Supplemental: Three cheers for Middle School 88!

MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2015

One cheer for the New York Times:
Last week, we offered an anecdote and an impression about our public schools.

On C-Span, Professor Guinier and a gloomy caller had said that we’re destroying another generation of black kids in our public schools.

That’s often considered the hip, gloomy thing for know-nothing “liberals” to traffic! In response, we said we think that a lot of people have been trying very hard to create better schools for low-income kids.

To refresh your recollection, click here.

Middle School 88 (Park Slope, Brooklyn) sounds like another such school. We’ll offer three cheers for the school itself, one cheer for the way the New York Times reported on its math instruction.

The report appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Review, a very high-profile placement. The Times described Tina Rosenberg, author of the report:
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.” She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
On its face, that’s an impressive resume. As we read it, though, we noted that Rosenberg doesn’t seem to be an education specialist—and it seemed to us that this lack of background was observable right from the start of her piece.

Here’s the way Rosenberg started. In our view, she’s describing a very significant problem and asking a very important question:
ROSENBERG (3/15/15): Like middle school math teachers everywhere, the seventh-grade math teachers at Middle School 88 in the southern part of Brooklyn’s Park Slope have an impossible job. At this high-poverty school, which not long ago was considered failing, students enter with levels of math skills ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. How can anyone teach to them all?
Already, one minor point of confusion appears. Do those students enter the sixth or the seventh grade with that very wide range of math skills? (Like middle schools almost everywhere, Middle School 88 enrolls kids in Grades 6-8.)

Whatever! In our experience, Rosenberg is describing a major problem. It can be hard to know how to teach groups of low-income students, since many kids may be many years “behind” traditional “grade level,” whether in reading or math.

If the kids are performing on a wide range of levels, it’s hard to know how to teach them all. If all the kids are “way behind,” it may be hard to find instructional materials designed for kids in that fix.

At any rate, seventh-grade teachers at School 88 encounter kids with a wide range of math skills. In our view, Rosenberg’s inexperience starts to show right here, in paragraphs 2-4:
ROSENBERG (continuing directly): Emily Reisman, who’s been teaching math at M.S. 88 for six years, said that until three years ago, the school taught math the way virtually everyone did. “We would create work sheets at different levels,” she said. “For adding and subtracting fractions, we’d create low, medium and high-level activities for kids to do. The lower level was more straightforward, with a picture. The higher level had word problems.”

Math teachers also try to personalize instruction by grouping students by ability and spending more time with groups that need extra help. They have students work together and teach one another. They offer bonus activities.

But none of these strategies allows students to learn at their individual levels. And that is imperative, because math is cumulative: basic skills are necessary for building advanced ones.
To us, that passage didn’t quite seem to make sense—and not just because Rosenberg seemed to shift from the past to the present in paragraph 3.

Reisman makes it sound like all those kids, with their wide array of skill levels, were all jumbled together in the same seventh-grade classrooms. It sounds like kids with first-grade math skills were in the same classrooms as other kids with eighth-grade math skills.

Surely, the school must have been splitting its seventh-graders by achievement levels for purposes of math instruction. Were the kids who were working on first-grade level really in the same math class as the kids who were working on eighth-grade level?

To us, that suggestion didn’t seem to make sense. And by the way: if a child is working on first-grade level, he isn’t likely to be adding and subtracting fractions at all. Just this quickly, we thought Rosenberg’s lack of experience was showing.

Maybe there’s something that we aren’t getting here. But we’re often struck by the apparent cluelessness which obtains with our education reporting, even at the highest levels.

Case in point:

A few years ago, we were amazed by Dana Goldstein’s report on this same general topic for Slate. The New York Times had reported on a fourth-grade teacher whose students were working at a wide range of levels. Goldstein mused thusly:
GOLDSTEIN (6/10/13): Grouping fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was stigmatized because of its relationship to high school-level “tracking”...Grouping remains controversial, in part because it pits two of the education world’s favorite buzzwords against one another: “differentiation” versus “high expectations.”

“Differentiation” calls for a teacher to adjust the delivery and assessment of lessons for each student in her class. All students might hear the same introductory lecture on fractions, for example, but in small groups later on, some students would be expected to complete four numeric problems, while others would tackle those same four problems, plus an additional two word problems. The teacher would move around the room, providing one-on-one help and instruction geared toward each student’s ability level.
Even in 2013, Goldstein was considered a high-ranking education reporter. That highlighted passage struck us as highly clueless.

As Rosenberg’s report suggests, a very wide range of skill levels may exist in a given school or classroom. To us, Goldstein seemed to have little idea how wide these ranges can be.

Everybody gets the same lesson? After which, some kids get four numeric problems, while other kids get two additional word problems? Compare that “solution” to the problem Rosenberg describes!

In yesterday’s report, Rosenberg described a new math system, Teach to One, which is being used at Middle School 88. As we told you last week, it’s our impression that the country is full of teachers and principals who are trying hard to make low-income schools work better.

It sounds to us like School 88 is one more of these schools.

It’s easy to traffic the gloomy nostrums Professor Guinier trafficked that day. But math scores for black and Hispanic kids are way, way up in the past several decades.

The efforts being made by School 88 may be one more explanation for that highly encouraging fact. Unfortunately, newspapers like the New York Times almost never report that encouraging fact. Very few people have ever heard that highly encouraging news!

Is Teach to One getting results at Middle School 88? Are the kids at School 88 actually learning more math?

Near the end of her piece, Rosenberg discusses that important question. We thought her inexperience was showing again—this time, in the important, obvious questions she doesn’t seem to have asked.

