do two things:

1. You establish your objective – where are you going, speed or leisure, caravan or solo….
2. Then you decide how to get there.

Sounds a lot better than someone else mandating how you will drive, what you will drive and when you will arrive. This system works well. It is the brains behind the free market. You do it instinctively.


The Wall Street Journal featured the concept of Saturday school in this weekend’s edition. While I am a strong supporter of more education, not less, I slam on the brakes for this one. Quantity does not equal quality – sheer volume can occasionally overtake quality instruction, but brute force versus dedicated finesse has no chance.

The bigger issue we face is that we do not have an objective for American education. We talk about being strong in science, math, well, anything, but it’s all talk. Take a look at the standards in the average classroom.

In classes taught in the science and social science subfields of Earth sciences, economics, geography, and government/civics, fewer than 50 percent of classes were taught by a teacher who held a major in the respective subfield. Fast Facts on Education

DetourWithout a clear objective, Saturday school is at best a thorn in the side of kids who yearn to play in creeks and at worst is yet more time for your children to be exposed to revisionist history and ridiculous propaganda. More college students arrive on campus fully aware of the recycling program (good), but totally UNAWARE that we participated in the Korean War of the 20th century (bad). No joke.

For any educational program to be successful, we have to establish standards. The purpose of No Child Left Behind was to do just that. The Teacher’s Unions were the most vocal opponents. No program is without flaws, but you can’t drive efficiently from the East Coast to the West Coast without a clear plan. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up running out of gas in Kansas and that means your history class never learns about the Asian theater of war in WWII or the Korean War.

2006, Twelfth-grade students who explained a reason for the involvement in the Korean War: 14%

So, before we have kids sit in class on Saturday, let’s make sure that we have teachers who understand the subject matter they teach and we have a curriculum designed for the most important elements for the students to learn. It’s nice to know how your future college’s recycling program operates, but if you stink at fractions . . . every day you will be further and further behind your international peers. And our ability to innovate as an economy dies.

Image courtesy of Tom Woodward

Education Issues – Teacher Signaling

Confession: as a teacher I have challenges with the different levels of students who cycle through my classroom. I am not unbiased, and yes, I take my students’ performance personally.

But this is as it has been and should be….

Some students are bright, but it’s not just the ability level of the student it is the teacher’s interaction with that perceived ability level of the student that influences a student’s outcome.

In a study that measured a teacher’s ability to influence student academic performance, researchers found that a teacher who perceives her class to be bright can help an average group out-perform the control group (over the period of one academic year) and a teacher who perceives the students to be less bright will have students who under-perform the control group.

Average students elicit average teaching, you simply aren’t as invested as you are in the progress of the super star talent. The super star talent progress you take personally, you take as a reflection of your ability to teach. The average student you don’t take quite as personally. You build and adapt your plan for the average student’s success, but the progress of the average student won’t keep you up at night.

A co-conspirator in the world teaching sums up his view of his students this way when asked, “What goes through the teacher mind when a student demonstrates a lack of progress?”

Avg student: he’s an idiot for wasting this opportunity
Super Star: he’s insulting me – a slap in the face

That is a harsher version of what many of us are uncomfortable describing. It isn’t polite to confront a lazy student, nor is it our job. But what surprises more than reactions to average students is the backlash against perceived bright students who shirk their duties. If you are a bright student, step-up your game and your teacher will help you exceed your abilities, shirk your duty and prepare for wrath.

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It’s Not the Size of (the School Day), It’s What You Do With It.

What would you do if you had another hour everyday? Could you get more done? How would you spend that time? In Chicago, the parents are raising money so their kids can spend an additional 1 hour a day at school. At a cost of $385 per student, per year, that breaks down to $2.13 per hour – the base wage of a waitress.Adoption

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Getting the Scoop on Entrepreneurship Early

A new program at Milford High School in upstate NY has opened the doors of entrepreneurship to students in grades 9-12. The students are building their own businesses and interacting with local business owners.

This is a brilliant way to encourage growth!

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Education Issues: Peer Effects?

