The Well Trained Mind is not the sort of book that lends itself to quoting, so I won’t. It is, however, an extremely practical guide to homeschooling, with specific advice for each year, from pre-K through highschool, including information on how to write highschool transcripts, grades, and prepare your kids for the academic paperwork portion of applying to college. It is a kind of homeschooling reference book. (There are multiple editions online; I purchased the one in the photo because it was cheaper than the newer ones, but you might want the most recently updated one.)
By now I’ve probably read about a dozen books on homeschooling/education, everything from Montessori to Waldorf, Summerhill to Unschooling, math and science curriculum guides for preschoolers, and now The Well-Trained Mind.
The data on homeschooling is pretty good: homeschoolers turn out, on average, about as smart as their conventionally schooled peers. (I forget the exact numbers.) They tend to be better than average at reading and writing, and a bit worse than average at math and science. Unschooled kids (who receive very little formal instruction in anything,) tend to turn out about a year behind their peers, which isn’t too bad considering all of the effort that goes into conventional schooling, but I still can’t recommend it.
The Well-Trained Mind is an excellent staring point for any parent trying to get their feet under themselves and figure out the daunting task of “OMG How do I do this?” It lays out a subject-by-subject plan for every year of schooling, down to how many minutes per day to spend on each part of the curriculum.
If that sounds too detailed, remember that this is just a guide and you can use it as an inspirational jumping-off-point for your own ideas. It’s like arranging all of the colors of paint in a nice neat circle before you paint your own masterpiece.
If you need a curriculum–either because your state requires it, or it requires you to cover certain topics, or you would just feel better with a curriculum to guide you before you leap in unsupervised, this is a very good guide. If you already have your curriculum and you feel secure and confident in what you’re doing, you might find the information in this book superfluous.
Bauer and Wise lay out what’s known as the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Elementary school is the “grammar” stage. At this age, students are learning (mostly memorizing) the mechanical rules they need for education, like letter sounds and times tables. At the logic stage, children begin applying what they know and trying to figure out why things happen. Rhetoric is for the highschoolers, and since I don’t have any highschoolers I didn’t read that part of the book.
The curriculum for the younger grades is straightforward and easy to use: 10 minutes a day of alphabet/phonics for the preschoolers, increasing over the years to include spelling, grammar, reading, and math. The authors particularly encourage reading history (they have a specific order) and children’s versions of classic novels/myths.
Their approach to writing is interesting: in the lower grades, at least, children do very little generative writing (that is, coming up with and writing down their own ideas,) and focus more on copy work–trying to accurately and neatly write down a few sentences their parents give them, and otherwise expressing themselves out loud.
This stands in stark contrast to how writing is taught in the local schools, where even kindergarteners are expected to start writing little stories or at least sentences of their own devising.
This works great for some kids. My kids hate it. I think the combination of tasks–hold the pencil properly, now form the letters, arrange them into a word, spell the word properly, oh, and come up with an original idea and a specific sentence to write about the idea was just overwhelming.
So Bauer’s approach, which breaks the mechanics and creative work into two different parts, is a welcome alternative that may work better for my family.
Bauer and Wise are strong advocates of phonics instruction (which I agree with) and make an interesting point about emphasizing what they call parts-to-whole instruction and avoiding whole-to-parts. In the example they give, imagine giving a child a tray of insects (presumably fake or preserved,) and showing them five different kind of insect legs. The child learns the five kinds, and can then sort the insects by variety.
Now imagine handing the child the same tray of insects and simply asking them to take a good look at the bugs, figure out what’s the same or different between them, and then sort them. Well, children certainly can sort objects into piles, but will they learn much in the process? Let the children know what you want from them, teach them what you want them to learn, and then let them use their knowledge. Don’t expect them to work it all out on their own from scratch with a big pile of bugs.
I’ve noticed that a lot of children’s “educational” TV shows try to demonstrate the second approach. The characters have some sort of problem and the try to think about different ways to solve it. This is fine for TV, but in real life, kids are pretty bad at this. They struggle to generate solutions that they haven’t heard of before–after all, they’re only kids, and they only know so much. This doesn’t mean kids can’t have great ideas or figure stuff out, it just means they have sensible limits.
This is the same idea that underlies their approach to phonics–not that it’s wrong to memorize a few words (sew does not rhyme with chew, after all,) but that kids benefit from explicit instruction in how letters work so they can use that knowledge to sound out new words they’ve never seen before.
Whole language vs. phonics instruction isn’t quite the controversy it used to be, but there’s something similar unfolding in math, as far as I can see. Back in public school, they didn’t teach the kid the “algorithm” for addition and subtraction until third grade. My eldest was expected to add and subtract multiple two-digit numbers in their HEAD based on an “understanding of numbers” instead of being taught to write down the numbers and add them.
Understanding numbers is great, but I recommend also teaching your kids to write them down and add/subtract them.
AND FOR GOODNESS’S SAKES, WRITE EQUATIONS VERTICALLY. Always try to model best practice.
Many kids acquire number sense through practice. Seeing that 9+5=14 whether they are in the equations 9+5 or 5+9, 45+49 or 91+52, helps children develop number sense. Give children the tools and then let them use them. Don’t make the children try to re-invent addition or force them to use something less efficient (and don’t teach them something you’ll just have to un-teach them later.)
The authors recommend teaching kids Latin. I don’t recommend Latin unless you are really passionate about Latin. IMO, you’re better off teaching your kids something you already speak or something they can use to get a job someday, but that’s a pretty personal decision.
