Friday, June 22, 2007

How much is a diploma worth?

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has recently appointed to the state Board of Education Ruth Kaplan, an advocate for special education and critic of the MCAS graduation requirement.

Kaplan said she considers the MCAS graduation requirement unfair because some districts do not yet provide students with the curriculum needed to succeed on the exams. "Testing is supposed to measure how well a school district is doing," she said. "If they aren't doing it well, why are we punishing the kids by denying them a diploma?"
Of course, Ms. Kaplan is really saying, "Instead of punishing kids by denying them a diploma, we should punish them by giving them a meaningless piece of paper that creates a false sense of accomplishment when our schools have failed to teach them basic skills."

Now, I applaud Ms. Kaplan's desire to advocate for special education, but she is working at cross purposes with herself by expending effort to remove the MCAS graduation requirement. She is incorrect in her assumption that testing is intended to measure school effectiveness: The MCAS, and standardized tests like it around the world, are intended to measure student learning in specific areas, which can be used as a proxy for school effectiveness. If a student doesn't pass the MCAS after multiple attempts, the student has not demonstrated success in learning what the state has deemed are necessary knowledge and skills for the student's adult life. To give that student a diploma--a document certifying that the student has achieved the expected learning--is to lie to the student and anyone who would evaluate the student's qualifications. This isn't to say that the failure to learn is necessarily entirely the fault of students--part (perhaps even much) of the burden certainly falls on our educational system. But, I really don't see how lying about the students' abilities will do them any favors or help them succeed in their future lives.

If our schools don't provide students with the curriculum necessary to pass the MCAS, then our schools aren't providing students with the curriculum necessary for most of them to be successful as adults. The solution isn't to get rid of the MCAS graduation requirement, but to reform the education our schools provide.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Assessment: To Measure, Not To Improve

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education recently released preliminary findings from a new study linking K-12 and post-secondary statistical information. Peter Schworm of the Boston Globe has highlighted the apparent correlation between scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and college success indicators, specifically credits earned and GPA: Students who were rated as Advanced on the MCAS in high school received more credits with a higher GPA than those rated Proficient, who in turn performed better in college than those rated Needs Improvement.

Some said the findings were predictable and showed only that brighter, harder-working students were more likely to succeed at college, not that the tests were improving education.
While these findings should by no means be surprising, they are, however, not necessarily to be expected: If the MCAS were not a good measure of students' academic capabilities, there would be little correlation between MCAS score and college performance. Since we expect the MCAS to be a good measure of student achievement, we aren't surprised by the correlation; nevertheless, the finding (assuming its statistical significance, which wasn't presented in the preliminary report) is a testament to the success, in some degree, of the MCAS as an achievement metric.

Unfortunately, the second half of the quotation above demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of assessments as metrics. A test, as a measurement--a snapshot of ability in time--simply cannot improve education. Rather, improving education depends wholly on what one does with test results.

Consider an analogy from medicine. When a new patient enters the hospital, the admitting doctor might ask for a blood sample to run a few tests. Very few people would think the doctor were doing anything useful if he simply continued to perform blood tests, hoping the results would improve. Instead, the patient would expect the doctor to interpret the test results and prescribe some form of treatment. Then, after the treatment had been applied, it would be reasonable to run a follow-up test to verify the treatment had the desired effect.

Just as a doctor would interpret blood test results to assess a patient's health before prescribing a treatment, the perceived power for academic assessments to improve education lies in schools and teachers' using test results to inform instructional decisions, to target interventions where students need them most. A test of arithmetic won't help Johnny learn mathematics, but it can reveal to his teacher that Johnny is solid in addition, but weak in multiplication. His teacher then knows that Johnny needs more practice with multiplication, and can skip the extra addition lessons. Due to tests' potential to provide more effective instruction, States ought to increase the timeliness and detail of the reports produced from their standardized assessments in order to maximize the benefit of the assessment to students and their teachers.

