Free high schoolers to choose their education

By high school, attendance in class should be optional, argues Blake Boles, author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning. High school students should have the freedom — and responsibility — of college students, he writes.

Don’t want to show up to class? Think you can learn it on your own? Fine. Problem sets are due each Friday, the midterm is in six weeks, the final exam is in 12 weeks, and here’s a list of what each exam will test. Good luck.

Sitting in class but not participating? Fiddling around on your computer? Not taking notes? . . . Your loss.

Bored? Getting nothing out of this class? Then why are you here? Drop it and find something you love.

What would happen if students could vote with their feet and learn by consent? Boles asks.

Attendance would drop in the worst classes, he predicts. Demand would rise for electives. “Learning and engagement would “skyrocket.”

The school would adapt to offer extensive new training and support in the realm of meta-learning (i.e., learning how to learn): independent study skills, work habits, personal organization, research, and self-reflection on which courses to choose.

What if students only wanted to take “fun” classes, and not the “hard” or “important” ones? We’d have to create more engaging classes and scale down our vision of a required curriculum.

To engage the students who don’t want to study anything, schools would have to “develop new courses and programs that engage young people of vastly differing learning styles, backgrounds, and inclinations.”

A dropout’s story

Cornelius loved reading in kindergarten. Math was easy in first grade. “You could say two numbers, and I would subtract ‘em and multiply ‘em and add ‘em in my head, give you three answers in a matter of seconds.”

Why did he drop out of high school? In Butterflies in the Hallway, part of the Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series, Brooke Haycock uses interviews and school records to tell Cornelius’ story of failure, disengagement and more failure.

Cornelius had trouble reading “bigger books” in fourth grade. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. By fifth grade, he was getting in trouble with a friend who also was struggling. It “felt better than feeling stupid alone,” he told Haycock 

At a middle school where violence was common, Cornelius began cutting gym class to avoid older boys who he feared would beat him up.

“He never skipped math, the class where he always felt smart,” but he started cutting classes that required reading.

His friends, other “lost boys,” would “just run around the school.” Sometimes he got detention, but nobody tried to find out why he was skipping.

The youngest of nine children, Cornelius was raised by his grandmother. The summer after sixth grade, she died. “I just stopped caring. I felt like there was no one there to enforce rules on me or to make me sit down and do my homework. No one to care.”

He lived with his aunt and two brothers for several years.

Recognizing Cornelius’ artistic talent, a new principal invited the seventh grader to lead the school’s mural painting team at a district competition. Cornelius was thrilled.

But he couldn’t read well enough to do school work. “I started getting further and further behind. And I just lost interest. I felt like I was too far behind.”

He got into fights, which led to suspensions.

In high school, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed and placed in special ed classes. Then he was suspended for cutting class.

Some of Cornelius’ teachers tried to help, but he’d given up.

He moved to a group home and a new school for his second try at ninth grade. He failed again. At 17, still in ninth grade, Cornelius dropped out.

If he’d received help with his reading skills in third or fourth grade, could Cornelius have been saved?

Structure leads to success

Community colleges are improving pass rates and persistence by integrating “high-impact practices” into structured academic and career pathways reports the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Announcing a class attendance policy, banning late registration and requiring a “student success course” may have big payoffs.

Showing up

What Does It Take to Get Kids to Stop Skipping School? asks Emily Richmond in The Atlantic

In New York City public schools, one in five students missed a month or more of school last year. However, an intensive, community-wide initiative is raising attendance, according to new report by Johns Hopkins’ Everyone Graduates Center.

New York City’s pilot program includes “mentors, support services, staff training, better tracking and sharing of data of individual student attendance, and community outreach—particularly to parents,” writes Richmond. It’s expanded to 100 schools with more than 60,000 students.

Low-income students were 15 percent less likely to be absent at pilot schools, compared to similar students at similar campuses. Absenteeism fell 31 percent for students living in homeless shelters.

Assigning mentors to work one-on-one with students was the most successful intervention, with kids adding an average of nine days (nearly two full school weeks) of attendance per school year. High school students working with mentors were 52 percent more likely to be enrolled the following academic year than their comparison peers, suggesting the program also contributed to dropout prevention.

