Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest post: Big Brother gets bigger

Chris here from ABlogAboutSchool. FedUpMom suggested that I might cross-post some of my thoughts over here from time to time, so here’s my first guest post.

Glenn Greenwald, probably my all-time favorite blogger, writes this week about “how children are being trained to give up all privacy, and to be good, dutiful Surveillance State citizens, through constant, pervasive surveillance in schools,” which are “[t]raining children from an early age to have no expectation of privacy -- to live on the assumption that their every move and even thought (which is what Internet activity is) will be monitored and recorded by authority figures . . .”

Greenwald cites this article:

Whether it is a district surveilling students in their bedrooms via webcam, conducting random drug or locker searches, strip-searching students, lowering the standard for searching students to “reasonable suspicion” from “probable cause,” disciplining students for conduct outside of school hours, searching their cellphones and text messages, or allegedly forcing them to undergo pregnancy testing, student privacy is under increasing threat.

The other day I mentioned a Connecticut school district that wanted to require students to carry an ID card with an RFID chip so that they could track their location. The surveillance capability included locating the student if they were off school premises and in town. . . .

It strikes me that schools are grooming our youth to simply accept being tracked and monitored wherever they go and that anything they do, anywhere, can be used against them in school or elsewhere. Is this really how we want to raise our children? . . .

It’s time for a national dialogue about student privacy, while there are still some remnants of it left.

Isn’t this of a piece with all the emphasis on being quiet obedient hard workers, with the treatment of children as objects to be manipulated, with the conception of children as future employees, with the use of recess as a coercion tool and parents as homework police, with the medication of kids who won’t sit still, with the devaluing of the humanities, with the neglect of qualities like curiosity, skepticism, and the ability to ask a good question -- that is, with all the things that follow from a system rooted in high-stakes testing? If you were trying to make America a more authoritarian, less democratic place, isn’t high-stakes testing exactly the educational approach you would choose?

(Cross-posted here.)

Recess: Whatever It Is ...

Words of wisdom from Groucho Marx: Whatever it Is, I'm Against It!

Hello, I Must Be Going

Harpo Speaks

Why Homework Takes Too Long

It comes as a nasty shock to a young child to get home after an exhausting day of school only to have Mom dig some assignment out of the backpack and try to force more schoolwork on him. Kids, quite rightly, resist, feeling that home should be a place where they get to unwind at the end of the day. Instead, they find that their own family has unaccountably become part of the oppressive school regime. The resistance, procrastination, and nagging that result add a great deal of time to even the simplest assignment.

Many assignments eat time because they're so boring. I have seen my daughter shut down in despair over the tedium of some of her schoolwork.

Other assignments eat time because no-one in the family can figure them out. They're so ill-formed that you can't tell what the child is supposed to do or how you can tell when they're finished. This is often true of assignments that the teacher thought would be "fun" or "creative" -- the posters, the dioramas, the "personal reflections".

Monday, August 30, 2010

"10 Minutes Per Grade Level" is Hogwash

Here's one teacher's description of the 10-minute rule, from a comment on I Hate Reading Logs:

Dr. Harris Cooper, Duke University, compiled data from 60 different research studies and concluded that some homework is beneficial for student achievement. His findings showed that the 10 minute rule worked best, 10 minutes for every grade in school. In other words, 1st graders should have no more than 10 minutes, 6th graders should have no more than 60 minutes, and so on.

And where did the sacred 10-minute rule come from? From a chance encounter with a teacher (Does Homework Really Work? Homework Help|Great Schools):

“The source [of that figure] was a teacher who walked up to me after a workshop I did about 25 years ago,” says Cooper. “I’d put up a chart showing middle school kids who reported doing an hour to an hour and a half were doing just as well as high schoolers doing two hours a night. The teacher said, ‘That sounds like the 10-minute rule.’" He adds with a laugh, "I stole the idea.”

And this is how a study that clearly showed NO advantage to homework in elementary school is now being used to justify homework for elementary school.

Why is the 10-minute rule a bad idea? Let me count the ways:

1.) It puts the focus on quantity, not quality. Discussions about homework tend to get mired in the quantity issue (because there is usually too much) and never get around to the quality issue. If the homework doesn't help the child learn, 10 seconds is too much, never mind 10 minutes.

2.) Teachers are told to assign something every night, so they assign busywork. In elementary school, public school teachers have a mixed-ability class, and they know that not all the kids will do the homework, so they really can't assign anything important. They just assign boilerplate junk, such as copying dictionary definitions and answering questions from mind-numbing textbooks.

