Friday, December 31, 2010

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part II

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education:

In my first few weeks on the internship, our cohort was required to do a community mapping project. We were given a list of locations in the school's community that we were to visit and get some information on. The places included locally-owned restaurants, the YMCA and other community service centers, the feeder middle schools, churches, and neighborhood parks and recreation areas. I'm pretty sure this was the first time I was forced to think about schools in the context of their community, although I wasn't really cognizant of the importance at the time. I guess I'd always thought of school as existing in a hermetic environment (which is telling of my naivety). Our assignment was the create a PowerPoint presentation on what we learned and present it to interns at other schools. One of the images we included in our presentation that still stands out in my mind is a picture we took in the public housing projects (where a significant percentage of our students lived) a few blocks west of the school. It just so happened that while we were driving by, the police were making a series of arrests. There were police cars in the street and officers making arrests in the front yard. We took a picture, talked about it in our PowerPoint, but I don't think I was anywhere near grasping the impact living environments like that have on the schools their children attend. The rest of the year I drove through those housing projects twice a day to get to and from school. There was a street named "Better Tomorrow." The street sign usually had loads of trash on the ground below it, and more than once I saw children playing in that trash pile.

The year of my internship ('06-'07) was my year of magazine subscriptions. I had subscriptions to The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and a few others I can't remember. And while I generally read for information on international politics, I picked up a few things about education, especially from Time and Newsweek. I learned that teaching experience really didn't make that much of a difference and that Teach for America was the new wave of educational reform. (Indeed, I remember asking during my interview for admittance into my graduate program if they recommended Teach for America were I not to be accepted by UT.) What I read in Time and Newsweek empowered me to walk into my classroom on a daily basis and believe that I could not only do as well as my mentor teacher who'd been teaching for 33 years, but better.

I taught ninth-grade world history (students who had less behavioral issues than those who'd been tracked into world geography). My initial understanding of good teaching focused on keeping the kids engaged. The last thing I wanted to do was be boring. So I brought in Rome: Total War to let them experience what a battle in Ancient Rome must have been like. I made simulations for them to participate in about the Age of Exploration. I made sure all of my lectures included humorous anecdotes and that I was lively, engaging, and friendly. I had students write me notes about how the day went, and I would respond on a daily basis to add a personal touch. The kids listened to me (usually) and they seemed to enjoy the class. I was really doing great; Newsweek was right, or so I thought.

When I gave my first unit test, every single student failed. I didn't realize that I should have been gathering formative assessment from them from day one. When I went over the test with the kids, they were utterly confused. I realized almost none of my exciting lessons had built on each other. My 'lessons' were really just stand-alone interactive presentations, not effective lessons. I had no concept of how to plan or how to write a valid test. I realized some of the kids couldn't answer the questions because they couldn't read the questions. I didn't take into to account the quiet girl in the back who didn't really speak English. We hadn't read any primary documents; I had mostly just been a story-teller. I hadn't taught them any of the essential skills they needed to be getting (like reading, writing, annotating, or the historical habits of mind). And I certainly didn't take into account that my instruction was really only targeting about half of the class. Finally, I had no idea that more than a few of my students were rarely paying attention because they had nowhere to sleep and avoided eating lunch because they always got beat up in the cafeteria. Most of that, though, I did not fully grasp at the time. I still wanted to believe I was a pretty good teacher; and other people seemed to think that I was. I didn't acknowledge my failures because I didn't want to admit that I might not be cut out for the job, and it seemed to me that I was the only person whose entire class of students were failing.

I spent the rest of the year planning day-by-day with little understanding of my flaws. My faculty and school mentors were helpful at times, but primarily as tip-givers on classroom management (which ended up taking me about three years to figure out for myself). I ended the year by preparing my students for the Knox County EOC (end of course exam), which is essentially the same fifty multiple-choice questions year after year. I observed most teachers (including myself) spending the last week of class asking their students the fifty questions over and over again until the kids starting answering them correctly. Even so, most of my students only got somewhere between thirty and thirty-five of the questions correct. Nobody I worked with really believed the students at Fulton were capable of more rigorous coursework, so nobody tried to give it to them. I was constantly stunned by the decorum in some of the classrooms. I kept telling my mentor that if the public knew what was happening in Fulton classrooms, they would be outraged. He would kind of look at me confused and say, "What? Oh right - yea, I guess..." It was a sad state of affairs that I didn't fully understand until I worked in other districts.

