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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -. . .

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".)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brave New Blogs

Just wanted to bring your attention to a couple of blogs I've discovered recently:

a terrific new blog written by a teacher:

Teaching: Let's Roll Up Our Sleeves

and, for a much needed dose of humor:

Billionaires for Educational Reform

Grading for Learning

A recent NY Times article describes a school that is taking the radical step of issuing grades based on material learned, rather than good behavior. From the article:

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.

...“Over time, we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance — not for mastering the course material,” Ms. Berglund said. “A portion of our A and B students were not the ones who were gaining the most knowledge but the ones who had learned to do school the best.”

Speaking as one of the kids who knew the material but flunked the class anyway, I think this is progress.

I really liked this comment from "Glen" at kitchen table math:

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".

Of course, if students aren't employees, then grades shouldn't be employee evaluations.

Brilliant! Thanks, Glen, whoever you might be!

This discussion reminds me of a math class I took once. I walked in on the first day and the teacher went right over my head -- I had no idea what he was talking about. Fortunately, there was a young woman sitting next to me who was watching the teacher intently, and nodding and smiling as he made his points. I thought, "great, I'll just ask her to explain it." After class, when I asked her what the lecture was about, she said, "I don't know -- nobody understands a word that teacher says. We just look it up in the book later." She, of course, was a straight-A student.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Harlem Success vs. Private Schools

From an Anonymous comment regarding Harlem Success schools:

I don't see how this "authoritarian" (which is a bit of an exaggeration) approach is any different than most private schools. A lot of (rich, lily white) parents do choose this environment.

Au contraire, Anonymous, there are big differences between Harlem Success and private school. Here's 3 to start:

1.) Class size.

Eva Moskowitz brags in "The Lottery" that her class sizes are even larger than those in zoned public schools, and quotes a kindergarten class size of 27 kids. I've never heard of a private school with such a large kindergarten class. (For comparison, my younger daughter's first grade class at a private school has 11 kids, one full-time teacher, and an assistant.)

Once you've got 27 kindergarten kids in a class, you're pretty much stuck with an authoritarian (euphemism: "structured") environment. There's a real limit to how child-centered and progressive you can be with that many very young kids in a room. There's also a limit to how much attention any one child can receive.

2.) Instructional time.

Private schools generally have less instructional time than public schools. Many parents say, "the more money you pay, the less time the kid spends at school", and in my experience, that's true. I actually see this as an advantage to private school. I want my kids to have time for friends, family and leisure; I don't want school to eat their young lives.

By contrast, Eva Moskowitz seems to expect her "scholars" to be workaholics just like her. The difference is that she's middle-aged and has chosen to devote her life to work; the kids are, well, kids, and they don't get to choose. At Harlem Success, there is apparently no limit to the number of hours kids can be forced to spend at school. According to an article in New York Magazine, Harlem Success kids only got two days off over the winter break, Christmas and New Year's. In addition, the lowest-scoring third-graders were kept doing test prep until 6:00 p.m. four days a week, for six weeks before the standardized test.

3.) Treatment of parents.

As I've noted before, one of the biggest differences between private and public school is that the public schools treat parents with utter contempt, while the private schools treat parents as the customer. Harlem Success stands firmly in the public school tradition with regard to parents. From the same article I quoted before:

Parents must sign the network’s “contract,” a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform, guarantee homework, and attend all family events. “When parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Fucaloro says, “we get on their behinds. Eva and Paul Fucaloro are their worst nightmares.” Infractions can range to the trivial: slacks that look worn at a child’s knees, long johns edging beyond collars. Recidivists are hauled into “Saturday Academy,” detention family style, where parents are monitored while doing “busy work” with their child, the ex-staffer says. Those who skip get a bristling form letter: “You simply stood up your child’s teacher and many others who came in on a Saturday, after a long, hard week.”

