Good-bye to brownies, hello kale

Shutterstock imagesVermont public schools have banned brownies, reports Vermont Watchdog. Instead, children will be encouraged to eat fruit shish kebab, kale smoothies and “gluten-free paleo lemon bars.”

(Fewer than 1 percent of people need to avoid gluten, according to my nutritionist stepdaughter, who was a school lunch designer until recently. She enjoys snacking on brownies.)

Vermont is trying to comply with nutrition mandates in the Smart-Snacks-in-Schools program. The rules apply to cafeteria items, vending machines and school fundraisers. However, mothers will be allowed to send brownies or cupcakes to celebrate a child’s birthday in class.

Never diet without a scale and a mirror

Never Diet Without a Bathroom Scale and Mirror, writes Thomas J. Kane, who directed the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching Project, on Brookings’ blog. And don’t give up on measuring teachers’ effectiveness just because it’s difficult to do well.

“We can change textbooks, shrink class sizes, publish test scores, and build new buildings, but unless we change what adults do every day inside their classrooms, we cannot expect student outcomes to improve,” Kane writes. That won’t happen without feedback.

Does anyone believe that simply describing new standards, providing new textbooks and showing videos of successful instruction will be sufficient to change teaching?  Would anyone expect that an analogous strategy—e.g. showing videos of healthy people exercising and smiling over their salads—would be enough to reduce smoking or shrink waistlines?

. . . Investing in professional development without an evaluation system in place is like launching a Weight Watchers group without any bathroom scales or mirrors.  It wouldn’t work.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, professional development hasn’t worked in the past.

The transition to Common Core is a good time to reinvent teacher evaluation, argues Kane.  It’s “safest for teachers to ask for help” in a time of transition.

Kane hopes to change the U.S. “norm of autonomous, self-made, self-directed instruction — with no outside feedback or intervention.” In most high-performing countries, teachers “expect standards, they expect feedback from peers and supervisors and they expect to be held accountable — for the quality of their delivery as well as for student results.”

On the Shanker Blog, Matthew DiCarlo analyzes New York’s teacher evaluation system. What’s most important is how teachers and principals respond, he writes. “For example, do teachers change their classroom practice based on the scores or feedback from observations?”

My husband has lost 70 pounds and 3 1/2 sizes this year by measuring calories, carbs, protein, weight, body fat, muscle mass, etc., analyzing results and modifying his eating plan. “What you measure, you improve” is his mantra. I eat the low-carb meals he cooks — “vegetti” instead of pasta — and monitor my exercise via FitBit. I’m down 23 pounds and two sizes. And that doesn’t count my size 4 jeans. (Women’s clothing is prone to “vanity sizing.”)

No testing isn’t the cure for overtesting

Too much testing is a real problem, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee, the new superintendent of a network of six urban Catholic schools But the solution isn’t no testing at all. “Standards-aligned, summative tests are really, really important to providing students — especially our most disadvantaged students — with the education they deserve.”

Capitalizing on anti-Common Core sentiment, the National Education Association launched a campaign against “toxic testing,” writes Porter-Magee. The union’s new president, Lily Eskelsen García, charged Core-aligned tests are “corrupting the Common Core”.

When she got her six schools’ results on New York state exams, it was “tough,” Porter-Magee writes. But she was reminded “of the power of hard facts.”

Because our school culture is strong, because our teachers and principals are so hard working, and because there are so many adults genuinely working to serve the needs of the children in our care, it would be easy to assume that our students are just fine. These data provide an important reminder that we need to do more . . . or rather, we need to do different.

The reality is that there is no replacement for external, impartial, evaluative achievement data.

At her six schools, the test results “are helping to refocus and shift the conversation,” she writes. “It’s hard to imagine it happening if we relied only on norm-referenced tests and/or classroom-level assessment data.”

Educational mobility falls for men

Almost 30 percent of U.S. men 25 to 34 years old are less educated than their parents, according to OECD data. Only 17 percent of U.S. women are less educated.

A Smarter Charter

image from tcf.org

Empowered teachers and integrated enrollments make for A Smarter Charter, argue Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of The Century Foundation. That’s the original vision of teacher union leader Al Shanker, they write.

“The charter model still offers an exciting opportunity to “build new schools from scratch,” the authors write in a New York Times commentary. “A small but growing number are using their flexibility in governance and enrollment to increase the influence of teachers and to integrate their student bodies.”

Some charter teachers have unionized with “thin” collective bargaining agreements that provide flexibility.

Others asks teachers to share administrative responsibilities.

Kahlenberg and Potter praise charter schools that serve a racial, ethnic and socioeconomic mix of students. For example, San Diego’s High Tech High “employs a lottery weighted by ZIP code that capitalizes on the unfortunate reality of residential segregation” to achieve diversity.

“Different families want different things for their children,” writes Neerav Kingsland in response to the op-ed. “While socioeconomic diversity is a noble goal, it may not be the number one priority for all families.”

