Archive for May 27th, 2010

How to improve math class

| May 27, 2010 | 4 Replies
How to improve math class

I really enjoyed this TED lecture by full-time ninth grade math teacher Dan Meyer. His main point is that modern math textbooks do so much hand-holding that they fail to inspire students to think through the problems. Instead of teaching math, they teach students to “decode” the problems by all-too-apparent reference to the exemplars.

As a result, many math texts cultivate impatience. Dan argues that we’ve got to stop thinking about math as merely computation skills. In support of this point, he quoted a man named Albert Einstein: “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

Dan is doing his best as a teacher and a blogger to change the way students look at math class. I should not be something students resist, but rather embrace. His approaches to teaching math are easy to understand, and he offers many creative applications along the way.

Meyer’s work brings to mind the writings of John Paulos, who bemoans rampant American innumeracy (and see here).

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The college version of the subprime mortage mess

| May 27, 2010 | Reply
The college version of the subprime mortage mess

Investor Steve Eisman whose huge wager against the subprime mortgage market was described by Michael Lewis The Big Short has launched an assault on fast growing for-profit college industry. Here’s the link at Mother Jones. According to the Eisman, for-profit colleges “raked in almost one-quarter of the $89 billion in available Title IV loans and grants, despite having only 10 percent of the nation’s post-secondary students.”

Here is the main parallel between for-profit educators and the sub-prime lenders:

Eisman attributes the industry’s success to a Bush administration that stripped away regulations and increased the private sector’s access to public funds. “The government, the students, and the taxpayer bear all the risk and the for-profit industry reaps all the rewards,” Eisman said. “This is similar to the subprime mortgage sector in that the subprime originators bore far less risk than the investors in their mortgage paper.”

Here’s another similarity between subprime lending and for-profit education

Both push low-income Americans into something they can’t afford—in the schools’ case, pricey programs that leave the students heavily in debt; what’s more, the degrees they get mean little in the real world: “With billboards lining the poorest neighborhoods in America and recruiters trolling casinos and homeless shelters—and I mean that literally—the for-profits have become increasingly adept at pitching the dream of a better life and higher earnings to the most vulnerable.”

In the Mother Jones article, Eisman pointed to the self-reported (and thus potentially under-reported) 50-plus percent dropout rate at for profit colleges as further evidence that they offer poor-quality education.

After reading the above article, I referred to Wikipedia’s article one of the biggest for-profit colleges: Phoenix University, subsidiary of the publicly traded Apollo Group, Inc. It offers “open enrollment,” meaning that it requires “proof of a high-school diploma, GED, or its equivalent.” Phoenix graduates only 16% of its students, compared to the national average of 55%. On the topic of de-regulation and quality of education, consider this:

The school was the top recipient of student financial aid funds for the 2008 fiscal year, receiving nearly $2.48 billion for students enrolled. In 2006, due largely to the efforts attributed to the Apollo group, the 50-percent rule (requiring colleges and universities to conduct at least half of its instruction in person in order to receive federal aid or collect federal student loans) was modified. It no longer classifies students receiving instruction through telecommunications methods as correspondence students.

The Wikipedia article offers a lot more information to feed the fires of my suspicion. I don’t claim to know any more about Phoenix University than what I have read in these two articles. What I do bring to the table is that I investigated diploma mills as part of my job while I worked as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Missouri; I don’t like the smell of what I’m reading about these for-profit colleges.

Based on what Michael Eisman has stated, it would seem to be a good idea for the federal government to tighten its standards for the types of post-secondary schools eligible for federal loans, and to take a much closer look at the quality of education received by the typical Phoenix University student. Is it really worthy of a federal loan guarantee?

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An existentialist firefighter

| May 27, 2010 | 4 Replies
An existentialist firefighter

For the other philosophy geeks here, the Onion has got another humorous story you’ll enjoy, rooted in existentialist themes:

In an ultimately futile act some have described as courageous and others have called a mere postponing of the inevitable, existentialist firefighter James Farber delayed three deaths Monday.

“I’m no hero,” Farber said after rescuing the family from a house fire on the 2500 block of West Thacker Street, and prolonging for the time being their slow march toward oblivion. “Like any other man, I am thrown into this world, alone and terrified, to play a meaningless role in an empty life. In my case, that role happens to involve charging through towering blazes to pull helpless individuals from a sea of flames before they suffocate or are burnt alive.”…

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