16 March 2009 11:20 AM

President Obama's Emphasis on Education

by Dr. Rick

I love what President Obama has been saying about education lately.  I’m heartened by his words not only because I agree with them, but also because I’ve been saying many of the same things right here in this blog.


In his speech to the Joint Session of Congress last month, the President, talking of education, stressed several themes:

  • Increased accountability of schools
  • Helping students meet world-class standards aligned to the demands of the 21st century workforce
  • Closing an achievement gap among learners
  • New reforms in the teaching profession
  • Attracting the best and the brightest to the teaching profession
  • Confronting the dangerous drop-out problem
  • Strengthening the transitions to college and careers
  • Encouraging personal responsibility

In his expansion on his education agenda on March 10, he focused on even more specific goals.

  • Recognizing what research and common sense tell us, the President pointed out that “the years before kindergarten comprise the most critical time in a child’s life to influence educational outcomes.”  He called for a “Zero to Five” effort to improve developmental outcomes and early learning.
  • He called for improved data collection, especially from early learning programs like Head Start.
  • He emphasized enhancing curricular rigor in K-12 education to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and the innovative use of knowledge needed to meet 21st century skills.
  • He stressed the importance of new, state-of-the-art assessments.

I’m particularly interested in what he says about teachers and the teaching profession.  Once again, we agree.


“Teachers are the single most important resource to a child’s learning,” he said.  He can be excused the redundant syntax (“single most important”) because he so evidently means his words.

  • He called for improved professional development and mentoring, especially for new and struggling teachers.
  • He supports a new national investment in recruiting the best and the brightest to our profession.
  • He supports performance pay models and other rewards for effective teachers.
  • He supports charter schools with rigorous accountability.
  • He called for shutting down failing charter schools.

And, in another area in which we agree, he called for personal responsibility on the parts of parents – turn off the TV and the video games – and of students, telling them that when they drop out they give up on themselves and their country.


It’s good to hear such intelligent, impassioned, common-sense remarks about education from the President.  It’s even better to have some of my own thoughts and opinions affirmed.


Regular readers of this blog will recall my thoughts on many of the topics the President addressed: 

These are only a few examples.  There are others.  See the “Archive” section above for more.


It’s early yet in Mr. Obama’s administration, but I’m encouraged by his insistence that educational excellence begins at home with supportive and involved parents and extends to well-run schools with dedicated, motivated professionals with kids’ best interests at heart.

13 March 2009 10:01 AM

Pi Day and STEM

by Dr. Rick

Quick, what number gets its own Special Day and even has schools, families and websites devoted to its celebration?


Why, it’s pi, of course, that versatile, constant number that refers to the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.  It’s always 3.14 (or 3.14159 if you want to be especially precise about it), so March 14 – 3/14, get it? – is the day when math teachers use the occasion to bring attention to this useful number.  The ones who are obsessive sticklers for precision stage their celebrations for March 14 at 1:59.  The Mr. and Ms. Monks of Math.


Pi is always 3.14 no matter which circle you use to compute it.  It appears as a constant in a wide range of math problems.  The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about pi.  Perhaps in our perpetually changing world we’re somehow comforted by something so constant, so reliable, so invariable, so historic.


There are lots and lots of activities that math teachers recommend for their math colleagues and students’ families to reinforce an understanding of pi.  (An old English teacher unfamiliar with teaching about the ratio of circumference to diameter, I am amazed at the sheer number and creativity of these activities.  You can find scads of them from the Math Forum of Drexel, one of my favorite math websites, at www.mathforum.org.  Another useful site is www.education-world.com, where you’ll find more lesson plans and family activities.)


Here’s a sampler.

  1. Compare the volume of slices taken from round and rectangular cakes.  In my mind’s eye I can see children and teens in classrooms all over the country on March 14, 1:59 or not, clustered around cakes of all kinds and eagerly, hungrily, doing the math.

  2. Compare the radii of sprinklers in a garden.  Again, I can just imagine kids outdoors on schools’ front lawns or in their own family gardens, moving, measuring, and yes, getting a little wet, as they do the math.

  3. How many feet does the tip of the minute hand travel in an hour on the clock on Philadelphia’s City Hall?  Or on Baltimore’s Bromo Seltzer Tower?  Or on London’s Big Ben?  Or on the church steeple’s clock in your own neighborhood?

  4. Using colorful beads of many colors, make a pi necklace to reinforce the idea that some numbers never repeat or end.

March is National Math Month, so you’re no doubt hearing a lot about a relatively new acronym in education, STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.


Educators everywhere are working to ensure a high quality of STEM education at all levels of schooling, recognizing that students today more than ever need an understanding of science and math principles.  That means a working knowledge of computers – both hardware and software – and problem-solving skills.  As we prepare our kids for 21st century skills, values, and futures (see my blog of March 9, 2009), we’re acknowledging and acting on our country’s need for homegrown scientists and engineers to do the technological research and development vital to our economic growth.  We’re providing technologically-proficient workers for a science-based, high tech workforce.  And we’re preparing a scientifically literate populace, not only taking advantage of technology but having a basic understanding of its workings.


