Liberals, stop ‘awfulizing’ my kids

Schools can’t defeat poverty by ignoring it, writes Anthony Cody, a veteran teacher in Oakland, in an exchange with the Gates Foundation. “In the US, the linchpin for education is not teacher effectiveness or data-driven management systems,” he writes. “It is the effects of poverty and racial isolation on our children.”

Dear Lord, Stop These Liberals From Awfulizing My Kids, responds Chris Stewart on Education Post.

Every possible chart, graph, study and statistic paint an ugly picture where all poor kids of color live in violent urban neighborhoods and suffer from PTSD. Exposure to violence has reduced their test scores. Bad parents have not taught them to speak enough words. Indeed, their parents are socially, emotionally or intellectually unfit.

One in six of these kids is in “extreme poverty.” This breaks their brains and leaves them developmentally delayed.

The numbers “receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly,”  “one child in ten has been foreclosed upon” and more “than one million students are homeless.”

All this encourages teachers to lower expectations, writes Stewart. “Why is it failing teachers so often discuss poverty and successful teachers discuss pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and learning?”girl_englewood-716x320

Cody slams “education reformers” for pretending that teachers can “push students to new heights with our high expectations.”

Teachers account for no more than 20 percent of the variance in student test scores, writes Cody, while more than 60 percent correlates to out-of-school factors. “We cannot solve the problem of educational inequity while we ignore the inequitable and inadequate resources available to low-income children in their homes and communities, as well as their schools.”

Stewart wonders: “How does it feel to be a ‘teacher’ who sees teaching as futile?”

It may feel compassionate to enumerate all the life problems of our children, but it isn’t. It is limiting and hurtful. Bright poor kids are as likely to be discounted as struggling ones.

Stewart teaches only his own five children, he writes. “Still, I interview talented teachers and committed administrators often, and they speak differently than the fatalists . . . They are students of success, not experts on failure.”

In The Smartest Kids In The World, Amanda Ripley recounts a conversation with a Finnish teacher.

When she asked him about educating poor students, he was “visibly uncomfortable labeling his students,” she says. He responded, “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”

. . . “I don’t want to have too much empathy for them, because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this [their poverty] too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

That attitude does more to help children who live in poverty than “awfulizing” them, concludes Stewart.

It’s a smart world after all

Journalist Amanda Ripley’s “riveting” new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, shows why U.S. students don’t perform as well as many European and Asian students, writes Dana Goldstein in The Daily Beast. It’s the culture, stupid.

According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

Ripley follows three American teenagers studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. They discover “high schools that are deeply, even shockingly, enamored of intellectualism,” writes Goldstein.

In the U.S., most teachers earned about average grades and test scores when they were in high school and college. But in Finland, it is as competitive to become a public school teacher as it is to gain acceptance into an Ivy League university. There are no shortcuts into the classroom—prospective teachers must earn a master’s degree, write a research-driven thesis, and spend a full year in a teaching residency, observing master educators at work and practicing lessons and classroom management.

While few of us would want to subject our children to South Korea’s insane levels of testing stress, that nation at least shows kids that academic achievement is valued. On the morning of the national college entrance exam, the stock market opens an hour late, to clear the roads for 600,000 nervous students. Younger kids line up outside schools to cheer as their peers enter to take the nine-hour test. The scene, Ripley observes, is “like boxers entering a ring for a fight.”

In all three nations, schools don’t sponsor sports teams, Ripley writes. Kids who want to play a sport organize their own games, join a community program or hire a coach. Schools are for academics.

Children who can’t meet high expectations are allowed to fail.

Ripley believes that compared with their counterparts abroad, too many American educators rely on poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. . . .

A  Finnish teacher tells Ripley that he doesn’t feel empathy for his immigrant students, “because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I’d think, ‘Oh you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?’ That would make my job too easy.”

Compassion is “what really matters in education,” writes Carol Lach, who just retired from the Massachusetts Department of Education, in Ed Week.  She quotes a junior high student she taught 40 years ago:  “Why should I care about your math if you don’t care about me?”

‘Kindness pledge’ divides Harvard

Harvard is asking first-year students to sign a pledge to uphold the college’s values:

. . . In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

Originally, signatures — and blank spaces by the names of non-signers — were to be displayed in entryways, but that idea was dropped.

Pressuring all students to sign the pledge sets a terrible precedent, writes Harry Lewis a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College.

It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one’s thoughts. . . . A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.

. . .  the right to be annoying is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts. Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college.

The kindness pledge — as it’s now known — is “hilariously inappropriate and offensively coercive” adds Charles Fried, who teaches First Amendment law at Harvard.

“Harvard needs bold, courageous, iconoclastic thinkers, but this pledge indicates that the dean would really prefer good little boys and girls who don’t make trouble,” writes Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, which defends free-speech rights.

It seems especially ironic that a fundamentally elitist institution like Harvard would claim that inclusiveness is one of its greatest values. Keep in mind, this is an institution that rejects the overwhelming majority of people who apply, then pits them against each other for grades, kicks out some for failing, heaps glory upon those who succeed with particular distinction, and takes credit for the earth-shattering accomplishments of its hyper-elite graduates.

The pledge is anti-intellectual, Virginia Postrel writes. Kindness seeks to avoid hurt.

 Criticism — even objective, impersonal, well- intended, constructive criticism — isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating “kindness” as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.

Lauding intellectual “attainment” rather than inquiry or excellence, is a “strange, and revealing, choice of words,” Postrel adds.

Last spring, then-freshmen were asked how they believed Harvard ranked various values and how they rated those values themselves. “Success” is Harvard’s highest value and “compassion” rates near the bottom, students said. On their personal lists, they listed compassion fourth after hard work, honesty, respect.

A Harvard Crimson editorial endorsed the kindness pledge, if voluntary, and called for the college to provide “stronger moral education.” “Students receive more reminders to turn in their study cards” for course registration “than they do to be nice,” the editorial lamented.

Something’s missing in these dichotomies — “course registration versus niceness; success versus compassion; ‘attainment’ versus kindness” — Postrel writes.

Where in the list of ranked values are curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth? (Were these values even options?) Where is critical thinking? No wonder the pledge talks about “attainment.” Attainment equals study cards and good grades — a transcript to enable the student to move on to the next stage. Attainment isn’t learning, questioning or criticizing. It’s getting your ticket punched.

Harvard represents success, but also wants to represent “compassion,” Postrel writes. Both “depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.”