Thursday, March 31, 2011

Are you a Mac or a PC, and does it matter?

Check out this response in The Huffington Post to the recent debate between Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, on the value of education. Pragmatics or self-enrichment, what truly matters in the typical college curriculum? Michael Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, argues that the answer is of little importance.

Education should serve as a stepping stone to a life of productivity. It's not an item purchased in a store, like the Kindle or iPad that Americans, some as young as three or four years old, are sporting these days. When you sign up for a college education, you aren't necessarily buying a ready-made product that comes with Features A B, and C. You're entering a complex world of many hues and tones, engaging in various disciplines that complement one another, and exploring different facets of your intelligence. Then you get a job. That's how Michael Roth sees it, and his answer to the Jobs-Gates debate rings true. Human beings have not yet become computers or robots (though this end looms dangerously on the horizon), and the best education for young minds needs to challenge all extremes of the human brain, not just ones geared toward STEM (science/technology/engineering/math). Thanks, Mr. Roth! You make us want to keep learnin'.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spare the rod, spoil the child - punishment in America's schools

What motivates a student to learn? The quest for perfectionism, the promise of a new car, competitive drive? A Snickers bar? Some schools in the U.S. are still saying: the threat of physical punishment. This morning's story in the New York Times reveals, shockingly, that many U.S. schools, particularly in the South, still resort to "small-scale" corporal punishment to get students to behave. Physical punishment in schools is still legal in twenty states, which amounts to nearly half of the United States.

No, it's not 1825. And yes, administrators such as Steve Harris, superintendent of City View Independent School District in Wichita Falls, Texas, labels practices such as "paddling" (using a paddle to hit students who misbehave) as "one of the tools in the tool box we use for discipline." It turns out that the recent use of this "tool" landed one of City View Junior/Senior High School students in the hospital for deep bruising. Parents at the school are protesting the use of physical punishment, but this is almost an anomaly. At St. Augustine High School in Louisiana, students and administrators both turned out to protest a recent ban on paddling, claiming that corporal discipline successfully put students in line at the school.

Violence as the way to success? In light of recent outbreaks of gun violence, perhaps it's time to think again, America - what are you teaching your students?

Monday, March 28, 2011

College Admissions Revealed

High school seniors know on a very visceral level: the next couple weeks will be filled with cheers and tears as college admissions decisions start coming to mailboxes and inboxes around the country.  NPR aired a wonderful piece this morning on the college admissions process at Amherst College.  What was most revealing about this glimpse into the college admissions panel was how unbelievably human the process is.

This could be cause for simultaneous celebration and cries of injustice.  The Amherst admissions committee reinforced the fact that after a certain point, admissions decisions are made based on factors that are more or less out of the control of the applicant.  On one side, students should take solace in the fact that a YES or NO from their top choice colleges should not be treated as the final statement on their academic worth.  On the other side, it can be disheartening to know that an applicant can only do so much to sell themselves to college admissions committees.

We at Tutorpedia wish all college-bound students the best of luck this application season; we hope that you receive a Thick Envelope this week from the college of your choice!

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Yes we can!" on No Child Left Behind, says Obama

A recent story in The Washington Post details President Obama's latest take on the No Child Left Behind law. Obama recently urged Congress to overhaul existing policies of No Child Left Behind - to "seize this education moment," making for a "less intrusive" federal education policy that allows for a more individualized curriculum across schools in the nation. Current No Child Left Behind policies, first adopted in 2002 by President George W. Bush, require standardized testing in the U.S. to gauge students' reading and mathematical abilities. Schools that routinely under-perform qualify for aggressive intervention from the government to make education opportunities more equitable across socioeconomic lines.

It's about time, Mr. President. Our schools love standardized tests - who doesn't remember filling out those green and white scantron sheets as a student? Standardized testing, however, has not quite gotten America's students' to the greatest heights of their academic acumen. Students' test scores have been dropping steadily since the No Child Left Behind law sprung into action, and the achievement gap seems to be widening, not closing. And, while Obama's enthusiastic promises to reform the law serve as a positive sign of where education policy is headed, his statements remain exactly that - promises. Let's see where the President's most recent speech on No Child Left Behind actually get us. School officials are eager to see the law changed and to focus more on each student's individual learning capabilities. This time around, let's hope no one actually gets left behind.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Culture of Calm" for troubled students

A new curriculum in some of Chicago's charter schools aims to target outbreaks of violence in the student body. The schools participating in the curriculum are located in areas subject to gang violence and high crime rates. Mansley Career Academy High School in Chicago, profiled in this NPR story, is one of the first to promote the "Culture of Calm" as a way to curb violence and get students on the right track toward graduation and college.

