Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Stimulus:” $142 billion to schools … with strings

Surprisingly reasonable "strings" though

The USA's public schools stand to be the biggest winners in Congress' $825 billion economic stimulus plan unveiled last week. Schools are scheduled to receive nearly $142 billion over the next two years — more than health care, energy or infrastructure projects — and the stimulus could bring school advocates closer than ever to a long-sought dream: full funding of the No Child Left Behind law and other huge federal programs. But tucked into the text of the proposal's 328 pages are a few surprises: If they want the money — and they certainly do — schools must spend at least a portion of it on a few of education advocates' long-sought dreams. In particular, they must develop:

• High-quality educational tests.

• Ways to recruit and retain top teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

• Longitudinal data systems that let schools track long-term progress.

"The new administration does not want to lose a year on the progress because of the downturn in the economy," says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education Committee. "So I think these are all things that are clearly doable."

Testing, a key part of the No Child law, has gotten short shrift from most states, says Thomas Toch of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "Existing state tests are not as good as they could be," he says. "Putting new money into building stronger state assessments is what's needed."

But he and others say a big challenge will be to ensure that states don't simply cut their own education budgets in anticipation of massive federal increases. "That's going to be a challenge because the states are all hurting," Toch says.

The plan also will help schools modernize and fix buildings. Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, an advocacy group, says she's "pretty excited" about the requirement that states spend a portion of the stimulus cash attracting their best teachers to schools that serve low-income and minority students. "There's nothing they could do with it that would be more important for high-poverty kids."

But Charles Barone, a former congressional staffer who helped design the education reform law, says the plan doesn't go far enough. He predicts states won't do much to change how they hire teachers — and they'll still get their money. "All they're going to have to do is copy and paste what's in their current plan to get this money," says Barone, who now consults about education and writes a popular blog. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "It seems to me you'd ask more from states and districts in terms of the kind of changes you've been talking about for years."


French 'Maths fairy', Stella Baruk, uses fingers to add up

WHEN Stella Baruk first proposed a teaching method for mathematics that involved magic squares, fingers and dogs' legs, there were howls of protest from the French elite. That was 30 years ago. Today, Mrs Baruk is being hailed as a saviour, making les mathematiques understandable to children whose inability to grasp square roots, algebra or geometry has come to be seen as a national crisis. She is dubbed "the maths fairy" by the radio station Europe 1 and "the J.K.Rowling of figures" by Le Nouvel Observateur, and her methods are influencing teachers and teaching programmes in France and abroad.

Schools report a spectacular improvement in the results of pupils taught her way. Her books, including her latest, an 851-page dictionary of mathematical terms, sell tens of thousands of copies.

The best-connected parents fight to send their offspring to the private lessons she gives.The Iranian-born Mrs Baruk argues that pupils' failures in school are down to the often impenetrable language in which mathematics is taught: "Teachers think their pupils understand what they are saying when, in fact, they are often understanding something entirely different." Dismissing modern maths teaching methods as nonsense, she starts children counting by displaying five fingers and then getting them to recognise five lines and dots.

There is no question of simply counting from one to 10 in the Baruk method. After introducing her pupils to five, she moves on to six and seven, three and four, eight and nine, and two and one before leaping to 37, a number "which has sufficient tens for it to be worth using them". Only later does she go back down through the twenties to 10, a number which she says is far harder to integrate. In an attempt to ensure pupils have grasped the concept, she shows them different objects, such as a dog in the lesson about four. Some children say the number is appropriate because it has four legs, others that it is inappropriate because there is just one dog. Either way, they have understood the "ideality" of four, Mrs Baruk says.

Additions are taught by putting fingers together. "Show seven fingers," she said. "Now I add seven fingers. That makes 14. It's easy to see and easy to memorise." Such methods infuriated traditionalists when Mrs Baruk first began to air them in the 1970s. But France, the land of Rene Descartes, perhaps the most celebrated Western mathematician, has slipped to 17th in the international comparison of mathematical performance at secondary school, and purists have had to think again.


No comments: