Structure, quizzes improve lectures

Are College Lectures Unfair? asks Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times. I think would be more useful to ask whether college lectures are less effective than they could be — for everyone.

“Active learning” — such as adding quizzes, questions about the reading and in-class exercises to lectures — improves achievement for all students, research has found.  “Women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more, on average, than white males from more affluent, educated families,” writes Paul.

An introductory biology course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was taught in a low-structure lecture format and a moderate-structure format that included  “ungraded guided-reading questions and in-class active-learning exercises in addition to the graded online assignments,” she writes.

In the structured course, students were more likely to complete the readings and spent more time studying. Students earned higher grades than those in the traditional lecture course. The active-learning approach worked especially well for black and first-generation students.

At the University of Texas at Austin, psychology professors added a low-stakes quiz at the start of each class. Quizzed students attended class more often and achieved higher test scores. “The intervention also reduced by 50 percent the achievement gap between more affluent and less affluent students,” writes Paul.

“Active-learning courses regularly provide opportunities for students to talk and debate with one another in a collaborative, low-pressure environment,” writes Paul. That especially helps students who may be reluctant to speak up, such as women in math and science courses, minority students and first-generation students.

These days, many students who show up at a lecture are checking social media and surfing. Others will watch the lecture online. Unless they never get around to it. Redesigning lecture courses is a survival thing for professors, not just a way to help less-advantaged students.

What’s important to me is . . .

When students write about what motivates them and what they want to achieve, they’re more likely to reach their goals, according to researcher Jordan Peterson.

Writing about goals nearly erased the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for Dutch college students, reports Anya Kamentez on NPR.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, requiring first-year students to take a “self-authoring” course raised the number of credits earned and lowered the dropout rate.

A fifth of students are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East. . . . At the Rotterdam school, minorities generally underperformed the majority by more than a third, earning on average eight fewer credits their first year and four fewer credits their second year. But for minority students who had done this set of writing exercises, that gap dropped to five credits the first year and to just one-fourth of one credit in the second year.

Setting goals in writing “increased the probability that students would actually take their exams and hand in their assignments,” said Peterson.

Writing — and rewriting — your personal story can be powerful, writes Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times.

In a Stanford study, African-Americans who were struggling to adjust to college were asked to create an essay or video about college life to be seen by future students. Participants “received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.”

‘Equity’ leads to chaos, say St. Paul teachers

In the name of racial equity, St. Paul schools have turned to counseling — a 20-minute “time out” with a behavioral coach — rather than suspension for disruptive students, reports Susan Du in City Pages.

Saint Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva (Pioneer Press file: John Autey)

Saint Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva (Pioneer Press file: John Autey)

At the same time, students with “behavioral issues and cognitive disabilities were mainstreamed into general classes, along with all the kids who spoke English as a second language.”

Teachers are complaining of distrust, disorder and “chaos,” reports Du.

Under Superintendent Valeria Silva, St. Paul spent more than $1 million — EAG News estimates as much as $3 million — on consultants from Pacific Educational Group, which promises to create “racially conscious and socially just” schools.

Pacific offered racial equity training for teachers and staff, where they practiced talking about race. Teachers were asked to explore their biases, to preface their opinions with “As a white man, I believe…” or “As a black woman, I think….”

“The work begins with people looking at themselves and their own beliefs and implicit biases,” says Michelle Bierman, the district’s director of racial equity. If teachers could recognize their subconscious racism, everyone would work together to bridge the gap.

Teachers who say the discipline policy isn’t working are accused of opposing racial equity, says Roy Magnuson, who teaches at Como Park High.

At Harding High, Becky McQueen has been manhandled, injured and threatened — and seen her students attacked — by youths running into her classroom in what teachers call “classroom invasions.”

Now, to know who to let in, she tells her students to use a secret knock at the door.

“There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are,” McQueen says. “I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.”

At one middle school, nine teachers quit before the end of the school year.

At a board meeting in May, teachers’ concerns about lax discipline were “drowned out” by parents and minority leaders who praised the drop in suspensions, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

. . . Aaron Benner, a fourth-grade teacher at John A. Johnson Elementary who is black, said that the district was doing a disservice to the children by not holding them to the same standard as students from other ethnic groups.

“Refusing to work is not black culture,” he said. “Assaulting your teacher is not black culture.”

A teachers’ group is working to replace four school board members in the fall election, reports Du. “They blame the board for backing Silva’s changes despite teacher outcry.”

Hmong students, who make up the district’s largest minority group, are leaving district schools, reports Du. They perform well below district averages. Yet, “all we hear is the academic disparity between the whites and the blacks,” says history teacher Khoa Yang. “This racial equity policy, it’s not equitable to all races.”

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.”