At Mansley, Room 113 is officially the Peace Room, where students undergo mediation training to resolve conflicts between other students and teachers. Educator Ilana Zafran stresses to students that no matter how much anger they feel or what thoughts they have, they can remain in control of their actions. Some of the workshops focus on "de-escalation" and on tracing the roots of the students' anger. As a result, fewer fights and gun violence have erupted at Mansley Career Academy in the past several months, and the future does look brighter. Listen to the details of this school's insightful anti-violence curriculum here:

The rules are simple. If you get angry, just stay calm. In reality, though, this line of behavior does not come easily in some of the situations that students on Chicago's West Side undergo on a daily basis, some of them matters of life or death. Listening in to kids' needs and changing inherent codes of behavior are promising first steps to getting more students out of gun fights and into higher education.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bill Gates faces Steve Jobs in an education stand-off

Are you a "math person"? A tortured artist, a Dostoevsky aficionado? According to recent trends in how college degrees correlate with the job market, it doesn't matter. Go study those numbers anyway.

A recent debate in The New York Times sparked controversy by juxtaposing the value of liberal arts college degrees to those in math and science. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, has spoken out in favor of individuality, creativity, and the humanities, while Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, argues in favor of pragmatics - a degree in engineering, math, or science will get college grads much further than recent liberal arts concoctions such as Peace Studies or a major such as Gender, Politics, and the Environment. It appears that some schools actually let students out into the world with majors entitled simply "Humanities."

Gates's argument hinges on the fact that students should attain specific skills that prepare them for specific careers. Jobs, on the other hand, insists that, without innovation and creativity, society simply can't move forward, no matter how many Wall Street-bound young adults receive diplomas each year. And while innovation can happen in business school or on the computer science track, there are crucial skills in communication and self-expression that develop when students follow a more liberal arts-centered course of study. With all due respect, Bill Gates, we need engineers and poets in this world. If humans were number-crunching machines at best - well, then they wouldn't be human. Now, if only English and accounting majors could get jobs out of college with equal ease, we'd truly have a progressive world. As of now, there is definite room for improvement.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Does practice really make perfect?

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her book on extreme parenting that drives children to succeed at all costs, has sparked a flurry of controversial responses, a recent article in The Atlantic by Sandra Tsing Loh being one of them. Loh does not defend the ever-demanding Tiger Mother who believes in learning by rote, rigorous academic drills, and what can be mildly deemed a "forceful" approach to parenting. Instead, she asks us to feel compassion for parents who use this approach. For, while their children do "succeed" more often than not, what's left at the end of the day is often nothing more than the satisfaction of having statistical excellence. These kids and parents rack up the numbers, but does practice, practice, practice (beyond all reasonable limits) inspire these students to continue learning? Does the whole process become an irrational game wherein perfection is the only acceptable goal?

Hard work, Loh acknowledges, is valuable, no doubt about it. But what do we have after we've reached perfection (another A+, a pile of Ivy League acceptance letters, a perfect report card) anything left? It depends on what drove the student to make sacrifices in the first place. Often, an overbearing parental presence will get us to a certain destination, but not much further. Students accepted by Harvard and Princeton, those who major in astrophysics and international economics, graduates who put in the hours at investment banking firms - have they gotten what they wanted? Perfection is not genius, and Beethoven didn't have a Tiger parent drilling him every waking hour of his childhood - though he certainly had the family connections. The bottom line is, practice and excellence certainly produce benefits. As for art, curiosity, innovation - these often get put on the back burner in today's rigorous race to be perfect.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Modern math gets a make-over

The way children are being taught math in schools has changed radically over time - and just in the space of twenty or so years. A recent story on NPR describes how math classes in American schools stress the use of technology to produce charts, graphs, and spreadsheets, putting less emphasis on mental computation. As a result, kids are becoming more adept at manipulating laptops and plugging formulas into Microsoft Excel. However, when it comes to doing math quickly without the aid of modern gadgets, many children are at a loss. Memorizing the multiplication tables is now considered a feat worthy of excessive praise - just imagine not using a calculator!

