Will “Online Learning” Work?

The COVID-19 pandemic required the abrupt closure of schools and an almost overnight shift to attempts at online education.

Implementation has been very uneven, and, combined with cries about “equity problems,” led to the cancellation of grades for spring semester 2020 locally and at many places across the nation.

How can we make school work going forward? This *in-depth* article examines the many behind the scenes challenges of which parents may not be aware and discusses possible ways forward.

Continue reading “Will “Online Learning” Work?”

Parents Protest Against Credit/No Credit Grading in SMUHSD

The following is from the April 9th San Mateo Daily Journal:

The proposal to temporarily postpone issuing letter grades in the San Mateo Union High School District alarmed some school community members who opposed adopting a credit system for the semester disrupted by COVID-19.

The district Board of Trustees initially scheduled a meeting to discuss the credit proposal Tuesday, April 7, but pushed the session back until Thursday, April 16, to further examine the issue.

Concerned parent Andrew Soss shared fears that students earning good grades would see their semester’s hard work wiped away with a broad stroke from officials adopting the credit system.

The full text of the article can be found here.

The SMUHSD Board will hold a public meeting on this topic via Zoom Thursday evening at 5 PM as detailed here.

I strongly encourage parents who have an opinion on this topic to email the Board of Trustees at board@smuhsd.org  before the meeting!!

Postscript – The article above shows just one example of the value that our local newspaper provides to the community.  I signed up for an online subscription for $99 per year to support their work, and I encourage all of you to do likewise.  I have no connection with or financial interest in the newspaper.

Nancy Bailey: There Can Be No “Science of Reading” When Libraries and Librarians Are Disappearing

An important article on Diane Ravitch’s blog:

Nancy Bailey: There Can Be No “Science of Reading” When Libraries and Librarians Are Disappearing

SF Chronicle: Chaos at SF’s Aptos Middle School

School disciplinary problems reflect bigger issues in our society. I believe there is a connection between them and the increase in car burglaries and other thefts/break-ins in our community.

Problems locally may also be impacting the regular stream classes, especially in math.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a podcast entitled “Fifth & Mission.”  On Feb. 15th, 2020 the topic was “Chaos upends San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School.”  The podcast is a discussion of Heather Knight’s column of the same date entitled “‘Lord of the Flies’: Fights, bullying, chaos upend San Francisco middle school.

Aptos Middle School is near the well-to-do St. Francis Wood and Monterey Heights neighborhoods several blocks east of Stonetown Galleria, but has students bussed in from other parts of the City including the poorer Bayview and Portrero Hill neighborhoods.  Somewhere between only 5-20 students between the ages of 11-14 years old at the school

managed to wrest control of the school from the adults.

And everybody agrees these kids, just 11 to 14 years old, need far more support to cope with the horrifying trauma they’ve experienced in their short lives and get them engaged in school. Where families and teachers disagree with administrators, however, is whether the school district — which is big on talk about social justice — is actually providing that support.

The district says it is. But the mayhem — physical fights, bullying, chaotic hallways and vile language — shows that’s clearly not the case.

In fact, for the 1,000 students at Aptos, there’s just one social worker. And the only real concession the district has made after complaints about safety has been allowing Principal Nicole Trickett to use money tagged for new technology to hire a temporary security guard for more protection in the hallways.

Why should this concern us here in the suburbs??

In the course of my tutoring work, I talk to students every day about their classes.  While we may not have problems locally that are quite this severe, this is not isolated to Aptos Middle School.  I taught for a year at one of the better high schools in San Francisco where a female teacher was beaten up by two female students who were subsequently suspended.  I constantly saw kids roaming the halls when they should be in class and at times deciding to barge in to other classrooms to talk to their friends in the middle of lessons.

The disrespect shown to teachers and the constant barrage of foul language in the halls between periods was shocking enough to me at the time, and I would not be surprised if it has become worse since then.

I generally work with more serious SMUHSD students in precalculus, calculus, physics and chemistry, but have some students in the regular math stream.  I often hear that about half the regular math classes are filled with students who come in to high school with very weak math backgrounds, have basically given up on the subject, and cause disruptions in class.  This clearly impacts the learning of the better students in the class.  I have no quantitative data on how frequently this happens, but I suggest that parents reading this article talk to their own kids and try to get a sense of the occurrences from them.

