The conservative case for the Core

William J. Bennett, Reagan’s education secretary, makes The Conservative Case for Common Core in the Wall Street Journal.

. . . public schools should have high standards based on a core curriculum that is aligned with tests that are comparable across state lines. The U.S. has several types of national exams that assume at least some common basis of knowledge and understanding. These exams—NAEP, AP, SAT and ACT—work and most of the country agrees that they are useful.

“The standards do not prescribe what is taught in our classrooms or how it’s taught,” argues Bennett.

“The Common Core was meant from the get-go to replace state and local autonomy with national control,” responds Peter Wood on Minding the Campus. “Of course, if you like the federal educrats running the curriculum with the aid of a couple of privately held testing consortia and the enthusiastic support of some textbook mega-publishers, the Common Core may be your thing.” But don’t call it “conservative.”

Poor kids need homework

Too much homework may be a problem for the children of educated, affluent parents, writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic. These kids start out ahead — enrichment starts in pregnancy — and attend excellent schools. Poor Students Need Homework, writes Pondiscio.

“For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool,” he writes. And it’s not as if homework is competing for time with violin, ballet, karate or Mandarin lessons.

The proper debate about homework – now and always – should not be “how much” but “what kind” and “what for?”  Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.

Independent reading is also important. here are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates. Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.

Karl Taro Greenfield’s attack on excess homework — My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me — is very, very popular on Atlantic‘s site.

Greenfeld’s children, who attend a school for “gifted and talented” students, are “already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes,” writes Pondiscio. They would do fine with 30 to 60 minutes of homework per night. But what’s right for his kids may be wrong for other people’s children.

A Chicago elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood has eliminated homework for children in kindergarten through second grade, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Children are supposed to “read for fun” at home.

Colleges go after aid-stealing ‘Pell runners”

Online classes make it easy for “Pell runners” to collect federal aid and vanish. Often scammers recruit fake students who share their Social Security numbers for a cut of the proceeds.

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.