The gadflies at Fordham are stirring the pot again. Mike Petrilli takes issue with a recent statement from Kevin Welner, “(Tracking student progress) is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind.” As far as Mr. Welner is concerned the debate is ideasclosed….Continue Reading

Education Issues: Cuts to Classtime is Unacceptable Way to Cut Costs

Reprint in full from education.change.org


One of the highest ranking education officials in America has told Hawaii they’re going in the wrong direction by reducing the number of school days, and that the state and union need to put their personal agendas aside to help their students. Peter Cunningham, the assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Department of Education, explained that shortening the school year by 17 days is an unacceptable way to cut costs: “There are lots of ways to do this, the one way you shouldn’t do it is by cancelling class time.”

As we reported in October, Hawaii was been forced to cut the school year as the state continues to suffer the effects of the economic crisis. Cunningham says that school days are already too short, and standards are not high enough. Further cuts to teaching time is only going to exacerbate the problem. Parents recognize the essential investment that children constitute, and the necessity to educate them to help America compete internationally. Margaret South, a parent and President of Friends of Niu Valley, explained that “I’m hoping we realize as a country that we need to put our investments in children and their education so they can compete on a world stage.” Cunningham and other education officials are touring the U.S. to “listen and learn” as the Department of Education plans to revamp the No Child Left Behind Act. There is no surer way to leave children lagging behind than to close schools an extra 17 days a year.

Photo credit: Torres21


It is possible, just possible that the biggest costs of the school district aren’t the teachers. When Dallas ISD laid their books open some 20 years ago (Robin Hood Plan was threatening Texas), it became obvious that the increasing layers of administration were eating the school budgets more than the cost of the teachers. Not only were there no efficiencies to be gained by being a large school district, but also, it seemed to encourage . . . shenanigans. Systematic shenanigans.

Why aren’t we talking about the cost of administration?!?!?

Education Issues: Calling Out Bill Gates on Treating Schools Like Corporations

Now they’re eating their own! Mike Smith at Change.org skewers Bill Gates’ plan to provide $200 Million annually to schools willing to take on his ideas for reform. Apparently the idea of basing teacher pay on student test score performance is untenable. What I keep circling back to is this, if we are not to use test scores (never mind that we could simply fix the current flaws in the tests…), then what the blazes are we to use?

Bill Gates is smart, clever and incredibly dedicated . . . which is exactly his problem when approaching education. Despite running a very large organization, Bill hasn’t consorted with the hoi-polloi . . . ever. He wasn’t like other boys and girls growing up; he was working from the time he was 12 (give or take).

Well, most teachers and most students will never really understand that kind of dedication, that kind of insatiable curiosity, nor that work ethic. Let’s look at it another way, how many students WILL understand 80+ hour work weeks at the age of 12? How many teachers?

So yes, Gates’ plan to open mini high schools hasn’t gone as well as he’d like. But it hardly seems appropriate to attack him personally as Alan Singer does. Unimpressed by Gates’ big vision to put the best teachers’ lectures online, of Gates he explains “not only are you fool, but you are cheap fool at that.” He goes on to explain that students will suffer as a consequence of Gates’ involvement.

So here’s what Mike Smith said at Change.org:

… annual corporate results and a student’s report card are not the same thing, and believing that increasing test scores indicates a better education is misguided. Achievement is not signified solely by a report card, something the CEO-like managers coming in to run America’s schools don’t seem to understand. When we further consider the increasing importance of the arts in early-learning and cognitive development, we learn that numbers aren’t anything, and that not everything of value can or should be measured in dollars and per cents.

First, “numbers aren’t anything” are you kidding me? This fellow must be a journalist. As fascinating as it is to read and discuss news all day, someone must go design the airplanes, computers and buildings – the things you depend upon . . . and all of them use numbers. Numbers are extremely important. And that’s where we’ve fallen behind our international peers the most.

Second, everything has a cost. Direct and indirect costs are the very reason we provide education to the masses. It is not a god-given right to have someone else foot the bill for your child’s education. That is a decision we made as a country. Why? Twofold. Ultimately, it is less expensive to care for an educated population AND it is more productive for our economy to have talent for hire locally. If we had to depend on outside talent every time we wanted to design buildings, machines, highways . . . we’d be a podunk, backwoods, back water country.

The attacks are from people who put forth no solution. No solution, no credibility. And so my question to you is this – if we are not to measure progress by test scores, HOW DO WE?

