Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Solar - Big Business Tries To Bite Back

The front page article for Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal was Wisconsin utility companies take aim against solar power.  The article reported on two Wisconsin electric suppliers requesting major changes in how they charge changing the economics of solar.

The major electric suppliers rate proposal is an all out war on solar by changing the structure on how power is billed.  By moving away from kilowatt per hour charge with a reasonable connection fee, charging mainly on usage, to a large grid connection charge with negligible kW/hr charges the electric suppliers want to change how power will be created and consumed.

The proposal wants to move away from kilowatt per hour charge with a small connection fee (charging mainly on usage) to a large grid connection charge (with negligible kW/hr charges).  They actually proposed lowering kw/hr charges from 15 cents to 4.5 cents but moving connection charges from roughly $10 to nearly $50!

Low kW/hr charges do not motivate people to conserve but to use.  Saving some does not equal much money and thus people will be less inclined to conserve.

That does not help move our dependance from fossil fuels but makes us more of addict.

This proposal is not about the people's or the world's good but a simple attempt to shut down competition - solar competition.   It is simply a proposal to guarantee coal and natural gas power plants remain the electricity leaders -- it is hiding the cost of power in a connection fee versus the usage.

Most damaging - solar project’s pay back disappears.  This is not good for Wisconsin, the USA or the world.

I hope the board fights this proposal.  We need to have a system that charges by the kW hour and rewards conservation and innovation -- not a move that protects profits and status quo.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Homework questions & dilemmas --- reflections on Cathy Vatterott's Rethinking Homework

A teacher/friend/co-worker of mine is reading "Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs" by Cathy Vatterott for a class and was asked to get some people to answer some questions for her.  I have read the book and it is one of many that has moved me from being a believer that homework is mandatory to learn math, to the idea that it is an assistance (when done in the right context), but not a necessity.

The questions are bold - my reply follows.

What is your philosophy of homework?  What do you consider the role/purpose of homework? 
It is practice.  In a perfect world it should be individualized and time based versus number of problems based.  Meaning strugglers do less problems, different problems, "easier" problems.

I also believe new material should not be practiced at home - it needs to be done under the expert (the teacher).    (Comparing homework to my previous life -- homework is low level paperwork)

At the HS level I don't think homework teaches responsibility at all (I doubt it for all grade levels), it may teach a little about consequences (And again in the real world you are not punished for skipping some "homework" - skipping some low level work can be important, and for me personally it resulted in promotion -- skip good, do great)
And finally - if homework is low level - how much time should I or my students put into it?  Until you reach a high level of math - my answer is not much.  At high level classes with a quicker pace, it is needed that students do some learning on their own (sort of like college) but for the traditional K-8, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 sequence I don't think asking students to learn "themselves" is a good idea.

What are your struggles with homework?
If I assign homework - I should look at it (theoretically) but that is impossible (20 problems, 100 students is 2000 problems per day, at 8 seconds per problem is over 4 hours!).  Not checking homework is my largest struggle, but checking it in class is a waste; you know 5 students watch (who got them all) and 25 are in the twilight zone.   I know there is only so much of me and it is impossible to do it all - homework's return on my investment is simply not enough.  I also struggle to do good differentiation on homework assignments -- that is why I am looking into more computer based practice programs (see below).

What do you think about grading or not grading homework?
I feel practice should not be graded for a score (I give a couple of points for "completed" work, which ends up being only about 1% of the student's grade).  But as the teacher it is important for me to know that students are learning from their mistakes and correcting when doing homework.  That is why with paper and pencil homework I always provide the solutions, which a lot of students still don't check! (Ha!)  That is why I am pushing towards more on-line, have to be correct to move on type of homework.  My plan is to use Khan Academy heavily this coming school year.  But errors must be okay and homework is where they should occur.

What do you think?  Homework is one of the hardest parts of being a math teacher - go ahead and write me a comment, or a drop me a note.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tyrant of OR

Tyrant of OR is an interesting article that was passed along to me, and has gotten me thinking quite a bit. It is the belief that we often feel we have to make a choice between things – that one thing wins and one thing loses. For example problem solving and computation but in reality often we don't have to make a choice. You can do both – it is little counter-intuitive but I like the idea.

