Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rich Parents Game the System

In the NYTimes, No Rich Child Left Behind.

The article's point, that rich kids have a huge advantage in college applications, is no surprise. The author is, however, clueless as to the cause.  From the article:
The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students.
Well, no.  The academic gap goes way beyond kindergarten.  I live in an affluent area, and what I see is an entire industry geared toward coaching and packaging rich kids to produce good-looking college applications.  Rich kids spend hours with tutors to learn how to write exactly the kind of essay that will score well on the SAT essay section.  They take exactly the kinds of extracurriculars that colleges want to see.  They are coached through every step in the application process.

There's an ongoing myth that rich kids succeed because their parents read them plenty of bedtime stories, teach them a good work ethic, and demonstrate commitment through a stable marriage.   Pshaw!  I say.  Any of those factors might be important, but it's just the beginning of how rich parents push their kids to succeed.

What really toasts my biscuits is the assertion that rich kids get ahead because they're genetically superior, as shown by their high IQs.  Are you kidding me?  These kids are coached for the IQ test!  That's how the gifted program in New York City works.

From the comments (as usual, better than the article):

from AlexJr60 of New York, NY:
Interesting article, but the writer's research obviously didn't include face-to-face interviews with parents of kids in elite private schools in New York and environs. The kids are programmed from dawn to dusk with every conceivable extracurricular coaching that could help them develop the faintest wisp of a talent of any kind. "Quiet Time" is a non-starter. They are trained to compete from the time they are toddlers; they are exposed to bright highly competitive classmates in school and camp and arts courses and language courses and on and on and on. Most of the parents start them on SAT-prep in the tenth grade. The really top preparation coaches earn as much as the kids' shrinks. The $165,000 income level cited, doesn't even come close to what is spent -- closer to that pretax, is the annual tab for a single kid in a private NYC school who goes to summer camp and has the usual lineup of extra help.
from Minerva19 of Rockland:
We have had an SAT prep program open up in our community. It was not until we enrolled our son that I realized just what an advantage the wealthy have. It didn't teach more math or critical thinking. It taught him how to game the test, when to guess, when not to, how to approach each section. He was able to raise his scores 100 points.
 from Lois Kuster of Lynbrook, NY:
One critical factor that increases the standardized test results of wealthy children is outside tutoring. This is not tracked in studies. Private tutoring starts in the early years of school and continues throughout high school. 
and a reply from Eric B. of Oxnard, CA:
Your post is much too kind. "Private tutoring", which evokes images of young people sitting at home with a tutor, studying subjects in general, very often amounts to joining prep courses offered (at high fees) by groups who have discovered what questions will be on entrance tests and asked in interviews, so the three- and four-year-old children of those who can afford these prep courses can jump ahead of other children. Those of us in the lower classes call this cheating. The rich call us resentful of our betters.
 from lizzie848 of nyc:
I live in Manhattan and work with students on their college application essays. I happen to have a sliding scale and work with kids at all income levels, but the affluent students I work with all have SAT tutors, even the very very brightest of them, and their parents are willing to spend upwards of $300 an hour - and sometimes - so I have heard - $1000 an hour - for this kind of tutoring. I heard of one family whose tutor came to the Southampton summer house to work with the child, and was paid $1000 an hour for all of his time there. I heard of one family that spent $250,000 on tutoring for their child over high school.
from Sharon of Leawood, KS:
So if a wealthy family hires a tutor to ensure their child does well on the SAT, how is that demonstrative of a "love of learning and study"? It's demonstrative of an attitude that success must come at any cost. 
from dclambert in NJ:
As a teacher in an inner city school & a private SAT tutor of the wealthy, I see this phenomenon on the ground.

Wealthy families spend a fortune on their children's education & support in ways that would probably shock the middle class.They have tutors for each subject, hw coaches, etc. They invest at least one year in SAT preparation.
The "meritocracy" is a scam.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Through Katharine Beals' blog, Out in Left Field, I am once again thinking about KIPP schools, and trying to clarify my (extremely negative) reaction to them.