Since high-quality assessments measure how well students have mastered the material set forth for them in the established curriculum, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect students to pass such an assessment before granting them a certificate stating they have met the curricular requirements. Oddly, not everyone agrees:
"I don't think anyone is surprised that students who do better on the MCAS exam do better in college," said Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr. , a Medford Democrat who has filed legislation to stop denying students diplomas based solely on MCAS scores. "That means nothing in terms of producing better-prepared graduates overall."
To return to the medical analogy, no decent doctor would give a patient a clean bill of health until blood tests revealed acceptable results. Similarly, why would our schools grant a diploma to students at the end of twelfth grade who have not demonstrated an ability to perform, for example, mathematics at an eighth-grade level? Doing so would only devalue the high school diploma and perform a disservice to students by not truly preparing them for post-graduate life.

Now, some might argue that the MCAS does not function as an accurate metric of students' mastery of the knowledge and skills of the state curricular frameworks. However, if that is indeed the case, the appropriate response is not to remove the MCAS, but to reform it. If we value the quality of our educational system, we cannot fail to measure its effectiveness in producing desired learning outcomes. Similarly, if we value the worth of our high school diplomas, students must be required to demonstrate their academic achievement with a standardized, valid, and reliable indicator of their learning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Incentivizing Students, Incentivizing Schools

New York City schools will be experimenting with a new student incentive program next year in which students could receive as much as $500 for strong performance on state examinations and good attendance. The program is part of the mayor's antipoverty initiative, which will use privately raised funds to provide similar cash incentives to reduce poverty by encouraging, for example, keeping a full-time job, obtaining health insurance, sending children to school, and attending parent-teacher conferences.

The idea has received mixed reviews. "We are in a capitalist society and people are motivated by money across race and across class, so why not?" said Darwin Davis, the president of the Urban League. On the other hand, Davis also feels the size of the cash awards is rather small:

"I wish $50 could be enough for an insurance payment, but that’s not going to be the case," he said, wondering aloud how many tests students would need to pass to buy the latest video game.
Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute doesn't place much confidence in the power of the cash prizes to entice students into working hard, and says the program is an "insult to every hard-working parent." Other educators claim that students should love learning for its own sake, not for material rewards.

Incentives are certainly not new to education. Schools in Chelsea, MA and Dallas, TX have also offered cash to students for attendance or books read, and plenty of elementary school teachers through the years have offered their students a pizza party or the chance to delve into a "treasure chest" for good behavior. One could argue that students should pursue good behavior, just as learning, for its own sake, but the fact of the matter is that many students need an extra nudge in the right direction--and the nudge doesn't have to be all that big. If stickers can do wonders for motivating good behavior, I imagine a little cash could encourage some to work a little harder toward an upcoming test or perfect attendance.

I wonder, though, if the naysayers of the program realize that this "ploy" is precisely the same tactic the Federal government uses to encourage educational reform. Due to the tenth amendment, educational responsibility falls under the purview of the States, so the Federal government has no direct authority over any educational program. Since politicians at the Federal level would, nevertheless, like to see certain improvements in the quality of our nation's educational systems, they institute incentive programs: a small financial grant in exchange for a certain educational agenda, such as improving educational opportunity for poor students or increasing the available data about school performance. Just as $50 isn't much for a health insurance premium, the 7% of educational expenditures that the Federal government provides isn't intended to cover anything close to the bulk of the cost of education. Rather, the grants' goal is to encourage certain behaviors; and as it turns out, the carrot is just a little too big for States to give up, as we have seen, for example, in Utah's difficulty in passing legislation that would disqualify the state from certain Federal programs.

Federal incentives for schools and local incentives for students are not the end-all of educational reform, but they aren't intended to be. Rather, they must be accompanied by more-comprehensive reforms on the state and school levels to achieve true, lasting progress toward equity of educational opportunity. Since the New York incentive program won't detract from public monies for education, I support the initiative: Give it a try, monitor its effects, and if it works, expand. If not, try something else--but keep the entrepreneurial attitude, because entrepreneurship fosters the kind of creativity need to develop novel strategies that work.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Utility of Standardized Tests

How do you feel about standardized tests?