3.) Teachers don't know how long it will take. In theory, filling out that word search might take a child 10 minutes. In practice, when a child is exhausted at the end of the day, it could take a half hour or more.

4.) It ignores childrens' natural development. It's not appropriate to expect a 6-year-old to come home after a long day of sitting still and doing what she's told, and then sit at the kitchen table and do more schoolwork. I don't blame the kids for the tantrums that result.

5.) It's really Momwork. It is an extremely rare elementary-aged child who can consistently remember, and carry out, all the assigned homework. Therefore, it becomes Mom's job to check the backpack for the assignment, nag the kid into doing the work, and make sure the homework is packed again. I resent this on the grounds that I resent people telling me what to do, but even if I was more agreeable, what message are we sending our kids? We're telling them that they can't possibly handle school on their own.

How much homework is appropriate for elementary school? None. That's the finding that's actually supported by Harris Cooper's research.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Some Thoughts about "L. A.'s Leaders in Learning"

As usual, I had a mixed reaction to L.A.'s Leaders in Learning.

I completely agree with this:

"We're measuring who is in schools rather than how effective the schools are," said Helen Ladd, a professor and testing expert at Duke University.

This portrait of a "high-achieving" school could have been written about my own school district:

Topeka Elementary in Northridge serves a community where one in four parents attended graduate school. Over the seven years analyzed, two-thirds of Topeka's students scored above grade level, contributing to its sterling API score of 879.

But the school is intently focused on bringing up those who score below. In part that's because the API, while not primarily concerned with students' progress, is designed to give more credit to gains by low achievers.

"It's where you get the most bang for your buck," said Principal Miko Dixon. "Everything we do is about getting those kids up."

Those low-achieving students made small but steady gains, the Times analysis found. The much larger group of high achievers was essentially flat in English and steadily falling behind in math. When ranked by student growth overall, Topeka was in the bottom 3% of district elementary schools.

The most common way for a child to get high scores on standardized tests is to be born to an educated, middle-class family. These kids will routinely get wonderful test scores even if the school essentially ignores them. I'm glad to see the L.A. Times shining a spotlight on this problem.

If you've got kids with low test scores, one way to bring their scores up is to "teach to the test". If this means ensuring that the kids have their math facts down, I'm OK with it. But if it means drilling the kids on the exact format of the tests, to the extent that they can fail a test on the same subject if the format is different, it's not OK. Take a look at Linda Perlstein's Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade for a scary example of test prep.

And where does that leave us? With a deeply troubled public school system, that's where. We've got bright middle-class kids bored and drifting in schools that benefit from the test scores they post, while ignoring their academic needs. Then we've got children of poverty enduring hours of test prep, which stunts their intellectual growth.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

more from the L. A. times

I haven't had a chance to think about this yet, but here's the latest from the L.A. times:

L.A.'s Leaders in Learning

I certainly agree with their basic point that a school can look good because of its student body, even when it does very little useful teaching.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Looking Forward to School

In today's Answer Sheet, an incoming college freshman reflects back on his experience so far.

Summer doesn’t feel like a fleeting break between two grueling nine-month periods of drudgery.

...For the first time ever, I’m looking forward to school.

This is exactly what I don't want for my kids. I hope summer will always be more than a fleeting break, and the school year will never be a grueling nine-month period of drudgery. I hope they will look forward to school every year.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Teachers vs. Parents

In my web travels looking for posts against reading logs, I found this thread: reading log or not to reading log? I'm happy to report that the thread begins with a comment by a teacher who read I Hate Reading Logs and has decided to stop using them. This is progress!

Reading on, however, I discovered a teacher whose strongest response was to the StopHomework blog itself:

The main thing that I was completely taken back by was the blog about stopping homework that was posted. I thought the comments the parent(s) made were extremely rude. Sending a letter to the teacher and instructing her what you will and will not do?????

... I guess I was very disappointed by the comments on that blog. Why would someone use their time setting up a blog bashing homework and being so disgrunttled with teachers?

Umm .. because they wrote a book showing that most homework is a waste of time?

Those that read the blog what did you think? Am I alone here? I just cannot support that type of attitude toward education.

And she got a response:

I so agree with you 100%! I would NEVER let my parents tell me what their child can or cannot do.

I blame homework for giving teachers a bad attitude toward parents. Homework blurs the line between school and home, turning parents into the teachers' subordinates, and turning home life into an extension of school.