I don't know a lot of parents who would be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to be treated this way.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Some Thoughts about "The Lottery"

So, I just finished watching "The Lottery" (streamed on Netflix). For those who haven't heard of it, it's a documentary (though not a balanced one) that follows several families as they apply to get into a charter school called the Harlem Success Academy.

I have mixed feelings about the movie, and charter schools in general. On the one hand, I increasingly feel that parents should have choices about where to school their children, and everyone should be able to vote with their feet, as I did. Surely one of the worst ideas in education is that one size fits all.

I don't criticize the parents who applied to the Lottery in hopes of getting into a charter school. The zoned public schools where they live are terrible, and a decent charter would be a big step up. The parents in the movie are dedicated to their kids and want to give them a chance to succeed in adult life.

On the other hand, the Harlem Success Academy, like KIPP, runs schools that I would never willingly send my kids to. Now, as a white, upper-middle-class, left-of-liberal type, I'm not their intended audience. But I wonder, if someone opened a Montessori charter in the inner city, what kind of results could they get? Would parents be interested, or do they prefer the authoritarian model?

There's an interesting article about Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Harlem Success Academies, here. Here's an excerpt which convinced me that my kids would never attend such a school:

New students are initiated at “kindergarten boot camp,” where they get drilled for two weeks on how to behave in the “zero noise” corridors (straight lines, mouths shut, arms at one’s sides) and the art of active listening (legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker). Life at Harlem Success, the teacher says, is “very, very structured,” even the twenty-minute recess. Lunches are rushed and hushed, leaving little downtime to build social skills. Many children appear fried by two o’clock, particularly in weeks with heavy testing. “We test constantly, all grades,” the teacher says. During the TerraNova, a mini-SAT bubble test over four consecutive mornings, three students threw up. “I just don’t feel that kids have a chance to be kids,” she laments.

Noguera, too, has reservations about the “punitive” approach at Harlem Success and other high-performing charter networks. He thinks it grooms conformists, and that middle-class parents would find it anathema. “What concerns me are the race/class assumptions built into this,” he says. “If you’re serious about preparing kids to be leaders, you have to realize that leaders have to think for themselves.”

Also, the sight of classrooms full of dark-skinned children being taught and supervised by lily-white teachers and administrators is troubling. How about training some of the parents to become teachers in the school?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Are You Thankful For?

I'm thankful for the chance to share my thoughts about schooling on this blog. I'm thankful for the fabulous Guest Post writers. I'm thankful for everyone who has taken the trouble to write comments, whether I happen to agree with them or not. I'm thankful for all the readers of this blog. They also serve who only sit and lurk.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who's Qualified?

"We're planning on sending him away to be reared by experts."
(from The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker.)

Guest post: What does it mean to be well educated?

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

So much of educational debate focuses on how to assess whether our schools, teachers, and kids are meeting certain goals, but the goals themselves seem very narrowly defined. It sometimes seems like we are letting assessment itself drive the goals -- as if we’ve concluded that there’s no point in pursuing any goal if it can’t be measured on a test.

That strikes me as impoverishing our conception of education, so I wanted to open up that topic here. In one recent post, I described one quality that I hope education will instill in my kids: healthy skepticism, by which I mean not just being able to evaluate other people’s claims about the world, but being inclined to do so.

What qualities do you think a good education would instill in a person? How do they break down between acquired knowledge, skills, behavioral traits, mindsets, and values?

(The title of this post is borrowed from a book by Alfie Kohn.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Guest Post: New Report Cards

(re-posted from Parenting is Political.)

New Report Cards—Progress?

Readers of this blog may recall that several months ago, I reviewed the Toronto District School Board's new, purportedly jargon-free, parent-friendly report card, piloted in 19 schools last June. (See post here.) This November we are seeing the results of yet another reform of the report card system, this one a province-wide initiative to replace the fall graded report card with an ungraded "Elementary Progress Report Card." The progress report was spearheaded by teachers who complained that November is too soon to come up with letter grades for students. According to ministry of education literature, the advantage of the progress report is that it provides, in a greatly expanded section, detailed information about a student's work habits—for instance, Responsibility, Organization, Collaboration—skills which the ministry considers to be more reliable indicators of student success (or lack thereof) than grades in the early part of the year. The brochure accompanying the new report card explains that with respect to specific subjects, the progress report offers personalized comments about a student's "progress towards" (as opposed to "achievement of") grade-level curriculum standards. Thus, in the subject section of the new report, grades are replaced by three categories: "progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well."

