Archives for August 2006

Homework is no myth

“Homework Hooey” is the apt headline on Martin Davis’ New York Post column critiquing two books — Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth and The Case against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish– that argue American students are overworked, leading to depression, obesity, family tension, and, no doubt, acne. Homework doesn’t help students learn, they argue. It just eats up time that could be devoted to emotional development, family conversations and fat-burning sports. (Or to playing computer games.)

In truth, a small minority of students are working quite hard — in addition to a heavy load of extracurriculars — while most spend little time on homework.

Surely, some students are weighted down. But not most kids, or even all that many. And those who are tend to be from economically-stable families in high-intensity programs. Kohn even admits as much. He cites a 1995 study showing American students spend on average just 1.7 hours a night on homework, compared with 2.7 hours for students in other nations. “On the other hand,” he continues, “U.S. 12th graders who took advanced math and science” reported having homework more often than their international peers.

According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, roughly 5 percent of American schoolchildren have more than two hours of homework per night. “Those horror stories,” he said in 2003, “they’re true . . . But the question is whether or not they are typical. And they are not.”

On surveys, high school students say part-time jobs, socializing and watching TV are more important to them than schoolwork. Almost half aren’t actually doing homework.

As Davis writes, schools that are succeeding in educating children from disadvantaged families insist that students support their classroom learning with homework.

The KIPP Academies, for example, a nation-wide network of charter schools, require not only longer days and school years (students get only two weeks off in the summer), but also give between two and three hours of homework each night.

My book on a turnaround charter high school, Our School, describes the relentless campaign to get students to do homework every night so they will build the skills and work habits they’ll need to succeed in college. No homework, no hope.


As hosted by Thespis Journal, this week’s Carnival of Education has a theatrical theme. In “The History Boys” category, A History Teacher explains Wikipedia to his students and teaches them to consider the source of information.

Next week, send carnival entries to Scott Elliott of Get on the Bus at scemel-(at)

Looking diverse

To meet “diversity” quotas, publishers plop able-bodied child models in wheelchairs and pass off Hispanic kids as Native American or Asian-Americans as Hispanic, observes Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe, citing a Wall Street Journal story by Daniel Golden.

At least three-fourths of the children portrayed as disabled in Houghton Mifflin textbooks actually aren’t, (a photographer) told Golden. In fact, publishers have to keep track of all the models they use for such pictures, so that a child posing as disabled in one chapter isn’t shown running or climbing a tree in another.

Stereotypical portrays are banned.

For example, McGraw-Hill’s guidelines specify that Asians not be portrayed wearing glasses or as intellectuals and that publishers avoid showing Mexican men in ponchos or sombreros. “One major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village,” Golden writes, “on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent.” Grinding poverty is in fact a daily reality for hundreds of millions of Africans. But when reality conflicts with political correctness, reality gets the boot.

Diversity is skin deep, Jacoby complains.

By reducing “diversity” to something as shallow and meaningless as appearance, they reinforce the most dehumanizing stereotypes of all — those that treat people first and foremost as members of racial, ethnic, or social groups. Far from acknowledging the genuine complexity and variety of human life, the diversity dogmatists deny it.

See Discriminations for more.

“Diversity” seems to be out as a buzzword in the University of California system: Berkeley’s chancellor will create a vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, who will be paid between $182,000 and $282,000 a year with an office budget of more than $4 million, report San Francisco Chronicle columnists Matier and Ross.

The goal isn’t so much to recruit more minorities but rather to ensure students, faculty and staff are “fully respected for their individuality and what they represent,” Birgeneau said.

Birgeneau said the aim is “to prize our diversity and learn from it and to appreciate people for being part of the whole but also for what they as individuals bring to Berkeley.”

. . . The creation of the new post comes at a time when the university system is already under fire over executive pay — and for having so many high-level positions.

Yes, but a vice chancellor for respecting the individuality of people representing groups is priceless.

English Learners are learning

California’s “English learners” — so-called because they’re not completely fluent in English — are learning, writes Peter Schrag, a long-time Sacramento Bee columnist. Schrag finds a lot of good in the state’s 2006 STAR scores, which the bilingual lobby claims show the need for “to create yet another segregated program for English learners.”

Students reclassified as fluent in English outscore English-only students in English and math proficiency, he writes. Yet many master English but never leave “English learner” status.

. . . 14 percent of English learners (EL) are proficient or above in English (25 percent in math). Meanwhile, there’s been a sharp rise in passing scores on CELDT, the California English Language Development Test, one of the criteria that help determine whether an English learner is ready for reclassification.

. . . The problem, according to state officials, is that for both financial and ideological reasons, districts are not reclassifying students nearly fast enough: Currently, fewer than 10 percent of English learners are redesignated each year, in large part because there’s extra state and federal money for English learners and immigrant students.

Keeping academically successful students in the English learner category also helps local districts meet state and federal formulas for progress by all subgroups of students and protects bilingual programs and the jobs of teachers and bureaucrats in those fields.

The number of English Learners who score at advanced or “early advanced” levels on the English fluency test has doubled in five years; nearly half now test at that level. Students are learning English.

In The New Yorker

The New Yorker’s education issue is on news stands. The story on the rape charges against Duke lacrosse players — framed as an analysis of Duke’s split academics-athletics personality — can be read online. It’s a lot better than the New York Times’ coverage despite magazine deadlines.

Charters soar in Massachusetts, Chicago

Ninety percent of Massachusetts charter schools are performing as well or better than schools their students otherwise would attend, concludes a new study by the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment for the state Department of Education.

Researchers compared MCAS results in English and math between individual charter schools and their comparison sending districts and examined student growth over time for individual students enrolled in charter schools.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said questions about charter school effectiveness have been answered, “Our next steps will be to determine exactly what charter schools are doing differently and how their successes can benefit the traditional public schools.”

Significant performances differences were “much more likely to favor the charter school,” the study fund. At least 30 percent of charters performed much better than their comparison school district; 10 percent of charters performed worse than the comparison district in math, fewer than 10 percent in English. Black, Hispanic and low-income students were more likely to do significantly better when enrolled in charter schools.

In addition to comparing 2001 to 2005 test results, researchers analyzed “changes in individual student test scores for continuously enrolled students over time.” Nearly all the schools making above-average gains in student scores over time were charter schools.

In Chicago, another study shows charter schools outperforming nearby district-run schools.

Chicago Public Schools released Tuesday its performance report of the system’s 25 charters — 16 elementaries, eight high schools and one K-12 school–in the 2004-05 school year.

. . . The report concluded that charter students citywide scored higher on tests, attended school more often and changed schools less often than their peers in neighboring schools.

. . . For the 20 charters reporting results on state exams in 2005, all outperformed comparison schools in the percentage of pupils meeting standards. However, only 13 charter schools received high rankings on their budget and finances. All eight charter high schools reported higher graduation rates than neighboring schools’.

Michael Goldstein, founder of the very successful MATCH charter school in Boston, wonders if the New York Times, which loves anti-charter studies, will report on these pro-charter studies.

Homeschoolers at Category Five

Category Five hosts this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling.

Send next week’s submissions to Why Homeschool.

Big Mother is watching you

Today’s children can’t explore the World Beyond The Front Yard, says a Washington Post story

. . . . to drive around America’s suburbs is to see tidy but empty blocks, devoid of the kickball, hide-and-seek and aimless wanderings of earlier generations. For many parents, the thought of allowing their children out unaccompanied invokes spasms of horror and even accusations of child neglect.