One outrageous outgrowth of this is that children get punished at school for the actions of their parents. Kids get low reading grades because Mom forgot to sign the reading log. Kids lose recess because Mom got them to school 5 minutes late.

How does any of this promote learning? And why do parents put up with it?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Not My Job

From the comments to I Hate Reading Logs, a never-ending source of blogging material, comes this gem. This is from a self-described "8th grade English teacher in a very high-achieving public middle school in California":

So, when I said that it is NOT my job to instill a love of reading, I meant it. If you look at the California State Standards for English 8, it does not state that I’m to make kids love reading.

FUM: If we graduate kids from high school who will never willingly read a book again in their lives, the kids are not well-educated. I don't care what their grades or test scores are, or what college they got admitted to. A school that turns kids off of reading is a bad school. A teacher who turns kids off of reading is a bad teacher.

My job is to teach them how to analyze literature in preparation for their high school and college English and Literature classes.

FUM: Ah yes, the preparation theory of education: the purpose of school is to teach kids how to go to school.

How about teaching kids something which is actually worth knowing for its own sake?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grading the Teachers

Lots of people are talking about this Los Angeles Times article about value-added assessment of teachers:

Who's Teaching L.A.'s Kids?

I found the article interesting, though, as usual, it doesn't answer the questions I ask. My daughter, like many other bright kids of educated parents, routinely scored in the high 90th percentiles on standardized tests, whether her teachers were good, bad, or indifferent. I actually didn't expect her to learn much in public school, and I would have been OK with that if she had been reasonably happy there.

Here's some questions I'd like to ask in order to rate teachers:

1.) What percentage of this teacher's students read for pleasure during the school year?

2.) What percentage of this teacher's students say they hate school?

3.) What percentage of this teacher's students show symptoms of anxiety and depression?

Faithful readers, what questions would you ask in order to rate a teacher?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don't Let Your Child Suffer with a Bad Teacher

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland:

Since all of the advice in print was written by educators, not parents, the issue of teacher incompetence was rarely addressed. When it was, the parent was never offered guidance, just self-serving platitudes like, "Wait till next year ... Your child will catch up ... Your child can't change his teacher any more than he or she will be able to choose his boss in adult life ... Consider it a life lesson and endure." This is excellent advice if your goal is to protect the bad teacher, make life easier for the school administrators, and perpetuate the problem.

... Too often, when a child has a bad teacher, the parents do nothing at all. They assume the difficulty is a phase, or a temporary problem; they don't want the unpleasantness of a confrontation; they buy into what teachers have told them and accept the idea that their child is the problem; or they feel that they didn't discover the difficulty early enough and decide to hold on until next year. From an adult's perspective, a year flies by quickly; but a year is nearly 15 percent of a seven-year-old's lifetime. No wonder a year with a bad teacher seems like an eternity in hell to a child. Even a few months is too large a proportion of a child's life to spend adapting to unreasonable demands from an incompetent or unstable teacher, working without guidance or reward, or feeling too small or too inexperienced to protect himself effectively.

Nor is it ever a good idea to let the problem slide, to see if it will go away or get worse. While it is possible that the problem will go away on its own, it's impossible to guess how many straws it will take to break the child's back. How many times can he be called stupid before he believes it? How many times can she be punished before she decides that she might as well make the crime fit the punishment? How many times can he be driven to anger before he becomes an angry child? How many times must a child be labeled before she accepts the label?

My Response to "Tips to Begin the School Year"

Kerry Dickinson reposted her "Tips to Begin the School Year" and asked for responses. Kerry, ask and you shall receive!

1. Don't over schedule your children.

FedUpMom: I think the recession will take care of this problem.

2. Don’t sign your child up for academic tutoring unless he/she is in jeopardy of failing a class.

FedUpMom: I think a lot of tutoring goes on because the parents feel the school's curriculum is weak, and they may be right. Also, what about a child who has a special interest that isn't covered at school?

3. Don’t ask your kids about grades, test scores or homework too often. Instead, focus on the content of the subject.

FedUpMom: I agree.

4. If you are connected to an electronic school communication tool (like "School Loop") don't look at homework assignments and grades daily.

FedUpMom: I agree.

5. Give your kids at least an hour of down time after school.

FedUpMom: I agree.

6. Have your child do daily or weekly chores.

FedUpMom: I agree, in theory if not always in practice.

