Is your child ready for first grade — in 1979?

A generation ago, children weren’t escorted everywhere by a parent.

A 1979 guide for parents — Is Your Child Ready for First Grade — shows how much things have changed, writes ChicagoNow blogger Christine Whitley.

In addition to the child’s age and teeth, the list asks:

3. Can you child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman, where he lives?
4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?
6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?
7. Can he tell left hand from right?
8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?
10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as “The boy ran all the way home from the store”?
11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?
12. Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

These days, most children learn to write letters and numbers and count pennies in preschool. Long before first grade, they’re used to being away from Mom. But they’ve never walked to a friend’s house or talked to a crossing guard.

Whitley has no idea if her six-year-old could walk four to eight blocks, she writes. “I’ve never let her even try! I’d probably be reported to the police if I did try!”

Slate’s KJ Antonia considers herself a “free-range” parent for letting a seven-year-old walk to a friend’s house unaccompanied and leaving a nine-year-old in charge of younger siblings. But she can’t imagine letting a pre-first grader walk “four to eight blocks” alone, even though Antonia thinks she did it herself at that age.

When did it become bizarre for kids to walk in their own neighborhoods? My daughter walked or bicycled to elementary school, the library and to friend’s houses in the late ’80s. Once she got lost for awhile. Another time, she was chased by an older, larger girl, the Catholic school’s official bully. She dealt with it.

Milestones: Is your child on track in school?

Great Schools has created Milestones videos to help parents understand grade-level expectations in reading, writing and math for first through fifth grade. Here’s
first-grade math word problems.

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.

When black kids learn, it’s not a ‘miracle’

Tweeting as “Citizen Stewart,” Chris Stewart, an African-American who’s served on the Minneapolis school board, praised an Alabama school.

George Hall Elementary. 99% black. 98% student poverty. All proficient. You’re not ready for this discussion until you believe in our kids.

The tweet brought out the brought out the doubters, he writes on Storify. They called it a “miracle” — a dubious one.

. . . educators often suffer from an amazing belief gap. That is the gap between what they think our children are capable of, and what our children are actually capable of. For them, the only way our kids can do well is with supernatural intervention.

“White anti-reformers . . . wanted to shut down any talk about teachers not having adequate belief in children of color,” Stewart writes. “They wanted to redirect conversation to the deficits of poor families.”

Finally, some blacks joined the tweet debate.

A turnaround school in Mobile, George Hall Elementary is one of the highest performing elementary schools in all of Alabama, reported Education Trust in 2013.

Why blacks are homeschooling their kids

“Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling,” writes Jessica Huseman in the Hechinger Report. Black  parents cite low expectations for their children or “dissatisfaction with how their children—especially boys—are treated.”

Marvell Robinson, now 7, was the only black student in his kindergarten and first-grade classes at a San Diego elementary school. His “Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that affects social skills, made him a target of “curiosity and cruelty,” writes Huseman.

Marvell Robinson plays outside the San Diego Natural History Museum (Photo by Vanessa Robinson)

Marvell Robinson plays outside the San Diego Natural History Museum after a field trip. (Photo by Vanessa Robinson)

“I just thought maybe I could do a better job myself,” said his mother, Vanessa Robinson. In September, Robinson adjusted her nursing schedule so she could teach her second grader at home. Her husband, a sous chef, continues to work full-time.

“The schools want little black boys to behave like little white girls,” said Cheryl Fields-Smith, an education professor at the University of Georgia. “I think black families who are in a position to homeschool can use homeschooling to avoid the issues of their children being labeled ‘trouble makers’ and the suggestion that their children need special-education services because they learn and behave differently.”

Ama Mazama, who teaches African American Studies at Temple, surveyed black homeschoolers for a 2012 report published in the Journal of Black Studies. Most are trying to protect their children from racism at school, she found. Black children “are treated as though they are not as intelligent and cannot perform as well, and therefore the standards for them should be lower.”

We’re not Chinese

Chinese “super-schools” are a myth, writes Diane Ravitch in a New York Times review of Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Obama and legislators want to be like the Chinese, Ravitch writes.