Here’s how our own schedule currently looks:
After all of the holiday excitement and disruption, I feel like we’re finally settling back into a good routine. What exactly we do varies by day, but here’s a general outline:
2 Logic puzzles (I’m not totally satisfied with our puzzle book, so I can’t recommend a specific one, but logic puzzles come in a variety of difficulty levels)
2 Tangram puzzles (I like to play some music while the kids are working)
1 or 2 stories from Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians (Warning: Pythagoras was killed by an angry mob, Archimedes was killed by an invading soldier, and Hypatia was also killed by an angry mob. But Thales and Napier’s chapters do not have descriptions of their horrible deaths.) This is our current “history” book, because I try to structure our history around specific themes, like technology or math.
Science and/or social studies reading (the subjects often overlap.) I happened across a lovely stack of science, math, and social studies texts at the local used book shop the other day. When I got home, I realized they’re from India. Well, math is math, no matter where you’re from, and the social studies books are making for an interesting unit on India. In science we’ve just started a unit on Earth science (wind, water, stones, and dirt) for which I am well-prepared with a supply of rocks. (Come spring we’ll be growing plants, butterflies, and ladybugs.)
Free reading: my kids like books about Minecraft or sharks. Your kids like what they like.
Grammar/spelling/copywork: not our favorite subjects, but I’m trying to gradually increase the amount we do. Mad Libs with spelling words are at least fun.
When I was a kid and one of my friends would ask for a bit of food–a spare french fry or nugget, say–I would always say “no” and then give them the food.
In retrospect, I was annoying.
My logic was that I would of course give my friend a french fry–I always gave my friends french fries if they wanted them–and thus the asking was superfluous. If anything, I thought we should pile all of the food up in the middle of the table and then everyone could just take what they wanted.
I don’t think I realized that some people have bigger appetites than others. Or germs.
A couple of years later I had a little job that mostly paid in candy. Since I don’t really eat candy, I became known in school as “the kid with the Skittles” because I tended to give it all away.
Around this time I began writing the first mini-essays (really only a few sentences long) that eventually morphed into this blog on the psychological/spiritual/anthropological meaning of food-sharing. (Food is necessary for life; to give it away to someone else signals that you care enough about their well-being to take a potential hit to your own survival chances, hence the significance of food sharing rituals among people.)
It’s not too surprising that by highschool I ascribed to some vague sort of communism.
Note: highschool me didn’t know anything about the history of actual communism. I just liked the idea of a political ideology based on sharing.
So I think I get where a lot of young “communists” are probably coming from. I loved my friends and enjoyed sharing with them so wouldn’t everyone be better off if everyone acted like friends and everyone shared?
There were two problems with my logic. The first, of course, is that not everyone is friends. The second is that in the real world, food costs money.
As a kid, food was, functionally, free: my parents paid for it. I got the exact same amount of french fries and pizza on my lunch tray as everyone else whether I was hungry or not, because our parents paid for it. In the real world, I don’t buy more french fries than I want to eat–I save that extra money for things I do want, like books.
So what happens if I want books and you want food? Or you want books and I want food? And you and I aren’t even friends? Or worse, when there isn’t enough food for both of us?
Sharing is great when everything is free and there’s plenty of it, or there’s a resource that you can only afford if you pitch in with several friends to purchase. (For example, everyone in the house shares the TV.) In other words, when you’re a kid.
But it scales up really badly.
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.
Every single country that has ever tried communism ended up a disaster. Tens of millions starved to death in the USSR and China. Millions were murdered in Cambodia. North Korea is still an inescapable hellhole. Communism’s total death toll is estimated around 100 million people.
We didn’t exactly learn much about the USSR in highschool (or before.) It was one of the players in WWII, vaguely present in the few readings we had time for after the war, but certainly of much less prominence than things like the Vietnam War. It was only in college that I took actual courses that covered the PRC and USSR, (and then only because they were relevant to my career aspirations.) How much does the average person know about the history of other countries, especially outside of western Europe?
One of my kids accidentally did a report on North Korea (they were trying to do a report on South Korea, but accidentally clicked the wrong country.) The material they were given for the report covered North Korean mountains, rivers, cities, language, flag… And mentioned nothing about the country being just about one of the worst places on earth, where people are routinely starved and tortured to death.
Schools make sure to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery, but they don’t (as far as I know) teach about the horrors of communism.
So I think we could be in for a mess of trouble–because I understand just how appealing the political ideology of “sharing” sounds when you don’t know what it actually means.
One of the nice things about homeschooling is that it is very forgiving of scheduling difficulties and emergencies. Everyone exhausted after a move or sickness? It’s fine to sleep in for a couple of days. Exercises can be moved around, schedules sped up or slowed down as needed.
This week we finished some great books (note: I always try to borrow books from the library before considering buying them. Most of these are fun, but not books you’d want to read over and over):
I suppose the moral of the story is that kids are likely to enjoy a biography if they identify with the subject. The story starts with Erdos as a rambunctious little boy who likes math but ends up homeschooled because he can’t stand regular school. My kids identified with this pretty strongly.
The illustrations are nice and each page contains some kind of hidden math, like a list of primes.
Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dominic Walliman. This is a lovely book appropriate for kids about 6-11, depending on attention span and reading level. We’ve been reading a few pages a week and recently reached the end.
Minecraft Math with Steve, by Steve Math. This book contains 30 Minecraft-themed math problems (with three sub-problems each, for 90 total.) They’re fairly simple multiplication, subtraction, division, and multiplication problems, probably appropriate for kids about second grade or third grade. A couple of sample problems:
Steve wants to collect 20+20 blocks of sand. how much is that total?
Steve ends up with 42 blocks of sand in his inventory. He decides that is too much so drops out 12 blocks. How many blocks remain?
A bed requires 3 wood plank and 3 wools. If Steve has 12 wood planks and 12 wools, how many beds can he build?
This is not a serious math book and I doubt it’s “Common Core Compliant” or whatever, but it’s cute and if your kids like Minecraft, they might enjoy it.
