1-parent families hurt kids, but what can we do?

The sharp rise in single-parent families is linked to a widening education gap, write researchers in Education Next.

Fifty-five percent of black children and 22 percent of whites live in single-parent families.


What can be done? “Encourage young adults to think more about whether, when, and with whom to have children,” writes Isabel Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, in Purposeful Parenthood.

Strengthening education and job training so more young men are “marriageable” is important, Sawhill writes. So is persuading young people to plan their futures. “Where long-acting reversible contraceptives (or LARCs) have been made more affordable, and women have been educated about their safety and effectiveness, usage has climbed dramatically and unintended pregnancy rates have fallen sharply,” she writes.

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Sawhill and Brookings’ colleague Ron Haskins have identified the “success sequence” for young people: Earn a high school diploma (or more), work full time and wait till you’re at least 21 and married before having a child. Ninety-eight percent of people who do this will live above the poverty line and almost three-quarters will reach the middle class. Three-quarters of those who miss all three success markers will be poor; almost none will be middle class.

Schools can discourage unwed, unplanned parenthood by providing career training and helping young people develop character traits such as drive and prudence, writes Fordham’s Michael Petrilli in How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?

Young men who’d enrolled in “career academies” in high school earned more, worked more and were 33 percent more likely to be married as young adults, notes Petrilli, citing a controlled MDRC study. The effect was especially strong for minority males.

Anti-testers want to dump data, end reform

“Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves,” writes Owen Davis in Alternet’s 7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014. “As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, ‘The whole school reform machine falls down without the data’.”

“Indeed, the school reform movement DOES fall down without the data,” writes Lynnell Mickelsen on Put Kids First. So why do progressives want to dump the evidence showing that children of color are failing in traditional public schools?

LA Johnson, NPR

LA Johnson, NPR

No Child Left Behind required schools to test annually in grades 3 to 8 and report the results by demographic subgroups, writes Mickelsen, who describes herself as a progressive Democrat and recovering journalist. “The resulting data showed stark, systematic gaps between white kids and children of color that couldn’t be dismissed simply by income levels.”

Schools aren’t solely to blame for the gap, she writes. But, “this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups.”

In addition, analyzing the data has shown that “different teachers consistently had very different results,” Mickelsen adds.

 This data made it harder for the teachers’ union to claim that no one could really tell who was a good teacher or not—it was all so subjective and personality-driven, which is why seniority had to be the top criteria in almost all staffing decisions, etc.

In recent years, more states have “required that teachers be evaluated in part  by the progress their students make on these exams,” she writes. “And ding, ding, ding, this is when the organized backlash against ‘high-stakes,’ ‘high-stress’ testing seems to truly have started.”

When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God!  Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum.

But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence.

Most opt-out parents are white, “Crunchy Mamas,” she writes. Their kids are doing fine, or so they believe. “Check your privilege, people,” she writes. “Just sayin’.”

Forget about “fixing” black kids and try fixing white liberals, Mickelsen writes in the MinnPost.

Who backs testing? Liberal reformers

Now that school testing is unpopular, its enemies see it as “conservative,” writes Rick Hess. But, liberal reformers are the most enthusiastic advocates of testing, which they see as the way to close the “achievement gap.”

“Conservative enthusiasm for testing has been tempered by an appreciation for school choice,” Hess writes. Liberals are all in.

In 2009, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top pushed states to sign on to the yet-to-be-developed Common Core tests and to promise they’d start judging teachers based on test scores. Since that time, the administration’s dubious practice of granting states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind if they agree to pay fealty to administration priorities when it comes to things such as teacher testing has continued to herd states down this path. The teacher-evaluation systems, in particular, require a spate of new tests for the three-quarters of teachers not captured by those NCLB reading and math tests.

Well-intentioned liberal reform groups such as the Education Trust, Center for American Progress, and Democrats for Education Reform have led the gap-closing charge, Hess concludes.

Tech won’t close achievement gap

Technology won’t close the achievement gap, writes psychologist Susan Pinker in the New York Times. “Showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices” could widen the class divide, she warns.  

In the early 2000s, nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students were given networked computers. There was “a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” concluded a multi-year study by Duke economists. “What’s worse, the weaker students (boys, African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest,” writes Pinker. “When their computers arrived, their reading scores fell off a cliff.”

It’s likely many kids weren’t using the devices to do school work, she speculates. Most people prefer to play games and surf social media sites.

Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success. Apps and videos don’t.

One Laptop Per Child gives low-cost laptops to poor children so they can “go online and educate themselves — no school or teacher required,” writes Pinker. It hasn’t worked out that way. Children spent more time on games and chat rooms and less time on their homework than before, researchers reported.

In the classroom, “technology can work only when it is deployed as a tool by a terrific, highly trained teacher,” writes Pinker.

The Tech Timeout Academic Challenge asks students to shut down their digital devices for a few days and then discuss or write about their experiences.

‘No excuses’ schools try to cut teacher stress

“No excuses” charter schools hire young idealists, work them very hard and expect many to burn out and leave after a few years.  That’s the old model, writes Sara Neufeld in The Atlantic. Some charters are providing more support and shorter work hours to keep young teachers on the job.

James Cavanagh is 22 years old, fresh out of the University of Delaware. With his degree in elementary education, he could have gotten a job anywhere—and he chose to teach at one of the most demanding public schools in America.

His college buddies were hired at schools with mid-afternoon dismissals and two and a half months of summer vacation. For not much more pay, Cavanagh worked nearly all of August and this fall is putting in 12-hour days, plus attending graduate school.

In exchange, he gets to be a part of one of the nation’s top charter schools, North Star Academy in Newark, where poor, minority students routinely outperform their peers in wealthier ZIP codes on standardized tests. And he’s getting extensive support designed to make him both effective and eager to stick around.