In Schools Matter: A Former KIPP Teacher Shares Her Story, I found the following poster, which is apparently common in KIPP schools:

(It's a bit hard to read; here's what it says.  In the first panel, a coach berates a student: "You ! ¿ a ! ".  In the second panel, the student thinks [sic]: "I won't be bad next time I will be better The coach can be mad so what I'll do better next time".   In the third panel, three smiley-type faces are shown with the captions "I feel okay", "I feel very angry!", and "I feel a little sad".  The "I feel okay" smiley has an arrow drawn to it.)

Here, kids are taught that it's OK if they get screamed at by a coach, or, by extension, a teacher, and that they shouldn't get sad or angry about it; they should tell themselves they feel OK and try to do better next time.  The message of the poster is that kids should accept abuse from those in authority.  (Elsewhere in our society, abusive coaches get fired.)

From an interview with a KIPP student in Schools matter: Why Students Call KIPP the Kids in Prison Program:
I had to sit like this. [demonstrates]
It’s called S.L.A.N.T.: Sit straight. Listen. Ask a question. Nod your head. Track. Track is, if the teacher is going that way you have to… [demonstrates] follow… If you didn't do that, they'll yell at you: "You're supposed to be looking at me!" [points to demerit sheet] "No SLANTing." They'll put that on there. 
If I got into an argument with a teacher, I would have to stand outside the classroom on the black line, holding my notebook out. [Stands up and demonstrates, holding arms out] I would have to stand there until they decided to come out. For 20 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes they’ll forget you’re out there and you’ll be there the whole period –an hour and forty minutes standing. if you have necklaces you have to tuck them away so they can’t see them – or else they’ll have you write four pages of a sentence about KIPP – “I must follow the rules of the KIPP Academy” or “I must not talk” for four pages.
Here's the bottom line for me:  I don't like authoritarian schools.   I don't like schools that tell kids how to sit, what to wear, where they're allowed to look during class,  and how to walk in the hallway. I don't like schools that take over their students' lives through a long school day followed by enormous quantities of homework.

I wouldn't send my own kids to an authoritarian school, and I don't want to support authoritarian schools with my tax dollars.  I don't accept the values they teach, namely total compliance and unquestioning obedience.  I don't really care whether the kids at these schools do better on standardized tests, because the price is too high.  It's not worth higher test scores if children are being trained to accept abuse.

For that matter, I don't like schools that abuse their teachers.  KIPP schools routinely make their teachers work 90 hours a week.  Only young adults with no families of their own can handle the workload.  I've learned through experience that teachers who don't have their own kids are often much less sympathetic and understanding of the child's point of view, but these are the only teachers employed by KIPP.  

We need a humane society.  We can only achieve a humane society by treating all people humanely and with respect. This includes young people, female people, dark-skinned people, people whose first language is not English, employees, and everyone at the bottom of the totem pole.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Few PREP Updates

A few updates from my PREP class:

1.) Regular readers will know my feelings about baseball, and how teachers wrongly assume that it's known and loved by all kids, which isn't true (see especially girls, unathletic kids, and immigrants.) Nevertheless, I found myself playing "Catechism Baseball" with the kids last Sunday. We took the kids outside to the parking lot of our banishment, and drew the bases. When a kid came up "to bat", she would choose "single", "double", "triple" or "home run". I would ask her a question of corresponding difficulty, and if she got it right she would run the corresponding bases; if she got it wrong she was "out", but I allowed her team to try to get the question right, and if the team could answer the question the batter could still run the bases. (This was an attempt to insure that if a question was answered wrong, we would still teach the material.)

What worked: it got everybody outside and moving around in the fresh air. The kids liked it. The different grades of questions meant that the weakest kids had a chance for a hit, and the strongest kids had a chance for a challenge.

What didn't work: the team that was "in the outfield" had nothing to do. We need to either provide some alternate activity for them, or redesign the exercise somehow.

2.) I've been making a whole series of playing-card size cards illustrating various points of doctrine (see above). Sometimes I read the kids a story (for instance, the Passion), and have them put the cards in order depending on the story. If they get the cards in the right order, the letters on the cards spell out a message.