When they are well written and properly interpreted, standardized tests can be an excellent way to measure students' mastery of many kinds of content and skills (though not all). These objective tests can increase the fairness of student assessment by establishing a scoring system that does not suffer from grader subjectivity, which could potentially hide poor achievement, masking problems instead of revealing growth. The power and utility of standardized tests increases greatly when the results can be used to target future instruction to specific areas in which students have not yet mastered all of the desired concepts and skills. While students do need to have some familiarity with the test-taking system, I am not at all a fan of spending exorbitant amounts of time on test taking skills or strategies. Rather, instructional time should focus on the curriculum that the standardized test is intended to cover, and provided that the test is well constructed, students who master the content in the curriculum will very likely master the standardized test as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Teachers: Strict vs. Caring

[As a teacher,] is it better to be strict or caring? Which are you?

Ideally a teacher should be both strict and caring: A teacher should want to hold students to high standards of behavior and achievement as a direct result of the teacher's care and concern for the well-being of his or her students. A teacher should strictly demand students behave and achieve to the best of their ability, and a teacher should mercifully know when to make occasional exceptions due to extenuating circumstances.

I feel that I am a compassionate person--I enjoy listening to people's problems, comforting them, and helping them find solutions. When I have served as a teacher, I cared for my students and wanted what's best for them, and it is precisely for this reason that I would want to be strict (though merciful in appropriate measure), because students will learn best and have the greatest chance of success in a smoothly running environment where they are pushed to strive for their best.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Limitations of Threshold-Based Assessment

New York state announced significant improvement in this year's math scores, especially in New York City and schools in high-poverty areas; but Robert Tobias, former director of New York City's office of assessment, cautions that large increases in one grade that are not accompanied by similar increases in other grades may indicate significant sources of influence apart from the quality of instruction:

On this year’s reading test, for example, the proportion of state eighth graders reaching proficiency surged by 7.7 percentage points, but the proportion of proficient sixth graders increased by a more modest 2.8 points and that of seventh graders by only 1.4 points.
Indeed, state officials explained that the jump in percent of proficient eighth graders is not as significant as it first appears due to statistical factors:
David M. Abrams, the state’s assistant commissioner for standards and assessment, noted that sixth graders and eighth graders improved about the same in raw numbers--five points on a scale in which a score of 650 represents proficiency. But since a comparatively large number of sixth graders were already proficient the year before and a relatively large number of eighth graders were clustered just below the 650 threshold, the same five points qualified many more eighth graders as proficient while doing far less for the sixth-grade showing.
This example underscores two weaknesses of using the percentage of students receiving proficient scores from year to year as a measure of a school's improvement.

First, each year the test assesses a different cohort of students, and many people who have worked in schools for any significant length of time will confirm that different groups of students perform better or worse, on average, than their older or younger peers. Due to natural variations in aptitude and attitude, some cohorts simply achieve more than others, even with the same courses, teachers, and resources. As a result, any progress the school as a whole is making toward universal proficiency can be obscured by the variation in what the students bring to the academic enterprise from cohort to cohort.

Second, since percent proficient is a threshold measure, differences in portion of students proficient do not translate into the difficulty in achieving the result--that is, the effort required to accomplish the increase. If, as in the case of New York eighth graders, the previous year's scores were just below the threshold, on average, a modest gain in test performance will appear as a significant improvement. However if, as in the case of New York sixth graders, the previous year's scores were just above the threshold, on average, the same modest gain will correspond to a modest improvement in number of proficient students. This threshold measure, therefore, fails to give an accurate picture of the actual improvement in instructional quality.

If test results were reported as average sores instead of percent proficient, on the other hand, analysts could compare effect sizes, and the five point increase in New York's sixth and eighth graders would be rightly understood as roughly the same accomplishment. Moreover, value-added assessment could provide a much better indicator of how much schools and teachers themselves are contributing to students' academic progress, factoring out a number of cohort differences, and teachers could greatly benefit from being able to target instruction based on prompt results from beginning-of-the-year baseline assessments, which would indicate the specific needs of each student in the new cohort.

