Who sent the Scarlet Letter?

From McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Required Reading Essay Questions Written By a First-Year Adjunct Who Does Not Have the Time or Wherewithal to Do the Required Reading:

6. Who sent The Scarlet Letter? To whom was it addressed? Was it a letter of recommendation? Is there some sort of easy-to-follow format for letters of recommendation which you can use for students you don’t really know that well, but on whose evaluations you depend for continued employment? . . .10. In Appointment in Samarra, who are the people that meet in Samarra?  . . .

18. Who wins The Lottery? What does he/she do with the money?

I wonder what percentage of U.S. adults could identify the scarlet letter.

Accountability fail

A highly rated New York City teacher who moves to a low-rated school will get an asterisk on her new ratings, writes teacher Arthur Goldstein in an open letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Doesn’t that indicate that the test scores are determined more by students themselves as opposed to teachers?” he asks.

Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language to immigrant students who tend to do badly on standardized tests. It would be “irresponsible of me to neglect . . . basic conversation and survival skills,” yet the test focuses on academic English.

Teaching ESL or special education is a high-risk specialty, Goldstein argues.

Attaching high stakes to test scores places undue pressure on high-needs kids to pass tests for which they are unsuited. For years I’ve been hearing about differentiation in instruction. I fail to see how this approach can be effectively utilized when there is no differentiation whatsoever in assessment. It’s as though we’re determined to punish both the highest needs children and their teachers.

Teacher morale has “taken a nose dive” because of high-stakes evaluations, he writes.

Accountability can backfire, writes Marc Tucker in Ed Week.

When states decided to track and publish surgeons’ success rates, the very best surgeons took fewer high-risk cases, according to several studies.

Rating teachers by their students’ performance poses the same risk, argues Tucker. Instead of rewarding good teachers, it may reward teachers with good students and penalize those who teach the most challenging students.

He imagines a top teacher who leaves her suburban school for a high-poverty school. The work is much harder. “Your students’ scores on the state tests may not go up much, but you know what you have done for a number of these kids has spelled the difference between a chance for a future and none at all,” Tucker writes. But the teacher earns a very low rating and other experienced teachers decide that teaching the neediest kids is too much of a risk.

Value-added measures are supposed to compare students’ past performance, so teachers aren’t penalized for teaching low-performing kids. But it’s not clear that the measures are reliable — especially for the many teachers who don’t teach subjects that are tested.

Obama plans college aid for prisoners

Some prison inmates will receive federal college aid, despite a 1994 law that cut off Pell Grants to prisoners. The Education Department says Pell for prisoners is legal under a waiver provision for experimental programs.

Before 1994, prisoners could use Pell Grants to cover tuitions, books and other education-related expenses. Online learning should make it easier and cheaper to provide coursework to inmates.

President Barack Obama tours a cell block at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., on July 16. PHOTO: SAUL LOEB/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

President Obama tours a federal prison in Oklahoma on July 16. Photo: Saul Loeb, Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Under the Obama administration’s plan, grants of up to $5,775 a year would go directly to colleges and universities that provide courses to prisoners.

Of 700,000 prisoners released each year, more than 40 percent will be back behind bars within three years, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who announced the program at a Maryland prison on Friday.

“For every dollar invested in prison education programs, this saves taxpayers on average $5,” said Lois Davis, who authored a RAND study.  Inmates who take college classes are 16 percent less likely to return to prison, she estimated.

Congress provided nearly $300 million last year to fund job training and re-entry programs for prisoners, said Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, in a statement.

Pell aid might be a “worthwhile idea for some prisoners,” but the administration has no authority to ignore the law, Alexander said. “Congress can address changes to Pell grants as part of the Senate education committee’s work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this fall.”

Most teens aren’t challenged

The overstressed, overscheduled American student is a “myth,” argues Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News in response to Frank Bruni’s New York Times column on “exhausted superkids.” Or, at the very least, it’s a problem for a small percentage of teens.

Most U.S. high school students aren’t racing from one activity to another, Pondiscio argues. He cites a 2006 study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of 5,000 families and their children.

The average teen spent five hours a week at sports games and practices, faith-based activities, doing volunteer work, and meeting the demands of afterschool programs and other obligations. Forty percent of teens spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week.