As with any change, there are pluses and minuses to these new developments. Sure, America's children are learning how to operate technological devices that will surely come in handy in the business world. But are they prepared to compute solo under pressure? What areas of the brain are being left behind in this massive tech race to the top?

And remember to check out the blurb at the end of the NPR article, "The Way You Learned Math Is So Old School," which denies the existence of the so-called "math gene," which supposedly enables some people to excel in math more easily than others. Apparently most of us perform equally well when it comes to doing math in everyday situations. Yet, when faced with pen and paper (or, in the case of America's schoolchildren, calculator and spreadsheet), some of us undergo a "brain freeze" that slows down our thinking reflexes and halts performance. It all comes down to a test of confidence, and researchers claim that a little more of the "Yes, we can!" spirit could solve most of our mathematical dilemmas.

Friday, March 11, 2011

No start with no Head Start? The budget shrinks further...

A recent push toward greater spending cuts, profiled in this story by the New York Times, hits certain education programs hard - namely Head Start, a pre-school-oriented program that provides education and some health care for three and four-year-olds whose families' incomes are low enough to qualify. The article profiles the state of Alaska, which has sustained large enough cuts to Head Start to nearly eliminate the program.

Though pre-school education rarely makes headline news, this recent cut to the system carries drastic implications. Programs like Head Start have had statistical significance in putting kids on the right track from an early age. Children who otherwise would have veered toward street gangs and drug deals have received the right push at the right time. Government initiatives like Head Start are strongly responsible for sending more kids in the United States to college each year. Academic motivation starts early, and it's important to give children in troubled circumstances precisely that - a "head start." Yet, now, according to the new Republican budget plan, programs like these are having to step to the sidelines and children in low-income households fend for themselves more and more.

This growing weakness in subsidized early education makes non-profit programs such as Tutorpedia's SES tutoring even more important as a final effort to give deserving students in dire economic circumstances a critical push in their studies.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When it comes to education, Finland does it right

Jon Stewart's recent show features Diane Ravitch, an educational policy analyst who wrote The Death and Life of the American School System and compares European education systems and results with those in the United States. Listen to Ravitch speak out against standardized testing, which she says has no correlation with academic success. American schools, she claims, put stress and resources into the wrong channels - schools have become "testing factories" and do not devote enough time to the arts, civics, and education that motivate students to come to school.

Ravitch makes her greatest comparison between Finland and the United States. Finland's education system has strong teachers' unions, no standardized testing, and invidualized education practices - the polar opposite of the current situation in the United States. Yet Finland has a greater graduation rate than the United States, and its students perform better in school than do American kids, who are subjected to a slew of standardized tests, which the Finnish school system rejects. So, which model seems more effective in producing conscious citizens, passionate about learning and eager to contribute to the national working population? The answer is obvious, says Ravitch. Watch the episode and decide for yourself what America's schools are truly lacking today - more standardized testing or high-quality, well-rounded instruction that tailors to students' individual needs.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Less money, fewer problems? More college graduates take on public service jobs

Are the days of investment banking and financial consulting over? Probably not. However, increasing numbers of college graduates are opting for careers in public service, detailed in this story by the New York Times. According to national statistics, 16 percent more college graduates took on jobs in government, while 11 percent more young people aligned their careers with non-profit work - and this is just in 2009. The number of applications for AmeriCorps has tripled from 2008 to 2010. Since the start of the recession three years ago, the private sector has given up 7 percent of its jobs, while the public sector has increased hiring by more than 3 percent.

The recession, though no doubt a trying time for those of us without generous trust funds, has done some good, after all. More young people are contributing their intelligence and energy to social projects and non-profit work, given the difficulty of finding jobs in the corporate sector when straight out of school . The greatest test of who's in the non-profit game circumstantially and whose heart has been won by a social cause will occur when the economic crisis lets up a bit, making those corporate jobs available yet again. In any case, these past few years have been a boon for the non-profit community, and college students who have encountered closed doors have certainly done a good job of finding those open windows...