In the past I have written many times with a degree of disapproval about the frantic rush to accelerate kids in math, and said that the regular stream should be considered.  However, I have also argued for an honors stream that presented the material at a level in between the regular and AP classes.  There seems to me to be a significant number of students who would benefit from this intermediate stream which would save them the stress and expense of the AP exams.  Possibly due to lack of resources this has never gone anywhere despite a similar attempt by Aragon parents several years ago to request an honors stream from the administration.

When I first started tutoring eight years ago, I had several regular stream students and was fairly satisfied with the regular math classes at that time.  However, as my reputation grew, I increasingly focussed on the higher level math classes.  Since I have worked with some families for as long as 6-7 years, I have accepted some siblings in regular stream math classes in the last few years and am now concerned about the pace of the regular curriculum.  These students are competent in math but are bored in the regular math classes.  Textbooks have been abandoned in favor of worksheets, and the level of difficulty seems to have decreased.  One Algebra 1 class this school year spent the first 10 to 11 weeks on simplifying algebraic expressions and the slope-intercept, point-slope and standard formats for the equation of a line.  Most work was completed in class and a weekly homework worksheet took the student only about 20 minutes to finish.

Possibly because teachers have to deal with such a wide variety of math skills (and this problem may have been exacerbated by aborted curriculum experiments such as Everyday Math in the local K-8 district), this slowdown may have been necessary.

However, combining a slower curriculum with kids that are bored with or given up on math is a recipe for problems.

Public school teachers are in a tough position with disruptive kids.  Serra High School, a local Catholic school, had a staffed after-school detention center for discipline problems which gave Serra teachers an acceptable disciplinary option.

Many public high schools require the teacher who assigns detention to stay after school to monitor the student themselves!  This clearly does not encourage teachers to use detention as a disciplinary tool.  Instead, for example, when I taught in SFUSD, the helpful classroom management advice that I was given by a vice principal was simply, “Don’t let them see you smile until after Christmas!”, i.e., the teacher is expected to control the classroom by giving stern looks and emulating a prison guard persona!  Whatever happened to parental responsibility for teaching their kids proper behavior?  When I tried to call home to talk to parents, I frequently found that the parents were not available because they were working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and older children were taking care of younger kids!

Stern looks will clearly not work with disruptive kids from traumatized family backgrounds, some of whom have no hesitation to yell, “FU, I don’t have to listen to you!” and storm out of a classroom.  A relative of mine worked as a school security officer in southern California and has told me stories of veteran teachers coming to him in tears telling him that they can no longer control these kids.

Various ACLU lawsuits have enhanced student “rights” over the years, to the detriment of teachers in my opinion, and I have also heard of cases where teachers have been threatened with lawsuits by parents to halt disciplinary measures against their children.

Public schools also have to accept and teach all students, and, instead of the “old school” method of streaming kids into advanced, regular, and remedial classes, the tendency now is to “mainstream” the slower students and have them work in groups with some of the better students, in the hope that they will learn from their peers as well as from teachers / “authority figures.”  While this may work to some extent, it has also led to interesting incidents like a student being criticized by their group for being out sick, thereby resulting in a lower grade for others in the group!!

Our society can no longer afford to ignore the trauma in the poorer segments of society if for no other reason than the cynical one that it negatively impacts the rest of us.  Drug addiction, homelessness, joblessness, single-mother families –  the list goes on.

If children emerge from school without a decent education, their odds of becoming productive members of society are clearly lowered significantly.  Even worse, if they leave school with the idea that they can engage in antisocial behavior with impunity, do not be surprised if you can’t leave your cars at night with anything visible inside of them or that people brazenly snatch iPhones and iPads in broad daylight from Apple Stores.

San Francisco is not that far from San Mateo…

For some thoughtful perspectives and possible solutions for these problems I recommend the following:

Hope and despair in the American city – Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant

and chapter 6 entitled “The Only Valid Passport from Poverty” in the book

The Teacher Wars – A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein.