We are partway into Why Pi? by Johnny Ball. It’s an illustrated look at the history of mathematics with a ton of interesting material. Did you know the ancient Greeks used math to calculate the size of the Earth and distance between the Earth and the moon? And why are there 360 degrees in a circle? This one I’m probably going to buy.
Really Big Numbers, by Richard Evan Schwartz. Previous books on “big numbers” contained, unfortunately, not enough big numbers, maxing out around a million. A million might have seemed really good to kids of my generation, but to today’s children, reared on Numberphile videos about Googols and Graham’s number, a million is positively paltry. Really Big Numbers delivers with some really big numbers.
How Big is Big? How Far is Far? by Jen Metcalf. This is like a coffee table book for 6 yr olds. The illustrations are very striking and it is full of fascinating information. The book focuses both on relative and absolute measurement. For example, 5’9″ person is tall compared to a cat, but short compared to a giraffe. The cat is large compared to a fly, and the giraffe is small compared to a T-rex. My kids were especially fascinated by the idea that clouds are actually extremely heavy.
Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnes. If your kids like Fibonacci numbers (or they enjoyed the biography of Erdos,) they might enjoy this book. It also takes a look at the culture of Medieval Pisa and the adoption of Arabic numerals (clunkily referred to in the text as “Hindu-Arabic numerals,” a phrase I am certain Fibonacci never used.) Fibonacci numbers are indeed found all over in nature, so if you have any sunflowers or pine cones on hand that you can use to demonstrate Fibonacci spirals, they’d be a great addition to the lesson. Otherwise, you can practice drawing boxes with spirals in them or Pascal’s triangles. (This book has more kid-friendly math in it than Erdos’s)
Pythagoras and the Ratios, by Julie Ellis. Pythagoras and his cousins need to cut their panpipes and weight the strings on their lyres in certain ratios to make them produce pleasant sounds. It’s a fun little lesson about ratios, and if you can combine it with actual pipes the kids can cut or recorders they could measure, glasses with different amounts of water in them or even strings with rock hanging from them, that would probably be even better.
Older than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth, by Don Brown. I was disappointed with this book. It is primarily an overview of Earth’s history before the dinosaurs, which was interesting, but the emphasis on mass extinctions and volcanoes (eg, Pompeii) dampened the mood. I ended up leaving out the last few pages (“Book’s over. Bedtime!”) to avoid the part about the sun swallowing up the earth and all life dying at the end of our planet’s existence, which is fine for older readers but not for my kids.
Hope you received some great games and books last month!
Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.–Gottfried Leibniz
You may have noticed that I talk a lot more about math than reading or writing. This is not because I dislike the language arts, but because they are, once learned, not very complicated. A child must learn to decode symbols, associate them with sounds, and then write them–tricky in the beginning, but most children should have the basics down by the age of 6 or 7. For the next several years, the child’s most important task is simply practice. If a child has a book they love to read, then they are already most of the way there and will probably only need some regular instruction on spelling and punctuation.
Math, by contrast, is always advancing. For every new operation or technique a child masters, there is another waiting to be learned.
I don’t hold with the idea that mathematical concepts must be taught in a particular order or at particular ages–I introduced negative numbers back in preschool, they’ve learned about simple logarithms in elementary, and they seem none the worse for the unusual order.
Developmental sequence is fundamental to children’s ability to build conceptual understanding. … The chapters in this book present math in a developmental sequence that provides children a natural transition from one concept to the next, preventing gaps in their understanding. …
When children are allowed to explore many objects, they begin to recognize similarities and differences of objects. When children can determine similarities and differences, they can classify objects. When children can classify objects, they can see similarities and difference well enough to recognize patterns. When children can recognize, copy, extend and create patterns, they can arrange sets in a one-to-one relationship. …
This developmental sequence provides a conceptual framework that serves as a springboard to developing higher level math skills.
This logic is complete bollocks. (Count on Math is otherwise a fine book if you’re looking for activities to do with small children.)
Humans are good at learning. It’s what we do. Any child raised in a normal environment (and if you’re reading this, I assume you care about your children and aren’t neglecting them) has plenty of objects around every day that they can interact with, observe, sort, classify, etc. You don’t have to dedicate a week to teaching your kid how to tell “similar” and “different” in objects before you dedicate a week to “classifying.” Hand them some toys or acorns or rocks or random stuff lying around the house and they can do that themselves.
Can you imagine an adult who, because their parent or preschool skipped straight from”determining similarities and differences” to “making patterns,” was left bereft and innumerate, unable to understand fractions? If the human mind were really so fragile, the vast majority of people would know nothing and our entire civilization would not exist.
More important than any particular order is introducing mathematical concepts in a friendly, enjoyable way, when the child is ready to understand them.
For example, I tried to teach binary notation this week, but that went completely over the kids’ heads. They just thought I was making a pattern with numbers. So I stopped and switched to a lesson about Fibonacci numbers and Pascal’s triangle.
Then we went back to practicing addition and subtraction with regrouping, because that’s tricky. It’s boring, it’s not fun, and it’s not intuitive until you’ve really got base-ten down solid (base 10, despite what you may think, is not “obvious” or intuitive. Not all languages even use base 10. The Maya used base 20; the Babylonians used base 60. There are Aborigines who used base 5 or even 3; in Nigeria you’ll find base 12.) Learning is always a balance between the fun stuff (look what you can do with exponents!) and the boring stuff (let’s practice our times tables.) The boring stuff lets you do the fun stuff, but they’re both ultimately necessary.
What else we’ve been up to:
Fractions, Decimals, and Percents, by David A. Adler. A brightly-colored, well-written introduction to parts of numbers and how fractions, decimals and percents are really just different ways of saying the same thing.
It’s a short book–28 pages with not much text per page–and intended for young children, probably in the 8 to 10 yrs old range.