What is your solution?

Photo credit: World Economic Forum

Education Issues: Performance Pay’s Effect is Weak?

This post was sent to me and sadly I do not have the original link. This brings up the debate between the perpetuated myth of evil business and good education as though the two must remain mutually exclusive. Which reminds me, why do we educate everyone?Incentives

Most countries don’t.

So, callous though it may be, I put forth that we educate the masses to reduce our cost of running the country – more people have the skills they need to care for themselves and to increase our potential for productivity –  educated people innovate more. Okay, now, I’m not claiming we do that well, but those reasons are perfectly respectable.

from original source:

Despite $300 million being handed out to teachers as part of the Governor’s Educator Excellence Grants, the program has had an inconclusive impact on student achievement. The evaluation paints an even murkier picture in its conclusion that performance pay led to a “weakly positive, negative or negligible effect.” The money was handed out over the course of three years, given to teachers in high-poverty schools. The good news though was that teachers liked the money and liked the program, even when they didn’t win the bonus.

Diane Ravitch at EdWeek uses this study to frame a general discussion of Obama’s education policy. She fears that despite this report’s conclusions being weak, and despite a lack of evidence, too many school districts, and too many people in Obama’s administration are pushing ahead with their agenda anyway — for both performance pay and wider measures. They poke holes in studies rather than accepting their findings as inconclusive and accepting that inconclusive grounds are not grounds on which to build comprehensive and risky reforms.

Ravitch further fears that the Obama administration’s education vision is more business plan than education strategy. This is clear in many districts with an appointment to the Chicago public schools system of an uber-technocrat who’s experience is perhaps more suited to management and business than education. Same for the new Ed Tech director, who many fear is too close to business. These people are keen on helping run schools as better businesses and ensure the money that is available is spent well, but Diane Ravitch is right to be discouraged by educational leaders shunning evidence in the hope that half-blind drastic reform will lead to higher quality teaching.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon


Are you joking, you’ve measure results over 3 years? You have the same teachers in the same districts, there isn’t much ability to demonstrate results. The point of paying teachers more – despite, I agree weak evidence that higher teacher pay gets better student results (because of the way the studies are designed to MEASURE that… ahem), is to draw talent to the field of teaching who would otherwise not teach.

Here’s the short term problem: Teacher Unions.

The Unions have been the drivers behind keeping strict “standards” of teaching, which appear to be based more on willingness to acquiesce to the union’s status quo and less on excellence. If you have time and talent to teach, but not a certificate of teacher-ship, which is really just a trumped up piece of paper saying you endured pedagogy lessons from someone who’s only ever taught pedagogy (think about that for a moment – it’s like having a virgin teaching sex ed), you can’t get into teaching. You are specifically excluded.

And really, if you have talent, you look a the pay scale and think . . . gee whiz, I could teach for $45,000/year (tops) working 60 hours a week, putting up with whiny parents, the politic of school boards, and other assorted irritations, or I could be a scientist/business owner/private tutor where the market sets my rate.

The unions block talent. The unions have outlived their useful lives in the profession of teaching. Instead of creating value they create overhead and prevent local communities from responding to the communities’ needs.

How do you feel about this?

Education Stimulus Money Establishes Test Standards, Can’t Fix Test Problems

One-hundred billion dollars of stimulus money is beginning to go into education, prompting states to track students progress more closely, use more rigorous tests, and generally embrace the Obama administration’s reforms. These changes in federal education policy is explained in a report by the Center on Education Policy who are working to understand what the impact of stimulus funds, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

They explain that “the stimulus dollars, in a time of economic challenges, mean that the federal government is poised to play a far greater role in driving education reforms.” YOWZA!

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Frightening: Arne Duncan Say Principals Must Act Like CEOs


Ran across this article this morning . . . in which the author complains that pushing principals to be like CEOs will single handedly destroy education. Hey buddy, we’re already there.

More telling is the vitriol for CEOs. Are all CEOs bad? Really? I missed that. Indeed, anyone familiar with local Education (2)businesses has met plenty of very, very good CEOs. CEOs who care passionately about their companies, their people and their communities. The defeatist mentality of all-business-people-are-bad is exactly what gets us into debates that reduce to screaming matches. There’s no reasonable conversation possible if you believe the other side is pure evil. Article follows…Continue Reading

How to Fix Education — the Greatest National Security Crisis


Why is it so hard to bring quality leadership to the table in education? Surely we have a decent mix of men and women who have served both in the business world and the education field? But do we have enough to make a difference?