So, do these progress reports, sent home in our case on November 16, actually represent "progress" for parents and students? My answer, and that of my kids, is an ambivalent yes and no.

Initially, my daughters were opposed to the ungraded report cards; in their view grades, and grades alone, tell you how well you're doing at school. I've always told them that marks don't matter all that much, that learning is what is important. In fact, although they've always been excellent students, I did not even let them see their report cards until Grade 3 (when they put their foot down and demanded to read them). But while I was attempting to de-emphasize grades, the school and teachers were succeeding in teaching them a different lesson: grades do matter, they matter more than almost anything else. For the past three years, virtually everything my daughters have produced for school, both in the classroom and at home—including notes in their workbooks, artwork, math desk work and homework, grammar exercises, and dramatic performances—has been graded. In my opinion, this mania for grading has several deleterious effects, not the least of which is the way it discourages children from experimenting or trying new things. But that is a subject for another post. For the moment, suffice it to say that given teachers' penchant for grading everything they do, my daughters could be forgiven for concluding that grades are indeed the point of education.

So the girls' initial disappointment with the lack of grades was understandable. Interestingly, however, as they read through the new report cards, they seemed to enjoy not seeing letter grades. It was a change, a relief perhaps, and it led them to the comments, which previously they had dismissed as irrelevant.

But, being savvy readers-between-the-lines, they immediately noted that the new categories—"progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well"—could be easily correlated to grades, and that the comments, while marginally more personalized, still had a cookie-cutter feel to them, and were consequently not particularly revealing of their specific strengths and weaknesses.

My own take on the new report cards is nearly as ambivalent as that of my daughters. I do find the "progress" reports, with their detailed comments in both the work habits and subject sections, slightly more helpful than graded reports in conveying a sense of how my daughters are doing. I've heard parents complain that grades give them a truer picture of how their child is faring academically, and prevent any potential surprises come February, when the first graded report card is sent home. I don't think this is a valid concern: in our school, and I suspect in a majority of schools in the TDSB, practically every quiz, assignment or test, has to be signed by the parent and returned to the teacher, so how could there be any surprises?

My problem with the new report cards is, on the contrary, that they do not, in the end, constitute an alternative to graded reports. I think the ministry of education is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand it seems to be trying to de-emphasize grades, and direct parents' attention to what it deems most important at this point in the school year: work habits. But on the other hand, the new "progress" categories in effect re-introduce grades through the back door. It is also somewhat disingenuous to proclaim that grades don't matter in the first term, but are useful and necessary in the second or third terms. I'm sure I'm in a minority here, but I'd be happy if there were no grades in elementary school, full stop. Then perhaps it would not be an uphill battle to convince my daughters that learning—challenging oneself, thinking critically, experimenting—is the point of education, not grades. But if the ministry and school boards are going to commit to grades, I see little point in committing to them two thirds of the time, as they have chosen to do.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hyperdubious Disorder

My younger daughter has an interesting habit of needing to verify ideas with different people and in different situations. 

For instance, she investigated whether the prohibition on nudity in kindergarten also extends to her best friend's house (yes) and to her mother's artwork (confusingly, no.)

When she was about 5, she asked me out of the blue, "where is God?"  I explained that God is mysteriously everywhere.  I told my husband about our conversation later and he said, "Good, I told her the same thing when she asked me yesterday."  She often asks my husband and me the same question at different times, as if to check that our stories line up.

In her case, I think her sudden adoption from an orphanage to our family at the age of sixteen months left her feeling that the world is a random and arbitrary place, and she's always trying to figure out what truths are universal.

