In Mike’s playborhood, kids take risks


Children jump from the playhouse roof to the trampoline in Mike Lanza’s backyard in Menlo Park, CA. Photo: Holly Andres/New York Times.

As the “anti-helicopter parent,” Mike Lanza has turned his Silicon Valley home into a not-very-safe play zone, writes Melanie Thernstrom in the New York Times Magazine. He wants his three “boys to have a normal childhood, while complaining that his idea of normal is no longer normal.”

Kids need a chance to play outdoors, their own way, Lanza believes. Neighborhood kids are welcome to play in his yard at any time — without an adult to supervise.

“His free-time-is-for-goofing-around ethos is particularly anomalous in Silicon Valley,” writes Thernstrom, whose kids were preschool classmates of Lanza’s youngest boy. The area is full of “former engineers, executives and other highly educated women who have renounced work in favor of what they call uber-parenting.”

. . . .  parents think they should be producing model kids, optimized kids, kids with extra capacity and cool features: kids who have start-ups (or at least work at one); do environmental work in the Galápagos; speak multiple languages; demonstrate a repeatable golf swing; or sing arias. To a comical extent, parents here justify the perverted ambition through appeals to research (enlarging the language center of the brain and so forth) while ignoring research on the negative effects on children of being micromanaged.

A high-tech entrepreneur, Lanza is the author of Playborhood and writes a blog on turning neighborhoods into communities where kids can play outside.

I’ve walked past the Lanza house, which is in a lovely, expensive neighborhood near Stanford. I also did some freelance editing for his wife (who is not that happy about her kids playing on the roof) years ago.

Girls rule in school (but not on math test)

When it comes to high school grades, girls rule and boys drool, according to this chart of SAT test takers.

“Female high school students are better prepared academically than their male classmates on many different measures of academic success,” writes Mark Perry on AEI Ideas.
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However, test scores tell a different story.  “Female high school students score significantly lower on the SAT math test, and the +30-point differences in test scores favoring males has persisted for several generations and exists across all ethnic groups.”

Gender gaps start in preschool, writes John Higgins in the Seattle Times.

“Boys start kindergarten with fewer of the behaviors that teachers want — such as paying attention, controlling emotions and playing nice with others, and that difference partly accounts for higher high school and college completion rates for women,” a new study finds.

Researcher Jayanti Owens, a Brown sociologist, found “boys were more likely to be suspended, expelled, or held back a year than girls, even when they had the same behavior problems.”

Knives, fire and fear at Yellowstone

Image result for yellowstone parkWaterfall at Yellowstone National Park

After observing his eight-year-old son’s anxious approach to trick-or-treating, Jonathan Last decided Cody needed a dash of adventure, he writes in Weekly Standard.

This summer, he took his son to Yellowstone “for a week of camping and communing with nature in all her brutal splendor.”

Neither a free-range nor a helicopter parent, he believes, Last sees himself as “a Predator-drone parent: always watching, but from a distance, often unseen, and able to call in close-air support as needed.”

He gave Cody a Swiss Army knife. He was entranced.

He stroked it, examined it, fidgeted with it. He picked through all seven of its tools, studying them individually, and then splayed them out at once like a peacock. He began inventing scenarios where he might use it: “If a tree falls on our campsite, I could use the saw to cut it apart,” he said. “And if a snake bites one of us, I could use the leather punch to drill another hole so we could suck out even more venom,” he said. “If a bear attacks us on a hike, I can use the knife to fight him,” he said. This last scenario burned so brightly in his imagination that he decided to keep the knife in a sheath on his belt. Just in case.

Even more than the knife, Cody loved the campfire.

He devises needlessly intricate methods of starting the fires. He burns everything he can find—paper towels, sticks, dried pine needles, bits of croissant. One night in Yellowstone he took the cardboard center from a roll of paper towels, stuffed it with pinecones and bits of newspaper, punctured air-holes in it with the corkscrew of his Swiss Army knife, and then dropped it in the fire. His face transformed into something resembling the ecstasy of St. Teresa.

Last told his son how to whittle, cutting away from the body, and how to douse embers of a fire, but tried not to hover.

Every day they hiked. One day, they heard a growl, which could have been a bear — or not. They pulled out their bear spray, listened to see where the growler was moving and hiked on.