I picked up Code Your Own Games: 20 Games to Create with Scratch just because I wanted to see what there was outside the DK Workbooks (which have been good so far, no complaints there.) So far it seems pretty similar, but the layout is more compact. Beginners might feel less intimidated by DK’s larger layouts with more white space, but this seems good for a kid who is past that stage. It has more projects than the shorter DK Workbooks but they’re still pretty simple.
Emily and Jasmine had the same number of stamps. After Emily gave Jasmine 42 stamps, Jasmine had twice as many stamps as Emily. How many did Jasmine have at the end?
At a movie, 1/4 of the people in the theater were men, 5/8 were women, and the rest were children. If there were 100 more women than children, what was the total number of people in the theater?
Our recorders arrived, so now we can play music.
Finished reading The Secret Garden, planted seeds, collected and identified rocks. Nature walk: collected fall leaves and pressed flowers. Caught bugs and observed squirrels for Ranger Rick nature workbook. Read about space and worked with cuisenaire rods. Etc.
We had a lovely, windy day, so we grabbed the kites, invited the neighbors, and headed out to the park.
Homeschooling does put additional responsibility on the parents to help their kids socialize. That doesn’t mean homeschooled kids are necessarily at a disadvantage viz their typically-schooled peers when it comes to comes to socializing (I went to regular school and still managed to be terribly socialized;) it’s just one more thing homeschooling parents have to keep in mind. So I am glad that we’ve had the good luck recently to make several friends in the neighborhood.
I’ve been looking for good, educational YouTube channels. Now I haven’t watched every video on these channels and I make no guarantees, but they seem good so far:
The Usborne Times Tables Activity Book is a rare find: a book that actually makes multiplication vaguely fun. Luckily there’s no one, set age when kids need to learn their multiplication tables–so multiple kids can practice their tables together.
In math we’ve also been working with number lines, concept like infinity (countable and uncountable,) infinitesimals, division, square roots, imaginary numbers, multi-digit addition and subtraction, graphing points and lines on the coordinate plane, and simple functions like Y=X^2. (Any kid who has learned addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can plot simple functions.)
If you’re looking for board game to play with elementary-aged kids, Bejeweled Blitz is actually pretty good. Two players compete to place tiles on the board to match 3 (or more) gems, in a row or up and down. (A clever play can thus complete two rows at once.) We play with slightly modified rules. (Note: this game is actually pretty hard for people who struggle with rotating objects in their heads.)
Picture Sudoku is fun for little kids (and probably comes in whatever cartoon characters you like,) while KenKen and magic squares and the like are good for older kids (I always loved logic puzzles when I was a kid, so I’d like to get a book of those.)
I’ve found a website called Memrise which seems good for learning foreign languages if you don’t have access to a tutor or know somene who speaks the language you want to learn. They probably have an app for phones or tablets, so kids could practice their foreign langauge on-the-go. (Likewise, I should stow our spelling book in the car and use car rides as a chance to quiz them.)
And of course we’re still reading Professor Astro Cat/working in the workbook, which involves plenty of writing.
For Social Studies we’ve been reading about fall holidays.
Hope you all have a lovely October! What are some of your favorite educational videos?
I happened to have a poop-shaped pinata sitting around (Why? Look, sometimes these things just happen) of the pull-the-flap-on-the-bottom variety rather than the smash-it-with-a-bat kind, so I decided to add a little fun to our day by filling Mr. Poop with school-related ideas written on strips of paper. Give Mr. Poop a shake and a scrap of paper flutters out–today’s idea was to design your own game, which the kids are working on now.
I’ve decided to incorporate the Cub Scout handbooks–which have lots of useful information about subjects like first aid, water safety, civics, history, etc.–into our rotation. (The Cub Scouts have a different handbook for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.) Today we learned about knots–mostly square knots–complemented with The Camper’s Knot Tying Game. Knots are practical for anyone, but also good practice for kids with fine motor difficulties.
Over in Professor Astro Cat, we’re collecting space dust, keeping a moon journal (the eclipse was well-timed for this) and made impact craters in the sandbox. The book recommends spreading out newspaper indoors and using flour or cocoa powder, but sand, outside, is much easier to clean up. (Walmart sells beautiful colored sand for like $4 a bag. I sprinkled some green on top of the regular brown sandbox sand to simulate Earth’s surface.)
There are lots of interesting dice–math dice, fraction dice, letter dice, place value dice, etc. Customized dice are easy to make: just take a cube (you probably have a building block or letter cube or some Legos lying around,) cover it with paper, and write whatever you want on the faces. (Note it is probably best to write on the paper before applying tape, as many pens won’t write properly on tape.) I have a custom die with +,-, <, and division signs on it that I use along with custom “numbers larger than six” dice for math games. (“Looks like you rolled 5,000,000,000 divided by 7,000!”) (For smaller kids, you may want to stick to + and -.)
I’m still trying to work out good ways to teach history. I’ve got some rudimentary ideas, but I’ll save them for later.
Many years ago, I worked at a toy store. (It was a lot of fun–I like feeling helpful.) One day I was helping a grandmother pick out a gift for her young granddaughter, a 6-month old whom she proudly informed me was really at the developmental level of a 9-month old. She asked me to recommend something “educational” for the child.
Being, (I confess) not very good at this, I responded in confusion that pretty much everything is educational for a baby. Babies are learning all the time.
One of my co-workers helpfully jumped in and found her a stuffed dog that’s supposed to help babies learn to read.
Many years and a great deal of IQ and education research later, I stand by my original position: “educational” toys for babies probably aren’t. It would be great if we could find some magical technique–say, playing Classical music to your fetus–that could reliably make people into geniuses, but so far we haven’t actually found any.
Does that mean you shouldn’t play Classical music to your fetus? Of course not. There’s no evidence that Classical music hurts babies. It’s just highly likely that being the kind of person who would play Classical music to your fetus is a bigger factor in how your kids turn out than the actual music. But if you hate Classical, don’t sweat it.
