Bel Kaufman dies at 103

Bel Kaufman, author of the classic 1966 novel Up the Down Staircase, died on Friday at the age of 103.

“Largely epistolary in structure, Up the Down Staircase is organized as a series of dispatches from the front as it follows Sylvia through her first year at Calvin Coolidge High, a fictitious yet all-too-real New York public school,” writes the New York Times.

Ms. Kaufman at home in 2011 when she was 100. Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times

Kaufman’s family fled the Russian Revolution when she was 12 and came to New York City. She was placed in a first-grade class. Later, she was denied a teaching license for several years because of her slight Russian accent.

Her book is filled with Kafkaesque memos from administrators:

“Dear Sir or Madam,” one directive reads. “In reply to your request for resignation, please be advised that yours was filled out improperly.” Others range over subjects like “Lateness due to absence” and “Polio Consent slips.”

Amid the laughter, Ms. Kaufman’s book explored deeply serious issues, from classrooms with chronically broken windows and too few chairs to teenage pregnancy, trouble with the law and a student’s attempted suicide.

. . . “One morning a boy came to class three months late,” Ms. Kaufman wrote in 1991, in her introduction to a new edition of Up the Down Staircase. “I greeted him with a feeble joke: ‘Welcome back! What happened? Did you rob a bank?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘A grocery store.’ ”

Kaufman was the granddaughter of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, reports the Forward.  In addition to her Russian accent, the teacher examination board said she’d misinterpreted a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Kaufman “had the chutzpah to send the essay to Millay herself, who replied approvingly, much to the dismay of the Board of Education examiners. While Kaufman was finally allowed to teach, thenceforth only dead poets were included on future certification exams.”

That anecdote is in the book.

After her book became a bestseller and then a movie, Kaufman advocated for a “teachers bill of rights” which would guarantee a “right to respect, to a decent and safe classroom, to a salary commensurate with worth,” reports the Forward.

Yale designs robot ‘trainers’ for kids

Some day, robot “personal trainers” will teach kids to speak, read, exercise and eat their vegetables, say Yale researchers. A $10 million federal grant is funding the five-year project.

“Socially assistive” robots will help children “learn to read, appreciate physical fitness, overcome cognitive disabilities, and perform physical exercises,” the Yalies predict.

“Just like a good personal trainer, we want the robots to be able to guide the child toward a behavior that we desire,” said Brian Scassellati, a computer science professor at Yale and principal investigator for the study.

“We want them to help children learn language, we want to help them learn better eating habits, we want them to learn new social or cognitive skills through their interactions with these robots,” he said.

The robots will support the efforts of parents and therapists, Scassellati said. Robots will be designed for children with special needs — and for average kids.

Support or replace? I suspect someone thinks robot trainers will act as competent parents for kids whose human parents are inferior models.

 

42% of obese kids think their weight is normal

Forty-two percent of obese children and teens think their weight is normal, according to a National Center for Health Statistics report. Among those who are overweight, about three quarters consider themselves to be “about the right weight.”

Half of underweight kids also say they’re normal.

Nearly a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese.


‘Fairness’ means excluding poor Asians

Making New York City’s elite exam schools “fair” means excluding lower-income Asian immigrants, writes Dennis Saffran in the New York Post. The beneficiaries are likely to be children of the professional classes.

In 2004, 7-year-old Ting Shi arrived in New York from China, speaking almost no English. For two years, he shared a bedroom in a Chinatown apartment with his grandparents — a cook and a factory worker — and a young cousin, while his parents put in 12-hour days at a small laundromat they had purchased on the Upper East Side.

Ting mastered English and eventually set his sights on getting into Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City’s eight “specialized high schools.”

When he was in sixth grade, he took the subway downtown from his parents’ small apartment to the bustling high school to pick up prep books for its eighth-grade entrance exam. He prepared for the test over the next two years, working through the prep books and taking classes at one of the city’s free tutoring programs.

Ting got into Stuyvesant, earned a diploma and will start at New York University in the fall.

White, black and Latino enrollment in the exam schools has fallen as Asian-American newcomers — disproportionately poor and working-class — “have aced the exam in overwhelming numbers,” writes Saffran. “White enrollment at Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech has plummeted . . . dropping from 79 percent, 81 percent and 77 percent, respectively, in 1971 to just 22 percent, 23 percent and 20 percent today.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for “holistic” and subjective admissions criteria, such as extracurriculars and community service, will penalize students like Ting, who works after school in the family laundromat. His family can’t afford a”service” trip to Nicaragua.

