Schools try to teach ‘emotional intelligence’

Schools are trying to teach “emotional intelligence,” writes Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Magazine.

As the children formed a circle, (teacher James) Wade asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.

Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.

“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.

“And what did you do? What words did you use?”

“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’ ”

Does anyone see a problem with asking little kids to describe family problems in class?

Many “prosocial” programs promise to teach social and emotional learning, aka SEL, writes Kahn.

Some of them — including one of the most popular, Second Step — are heavily scripted: teachers receive grade-appropriate “kits” with detailed lesson plans, exercises and accompanying videos. Others, like Facing History and Ourselves — in which children debate personal ethics after reading the fictionalized letters of a Nazi colonel and a member of the French Resistance — are more free-form: closer to a college philosophy seminar than to a junior-high civics class. “

Leataata Floyd Elementary, a school in a low-income part of Sacramento, hopes SEL will raise low test scores. Students learn how to deal with sadness, anger and frustration. Techniques are simple: Count to five. Take a deep breath.

Kahn observed a fourth-grade class discussion.

Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.

Though Anthony was still upset, his acknowledgment that not all the kids were snickering — that some may just have been laughing nervously — felt like a surprisingly nuanced insight for a 9-year-old. In the adult world, this kind of reappraisal is known as “reframing.”

SEL advocates say it “can establish neurological pathways that make a child less vulnerable to anxiety and quicker to recover from unhappy experiences,” writes Kahn. They also claim “social-emotional training develops the prefrontal cortex,” enhancing”academically important skills like impulse control, abstract reasoning, long-term planning and working memory.”

However, a U.S. Education Department analysis of seven SEL programs in 2010 “found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.”

Teaching self-control makes sense to me. But I’d feel happier if they left the prefrontal cortex out of it.

How to praise a child

Instead of praising kids for good grades or athletic achievements, parents and teachers should praise children for acting ethically, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

In Asian schools, boys behave

School boys in China, South Korea and Taiwan aren’t more disruptive than girls, while there’s a large gender gap in behavior in the U.S., according to a University of Pittsburgh study.  Yet U.S., Korean and Taiwanese teachers see girls as better behaved, notes Ed Week.

Learning irresponsibility

Managing classroom misbehavior takes up way too much time, writes Ilana Garon, who teaches English in a Bronx high school. Students know they can get away with talking in class, hitting each other, walking around the classroom and then talking back to the teacher.

. . . these kids are 16, not six. At some point, no matter how difficult their upbringing, how uninvolved their parents, or how dry the material . . . high school students have to be held accountable for their own behavior. . . .  many times the kids can’t be engaged by even the most fascinating lesson–and, with virtually no consequences for non-violent infractions, teachers’ hands are tied.

New York City’s new discipline code will make it harder to suspend students for “disorderly behavior,” such as swearing and lying to teachers. Instead, principals will use reprimands, parent conferences and lunchtime detentions.

Calling home sometimes helps, but not for long, Garon writes. The school can’t afford supervised detention. Suspension “is often treated as a vacation by the kids.”

Immigrants from Jamaica and Ghana are “often appalled at the behaviors of American-born kids,” who take  education for granted. High school is free in the U.S., so it’s not valued, a Jamaican told her.

Garon dreams of “hard detention” (cleaning the school), suspension and “the threat of expulsion for the toughest repeat offenders.” If there are no consequences, students are taught that “even in their teenage years, they are not responsible for their own behavior.” That’s a dangerous message that will undermine their academic future and their employment prospects, Garon writes.

Teaching students to control their impulses and take responsibility for their actions should start in elementary school.

Teaching math to 11th and 12th graders who’ve failed the seventh-grade-level graduation exam, Michele Kerr has to manage “vortex” and “driftwood” students.

The quintessential disruptive vortex, Deon could single-handledly destroy half the class’s productivity if left undisturbed; his absence or isolation always left most of my “driftwood” students open to the idea of getting some work done.