(Incidentally, if value-added scores were incorporated into teacher evaluations, more high-quality teachers might be inclined to work with poor students: They wouldn't have to be as concerned with negative consequences for not reaching absolute proficiency in a single year if their students are still making remarkable gains, and students who start at the bottom have more room to move up than average students.)

Of course, we can't simply ignore the brute passing rate, since we want children not merely to experience improvement, but to achieve actual proficiency in core areas of knowledge and skills. But, until we reach universal proficiency, a more-detailed view of how students are improving (or not) could help us target interventions as we attempt to improve our system of education.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Freedom and Accountability, Hand in Hand

According to an interview with the Boston Globe, Matthew King, superintendent of schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has decided to leave public education to lead a small Jewish day school:

I would say that I’ve grown tired of the direction public education is going, with more and more controls from the state and federal government and less and less autonomy for individual schools and school systems. There’s no question I’ve had a very, very satisfying career. But right now, just the whole accountability movement, I guess you would say, has made working in schools not as satisfying as it used to be.
If public education isn't as satisfying as it used to be, autocratic, micromanaging administrators may more likely be the cause than the accountability movement. Rightly implemented, the new reporting requirements of the accountability movement, which are beginning to reveal exactly how well schools are achieving their educational mandate, should provide schools with more freedom and autonomy, since quality may be assured through the "fruits of schools' labors," as opposed to detailed regulation. As UK Education Secretary Alan Johnson has noted in response to criticisms by the independent General Testing Council, assessment data provide schools with transparency and openness: "Parents don't want to go back to a world where schools were closed institutions, no-one knew what was going on in them" (BBC). This transparency can give parents and societal leaders the confidence to allow schools to function independently without the fear that rogue administrators or teachers would be permitted to abuse school resources without detection for long.

But, giving up the regulatory control they've held for so long can be difficult for administrators in the public sector as well as the private; and yet when smaller working units are provided with less regulation in exchange for accountability for their results, workers on the ground have made wonderful progress where higher-level administrators failed. Keith Sawyer, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, tells the story of the Brazilian manufacturer Semco that made an impressive recovery from near-bankruptcy when Ricardo Semler took over and radically altered the company's organizational structure:
Semler tossed the binders, fired most of his senior managers, and handed the reins to the company's employees. "It was like taking an improvisational jazz ensemble and ramping it up to the organizational level," Sawyer says. Small groups now run the company with near-total autonomy. Large, 300-worker factories have been split into smaller, 100-worker units. The move initially caused inefficiencies and higher costs but eventually allowed low-level innovation to flourish. Empowered factory-line workers, it turns out, really do know how to do their jobs better. Inventory backlogs have eased, product lines have expanded, and sales have jumped. "That's not a lack of structure; that's just a lack of structure imposed from above," Semler has said. After the company's reorganization, revenues climbed from $4 million to $212 million. (US News and World Report)
If empowered factory-line workers can revive a manufacturing company from bankruptcy, perhaps empowered teachers and principals can reform a failing school system. But, this empowerment can only take place if parents and administrators can see that local schools are making use of their freedom responsibly. Accountability provides the transparency to assure constituents that schools are doing their job; freedom provides schools with the room to implement successful practices and respond nimbly to local challenges. Freedom requires accountability, and accountability enables freedom. They go hand in hand.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Unifying State Standards

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a report last week aligning scores state assessment scores with the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP). The analysis reveals striking differences in standards from state to state:

For example, an eighth grader in Tennessee can meet that state’s standards for math proficiency with a state test score that is the equivalent of a 230 on the national test. But in Missouri, an eighth grader would need the equivalent of a 311.

And while a Mississippi fourth grader can meet the state’s reading proficiency standard with a state score that corresponds to a 161 on the national test, a Massachusetts fourth grader would need the equivalent of a 234. Such score differences represent a gap of several grade levels. (NY Times)

Since the US Constitution assigns states the responsibility of educating our children, the authors of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), now known as the No child Left Behind Act (NCLB), allowed states to determine curriculum and set standards of achievement, but such wide variation in the resulting expectations for what constitutes an adequate education has prompted some to question whether the current mechanisms for defining academic proficiency are sufficient to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Although ESEA was intended to improve the quality of education for poor and minority students, NCLB provides little incentive for states to ratchet up the stakes in terms of their definitions of academic adequacy: If many local schools are already having difficulty in getting all of their students to pass the state proficiency examinations with standards such as they are, states are not likely to increase standards and risk even more schools facing negative consequences for failing to make adequate progress toward universal proficiency.

