Revisiting year-round school in Fairfax

The Fairfax Times urges Superintendent Karen Garza and the Fairfax County School Board to revisit the pros and cons of a modified calendar for some schools. “During the decade the year-round program was in place at Dogwood, Graham Road and other Fairfax-based elementary schools, teachers, students, and parents gave it rave reviews,” the Times said.

Proponents cite increased student achievement, improved attendance and expanded opportunities for remediation and enrichment. Many also believe the modified calendar also minimizes holiday learning loss, particularly in math and science.

Although there have been no budget amendments for year-round schools in the past few years, Sandy Evans (Mason District) has publicly expressed her interest in giving some schools this option at some point.

Are traditional methods of math instruction better for most students?

After I posted a brief notice about Elizabeth Green’s article on better math instruction, I heard several dissenting views. Also, there were 948 comments posted on the New York Times website. Here are some excerpts from some of the skeptical comments:

Frank commented, “Teaching in Japan now, I find the article disingenuous: Japanese largely learn math today the way people have for the last couple thousand years, memorization and repetition. The number one after school program is Kumon, which provides worksheet after worksheet of math problems.”

Mike Brady asked, “…isn’t the practice of constantly changing textbooks and methods a tremendous way to insure profits for the publishing corporations? Interesting how Math education in the USA worked well enough to educate USA scientists and inventors and technology experts prior to the Publishing Corporations’ New Math/Common Core.”

Barbarossa said, “The premise that the ‘classical way of teaching maths is ineffective” is simply wrong. This evidenced by all the countries that teach math the classical way (Korea, Iran, France, Russia, India, …) get good results and whose students populate all major STEM graduate programs in the US.

Barry Garelick said, “The education establishment may believe they are producing “little mathematicians,” but the increased enrollments in remedial math courses in universities tell a different and disturbing story.

johna  said, “My son, now 16, went to elementary school in the Seattle area, in a school district that employed the “discovery” method (similar to common core). Not only did the teachers do a poor job of explaining the math to my son, none of the teachers, the school district or the text books made any attempt to explain the approach to the parents. As such, not only were we ill-equipped to help my son with his homework, we were actively discouraged from helping him by using the traditional algorithms. As the article warns, the end result was to replace a familiar set of steps (which, though rote, actually work to get the right answer) with a set of even stranger rituals (that don’t work nearly as well). I’ll never forget the many nights my son spent drawing rows and rows of dots, rectangles, lines and other shapes, which, from his perspective, must appear to have been assigned for the sheer purpose of frustrating and confusing him, because they certainly didn’t help him understand math. That’ why all the parents in our neighborhood wound up sending their kids to Kumon.”

Kumon is an after school program. Another  traditional math instruction curriculum was developed by John Saxon. Nakonia (Niki) Hayes recently wrote that “Saxon literally popped onto the national math education scene unexpectedly and uninvited in 1981 after self-publishing his first algebra textbook.”

Saxon scoffed when reformists insisted that historically-proven mathematics, which had been developed over 2,000 years by diverse cultures from around the world, was effective only with “white males” in America—and “Asians.” Then, he would explode with anger over what he called disastrous teaching materials and methods being purchased without proof of their results.

More teacher training could lead to better math instruction

“Parents are rebelling against the Common Core, even though its approach–fostering intuition through real-world examples–is the best way to teach math to kids,” Elizabeth Green argues.”The real problem: No one has shown the teachers how to teach it.”

This New York Times Magazine article cites research showing that Japanese 8th grade students in the study initiated the method for solving a problem in 40 percent of the lessons; Americans initiated 9 percent of the time. “Similarly 96 percent of the American students’ work fell into the category of ‘practice,’ while Japanese students spend only 41 percent of their time practicing. Almost half of Japanese students’ time was spent doing work that the researchers termed ‘invent/think.’ (American students spent less than 1 percent of their time on it.)”

Green also notes that in Finland and Japan, “teachers teach for 600 or fewer hours each school year, leaving them ample time to prepare, revise and learn. By contrast, American teachers spend nearly 1,100 hours with little feedback.

The school board took lots of time to decide on full-day Mondays

A myth seems to be developing that the Fairfax County School Board acted too quickly to implement full-day Mondays for elementary schools. On the contrary, the school board procrastinated for years and years.

Anyone who says the school board didn’t have enough information has not been paying attention. Also, those who say the school board didn’t give time for community input have it all backwards. The recent poll shows overwhelming support from parents for full-day Mondays. The exact figures in a specific poll are not important. The real problem is that the school board ignored this widespread dissatisfaction for so many years.

Clearly there was something lacking in the governance process to allow this problem to drag on for so long.

Money for full-day Mondays

The Washington Post has an article regarding tonight’s agenda item for the Fairfax County School Board on allocating money for full-day Mondays in the elementary schools.

The article includes comments from some members of the Board of Supervisors on whether they would provide any additional money. I posted a comment to the article, noting that although it is probably true, as Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said, that school officials had not mentioned a need to end half-day Mondays during their lengthy budget negotiations, I mentioned it and discussed it with my supervisor, Penny Gross (D-Mason). She is well aware of how inadequate the Monday early dismissal schedule has been for the elementary schools.