Despite what should have struck me as pretty massive failures in my own teaching practice, the college and community praised me as one of the most promising interns coming out of UT's College of Education. On more than one occasion, school leaders and college faculty pleaded with me to stay and work in Tennessee. And while I certainly welcomed the praise, there was that voice in the back of my head that knew I could be a better teacher, and I knew Knoxville was not the place to become that better teacher.

Next: lessons learned, new questions asked

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Guest Post: Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness, Part I

re-posted from An Urban Teacher's Education:

I'm lucky. I've known practically all of my life that I wanted to be a teacher. There was never any indecision about it for me. When I was in the second grade I would take extra worksheets home, give them to my brother to do, and then practice grading them. In fourth grade I had my mom buy me white boards and dry erase markers so I could lecture neighborhood kids on the American Civil War, give them quizzes, and then make them try again when they got answers wrong. When I was in elementary school I wanted to teach elementary school. When I was in middle school, it was going to be middle school - and so on...all the way through college.

I think my desire to teach (up until my junior year in college) was mostly about sharing knowledge, working with people, and I liked the idea of being organized and running my own classroom. It wasn't until 2003 or 2004 that the promise of becoming a teacher took on new importance. I remember finding a flyer in my dorm requesting college students as tutors at a nearby high school. It seemed like a good fit as I was a few years away from entering a masters program in education, and I thought it would provide me some real experience to help ensure that teaching was really for me. The students, however, were not the same students I hung out with when I was in high school. East Knoxville was (and is) not exactly what one might call affluent. It caught me off guard when I found out a majority of students rarely bothered with homework or that many of them were reading on a third-grade level (and some were almost entirely illiterate). It caught most of my college friends off guard too.

It wasn't long after my experience with tutoring at Fulton High School that my coursework began to introduce me to many of the disparaging realities involved with public education. It was a public policy course and an education course that introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez. It only sank in that the vast majority of students in inner-city students across the country were black and hispanic when I was 21, and I remember being blown away. I guess I had seen Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, but the statistics really didn't make an impact on me until I began to study them in an academic context.

"99% of students in the District of Columbia are black? That's not the way it was at my high school. Even the high school I tutor at is more diverse. Where did all the white kids go?"

I began to study education more and quickly learned about the catastrophically inequitable funding structures in place across the country. I was largely convinced that this was the problem with education. If a kid in one part of Houston has $3,000 spent on her education and a kid in another part gets $11,000, that's got to be the problem. I learned the most inexperienced teachers often ended up at the toughest schools and that they were paid the least.

I was outraged, and I told anybody who would listen about the problem. Teaching took on new meaning for me. No longer did I want the job of my high school world history teacher (teach world history and coach soccer - seemed like a good life), I wanted to do something about the problems in public education. So I urged my faculty advisors to place me at Fulton or Austin East for my master's internship, the two most underprivileged schools in Knoxville. It wasn't a hard sell; everyone else wanted to intern at Farragut or West (schools in West Knoxville that routinely send their valedictorians to Harvard or Yale - Fulton's valedictorian usually makes it into UT). I was placed at Fulton, and my friends asked me why I would want to work at a school where none of the students cared and where guns and knives were sometimes brandished at football games (and even during the school day). My advisor told me I was brave and that if could teach at Fulton I could teach anywhere. I, on the other hand, thought of my commitment as honorable. I was proud of my choice and wanted to prove to myself and others that I could not only do it, but that I could do it well. I was a moron.

Next: Reality kicks our hero in the backside.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Limits of Neuroscience

In 3 Brain Facts Every Educator Should Know, psychologist Daniel Willingham writes about the limits of neuroscience. In particular, he shows that neuroscience can't yet be useful for teaching. Willingham says:

Most of what you see advertised as educational advice rooted in neuroscience is bunkum.