In an attempt to entice states to increase curricular standards, the Senate passed a bill last April that would, among other things, appropriate $100 million to provide grants to states to identify the skills students would need to succeed without remediation in higher education, the work force, and the Armed Services, and to determine the necessary changes to their curriculum to equip high school graduates with these skills (S.761, sec. 3401). While the bill's intention is admirable, the law would do little to ensure that states come to similar conclusions about the rigor of these skills for success.

Another bill before congress goes slightly further toward this goal by charging the NAEP Assessment Board with creating or adopting K-12 content standards that "reflect a common core of what students in the United States should know and be able to do to compete in a global economy" (S.224, H.R.325). These national standards would then be voluntarily adopted by states who accept a grant from the federal government to that end. Grants would be awarded up to $4 million per state over four years. While this bill has the potential to make great strides in directing our educational systems toward unity in academic expectations and would likely increase standards of proficiency, the money available as a carrot for states seems rather meager: $200 million spread over 53 million students gives less than $4/student--barely a dent in what it would cost to revamp a nation's curriculum, in terms of new textbooks, assessments, and professional development. The figure seems even less appealing when compared with the non-financial costs higher standards would levy due to the needs of NCLB.

What, then, can encourage states to raise the bar, not only of 100% proficiency but of proficiency itself? In the absence of a federal takeover of education, which require no less than a constitutional amendment, local citizens will have to petition their state governments, demanding a higher-quality education for our children. NCLB has made great strides in increasing the data available to parents and community members about the performance of every school; now that the NCES has mapped state assessment scales with NAEP, NCLB could be amended in the upcoming reauthorization to requires that schools report scores in terms of both state and national scales. While this reporting by itself wouldn't improve schools, it would give communities an idea of how their schools fare in comparison with the rest of the nation, hopefully fueling grassroots efforts to implement effectual change for educational improvement.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Learning via Skype

Broadband access to the Internet and the proliferation of a diverse set of free communications utilities are beginning to open new opportunities to access education. An article in this week's Economist highlights the language-instruction company Praxis, which is making use of e-mail, podcasts, and the free Voice-over-IP (VoIP) utility Skype to offer a course in Chinese. Students study lessons sent via e-mail, listen to recordings through the daily podcast, and engage in live speaking practice with one of the company's 35 native speakers in Shanghai.

These very readily available, low-cost solutions could prove useful in the public sector of formal education, as they have begun to in the private non-formal sector. Public school districts in particularly large rural regions in America, such as Montana or Alaska, have faced a certain amount of difficulty in meeting the No Child Left Behind standards for Highly Qualified Teachers. Federal regulations require that teachers have content-matter expertise in the subjects they teach--which is quite reasonable since many studies indicate that teachers with content-knowledge in their field are, in general, more effective. But, small class sizes render uneconomical the hiring of teachers in different subjects for each school, and large distances between schools inhibits teachers covering multiple schools.

With off-the-shelf technology--including a number of freely available tools--teachers in one location could serve a pool of students from several different schools. One school may have the English teacher and another the Math teacher, but the classes would learn together, connected via videoconferencing over the Internet. An on-site paraprofessional could monitor students and provide any necessary in-person support. While remote areas sometimes lack access to broadband Internet connections, installing such an infrastructure for the school may , in the end, provide a net savings compared with personnel costs, as well as an increase in the quality of instruction.

