Building blocks are hot in NYC schools

Wooden building blocks are the hot new fad in New York City’s elite schools, reports the New York Times. The story starts  with “block consultant” Jean Schreiber leading a workshop for parents who want to know how to help their children play with blocks.  Schools advertise their “block labs” and “centers.”

Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who runs a fast-growing network of charter schools, said her schools had created a “religion around blocks,” and she proudly advertises their fully outfitted block labs alongside the chess program and daily science classes. The International School of Brooklyn is developing a program using blocks to reinforce foreign-language acquisition. And Avenues, the for-profit school scheduled to open next year in Greenwich Village, is devoting a large section of its kindergarten floor to a block center.

It costs about $1,000 to outfit a classroom with a set of blocks, which typically include 5.5-inch-long rectangles as well as pillars, columns, triangles, curves and longer rectangles.

Playing with blocks is supposed to help children learn math concepts, develop language skills and “build the 21st-century skills essential to success in corporate America,” such as not hitting your colleague when he takes the last pillar.

While teachers say children need time for unstructured play, building with blocks is often linked to the curriculum.

At the 92nd Street Y preschool, teachers videotape students doing block work so they can review their process. And at the Packer Collegiate Institute, the Brooklyn Heights private school where educators have recently recommitted themselves to blocks by hosting workshops for teachers and moving block corners to more centralized locations, students often use classroom computers to search for images or watch videos that help them visualize something to build.

They can’t just let the kids play?

My sister and I used to play with blocks, even though our mother had no formal training in encouraging block play. (She was taking care of our baby brother in another room.) My sister figured out how to build a dome ceiling with rectangular blocks. When we got bored, we’d knock it all down and play something else.

Bold dissenter — or burnable heretic?

The Dissenter in the New Republic (subscribers’ only) analyzes education historian Diane Ravitch’s turn against education reform ideas she’d once championed.

Author Kevin Carey seems to attribute Ravitch’s change of heart to her long-time partner’s rejection by Joel Klein. As a new chancellor, Klein started a training program for principals, ignoring the work of an existing and well-respected leadership academy run by Mary Butz, Ravitch’s partner.

Ravitch had good reason to distrust Klein and his reforms, writes Mike Petrilli.

. . . Diane had a point about Mayor Bloomberg and Joel Klein running schools as if they were “selling toothpaste.” The leadership academy was a perfect example. . . . like many reformers who distrust the reformers who came before them, he didn’t consider that Mary’s program might be worth building on, rather than replacing. And instead of recruiting experienced principals to run his new initiative, he went to corporate America for its funding and design.

Keep in mind that this was the same Joel Klein who was trashing the federal Reading First program for being too prescriptive, lavishing money on Lucy Calkins and her hare-brained “writing workshop” ideas, and arguing that the content of a particular curriculum didn’t matter; what was important was picking one and sticking to it. Klein was agnostic about the education side of education. And that (understandably) infuriated Diane.

. . .  she is right to be suspicious of a school reform movement that still, to this day, has little to say about matters of curriculum and pedagogy.

“Successful movements seek converts; unsuccessful movements hunt heretics,” responds Core Knowledge‘s Robert Pondiscio in an e-mail.
. . . Look, I disagree with Diane on choice and charters, among other things (lest I become the next heretic to be burned at the stake). But I remain deeply appreciative of her unchanged and unflinching support of a core curriculum, and enormously influenced by her overall body of work. The speculation that she would gainsay a life of scholarship merely for the cheap thrill of settling a personal grudge is just plain silly.
Indeed.

In a 1983 essay, “Scapegoating the Teachers,” Ravitch wrote:

It is comforting to blame teachers for the low state of education, because it relieves so many others of their own responsibility for years of educational neglect.

Ravitch was affiliated with the anti-communist left and was a friend of teachers’ union leader Al Shanker, Goldstein adds.

Both Goldstein and Alexander Russo raise the issue of sexism.

Graduation + transfer = new success rate

Community college success rates will rise, under a new definition that includes transfer students who go on to a four-year institution before earning an associate degree.

Nearly 80 percent of male black and Latino college students in California enroll in community college. Six years later, 80 percent have failed to complete a certificate or degree or transfer to a university. Women do somewhat better.

Study: Teacher training rarely helps

Improving teachers’ effectiveness is the “paramount challenge” facing our schools, writes Robert Pianta in Teaching Children Well, a report for the Center for American Progress. But most professional development has little or no impact. Districts waste thousands of dollars per teach each year on one-day, one-time workshops that teach “awareness” rather than specific skills, Pianta writes. Trainers promote “models that have little basis in what is known about effective instruction, curriculum, or classroom interactions.”

The report looks at “new evidence-supported approaches to professional development that have promise for closing not only the evidence gap, but the achievement gap as well.”

MyTeachingPartner, or MTP . . . uses a standardized method of online, individualized coaching and a library of highly focused video clips showing effective teachers in action that are tightly coupled with a standardized metric for observing teacher practice in the classroom, called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS.

CLASS and MTP . . .  include models for observing teachers’ instruction in mathematics lessons that are useful in modeling feedback about instruction in the upper grades. There are now professional-development tools that show promise for improving instruction and children’s math skills in preschool.

In early literacy, there are now videos to provide teachers feedback with demonstrable gains for students’ skills as well as statewide models that connect individualized feedback, coursework, and assessment of students’ school-readiness skills in a program of teacher professional development.

In addition, John Tyler’s paper on Designing High-Quality Evaluation Systems for High School Teachers also was released.