He quotes a researcher, David Daniel:

“If you see the words 'brain-based,' run.”

Are you listening, Chris Biffle? Consider his claim:

All of Whole Brain Teaching’s instructional techniques (see the “First Steps” menu) are validated by contemporary brain research.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Vacation HOMEWORK?

I was planning not to post again until after Christmas. Oh well, there's another plan shot.

The current target of my ire is Jay Mathews, who has written yet another dunderheaded article: Winter Holiday Enrichment Made Easy. In this one, he canvassed various teachers (beginning with preschool!) for educational projects parents can do with their kids over the Christmas break. ("Make an ABC poster out of old magazines! Fun and educational!" Barf.)

One mother wrote in that the article made her laugh, because her 9th-grader is already bogged down with work to do over the break. The last thing she's looking for is more projects for him.

Which one of Satan's minions is responsible for the truly terrible idea of giving kids schoolwork over vacation? It's called VACATION! Kids should have a chance to relax, recharge, and reconnect with family and friends.

For more on vacation homework:

Vacation Homework? Seriously?

Vacation Homework -- Pro Teacher Community

Homework? During Break? Thoughts on Teaching

Homework Beckons, Vacation Vanishes

Take Action Against Winter Homework

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Joyous Nondiscriminatory Timechunk!

First, the easy part. If you celebrate Christmas, Merry Christmas! (and Feliz Navidad!)

Of course, there's a much wider world out there, so I would like to include you in my good wishes if you are:

Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, or a follower of any other formal religion or tradition;

Secular or Pagan;

Atheist, Agnostic, Unsure, or Indifferent;

Lackadaisical, Lapsed, Recovering, or Bitter;

or if you have taken the world's great religious traditions, poured them in the blender, and pressed the button marked "Liquefy";

To all the above and anyone I might have left out, I wish you a Joyous Nondiscriminatory Timechunk! and a Happy New Year.

Nonstandard Dialects and Standardized Tests

Here's an example to show why speakers of nonstandard dialects are at a disadvantage when they take standardized tests (from Standardized Testing and Nonstandard Dialects.)

The following questions are from the California Achievement Test, and were written to test third graders' English language 'achievement.' Tests like this one are used to determine things from what kind of funding a school gets to whether a particular child is marked as 'learning disabled.' The instructions asked the student to pick the answer that "you think is correct."

1) Beth _______ home and cried. a. come b. came

2) Can you ________ out now? a. went b. go

3) When _______ I come again? a. can b. may

What do these questions test? A variety of different things, really. Take question 1, to start with. The correct answer to this question (according to the test makers) is b., Beth came home and cried. But to speakers of several vernacular dialects in which the "bare root form" of come is used as an irregular past tense form, the more natural, grammatically correct answer is a., Beth come home and cried.

What is defined as 'correct' by the people who made this test is using the standard dialect as opposed to the non-standard dialect. For a speaker of Standard American English, this is a very easy question to get right: all you do is, as the instructions say, pick the answer that "you think is correct." But for a speaker of a dialect in which come is an acceptable answer, it's significantly trickier: you must be aware that the standard form of the past tense of come is came, even though that is not how you would say it, and you must be able to recognize this as a situation where, regardless of what the instructions say, you should go against instinct and pick the standard form. Some nine-year-olds can do that, but many will have trouble.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Disco Balls: Christmas in a Secular School

by northTOmom, re-posted from Parenting is Political:

Last week at my twin daughters' Grade 6 holiday party, one of the activities organized by the parent volunteers was an ornament-decorating craft. A parent brought in clear glass Christmas tree balls, along with decorating supplies such as paint and Q-tips. During the parent's explanation of the craft, she suggested that the kids paint snowmen on their balls or or a wintry scene or whatever they desired. I was one of the volunteers at the party, and while I was helping distribute the ornaments, a boy asked me: "Do I have to do this craft?" I knew why he was asking; my daughters had told me that this boy, who is Jewish, had complained on other occasions about the "holiday" celebrations at the school, which were actually mostly "Christmas" celebrations. I told the boy that he didn't have to do the craft; if he wanted, he could paint the ball just for fun and not take it home. I was going to suggest that he decorate his globe with dreidels or other Hanukkah designs, but I hesitated. It was clearly a Christmas tree ornament—what was the point of me trying to pretend it was religion-neutral?