I am a huge proponent of speak softly and carry a big stick . . . but what do you do when the population can’t figure out what a stick is? “The greatest national security crisis in the United States is the crisis in education,” those are the words of Bob Herbert in the New York Times. He’s right on with his call for exactly the sort of leadership that is currently lacking in education: a cross section of skills — not principals that exclusively come from a business background (as we reported recently), and not those coming from traditional schools of education who then lack the necessary business acumen to lead and efficiently manage their school or district.

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Education Issues

If you do some digging at katemckeon.com you will discover that I am a fan of outsourcing. Who wouldn’t be? Get the best talent to do the best work at the best price. That at least is the mantra of outsourcing . . .And oftentimes, outsourcing a project works. But then there are times it doesn’t. And worse, times that it horribly fails. These are the examples we cling to in our protectionist moments, but the reality is, projects fail whether they’re done in Iowa or Indonesia. Sometimes, projects just fail. And sometimes people fail . . .. . . at a project.If you’re still living, you have succeeded at something. Your body has figured out how to do a million different tasks, perfectly coordinated to keep you living. So it’s not that people fail, but projects certainly do fail. All the time.

“Word of Mouse” Advertising

Pilliga_MouseA friend who shall remain nameless recently shared a few of his ebooks with me. He has these crafted for him by ghost writers. What he does right is that he gets stuff done. Volumes of stuff. Where we differ is the quality control. Most of the books were written in barely passable English. And they were written for a very low-level learner. In other words, they are not ebooks you would ever share with any friends, family or clients. They are the kinds of ebooks you would give away to someone who you do not wish to have a relationship with . . .But who is that? When you are in business, is it worth your time to spend any effort on work for those you do not wish to retain? That may depend on your business. If you have low price point products, or products that do not require the consumer to be plugged in, maybe it doesn’t matter what quality you put out. Ebooks are largely a lead generation tool for a backend product or a way to test market interest in niche subjects. The “word of mouse” line comes from one of the books. If you have heard of WOM – Word of Mouth, also known as word of mouth marketing, Word of Mouse may sound cute – like a play on words. Unfortunately, it did not appear to be a play. It appeared to be a misunderstanding between someone who was speaking and someone who was writing. If the quality of the book doesn’t matter, no proofing happens . . .So “word of mouse” stands. And so, my friend’s ebook stands out in my mind. He made it memorable by not editing. But the memory is not a good one. I think about that book each time I hire a writer on Elance or Odesk or face-to-face. Outsourcing simply means he did not write the book – it doesn’t mean that the book was written by a non-native speaker which brings us back to the education issue.

Does quality of education matter?

If you believe that understanding the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic are important, you are in the minority now. Regularly I have students push back when I exhort them to understand the basics instead of working the fancy problems. Sometimes they even complain to headquarters about it.We want to work the fancy problems, but we don’t have the skills to do so. Example:Student A was too proud to dial back to the basic math that I encouraged him to use. He resisted me, then relented and acknowldeged that the drills helped. As the instructor, I recommended the drills because he stunk at multiplication and had serious anxiety. Basic drills are the fastest way to curb both issues . . .Result: Student A kept up the back-and-forth complain then acquiesce behavior and ended up with a score of 640 when test day rolled around. This effectively takes him out of contention for any of the business school programs he was considering, and certainly puts him at a serious disadvantage when applying to any top 10 program. Student B however was keen to get his ultimate goal which includes b-school options. A good test score opens those options so he was game-on for whatever would get him there. He was weaker on math than student A, and about the same on verbal. Student B gave no grief when it came time to dial back and do drills. In other words, Student B did the basics. He didn’t quite get as far as “embracing” the basics, but he did them without complaint. Result: Student B managed to hit 710 on test day. That qualifies as a perfectly acceptable score for any business school, including the top 5 schools. It won’t get him in, but it also won’t keep him out. Both students prepared for the test in 2 weeks. Same duration, same environment – one block away from each other. It all comes down to understanding the basics. The students who do, will out-score their peers. Period. But, in school, we encourage kids to think that rote activities such as multiplication tables are beneath them. That memorizing the Krebs Cycle will cramp their creative learning styles….Baloney. Schools that require students to do these drills and countries who center their education on drills are the very ones who make the gains academically. They are the ones out-testing the US (by an outrageous amount) on not only the ability to do the drills . . . but also on the ability to apply concepts in complex problem solving capacities. In other words, the very creative problem solving that we claim we encourage in our students is HAMPERED by not requiring the students to learn the basics. Until you master the basics you are hacking. We are producing a generation of illiterate hackers, the kinds of students who would write about “word of mouse” advertising.