Some public schools are already experimenting with the new modes of instruction that advances in telecommunications are permitting. The Chicago Virtual Charter School just completed its first year of providing what amounts to a home-schooling environment with professional teacher support mediated through the Internet and periodic in-school sessions. The school has received a certain amount of opposition: The Chicago teachers union has filed a lawsuit that would shut down the school on the grounds that it violates the Illinois School Code's definition of charter schools as "public, nonsectarian, non-religious, non-home based" (105 ILCS 5/27A-5, emphasis added). On another front, Rep. Monique Davis introduced HB0232 in the Illinois General Assembly, which would ban any form of virtual school. After several amendments, the bill was sent to the Senate in a form that would merely establish a two-year, sixteen-member Task Force on Virtual Education.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Achievement Over Self-Esteem

We would all like to raise student achievement and address the needs of each student as a "whole child." But when it comes down to it, we often have to make hard choices. If you had to choose, would you rather raise student achievement or increase self-esteem and self-worth?
If, given the hard circumstances of life, I as a teacher had the time or energy or resources to focus on only one of either student achievement or self-esteem in the classroom, I would rather emphasize student achievement.

Initially this may seem to some as calloused, reducing a student's worth to what he or she can do rather than who he or she is. However, I believe that in the end sacrificing long-term student achievement for immediate gains in self-esteem ultimately does a disservice to students, especially those who come from a disadvantaged background.

Academic achievement opens a vast array of opportunities for students to experience success--success in future academic endeavors, success in better jobs, success in greater social capital, and success in the ability to participate in a wider variety of activities as adults. By not encouraging students to achieve all they can academically, a teacher who emphasizes merely current self-esteem stunts children's potential growth and future sense of fulfillment. This stunting effect is particularly traumatic for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, because these students are much more dependent on schooling in order to be well equipped for adulthood. Moreover, students who achieve academically are much more likely to develop a positive self-esteem naturally as a result of their immediate academic successes; whereas, children who are content with themselves in their status quo are much less likely to achieve academically (and thus be better equipped for future success) without being pushed to grow.

Therefore, since academic achievement carries the most potential to bring about the student's sense of fulfillment both in the short term and the long, if I couldn't focus on both, I would choose to emphasize student achievement over self-esteem.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Elementeo: Chemistry Concepts through Play

NPR reported yesterday on the new card game Elementeo created by a seventh-grader in California to make learning chemistry more approachable and fun. The battle card game works on a design similar to Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, in which players make use of attacking and defending unit cards on a playing field, which may be enhanced or weakened by a number of modifier cards. Instead of magical creatures and spells, though, Elementeo bases play on elements and the formation of compounds, along with other chemistry concepts.

Since I'm not particularly familiar with these types of card games and the reasons their fans enjoy them, I wondered if the game was complex and interesting enough to capture the interest of a good cross-section of card gamers. Fortunately, the game was covered by Slashdot, where a fair number of gamers hang out. Unfortunately, the discussion following the game's story left much to be desired, and I was once again reminded why I usually don't bother with Slashdot discussions: Even when I read only the posts that get mod'ed up, the commentary is rife with inane statements, uninformed opinions, and hasty judgments, along with their rebuttals. Take for example this statement from "A beautiful mind":

The kid's idea is stupid anyway, sure you can roleplay very basic things with it by providing an analogy, but that analogy doesn't work consistently and does not allow for a deeper understanding of chemistry. So unless you are satisfied with the "iron card and oxigen [sic.] card equals rust card", it does not allow for a deeper understanding. Don't tell me kids are not supposed to learn more at that (around twelve) age, you're probably expecting too little of them.
"Zaguar" expressed a similar viewpoint:
As somewho [sic.] knows something about Chemistry (going to the 2007 Moscow IChO), this idea is flawed. A high school chemistry syllabus is structered [sic.] the way it is for a reason. I can think of several examples. 1. Chemistry is not all about elements, even at this basic level. For example, how will they teach acid-base chemistry? How will they teach gas laws? Even if this is just a small component of the syllabus, it is a waste.
The poster continues to explain the complexities of different types of bonding, and claims that the rudimentary concepts presented in the game don't cover bonding in enough depth, concluding with:
My take - chemistry may be boring in high school, but so are most things. It's structed [sic.] in a way that builds upon previous knowledge, and this guy is just hoping to make a quick buck off VC's with a product that is clearly not thought out.
As someone who also knows something about chemistry ("recently published in Analytical Chemstry"), as well as a little something about education, I don't think I could disagree more. It doesn't appear that Zaguar's post was clearly thought out, since I find it unlikely that most middle school students would create a game based on high school content. "Dr.Boje" agrees,
I really doubt that the intention of this game is to completely replace a chemistry class, much less a high school chemistry class; after all, this is a 13-year-old still in middle school. I think the intention of this game is to get kids interested in chemistry and teach them the basics (regardless of how basic it may be) without alienating them from the subject.
But even if we grant that the game's scope is limited to a certain subset of chemistry knowledge, what about the objection from "A beautiful mind" about the depth of the content: Are elements and simple compounds too basic for middle school students? Not according to the Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework, to take the example of one state. Massachusetts doesn't introduce the concepts of elements and compounds before sixth grade; and even then, the standards represent only a basic introduction:
5. Recognize that there are more than 100 elements that combine in a multitude of ways to produce compounds that make up all of the living and nonliving things that we encounter.