I wasn't adopted, but I had a similar approach as a child.  In my case, I lived inside my own head a lot, and I thought that the rest of the world did the same.  I assumed that most things were fictions that others had dreamed up.

For instance, I was astonished, when, on a trip to Washington, D.C., I discovered that the White House was an actual building, and that it looked just like those backdrops I had seen behind the anchor on the evening news.  I had supposed that it was just a symbol.  

Later, I had a social studies teacher who was always gassing on about the caste system in India.  Naturally, I figured that he had just made the whole thing up.  I was astonished to discover later that the caste system was real.

In general, it never occurred to me that the things teachers said at school had any utility, or even any parallel, outside. 

Pathologizing Childhood

From Peter Gray's blog, here are the official diagnostic criteria for  ADHD:


1. Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.
2. Often has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play activities.
3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
4. Often does not follow instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
5. Often has trouble organizing activities.
6. Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn't want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
7. Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
8. Is often easily distracted.
9. Is often forgetful in daily activities.

Hyperactivity & Impulsivity

1. Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat.
2. Often gets up from seat when remaining in seat is expected.
3. Often runs about or climbs when and where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may feel very restless).
4. Often has trouble playing or enjoying leisure activities quietly.
5. Is often "on the go" or often reacts as if "driven by a motor".
6. Often talks excessively.
7. Often blurts out answers before questions have been finished.
8. Often has trouble waiting one's turn.
9. Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games).

Peter Gray asks "who is surprised that so many boys have been diagnosed as having ADHD?"

I don't really know about boys, but I can see that each of my daughters fits these criteria perfectly.  My older daughter is a  textbook case of "Inattention", and my younger daughter is a textbook case of "Hyperactivity & Impulsivity".   Actually, I'm amazed that, at least so far, nobody's tried to label either of my kids "ADHD".  Perhaps school personnel can predict my likely response?

And here's the Onion's take on it: More US Children Being Diagnosed with Youthful Tendency Disorder.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Old School

"It's always 'Sit', 'Stay', 'Heel' — never 'Think', 'Innovate', 'Be Yourself.'"
(from The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Social Conformity is Overrated

(Another response to Chris' post at A Blog About School.)

I've often heard it said that conforming to the peer group is a natural developmental phase, especially for teenagers.  I can honestly say that this is one stage I missed entirely.  I can't remember a time when I wanted to be just like my peers.  There were certainly times when I wanted to be accepted by them, or at least not actively shunned.  But to fit in and be indistinguishable from the others?  Never.

Back when my older daughter was starting at her previous private school, I had a silly conversation with the then Head.  I said that I didn't want my daughter to be scolded or punished for unfinished or forgotten homework.  The Head said, "that's OK, when she sees that everyone else has done the homework, she'll feel left out and she'll want to do it too."  Likely story, I thought. 

A few days later my daughter told me how she had started school that day with unfinished homework and a note from me stating why.  One of the other kids asked her about it and she airily said, "oh, I've got a note from my Mom -- she doesn't believe in homework."  The other kid said, admiringly, "that's great!  I wonder if my Mom would write a note like that?"  From that moment my daughter's reputation among her peers soared.

Similarly, at my recent meeting with my younger daughter's teacher and the new Head at the same school (if you think you're confused, just consider my plight!), they started taking the line that they didn't want my daughter's behaviors to continue, because "she'll start to notice she's not like the other kids, and she'll feel bad."   Really?  I think my daughter is pretty comfortable being different, as she should be.  She's Asian in a majority white environment, so blending in isn't really an option for her.

Kids used to be told to resist peer pressure, on the theory that it led to drug use.  Now educators hold up conformity as the ultimate goal that everyone agrees to.  What gives?

Cultural Change

(This is a partial response to Chris' posts about conformity and compliance at A Blog About School.)

I grew up in a time when Americans were encouraged to see themselves as rugged individualists, living in a country whose gift to humanity was the freedom and independence of each person.  Unquestioning obedience and conformity were associated with our enemies, like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  People in power were looked at with suspicion. 