In addition, Kahlenberg and Potter dismiss “strong evidence of the benefits of charter schools for African-American students,” writes Kingsland. CREDO’s 27-state charter study found that African-American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months of extra learning per year. As yet, there’s “little rigorous research” backing the educational benefits of socioeconomically diverse schools.

‘Curious’ in a google-it world

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

In a wired world, it’s easy to access information. That can discourage “true curiosity,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It 

Leslie criticizes Sir Ken Robinson’s wildly popular TED talk on how schools squash creativity, notes Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of the book . Sir Ken wants children to master “learning skills” rather than knowledge.

This is dangerous nonsense, Mr. Leslie asserts, an insidious argument for workforce training dressed up as respect for the individuality of the child. “It’s a philosophy that has made its way deep into the educational mainstream,” writes Mr. Leslie. “It can be found wherever you see an approving reference to students ‘taking control of their own learning’ or a teacher criticized for spending too much time on instruction instead of allowing children to express themselves. A report published on the website of a British teaching union states plainly, ‘A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core.’ “

Children’s “natural appetite for learning” needs to be “fed with knowledge by teachers and adults who know something of the world,” argues Leslie.

“Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel,” is easily satisfied, writes Broughton. “Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study and even profound discovery.”

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance.

. . . Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Knowledge makes us smarter, Leslie writes. “People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”

The family that dines together . . .

The family that dines together gets along fine together, reports The Week.

As Bruce Feiler writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:

A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem.

. . . a University of Michigan report . . . discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.

Knowing family history predicts a child’s emotional well-being, according to an Emory study. Children who know the family stories — including “natural ups and downs” —  are more confident and more convinced they can “control their world,” says Feiler.

How unschoolers turn out

What do unschooled adults think about their unstructured education? Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, surveyed people 18 or older who’d directed their own learning for at least two high school years.

Seventy-five people responded to his ad, including 24 who’d never attended school and 27 who hadn’t attended past sixth grade.  (There’s no way tell how representative they are, writes Gray, a Boston College professor, in Psychology Today.)

All but three were happy they’d been unschooled.

Most had pursued higher education, typically starting at a community college in their teens before transferring.

Colleges attended “ranged from state universities (e.g. the University of South Carolina and UCLA) to an Ivy League university (Cornell) to a variety of small liberal-arts colleges (e.g. Mt. Holyoke, Bennington, and Earlham),” writes Gray.

The participants reported remarkably little difficulty academically in college. Students who had never previously been in a classroom or read a textbook found themselves getting straight A’s and earning honors, both in community college courses and in bachelor’s programs. . . . Most reported themselves to be at an academic advantage compared with their classmates, because they were not burned out by previous schooling, had learned as unschoolers to be self-directed and self-responsible, perceived it as their own choice to go to college, and were intent on making the most of what the college had to offer.

Seventy-nine percent of those who’d never attended school were pursuing creative arts careers, including fine arts, crafts, music, photography, film, and writing.  A third of those with some schooling also were seeking creative careers.

Entrepreneurship — including selling their creative products or services — was high.

Luba Vangelova on Mind/Shift has more.

Idzie Desmarais, author of Unschooling 101, writes a blog called I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write.

Pre-test, fail, learn, succeed

Taking and failing a pre-test helps students learn, writes Benedict Carey in the New York Times.

.  . . wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.

That is: The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not. We fail, but we fail forward.

“Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around,” he writes.  Testing is “a way of enriching and altering memory.”

Teach for America is changing

Teach for America is listening to its critics — and changing, writes Dana Goldstein on Vox.

Two pilot programs rethink the “quick-prep, high-turnover model,” she writes.

One will provide a year of pre-service training to 50 to 100 college seniors who applied early-decision to TFA and were accepted during their junior years.

The second pilot “will encourage corps members in 12 regions — Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Connecticut, D.C., Dallas, Nashville, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, San Antonio, South Carolina, and St. Louis — to commit to teach for up to five years.”

Corps members will receive instructional coaching and stipends to pursue graduate studies in education.

“Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan — it has to be the main plan,” co-CEO Matt Kramer said in a speech announcing the changes.

Robert Schwartz loved being a Teach for America teacher, Goldstein writes. After his two-year commitment, he taught for five more years at an East Los Angeles middle school. “TFA was a great thing for me,” Schwartz said.

But then he took a job as an administrator at an LA-based charter school network called the Inner City Education Foundation. . . . He realized he wasn’t interested in hiring brand-new Teach for America corps members. He wanted to hire experienced teachers who were familiar with his students’ neighborhoods — not fresh recruits to the profession, most from other cities, who’d been through just five weeks of training and could only be counted on to stay for two or three years.

“My argument was: let’s take the resources you’re investing in a corps member — tens of thousands of dollars per year — and put that into professional development for training current staff on campuses,” Schwartz said. “You’ll see teachers that are going to stick around longer and are really invested in the community.”

TFA has many more applicants than it can handle, writes Goldstein. It can afford to reject those who aren’t willing to commit to more than two years of teaching.

The corps also is enrolling many more blacks and Latinos.