Charter myths

Philly School Choice highlights “five charter myths.”

What are they reading? Easy books

Most middle and high school students read unchallenging books, according to Renaissance Learning’s What Kids are Reading report.

The analysis is based on the data base of Accelerated Reader, which quizzes students on books they read independently and as assigned reading.

Reading peaks in sixth grade and declines through high school. Worse, 12th graders are reading books at a 5.2 level of complexity, according to the report.  That’s way below the recommended level of 9.7 to 14.1 for high school, notes the Christian Science Monitor. It’s also “far lower than the complexity of the average New York Times article (10.6) or college textbook (13.8).”

“In elementary school, kids being asked to [read appropriately difficult books], and they can handle it,” says Eric Stickney, director of educational research for Renaissance. By high school, less than 15 percent of students read one or more books in their target range.

Research indicates that students who spend at least 30 minutes a day reading independently, at an appropriate “challenge” level (where they can understand at least 85 percent of what they read), experience the most growth in reading, according to the report. And yet just over a quarter of students in Renaissance’s study read that often, and nearly half read for less than 15 minutes a day.

The average girl reads 3.8 million words between Grades 1 and 12, about 25 percent more than the average boy, who reads about 3 million. Boys read more non-fiction.

“Over time, boys are at a disadvantage because they’re just not getting enough exposure to vocabulary,” says Stickney.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the most popular book from third through seventh grade.

Parents lie to avoid English Learner label

Eager to keep their children in mainstream classes, parents are lying on surveys designed to identify “English Learners,” reports AP.

If anyone in the family speaks a language other than English, the child will be given an English proficiency test. Some four- and five-year-olds are too shy to speak to a strange interviewer, even if English is their only language. Only 9 percent of new kindergarteners pass.

Once classified as an English Learner, it’s hard to shed the label. Some students remain ELs from kindergarten through high school.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nieves Garcia came from Mexico at age 6 and spent most of her elementary school years in California classified as an “English learner” even after she had picked up the language. Now a 32-year-old mother, she didn’t want her daughter labeled the same way and subjected to additional testing.

And so she lied.

When Garcia signed up her daughter for kindergarten, she answered a standard four-question survey by saying her family spoke only English at home, even though her husband doesn’t speak the language.

“I just said we spoke English, English, English and English,” Garcia said.

Parents like Garcia fear that by acknowledging the truth, their kids will be siphoned off from native English speakers or stigmatized, and could miss out on learning opportunities.

In elementary school, English Learners typically are pulled out of mainstream classes for English as a Second Language instruction.

Parents fear their children will be placed in less-demanding courses in middle and high school if they’re considered English Learners.

Earlier this year, Tesha Sengupta-Irving, an education professor in Orange County, registered her son for kindergarten. At the time, her parents were visiting and she was speaking to them in their native tongue, Bengali, so she wrote on her survey that the language was spoken at home.

Her son, who knew but a few words in Bengali, was tested and classified as an English learner. She said the results were ironic since she had tirelessly tried to pass the language on to him and still he spoke only English.

The survey “is catching too many kids,” said the professor.

Core PE: Now with less exercise

Common Core has come to gym class, reports Madeleine Cummings in Slate. That can mean anything from “word walls” to worksheets. Will there be less time for exercise?

Many P.E. teachers have little training in the new standards or in how to teach academics, she writes. They’re under pressure to help raise test scores. “Who needs exercise when gym class can serve as yet another 45-minute opportunity for teachers to shoehorn in vocabulary and multiplication drills?”

“Timmy Dhakaia, a senior at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, says she and her classmates now spend so much gym time on written exercises and tests that they don’t always have time for, well, gym,” writes Cummings. After a yoga session, students fill out a worksheet on which parts of the body each pose strengthened. It takes time.

At a Maryland elementary school, teacher Judy Schmid has her bowling students score games manually. They learn Core math skills while counting pins, calculating their scores and playing number games. It takes time.

A “text” can be anything, advises Martha James-Hassan, who directs physical education programs at Towson University.

 Instead of asking students to read articles or write essays in gym, she suggests students learn what the lines signify on the gymnasium floor, or compare ingredients on a nutrition label. Talking about a sports controversy at the beginning of class is another technique for sparking discussion and helping students learn how to frame arguments, both skills valued by the Common Core.

“But even these more creative suggestions sacrifice students’ physical activity,” writes Cummings.

The smart path

Demarquez Grissom grew up in an Atlanta neighborhood where “it was cool to be dumb.” But he figured out that was stupid by eighth grade. A teacher got him into a gifted program that led to Syracuse University.

DoE seeks equality in AP, gifted classes

Tracking students by academic performance creates a separate and unequal school system, according to the U.S. Education Department, reports Sonali Kohli in The Atlantic.

Black students to be afforded equal access to advanced, higher-level learning opportunities,” the DoE’s Office of Civil Rights proclaimed in announcing an agreement with a New Jersey school district, South Orange Maplewood.