(Yet) Deon was a math-solving machine who worked fiendishly once I isolated him from all other entertainment.

“Good” kids and “bad” kids “aren’t useful distinctions,” she writes on Larry Cuban’s blog.

Study: KIPP produces big gains

KIPP middle schoolers learn significantly more than comparison students, concludes a report  by Mathematica Policy Research on 43 schools in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Three years after enrollment, the average KIPP student gained an extra 11 months in math, moving from the 44th to the 58th percentile, and eight months in reading, moving from the 46th to the 55th percentile. Science gains equalled an extra 14 months and social studies an extra 11 months.

In 13 schools, students in the control group had applied to KIPP, but lost the charter lottery. If there was no lottery, the study used “matched” students of similar achievement and demographics in nearby schools.

For KIPP students in the lottery sample, researchers administered the TerraNova test—a nationally norm-referenced test—which students had not prepared for, and which carried no consequences for students or schools. The impacts shown in the TerraNova test were consistent with those shown in state tests.

KIPP students resembles other students in their neighborhoods, but with lower reading and math achievement than their elementary school classmates, the study found. Ninety-six percent are black or Hispanic and 83 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. However, KIPP entrants are less likely to have received special education services or to have limited English proficiency.  (Since many more KIPP students are black, it makes sense that fewer speak English as a second language.)

Critics charge KIPP “counsels out” low achievers to inflate scores, notes Education Week. To account for attrition, the study included all students who started KIPP, even if they left for another school.

For example, a student could leave KIPP for another school in 6th grade, but their performance at the new school is counted towards the academic achievement of KIPP students overall regardless. The report also found that KIPP schools have similar attrition rates as traditional district schools (37 percent over three years for both sets of students).

KIPP students spend much more time in school than traditional public school students: nine hours per day, for 192 days each year, in KIPP, compared to 6.6 hours per day, for 180 days. In addition, KIPP students spend an extra 35 to 53 minutes on homework each night.

However, a longer school day didn’t raise test scores, possibly because the extra time was spent on non-academic activities, researchers found. KIPP schools that spent more time on core academic subjects and enforced a comprehensive discipline policy had the strongest results.

In schools where school-wide behavior standards and discipline policies are consistently communicated and enforced, the school rewards students for positive behavior, and the school punishes students who violate the rules, reading and math scores went up, researchers found.

While KIPP students are more satisfied with their school, the study did not find an increase in “attitudes associated with success,” such as persistence and self-control. Students were more likely to admit to losing their temper, arguing with or lying to their parents, or giving their teachers a hard time. Researchers weren’t sure if they were more ornery or more honest about it. Students may have raised their standards about acceptable behavior, said Mathematica researcher Brian Gill.

In comparing higher-performing to lower-performing KIPP schools, researchers found “class size, teacher experience and professional development opportunities” were not associated with higher scores, adds Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

The latest CREDO study of charter school effectiveness found New York City charter students gain an extra five months in math — seven months in Harlem — and one month in reading, compared to similar students in traditional public schools. Charters enroll many more blacks. One in three Harlem kindergartners attends a charter school.

The boys at the back

“Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The Boys at the Back in the New York Times.

Elementary teachers give boys lower grades than their test scores would have predicted, according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources. Boys can’t keep up with girls in “attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently,” the researchers say.

. . . one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?

In a revised version of her book, The War on Boys, Sommers hits “boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling.”

As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

Male underachievement in school is a global phenomenon. The British, the Canadians and the Australians are experimenting with ways to  help boys do well in school, Sommers writes. That ranges from “boy-friendly reading assignments” to single-sex classes.

At Aviation High School in New York City, students spend half their day learning traditional subjects and the other half on aviation mechanics.

. . .  I observed a classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, students worked in teams — with a student foreman and crew chief — to take apart and then rebuild a small jet engine in just 20 days.

The school’s 2,200 pupils — mostly students of color, from low-income households — have a 95 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate, with 80 percent going on to college.