He gets to school by 6:15 am and usually goes home at 6:30 pm when the building shuts down. On Monday nights and Saturdays, he takes graduate education classes.

However, when another fifth-grade math teacher returns from maternity leave this month, Cavanagh “will go from teaching three 1.5-hour classes a day to one class and spend the other periods working with students individually and in small groups,” writes Neufeld. North Star tries to give new teachers a lighter schedule. 

YES Prep, a network of 13 high-performing charters in Houston, doesn’t have a long school year, she writes. Instead, students get a chance to attend “the types of summer camps, wilderness expeditions and international travel opportunities enjoyed by their middle class peers.”

Ascend charters in Brooklyn have cut the academic day by 45 minutes, to eight hours, while giving teachers a raise. “Middle school students stay for homework help from local college students, followed by enrichment activities such as karate, dance and African drumming that are typically led by community members and partner organizations so teachers can go home,” writes Neufeld.

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.

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.”

ACT: College readiness gap is wide

Only 26 percent of 2014 graduates who took the ACT are prepared to succeed in college, according to ACT’s college readiness report. Another 13 percent passed three out of four benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. Thirty-one percent didn’t pass a single benchmark and 16 percent passed only one.

That’s no worse than in previous years, despite the growing number of students taking the test.

Nationwide, 57 percent of the class of 2014 took the ACT. While 86 percent want to go to college, but some live in states that require all students to take a college admissions exam. Last year, only 69 percent of ACT test takers actually enrolled in college that fall.

A student who meets a benchmark has a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher, or a 75 chance of a C or higher in first-year college courses, estimates ACT.

While 57 percent of Asian-Americans and 49 percent of whites met three or more benchmarks, that dropped to 23 percent for Latinos and 11 percent for  African-American test-takers.

Overall, 64 percent of test takers tested as college-ready in English, 44 percent in reading, 43 percent in math and 37 percent in science.

Average composite scores ranged from 23.5 for Asians, 22.3 for whites, 18.8 for Latinos and 17 for blacks.

Massachusetts students had the highest composite score, 24.3 points. Hawaii ranked lowest, with an average of 18.2.

U.S. schools rank low in innovation

U.S. schools are below average in innovation, according to an international report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Denmark, Indonesia and high-scoring South Korea are the most innovative, according to the study. 

“Innovation led to improved math scores for eighth-graders, a narrowing of the achievement gap and happier teachers,” researchers concluded.

U.S. innovation centered around more use of test data, external evaluation of secondary school classrooms and parental involvement, the report found.

Teaching innovations included requiring secondary science students to explain and elaborate on their answers and to observe and describe natural phenomena.

Primary teachers offered more individualized reading instruction and were more likely to ask students to interpret texts and explain their math answers.

Math and science teachers were more likely to ask students to relate what they’d learned in class to their daily life.

Poland have moved into the top ranks in school performance, writes Marc Tucker. He looks at what changed in Poland, which now outscores the U.S.

Technology: the great unequalizer

According to Annie Murphy Paul and a number of researchers, technology is not narrowing achievement and opportunity gaps; rather, it seems to be widening them.

Susan B. Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy education at NYU, and Donna C. Celano, an assistant professor of communication at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, spent hundreds of hours observing children in the high-poverty Badlands and the affluent Chestnut Hill sections of Philadelphia. They found that technology exacerbated inequalities between rich and poor children–not because the rich had more of it, but because they used it differently. Paul writes: “They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience.”

Paul relates this to a well-documented “Matthew Effect,” a term coined in 1968 by Roger Merton. (“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” [Matthew 13:12]). That is, when rich children use technology for educational purposes, they make greater leaps than poor children.

Not only do poor children gain less from technology than their rich counterparts, but they may even lose. In a forthcoming article, economists Jacob Vigdor, Helen Ladd, and Erika Martinez report a possible negative effect of technology on poor students’ performance: after broadband was introduced to public schools across North Carolina, math and reading performance went down in each region where it was introduced. The scores of disadvantaged students dropped the most.

Paul suggests that affluent children have more guidance from adults when using the computer; thus, they may be directed toward intellectually challenging activities.

There may be still more explanations of the phenomenon. Schools have been told that technology will help raise the achievement levels of the disadvantaged. High-poverty schools are clearly under great pressure to raise the achievement levels of the disadvantaged. So, when technology comes their way, they may require teachers to use it, even when it doesn’t serve the lesson well. (A pre-Danielson classroom observation form in NYC had a check box for technology use–nothing about whether it was used well or poorly.) I have attended PDs where the emphasis was on making use of technology no matter what, not on examining how it might or might not enhance a given lesson. At one PD, we watched a video that ended with the a principal’s advice, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

How can schools improve the quality of their technology use? Paul has a few suggestions:

Addressing it would require a focus on people: training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively. It would require a focus on practices: what one researcher has called the dynamic “social envelope” that surrounds the hunks of plastic and silicon on our desks. And it would require a focus on knowledge: background knowledge that is both broad and deep. (The Common Core standards, with their focus on building broad background knowledge, may be education’s most significant contribution to true computer literacy.)

Amen: I suspect that if schools focus on that last part–building background knowledge (and foreground knowledge, for that matter, and ways of interpreting the knowledge)–the proper uses of technology will present themselves, not automatically and naturally, but relatively easily all the same.

One minor quibble, though (minor because it’s tangential to her argument):  The Common Core, particularly in ELA, doesn’t focus on building background knowledge. It stresses the importance of curriculum but focuses on skills. Not that the Core should have specified a curriculum–but as it is now, one can “implement” the Core–to the satisfaction of state officials–without a clear sense of what is being taught and why.

In the spirit of Paul’s last point, though, schools would do well to have technology serve the lesson and not the other way around.