Leave your comments below.

Image courtesy of Viva Larson

Adult Education Issues

The Wall Street Journal recently published a special section on Education. What inspired me was the opener.

If an educated work force is the nation’s human capital, business is seeing a lot of subprime these days.

FreedomIt’s a snarky little comment, but it hit entirely too close to home. Even if your school’s graduation rate is stable . . . what do the kids know? You may remember my rant a few months back when I had a boyfriend explain to me that the GMAT (standardized test for those seeking an MBA) is unfair and unrealistic because it asked him to calculate the area of a triangle. And he, “Knows triangles.” After all, he “earned” A s in math, including a 98 in Geometry.

How has this happened?

The majority of our teachers are graduating in the bottom quartile of their college classes. Fewer than 31% of 8th-grade math teachers have degrees in mathematics. Less than 7% of 5th-8th grade science teachers have a degree in science.

And folks care more about climate change?


Excuse me?

A poorly educated mass population leads to slavery. If you can’t discern for yourself, you must depend on others to do the discerning for you. You give up your independence, your control and all that is holy because you didn’t bother to learn the basics.

This is a particularly sore point with me. I recently had a student complain that I unfairly singled him out when I suggested he get back to the basics. Never mind that I made the suggestion to the entire class, he took it personally.  Here’s a kid who was flunking class and had not done his homework. It was anyone’s fault but his own . . .

What’s wrong with the basics?

What do we have against doing “basic” work? Is knowing the multiplication tables really that awful? Is proficiency with simple concepts going to dumb us down or build us up?

Look at education systems that encourage the rote drills we have eschewed state-side.


Proponents of our education system will tell you that, “That’s okay, because Americans do better with complex critical thinking.”

Um, no, no we do not.

usstudents4problem solving

The reality check is that American students performed far below other advanced nations on a test of original, creative thinking, and also were well below the international average. The notion that students in some of the highest scoring nations simply regurgitate memorized facts is false.  -Walt Murfin

As though rote drills pushes critical thinking skills out . . . Another myth perpetuated by those who are too interested in creative teaching and not interested in the results of their experiments.

But the problem is even more insidious. Highly educated families have always had more interest and therefore created more access to education opportunities. Guess what, even our top performers are behind. Click on the graph to expand it.


We’re not just kind of behind, we’re under a rock behind. We’re in front of economic powerhouses like Malta, Slovenia and Bulgaria. These are our top students as compared to other top students.

Is there any hope? Of course! Families are voting with their wallets and private education is discovering new ways to deliver education. Adults are getting access to levels of education previously unattainable – Stanford and MIT have both made a series of classes available online for free.

But how many will partake?

The larger issues is not really one of access. At the micro-level, perhaps specifically for low income families, access is indeed a huge impediment, but families can move. We are a mobile society. At the macro-level, we have a problem with interest. What do we celebrate culturally?

We used to celebrate winning.

I’m not into the politics of education. Let’s just get it done.

Is it important to know your multiplication tables 20 years later? Yes.

Is it important to know the Krebs cycle 20 years later? Well, probably not, but wouldn’t it be great if we celebrated those who did?

Citric acid cycle

Thank you to the Kenyon Biology Department and The terror of 9th grade, Gail Liljestrand – who terrorized us into learning things for life.

Leadership in Education

How about this for a campaign: We for Rhee!

Washington DC public schools rank in the worst of our nation despite being potentially attended by our nation’s leader’s progeny. Of the 45,000 students in the district, how many do you think are the children of senators and representatives?

rheeBut never mind that, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. public schools is under serious fire from the American Federation of Teachers as well as her own local union shop.