At this point the woman who had organized the craft noticed what was going on and came over to speak to the boy. I moved away from the table, but I heard her tell him that he should think of the ornament as a disco ball to hang in his room, and that he could decorate it in any way he wanted. This seemed to satisfy him, and he proceeded to paint the ball with a Menorah, dreidels and some Hebrew words. I watched as he walked over to another Jewish child in the class, who was contentedly painting a winter scene on her ball, to confer with her over the Hebrew spelling. His finished ornament wound up being one of the most beautiful in the class. But of course, he knew, as did the rest of us (parents and children alike), that it was not a disco ball.

My own children celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. I am a product of what used to be called a "mixed" marriage so I grew up celebrating all of the major Jewish and Christian holidays. My husband is an atheist of Anglican and Presbyterian descent, who happily participates in whatever holidays happen to be going on at any particular time. In our household, we tend to celebrate religious holidays in a non-religious, cultural manner, which sometimes leads to confusion in my daughters' minds. When they were six years old, I overheard one of them explaining the meaning of Hanukkah to an older cousin: "There was supposed to be oil for one night," she said, "but it lasted for eight nights. And that was Jesus' first miracle." I decided then and there that since, as my old professor Northrop Frye argued, the Bible is integral to Western culture (or at least to Western culture's sense of itself), I would read the Bible to the girls, starting with the Old Testament and ending, if we got that far, with the New Testament. We didn't get that far. In fact, we barely made it past the flood. The girls pronounced the Bible too violent and not particularly believable. So I left it at that. (Although thankfully they do now understand that Jesus had nothing to do with the Hanukkah miracle!)

My daughters' religious education has certainly not been furthered at school. While some curricula, such as those at Waldorf and Global Knowledge schools, teach Bible stories, alongside ancient myths and legends as part of a broad-based humanist education, public schools in Ontario do not. Despite living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America, my girls haven't been taught about the origin or meaning of Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah or Christmas. Yet . . . year after year, their school's winter holiday celebrations take on a decidedly Christian cast. There are "secret Santa" gift exchanges, carol-singing assemblies (with a Hanukkah song thrown into the Christmas mix, for good measure), Christmas toy drives, etc. The school seems to be saying, we're not Christian—but in December, deck those halls, we're all about Christmas! To be fair, it could be that the school is simply reflecting its particular demographic: we happen to live in an enclave that is less religiously and ethnically diverse than most communities in the city. Nonetheless, in my daughters' class of 27, there are four Jewish children and several more who, like my twins, participate in both Christian and Jewish traditions; there are also two Muslim children and one Zoroastrian child.

I have to admit that my girls enjoy the emphasis on Christmas at school, just as I did as a child. They like the songs, the gift exchanges, the excitement. It makes sense for them to enjoy it: they celebrate Christmas at home. I often wonder about the boy who asked me if he had to decorate the ornament. I try to imagine how he feels in that classroom during the month of December. But I'm even more concerned about the kids who don't have the wherewithal to speak up. The Muslim kid in this or any other classroom who silently absorbs the message that Christianity—even in a public school in a nominally secular country like Canada—is the norm. I believe we should all think—even worry a little—about such a child during this "holiday" season.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Data is Fabulous!

(shouldn't that be "Data ARE fabulous!"?)

"Miss Peterson, may I go home?  I can't assimilate any more data today."

(from The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. This cartoon was published in 1969.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kids as Employees, II

Faithful readers of this blog will recall the discussion about Grading for Learning, in which I quoted Glen's comment:

Near monopolies often forget who works for whom. It's easy for teachers to start thinking of themselves as bosses and the kids as employees. Bosses usually "grade" employees based on how much their behaviors and attitudes benefit the boss and "the team".