Under this schedule, the only way the elementary schools can comply with the state requirements for the length of the school day would be to limit recess to 10 minutes per day. I have not heard any of the supporters of the status quo argue in favor of a limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. I have also not heard any calls for a deliberate policy of not meeting the state standards for the length of the school day. So, in essence, the school board really has no choice but to fix this inadequate schedule. The Board of Supervisors should encourage and support the schools system’s effort to remedy the serious problem with the elementary school schedule. Following state regulations is critically important. The solution must be implemented immediately, even if it means that nonrecurring funds are used.

Schools set to expand language programs in Fairfax County

The Fairfax Times has an article on the expanded language programs in Fairfax County. Part of the plan is to increase the number of two-way immersion programs in the elementary schools. The other part of the plan is change the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) program to a Language through Content program. Currently FLES serves 46 schools. The Language through Content program would expand to all elementary schools over the next five years.

There are two good reasons to expand this: one to give more students foreign language instruction, and two, to give classroom planning time during the student day. I have been advocating this for several years, and I see no reason for a slow approach. I agree with Kathy Smith (Sully) who expressed frustration that the planned roll-out would take five years: “I’d like to do this tomorrow.”

Perhaps this might be possible for this September, but I don’t see any reason all schools couldn’t have Language through Content taught by specialists by September 2015.

“While the move to Language Through Content would reduce costs at current FLES schools, adding the language program at 93 additional schools would bring the overall cost to $7.5 million annually once fully implemented,” the Fairfax Times reports.

The choice isn’t between spending the money and not spending the money. The choice is between spending the money on foreign language teachers or other specialists. The school system has already committed to providing more time for students through full-day Mondays while providing alternative planning time for the classroom teachers. Foreign language instruction would still be only a portion of the added time needed.

Update on the Fairfax Master Calendar

Revisions to the proposed master calendar for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) were presented as new business to the Fairfax County School Board at its business meeting on Thursday, July 10. The Board is scheduled to vote on the calendar at its July 24 meeting.

The most recent revision to the Master Calendar was approved by the school board on June 26; however, due to testing conflicts, two minor adjustments are being proposed:

    • Strategic Planning Day on 10/14/14 was moved to 9/29/14
    • Strategic Planning Day on 5/4/15 was moved to 3/16/15

Here is the FCPS summary of the Revisions to the Approved 2014-15 Standard Year Calendar:

The proposed revisions include:

  • Adding four strategic planning days for teachers on September 29, February 2, March 16, and April 6. The strategic planning days will be student holidays.

  • Student holidays will be scheduled on staff development days, teacher work days, and strategic planning days.

  • The strategic planning day on Monday, April 6 follows spring break, providing a student holiday immediately following the break.

  • Students will be released two hours early on the last day of the quarter and the day before Thanksgiving break and winter break. Students will be released two hours early on the last day of school instead of attending school for two hours and then being dismissed. On early release days, teachers will use the time for teacher directed time, plus job-embedded collaborative time.

In total, the revised 2014-15 school year calendar includes seven teacher workdays to offer teachers time for staff meetings and professional development, as well as three teacher staff development days, four strategic planning days, and six days with a two-hour early release for teacher directed time.

The press release states that “The length of the school year remains the same, but the number of days for students has been reduced from 183 days to 180 days.”

I am not sure what is meant by the phrase “the length of the school year remains the same.”

However, I will put this question aside for the time being and simply note the ending sentences in the press release:

By eliminating the shortened Monday schedule for elementary schools, FCPS was able to make changes to the calendar that comply with state accreditation for 990 hours of instruction. The change to 990 instructional hours also eliminates the need to make up inclement weather days at the end of the school year if fewer than 13 days are missed.

World Languages in Fairfax

 World Languages Internationalization Working Group. This report presented to the Fairfax County School Board on Monday includes recommendations for the future of foreign language instruction in the elementary schools.

Are children less active these days?

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today. Angela Hanscom writes that children are not moving enough in school. As a pediatric occupational therapist, she recently tested a classroom of fifth-graders and found that most of  the children had poor core strength and balance. “In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 19890s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance.”

The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.

Fairfax school officials help Central American children

The flood of Central American children crossing the border has only recently become a top news story; however, Fairfax school officials have been coping with this situation for the past three years. Here is a report from Businessweek:

“These kids were homesick and heartbroken,” said Robin Hamby, a family specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in suburban Washington, which began feeling the surge almost as soon as it began three years ago.

Her Virginia district employs more teachers who work with non-English speakers than ever, and wrote a curriculum to reunite children and parents, many of whom haven’t seen one another in years.

Although recent budget reports for Fairfax County Public Schools have noted the increase in children who don’t speak English, there was no indication that some of these children were part of a new wave of unaccompanied minors. Better reporting of this situation might have led to earlier efforts to discourage even more Central American parents from sending their children to the United States.