Speaking of supporting non-profit causes, make sure to rate the Tutorpedia Foundation here. The more positive reviews the Tutorpedia Foundation receives, the more effective it will be in providing free personalized tutoring to Bay Area students who need it, but can't afford it. Take a minute or two to type us a great review, and give a deserving student the chance to succeed in school!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Gay-friendly curriculum in schools under attack

The San Francisco Unified School District has led the nation in promoting a gay-friendly curriculum in its schools, making gay history and Gay Pride month an integral part of life at institutions such as Mission High School, profiled in this article by the New York Times. Elementary schools routinely include words such as "gay" and "heterosexual" in children's vocabulary lists as early as kindergarten. Overall, educators', parents', and students' minds seem to be opening, and revolutionary companies such as Groundspark enjoy burgeoning sales, producing media and art that support homosexual relationships, which are then circulated through schools.

Recently, however, groups of parents have revolted against the administration at several Bay Area schools, claiming that gay-friendly content is being forced on their children, wrongly without their consent. At a recent board meeting, one parent complained that her nine-year-old daughter's crossword puzzle had the word "lesbian" as one of its answers. Some parents rely on the support of Pastor P. Daniels Jefferson, who leads a popular Christian evangelical group, the Vallejo Faith Organization. Jefferson believes that God's word should trump any novelties in the school curriculum and that this pro-tolerance campaign will remain a brief phase in the education debate. Sadly, recent reports on the increase in school bullying in the U.S. make a terrible parallel with the attack on gay rights advocacy in schools. San Francisco Unified School District has yet to defend its claim of being more progressive than its counterparts in the Bay Area - let's see how the district weathers this storm...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fewer teachers, fewer students - what's Rhode Island thinking?

The whole nation's teaching force is taking a major hit this winter, as government officials crack down on teacher unions, ignoring protesters' pleas. Shockingly, Mayor Angel Taveras has approved the dismissal of at least 2,000 educators in Providence by this March to alleviate an impending deficit of $100 million for the next fiscal year, which amounts to 20% of the city's budget. Critics have accused Taveras of ordering the terminations as a simple way to silence the debate between teachers' unions and the state government, an eerie echo of what Wisconsin's governor seems to be pondering this winter as well.

The upheaval in Wisconsin has promptly infected the East coast, as 1,500 protesters crammed the city hall on March 3rd to rally against the massive cuts. Citizens worry about the implications of the government's decision to fire such a colossal number of educators. And there is just cause indeed; it's simple math, really. The fewer experienced teachers remain in the schools, the worse the outcome that we can expect from the students. As matters stand, no less than 80% of Providence's student population is black or Latino, and a vast proportion qualifies as low-income. Test scores from Providence rank among the lowest in the U.S. as a whole, on par with those from the nation's most troubled urban areas. Will firing more teachers really do wonders for the U.S. economy or will we sink deeper into the pit of deficits, crime, and moral stagnation?

Wisconsin, Rhode Island...what's next? A logical guess may be the West coast. California has certainly faced its fair share of problems on the education front over the past few months. Let's hope that Governor Davis shows more backbone than officials in other U.S. states, stopping this train before it runs off the tracks, leaving the aspirations of countless under-privileged students in ruins.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What are you prepping for? Test prep courses take a hit

A recent article from Education Week by Caralee J. Adams, courtesy of Tutorpedia's Director Seth Linden, questions the effect of expensive test preparation courses on student scores. Test preparation for the SATs and the ACT - and let's not forget the myriad of graduate admissions tests that will eventually follow in their wake, such as the LSAT - has evolved into a veritable industry. Companies such as Revolution Prep routinely promise increases in student scores by 200-300 points after the completion of one prep course. The Princeton Review and Kaplan have, until recently, provided bios of individual students who claim supreme satisfaction after bumping their scores up by hundreds of points.

Should you believe the hype? Not necessarily, claims Adams in Education Week. Test prep courses, which are starting to seem like a pre-requisite for college admission, are phenomenally expensive and not all test prep companies - though Revolution Prep is one of them - offer scholarships to students from low-income families. Parents shell out hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for the promised increase in test scores, which could more often than not be achieved with the help of free online practice tests and other tools now accessible through the internet community. Students who have the will to study and make individualized study plans often do as well, if not better, than those who are spoon-fed the same tactics in a test prep course. And the most important catalyst for success, experts say, is a solid base in English and math, which students should be receiving in school. Read, study, and put your heart into what you're learning, says the author of this latest post in Education Week, and you've already got a lot going for you.