So, on National Pi Day (which is also the birthday of Albert Einstein, a fortuitous coincidence that I find deeply satisfying somehow and makes me smile at the occasional aptness of Fate) and during National Math Month, let’s redouble our efforts to be good math role models for our kids, active supporters of their math teachers, and stricter monitors of their homework, study, and testing activities.


Look at the “Archives” section of my blog for more math-related postings.



9 March 2009 04:05 PM

Twenty-first Century Skills

by rbavaria

I’ve just read a report entitled Twenty-first Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide, prepared by the NEA, Ford Motor Company, Knowledge Works Foundation, and the Partnership for Twenty-first Century Skills.  It’s quite a read. (Click here to read.)


  • It challenges Americans – educators, parents, business folk, community leaders, presumably students – to re-think our ways of educating children and adults.  The report calls for a “fresh approach,” and points out the fundamental changes in the economy (although it was written just before THE recent fundamental change in the economy), in jobs, and in businesses.

  • It says the citizens and workers of today and tomorrow will need increased skills in creativity, adaptability, and innovation for the “Creative Age” in which we now live.  It calls for language proficiency (especially in world languages), flexibility, and the ability to “work in teams.

  • It points out the “two achievement gaps” we face.  One is the gap between America’s high- and low-achieving students.  The other is the gap between American and international students.  It calls for increased competence in solving complex, open-ended problems, independent thinking, and communicating across cultural and language differences.  It charges that we need to make “innovative use of knowledge, information, and opportunities.”

  • The report advocates the teaching of “core subjects” like reading, world languages, mathematics, the arts, economics, science, geography, history, and civics.  It recommends “infusing” 21st Century themes into the curriculum – global awareness, financial literacy, civic literacy, and health literacy.  It calls for “learning and innovation skills” like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration.  It notes the importance of “information, media, and technology skills.”  And it cites “life and career skills” like initiative, self-direction, social skills, leadership, productivity, and accountability.

These are all thought-provoking, compelling ideas.  And who could argue against broadening our thinking, improving our skills, communicating more effectively, working well and productively with others, and taking responsibility for our actions?  The report calls for grand and far-reaching change to keep our country competitive and our people informed, productive, and healthy.  

  • The Idealist Me agrees with these well-stated, cogent aims.  Just as I have with many other reports I’ve read.  As a veteran educator, I’ve read many such reports, each aiming to re-make education.  Some reports have a definite business-bias, concentrating on “skills.”  Others have a more academic one, focusing on “knowledge.”  (Every time I hear someone call for “infusing” something else in our already overcrowded curriculum, I want to run from the building.  Once, at a meeting I attended, someone said “infesting the curriculum” and couldn’t figure out why everyone was snickering.)

  • Then the Pragmatist Me begins to ask questions.  Why can’t we have both skills and knowledge?  Students need to know facts – the building blocks of skills, thought, action – before they can move on to the more universal behaviors this report calls for.  Some educators say you don’t need to clutter up your brain with facts; you just need to know where to go to find information.  It’s not that simple.  Learners need to know basic facts and keep those facts in their heads.  Kids love to learn new things, so we should take advantage of that natural curiosity.  And, as I heard someone say, you can’t Google something if you don’t know it exists.  Simply put, you can’t be a functional member of a team if you don’t know anything.

  • How will we accomplish what this report calls for?  There’s little in the report that suggests ways to achieve its recommendations.  There’s much urgency in its language, calls for funding at national, state, and local levels, but little in the way of practicalities.  That doesn’t make this any less important, nor does it cause dedicated folks to give up hope, it just frustrates.

In today’s economic climate (Would Ford Motor Company be able to fund this report today?), we need to find a healthy balance between tackling universal issues like the ones in this report with the fiscal realities the world is facing.  I’d argue that people and businesses will be simplifying (“right-sizing”) their lives and goals for a while.  This might be a good time to refocus on values and attitudes like a respect for learning and the learned, critical inquiry, honesty, equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, civic responsibility, respect for self and others, and tolerance, to name a few.  These values can be learned through the study of literature, history, science, mathematics, even (or perhaps particularly) in sports, the arts, and recreation.


Yes, we need “twenty-first century skills.”  No question, no arguments.  But maybe first we need a national conversation about our attitudes toward learning, our levels of perseverance and self-discipline, our commitment to others in our communities, and our love-hate relationship with work.


“Simplify, simplify,” wrote Thoreau in Walden a century and a half ago.  I wonder what he’d make of Twenty-first Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide with its high-flown language, snappy graphics, and economic goals.  It looks as much like a marketing brochure as an education policy document.  Maybe that’s just the age we live in now, but it may also be a sign of how far we’ve drifted from inspiring and educating our students.

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