So take a look at this video, which has been making the rounds:

MAP Goal Setting

What is this if not a business meeting, with management reviewing the employees' performance? Those poor kids are stuck in a Dilbert cartoon.

Holy Cow! Here's another one:

Cagle: MAP Goal Setting

It's Dilbert with a southern accent!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Guest post: Scenes from a meeting with the superintendent

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

The thing that most surprised me at last night’s meeting with the superintendent about the fifteen-minute lunch period: There are apparently no state or federal requirements on how elementary schools must allocate the time in the school day. How many minutes to give to math, reading, art, music, gym, lunch, recess: it’s entirely up to us as a community.

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So why has lunch been squeezed down to fifteen minutes or less? According to the superintendent, it’s because school administrators know that they’ll be subject to penalties, under No Child Left Behind, if they fail to raise standardized test scores. Those penalties can even lead to administrators and teachers getting fired. In response, the administrators have concluded that they have to add instructional time to the day, and there are only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess. The superintendent did not endorse this system, but was just describing the objective reality. So much for what our community would choose for our children. More on that issue in an upcoming post.

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The superintendent started the meeting by talking about how the “twenty-minute lunch period” came about, and conceded that some schools may be counting time getting to and from lunch as part of the “twenty minutes.” This attempt at spin went over like a lead balloon. No one in the room acknowledged his characterization at all, and discussion quickly moved on to the actual fifteen-minute lunch period and how the fifteen minutes even included time waiting in line and cleaning up.

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A paraphrase that I think captures the essence of the evening:

PARENT: There is more to education than raising test scores. We want to educate the whole child.


ANOTHER PARENT: Evidence shows that kids learn better if they eat a healthy lunch and have sufficient down time to socialize and play.


ANOTHER PARENT: I don’t see why my first-grader needs an hour of math instruction every day. If math were fifty minutes long, and lunch was twenty-five minutes long, nobody would be here complaining that we need to cut lunch and add to math.

ANOTHER PARENT: We need to question the assumption that more is always better. Piling additional instructional time on the kids is counterproductive, even if raising test scores is your goal.

SIXTH-GRADER: After about forty minutes of any class, I start to zone out anyway.


PARENT: So how do you suggest we solve this lunch problem?

(Drum roll please . . .)

SUPERINTENDENT: I think we should make the school day longer.

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In fairness, a few of the parents were open to the idea of extending the school day to make more time for lunch. I don’t know whether that’s because they’d be against redrawing the line between instructional time and down time, or just because they sense that the administrators won’t be willing to extend lunch any other way.

One student said -- and was quoted in the paper -- “I’d much rather have a long day than a short lunch.” That’s exactly the choice the superintendent wants us to see. Considering the possibility of a longer lunch in the existing school day would force a discussion of whether the administrators’ interests actually differ from the kids’ interests, a subject I sensed the superintendent would prefer to avoid.

My sense was that the superintendent already wanted to extend the school day, and hoped to use the school lunch issue as a way to win parents over to the idea -- thus pleasing both parents and administrators. I know a lot of parents whose reaction will disappoint him.

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For a while discussion turned to how the district’s behavior management program, PBIS, was creating a negative and overly restrictive atmosphere in the schools. The superintendent’s defense of PBIS struck me as particularly lame. He said that there is nothing wrong with PBIS itself, because all it means is setting clear community expectations about how the kids should act. I’ll agree that PBIS, defined in that way, is unobjectionable, but it’s also a meaningless platitude. No one objects to the schools setting clear expectations about behavior. But it is simply false to say that that is what PBIS is. PBIS is a specific approach to achieving behavioral goals -- one that emphasizes rewards and external motivators, and puts no emphasis on helping the kids develop their own intrinsic sense of right and wrong that is independent of simply obeying whatever rules the authorities present them with. All of the non-imaginary objections to PBIS follow from that fact.