What happened?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mirabile dictu

If someone had told me when I was a child that I would be even more opposed to school as an adult, I would have said "No, that isn't possible."

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Thought Balloons

Apparently my family can't go six weeks without a school problem. I'm just back from yet another fun meeting, this time with the Head of School and my younger dd's first grade teacher. Now, younger dd can be genuinely impossible, and there are real problems that need to be addressed. But, as always, I come away feeling that I'm not really on the same planet as the people who work in schools. I'm so glad they couldn't read the thought balloons that kept popping up over my head.

Teacher: Sometimes she's upside down in her chair!

My thought balloon: Wow, she's even more athletic than I realized.

Head of School: She doesn't respect authority.

My thought balloon: I'm so proud! *sniff*

One strange development was that it turned out they hadn't even told us about all the behavior problems that were going on. I had to specifically request that they tell us about the problems as they happen, so we could talk to our daughter about it. Instead of telling me about the problems, the teacher's strategy was to pressure me to take the kid to a psychologist. Is that the usual process these days, to bypass the parents and go right to the army of psychologists and "experts"? Is it a private-school thing? What?

A Valedictorian Speaks Out

I just came across this wonderful speech by a valedictorian, Erica Goldson of Coxsackie-Athens High School. Here's a couple of highlights:

I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system.

...When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning.

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Homework Helpers

A recent article in the NY Times described a $100-an-hour homework tutor.

Some of the comments were predictable:  "bad parent, spoiled kid, back in my day, arf arf arf ...", "I did everything right as a parent and my kids are perfect!" But there were some comments that asked the questions that the reporter should have asked:  what is this homework, is it worth doing, and why is it beyond the organizing capacity of many kids?

I excerpt some of my favorite comments below.

As a school administrator ... I see ridiculous and superfluous homework assignments given to students. Students know it is waste of their time.

... I am sure this young man is experiencing the death by homework routine, He knows that is is worthless and is failing to engage ... Some parents give no support some give too much. Many times what gets graded are the efforts of the parent.

So, will homework make students smarter and brighter..NO.

It seems like the purpose of school is to assign homework. This is another failure, not only in teaching, but in the concept of education. Why go to school? Why not just stay home and do homework? This is a facet of the greater problem of designing schools around tests instead of learning.

If Benji can't focus on his homework on his own, he probably has too much of it, as is all too common these days. He should be outside doing sports or seeing his friends after school, not extending his school-day ...  Kids need downtime, not to mention sleep, so their brains can absorb what they learned earlier in the day from short-term to long-term memory.

I look at the avalanche of homework my child has, and cringe at how much is pure busywork. The teachers never hand it back, there is no opportunity to learn from mistakes. It's a very poor system. We spend ALL of our free time after school and many hours on the weekend on useless assignments. It is a waste of everyone's time. I home schooled one of our children last year. We spent a fraction of the time, and accomplished so much more, fantastic test scores also. I think the tyranny of homework is a cop out on the school system's part.

... schools lay on the homework beginning in kindergarten. This inevitable stack of work sheets - torn from some publication - is supposed to make us (parents) believe that the school is really serious about educating our kids. This pile of annoying, boring, stultifying busy work is absurd and an abdication of responsibility by the teacher - or at the least, an admission that he or she cannot get the work done during the school day - which are now longer and more numerous. And still, after this onslaught of drills and projects, American kids still fall well down the charts for literacy and numeracy. And parents and kids are now moving up the charts for neurotic behavior. Let's keep THIS up.

At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher sadly reported that although my child demonstrated her mastery of the curriculum well on tests and in-class assignments, she was doing poorly on assessment because she didn't complete her homework. So why, I asked, did she need homework if she'd mastered the curriculum and demonstrated it already? No satisfactory answer was ever forthcoming - just a lot of twaddle about personal responsibility, time management and organisational skills, parental involvement, "fairness" to the other kids who do do their worksheet, blah blah blah. Nothing about actual learning. 

