The vultures circle

“Newsvulture vans” are parked in front of Darren’s Sacramento high school “fanning the flames and needlessly putting some people on edge,” he writes on Right on the Left Coast. Graffiti threatening a school shooting was found in a restroom.

The hysteria started last week. A student claimed the vice principal manhandled her after she tried to grab a confiscated book report — and bit him. Students protested in support of the 17-year-old girl.

‘Word gap’ is about quality, not just quantity

By age 3, the children of poorly educated, low-income mothers have heard 30 million fewer words than the children of educated, middle-class mothers, a study showed nearly 20 years ago. The “word gap” is about the quality of parent-child conversation, not just the number of words, reports the New York Times.

For 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, according to a new study.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said lead author Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

Talking more is the first step, said Ann Fernald, a Stanford psychologist. “When you learn to talk more, you tend to speak in more diverse ways and elaborate more, and that helps the child’s cognitive development.”

Fernald advises Providence Talks, a Rhode Island program that outfits babies and toddlers with devices that record the number of words they hear each day. Counselors evaluate the children’s exposure to language and teach parents communications skills.

Hacking higher ed

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers, I write on Mozilla’s new e-mag, The Open Standard.

CBE lets students progress at their own pace. They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Most programs work with employers to design the competencies, so students — nearly all are working adults — will have the skills employers are seeking.

President Obama has endorsed the idea. The Education Department is experimenting with student aid for CBE students.

Western Governors University was the pioneer, but now state universities — the University of Wisconsin and, just this week, the University of Michigan — are offering online CBE programs.

Colleges limit borrowing, cut defaults

Under pressure to cut student loan defaults, colleges are refusing to accept unsubsidized federal loans that require students to begin making interest payments immediately. Florida’s Broward College won’t accept private loans. Would-be borrowers have to attend a money-management workshop. Defaults are down.

Tech credentials pay for low-income students

Vocational certificates and associate degrees in health, transportation, construction, manufacturing and security lead to relatively high pay for disadvantaged students and low-scoring high-schoolers, according to a Florida study.

When urban Catholic schools close …

When urban Catholic schools close, their communities become more dangerous, argues a new book, Lost Classrooms, Lost Community. Crime rates go up. “Neighborhood health” deteriorates.

The vital role of urban Catholic schools is clear, writes Fordham’s Andy Smarick

There is an extensive and convincing academic literature on the positive influence of urban Catholic schools on disadvantaged kids. They significantly improve reading scoreshigh school graduation rateshigher-education matriculation and graduation, and more.

We also know that they can promote civic virtues, that the U.S. Supreme Court found voucher programs constitutional, that they can be held accountable, that district reform has not led to the improvements needed, and that chartering hasn’t created enough high-quality seats yet.

When a Catholic school closes, a charter school may take over the building and fill the educational void, the authors write. But new charters do not yet “generate the same positive community benefits.”

Communities matter, concludes Smarick. “Social capital is invaluable,” and it “depends on longstanding relationships.” Just as urban renewal — clearing the slums “to make room for shiny, new public housing high-rises” — destroyed communities, clearing away old urban Catholic schools hurts at-risk neighborhoods, he writes. Reformers should “be mindful of social capital, longevity, and the value of preservation.”

Are Newark schools improving?

Two years after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a $100 million gift to the Newark Public Schools, are Newark schools improving?

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal, wants local control — that is, mayoral control. The state of New Jersey took over the low-performing district nearly 20 years ago making Newark “a laboratory for experiments in top-down reforms,” he writes in the New York Times.

You might think that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 to kick-start a foundation for Newark schools would have been a game changer. But little funding went directly to Newark’s schools. Instead, the first $1.3 million was wasted on a poorly conducted community outreach campaign. Then another $100 million, including funds from Zuckerberg, went to a program for teacher merit pay.

Principals were given the power to re-interview teachers for their jobs and in some cases hire new teachers. But the rejected teachers joined a pool of floating staff members in the “rubber room” downtown, until reassigned to other schools or bought out. So even as Newark teachers worked without a contract, the state went on a hiring and cash-incentive spree.

Superintendent Cami Anderson’s have “plunged the system into more chaos,” writes Baraka.

Teaching isn’t one job

“Teaching isn’t one job,” writes Education Realist. “Any one teaching position is actually a million interactions between the teacher’s personality, the subject(s) taught, the balance of classroom ability and interest, sculpted by administrative dictates, district and parent socioeconomics, state policy, and school logistics.”

Ed Realist is teaching a non-math class this year and teaching trigonometry for the first time. Most of the Algebra II/Trigonometry students should be in easier classes, which are too full; a few could handle an honors class, also too full. Rejiggering the master schedule is impossible.

It’s a lot of work to teach advanced math to students who didn’t understand basic algebra, but ER is enjoying the challenge.

How do teachers react to the demands of the job? It depends on their personalities. I would wager to say that most are like me and work harder when given a new challenge—whether effectively or not, who knows? Some undoubtedly just shut down and get stubborn. Still others meander around incompetently—not because they are incompetent, but because their job has been defined in such a way that it’s now no longer recognizably their job.

At this point, many teachers aggravate me by going the martyr route. See how hard it is to be a teacher? See how hard we work? And all for the kids!

No. I do this for the intellectual challenge.

Ed Realist would hate to teach the same subject every year to the same sort of students. Some teachers love it.

Educating without ‘Bricks and Mortar’

Online learning doesn’t have to be second best, argue Jeffrey Scarborough and Raymond Ravaglia in Bricks and Mortar: The Making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School.

As a seventh grader, my daughter learned algebra through Ravaglia’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, an early distance-learning venture. It got her out of a badly taught “new new math” pre-algebra class.

Apprentice teachers learn what works


Bianka Mariscal with a student at Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School (Jim Wilson/New York Times)

After a one-year apprenticeship, new teachers learn what works in the classroom, reports the New York Times.

Aspire Public Schools, a charter system with schools in California and Memphis, pays teacher residents a stipend while they’re learning their craft. “Mentors believe that the most important thing that novice teachers need to master is the seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children.”

At Aspire, where most students come from low-income families, residents spend four days a week in a single classroom working with a mentor from late summer through the end of the school year. On the fifth day, they take seminars, role-playing typical situations and deconstructing videos while practicing almost scripted approaches to teaching. If they complete the program, they each earn a master’s degree and a teaching credential through a partnership with a local university.

David Nutt, 26, a Dartmouth graduate who’d taught Palestinian fourth graders in the West Bank, started out in a high school science classroom, but struggled to learn the material while also learning how to teach. In mid-year, he transferred to an Oakland elementary school. That proved to be a good fit.

One March morning, Mr. Nutt jotted division equations on a white board and the students eagerly volunteered to check the work using multiplication. (Mentor Rebecca) Lee, who had gone through a residency herself, filmed him on a Flip video camera and an iPad Mini.

After school, Ms. Lee showed Mr. Nutt the videos. He realized he had dominated the lesson and needed to give the students more time to grapple with math concepts on their own. The pair worked on a plan to double the student talk time.

After his year-long residency, Nutt was hired as a third-grade teacher.

Bianka Mariscal 22, the first college graduate in her family, returned to her old K-8 Aspire school in East Palo Alto as an apprentice — and now a first-grade teacher.

Aspire pays “residents” $13,500 and spends another $15,000 on their training and benefits, reports the Times.  It sounds like a good investment.

The U.S. Education Department is putting some grant money into teacher residency programs.