If you’ve been hanging around the HBD-osphere for a while, you probably already know that adult IQ appears to be about 50% genetic and 50% random chance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to teach your kids things (you should definitely teach your kids things.) It just means that it’s more important to be good and kind to your kids than to buy them any particular toy or splurge on baby genius classes.
The youngest child has been really into rocks and crystals lately; at this age, they’re still fascinated by freezing cups of water to make ice. A little food coloring (rainbow ice!) fresh mint leaves, flowers, whatever you want to add makes the ice extra interesting; add salt for a lesson about icebergs and the ocean. I don’t know if this is really educational, but it’s fun.
The rest of our time has been focused primarily on regular old rote material–times tables, multi-digit addition and subtraction, handwriting, typing, spelling, etc. Luckily these skills are pretty flexible and so can be taught to multiple kids at different levels. Competitive multiplication games (try to call out the answer first!) work well in our household.
We also learned about If-Then statements in code and the Apollo 11 moon landing, which resulted in them coding a short animation about the moon launch.
I do hope that once I feel a little more secure about their basic skills, we can move outside for some active learning/PE/map-making type activities.
I’m a really boring person who gets excited about finding math workbooks at the secondhand shop. I got lucky this week and snagged two math and 1 science workbooks, plus Bedtime Math 2 at the library. Since new workbooks/manipulatives/materials can be pricey,* I’ve been keeping an eye out for good deals for, well, pretty much my kids’ whole lives. For example, a few years ago I found Hooked on Math ($45 on Amazon) at Goodwill for a couple of bucks; I found some alphabet flashcards at a garage sale for 50c.
I’m also lucky to have several retired teachers in the family, so I’ve “inherited” a nice pile of teaching materials, from tangrams to fractions.
*That said, sometimes you need a particular workbook now, not whenever one shows up at the second hand shop, so thankfully plenty of workbooks are actually pretty cheap.
But full “curriculums” can be pretty expensive–for example, Saxon Math plus manipulatives runs about $200; a Lifepack 4 or 5-subject curriculum is about $320; Montessori math kit: $250; Horizons: $250. I have no idea if these are worth the money or not.
So I’m glad I already have most of what I need (for now.)
This week we started typing (I went with the first website that came up when I searched for “typing tutor” and so far it’s gone well.) We finished Bedtime Math and moved on to Bedtime Math 2. (We’re also working out of some regular old math books, as mentioned above.)
In science we’re still reading Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space (today we discussed eclipses,) and we started Professor Astro Cat’s Intergalactic Workbook, which has been fun so far. It has activities based on space gloves, weightlessness, Russian phrases (used on the International Space Station,) Morse Code, etc.
(The gloves activity was difficult for youngest child–in retrospect, one pair of glove would have been sufficient. Eventually they got frustrated and started using their feet instead of hands to complete the activities.)
Professor Astro Cat has therefore been the core of our activities this week.
To keep things light, I’ve interspersed some games like Trucky3, Perplexus, and Fraction Formula. They’re also useful when one kid has finished an activity and another hasn’t and I have to keep them occupied for a while.
Coding continues apace: learned about loops this week.
Spelling is one of our weak points, so I want to do at least some spelling each day, (today we spelled planets’ names) but I’m not sure what the best approach is. English spelling is pretty weird.
Today’s theme is education. You probably know already that I’m pretty positive toward both public/private schools and homeschooling; I think which you should chose depends a lot on a person/family’s individual situation.
But what could we do to improve these systems? (Imagine you are given free-range to design a system from scratch.) What would you add or subtract? Would you change the focus or style in some way? (Do you have any specific recommendations for books or curriculum materials for children?)
One thing I find lacking in the modern school system is a clear path to a job. A highschool diploma ought to qualify a person for many low-level jobs, but as a practical matter, it’s basically crap. A college degree ought to qualify you for the average higher-skill job, but even still, there’s a big disconnect between getting the degree and getting the job. I’ve known people with degrees from very nice schools (HYPS-MC) who have still struggled to get good, regular employment. And many people end up working in fields well outside of what they majored in. That’s not horrible–life happens–but it does make me question what the whole point of spending 4 years and $$$ on a degree in the first place was. (If it’s signaling, we could do signaling a lot cheaper.)
Anyway, I was thinking about survival as a skill, man-vs-wild style. How to hunt/fish/trap/gather your food. How to build a shelter. How to signal SOS. Basic woodworking? First aid, navigation, swimming, boating. What would you add?
Relatedly: how to start a business and actually make money. How to fill out the necessary related forms.
How would you go about teaching that/finding people to teach it? We’re in cub/girl scouts, but I find those basically useless; I don’t think my kids have learned so much as to tie a knot there in the past 3 years. (Don’t get me wrong, they’re still having fun. They’re just not about to come home with freshly killed dinner anytime soon.)
I hear people say, “kids are natural learners, we shouldn’t force them to learn!” Well my kids are naturals at learning Minecraft, but they think multiplication is lame.
Behavioural analysis based on detailed observations, photography and video recording showed that the most common types of walrus behaviour toward a bird were approach by surfacing and splash, approach by surfacing and hit and attack from below. Immature individuals initiated 82% of encounters. … Walrus encounters with live birds showed a very low rate of bird kill. … Object play in wild walruses is reported for the first time.
This stocky shark is often included in studies on whether or not sharks play. That is because several observers have reported seeing porbeagles in groups of up to 20 individuals manipulating and tossing about floating objects, including lumber and seaweed. They seem to engage in such activity for no apparent reason other than to pass the time.
Leuconoe brings up an argument I hadn’t even thought of before regarding corn, potatoes, and exchange with the New World:
The effects of the exchange were various, on the one hand it brought deadly illneses to the new world that killed tens of millions on the other it brought many forms of food to bouth worlds that saved hundreds of millions from starvation. Chinas population grew from 150 to 400 million because of introduction of new world crops. What would have hapened to this people without the crops? They would have died from malthusian limits or killed by their parents.