Only 6 percent of U.S. teens averaged 20+ hours of organized activities per week. The overactive do better “across a broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved,” observes Joseph Mahoney, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College.

Bruni worries about students taking too many AP classes. Two-thirds of U.S. high school graduates take do not take a single AP class, writes Pondiscio.

 From 2011-2014, despite enormous growth in the program, fewer than 8 percent of high school students took more than five AP classes before graduation. Raise that to seven or more APs in high school, presumably the sweet spot of “exhausted superkid” status, and the number drops to less than 5 percent of the 3 million 2014 high school graduates.

Meanwhile the College Board estimates there are at least twice as many, some 300,000 academically prepared students, who either did not take an AP course in which they had potential, or attended a school that did not offer an AP course in that subject.

Pressure to achieve is a problem for the privileged few, Pondiscio concludes. (They happen to have parents who buy books.) “The far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both.”

‘Superkids’ are stressed, tired

Today’s “superkids” are competing so hard to get into elite colleges they have no time to sleep, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.

Overloaded and Underprepared, by a Stanford-affiliated group called Challenge Success, cites a Silicon Valley high school that brought in sleep consultants, trained students as “sleep ambassadors” and held a sleep slogan contest. The winner: “Life is lousy when you’re drowsy.”

“Childhood has been transformed — at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans — into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed and sometimes spirit-sapping race,” writes Bruni.

How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean, and The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey also deal with affluent parents’ zeal for perfect children — and the toll it takes.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘Whoa! This is too crazy,’ ” Denise Pope, a Stanford lecturer  and co-author of Overloaded, told Bruni. “I’ve got kids on a regular basis telling me that they’re getting five hours.”

. . . in communities where academic expectations run highest, the real culprit is panic: about acing the exam, burnishing the transcript, keeping up with high-achieving peers.

Teens need “the wiggle room to find genuine passions, the freedom to discover true independence, the space to screw up and bounce back,” concludes Bruni.

I keep thinking about the girl who won the sleep-slogan contest at Menlo-Atherton High. She’s going to put that on her college applications.

Beaker’s Ode to Joy

The grandkids love singing Ode to Joy, thanks to Beaker.

Do poor kids need less learning, more play?

Direct instruction denies low-income children a carefree childhood and harms their emotional development, argues Steve Nelson, headmaster of an elite private school in Manhattan, in the Huffington Post.

Low-income children in “direct instruction” pre-schools do less well in life than those in traditional nursery schools, according to The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, he writes. (The study followed 68 children, only one third of whom were in a direct-instruction preschool.)

Early childhood education must be “play-based and focused on social development,” writes Calhoun. “Children should explore at their own pace, negotiate relationships with other children and with adults, daydream, be silly, try things out, and try things on.”

Education reformers have created no-excuses schools that turn children into little adults forced to meet ever-higher expectations, Calhoun writes.

Are there “no-excuses” preschools, joyless academic factories that parents nonetheless choose for their children?

Nelson, the half-million-dollar mouthpiece of a $45,000-per-year private school, has descended “from Olympus to admonish teachers of impoverished students against actually trying to teach them anything,” writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

“Play-based,” content-free learning might be fine for the children of hedge fund managers, who will have lots of opportunities to screw up before easing into careers as progressive school principals. But it’s not cutting it for kids from low-income families, who often arrive at school with huge skills deficits and consequently have to, you know, learn something.

Calhoun should “stick to finger painting in the Imagination Station, and quit lecturing those who are actually trying to help the poor,” concludes Pondiscio.

A few months ago, I visited pre-k and elementary classes at a local public school that’s focused on helping children from immigrant families catch up academically by third grade. Classes were loaded with academic content. Teachers mixed directed instruction, discussion, writing, singing, dance, exploration, etc.

I was amazed at how much science these kids were learning as they developed English proficiency. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. And they were learning the normal set of social skills.

California teacher challenges agency shop

“We’re asking that teachers be able to decide for ourselves, without fear or coercion, whether or not to join or fund a union,” says Rebecca Friedrichs in a Reason interview. A California public school teacher for more than 25 years, she’s the lead plaintiff in a challenge to the state’s “agency shop” law requiring her to pay union dues.

The Supreme Court will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in the fall session. If agency shop is held to be unconstitutional, it will affect 26 states that require all public school teachers to pay union dues, even if they’re not union members.