6. Differentiate between an atom (the smallest unit of an element that maintains the characteristics of that element) and a molecule (the smallest unit of a compound that maintains the characteristics of that compound).

7. Give basic examples of elements and compounds. (p 67)
The Core Knowledge framework proposed by E.D. Hirsch is slightly more demanding in that it introduces the concept of elements in fourth grade:[1]
Elements are the basic kinds of matter, of which there are a little more than one-hundred. There are many idfferent kinds of atoms, but an element has only one kind of atom. Familiar elements, such as gold, copper, aluminum, oxygen, iron; Most things are made up of a combination of elements. (p 105)
The idea of bonding and compounds (not the detail) comes along in grade five:
Basics of atomic strucutre: nucleus, protons (positive charge), neutrons (neutral), electrons (negative charge); ... Atoms may join together to form molecules and compounds. Common compounds and their formulas: water H2O, salt NaCl, carbon dioxide CO2.

Elements have atoms of only one kind, having the same number of protons. There are a little more than 100 different elements. ... Some well-known elements and their symbols [lists 13 elements]; Two important categories of elements: metals and non-metals (p 129)
Though these two frameworks differ in exactly when to introduce elements and compounds, the point is that upper elementary and middle school students are still only being initiated into the inner workings of the world around us. Learning is progressive, and many of the details of chemistry, or any other discipline, are rightly left until high school when students have developed a stronger foundation. A game such as Elementeo helps to lay that foundation, not by replacing traditional lessons or by being an exhaustive font of content knowledge, but by supplementing instruction with an engaging introduction to key concepts. One should not demand more.

But, enough with the naysayers. After my journey to Slashdot and back, I was still left with the question of whether this game would have the kind of appeal that, say, Magic: The Gathering has. I decided that it probably would not (note, wait for a caveat to come): In its present form, the deck has only 66 cards, unlike the hundreds or thousands available for Magic: The Gathering, and thus likely will not support the complexities of game play that make other games more attractive. The concept is perhaps also somewhat limited in just how far it can push the theme before new additions seem merely like "more of the same." (Yet, this could just reveal my unfamiliarity with the content of these kinds of card games.) On the other hand, there could possibly be some very interesting ideas one could incorporate from the very rich sub-discipline of biochemistry.

Nevertheless (here's the caveat), the potential failure of Elementeo, or a game like it, to achieve a general, wide-spread interest in the gaming community at large does not signify a failure of the game in itself. Rather, if Elementeo is enjoyed even only in the limited context of school children in a narrow segment of grades and in a specific set of formal and non-formal educational venues, the game may be considered a wild success, since its purpose is not merely to entertain, but also to enhance education. In other words, the game succeeds in its mission to make learning a little more enjoyable, even if it doesn't succeed in its non-mission to keep large groups of random people entertained for hours on end.

And so, I support the release of Elementeo; I wish Anshul Samar and his team the best in production, marketing, and distribution; and I look forward to hearing about how well the game is received by children in classrooms and after-school programs all over the nation.