“Blacks are great!” they proclaim. “I just don’t want my kids to ever interact with one.”
Today we’re talking about school myths:
1. The schools are failing.
“The schools are failing” is a political talking point, a scare tactic designed to drum up votes. It bears little relation to reality.
If you are reading this, then chances are someone taught you to read, and that person was probably a public school teacher.
People come from all over the world to study at American universities; few Americans scatter abroad to study at other countries’ universities.
Our economy has, for the past century or so, been among the most advanced in the world. We’ve created or contributed significantly to the development of cars, airplanes, atomic bombs, computers, vaccines, etc. Oh, and we PUT A MAN ON THE MOON.
And everyone who worked on space program (immigrants excluded) started attending US schools back around 1910-1940. (I suspect our schools have gotten better since then.)
People make a big deal out of US students not scoring #1 in the world in international-comparison tests. What of it? There are lots of countries with smart people in them, and we can’t all be first.
But even granting this, the reports of American under-performance are massively overstated. Let’s compare the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading scores for the US and 64 other countries (graph thanks to Steve Sailer, who spent two days combing through PISA data to make it):
Counting only countries that are actually countries (ie not Shanghai,) the US comes in #14. We scored better than 24 European countries, and significantly better than all of the Muslim, Latin American, and “other” countries in the data set.
“Above average among first world countries,” is a perfectly respectable place for a first world school system.
But you may have noticed the red bars in our graph. Yes, the US data is broken down by race, because the US is a significantly more diverse country than, say, Finland. Or Japan.
Asian Americans outscore Asians in Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. (and Taipei and Macao.) The only people on earth who are scoring better than our Asians are Shanghai’s Asians.
European Americans outscore Japan and every European country but Finland.
Latino Americans outscore every single Latino country in the dataset.
No African countries are represented in the dataset (though I hear Trinidad is half black,) probably due to the severe poverty of African countries. Nevertheless, just as African Americans outscore Trinidadians, I am confident that they would also outscore continental Africans were they concluded–there’s a pretty clear correlation here between development level and PISA scores.
In other words, whenever someone says, “American schools are failing,” what they really mean is “American blacks and Hispanics score worse than Europeans.”
Can we do better for our blacks and Hispanics? Perhaps, but any set of reforms that start out based on the notion that “the schools are failing” is highly unlikely to solve the problem of “blacks score worse than whites.”
2. We don’t spend enough on education.
(With thanks to reason.com for the charts.) 3. But we’d do even better if we spent more.
“Actual” in this graph means what it sounds like: the actual amount of money districts spent per student.
“Multivariate Cost- and Need-Adjusted” controls for factors like the number of ESL and special ed. students in a district, (who are counted as multiple students because they cost more to educate;) local cost-of-educating differences, (eg, land for building a school on is more expensive in urban districts than rural ones;) and SES, (so that poor blacks are compared to equally poor whites.)
The authors summarize their findings:
More money is spent in districts with the highest percentages of minority students compared to districts with the lowest percentages of minority students ($4,514 versus $3,920). Although minority students in poverty are often viewed as those least served by current systems of public education funding, these findings suggest that while inequalities may remain for students in poverty, they do not appear to be driven by minority status. …
The distribution of public education resources is substantially more nearly equal than wealth measured by housing values, and somewhat less varied than wealth measured by household income.
State public education allocation systems are the primary equalizing factors of education resources, with some additional equalization resulting from the various federal funding programs. …
When socioeconomic status is measured by cost-adjusted median household income, however, and all other factors are held constant, the expenditures per student between the highest and lowest income groups differ by only $186 ($4,382 versus $4,196). …
Controlling for other school district characteristics, only school districts in the category with the fewest children in poverty spend substantially more per student.
But this is all very abstract. Let’s get a little more specific, with the Kansas City, Missouri (yes there is a “Kansas City” in Missouri,) inner-city school district:
To improve the education of black students and encourage desegregation, a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.
Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil–more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.
The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration.
The project ran from roughly 1985 through 1997. The article gives more details on everything they tried:
Once Clark decided for the plaintiffs, he didn’t ask them to do things on the cheap. When it came time to fill in the plan’s specifics, he invited them to “dream”(15)–to use their imaginations, push the envelope, try anything that would both achieve integration and raise student scores. The idea was that Kansas City would be a demonstration project in which the best and most modern educational thinking would for once be combined with the judicial will and the financial resources to do the job right. No longer would children go to schools with broken toilets, leaky roofs, tattered books, and inadequate curricula. The schools would use the most modern teaching techniques; have the best facilities and the most motivated teachers; and, on top of everything else, be thoroughly integrated, too. Kansas City would show what could be done if a school district had both the money and the will. …
By the time he recused himself from the case in March 1997, Clark had approved dozens of increases, bringing the total cost of the plan to over $2 billion–$1.5 billion from the state and $600 million from the school district (largely from increased property taxes).
With that money, the district built 15 new schools and renovated 54 others. Included were nearly five dozen magnet schools, which concentrated on such things as computer science, foreign languages, environmental science, and classical Greek athletics. Those schools featured such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room; a robotics lab; professional quality recording, television, and animation studios; theaters; a planetarium; an arboretum, a zoo, and a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary; a two-floor library, art gallery, and film studio; a mock court with a judge’s chamber and jury deliberation room; and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability.