After a few minutes, when we were clear, Cody looked up at me and said evenly, “Dad, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

And so I told him that fear is natural and that there’s nothing wrong with it. That anyone would be scared in a moment like that. But what’s important is that you put your fear to one side so that you can think clearly and do whatever needs to be done.

His son knows “about the fears that middle-class kids carry around these days — about making friends and fitting in and achieving whatever it is their parents hope for them,” writes Last. But until he came to Yellowstone, “he knew nothing about real fear.”

Mastering fear “used to come as a matter of routine to nearly every boy,” he writes. That was before middle-class parents “turned our country into one gigantic safe space.”

Girls outscore boys on engineering test

Eighth-grade girls outperformed boys on the first national test of technological literacy, reports Education Week. The Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was designed to measure problem-solving skills rather than knowledge.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls' Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls’ Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Overall, 43 percent of students tested as proficient or advanced.

The largest gaps were the familiar ones: Black, Latino, low-income and urban students did significantly worse.

Students were given “a series of virtual scenarios aimed at testing their problem-solving abilities and their ability to use information about technology and engineering to develop solutions,” writes Jackie Zubrzycki.

There was no evidence that the gap in scores was due to girls’ reading ability, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

As they take the test, students work through multistep scenarios that range from creating a historically accurate museum exhibit about a drought to developing safe bike lanes in a city. Students are provided with background knowledge about the topics before they are asked to answer questions about them: One of the scenarios included a background video about iguanas before students were asked to design an ideal iguana habitat.

. . . on a task related to designing a bike lane, 76 percent of students successfully identified components of a safe bike lane, the first step; 64 percent were able to identify potential adjustments to a sample set of bike lanes to make them safer by, for instance, expanding the lanes; 45 percent were able to successfully redesign the route using an interactive tool. But a smaller portion, 11 percent, could explain the rationale behind the route that they chose.

NAEP plans similar scenario-based tasks on other exams, starting with social studies or history.

Nearly two-thirds of test-takers said they’d learned about solving problems and fixing things at home rather than at school.

When I grew up, girls weren’t supposed to fix things and my father believed that Jews couldn’t fix things, so I didn’t learn much about how things work. Other than magic! I do have good problem-solving skills — if background knowledge is not required.

Take a look at the TEL task video and see if you think this is a useful way to measure technical and engineering skills.

Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

Remembering the butter — and the bread knife

Mamacita ran into a former student — now a father of three — in Kroger’s. He told her his fondest memory from eighth-grade English was making butter, just like pioneers did in “that olden-days book.”

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“My kids and I love to make butter, just like you showed us in 8th grade,” he told her.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy “was perfect for a low-ability class of 37 14-to-17 year old students, all boys, who hated reading,” recalls Mamacita. The boys saw no connection between books and the outdoors lives they led, which included hunting, farming, 4H, cattle raising and fixing things.

Using a churn was too complicated, Mamacita recalls. “We poured the cream into a big Tupperware thing and passed it all around the class and the boys shook it while listening to me read.”

When the butter “came,” the boys went into action.

(They) poured off the buttermilk and squeezed the butter until it stopped weeping. They sprinkled just a little salt into the butter and kneaded it in. Then they all washed their hands and whoever’s turn it was that day sliced the bread and they all put napkins in their shirt collars and tucked in. We used KNIVES to slice the bread and to spread the butter. Heavens to BETSY.

Other teachers criticized her “because watching sourdough rise, and making butter, weren’t proper English lessons,” she writes.

I maintained, and I still maintain, that anything we as teachers or parents do that makes learning come alive is a proper English lesson. Science lesson. History lesson. Math lesson. Life lesson.

Finally, the principal told her to stop. “There really wasn’t time, anyway, what with all the ISTEP prep the boys needed to do.”

Teaching ‘manhood’ at school


Against a backdrop of role models, Ernest Jenkins III teaches a class at Oakland High School called “Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image.” Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Hoping to lift achievement for black male students, Oakland (California) schools have hired black male teachers to teach African-American history and culture in what’s called the Manhood Development Project, reports Patricia Leigh Brown in the New York Times.

“The No. 1 strategy to reduce discipline issues is engaged instruction,”  says Christopher P. Chatmon, who runs the district’s Office of African American Male Achievement.

Rahsaan Smith, 13, is one of the few students in his Manhood Development class with a father and mother at home. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Rahsaan Smith, 13, is one of the few Manhood Development students growing up with a father and mother at home. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Many students have grown up without a father or male role model. Students form strong relationships with teachers and the program also brings in black male professionals and college advisers.