This whole homework nonsense is an invasion of a family's personal space. I taught for 30 years in elem and high schools and was embarrassed to assign homework. School is school and home is home. Let's allow kids and parents to interact in their own creative ways and banish this homework thing that makes so much trouble. 

Maybe we ought to stop assigning so much homework?

Kids are already at school for 6-8 hours a day easily, the busywork from X-number of subjects can quickly pile on into 8-12 hours when it's "Crunch time", approximately every 3 months.

This is insanity. Most adult jobs aren't that long, and they involve getting paid and not having homework. Let kids be kids. As an adult, I certainly don't want homework without any form of renumeration, and I think the attitude among kids is pretty much the same.

StopHomework, we need you!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bullies and Babies

There's an interesting article in the NY Times today about a program that tries to increase empathy by bringing babies to the classroom.  And it even increased empathy in the teachers!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Resources for Decelerated Math

Forced March:  PTA Meeting Reveals Math Trail of Tears << The "More" Child

Is An Accelerated Math Course Appropriate For Your Gifted and Talented Student?

Wayside Parents Raise Concerns about Accelerated Math

Accelerated Math Classes Leave Some Students Playing Catch-Up

DC Urban Moms Forum:  MCPS is Ending Math Acceleration?

Accelerated Math Challenge, For a Kid and Her Mom

Jay Mathews ... Live! << The "More" Child

More on Accelerated Math from Mathews << The "More" Child

"Montgomery's Math Miscalculation" -- Read It. << The "More" Child

Montgomery Back to Basics in Math Classes

Decelerated Math

Faithful readers of StopHomework will remember that accelerated math was a big factor in our decision to take our older daughter out of public school.  Now there's word that Montgomery County, Maryland has come to the conclusion that they've been pushing accelerated math too hard.  Good.

I hope this is the beginning of much-needed change in our affluent school districts, including the one I live in.  In my experience these districts are all about achievement at the expense of learning, and at the expense of our children's health.  The result is kids with killer college applications who wind up needing remedial classes in their elite college, or have a nervous breakdown in their first semester.

It is astonishing how much schoolwork a child can do, and how many honors she can rack up, without actually learning anything.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Eye Contact?

Some years ago there was a Teletubbies episode that featured a young boy having a drumming lesson.  He and his teacher each had a set of bongos; his teacher would drum out a riff, and then the boy would respond on his own drums, often repeating what the teacher did, and sometimes adding a little riff of his own.

When my husband saw the video he remarked that at first he thought the boy wasn't really paying attention, because he didn't look at the teacher while he was drumming.  But it was clear to me that the boy was listening intently to everything the teacher did, while looking at the floor.

I'm the same way myself.  I find it difficult to look at someone and simultaneously listen closely to what they're saying, especially if it's complicated.  I need to look at something neutral, or even close my eyes.

So how would someone like me, or the boy in the video, function in a classroom that insists that the students look at the teacher every moment (e.g., KIPP)? 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


I interrupt my regularly scheduled blog with a few political remarks.

I'm listening to President Obama's press conference after the Republicans took back the House in yesterday's midterm election.  He claims that Americans are frustrated because his administration was in such a hurry to get things done that they didn't clean up how things are done in Washington.  He promised to take another look at earmarks (the process by which Congressmen add little sweeteners to legislation.)

Wrong, wrong, wrong!  People like me are frustrated because Obama didn't do enough in that magical 2-year window when he had a governing majority.  Does anyone outside Washington spend their time worrying about earmarks?  I doubt it. 

He promises to work harder for consensus, a lost cause if there ever was one.  The Republicans have no interest in reaching consensus, and Obama just looks like a weakling for attempting it.

Neither Obama nor any of the press mentioned what I believe to be the central problem of our time:  the concentration of our country's wealth in the hands of a very few Americans.  No search for consensus or yapping about preparing our children for the future can ameliorate our regressive tax structure and government policies that funnel even more money into the accounts of the filthy rich.