Teen tweeter won’t apologize to governor

An 18-year-old student won’t apologize for a rude tweet about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, despite her high school principal’s demand. Emma Sullivan said she isn’t sorry.

As the governor greeted Youth in Government participants in Topeka last week, Sullivan tweeted:  “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person (hash)heblowsalot.”

She actually made no such comment and said she was “just joking with friends.” But Brownback’s office, which monitors social media for postings containing the governor’s name, saw Sullivan’s post and contacted the Youth in Government program.

Which sounds awfully petty.

YiG contacted Sullivan’s principal, who gave her talking points for a written apology. It’s not clear if her refusal to apologize will have consequences. (Update: The governor has apologized for his staff’s overreaction, reaffirming his support for free speech, and the principal has backed down as well.)

Sullivan said she disagrees with Brownback politically, particularly his decision to veto the Kansas Arts Commission’s entire budget, making Kansas the only state in the nation to eliminate arts funding. Brownback has argued arts programs can flourish with private dollars and that state funds should go to core government functions, such as education and social services.

“I raised my kids to be independent, to be strong, to be free thinkers. If she wants to tweet her opinion about Gov. Brownback, I say for her to go for it and I stand totally behind her,” said Julie Sullivan, the student’s mother.

 

Teaching students to argue about politics

Students should learn how to discuss controversial political ideas in class, says Diana Hess, a teacher turned University of Wisconsin education professor, in Discussions That Drive Democracy.

“A lot of parents want schools to reflect their own ideological views,” Hess tells The Cap Times.

“I argue that parents shouldn’t want that. If they do, they need to rethink why they have their kids in school.”

. . . “It’s not to suggest schools should be working against parents’ values,” she continues, “but we want schools to be ideologically diverse places. That’s how we educate citizens.”

“Many teachers I have watched are good at getting kids to listen to viewpoints that are different from theirs, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Young people tend to be open to new ideas.

Will teachers develop students’ minds? Or indoctrinate students in liberal ideology? asks Ann Althouse, a UW law professor.

. . .  it was specifically teachers who were at the core of the Wisconsin protests, vilifying conservatives.

And as for parents needing “to rethink why they have their kids in school.” Let’s be clear: Schooling is compulsory. . . . Teachers should never forget that they have their students trapped in their classroom by the force of law.

We want students to learn how to discuss “controversial issues, support their arguments, and listen to divergent opinions respectfully and critically,” Althouse concedes.

But it takes a certain level of trust — which is in short supply.

Neither a borrower nor a graduate be

Is fear of debt worse than debt itself? College students who borrow are more likely to go full-time and complete degrees.

Self-paced online tutorials followed by four weeks of community college classes are training jobless workers for manufacturing jobs at Boeing.

Forget Finland: Reform K-12 the U.S. way

Forget Finland, writes Rick Hess. Stop trying to be South Korea. We can “tap into uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity” to reform our schools.

America is a really big country. By population, it’s the third largest in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history. This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity, like Finland. However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass.

“Grandiloquent international best practice reports . . . identify a couple of homogenous nations the size of Minnesota that produce good test scores, cherry-pick a few of their educational practices, and then draw broad prescriptions,” Hess writes. We need to embrace America’s comparative advantages instead of trying to copy the competition.

When it comes to utilizing new tools and technology, the U.S. is “a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving,” he writes.

Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators. For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning.

Leveraging these new problem-solvers is the challenge, Hess writes.

And keep an eye on Qatar and India, which may be the world leaders in the future.

The poverty factor

Evaluating teachers based on “value-added” analysis of their students’ progress is unfair to teachers with lots of low-income students, argue teachers’ union leaders in Washington, D.C.

Ward 8, one of the poorest areas of the city, has only 5 percent of the teachers defined as effective under the new evaluation system known as IMPACT, but more than a quarter of the ineffective ones. Ward 3, encompassing some of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, has nearly a quarter of the best teachers, but only 8 percent of the worst.

. . .  Are the best, most experienced D.C. teachers concentrated in the wealthiest schools, while the worst are concentrated in the poorest schools? Or does the statistical model ignore the possibility that it’s more difficult to teach a room of impoverished children?

Value-added models compare a student’s previous progress with current progress: If Johnny has gained four months of learning for every year in school — because of poverty, disability, lack of English fluency or some other reason — and gains six months in Teacher X’s class, then the teacher has done well. If Jane has gained nine months a year in past years but only six months in Teacher Y’s class, the teacher gets the blame.

Adding demographic factors is unnecessary, if there’s at least three years of test-score data available, says William Sanders, a former University of Tennessee researcher who developed value-added analysis.

“If you’ve got a poor black kid and a rich white kid that have exactly the same academic achievement levels, do you want the same expectations for both of them the next year?”

However, D.C. uses one year of data, and factors in students’ poverty status.

A few value-added models factor in the concentration of disadvantaged students in a classroom.

Studies have found that students surrounded by more advantaged peers tend to score higher on tests than similarly performing students surrounded by less advantaged peers.

To some experts, this research suggests that a teacher with a large number of low-achieving minority children in a classroom, for example, might have a more difficult job than another teacher with few such students.

Controlling for the demographics of a whole class makes a complex model even more complicated — and may not make much difference. But the idea is being studied.

 

$5.3 billion in aid goes to well-off students

Colleges and universities give $5.3 billion a year in financial aid to students from affluent families.

To avoid default, consider technical college, say investors in bonds backed by bundled student loans.