Math V English Redux

I've gotten a bunch of emails about today's NY Times story

Other charter networks and school districts similarly wrestle to bring struggling readers up to speed while having more success in math. 

In a Mathematica Policy Research study of schools run by KIPP, one of the country’s best-known charter operators, researchers found that on average, students who had been enrolled in KIPP middle schools for three years had test scores that indicated they were about 11 months — or the equivalent of more than a full grade level — ahead of the national average in math. In reading, KIPP’s advantage over the national average was smaller, about eight months.

Among large public urban districts, which typically have large concentrations of poor students, six raised eighth-grade math scores on the federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2009 to 2011. Only one — in Charlotte, N.C. — was able to do so in reading.

At Match, we too have always had larger math gains than English gains.  Not just on MCAS, also on SAT. 

1. Two years ago I tackled this topic, and Tom commented:

One problem with our testing regime is that it makes math look like half of the goal of a school. Math as a discipline is constructed and taught differently than all others. If your school is constructed to optimize math instruction, you’re not half way there; you’re more like 1/5th of the way.

Good thought.  I don't know of any schools where kids have, say, 4 English classes and one math class.  And if we didn't have the phrase "English class" -- if instead we only had the component parts called "Literature class," "Non-fiction class," "Writing class," "Vocabulary Building and Grammar class," and so forth, you could imagine a school designed that way, with 4X the amount of time devoted to English.  And then instead of one test for English, we'd have 4 exams and one math exams. 

I'm not saying this is a good idea given other tradeoffs, I'm saying that might result in more equal sized gains. 

2. Sarah commented too. 

The problem is not merely a word gap. It’s also an explanation gap. Exposure to fewer words means that one hears fewer examples of complex thinking: fewer sentences, fewer questions, and fewer explanations of ideas or arguments.

Hart and Risley noted that a family’s language style affected the amount of language spoken because “explaining alternatives takes many more words than straightforward directives.” They found that parents who explained more also asked more questions and encouraged their children to ask more questions that the parents then had to answer.In other words, children exposed to more words are also exposed to more examples of logical thinking.

The reverse is also true. Children who communicate with others who speak less have fewer opportunities to

a) build fluency,

b) express and react to ideas, and

c) ask questions and figure things out.

In short, they have fewer opportunities to practice comprehension and logical thinking.

3. Last year I wrote this and Paul commented:

I think it’s easier to get quicker returns on math tests. Some math concepts can be taught in a day (not well, mind you, but enough for a kid to get the question right on the test). For low performing kids, those are easy points that even cursory instruction can help them get that they wouldn’t get at their regular schools. In 7th math in MA, I’m thinking things like scientific notation and transformations, which don’t require much thought to get the questions right.

Randall and Stacy, aces from our teacher residency team, have given some thought to this.  MTR recognizes that No Excuses charters often sharply different views on how to improve reading.  So R+S have been surveying some charter leaders and teachers, to better understand who does what, and why.  If you're open to being surveyed on this topic, let me know.