Although the superintendent defended his contentless version of PBIS, he at least conceded that there may be problems with the way PBIS is being implemented. All right. If he wants to think of all the actual content of PBIS as an “implementation problem,” fine, let’s work on that implementation problem.

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Am I being too harsh? The guy came out on an eight-degree night to meet with us for an hour and a half when he could have been at home with his family, and I appreciate that. And he understood -- and even anticipated and sympathized with -- much of what we had to say. But I’m afraid my experience has taught me that school administrators often try to placate parents by sympathizing profusely with their concerns, only to then enact policies that exacerbate those very concerns -- usually asserting that they have no choice because of decisions made at higher levels. I sometimes think it must be the first strategy they learn in Parent Management class in education school.

If this superintendent increases lunch and recess time without extending the school day, and gets rid of the harmful aspects of PBIS, and resists as much as possible the dehumanizing pressures of No Child Left Behind, I’ll be his biggest fan, and you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, I’ll view him the way I hope my kids will someday view public officials who tell them what they want to hear: skeptically first, and hopefully second.

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Above all, I was struck yet again by how our “public” school system is primarily driven by factors other than the community’s preferences. Here is an issue -- allocation of time in the school schedule -- which is entirely in our community’s hands. Yet even the identity of the people deciding the issue remains unclear. The superintendent said that the schedule is decided by individual principals, but also mentioned that the district “suggests” a rough schedule outline to the principals. My experience is that “suggestions” made by one’s employer carry a lot of weight. But, conveniently, this division of responsibility between the district and the principals allows each to blame the other for the outcome.

The superintendent explained that our district operates “more like a confederation than like a nation,” and that the district gives a lot of discretion to individual principals. I’d be in favor of that system, but for the fact that principals are the least democratically accountable of any actors in the system. We can vote for the school board members, who hire the superintendent. But if they delegate the policymaking to the school principals, what possible role is there for public input into those decisions? (Even the superintendent acknowledged that the PTAs do not play that role.) My suggestion that each school might have a parent council that would advise the principal on policy decisions -- an idea borrowed from our Canadian friends -- received a polite nod from the superintendent before he moved on to the next person.

Of course I have no way of knowing how much the parents in the room last night were representative of our district’s citizens as a whole. But when I heard the stories of kids being rushed through lunch in their winter coats and/or in near silence, I couldn’t help thinking how little resemblance our school system bears to any system that our community would ever consciously choose to create.

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More soon. Part 1 here.

What Does a Superintendent Do?

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland:

... the superintendent comes to realize that it is not her job to decide where the educational "train" will go; the superintendent's job is merely to keep the train running.

In fact, the superintendent is no longer an educator; he is a corporate manager hired by the school board. In fact, the skills that the school board expects from the superintendent have nothing to do with either teaching or learning. What the school board wants from an administrator is conservative day-to-day management of a large, financially critical enterprise. That requires good political and managerial skills, a knowledge of finance and budgeting, planning ability, and god public relations skills. If the superintendent is ever fired, his termination would have more to do with a lack of management or political skills than with any failure on the superintendent's part as an educator.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stress and the High School Student

The NYTimes has a round-up of opinion, from many of the usual suspects, called Stress and the High School Student.

Harris Cooper, the ubiquitous homework "expert", makes me itch. He is so utterly clueless about how homework actually plays out in family life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Two Looks at Education in China

The state of education in China is a big topic this week. First up: an interesting article in the NYTimes, China's Army of Graduates Struggles For Jobs. Last May, China graduated more than six million young people from college. Many of the new graduates come from families who spent their life savings putting their one child through college. But there's not enough professional-level jobs to go around.

As I've remarked before, education doesn't create jobs. The economy creates a certain number of highly-paid jobs, and most of them go to people with college degrees. But that doesn't mean that increasing the number of people with college degrees will improve the economy. If the economy isn't creating more professional jobs, the new college graduates could wind up unemployed (or underemployed) with unsustainable college debt.

