It’s harder to teach reading than math

“No excuses” charter schools that target low-income, minority students are raising math scores, reports the New York Times, but it’s harder to teach reading to disadvantaged students.

At Troy Prep Middle School, a charter school near Albany, students start fifth grade years behind in math and reading. Last year, all seventh graders scored proficient or advanced on state math exams; just over half met reading standards.

The 31 other schools in the Uncommon Schools network, which enrolls low-income students in Boston, New York City, Rochester and Newark, also have more students achieving proficiency in math than reading, said Brett Peiser, the network’s chief executive.

“Math is very close-ended,” Mr. Peiser said. Reading difficulties, he said, tend to be more complicated to resolve.

“Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” Mr. Peiser said, rattling off a string of potential reading roadblocks. “It’s a three-dimensional problem that you have to attack. And it just takes time.”

After three years in KIPP middle schools, students scored 11 months — more than a full year — above the national average in math, but only 8 months ahead in reading, according to a Mathematica Policy Research study.

Large public urban districts also find it easier to raise math scores than reading scores.

Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School.

The children from low-income, less-educated families start school with a vocabulary and knowledge deficit compared to the children of well-educated parents, notes the Times. “By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.”

 “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

Common Core standards could make it harder for disadvantaged children to do well in math, Deborah L. Ball, dean of University of Michigan education school, told the Times.  “As math has become more about talking, arguing and writing, it’s beginning to require these kinds of cultural resources that depend on something besides school.”

Students from Mexican immigrant families can excel in math, teachers and principals at high-performing, high-minority schools told me when I was working on the BrokenPromises report. Math is a new language for all students, they said. I hope Ball’s prediction doesn’t come true.

Schooling makes kids smarter

Schooling Makes You Smarter, argues Richard E. Nisbett, a University of Michigan social psychology professor,  in the new American Educator.  Actually, lots of environmental influences make people smarter — or duller.

People’s intelligence is greatly affected by prenatal and immediate postnatal factors; by home environments; by education, inclding early childhood education; and by changes in the larger culture. How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.

As years of schooling rise — from eight years in 1910 to an average of 14 in 2010 — IQs rise too in what’s known as the “Flynn effect.”

. . . in nations that were fully modern and industrialized by the beginning of the 20th century, IQ has increased by about 3 points per decade from the end of World War II to the present.10 That amounts to a gain of 18 points, which is equivalent to moving from a 50th percentile score (IQ equal to 100) to a score at the 93rd percentile (IQ equal to 118).  . . . Nations that have only recently begun to modernize, such as Kenya, Sudan, and the Caribbean nations, have begun to show extremely high rates of gain.

In addition to more years of schooling, curriculum asks more of students and society has become more complex, making greater demands on  intelligence, Nisbett writes.

Culture matters. A study of high school graduates in 1966 found Asian Americans had slightly lower IQs than whites but scored 33 points higher on the SAT — they took more math in high school — and achieved more career success.  ”The picture that results is that Asian Americans capitalize on a given level of intellectual ability much better than do European Americans,” Nisbett writes.

Children from low-income families may not match the achievement of children with educated parents, but “most children in poverty aren’t living up to their genetic potential,” he writes. In experiments, “persuading minority students that their intelligence is substantially under their own control” can raise their academic performance.

“School affects intelligence,” Nisbett concludes. “Better schools produce better effects, and . . .  the caliber of the individual teacher is of great importance.”

 

Slow learning

Jen Li, who grew up in China during the violently anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, has spent her academic career in the U.S. “trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Learning Virtues.

Westerners see learning as “something people do in order to understand and master the external world,” Li believes. “Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

Westerners stress the “aha moment of sudden insight,” while Chinese respect “the arduous accumulation of understanding.” (It reminds me of the “slow food” movement.) Of course, Chinese wouldn’t think of teasing nerds, if they had such a concept. “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination,” Brooks writes.

Brooks wonders if the U.S. can find “moral/academic codes” to motivate our students. Could we add a dash of Confucianism (he also likes Jewish Torah study) to our culture?

Shakespeare’s words

A professor explains why Shakespeare is great in a chapter of a novel on WitNit. It starts with a student’s question:

“Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me, a Black-Hispanic lesbian?”