To entice white students to come to Kansas City, the district had set aside $900,000 for advertising, including TV ads, brochures, and videocassettes. If a suburban student needed a ride, Kansas City had a special $6.4 million transportation budget for busing. If the student didn’t live on a bus route, the district would send a taxi. Once the students got to Kansas City, they could take courses in garment design, ceramics, and Suzuki violin. The computer magnet at Central High had 900 interconnected computers, one for every student in the school. In the performing arts school, students studied ballet, drama, and theater production. …
For students in the classical Greek athletic program, there were weight rooms, racquetball courts, and a six-lane indoor running track better than those found in many colleges. The high school fencing team, coached by the former Soviet Olympic fencing coach, took field trips to Senegal and Mexico.(18)
The ratio of students to instructional staff was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.(19) There was $25,000 worth of beads, blocks, cubes, weights, balls, flags, and other manipulatives in every Montessori-style elementary school classroom. Younger children took midday naps listening to everything from chamber music to “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” For working parents the district provided all-day kindergarten for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older students.
Now you know why my parents thought it was a great idea to send me to a ghetto school. One year was more than enough.
It was more than the district could handle. District expenditures took quantum leaps from $125 million in fiscal year 1985 to $233 million in FY88 to $432 million in FY92.(21) There were too much largesse, too many resources, and too little security. A woman in the Finance Department went to jail for writing checks to her own account. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and supplies were lost to “rampant theft” every year.(22) …
Perhaps the worst problem for what one school board president called the district’s “modestly qualified” administrators was the sheer volume of paperwork.(24) When the judge started building schools and inviting school principals to order whatever they wanted, purchase orders flooded into the central administrative office at the rate of 12,000 a month. Clerks were overwhelmed, devastated, and too ashamed to admit they couldn’t handle the crush. The system just collapsed.(25)
In other words, ghetto districts with falling-apart schools get that way because they have incompetent ghetto administrators who take the money for themselves instead of investing it in school maintenance. Giving them more money does not suddenly make them realize that stealing from little kids is immoral; it just means they steal more money.
And the honest ones among them were too dumb to run a school district to start with.
To outsiders, it appeared that the KCMSD had gone on a spending binge. At $400 million, Kansas City’s school budget was two to three times the size of those of similar districts elsewhere in the country. The Springfield, Missouri, school district, for instance, had 25,000 students, making it two-thirds as big as the KCMSD. Yet Springfield’s budget ($101 million) was only one-quarter to one-third the size of Kansas City’s ($432 million at its peak).(27)
Everything cost more in Kansas City.(28) Whereas nearby districts were routinely building 500-student elementary schools for around $3 million, in Kansas City comparably sized schools cost $5 million to $6 million. Whereas the nearby Blue Valley district built a 1,600-student high school at a cost of $20.5 million, including furniture and equipment, in Kansas City the 1,200-student Central High cost $33 million (it came with a field house larger than those of many colleges, ubiquitous computers, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool).(29) …
With some 600 employees for a district of 36,000 students, the KCMSD had a central administration that was three to five times larger than the administrations of other comparably sized public school districts. It was also 150 times larger than the administration of the city’s Catholic school system, in which four people–one superintendent, two assistant superintendents, and a part-time marketing manager–ran a school district of 14,000 students.(32) The KCMSD was so top-heavy that a 1991 audit discovered that 54 percent of the district’s budget never made it to the classroom; rather, it was used for food service, transportation, and, most of all, central administration.(33)
…44 percent of the entire state budget for elementary and secondary education was going to just the 9 percent of the state’s students who lived in Kansas City and St. Louis.(34)
So how did the schools do? Did test scores go up?
But despite a $900,000 television advertising budget and a $6.4 million special budget for door-to-door transportation of suburban students, the district did not attract the 5,000 to 10,000 white suburban students the designers of the desegregation plan had envisioned. The largest number it ever enrolled was 1,500, and most white students returned to their old suburban schools or to local private schools after one year … By the 1996-97 school year, only 387 suburban students were still attending school in the KCMSD.(71) … the cost of attracting those suburban students was half a million dollars per year per child.
Genuine question: Why even bother trying to attract white students? Why not just focus on making a great, outstanding school for the black kids? There is nothing special about sitting next to a white kid in class that makes black kids suddenly get better test scores. We don’t exude magic education rays. The best you can hope for is either 1. The districts’ test scores go up because they now have more high-scoring white students, which seems rather beside the point if your goal is to help black kids get better test scores, or 2. The white students help the black kids with their schoolwork, in which case the district is exploiting children as unpaid teachers.
And having been one of those kids exploited as unpaid teachers, my opinion of that is best expressed in all caps cursing. Children are not teachers; making one kid teach their peers results in their peers hating them and increased bullying and violence toward the kid.
Don’t make little kids do your job for you just because you can’t.
Year after year the test scores would come out, the achievement levels would be no higher than before, and the black-white gap (one-half a standard deviation on a standard bell curve) would be no smaller.(81) Although the initial gap was small, by the 12th grade, blacks’ scores on standardized tests were about three years behind those of whites (10.1 vs. 13.1).(82) At Central High School, which tended to attract suburban white computer hackers, white males were five years ahead of black males on standardized tests.(83) …
The average black student’s reading skills increased by only 1.1 grade equivalents in four years of high school.(89) At Central High, complained Clark, black males were actually scoring no higher on standardized tests when they graduated as seniors than they had when they enrolled as freshmen four years before.(90) …
In perhaps the biggest surprise, Armor’s studies found that black elementary students who go to magnet schools (which have the highest percentages of whites) score no better on standardized tests than do blacks who go to all-black nonmagnet schools.(97) In short, Armor found that, contrary to the notion on which the whole desegregation plan was founded–that going to school with middle-class whites would increase blacks’ achievement–the Kansas City experiment showed that “integration has no effect.”(98) …
Finally, the district had discovered that it was easier to meet the court’s 60/40 integration ratio by letting black students drop out than by convincing white students to move in. As a result, nothing was done in the early days of the desegregation plan about the district’s appalling high school dropout rate, which averaged about 56 percent in the early 1990s (when desegregation pressures were most intense) and went as high as 71 percent at some schools (for black males it was higher still).(109)…
Although Kansas City did increase teacher pay a total of 40 percent to an average of about $37,000 (maximum was $49,008 per year for Ph.D.s with 20 years experience), test scores for the district were consistently below state and national averages.(121) Parochial school teachers, in contrast, earned an average of $24,423, but their students’ test scores were consistently above state and national averages.(122)
In fact, the supposedly straightforward correspondence between student achievement and money spent, which educators had been insisting on for decades, didn’t seem to exist in the KCMSD. At the peak of spending in 1991-92, Kansas City was shelling out over $11,700 per student per year.(123) For the 1996-97 school year, the district’s cost per student was $9,407, an amount larger, on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis, than any of the country’s 280 largest school districts spent.(124) Missouri’s average cost per pupil, in contrast, was about $5,132 (excluding transportation and construction), and the per pupil cost in the Kansas City parochial system was a mere $2,884.(125)
Oh, does anyone remember that time Zuckerberg gave the Newark School District 100 million dollars in 2010, and it completely disappeared and did absolutely nothing?