Despite parents’ fears, the number of children abducted by strangers is very low and not on the increase. Roger Hart, director of the Children’s Environments Research Group at the City University of New York says:

“In a more globalized world, people feel generally less secure about place, because the world becomes more and more anonymous as it becomes more mobile,” he said. “It feeds on itself, and if you watch more and more television, you have more sense of these dangers. And there’s less and less engagement with community. Outside has become more dangerous, because there’s no longer multiple eyes on everything.”

One couple quoted in the story planted a vegetable garden in their front yard and built a porch to encourage neighbors to stop by for a chat.

Older kids can get out of the house, but not out of sight, reports NPR. Parents are using technology to track their teenagers. The story features a stepdad who let his stepdaughter have a car, despite her record of drinking and lying, but slipped a tracking device in the car.

. . . more and more teens will have to get used to the idea of “Big Mother” looking over kids’ shoulders. With GPS technology getting cheaper, smaller and better, most any cell phone can be a tracking device for just a few extra dollars a month. A black box, like the one made by Alltrack that’s in Jessica’s car, costs a few hundred dollars, plus a monthly fee. But, it also gives parents a way to retaliate in real time.

For example, says Alltrack’s Mark Allbaugh, when a teen driver is speeding, parents can remotely flash the car’s light or honk the horn, until the teen slows down.

There’s more to come.

“I think, over time, parents will feel if they don’t have this, they’re not being good parents,” says Jim Katz, Director of the Rutgers University Center for Mobile Communication Studies. He says that soon, tiny cameras — like the ones in most new cell phones — will enable parents to literally watch over their kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week– and even eavesdrop on their conversations.

Big Mother is watching you.

Fordham (and me) on standards

In releasing its annual State of State Standards report, the Fordham Foundation calls for national standards.

Two-thirds of schoolchildren in America will return to class in coming weeks in states with mediocre (or worse) expectations for what their students should learn.

Five years after No Child Left Behind made standards-based education reform the law of the land, a new study finds that the subject-by-subject state standards that undergird this reform strategy remain inadequate in most jurisdictions. The State of State Standards 2006, the first full review of such standards since 2000, confers an average grade of “C-minus”-the same as six years earlier-even though most states revised their standards during that period.

Some 26 states earned a “D” or an “F” grade for standards and 11 performed worse than in 2000. Only nine states earned honors grades in all subjects, led by Massachusetts, California, and New York.

Another new Fordham report, To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools, suggests alternative plans for national standards and tests. Plans range from “The Whole Enchilada” — a federal accountability system — to “Sunshine and Shame” — state testing with more transparency.

“Big modern countries need big modern standards from sea to shining sea,” remarked (Fordham head Checker) Finn. “Most other nations have figured this out. In America, however, we’ve left standard setting to the states and most of them have bungled the job. This report takes our dialogue about standards, testing and accountability to a new level. I hope it brings closer the day when all our children and schools are held to the same rigorous expectations.”

The highlight of the standards report is: It Takes a Vision: How Three States Created Great Academic Standards by me. Working as a freelancer, I analyzed the development of standards — the politics, the players and the passion — in Massachusetts, California and Indiana, all of which got top ratings from Fordham.

SAT down, ACT up

Even as ACT scores are rising, SATs are declining: Students taking the new, longer test posted the largest drop in scores in 31 years. College Board, which runs the SATs, blamed the decline on more students taking the test only once.

Fatigue wasn’t to blame, the College Board insisted, even though this year’s class was the first to take a new version of the exam which added an essay. It now takes an average of three hours and 45 minutes to complete the test, not counting breaks.

Combined scores fell seven points to a 1021 average. Boys lost more points than girls, who outscored boys on the new writing section by 11 points.

The new exam eliminates analogies and includes higher-level math.

The results come two weeks after it was announced the class of 2006 had posted the biggest score increase in 20 years on the rival ACT exam. The ACT, which is also accepted by almost all colleges that require standardized tests, is generally more focused on material covered in high school classes than the SAT, which is more of a measure of general ability.

More students are taking both the ACT and the SAT to see which one maximizes their score.