And now, back to our blog ---

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Overt Curriculum

We've all heard of the "hidden curriculum", the stuff that schools genuinely care about teaching: conformity, unquestioning obedience, the surrender of family life to the demands of the institution .  I believe it is no longer accurate to call this curriculum "hidden".  We should call it the "overt curriculum", or, in some schools, the "only curriculum".  We  should let kids major in the important subjects like "Sleep Deprivation", "Busywork Completion", "Erasure of Personal Life",  and "Random Factoid Upchuck".

I've noticed that teachers increasingly make no distinction between learning actual subjects and learning how to do school.   Getting Mom's signature has the same importance as working actual math problems.  Classroom rules are included on the science (!) test.   You know you're in trouble when the teacher claims to teach "responsibility" and "time management".

What would school look like if the goal was to teach actual subjects in the most efficient, streamlined way possible?  I'd like to find out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

conversation with an advisor

So I had a conversation this morning with DD's advisor, Mr. A.  I explained that my big concern is that I don't want DD to get depressed again, and I don't want her to be overworked and stressed out.

Mr. A:  Well, we meet every week as a team, and we do try to coordinate the work.  For instance, we try to have each subject have their own test day, so you don't  have to study for a lot of tests at once.

Me:  she's supposed to study for tests?

(I have never seen DD study for a test.)

We talked a bit about the science assignment of writing an outline of a paper they've read, which as I tried to explain has put the emphasis on the writing of an outline rather than understanding the paper, and got the time-worn response:

Mr. A.:  Well, sometimes in life we all have to do things that don't make sense.

Me:  That's not what school should be about.  School should be better than that.

On the whole, though, I'm encouraged by the conversation we had.  For one thing, he said one of the assistant principals actually got out to see Race to Nowhere and was impressed. 

Mostly, I hung up the phone thinking that they clearly want to keep DD at the school, and they want to work with me enough to make that happen.  I think it's a surprise to them to hear from a parent of a high-achieving kid, whose number one priority is said kid's mental health.  I hope they'll be hearing from many more of us in the future.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Math Depresses Me

From Parenting is Political, by NorthTOMom:

The other day, my 11-year-old daughter left a note on the scratch paper she was using to do her math homework. It read (caps hers):
This note depressed me. But quite frankly, it did not surprise me. The math program in our public school—a Canadianized version of the reform math so reviled in the US—continually frustrates and confuses my twin daughters, both of whom are A students in math. Both of them have declared, on many, many occasions during the past three or four years of struggling through this program, that they hate math. This really depresses me, because my husband and I have gone to great lengths to instill in our girls a love of math, a sense that it can be interesting and fun and challenging, and that, contrary to the message they may be receiving from the culture in general, it is something about which girls and boys should be equally enthusiastic.

Before I go any further, let me state a few facts about myself. Yes, I dislike reform math or "fuzzy" math or constructivist math, or whatever you want to call it. But . . . I am not an educational conservative, a back to basics advocate, or a nostalgic drill-and-kill enthusiast. On the contrary, I am a firm believer in progressive, child-friendly public schooling for all. I feel I have to say this because the "math wars" have been so politicized, both in the US and here in Canada (where in true Canadian style, the "war" was more of a minor skirmish followed by complete capitulation), that anyone who opposes the current math curriculum is branded as educationally retrograde. I think in order for an intellectually honest and productive discussion of math education to occur, this politicization and presumptive name-calling has to stop.

So why do I object to constructivist math? One reason is that it is, by-design, non-incremental or "spiral": its textbooks jump around from topic to topic, never staying on a subject long enough to allow for deep understanding or competence. I also dislike reform math because it frowns upon direct instruction. Since constructivist math teachers believe children can "construct" or "discover" mathematical truths and come up with their own algorithms to solve problems, they offer students minimal guidance, and are not averse to putting the cart before the horse: e.g., assigning algebra-type problems before teaching the tools of algebra, or asking kids to divide or multiply by decimals or fractions without having first taught them how decimals and fractions work.