“Subjective evaluation measures like interviews and portfolio reviews” open the door to unconscious bias, writes Saffran. Interviewers favor people like themselves.

Sure, the decision makers will do their best to admit a few more black and Latino kids (especially those from the same upper-middle-class backgrounds), but the primary beneficiaries will be affluent white students who didn’t study hard enough to perform really well on the test but seem more “well-rounded” than those who did.

Compared to the exam schools, the city’s “screened” high schools that use “multiple criteria” for admissions admit fewer Asian-American and lower-income students, Saffran writes. Citywide, the exam schools are 13 percent black and Hispanic, 24 percent white and 60 percent Asian. The top screened schools are 27 percent black and Hispanic, 46 percent white and only 26 percent Asian. Half the exam-school students qualify for a lunch subsidy compared to 37 percent at the screened schools.

Ivy League sheep?

Don’t send your kids to Ivy League colleges, writes William Deresiewicz in New Republic. After teaching at Yale for 10 years, he thinks elite colleges are filled with talented, driven, anxious conformists with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.

Bright students would learn more — and meet a more diverse bunch of people — at their flagship state university, he argues.

David Brooks made a similar argument in 2001 in The Organization Kid.

Deresiewicz has a book coming out next month, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life.

Daniel Drezner, also a professor, responds:  Entitled little shits are a minority at elite colleges.

Promises, ineptitude and overreach

Race to the Top was a loser, writes Rick Hess on the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion education competition. RTTT has become “a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.”

Instead of letting states come up with reform ideas, the administration created a list of 19 “priorities.” States could “ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.”

 Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

. . . States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.”

. . . winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin.

At the height of the Great Recession, dangling billions in federal dollars encouraged state education leaders to dream up new spending programs, Hess writes. Yet the value for grant winners amounted to “about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget.”

The Common Core might have been “a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states,” writes Hess. RTTT transformed it into “a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars.”

Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests.

Now, states are running from their Race to the Top promises, threatening the Common Core enterprise.

Intensive math in a barn

Ben Chavis turned the failing American Indian Charter School in Oakland into three very high-scoring schools — and was forced to step down after charges of financial mismanagement and overly strict discipline.

A Lumbee Indian, Chavis grew up very poor in Robeson County, North Carolina. Now, he owns a farm there. He converted the barn into five air-conditioned classrooms for a very strict, very intensive, three-week summer program, Math Camp in a Barn, writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal.

Most of the 50 or so children in grades 5 through 9 are Lumbees, though a few are black or Hispanic. The county is North Carolina’s poorest. School achievement is low.

From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday the children learn math, interspersed with some reading, physical education and lunch. Each gets 120 hours of instruction during the three weeks, equivalent to what they would get in a year at a typical public school.

. . . On Mr. Chavis’s farm . . . teachers drill math concepts over and over. They use flashcards, ask children to do problems on the dry-erase boards and to compete with one another to get answers right.

The closest thing these classrooms have to technology is an electric pencil sharpener. Students are given about two hours of homework each night. Detention (which can involve anything from washing windows and emptying the garbage to shoveling manure) is given for infractions such as tardiness, talking back to teachers or failing to turn in homework.

Some of the teachers are graduates of Chavis’ charter schools.

Meanwhile, the American Indian Model (AIM) Schools lost their charter last year, but remain open while fighting the decision.

‘Paltry’ pay for mid-career teachers

Experienced teachers earn “paltry” salaries in many state, reports the Center for American Progress.

In Colorado, teachers with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience make less than a trucker in the state. In Oklahoma, teachers with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree make less than sheet metal workers. And teachers in Georgia with 10 years of experience and a graduate degree make less than a flight attendant in the state.

In South Dakota, a teacher with 10 years experience averages $33,100 per year, well below the state’s median income and about what a press operator earns.

In Canada, starting salaries are lower for primary teachers, but rise more quickly, the report notes. By mid-career, Canadian teachers earn about $10,000 more than U.S. teachers.

teachersalaries_fig1

Feds will test aid for competency programs

Hoping to speed older students to a degree, the U.S. Education Department will allow some colleges to award credit — and student aid — for competency and prior learning.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Planning, organizing and choosing curriculum is the theme of this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling, hosted by Embracing Destiny.