Friday, September 30, 2011

Why are so many kids today allergic to nuts?

Are we going nuts about allergies?

My son came home from school with a note asking us not to send in any food containing "peanuts/nuts & cod-fish/shellfish." I had two reactions. First, who sends cod into school? Even shellfish seems a bit strange, but maybe a shrimp salad, I guess, isn't too odd. But cod?

Next, why does it seem so common for kids to be allergic to nuts these days? My son's been asked not to bring in nutty foods despite the fact that the child (children) with the nut allergy is (are) not in his class.

The note makes clear that even breathing the air with these foods around could cause Anaphylactic shock. For that reason every child in the school must avoid bringing in these proscribed foods.

If this was the first time we'd received such a note I might not find it so strange, but we've had these notes a few times with all our children. What's going on? Why are there so many children who are so violently allergic to nuts?

I went to a much bigger elementary school than any  of the schools my kids have attended. We ate in a massive lunchroom with - I'm guessing - 200 kids. Never were we told that food containing nuts might cause anyone an issue. And, peanut butter was one of the more popular sandwich fillers.

Given that you'd expect that we would have been under strict orders to not bring in peanut butter sandwiches or that there would have been fatal or near fatal incident on an almost daily basis in our lunchroom.

I'm not ready to dismiss these allergies as a nonsense, but really I don't understand where they were in the 1970s.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does mainstreaming hurt educational outcomes?

Stephen Donnelly TD (@donnellystephen) says our the state of our education system is a "national emergency." To support that thesis Donnelly cites a 2010 OECD report on educational outcomes.

I read the report - it's really more of a summary of findings - and the overall message is that our standards in reading and math have slipped. Alarming. However, one finding in particular caught my eye.
The experts attribute some of the declines to changes in the profile of Ireland’s student population, including larger numbers of migrant students who do not speak English as a first language and greater inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream schools where the PISA tests were carried out.
What is this saying? It seems pretty straight-forward that the measures used showed a fall-off in standards due to too many non-English speakers and too many weak students in the classroom. But - and this is the key issue for most parents AND for the state - does this mean that the average student is achieving less due to these students being in the classroom with him/her OR are these children simply bringing down the scores?

If it's simply the case that they're bringing down the scores and making comparison with other countries less useful, then why not exclude the scores of those who are non-English-speaking or have special needs? Then we can compare like with like and get a better feel for how we're doing compared with other countries.

But what if the experts are actually saying, indirectly, that the influx of so many "migrants" and/or the mainstreaming of special needs students is actually having a negative effect on the education that most children get? Then what? I suspect these questions would be considered beyond the pale, not worthy of consideration because they're politically incorrect.

Donnelly, of course, doesn't go anywhere near the issue. He mentions 4 countries - Canada, Finland, South Korea and New Zealand - with better education systems than we have. I'd love to know how they handle these issues because the implication of the comment from the expert group is that they don't deal with these matters in the same way Ireland does.

When it comes to immigrants, I can't imagine that the experience in New Zealand and Canada could be much different from Ireland's. I'd love to know how they deal with non-English-speaking students and what impact they have on their overall educational outcome as measured by the OECD.

I'd also love to know how all four of those countries handle children with special needs. If these factors are not issues, then I want to know why our employed experts mentioned it in the first place.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Transition Year kills Mathematics learning

The Minister for Education is "concerned" about the poor results our students are getting in mathematics. He's going to "examine ways to improve" those results.

If all the Minister and his department examine is the curriculum then they've already failed. At a minimum he has to explore whether the fact that so few of the teachers who teach math at Leaving Cert level are actually qualified math teachers is having an impact. Although I'm not so worried about "qualified" as able: able to fully understand the material and able to teach.

Something else they should consider is Transition Year. Transition Year is a real problem when it comes to math.

Based on my experience Transition Year is a math killer. How? Well, from the time the Junior Cert is over until 5th Year begins, students do very little meaningful math work. The hard-won skills and knowledge acquired in the years leading up to the JC do a lot of atrophying during the intervening 15 months while students 'explore other avenues' or whatever the excuse is for TY.

Other than for the occasional Einstein, math is all about learning through repetition. You learn a concept; you work it to death until it's second nature then you introduce another concept based on those concepts already learned.

Yet, as just about any graduate can tell you, once you leave the classroom behind most of those math skills and abilities fade. There's little call for trigonometry or geometry or simultaneous equations in the 'real world.' Only, in Ireland, our students are having that graduates' experience during TY. Years of learning is lost in 15 months of mathematical brain inactivity.

And don't try and tell me that math is part of TY. It's not, not really. Not the sort of math that would prepare a student for the content of the Leaving Cert program, especially the higher level program. There are no difficult concepts presented and no hours of homework doing repetitive problems during TY.

There is so much material to cover by the end of the Leaving Cert cycle that there is no time for a few weeks of review when 5th year begins. The teachers hit the ground running as if the students can recall all that they've learned, as if they possess all the skills they had 15 months earlier. One week into the school year and many 5th Year students are already talking about "dropping down" or how they don't understand anything. Kids get left behind in a hurry.

What about my daughter? Well, she's lucky that I have the time to help her. So far we've had to work together on her homework every night.

I have a degree in Math so I kind of enjoy dusting off skills and knowledge I haven't had much call for in decades. I bet there are a lot of parents, however, who couldn't adequately explain trigonometry or what have you to their child. Their children are falling behind from the get go.

How many of those children will have to "drop down" thanks to the fact that they couldn't keep pace when the gun went off in 5th year? How many would have been better off if they hadn't had a year off? Thousands.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Data-mining governments - an annoyance, but not a real danger to democracy

I had to re-read Tom McGurk's column from this week's Sunday Business Post. I think this was because the headline – Legacy of September 11 corrodes all our lives – had me expecting something completely different than what he wrote.

McGurk's column is about all the personal data that our digital world has created and how it's stored and mined by various (nasty?) government agencies. He also notes that companies are storing a lot of information about each of us. McGurk claims - he could well be right, I have no idea - that these companies "want to exchange their information for the state’s information."

McGurk's thesis is that the government is gathering all that information in the name of security as a result of what happened on September 11, 2001. McGurk says, "the most disturbing legacy of that day, for all of us, is not on a global, macro scale, but on an individual, micro scale."

I guess my problem with what McGurk is saying is that he pins all of this on September 11. I just don't accept this. The vast amounts of information clearly would have come about if September 11 had never happened, but so would the state's impulse to warehouse and mine as much data as they could.

Maybe the voters in America would have been less willing to go along with this if not for September 11, but I suspect it would have happened anyway. Besides, if McGurk's thesis is true, this urge to accumulate information is not just American, but exists across "the west."

I think concerns about the amount of data that governments and companies have about us a legitimate concern, but it doesn't keep me awake nights. A government's first priority is to protect the citizens and for now many in the west are making a willing compromise - allowing the government to save and use all sorts of information on us in exchange for what we hope are better informed security forces.

Unlike the scare mongers who see conspiracies everywhere, I believe this can be changed if the public demands it. Maybe someday it will or maybe we'll all just learn to live with the knowledge that the government knows how many MB of data we download daily.