. . . “The school is all about structure,” an assistant principal, Ralph Santiago, told me. The faculty emphasizes organization, precision, workmanship and attention to detail.

Aviation High is co-ed, but only 16 percent of students are girls. The school has received the district’s “A” rating six years in a row.

“Vocational high schools with serious academic requirements are an important part of the solution to male disengagement from school,” Sommers concludes.

Ilana Garon couldn’t control a nearly all-male special ed class, until her female co-teacher was replaced by a male teacher, she writes on Ed Week‘s View from the Bronx.

Can we make middle school less awful?

How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful? ask Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen on Slate. They call for giving  “as much attention to emotions and values” as to academics.

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets.

Students write a social contract for the school.  Here’s this year’s version:

1. Respect the environment, yourself, and the community.
2. Cooperate: Teamwork makes the dream work.
3. Support each other even when the odds are against us.
4. Be yourself, do what you love, and try!
5. Be resilient: Fall 7 times, stand up 8.

When students behave badly, Principal Nancy Cresser asks which part of the contract they’ve broken.

“They know exactly which ones they’ve violated and they figure out how to fix it,” she says. Instead of storming off or pouting about the unfairness of the rules, Cresser says that Paul Cuffee students are OK with being held accountable. They’re the ones who created the rules, after all. So the students in question come up with a plan to fix what happened.

Creating a safe, supportive school pays off academically, write Glenn and Larsen. Although most students come from low-income families, Cuffee outscores a wealthier school across town in reading and math.

Teaching good behavior

Behavior Is One of the Basics at a Charleston middle school, reports Education Week. Every Haut Gap student spends 40 minutes a day for nine weeks learning how to “own up to mistakes, accept feedback, and apologize appropriately.” Those who don’t catch on take the class for 18 weeks.

The school’s approach, called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, is supposed to save time in academic classes. It’s also cut out-of-school suspensions significantly.

PBIS . . . emphasizes creating a common set of expectations for students’ behavior, no matter where they are on campus. The underlying premise: Schools must become predictable, consistent, positive, and safe environments for students.

“Creating that common set of expectations is really what creates a learning community. Culture makes a huge impact on the effectiveness of the school,” said Robert Horner, a co-director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and a special education professor at the University of Oregon, in Eugene.

PBIS is seen as a way to cut suspensions and expulsions, which are more common for African-American students, Latinos, boys, and students with disabilities.

However, a Johns Hopkins study found PBIS helped elementary students with “behavior problems, concentration problems, and social-emotional functioning.”  Not surprisingly, the younger it starts the better it works.

School is tough? Take a pill

Some doctors are prescribing medication for Attention Deficit Disorder to low-performing children, even if they don’t fit the diagnosis, reports the New York Times. Well, at least one doctor is.

CANTON, Ga. — When Dr. Michael Anderson hears about his low-income patients struggling in elementary school, he usually gives them a taste of some powerful medicine: Adderall.

The pills boost focus and impulse control in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

“It is not yet clear whether Dr. Anderson is representative of a widening trend,” reports the Times. That means they could find only one doctor willing to admit he’s handing out ADHD pills as a performance enhancer. However, there’s some evidence that affluent students “abuse stimulants to raise already-good grades in colleges and high schools.”

Are there side effects to these medications? Yes, there are.

Learning from high-performing charters

High expectations for student behavior and intensive teacher coaching are the keys to success for high-performing charter networks, concludes a new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica.

Inner City Education Foundation, KIPP DC, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep  use “positive reinforcements and clear consequences, zero tolerance policies for potentially dangerous behaviors, and consistent schoolwide enforcement of the student behavior systems.”

  By conveying consistent and clear expectations to students, these CMOs try to create a safe, focused environment where effective learning can take place.

At high-performing CMOs, administrators and master teachers observe and coach teachers. “Teachers receive intensive preparation on classroom management.”