Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

Flash: Charters aren’t a silver bullet

Applying to Washington D.C. charter schools taught Conor Williams that school choice relies on chance. Lots of parents want to get their kids into the good charters. A lottery decides who makes it.

There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area . . .

D.C. has some “great” district-run schools, but they’re open only to people who can afford million-dollar homes, Williams writes. So parents have turned to charter schools. “In 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.”

Charters’ lotteries are neutral, he writes. His “son, with his two highly educated, almost-middle-class, white parents” has no advantage “over his friend whose mother dropped out of high school and is raising her child alone.”

It’s not perfect. Savvy parents can “get around town” and apply to multiple lotteries, he complains. However, D.C. has unified its district and charter lotteries.  While “a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system,” parents can apply to most schools with one application.

The D.C. Council has considered letting charter schools give admissions preference to students who live nearby. As the city gentrifies, that could lock low-income families out of high-performing charters, Williams writes. What about weighted lotteries to give a preference to disadvantaged students?

He doesn’t mention helping good charters expand, so they can serve more students.

The headline says Williams “learned about inequality” but his conclusion is that charters are a “mild corrective to inequity” though not a “solution.” Not a silver bullet? Really! 

The writing on the (cinderblock) halls

Low-income students see plenty of inspirational messages on the cinderblock walls, writes Education Trust playwright-researcher Brooke Haycock in The Writing on the Hall. They’re told to dream big. But students get a very different message in the classroom and the guidance office.

For all the talk of rigor and grit, many educators shield students from “the possibility of failure . . .  woefully underestimating their abilities to tolerate — and even thrive with — challenge,” writes Haycock.

I met Isaiah, a Latino 11th-grader, in the back of an English classroom at a suburban high school just outside of Washington, D.C. While the class down the hall read Macbeth, Isaiah and his classmates — at least those still awake — sat hunched over a Xeroxed reading passage about a squirrel. 

Deja, a high-achieving Michigan senior, told her counselor she was going to college.

Deja went on to tell me that she’d taken “all” the science classes, “through biology,” and that she took geometry her junior year.  “My counselor,” she assured me, “said I can get into A LOT of colleges.”

What no one bothered to tell Deja is that these aren’t even close to the full set of college prep courses required for entry into most four-year colleges — nor even, frankly, into credit-bearing two-year college coursework. 

While 76 percent of high school sophomores want to go to a four-year college, only 27 percent take the courses they need to succeed in colleges, writes Haycock. 

A year after her high school graduation, Deja was temping at a community college and saving money to enroll in the remedial classes she had tested into. “You do everything everyone tells you to do in school, and you work so hard,” she said. “And then you learn it’s not enough.”

The Writing on the Hall is the first of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series.

2014: It’s time for universal proficiency!

It’s 2014:  All students will be proficient in reading and math, Mike Petrilli reminds us. It’s the law!

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement.

– No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, section 1111(2)(F)

The next time someone talks about all students being college and career ready, a highly effective teacher in every classroom or eradicating childhood poverty, remember “universal proficiency by 2014,” Petrilli suggests.

The No Child Left Behind generation — today’s 11th graders started school after the law passed — are doing better he writes. 

NCLB kids were fourth graders in 2007:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black and Hispanic students all shot up four points (almost half a grade) over 2002’s baseline and math scores went up a whopping five points for all students, for white students, and for Hispanic students over a 2003 baseline, and black scores rocketed an incredible six points.

And in 2011, as eighth graders:

Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black students shot up four points over 2007’s baseline, while Hispanic students gained five points, and math scores were up three points over 2007, with Hispanic students gaining five points.

Yet just a third of the NCLB Generation had become proficient readers by the eighth grade. For Blacks and Hispanics, it was 15 and 19 percent, respectively. The results for mathematics were just a few points higher.

Still, these incremental gains add up to about half a year of extra learning, on average, writes Petrilli. That’s not enough, but it’s something.

Next time around, the goals should be high but achievable, writes Petrilli. For example, in the next six years, let’s try to get the national average to the level already achieved by Massachusetts students.

What is good teaching?

What Is Good Teaching? asks New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. The New Public  shows how hard it is to teach in an inner-city school, he writes. Teachers College at Columbia plans to use the documentary to train teachers

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?”

Shopping for a college

Seven out of 10 high school graduates choose college, observes Smart Shoppers, a report by College Summit and Bellwether Education Partners.  Despite warnings of a degree glut, the college wage premium continues to rise.  College-educated workers earned 80 percent more than high school-only workers in 2012.

Schools must do a better job identifying students — especially disadvantaged students — who aren’t reaching their potential, Smart Shoppers argue. “Schools, colleges, nonprofits, and businesses need to do a better job of educating students about their options on which college they should attend, which degrees they should pursue, and how they should pay for it.”

About a quarter of the gap in college attendance between affluent and working-class students can’t be explained by academic performance, a new study concludes.  The Sutton Trust, a British think tank, looked at college-going in the U.S., Britain and Australia.

From idealist to ‘bad teacher’

John Owens quit a successful publishing career, studied education for a year in graduate school and became a writing teacher at a South Bronx high school that “considered itself a model of school reform.” It didn’t go well, Owens writes in Confessions of a Bad Teacher.
bad teacher
Owens talks to Ed Week Teacher‘s Hana Maruyama about his “heartbreaking” year as a teacher.

His principal was obsessed with data, says Owens, but the numbers were meaningless. “I had to put in 2,000 points of data a week for my kids. Everything from attendance to homework. But I also had to put in things like self-determination. I mean, what is self-determination?”

He was told he was a “bad teacher,” he complains. “If I were a good teacher, the kids who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would sit still and learn. If I were a good teacher, the kids who didn’t speak English would speak English. If I were a good teacher, all the problems that these kids faced would be solved in my 46 minutes a day with them.”

Ratings plan threatens open-access colleges

President Obama’s college ratings plan could penalize open-access institutions and hurt disadvantaged students, said participants in a  public forum.

The Graduates/Los Graduados

The Graduates/Los Graduados on PBS’ Independent Lens looks at six Latino students who overcame challenges –including gang involvement, homelessness, teen pregnancy, undocumented status and homophobia — to succeed in school.

‘College isn’t for us’

“College isn’t for us,” Skylar Myers’ friend Randall told her in seventh grade when she talked about her private school’s College Day. In eighth grade, while she was applying for high school scholarships, Randall was arrested for the first time, Myers writes in the Hechinger Report.
Skylar Myers
Her other friends from the block — Miguel, Malik, Shaquencia and Jonathan — never made it to college. Their future held teen pregnancies, arrests, dropping out of school.

Myers’ parents weren’t college educated, but they made their only child’s education a priority. Her father taught her to read at 2 and started multiplication at 4. And they sent her to private school.

“I just thought you were some type of special case,” Randall said years later. “Your daddy was around and caring [about your educational needs]… if any of us had to go it would be you.”

Randall went to inner-city schools. He joined a gang, so he’d feel safe. He dropped out of high school and earned a GED. After three stints in jail, he was sent to prison. “I’ve always been just as smart as you, but . . . outside the understanding of what’s normally accepted as ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent,’” he told his “homie.”

Myers earned a film studies degree from the University of California in San Diego.