I only hope that we have not let this situation fester until it is too late to act.



A serendipitous chain of events – frustration after reviewing for an AP physics final leads me to begin reading a new book by the co-founder of Summit charter schools. Is there a path out of the current education morass?!??

Friday the 13th, December 2019 – Fall semester is coming rapidly to a close and everyone, myself included, is busily reviewing/helping review for final exams.

Last night I was working with one of my favorite students who is taking AP physics.  I only meet with this student once a week for a session of up to two hours, but, as we started going over the review packet for the final, I was chagrined, once again, to see that most of the material covered early in the semester had been almost completely forgotten.  I’ve been tutoring AP physics for the last 8 years now, and this year’s review packet also contained some ambiguous questions which did not help matters.

I encounter this situation every year, but this student in particular is excellent, so it bothered me even more than usual this time.

Readers of this blog know quite well that I have not been a fan of the AP system.  AP physics in particular tends to cover too much material far too quickly.  Nationally in 2019 the AP Physics 1 exam had the lowest average score of any AP test (2.51 on a scale of 5) with a pass rate of only 45.4%.  This is despite the redesign of the exam in 2015 when the College Board reacted to poor scores by cutting back the material covered PLUS the even more amazing fact that students need only around 41% correct answers to get a passing grade of 3!

In the rush to cover the topics even on the newer pared-down exam, it is crystal clear to me that insufficient practice problems are given to students before the class needs to move on to the next topic in the frantic rush to “cover the material.”

I believe that the sacred trust of high school teachers is to inspire interest and enthusiasm in the subject taught, not overwhelm students with so many details that they end up feeling stupid and frustrated.

Physics is a hard topic to begin with, but should be the most fun and enlightening class a student takes in high school.  Very few students are fortunate enough to have this experience in high school (neither did I; college physics saved me fortunately).

When a teacher is forced to teach to the requirements of the AP exam (the main purpose of which is to spread out the curve to help college admissions offices sort through applicants), the pace of the curriculum is not conducive to generating a love for the subject; in fact, it sadly does the exact opposite!!

I have been working with the student above for several years and was really looking forward to studying physics with them this year (unfortunately due to my public writings I have to use gender neutral references).  It was crushing to see that “the system” was crashing down on things yet again.

Starting today off in a foul mood because of the above, I decided to go to lunch at Filoli, one of my favorite places around the holidays.  After eating, I walked around the now dormant rose garden and took a seat under a large persimmon tree to read.

I was scrolling through my WordPress blog list, perusing a few articles from Diane Ravitch’s education blog, when I ran across a post from Bill Gates, reviewing a new book by the co-founder and CEO of Summit charter schools, Diane Tavenner.  The title of the book is “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”  Summit schools started out right here in the Bay Area originally sharing space with Sequoia High School in Redwood City.

Anyone who knows the history of Dr. Ravitch and Mr. Gates might be surprised that I look at both blogs.  Dr. Ravitch leads public school advocates and is vehemently opposed to privatization/charter schools.  Mr. Gates has been one of the largest funders and supporters of the public school “reform” movement.  The vitriol flung back and forth between these two camps can be overwhelming at times.

As to reading both blogs, I admit that I am a dinosaur – one of the few remaining Americans who believes in investigating the many sides of the story instead of just tuning to MSNBC or Fox News all day long to reinforce my prejudices.

I downloaded a free Kindle sample of Ms. Tavenner’s book and read it engrossed while sitting in Filoli’s rose garden.  The story in the book’s Prologue about a student named Isabella who succeeded at Summit despite amazing odds against her was riveting.  I quickly finished the Prologue, chapter 1, and the first part of chapter 2 when I reached the end of my freebie.  I then paid for the rest of the book which I hope to finish over the winter break, and will report back more later.