Proponents of tracking and of ability-grouping (a milder version that separates students within the same classroom based on ability) say that the practices allow students to learn at their own levels and prevent a difficult situation for teachers: large classes where children with a wide range of different needs and skill levels are mixed together. In many districts, the higher-level instruction in “gifted and talented” or advanced placement (AP) classes is what keeps wealthier families from entirely abandoning the public school system.

But . . . many education researchers have argued that tracking perpetuates class inequality, and is partially to blame for the stubborn achievement gap in the US educational system.

South Orange Maplewood in New Jersey will hire a consultant to examine why more whites than blacks are in advanced courses as part of a resolution agreement with the DoE.

In California’s Elk Grove Unified, 16 percent of students are black, but only 6 percent of gifted and talented (GATE) students are black. The district entered a DoE agreement to make GATE enrollment reflect enrollment.

Notice that Asian-American students are the most over-represented in GATE classes.

Rejected Asians sue Harvard for bias

Asian-American students are suing Harvard, charging they were rejected because of affirmative action policies that discriminate against Asians.

According to a 2009 Princeton study, the average Asian American applicant needed a 1460 SAT score to be admitted, a white student with similar GPA and other qualifications needed a score of 1320, while blacks needed  1010 and Hispanics 1190.

Project on Fair Representation, which filed the suit,  also has filed suit against University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for discriminating against both whites and Asians.

“The College considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations,” wrote Robert Iuliano, Harvard’s general counsel in a statement.

“Asian-American students benefit greatly from attending the racially and socio-economically diverse campuses that affirmative action helps create,” said Julie Park, assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland and author of When Diversity Drops.

It reminds me of the quotas against Jews back in the day. Ivy League schools feared they’d end up with too many Jewish students if they admitted based on academic qualifications.

Is it legal? asks Slate? “In remanding the case of Fisher v. University of Texas to a lower court in 2013, SCOTUS held that schools have a responsibility to attempt race-neutral means of achieving diversity (giving a leg up to low-income applicants, say) before turning to race-conscious means, and it’s not clear whether the Court would agree that Harvard and UNC have met that test.”

A feather and a bowling ball are dropped …

At NASA’s Space Power Facility in Ohio, the world’s largest vacuum chamber, physicist Brian Cox dropped a feather and bowling ball in normal earth conditions and in a vacuum.

Here’s Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott dropping a feather and a hammer on the moon. “Mr. Galileo was right!”

‘Personalized learning’ helps in math, reading

“Personalized learning” appears to be raising math and reading scores at 23 schools, according to “interim research” by Rand for the Gates Foundation.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

Teacher Pete Knight works with students at an Oakland middle school.

The 23 urban charter schools in the study predominantly enroll low-income students with below-average scores. Yet students ended the school year above or near the national average. The lowest performers improved the most.

Most teachers use technology — adaptive software programs with short lessons and quizzes — to personalize instruction. Students work at their own pace and their own level, moving forward only when they’ve demonstrated mastery. Typically, teachers work with small groups while other students are working independently.

Slightly less than half of teachers said students use technology for educational purposes about a quarter to half of the time, and about 20 percent said students use technology between 50 to 75 percent of the time. Among the remainder, nearly 20 percent reported an even higher level of technology usage, and nearly 20 percent reported a fairly low level of technology usage.

Most schools used common elements, notes Chalkbeat

  • “Learner profiles,” or records with details about each student;
  • Personalized learning plans for each student (students have the same expectation but have a “customized path”);
  • Competency-based progression, in which students receive grades based on their own mastery of subjects rather than on tests that all students take; and
  • Flexible learning environments, in which teachers and students have physical space and time in the schedule for small-group instruction or tutoring.

Denver’s  Grant Beacon Middle School has used blended learning to personalize for three years, reports Chalkbeat. Test scores and student engagement have improved, says Alex Magaña, the principal. Denver may create several new schools modeled on Grant Beacon.

I wrote about experiments with blended learning in Oakland schools — mostly district schools — in Education Next.

For more on using blended learning to personalize, check out: Blended. Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve SchoolsHow to get blending learning right and Does blended learning work?

Elementary schools try ‘platooning’

Starting in first grade, students have more than one teacher in low-performing elementary schools in Maryland’s Howard County, reports Fawn Johnson in National Journal. One teacher specializes in math and science, another in reading, spelling and social studies.

“Departmentalization” — also known as “platooning” — gives teachers more time for lesson planning, says Superintendent Renee Foose. “You ask teachers what they want, and they always ask for more time,” she says.

Specializing reduces teachers’ stress, according to a Valdosta State study. It’s not clear that it improves student achievement.

I think hiring math-science specialists, at least by third grade, could strengthen teaching in elementary schools. And maybe it could draw more male teachers.