Some mentors are AmeriCorps volunteers, social work students, retired professionals, etc. Others are teachers, coaches, security officer and other school staffers. Twelfth graders also serve as peer mentors for younger students.

Raising attendance lowers the dropout rate, the report found. Students who’d been chronic absentees before the pilot started were 20 percent more likely to be enrolled three years later if they attended pilot schools, compared to similar students at non-pilot schools.

Daily tests cut achievement gap

Daily online testing raised college students’ performance in a University of Texas experiment.  The achievement gap between lower- and upper-middle class students narrowed by 50 percent in a large lecture class. Tested students didn’t just earn higher grades in Psychology 101. They “performed better in other classes, both in the semester they took the course and in subsequent semester classes.”

Testing teaches self-regulation, say Professors James Pennebaker and Samuel Gosling, who co-teach Psych 101.

One important self-regulatory method to improve preparation and performance is to give students frequent testing along with rapid, targeted, and structured feedback on their performance, so that they can adjust their learning and studying strategies in time to improve their performance in a course. Recent research has demonstrated that the mere act of testing helps students to remember and retrieve information more efficiently.

Each class day, students answered seven questions given to everyone and one personalized question, usually one they’d gotten wrong on a previous test, reports the New York Times.  They got the results immediately.

Most students hated it at first, Dr. Pennebaker said. Course evaluations “were the lowest ever.”

By the end of the course, however, the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams — scoring 10 percent higher on a subset of 17 questions that appeared on both classes’ tests. The quizzed group also got slightly higher grades, the study found.

The grade improvements were sharpest among students from lower-income backgrounds — those from poor-quality schools “who were always smartest in class,” Dr. Gosling said.

“Then they get here and, when they fail the first midterm, they think it’s a fluke,” he went on. “By the time they’ve failed the second one, it’s too late. The hole’s too deep. The quizzes make it impossible to maintain that state of denial.”

Students had to do the reading and pay attention in class to pass the quizzes. They also had to show up. Attendance usually drops to 60 percent by mid-semester, Dr. Pennebaker said. “In this quiz class it was 90 percent.”

Detroit schools offer Count Day bribes

Wednesday was Count Day for Michigan public schools. Ninety percent of state funding is linked to how many students show up on Oct. 2.

bikesHit hard by declining enrollment, Detroit Public Schools offered prizes to students who showed up, including iPad Minis, gift cards and bicycles.

Schools served a special menu: barbecue chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, seasoned green beans, cornbread muffins and peach cobbler

Bunche Academy made Count Day a no-uniform day and scheduled a dance for middle-school students and an ice cream social.

One lucky DPS student won an Xbox. Nearly one in four students received a prize of some kind.

A majority of school-age children in Detroit choose charter schools or district-run schools in the suburbs.

Iris scans are the new school IDs

In the sci-fi movie Minority Report, ubiquitous iris scanners reveal shoppers’ identities so advertising can be targeted — and they can be tracked everywhere.

Iris scanners are replacing ID cards at schools ranging from preschools to universities, reports CNN.

South Dakota-based Blinkspot manufactures iris scanners specifically for use on school buses. When elementary school students come aboard, they look into a scanner (it looks like a pair of binoculars). The reader will beep if they’re on the right bus and honk if they’re on the wrong one.

The Blinkspot scanner syncs with a mobile app that parents can use to see where their child is. Every time a child boards or exits the bus, his parent gets an email or text with the child’s photograph, a Google map where they boarded or exited the bus, as well as the time and date.

Parents already can slip a GPS tracker in little Aidan’s backpack, but I guess that’s not good enough for helicopter parents. Kids can lose a backpack, but they aren’t likely to lose their eyes. (But kids will forget to use the scanner and be reported missing . . . )

Eyelock, which makes scanners used in foreign airports and at high-security offices, is “entering the school market, piloting their devices in elementary school districts and nursery schools around the country.”

A San Antonio school district will stop using microchip-enabled ID cards to track attendance, despite winning a lawsuit. The cards didn’t raise attendance enough to cover the cost.

LA students win cars, iPads for attendance

I had perfect attendance in fourth grade at Ravinia Elementary School in 1961-62. The teacher gave me a plastic trophy — painted gold — that he’d won in a dance contest at the Hotel Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

Los Angeles public schools gave new cars to two graduating seniors with perfect attendance, reports the Los Angeles Daily News. Five elementary students won iPads.