The professor gets “Mzzzz Powers” to admit that it’s useful to be able to distinguish between a “chair” and a “stool.” It’s better to have a larger vocabulary than a smaller vocabulary.

Mzzz Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

. . . “We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Mzzz Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers?the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies?you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden.

. . .  a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

The average person has a vocabulary of 3,000 words, the professor says. The King James Bible uses 4,300 words. John Milton “was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”  Then there’s Shakespeare.

When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

. . .  ”In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states . . .

Shakespeare uses a vocabulary of more than 22,000 words, says the professor.  ”And you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

The elephant in the integrated classroom

Clashing parenting styles, cultures and expectations undermine school integration, writes Jennifer Burns Stillman in The Elephant in the Classroom in Education Next. She interviewed white, upper-middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods about their school choices.

. . . white, upper-middle-class families prefer a progressive and discursive style of interaction with their children, both at home and in school, and lower-income, nonwhite families prefer a traditional or authoritarian style of interaction with their children in these same venues.

White parents who try an urban school and then leave cite overly strict discipline and  ”near-constant yelling—from principals, teachers, school aides, and nonwhite parents who come to drop off and pick up their kids,” Stillman writes.

White parents who wanted to volunteer said principals and non-white parents saw them as pushy interlopers.

One principal was angry when white parents gave each teacher a $100 book card donated by Barnes & Noble, seeing it as “bribing” teachers. Parents called various principals “not the brightest bulb in the box,” “insane,” “crazy,” “incompetent.”

White parents didn’t do enough “ego stroking,” one mother said.  When parents offered to help out, “it came across as, ‘You’re broken and you need fixing,’ rather than, ‘We’ve got extra hands, we’ve got extra energy, let’s build up what you already have.’ ”

“Creating a successful, truly diverse charter school is enormously difficult to pull off, ” writes Alexander Russo, also in Ed Next. Students come with a wide range of abilities and background knowledge. Parents have different cultures and expectations.

. . . the list of strategies applied is a long one: frequent online assessments to diagnose and direct students to the appropriate activity; open-ended assignments allowing kids of varying skill levels to engage at their own levels; coteaching in which two teachers share responsibility for a group of kids; and looping, in which teachers follow kids from one grade to the next.

In one Brooklyn Prospect classroom, the English teacher makes as many of her lessons open-ended as she can and coteaches half of her classes with a special education teacher. She also offers additional uncredited projects called “Seekers” so that kids who want to can go faster without disadvantaging kids still working on basic skills.

“You can’t just put a heterogeneous population together and think it’s going to work,” Summit cofounder Donna Tavares tells Russo.

Mike Petrilli’s book, The Diverse School Dilemma, offers three ways to create integrated schools in newly gentrified neighborhoods.

Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.

Culture clash in the classroom

Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication Is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children argues that “low performance begins with American racism,” writes Mark Bauerlein in Ed Next.

Black males perform poorly because “our young men have internalized all of the negative stereotypes.” Sometimes black students are invisible, unnoticed, and disrespected, and sometimes they are “hypervisible,” their normal youth behaviors magnified into pathologies. They end up estranged from school culture (“disidentification”), mistrusting their own capacities and fulfilling belittling expectations.

. . . The classroom is a white, middle-class space often hostile to African American norms. It downplays collaboration, she notes, even though these students need it to “feel more secure and less vulnerable.” It ignores past contributions to learning and science by African Americans. It neglects spirituality, whereas “traditional African education” incorporates “education for the spirit” into everyday lessons.

The demoralization is demonstrated by a middle schooler who announces, “Black people don’t multiply; black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.”

“The clash of school culture with African American out-of-school culture” is a significant problem, Bauerlein writes, but he’s not persuaded that cultural sensitivity is sufficient to produce high performance.

Delpit lauds a math lesson based on racial profiling. A student says, “Now I realize that you could use math to defend your rights and realize the injustices around you.”

Bauerlein is skeptical:

But what about the math scores those students attain in 12th grade? What grades do they get in first-year college calculus? Delpit claims that schools impart the message that “you must give up identifiably African American norms in order to succeed,” but she never shows that embracing those norms produces higher college enrollment or workplace readiness.