Why should we be number twenty-nine in the world in mathematics when Shanghai is number one? Why are our scores below those of Estonia, Poland, Ireland, and so many other nations? Duncan was sure that the scores on international tests were proof that we were falling behind the rest of the world and that they predicted economic disaster for the United States. What Duncan could not admit was that, after a dozen years, the Bush–Obama strategy of testing and punishing teachers and schools had failed.

China can’t maintain its economic growth without innovation, argues Zhao. That won’t “unless it abandons its test-based education system, now controlled by gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.”

Zhao “does a wonderful job of challenging the lazy nostrums peddled by those suffused with China envy,” writes Rick Hess.

The Chinese education system is “an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn,” Zhao writes. Students excel because of “families’ high expectations” and students’ “hard work and diligence.”

Chinese immigrant workers’ children study in Shanghai. Photo: Nir Elias / Reuters / Corbis

It’s true that the U.S. has been a world leader despite mediocre scores on international tests, writes Neerav Kingsland on relinquishment. And “rote learning and high-pressure cultures” are nothing to emulate. However, Ravitch presents no evidence that testing reduces innovation and creativity, he writes.

If China isn’t innovative, is it the testing? “It’s more plausible that China’s rote learning and testing regimes are manifestations of their culture,” writes Kingsland.

While Ravitch argues against top-down reforms, she thinks her vision of schooling “will be good for everyone,” he writes. Ravitch and Zhao call for:

schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment … the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation … schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be … confident, curious, and creative.

Not every family sees creativity as the highest value, responds Kingsland. While innovation, creativity, originality and invention are “core values of our nation,” so is liberty.

“Educators should be able to develop . . . different types of schools that meet the different needs of the millions of children in our country,” he concludes. Some schools will have creativity as the highest value. Others may not.

Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

Overprotective parents raise ‘lazy’ teens

Overinvolved parents are raising “lazy,” unmotivated teen-age boys, writes therapist Adam Price in the Wall Street Journal.

Parents complain their children — especially their sons — aren’t achieving their “potential.” His practice is seeing more “college students, home for a year because when the parents, tutors, coaches and, yes, therapists were no longer around, they failed.”

It’s hard to be motivated by someone else’s goals. Teens crave autonomy, Price writes. Many parents won’t let their children make their own decisions and live with the consequences.

. . . the lack of motivation is not the root problem: For many children, it is the lack of accountability. Parents remove that when they try to protect their children from suffering in the future by doing everything possible to make them successful today

He suggests parents stop telling their kids they’re smart or too “special” to take out the garbage. Set limits. Don’t “saddle children with unrealistic expectations.”

What works for small high schools

Personalization, high expectations and dedicated, flexible teachers are essential to the success of New York City’s most effective small high schools, report NYU’s Research Alliance.

“Small schools of choice” (SSCs) have improved graduation rates, according to previous research.

School themes, such as law, the environment or sports careers, didn’t play a factor in success, the study concluded. Some students were attracted to the theme, but “it can be a turnoff to others who wind up in the school because of the whims of the high school placement process,” notes SchoolBook.

Many of the success strategies can be used in schools of any size, researchers said.

Parent involvement doesn’t help much

Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework, writes Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic. And, if you do, don’t expect it to make much difference.

“Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire — regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education,” writes Goldstein, citing research by Keith Robinson, a University of Texas sociology professor,  Angel L. Harris, a Duke sociology professor.

The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools.

“No clear connection exists between parental involvement and improved student performance,” they conclude in The Broken Compass.

Helping your kids with homework won’t raise their test scores, the study concluded. “Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down,” writes Goldstein.

What does help: Requesting a teacher with a good reputation, “reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans.” 

Robinson asked UT statistics undergrads  how their parents contributed to their achievements.

He found that most had few or no memories of their parents pushing or prodding them or getting involved at school in formal ways. Instead, students described mothers and fathers who set high expectations and then stepped back.

I suspect the parent involvement that really matters happens at home. My husband’s mother told him to “be the best,” he said in her eulogy. She didn’t say, “try.” Like Yoda, she told him to do it.

If parents teach certain values — set goals and work to achieve them, take responsibility for the consequences of your actions, do your own damn homework — their children are likely to do well in school and in life. It doesn’t matter if Mom volunteers for the PTA bake sale or not.