Chatmon’s office compiles an honor roll of black students with a 3.0 average or better. Three years ago, only 16 percent were male. That’s risen to 25 percent.

China is looking for male teachers to teach manhood, reports Javier C. Hernnandez, also in the New York Times.

Lin Wei, 27, a male sixth-grade teacher in Fuzhou, tells stories about manly warlords and soldiers. “Men have special duties,” he said. “They have to be brave, protect women and take responsibility for wrongdoing.”

Worried that a shortage of male teachers has produced a generation of timid, self-centered and effeminate boys, Chinese educators are working to reinforce traditional gender roles and values in the classroom.

In Zhengzhou, a city on the Yellow River, schools have asked boys to sign pledges to act like “real men.” In Shanghai, principals are trying boys-only classes with courses like martial arts, computer repair and physics.

The motto of West Point Boys, an all-male summer camp in Hangzhou, in eastern China, is: “We bring out the men in boys.”

When Mark Judge was hired as the only male teacher at a Catholic K-8 school, the boys were ecstatic, he writes on Acculturated.

. . . the boys literally formed a circle around me and started jumping up and down. There were requests to play football, questions about cars, inquiries into my favorite baseball player, light punches (from them) on my shoulder.

The U.S. should “encourage more men to become the kind of teachers our boys need,” he concludes.

U.S. team wins gold at Math Olympiad


Math Olympiad winners: (back row) Michael Kural, Yang Liu, Ryan Alweiss, Shyam Narayanan, (front row) Allen Liu and David Stoner.

A six-man U.S. team won the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994, edging out China. There will not be a parade.

Over three decades, China has won the math Olympiad 19 times, notes the Los Angeles Times.

Team members must solve six problems that require algebra, geometry, number theory and combinators in 4 1/2-hour sessions over two days.

Here’s an example from last year:

Let n ? 2 be an integer. Consider an n x n chessboard consisting of n2 unit squares. A configuration of n rooks on this board is peaceful if every row and every column contains exactly one rook. Find the greatest positive integer k such that, for each peaceful configuration of n rooks, there is a k x k square which does not contain a rook on any of its k2 unit squares.

Although there were no girls on the U.S. squad, two girls ranked among the top 12 competitors in the United States, said Po-Shen Loh, the Carnegie Mellon professor who coached the team. (Nine of the 12 U.S. finalists were Asian-American.)
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Ukraine, with three girls on the team, was the only gender-balanced squad in the Olympiad.

Few girls compete in the international competition, notes the FiveThirtyEight blog. In recent years,  the average number of girls per team has risen from 0.2 in the 1970s to 0.5 in the 2010s (so far).

Let boys be boys

“Rather than being appreciated for the future explorers, warriors and leaders they were designed to be, boys are viewed as defective little girls,” writes Rhonda Robinson on PJ Media. “What is the real trouble with boys? Well, simply put, they are not girls.” 

Robinson homeschooled five girls — and then two boys. She discovered there’s a difference. “In my house ADD is considered a personality type, not a mental disorder,” she writes.

As a homeschooler, she could spend her boys outside to play when they couldn’t concentrate. Schools can’t do that. Robinson also blames feminist ideology. “Boys with uniquely masculine strengths, once prized, are no longer valued. In fact, these traits of boyhood are considered dangerous, even pathological.”

Boys are catching up in reading

Girls do better than boys at reading, especially as they get older, but the gap is narrowing, writes Tom Loveless in the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education.

It’s not just the U.S. “Across the globe, in countries with different educational systems, different popular cultures, different child rearing practices, and different conceptions of gender roles,” girls read better than boys, writes Loveless. 

However, gender gaps are closing, he writes. “On an international assessment of adults conducted in 2012, reading scores for men and women were statistically indistinguishable up to age 35.” After that age, men had higher scores in reading.

Still, women are much more likely than men to be avid readers.  Of those who said they read a book a week, 59 percent were women and 41 percent were men. By age 55, the ratio was 63 percent to 37 percent. “Two-thirds of respondents who said they never read books were men,” notes Loveless.

The report also found that fourth grade reading scores improved more in states with strong implementation of Common Core standards than in non-Core states. Last year’s report found an edge in eighth-grade math for strong Core states. However, the differences are quite small and may be due to other factors.