At my school we wanted higher ACT scores and more students taking the test.   And the single answer has been rigor.  I have pushed rigor, which is not just more homework (for me it has been less).   And as I pushed rigor, I have also pushed the idea that all students can be college math ready.  So even though math grades did drop at my school, our ACT scores and percentage of students have both gone up.

And to get scores to increase we did not lean the pool of test takers, we increased the count -- challenged more students to see how ACT would rank their college readiness.  Pushing hard on students to take the test and do well.  We have seen our college math placement scores go up AND more taking it -- from 20ish to 22.5ish for score and less 50% to nearly 75% taking it.  Definitely not a tyrannt of OR  -- would those results be the expectation?

Would you expect students to take more math with increased rigor? More students to take the ACT? Cause they are, when I started only a handful of students would take math as a senior – now nearly all the students do. When I started not even half of the students took the ACT test for college placement. This year over ¾ of the graduating class took the test.

Why? Because high rigor raises student performance AND student expectations of themselves. The students know they can perform at high level and that college or secondary schooling are within reach. Not everyone has to, but the problem solving ability, ability to learn are skills that serve students well for a lifetime.

OR does not have to be choice, I am taking AND. 

Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning. - See more at:

Monday, July 7, 2014

82% Fail Algebra 1 Final

Saw this video -- where in Montgomery County, Maryland, "which is considered a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C." -- 82% of students failed their Algebra I final.  And the video asks why - to me the video felt like they were searching for blame - and there is plenty of it to go around.

Lets start with a system of standardized testing that pushes too far too fast.   If you do not take time for students to really understand the concepts & interconnections and have recursive practice students simply memorize to pass a unit test, then, they are doomed on any really understanding.  This lack of understanding in turn dooms them on a final.

Teachers feel pressure to show what is on the standardized tests, but if a student is not ready - and they need more practice on "lesser" material - then that must happen.  Yet the CCSS are demanding and there is a pressure there (which I think we teachers need to balance -- College Readiness is number one).

Also - the amount of material is a question.  See the review final from there website.  The amount of material covered is impressive, but are the students getting a deeper understanding - is it possible to push a very young adult through the amount of material on the practice final and have them truly understand?  I always remind myself the students will always do the minimum - so they memorized during the semester, the minimum, and then are ill-prepared for the final (and college math - again somewhere around 30-40% are not college ready).

And I am careful not to criticize the teachers there - perhaps they have a K-12 math program where this is what Algebra 1 learns, but at my school - nearly half of their final is Algebra II.   The challenge is not to look at any one course like Algebra I and ask what they need, but to look at the HS graduate with 3 years of math and ask if they have the skills.  If you don't get deep into parabolas in Algebra I then save them for Algebra II, and spend time doing more projects, recursive practice, etc.  It does mean trading away something in Algebra II - perhaps come conics, or some imaginary number graphing - that can go to PreCalc.  I know we need to trade there too then, but that is our job to decide what is most important for the time we have - and if we make the curriculum manageable then the fail rate will fall.

Finally I don't blame the students - I believe that finals always fall one letter grade.  And unless 82% of the students got a D or F mark for the 4th quarter - then there is something awry.  Systems for grading need to be designed that ensure success - but if that system is impossible when overloaded with topics.  For the record I only test what we have mastered on a final, my final changes based on the topics covered each year.  (FYI - I have about 12% failure rate)

In the end - teachers need to take control.  Set a curriculum that prepares the students for two places in their lives.  Point 1 -- being college ready, and point 2 -- having the problem solving skills & basic math to be successful at 27 years of age.  I often joke that I work for the students, the 27 year old student.  And at 27 they want to be skilled at problem solving, and do not want to have flunked out of college because of math (skills or because of fear).

If we remember our accountability is not to a predetermined curriculum plan, or to politicians or to administrators - not really even to parents  - but to students (it's their life!), then we are doing our job.  Then we will be preparing the 27 year old for their challenges.