All of this—the bouncing around from topic to topic, the "challenging" problems, the lack of direct teaching—constructivists defend in the name of what they call "conceptual" learning, which they oppose to both abstract instruction and their favourite straw man, "drill-and-kill" work. But there are two problems with this normative use of the term "conceptual." First of all, "conceptual" and "abstract" constitute a false binary opposition: a concept can be abstract, and an abstraction is not necessarily unconceptual. Take the standard algorithm for long division. Because this method of performing division—like all mathematical algorithms—can be separated from concrete or specific division problems, it is deemed to be abstract. Proponents of constructivist math argue that presenting it upfront would be tantamount to teaching division in a manner that does not allow kids to understand the concept behind it or why and how it works. But a mathematician (and it's interesting to me that most of the authors of constructivist math textbooks are not mathematicians) might counter that the algorithm embodies the concept—otherwise it would not work. So, let's say a teacher were to demonstrate the standard algorithm for long division at the outset of a lesson; he or she could, conceivably, set aside class time for practice and mastery, and then—with student participation—pick apart the algorithm to find out how and why it works. Would this be less conceptual than making kids stumble through division problems on their own, hoping they will discover an efficient algorithm, which most of them will never do?

Secondly, even if the terms conceptual and abstract were in fact polar opposites, why would we favour one over the other? There are some kids who love working in groups or with concrete materials (methods favoured by constructivists) but there are others, like both my daughters, who simply enjoy playing with symbols on a page, and who find all the illustrations, and colourful doodads in their current textbook patronizing and distracting. Why do we assume that math instruction must be a one size-fits-all proposition?

But my real opposition to the privileging of the conceptual in constructivist math is that it is misleading and even hypocritical: in my experience, constructivist textbooks do not encourage conceptual understanding at all. Indeed, my main problem with reform math is that it does not promote mathematical understanding, full stop.

The note from my daughter with which I started this post, in which she expresses her ongoing frustration with math, was sparked by a revealing instance of the true non-conceptual nature her constructivist math text. The problems my daughters were working on for their homework that night involved perimeter and area. In certain questions, they had to compare perimeters given in different metric units. To do that, they had to convert, for instance, metres to centimetres or vice versa in order to figure out which of two given perimeters was bigger. My daughters had no problem with this, but then they were confronted with a problem in which they had to compare the areas of two rectangles—one measuring 8400 centimetres squared and the other measuring .84 metres squared—and, again, indicate which was bigger. Their first instinct was simply to multiply .84 by 100 in order to carry out the comparison. This was my first instinct as well, but something (a residual spark of mathematical reasoning?) told me that in the case of area, it didn't quite work this way. Confused, I flipped back a page or two to see if any explanation of this type of problem had been given. I found no explanation, but I did find, in a coloured bubble in the margin of the previous page, these instructions:
When you convert an area in metres squared to centimtres squared, each dimension is multiplied by 100. So, the area is multiplied by 100 x 100, or 10,000.
So there it was: a formula! No verbal or visual exposition, just an easily-missed bubble telling the kids what to do. You can't get any less "conceptual" than that. My daughters read the instructions and understood them, but they wanted to know why the formula worked. I asked them if the teacher had explained it, and they said he had not. I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain it. I then enlisted the help of my computer-scientist husband. He drew diagrams, and took my daughters, step-by-step, through the hows and whys of the formula given by the textbook; in doing so he was able to teach the girls how to carry out conversions from any metric unit squared to another—which the textbook formula, restricted as it was to conversions from metres squared to centimetres squared, was unable to do.

My point here is neither to ridicule my daughters' math textbook nor to blame the school for choosing it; it is, after all, one of a handful of textbooks approved and financially supported by the provincial government. My purpose, rather, is to demonstrate that this so-called constructivist, "conceptual" textbook is neither. It's just poorly-presented, pedagogically dubious, bad math. Which is why I concur with my daughter: THIS MATH DEPRESSES ME.