Red Socks, New Math and Not-So-Dirty Dancing

By Mark Toner — October 29, 2004 3 min read
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The Boston Red Sox may finally have broken a curse that’s lingered since 1918, but in New England, baseball’s October surprise proved to be another teachable moment. Educators in Connecticut, which divides its loyalties between the Sox and its hated rival, the New York Yankees, used the pennant championship between the two teams to stress good sportsmanship and the value of team effort. Along with having kids crunch statistics to predict the winner, teachers engaged in some good-natured ribbing, mixed in with some mandatory wearing of red. “It’s the only time we get to argue with the teachers without getting in trouble for it,” says Rachel Santerre, a 10-year-old Yankees fan.

Another ongoing storied battle is about how best to teach kids math. Educators have long debated the merits of traditional drill-and-kill and newer “constructivist” approaches that emphasize reasoning skills. Big districts began the constructivist charge more than a decade ago, though in recent years growing numbers of math and science professors have opposed the approach. But when Ossining, New York, a mix of blue-collar workers and white-collar commuters, went shopping for a new math curriculum, it became clear just how convincingly the constructivists are winning. Noting that the brunt of its elementary-level teachers held degrees in education or the humanities and not math, administrators brought in a consultant who used as starting points the notions that rote drill and “sitting and listening to the teacher” were failed approaches. The district then opted to consider only programs approved by the National Science Foundation and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, groups with a constructivist bent. Given the one-sided advice, it’s hardly surprising that Ossining teachers approved a curriculum called Investigations by staggering numbers—90 to 5.

Another staggering number comes to mind when hearing about Dillon and Jesse Smith—1,600, to be exact. The 16-year-old twins aced the SAT, two of only 939 students across the country to do so. Not surprisingly, the Long Beach, New York, residents have numbers on the brain. “Sixteen is running my life,” Dillon says. “I’m 16 years old, I’m 16th in my class, and I got a 1600 on my SAT.”

But numbers worry administrators in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where administrators are cracking down on parents from neighboring jurisdictions who sneak their kids into better-performing schools. In some areas, the most desirable schools have gone so far as to hire private investigators to track down freeloaders, but in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, officials so far have stuck to word-of-mouth reports—with surprising results. Following one lead, an assistant superintendent investigated the home of a student believed to live in another district. He found a $1.8 million mansion.

Other districts, of course, would be happy just to keep kids in their seats. Lowell High School in Massachusetts, facing sanctions under NCLB for its sagging attendance rates, has found a new enticement—a laptop computer. Every senior with eight or fewer absences who gets into college or the military will receive a $1,200 laptop at year’s end. Lowell follows in the footsteps of other districts, which offer car raffles, prepaid Visa cards, and other enticements to boost attendance, a move that worries some educators. As Alfie Kohn, a teacher turned education critic, laments, “the intrinsic motivation to learn, read, or even show up tends to decline when kids are bribed to do what the adults want.”

Schools have to go beyond bribes when it comes to policing what’s known as “freak dancing.” Now, in suburban Washington, D.C., the name of the hottest new dance move is “face each other.” At Loudoun Valley High School, students attending the homecoming dance had to sign pledges essentially promising not to break eye contact with their partners. Administrators opted for the blanket approach after hearing complaints about bumping and grinding during past dances, but many students protested—one with a T-shirt that read, “How are we supposed to do the hokeypokey if we can’t turn ourselves around?” In nearby Arlington, Virginia, kids at Yorktown High School were asked to sign a “stay classy” contract. Turnout at the dance was lower than usual, but the school’s principal said the behavior was an improvement over last year, when several chaperones were so offended, they refused to help again.

Perhaps they should have averted their eyes.

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