As for the district schools forced — or incentivized — to compete with charters, those involved with the Newark effort point to green shoots of change. Graduation rates are up. More higher- rated teachers are staying than lower- performing ones. Still, on state tests of third- to eighth-graders, math and reading proficiency went down in all six grades between 2011 and 2014.
5. The teachers are incompetent.
This seems to be the conservatives’ favorite response to cases like Newark and Kansas City. Oh, if only we could just fire all of the teachers and replace them with different teachers, then test scores would go up! And we need some kind of standardized, “Common Core” taught in all of the schools so that incompetent teachers can’t get away with not teaching their students!
In summary: teacher quality probably explains 10% of the variation in same-year test scores. A +1 SD better teacher might cause a +0.1 SD year-on-year improvement in test scores. This decays quickly with time and is probably disappears entirely after four or five years, though there may also be small lingering effects.
If teacher quality explains 10% of the variation, then student quality (and random chance) explain 90% of the variation.
Some kids, when you hand them a standardized test, take one look at it and say, “NOPE.” Young boys, in particular, do not seem well suited to sitting still for long hours every day doing worksheets, reading books, or taking tests. Young girls, by contrast, are much better at simply being still and concentrating.
This is not the teachers’ fault.
Some kids get substantially more help at home than other kids. Homework help, tutoring help, breakfast, lead levels in their environment, etc. Regardless of what these things do to long-term outcomes, they certainly make a short-term difference on standardized tests in fourth grade.
This is not the teachers’ fault.
And some kids are just plain smarter or harder working than other kids.
This is also not the teachers’ fault.
I’m sure there are bad teachers; there may be significant impediments to firing them. But they are not some sort of massive, nation-wide problem that requires us to pour millions of dollars into dictating the curriculum, (which, ironically, prevents them from teaching “above grade level” material to students who would benefit from it,) and scrutinizing their every move like some sort of educational panopticon.
Remember, teachers back in 1910-1930 managed to educate their students well enough that they sent a man to the moon.
What about these findings of long-term financial gains from having a superior kindergarten teacher, or having three great teachers in a row vs. having three terrible teachers in a row?
I’m going with data is confounded all to hell.
Well-off parents buy outrageously expensive houses in all-white districts in order to send their kids to schools with other whites (and Asians.) “For the test scores,” of course. Since teacher quality is determined by test scores, which is in turn determined by the intelligence of the other kids in the class (or at least how much they’ve crammed for the test,) all this is telling us is that slightly dumb rich kids do well financially later in life because they come from well-off families.
The only kids who are enduring three of the worst teachers in a row are the absolute poorest kid whose parents either don’t give a shit about their educations or have zero ability to get them transferred to a different school or classroom. And after three years of bad teachers, I bet I’d stop bothering to fill out the standardized tests, either, and would just spend the time doodling dragons all over the paper. That kids with zero educational support and extremely impoverished backgrounds end up doing badly in life really shouldn’t surprise us.
But because we are talking about having three particularly good or bad teachers in a row, only 1/125 students fall into either category. The vast majority of students–over 99%–get a variety of different teachers, and most teachers are decent.
Could bad teachers be concentrated in ghetto school districts? Perhaps they are–though remember, these districts are still paying their teachers more than the average Catholic school, so I doubt teacher pay is really the problem. And I’ve yet to hear anyone espouse an explanation for why ghetto schools supposedly attract bad teachers besides “bad pay.”
To be clear: we’ve denigrated and cast all teachers under suspicion and greatly interfered with their ability to run their classrooms all because teachers in the ghettos can’t raise their students’ test scores.
If a particular teacher is a real problem, let the parents of the students in that teacher’s class present their troubles to the school board and let the board make a determination.
6. SAT scores are just a product of your parents’ income.
Sorry the graph is small. The Y axis is SAT scores and the X axis is parental income.
The top line, dark orange, is Asian math scores. Dark blue = white math. Light blue = white verbal. Dark red = Mexican math. Black = black math. Light orange = Asian verbal. Pink = Mexican verbal. Grey = black verbal.
The richest black kids in the country have worse math scores than the poorest whites and Asians. The richest Mexicans have math scores on par with the poorest Asians and only slightly above working class whites. On verbal scores, blacks at all income levels score worse than their similarly-monied peers for whom English is most likely a second language.
And as we’ve already seen district funding doesn’t actually vary that much with parental income. Rich people do indeed pay for more tutoring and better teachers for their kids, but this is heavily confounded by the fact that smart people tend to go to college, get degrees, go into high-paying professions, and then have kids who are also pretty smart, while dumb people drop out of highschool, get shitty jobs, make very little money, and end up with kids who are similarly dumb.
7. More education will jump-start the economy and solve all woes.