Ms. Tavenner focuses a lot in the free Kindle excerpt on disadvantaged students struggling to make it in our society (including herself at a younger age), and near the end of the first chapter mentions their “Summit Learning” software program “in which other schools could have access to the resources, curriculum, and tools we use, for free.”  She mentions Summit’s method of personalizing education for each student using technology, and how every student is paired with teacher and student mentors to help them succeed.  In contrast to the rushed AP system, learning is self-paced, but “100 percent of of our graduates are eligible for a four-year college, and 98% are accepted.  Summit grads finish college at double the national average, and the rate is much higher for minority students.”

Sounds very good, and I look forward to reading the rest!

However, I should also note that Summit Learning and the personalized learning approach in general has generated its fair share of controversy as noted in these articles:

So is Ms. Tavenner’s new book going to turn out to be a marketing tool for Summit Learning?  I don’t know yet.

I have used the ALEKS software with some of my math students for supplemental self-paced instruction.  My personal experience casts doubt about putting a student alone in front of a computer.  Unless an adult is sitting with the student while they work through the program, it tends not to get used, and the computers are often used instead as a tool to access other distractions.  HOWEVER, with close adult supervision, I believe it can be a valuable additional tool in a teacher’s quiver of arrows.  The fourth article “2011 Video…” in the list above makes one wonder, however, if technology will in fact be used that way.

Despite these reservations, I look forward to reading the rest of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.”

Sadly, what I currently see in our public schools does not bring me joy either…

On that cheerful note – Happy Holidays!!

Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices

This may be the most important article in my blog. Let us never forget – society is our creation – the sum total of our values and choices, beginning with how we raise and educate our children!

Continue reading “Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices”

What Kind of Society do We Want to Have? (plus an important addendum on “Back to School Night” and textbooks)

Thursday, 9/5/2019 – I’ve taken a break from blogging this summer due to the press of personal obligations, but recently posted a short note about Dutch parenting techniques.  The Dutch, according to UNESCO, supposedly raise the happiest kids in the world.  By contrast, last school year in the SMHUSD the month of September focused on suicide prevention.

I will contrast the article above about Dutch parenting to a book that I eagerly read several years ago entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” by Amy Chua.  As an interesting follow-up, here is a 2018 note from her younger daughter.  The two of them frequently engaged in screaming matches as described in the book.

A new documentary has also been recently released on Netflix entitled “American Factory” and I strongly encourage everyone to stop whatever you are doing and watch this film ASAP!!  It describes a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio (this city was a recent site of yet another mass shooting), and the attempt to revitalize it as an automotive glass manufacturer as part of the Chinese company Fuyao.  The culture contrast is stark, and Americans have a lot to learn from this film.  Here is some initial Chinese and American reaction on Bloomberg News.

Finally I want to put in another word for a book that I have mentioned in the past as one of my favorites on education: “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way.

I mention all of the above as a preamble to an upcoming review article, and I hope my readers will take the time to read/view this material first.

It is time for America to take a long hard look in the mirror… particularly before the next election!

One other short but important note – tonight is “Back to School Night” at Aragon High School.

School has now been in session for three weeks, and I still have students who have not received textbooks.  In other classes, students have been given textbooks but were told by their teachers that they will not be using them.

This is reflective of a growing trend of handing out xeroxed worksheets to students instead of using textbooks. I personally find this abhorent.

Sure, textbooks have become outrageously expensive in many cases, but a critical part of an education is to learn how to learn, and, despite technological advances, the vast storehouse of human knowledge is still in books.  I also believe California law requires each district to certify that their students have adequate textbooks.

I don’t care if the books are hardcopy or electronic.  I do most of my reading with the Kindle software these days.  That said, your children need to develop the skill of learning on their own by reading.  If they don’t, they will have been deprived of a critical component of their education.

If your child is in this boat, please speak up at Back to School Night and request that they be given textbooks!!


6 Dutch parenting secrets to raising the happiest kids in the world

I ran across the following interesting article during my early morning reading session.

Definitely a different approach to life than in our locale where during September 2018 the San Mateo Union High School District associated the month of September with s…cide prevention.


California’s Charter School Morass

Abuse of public funds by segments of the charter school industry is a major point of contention between proponents of public education and those favoring greater privatization. The CA Department of Education recently created a committee to reform the charter industry. Has that committee been captured by the industry it should reform?

Continue reading “California’s Charter School Morass”