New APUSH framework is ‘flat-out good’

College Board has released a new Advancement Placement U.S. History (APUSH) framework in response to critics. The rewritten framework isn’t just better, writes Rick Hess and Max Eden in National Review. It’s “flat-out good.”

World War II wasn't just about interning Japanese-Americans.

World War II wasn’t just about interning Japanese-Americans.

The 2014 APUSH framework was “an unqualified mess,” they write.

“Larry Krieger, a retired high-school history teacher, was the first to flag the single-minded focus on American wrongdoing, racial division, and left-wing heroics,” write Hess and Eden. Stanley Kurtz attacked the framework’s politicization of history.

After first dismissing the criticism, College Board “reached out to critics, solicited feedback from the public, promised that the framework would be reworked for 2015 — and asked to be judged on the result,” write Hess and Eden. The new framework is completely rewritten in a “more measured, historically responsible manner.”

In the section on World War II, the 2014 framework highlighted:

Wartime mobilization provided economic opportunities for women and minorities; American values were compromised by the atomic bomb and the internment of Japanese Americans; and the Allies won owing to our combined industrial strength.

. . . In the 2015 version, the first bullet now reads: “Americans viewed the war as a fight for the survival of freedom and democracy against fascist and militarist ideologies. This perspective was later reinforced by revelations about Japanese wartime atrocities, Nazi concentration camps, and the Holocaust.” The framework still notes the internment of Japanese Americans and the moral complexities of dropping the atomic bomb, but these are now situated in a broader, more textured tale.

In 2014, the first of seven organizing themes was “Identity” — with an “emphasis on race and gender grievances,” they write. Now the theme is “American and National Identity.” It deals with “our shared history — with racial divides and gender politics presented as one part of that larger story.”

The framework now addresses economic growth and American entrepreneurialism where before the only economics to speak of consisted of allusions to inequality and exploitation.

Astonishingly, discussion of religion and its import was largely absent in 2014. That is no longer the case.

Whereas in the 2014 framework one could be forgiven for thinking that the Declaration of Independence was consequential only insofar as it inspired rebellion in Haiti, the new framework makes clear that the Declaration “resonated throughout American history, shaping Americans’ understanding of the ideals on which the nation was based.”

A half-million students take APUSH every year. Their teachers now have an “honest, fair-minded framework for teaching the grand sweep of American history,” conclude Hess and Eden. “There is no effort to paper over the darker chapters of America’s past or its continuing struggle to live up to our founding ideals (nor should there be!) — but these are now presented alongside our nation’s ideals and staggering accomplishments.”

The new framework is better, but still flawed, writes Kurtz, who thinks College Board needs competition. The new AP European History framework has all the anti-West bias of the 2014 APUSH, he adds.

Mom billed $77K for disabled son’s records

Though diagnosed with an intellectual disability, Mitchell Smith passed mainstream classes in K-12, earned a high school diploma and planned to enroll at a local college with special-ed support guaranteed by Michigan law till the age of 26.

Mitchell Smith

Mitchell Smith

When Goodrich Area Schools denied his request and recommended a segregated program for disabled adults, his mother, Sherry Smith, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all e-mails related to Mitchell. The school system claimed it would cost $77,718.75 and require 2 1/4 years of full-time clerical labor to provide the records, reports Reason‘s Hit & Run.

The college “would continue special services, life skills, employment skills, all the services that he needed and that he was receiving throughout his entire K–12 school career,” says Sherry Smith, “and it includes the academic component, which Mitchell strongly desires.”

Superintendent Michelle Imbrunone wrote:

Goodrich Area Schools believes the total cost to fulfill this FOIA will be $77,718.75…It will be necessary to hire someone to assist us with sorting through the email content you have requested. The current estimate is that it may require up to 4,687.5 hours at the current clerical hourly employee rate of $16.58 per hour.

On July 1, Michigan’s amended FOIA law went into effect allowing requesters to sue if they believe they’re being overcharged. The court must assign punitive damages if it finds a public body has “arbitrarily and capriciously charged an unreasonable fee,” reports the Detroit Free Press.

The Smiths hired an attorney who refiled the FOIA request on July 1 and added a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) request. It took four weeks for the district to turn over hundreds of pages of emails. There was no charge.