Posts Tagged ‘Building Blocks’

DeVos and the Advantages of Early Math 

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Betsy DeVos was confirmed, and so, now, advocates of public education can only watch for the actions she takes. It is noteworthy that, in spite of her family right wing policies and religious background, Jeff Sessions and the president had to strong arm her to go along with rescinding Obama’s civil rights executive order on a person’s bathroom use by birth sex and not sex identity. We’ll see. The uproar moves back to the states.

What else to expect? One hopes she will uphold Title IX campaigns on sexual assault at any school campus. Except for such issues raised by Title IX, the federal government has limited fiscal or ideological influence over the education system, especially urban schools. For instance, states impose caps on the number of charter schools that can be started per year, so DeVos may agitate, but all her private billions can’t force the issue as her own money could in Michigan.

Even use of vouchers may not be as certain as once seemed since states do not thrill to use public money to pay for private and parochial schools. In addition, research studies in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show that vouchers have not led to improved academic success for low-income students transferring with vouchers to private schools.

Remember also that charter schools are held accountable for achievement and must admit students no matter their initial achievement level. Vouchers are not held to those constraints. So, who knows about “school choice”, DeVos’ favored word for education opportunity.

Moreover, Keith Ellison, House of Representatives Minnesota, at an AFT rally against DeVos’ nomination gave his opinion of charter school and voucher support as a reaction to the attempt to integrate public schools. “Don’t think for a minute that this plan that they’re trying to pretty up and pass on doesn’t have a lot to do with those ugly plans in the fifties and sixties.” The New Yorker, “The Protest Candidate” by Vinson Cunningham, February 27, 2017.

In a different way, a school’s choice for achievement success can begin in pre-K. Greg Duncan, UC Irvine School of Education, PhD in Economics, has focused recently on income inequality on students’ life chances and realized that to significantly close the achievement gap, the process must begin at the start of education – pre-school for the low-income children whose parents cannot provide the resources available to middle and upper class children. Of all the problems Kindergarten teachers define, the biggest gap is in mathematics achievement between low and high income children.

What should a pre-K mathematics curriculum look like? Not work sheets, but play-based programs like Building Blocks (Building Blocks-Foundations for Mathematical Thinking, Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 2: Research-based Materials Development) used in Boston, Nashville, Tennessee, and Buffalo, New York. The model does not just teach rote counting, but counting sub-skills, like one-to-one matching, cardinal order, recognize the numeral. Not just shape names, but measurement and geometry of shapes.

What about middle school? The New York Times “Math and Race: When the Equation is Unequal” by Amy Harmon, February 19, 2017, describes programs so that gifted, but poor, students don’t drop out of advanced math study in high school and beyond. The same issue remains for these students as for pre-K students just beginning to learn – they don’t have the resources that middle and upper class students enjoy. BEAM (Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics) implemented by Daniel Zaharopol from MIT offers sessions in the summer and follow-up during the school year for sixth and then seventh graders nominated from inner city schools.

It would be wonderful if Ms. DeVos advocated for mathematics programs as proposed in Core Curriculum State Standards, but the pro-active states can’t wait. Adopting or devising improved math readiness for pre-K and helping low-income middle school students to graduate and attend college as a math major is the go-to “school choice”.



Small, Not Large

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Do you know that only 2000 schools in the United States produce 60% of the dropouts? Those schools can have about 3000 students each. The number accounts for middle and high schools since any statistician knows that students begin to drop out as young as 14.

The 2000 schools (often called dropout factories) are found in low-income neighborhoods where the students come from families with little education in their experience. The students have had poor academic success during the elementary school years so that by now they are below and far below on assessments for proficiency in math and reading. However, the National Education Association (NEA) has a lofty goal to create great public schools by 2020.

How will this happen? Here is an example. In New York City since 2002, large high schools have been remodeled to provide small high schools with academically rigorous curriculum and a personalized learning environment, long considered necessary to help poor-performing students improve. These small high schools, about 100 students per grade level, have reached their goal of increasing the number of students who graduate and go to college.

The nonprofit MDRC (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) with sites in New York City and Oakland, California, has reviewed data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse. The review has found that in spite of family income, race and ethnicity, and previous low academic achievement students from the small schools have graduated and gone on to college, four year college as well as community college. In addition, the small high school model costs less per student mainly because students do not need five years to graduate. Find out details of the model at

Now, to ease the number of students who dropout by middle and high school, the emphasis on pre-school programs implemented in many states can address the issue. As of 2011 the federal and state governments have allocated $30 billion. However, children entering pre-schools from low-income families have shown poor literacy and math skills. In addition, programs want to avoid “fade out” of skills learned as has been noted for the premier pre-school project Head Start.

With its emphasis on services for low-income children, MDRC has research on a project focused on enhancement of social and emotional behaviors for small children. Teachers need resources, so the study programs have funding for professional development and coaching. The outcome leads to more instructional time in the pre-school day. The most important point of the study shows that pre-school youth read better by grade 3, a goal of the current federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), when their instructional time focuses on math. This means more than teaching shape names and counting and recognizing 1-20. Many pre-schools and daycare centers have opted for a model called Building Blocks based on views held by the National Science Foundation and that meet standards from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Young children manipulate hands-on materials and computer-based designs. For details:

We need to change our outlook. Small is the word whether size of the child or size of the school.