[1] Core Knowledge Sequence: Content Guidelines for Grades K-8. Charlottesville, VA: Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Peeling the Onion

A couple of weeks ago, Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, appeared on The Daily Show. In the interview, Spellings gave a great snapshot of the purpose of the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act:

Here's the deal. These are local decisions. I'm not hiring teachers at the Department of Education, obviously. But, what we've done with this law is peel the onion and bring to bear information about how well are we serving every single kind. And the answer is not well enough--by far, these days. And so what we're causing is anxiety with grown-ups on behalf of kids.
NCLB is merely the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose goal in 1965 was to encourage states to improve educational quality for poor and disenfranchised students by providing financial incentives for categorical programs. For years, the Federal government has required testing (mainly through NAEP) in exchange for the carrot to monitor the effectiveness of the funds and gauge progress in the improvement of education.

In the 2001 iteration, Congress went a step further in "peeling the onion" by requiring states who accept Federal funds to do their own measuring and reporting of progress, and attempted to kindle the flame after decades of smoldering educational reform by forcing action in schools that states identify as not making progress toward providing an "adequate" education for all students. Many schools have gone along for years without providing a basic education to all students--NCLB's assessment and reporting provisions attempt to expose this reality and mobilize people for change.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Options and Advantages

In the NY Times article "Getting Into College: Strumming His Own Tune" (June 6, 2007), Samuel Freedman extols the easy-going attitude of one Kevin Robinson, who decided to let his own merits speak for themselves instead of stressing over and prepping for college applications.

Still, there’s no denying the reality of inequality, if you’re a middle-class mother watching people with a lot more money buy their children advantages.

“It frustrates me to know there isn’t a level playing field,” Ms. Robinson said as we talked in a coffee shop. “You have some kids with options and advantages that others don’t. And the colleges have no way of knowing. They think they’re comparing apples and apples when they’re not.”
Somehow I don't feel sorry for Kevin or his mother. I know that being a single mother is tough; but this white, middle-class, single-parent family still has, without any extra effort of their own, access to vastly more "options and advantages" than the thousands of poor, minority children who are underserved by our nation's education system.

Consider as an indicator of Kevin's advantages the free public high school he attended. This year, 88% of Central Bucks High School West achieved a proficient or higher score in reading on the Pennsylvania System of Schools Assessment, and 75% in math;[1] whereas, only 71% of white 11th graders state-wide were rated proficient in reading, and 57% in math.[2]

Ms. Robinson didn't have to buy Kevin advantages--he already had them. He grew up in a nice middle-class town home, had enough food to eat and clothes to wear, and was privileged with an excellent free public school. If we're going to talk about the lack of options and advantages, let's at least look at poor and minority students who really don't have any, when their families struggle to provide food and shelter and their schools consistently fail them.

[1] Central Buck HS West Academic Achievement Report

[2] PA 2005-2006 NCLB Report Card

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Iraqi Brain Drain

From "Cheated of Future, Iraqi Graduates Want to Flee" (NY Times, June 4, 2007):

Four years later, Iraq’s college graduates are ending their studies shattered and eager to leave the country. In interviews with more than 30 students from seven universities, all but four said they hoped to flee immediately after receiving their degrees. Many said they did not expect Iraq to stabilize for at least a decade.
I don't blame these students--I imagine in their place, amid rampant violence and with the means of mobility, I would want to leave, too. But, abandoning Iraq will certainly hamper the restitution of peace and prosperity to the nation. Iraq needs, now more than ever, highly educated professionals and academicians to provide strong leadership for stability and growth--leadership both in the government and in the private sector. And yet, as one student put it, "Staying here is like committing suicide."

The students represented by this article aren't the first educated people to leave Iraq--thousands of expatriated Iraqi professionals live and work in Europe and North America. Iraq needs them to come home, but why would they want to leave what is likely a comfortable life in a well-developed nation to embrace fear of violence and political instability? A viable Iraq requires professionals, but the professionals need a safe environment. The Iraq and U.S. governments must make peace and security a top priority in reconstruction, and should institute incentive programs to attract and retain indigenous professionals to flesh out the country's human infrastructure for a stable Iraq in the long term.