Three cheers for Middle School 88! One cheer for the New York Times!

Ever so slowly we turn: We first discussed this general problem in the Baltimore Sun on February 9. By that, we mean February 9, 1982!

We had never heard of computers! For passages from that musty old work, you can just click here.


  1. ... Rosenberg described a new math system, Teach to One...

    The words "a new math system" make me shudder. There have been so many new math systems introduced in the last 50 years. Most of them were used on actual students before they'd been validated. Most of them didn't work better than traditional methods and were discarded. They did a lot of lot of damage. My daughter was messed up by one such system in Berkeley, CA in 1974.

    Instead of designing a new math system, I'd like to see a school research how well various math systems used in various schools had actually been working. Then, choose the system that had actually worked the best.

    1. Hmmmm, anybody recall hearing about Dave's daughter before? I recall reading a lot about his "very liberal" wife who seems to be quite busy quitting "liberal" organizations. I've also learned a lot about Dave's cousins, as well as his wife's cousins.

      But never before about his daughter before.

      Interesting how members of Dave's families suddenly pop up.

    2. David wrote about his daughter in 2013. HE said she gave up a tenured teaching positon at san mateo High School, as did his son in law.

  2. A great deal of research in cognitive psychology has been devoted to identifying basic or fundamental ideas (skills, knowledge units, understandings) that are prerequisite to learning more advanced concepts in math, arranging these in a hierarchy with the necessary fundamentals as a foundation for higher learning. Programs like Teach to One incorporate that knowledge in a system that diagnoses what each child already knows via daily assessment and identifies what he or she needs to learn next in order to make progress. It has a data base of learning tools in the form of instructions and materials for teachers to enable them to then present what each child needs to learn next, either as individual worksheets or interactive computer activities or as lesson plans for a teacher. Basically, the idea of a single teacher giving one lecture to an entire class followed by individual work has been discarded in favor of children doing a variety of tasks concurrently, individually or in small groups, as appropriate to their needs, with the teacher acting as a resource to them. So, a child who was working at first grade level could conceivably make progress in the same classroom with children who are considerably more advanced.

    David, it isn't the job of schools to do research like that. But, if it were, how would you methodologically disentangle whether it was the individual differences of the children producing any difference in outcomes, the skill of the teachers, or the characteristics of the "math system" itself? How would you get parents to permit their children to be subjects in research and who would do that research, given the realities of funding in our schools?

    Your daughter was not likely to have been messed up by any approach to teaching math. She more likely received loud and clear the social message that girls aren't supposed to be good at math (Barbie says math is hard), that boys don't like it when girls excel, and that math is irrelevant to the things that interest girls. Unless you did something active to counteract those messages, your daughter had plenty of reasons not to perform well without any new-fangled teaching approaches.

    1. Thank you for diagnosing what happened to someone else's child whom you have never met....a practice among Somerby fans in the comment box which occurs with greater frequency than it should.

    2. Thank you for believing that David in Cal actually has a child. Somebody has to believe him. And Somerby.

      But you are correct. It is unwise to diagnose anyone else's child, real or imaginary, with so many other things that we don't know still very much possible.

      Such as, it could simply be that Dave's daughter is as dumb as he is.

    3. You're right about one thing, AnonymousMarch 16, 2015 at 3:52 PM. This 2nd grade teacher was prejudiced into believing that girls needn't do well at math. He was a horrible teacher and a horrible human being. Efforts to get him removed from the school system were unavailing until it was proved that he was having sex with some of the poor black boys in his class.

      The experimental math he taught was badly designed and badly implemented. It was supposed to supplement arithmetic; instead, it replaced arithmetic. This teacher had no idea how to teach the material. It was only supplemental teaching at home that saved my daughter's math understanding.

    4. Second grade? Your daughter was messed up in second grade? And in Berkeley CA, no less!

      And now the first lie having failed, you add more details thinking it was more believable.

      So what was it, Dave? Was it the "math system" that failed your daughter in second grade, or whas it the "horrible teacher and a horrible human being" who turned out to be a pedo with an affinity for black boys?

      Oh, and we now find out that your daughter wasn't "messed up" at all! Nope, "supplemental teaching at home" saved the day. In other words, you helped your kid with her homework.

      Do pathological liars always have your ego, David? Apparently, you do. You think people believe whatever bullshit story you want to tell.

      But let me give you a piece of advice, since you obviously have no idea now non-liars think.

      Stacking bullshit on bullshit doesn't make it smell any better. It only makes a bigger pile of bullshit.

      Think about that the next time you try to add details to your original lie.

    5. Anonymous @4:55, why the need to bully? What's wrong with accepting at face value someone's assertion that they have a daughter? Good grief.

    6. You wrote quite the ironic statement to read on Bob Somerby's blog, doncha think, 8:37

    7. Yeah, too bad Somerby doesn't care much either. Otherwise, he'd train that fine brain on education issues and would reach for the easy race-bating clickbait of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin when his readership starts to dip even lower than it has.

  3. Tina Rosenberg is a late middle aged scribe with absolutely no Ivy League affiliation whatsovever.

  4. Typical Douche TrollMarch 16, 2015 at 7:42 PM

    The relatively low number of comments on this post proves that none of Somerby's readers care about the issues facing us as a society in educating our deserving children.

    1. At least none of the trolls do.

    2. The comments indicate only two people cared enough about the topic and/or the quality of the post to be motivated enough to address it.

      To me that suggests Bob's current readers are more interested in something else. One might be tempted to ask if that lack of interest is also present among readers of more mainstream media.

      It also suggests Typical Hygiene Product Troll likes calling attention to the obvious.