Gee -- think that could happen here? I wonder about the graduates of KIPP and HSA. If they actually get through college, then what? Is there still a ladder for them to climb, or will they find themselves adrift in a brutal economy, without all the supports that are available to middle-class kids?

From Yong Zhao, here's an interesting look at the downside of China's testing culture: A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance. Apparently Chinese students are compelled to spend endless hours on soul-sucking test prep. A Chinese mother reports:

This kind of practice has seriously damaged students’ health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child’s health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Paula Poundstone Re: Experts

I've never found a job harder than parenting, partly because there are so many self-appointed experts. Even when something goes right, I'm sure I did it wrong. One day seven-year-old Thomas E had a huge tantrum while we walked to school, and eleven-year-old Alley looked at me and said, "He didn't get that way by himself."

I don't think I've ever met someone who didn't know how to raise my kids. My daughter once happened to have a stomping tantrum as we walked by a guy passed out on the sidewalk, who stirred enough to mumble, "Try a positive-reinforcement sticker chart."

(From There's Nothing in this Book That I Meant to Say.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

PISA vs. the "Race to Nowhere"

Recently, the NYTimes ran two much-discussed articles about education: In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts, and Parents Embrace "Race to Nowhere", on Pressures of School.

One of the comments on the "Race to Nowhere" article asked "Are our schools falling behind compared to, say, Shanghai? Or are our schools pressure cookers with teachers having too high standards?"

My answer is "both". I don't doubt for a moment that the Shanghai kids are better educated than American kids, especially in math. At the same time, there is way too much pressure in nominally high-performing American schools today.

How is this possible? Because pressure from schools, and hours of work on the part of students, don't necessarily equal learning. If the curriculum is shallow and incoherent, and the classes have too many kids, and the teachers are poorly educated themselves, hard work is just a waste of time. The hamster can run faster and faster on his wheel, but he still won't get anywhere.

I especially liked this comment, from "ivyj":

My girls, now in high school, are the product of relatively decent California public schools and I strongly believe the main cause of my girls' stress (my daughter also had stomach problems due to school) is the extreme amount of homework assigned by teachers, starting in the elementary grades. I noticed teachers spent a lot of time doing fun activities during the day (working in the garden, playing games), then sent the more arduous tasks home so the parents could crack the whip and do the teaching. This started in kindergarten and continued into middle school. For example, my daughters had to log their reading every night and write book reports every week for two straight years - prior to this, they read for the joy of reading, but their teachers managed to kill that joy in their zeal to make sure everyone could read and write.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Vomiting Canaries in the Coal Mine

We've all heard of the famous canary in the coal mine, whose sensitivity to toxic gas provided an early warning to miners. (But who knew they were in use in British mines as recently as 1986?)

Like canaries, kids are also sensitive to a toxic environment. They show their distress through depression, anxiety, crying jags, tantrums, regression, and psychosomatic ailments like headaches, stomachaches, and vomiting.

Increasingly, I'm seeing reports of kids vomiting because of the pressure of standardized tests. Here's a few I've rounded up:

from the Pro Teacher Forum:

When I taught in a different state, we tested in first grade. Kids cried, threw up, got headaches. It was horrible.

and again:

When I taught in Missouri, we gave the ITBS to our first graders. Most didn't care. Some, the really good students got headaches, some cried, one actually threw up. It was just too much for those first graders who understood that it was a test.

and here:

A grandfather I know is raising a granddaughter. He went to her school on taas (taks this year) day, despite the wishes of the school. He stood in the hallway and watched teachers take *9* children (probably third-graders) to the bathroom to throw up. The teachers were shaking their heads and making comments such as "This is so wrong."

(Note: "taas" and "taks" are standardized tests implemented in Texas.)

The kids are telling us they're too stressed out, but are we listening?

More Press for the Race to Nowhere

in the NYTimes today: Parents Embrace 'Race to Nowhere', on Pressures of School

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Guest post: Tolstoy in the schools of Marseilles

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

As a follow-up to FedUpMom’s post earlier today, here’s Tolstoy, writing almost a hundred and fifty years ago:

Last year I was in Marseilles, where I visited all the schools for the working people of that city.