Of 357 seniors with perfect attendance, Vanessa Umana and Euri Tanaka each won the drawing for an $18,000 Chevrolet Sonic. Clear Channel Media donated the cars and many of the other prizes.

Over the last year, LAUSD has awarded monthly prizes to hundreds of kids who answered “here” every time their teacher took attendance. Rewards donated by local companies included bicycles, gift cards to Subway sandwich shops and guest passes to Knott’s Berry Farm and Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

Six campuses also will receive $3,000 each to spend on attendance programs. (Does a magnet for gifted students need an attendance program?)

Attendance improved during the year-long contest, said Debra Duardo, executive director of Student Health and Human Services. That means fewer kids miss lessons and the district collects more money from the state, an average of $32 per student per day.

Vanessa credits her work ethic to her mother, Minerva, a pharmacy technician, and father, David, a Navy mechanic who served three overseas deployments while she was growing up.

“That shaped me as a person and taught me how to have goals and be independent,” she said. “They always encouraged me to go to school so it would lead me to have a better life.”

Graduating with a GPA of 4.2, Vanessa has been accepted at UC San Diego. She plans to major in biology, with a long-term goal of becoming a doctor.

The grand prize for attending school is an education, not a Subway gift card or a Chevy.  Vanessa knows that. She didn’t need to be bribed to show up. What about kids with less education-minded parents?

I kept my attendance trophy on my dresser. It disappeared when my parents sold the house, when I was in college. I’ve still got the education.

Teaching grit

Teachers can help students develop “non-cognitive” abilities such as adaptability, self-control and motivation, argues Northwestern’s C. Kirabo Jackson in a working paper, Non-Cognitive Ability, Test Scores, and Teacher Quality.

Using 2005-10 North Carolina data on absenteeism, suspensions and grades as a proxy, Jackson finds non-cognitive factors predict college enrollment and lifetime earnings more strongly than cognitive ability, notes Education Gadfly.  Evaluating teachers on their affect on student test scores doesn’t capture their full contributions to student outcomes, Jackson concludes, suggesting evaluations should include teachers’ affect on student suspensions and absences.

I fore see problems. Student suspensions would be a less accurate way to measure students’ self-control if teachers knew they’d earn a higher rating — and perhaps more money — for a lower suspension rate. High school grades are a good way to predict college and career success since they measure work ethic and motivation as well as academic learning. But grade inflation would go wild if teachers were evaluated based on their students’ grades.

True Grit: Can Perseverance Be Taught? is the title of University of Pennsylvania Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth’s 2009 TED talk.

“Non-cognitive abilities” are ways of thinking, writes David Conley, a University of Oregon education professor, in an Ed Week commentary.

Are we not observing a higher form of thinking when we see students persist with difficult tasks, such as overcoming frustration; setting and achieving goals; seeking help; working with others; and developing, managing, and perceiving their sense of self-efficacy?

Executive functioning — the brain “monitors and adjusts to circumstances to accomplish specific aims and objectives” — is a critical part of the learning process, writes Conley.

Four-day school week raises achievement

When rural schools move to a four-day week, test scores go up, along with student and teacher attendance, reports a study by Georgia State and Montana State researchers. And schools save money on transportation and utility bills, notes Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

The study looked at fourth-grade scores in Colorado, where more than a third of districts — typically small, poor and rural — have moved to a longer day and a shorter week.

Overall, districts with a four-day week started out with lower average scores than schools on traditional schedules, but saw a significant increase in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on both reading and math tests after they switched to the four-day week. Specifically, the researchers found that the shortened week was associated with a 7 percentage point gain in math scores and a 3 percentage point gain in reading. In reading, the improvement took place the year after the schedule was switched; in math, the improvement took place during the year the schedule was switched. In both cases, the improvements seem to have stuck for multiple years after the shift.

The report suggests a number of potential explanations, including improved attendance, increased teacher job satisfaction, and better teaching methods. (The longer school day might allow for longer lessons, for instance.)

A four-day week creates child-care problems for parents, the researchers warned. It could give unsupervised children more time to get into trouble. Or it could make it easier for teens to hold part-time jobs, possibly decreasing the dropout rate.

Of course, what’s true in rural areas with long bus rides to school may not apply to urban and suburban schools.