She had the audacity to layoff under-performing teachers and has since floated the idea of asking the teachers to walk away from their union contracts . . .


What union wants to see it’s members leave? What use is the union to its members if better performing teachers can get better pay without a union contract?

Pivot point.

Teacher (1)Highest performing first year teacher pay stands to go from $45,000/year to $78,000/year. Veterans can earn up to $131,000. That’s double what they can earn now. This proposal was put in front of teachers, those who prefer to stick with the union can opt-out of the bonus.

And that is fair.

The union can retain the members who care to retain membership. Teachers who believe in their ability can choose to optimize thier own pay. And no one is forced to go either way.

Michelle Rhee is introducing CHOICE and personal responsibility – sound, basic economics – to the teacher pay discussion. Three cheers for Rhee.

Isn’t that what America is all about?


Leadership in Education: No Child Left Behind

AmericanRewriting the No Child Left Behind Law is in process. If you have children in school this may be important to you. If you are childless, it may seem unimportant.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Whether or not you have children, if you plan to be living in 20 years, how our children are educated today will influence your quality of life. In 20 years, the children just starting school will be having their mid-20s crisis (did anyone have one of these prior to the baby boomers?). The children now finishing school will be leading major companies and entering the upper rungs of politics . . .

These kids are our future, literally.

So how are they doing?

Oh, #@$*@!

From what I can tell, they have a lot of self esteem. They feel good about themselves. Really, really, good about themselves. But, they don’t have any proof of earning that self esteem, and deep down, each child knows it.

Let’s take a quick look at our rankings in international tests. This chart demonstrates performance in problem solving – Math.


The reality check is that United States students performed well on some tests, not as well as might be expected on others, and very poorly on some.

There is a “counter myth” that the United States generally performed at or close to the international average in math and science. This is true, as far as it goes. However, some of the nations tested were decidedly disadvantaged compared to the United States, and the international average included the scores of those less favored nations. To say that the United States is near the international average largely means that our students fared better than students in some severely deprived countries. Many other advanced nations scored far above the average.  See the article with stats from the international tests.

But, surely there are ways to counter this information, right? The standard excuses that we educate all of our population so a comparison of our students is broader than in other countries . . . not true. How about the idea that our best students outperform the best students in other countries – again, that our average is pulled down by the lower end of students . . . again, not true. US best students ranked second to last of the 20 advanced nations. How about . . . our students are more attuned to creative thinking whereas these other countries are drilling facts and using rote memorization?

It is true the other countries lean on heavy drills, memorization and other (apparently) seeming barbaric learning mechanisms. Guess what?

American students were dead last of the advanced countries and well below average for all countries in ability to apply knowledge through creative problem solving.

Perhaps rote memorization serves a purpose….

As a nation, we’ve been punked. Our children are learning to feel good, but they aren’t learning to read, write, add/subtract/multiply and divide. How can you feel good as an Zombieadult if you can’t cover the basic functions and then apply them. We are creating a nation of zombies.

When you cannot contribute to the vibrant, productive fabric of this country you are more likely to have problems with substance abuse and depression. Those are expensive problems for society….

Are there any bright spots?

Our 4th graders have often done well, especially in reading. Our 8th graders have done exceptionally well in civics.

Well that’s something. At least until you read the conclusion. Emphasis is mine.

However, American students have not generally performed as well as our national advantages would lead one to expect. Between 1995 and 2003 our students made good strides in factual learning in science and some improvement in factual learning in mathematics. They deteriorated in application of knowledge in all subjects between 2000 and 2003. They did very poorly in tests of original, creative, logical thinking. Most of the excuses for low American performance fail the reality test. Quibbles about sample participation and the age of students tested are specious and cannot explain away the obvious defects in US students’ performance.

The harder a student works, the more he will struggle with concepts, the more he will own those concepts once he gets them. Upon mastery of a concept, the child will develop a security that he knows something. That’s the beauty of it, he will know something. This leads to self esteem.

Self-esteem can not be taught, it must be earned.

The Secretary of Education is coming to your state by the end of December, look here for his schedule – then go give your input!

Image courtesy of simpleinsomnia