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The school programmes consist in learning by heart the catechism, Biblical and universal history, the four operations of arithmetic, French orthography, and bookkeeping. In what way bookkeeping could form the subject of instruction I was unable to comprehend, and not one teacher could explain it to me. The only explanation I was able to make to myself, when I examined the books kept by the students who had finished the course, was that they did not know even three rules of arithmetic, but that they had learned by heart to operate with figures and that, therefore, they had also learned by rote how to keep books.

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Not one boy in these schools was able to solve, that is, to put the simplest problem in addition and subtraction. And yet, they operated with abstract numbers, multiplying thousands with ease and rapidity. To questions from the history of France they answered well by rote, but if asked at haphazard, I received such answers as that Henry IV. had been killed by Julius Caesar. The same was the case with geography and sacred history. The same with orthography and reading. More than one half of the girls cannot read any other books than those they have studied. Six years of school had not given them the faculty of writing a word without a mistake.

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After the lay school, I saw the daily instruction offered in the churches; I saw the salles d’asiles, in which four-year-old children, at a given whistle, like soldiers, made evolutions around the benches, at a given command lifted and folded their hands, and with quivering and strange voices sang laudatory hymns to God and to their benefactors, and I convinced myself that the educational institutions of the city of Marseilles were exceedingly bad.
At the root of the problem, Tolstoy believed, was the degree of compulsion -- which “becomes worse and worse in every year and with every hour,” to the point where “There is left only the despotic form with hardly any contents.” To the contrary, Tolstoy concluded, “the criterion of pedagogics is only liberty.”

But why listen to people like Tolstoy and Einstein when we have Arne Duncan, E.D. Hirsch, and that principal with the baseball bat?

Learning vs. Testing in China

From High Test Scores, Low Ability, by Yong Zhao:

From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else so they can focus on getting good scores.

The result is that Chinese college graduates often have high scores but low ability.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

They're Just Different

"I tell you, Mamma, the blood keeps going to my head."
"I don't care what you say — I'm cold!"

(From The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Big Picture

Here's a fabulous comment from an Answer Sheet post called Ravitch Answers Gates, written by "Critical74".

Maybe I am just more cynical than Ms. Ravitch and others, but I think there's a bigger picture that is being missed.

Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons, and the others who are pushing "reform" have realized that largely because of people like them, there are few manufacturing jobs (the source of social mobility for the poor and middle class) left in the U.S. They are not interested in educating the disadvantaged because they know that soon there will be no middle class. There will be corporate America (billionaires) and the service industry (people who sweep their floors and work at places like Wal-Mart). They need only few educated and lots of uneducated to keep their industries growing. They want "choice", competition, privatization, and deregulation in education because these are the same philosophies that made them filthy rich.

Gates even eluded to this reality with his comments in WfS in regards to this reform being about keeping the U.S. economically competitive. Traditionally, the health of the economy is determined by the viability of corporate America, not by the proletariat and the possibilities for everyone via social services and a well-rounded education. I think a lot of people do not realize this because the reform initiatives are being pushed by philanthropists and so-called progressives like Obama.

These people are fully aware that they are narrowing down the curriculum because they have no use for artists and musicians. They have no desire to instill critical thinking and life skills into students via the humanities, arts, shop classes, and home economics because these are the people who really question the status quo. Why else would they continue to push standardized testing and other initiatives that are not research-based, are top-down, and are just plain counter-intuitive?

They are in control of our education policy and as indicated by Joel Klein's new position at NewsCorp (Rupert Murdoch), the fact that his successor is also a media mogul, the movies like WfS, and the recent article in NewsWeek, they also control the media and are trying with some success, to shape public opinion.

Of course, nobody can point these things out without being called a Marxist, conspiracy theorist. However, let's not assume that any of these corporate hawks have the best interests of everybody in mind. After all, they are promoting the same ideas in education (competition, deregulation, and a false sense of choice) that created our health care and foreclosure crises.

(Note: "WfS" is "Waiting for Superman".)