7. Don’t yell at your kids during homework time; you are not the homework enforcer. If they spend more that 10 minutes a night per grade level, email or talk to the teacher. (ie., 10 minutes/night in 1st grade, 40 minutes/night in 4th grade, etc.).

FedUpMom: I agree that we shouldn't be homework enforcers, but I disagree with the 10 minutes a night per grade level rule. As Alfie Kohn rightly states, some homework isn't worth 5 minutes of our kids' time (the infamous reading log comes to mind.) When it comes to homework, we need to talk about quality as well as quantity.

8. Don’t go to every scheduled sports game or extracurricular activity of your child’s.

FedUpMom: The trick is to make your attendance supportive, not a source of pressure.

9. Encourage unstructured outside neighborhood activities after school - a walk, a bike ride, hide-n-seek, skateboarding, picking flowers, building something, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, etc.

FedUpMom: I agree.

10. Don’t use rewards and punishments with regard to school and sports.

FedUpMom: I agree.

11. Let your children fail. Think of the slogan "Fail to Succeed." In other words, they must make failed attempts at tasks before they can succeed.

FedUpMom: I strongly disagree with this one. Failure can be a devastating experience for a sensitive child, especially the kind of failure that happens at school, where the child usually has no way to remedy the situation. At the very least, a child who fails a test should have an opportunity to review the material and take the test over. And the failure should never be public.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Join the Chorus Against Reading Logs

As faithful readers of StopHomework know, my most commented-on post was the one about reading logs. The discussion is still ongoing.

I'm putting together a list of sites that oppose reading logs. If you have anything to add, please let me know!

Here's the list so far:

Newspaper Articles:

Calls for the Death of Reading Logs

Blog Posts by Parents:

I Hate Reading Logs, says FedUpMom

That Cursed Reading Log

Reading Logs Killed the Bibliophile

I Hate Reading ... Logs

Are Reading Logs Killing Reading?

I Plan to be a Diva Someday ... Reading Logs

Jiaozi: the Tyranny of the Reading Log

How to Ruin a Kid's Summer

Busy Work, Reading Logs, and my Middle Finger

The Horror of Reading Logs

The Self-Righteous Housewife: Reading Logs: Civil Disobedience

Life Long Love of Reading

Waterboarding, Reading Logs, and Other Forms of Torture

The Reading Log

My Thoughts on Reading Logs

Not So Usual: You Can Take This Reading Log And —

Skeptical Mothering: A Pox on Reading Logs

Even in Australia: "I'm starting to hate reading these books!"

Reading Logs Kill the Love of Reading

BookNAround: Reading and Math Logs

Reading: It's kind of a big deal

The Reading Log: the Quickest, Most Effective Method of Killing a Love of Reading

Blog Posts by Teachers, Reading Specialists, Librarians, and Other "Experts":

Top 10 Reasons Why I Hate Reading Logs

Reading Rockets: Reading Logs, Reading Blahs

Reading Rockets: Reading Logs, Our Own Hot Topic

Reading Rockets: Should Reading with Parents Count?

Nancy teaches: Want children to love to read? Throw away reading logs.

Dear Parents: At-Home Reading -- The Book Whisperer

How to Create Non-Readers

Dear Reading Teachers, Please Stop Destroying the Love of Reading

Reading Logs. (Sigh.)

Update on Reading Logs

Crisscross Applesauce: Toodles to Reading Logs

Pursuing Context: What I Hate About Reading

Parents' Forums:

Cram Your "Reading Calendar" Where the Sun Don't Shine

We Beg to Differ! Is forced reading time beneficial?

DD's class reading log rules -- way off?

Parents, teachers weigh in on the reading logs

Opting Out of Homework

Reading logs -- again

Reading Logs -- Useful? Help!

Teachers' Forums:

Reading Log or not to Reading Log??? -- Pro Teacher Community

OMG! Do parents hate reading logs and HW?

I'm ditching reading logs ... Pro Teacher Community

Can I just say that I have no patience for this anymore? ... Pro Teacher Community

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Training Babies to Sit Up

From The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker:

The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa believe that children must be drilled to sit, stand, and walk. They carefully pile sand around their infants to prop them upright, and sure enough, every one of these infants soon sits up on its own. We find this amusing because we have observed the results of the experiment that the San are unwilling to chance: we don't teach our children to sit, stand, and walk, and they do it anyway, on their own schedule.