The “no excuses” schools explicitly teach school culture — aim high, work hard, show respect, don’t quit– to low-income black and Hispanic students. Inner-city Catholic schools often do the same, writes Patrick McCloskey in The Street Stops Here. Students may embrace street culture when they walk out the door — they may need to — but not in school.

Here’s an Ed Week interview with Delpit.

Poverty gap widens

The achievement gap is widening between high-income and low-income children, even as the black-white  gap is narrowing, reports the New York Times, citing research at Stanford and the University of Michigan.

. . . wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. By 2007, upper-class parents were spending twice as much on their children as wealthy parents in 1972; spending by low-income parents grew by 20 percent.

While low-income children are watching TV, affluent children are visiting the museum, the aquarium and the library.

The cultural divide between well-educated and less-educated Americans is growing, argues Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. “When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

Update: On his new blog, Dan Willingham suggests another possible explanation for the poverty gap. Poor parents and children live under constant, debilitating stress. He also finds cause for optimism:

Some countries, (e.g., Hong Kong), despite an enormous disparity between rich and poor, manage to even the playing field when the kids are at school. The US does a particularly poor job at this task; wealthy kids enjoy a huge advantage over poor kids.

Yes, Hong Kong is different from the U.S., Willingham concedes. But we should try to learn what they’re doing right.

Immigrant blacks outperform natives

Africans outperform African-Americans in Seattle schools: Even the children of destitute Somali refugees do better.

The district compared blacks who speak English at home with those who speak other languages at home but aren’t considered English Language Learners.

Amharic-speaking students from Ethiopia scored the highest, nearly reaching the district average in reading. Somalis did worse than other African immigrants, but much better than English-only blacks.

• Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.

• In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.

Black immigrants attend college at a much higher rate than U.S.-born blacks or whites, concluded a John Hopkins study in 2009. The immigrants were educated, successful people in their home countries, researchers said.

However, that’s not true of the very poor Somalis who found refuge in Seattle.

Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, who has worked for decades with community groups serving students of color, said she has noticed that all immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on education.

“Their motivation is different,” she said. “When you leave your country, you come here to do something. You don’t come here just to sit around and do nothing.”

In short, it’s the culture, stupid.

However, Marty McLaren, a board member and former teacher, blames “a culture of low expectations . . .  dating back to the days of slavery” for American blacks’ poor performance. Faced with institutionalized racism, students give up, she said.

 

 

Family culture determines school success

Responsible, caring parents raise good students, writes Scott Carroll, a teacher turned IT consultant, in the Baltimore Sun. Carroll’s mother didn’t always have money to pay the utility bill or the phone bill, but she managed to pay half-tuition so he could attend a private elementary school. His father didn’t live with the family, but stayed involved in his son’s life.

. . .  you do not need a college degree to know how to insist that your children read books, or at least sit with their faces in a book through some prescribed period of time every day. You do not need a college degree to read to your children persistently. You do not need a college education to know how to require your children to sit at a certain table every school night for a certain prescribed period and at least seem to be completing their assignments. You do not need a college degree to demand of yourself and of your family that standard English, or some earnest attempt thereof, be spoken in the home.

“African-American culture — my culture — has become, progressively, a culture of the athlete, the entertainer, the hustler and the laborer,” Carroll laments.

I had the privilege of teaching for four years in an immaculate building that had just undergone a $27 million restoration, a Baltimore City vocational/technical high school complete with the kind of expensive, computer-aided manufacturing machinery I had seen on campus as an industrial engineering student at Morgan State University and in industry as an industrial engineering intern. Many students showed their appreciation for the very expensive, potentially high-quality education they were being offered for free by setting that building on fire almost weekly, and by cursing freely in the vicinity of and often directly at teachers and administrators alike. When attempts were made at discipline and parents were called in, the parents often exhibited this same behavior while searching for any and every way to blame teachers and the school for their children’s trouble.

An interested, cooperative student will learn in a shack with an old textbook, Carroll writes.

But as long as we continue to send non-studious, socially and intellectually ill-prepared children into our schools — as long as we continue to expect our teachers and our schools, as opposed to our parents and our families, to rear our children — our students and schools will continue to underperform, no matter how much we spend or how many teachers we employ.

“Money is not the problem,” he concludes. “The problem is our lack of a coherent, robust and healthy culture.”

So, what do we do with bad parents’ children?