What worked: the kids enjoy it, and I think the exercise of listening to the story and finding the right image helps retention.

What didn't work: I'm amazed at how little time it takes to do this activity, considering the time that went into preparation.

3.) I'm always looking for ways to act out stories, to get the kids interested. For the Wedding at Cana (Jesus' first miracle, where he turned water into wine) I had a pitcher of water and a couple of teapots that I had pre-loaded with red kool-aid. As a demo, I poured water into the teapots, and when the teapots were poured out into cups, the water was red.

What didn't work: I didn't get the "wow!" I was hoping for; I needed younger kids. The 4th graders had it figured out immediately and were not impressed ("You had kool-aid in the teapot! Next!")

What worked: The demo got their attention, and we had a good discussion afterward.

Me: "The Catholic Church uses the story of the wedding at Cana to argue that Jesus approves of certain things. What do you think Jesus approves of because of this miracle?"

Kid (daring): "Wine!"

Me: "Yeah, you're right."

Kid (utterly scandalized): "What?"

Me: "Some churches don't allow any alcoholic drinks, but the Catholic Church has always said that alcohol is allowed, because of the Wedding at Cana."

Next Sunday, we'll act out the Last Judgement, but I think that's a separate post ...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Pleasure of Making Somebody Else Work Hard

In the NyTimes, Rigorous Schools Put College Dreams into Practice.

This is the story of an early college high school that Bard college has opened in Newark.  The early college model has so far been used for elite students who want to get to college-level work quicker; now Bard is trying the same model for disadvantaged kids in Newark.

Why does this article bother me?

1.)  Hard work is not always a good thing.

I love hard work; I could watch it all day.  (Yes, that joke is a million years old, but it's relevant.) 

Schools love to crow about making kids work hard, and most Americans, with our Puritan heritage, find it difficult to criticize work.  As a dissenter, I'm willing to ask:  is the work worth doing?  Is it well-designed, so the students actually learn something by engaging in it?

And even in a perfect universe, where the curriculum is well-designed and appropriate, and the assignments are useful and interesting, there is still such a thing as too much.  There are only so many hours in a day, and human beings are only capable of so much scholarly work at a time.  Are we burning kids out?  What do they no longer have time for because of the workload?

I find an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism when a white reporter tells mostly white readers about black kids working hard.  This is the population, of course, that white people like to criticize as "lazy", going all the way back to the days of slavery (gee, maybe people are less motivated to work when they're paid absolutely nothing.)    

2.)  Learning is necessarily sequential.

From the article:
Gone is the thinking that students must master all the basics before taking on more challenging work.
The article describes under-prepared kids struggling through an essay called "Post-Modernism is the New Black".  The kids don't understand words like "phenomenon" or "sinister", and don't know what "Auschwitz" refers to.  It's just too much to ask anyone to simultaneously remember the meaning of a half-dozen complex words she's never seen before and also engage in a debate using the new words.

Learning is sequential, and you can't skip steps and expect good results.
I see this in my own experience teaching kids math in an after-school program in Philadelphia.  One of the kids I regularly teach is in 8th-grade algebra.  She's a good kid; hard-working and eager.  But it is almost criminal to put her in an algebra class and assign homework where she's expected to work out problems comparing weekly pay.  She looks at "2 + 3n" and adds it to "5n".   She can't reliably work with fractions or decimals or the distributive property.  I spent almost an hour a couple of weeks ago showing her how to add 2-digit numbers, and why it works to "carry" the 10s to the next place. 

It's as if you threw me into a 3d year Polish class.  How hard would I have to work to get anywhere at all?   Wouldn't it be more fruitful to start me out in first-year Polish?

For that matter, why is it universally accepted as a good thing that kids should do college-level work in high school?  

3.)  It's all a scam.

The economy is a mess, and middle-class jobs are disappearing.   But here we are tantalizing under-privileged kids with the prospect of a college degree and a good job.  How many of these kids will make it through college?  If they get a college degree, how many will be able to find jobs?  If we don't fix the economy, we're not doing these kids any favors.