From a recent comment on StopHomework, written by a teacher:

When you ask the questions of, “What do you think will happen next?” and “How do you think (character) feels?” it teaches the child to develop an inner dialogue while they are reading. You may not agree with that but it works. When you can interact with what you are reading and feel the characters’ feelings, that is when the real love of reading takes place and it becomes pleasurable. If you do not know how to interact with a book, you will not learn to fully enjoy the experience.

Just like the !Kung San, who believe their babies cannot learn to sit upright without their special rituals, reading teachers today believe that children cannot learn to enjoy reading without being asked to predict what will happen next and what the characters feel. The difference is that the !Kung San babies really do learn to sit up.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Treating the Healthiest Patients

If you were going to choose a doctor, what would you look for? You'd like a doctor with a low mortality rate, right?

Not so fast! In a famous study (I'll post the reference as soon as I find it!) of the effects of ranking doctors by mortality rates, it was found that doctors started winnowing out the riskiest patients to improve their rates. It's much easier to attain a low mortality rate if you only accept the strongest, healthiest patients to begin with.

The exact same thing has happened, predictably, with NCLB. There's a population of kids who will perform well on standardized tests no matter what the school does, namely bright, motivated kids from solid middle-class backgrounds. Naturally, these are the students all the public schools want to teach.

I started out sympathetic to the principal profiled in this New York Times article, A Popular Principal, Wounded by Government's Good Intentions. Joyce Irvine was the principal at Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vt. She worked hard and was well-liked, but the school had low test scores, because the district contains many children of refugees. Most of the children at her school are poor, some are traumatized, many don't speak English well, and many arrive with no previous education.

So what was Ms. Irvine's plan to improve the school? Intensive English classes? Adult education for the undereducated parents, who could then help teach the kids? No. Her plan was to transform the school into an arts magnet, in order to attract middle-class kids who would rack up high test scores.

And that's where I stopped feeling sympathetic to Ms. Irvine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Recess: the Nicholas Brothers

I can't think about education issues all the time. Sometimes I just need a break. Don't we all?

Recently, I've been renewing my lease on life by watching the fabulous Nicholas brothers. Here they are in their most famous performance, from "Stormy Weather":

Jumpin' Jive

Here's an earlier performance; young Harold could really sing! Look for Nat King Cole standing by the piano in the background.

Lucky Number

This one's even earlier. Both the brothers go up en pointe, a move later imitated by Michael Jackson:

Pie Pie Blackbird

I think I need to watch these about 80 more times before I'm ready to think about schools again ...

Siphoning off Motivated Students

From The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch:

Our schools cannot improve if charter schools siphon away the most motivated students and their families in the poorest communities from the regular public schools.

FedUpMom again: One of the claims of the charter school movement was that charter schools would improve the public schools, through the magic of competition. This was always a ridiculous idea. You could throw me into a race with Michael Phelps, but would I suddenly become an Olympic-quality swimmer? Of course not.

What the charter schools can provide is an escape hatch from the crummy public schools. People with enough money have always had an escape hatch, namely private schools. Those with less money can escape to Catholic schools (which Diane Ravitch seems to like), or, with a great deal of luck, a good charter school.

If this means that the public schools lose some of their best students, too bad. It is their own fault if the best families in their district are desperate to keep their kids out of public school.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Rodent Log

We have cats who like to bring us dead rodents as a gift. On one memorable occasion, I found a dead shrew lovingly tucked into my bedroom slipper.

So the other day my daughter and I decided that instead of keeping a reading log, we should keep a "rodent log" -- a record of all the dead furry gifts that our cats bring us.

I told my dear husband that we were going to make a rodent log, and he said " ... is that like a cheese log?"

A Plague on Both Your Houses

A recurring theme in the new Diane Ravitch book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is her disillusionment with the business model as applied to education. She complains that the school system is increasingly being run by businessmen, who aren't even trained educators.

Fie! Away with you all, I say!

On the one hand, businessmen have brought us the current obsession with standardized testing, accountability, and merit pay. We all know the disastrous effect this has had on education. These ideas don't necessarily work in the business world, either.

On the other hand, educators have brought us one silly fad after another, from Balanced Literacy to fog-brained math curricula. Their attempts to reinvent the wheel have left us mired in jargon and foolishness.

We need new voices in the education debate. How about listening to parents and kids for a change?

[Overachievers' footnote: "A plague on both your houses", often misquoted as "A pox on both your houses", was a curse uttered by the dying Mercutio, referring to the houses of Capulet and Montagu. From Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", of course!]