Teacher: Core tests set kids up to fail

Common Core tests set kids up to fail, argues Jennifer Rickert, a sixth-grade teacher in New York, on Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet.

The “New York State Testing Program’s Educator Guide to the 2015 Grade 6 Common Core English Language Arts Test” describes expectations that are way too high, writes Rickert.

At 11 and 12 years old, her students have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical situations, she writes, citing Piaget’s theories.

Yet in the guide, it states that students will “evaluate intricate arguments.”

In addition, “students will need to make hard choices between fully correct and plausible, but incorrect answers that are designed specifically to determine whether students have comprehended the entire passage.”  This is not developmentally appropriate for my students . . .

Students will read passages from texts such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which include “controversial ideas and language some may find provocative.”

Is "Tom Sawyer" too "provocative" for sixth graders?

Is “Tom Sawyer” too “provocative” for sixth graders?

Children shouldn’t be subjected to “provocative language” in sixth grade, Rickert believes. In addition, sixth graders won’t be able to understand these readings because they don’t study the history till seventh or eighth grade.

Some readings will be at the eleventh-grade level. Presumably that’s to challenge the very good readers. Rickert sees it as a plot to humiliate everyone else.

I read, and loved, Tom Sawyer in elementary school.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made a big impression on me when I was in sixth grade. I also read lots of U.S. history and historical novels, so I had the context to understand what I was reading.

Piaget is not a reliable guide to what children can learn, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a critique of the “developmentally appropriate” concept.

Mythbusters: Wonder and failure

Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters teaches through wonder and failure, writes Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic.

Hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman “have subjected nearly 1,000 cultural legends, historical myths, and internet rumors to the crucible of the scientific method,” she writes.

Her 11-year-old son, Finn is a big fan. The show has kindled his “sense of wonder about the cool stuff that exists out in the world,” she writes.

Each episode starts with a question:

Can eating pop rocks and soda cause your stomach to explode? Is running better than walking for keeping dry in the rain? Can you bounce a laser off the moon? Can an unamplified human voice shatter a wine glass?

As Savage and Hyneman explore these questions, they dive deep into the background knowledge required to understand the problem at hand. Consequently, they have taught my sons physics, geometry, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and history.

In a live show for the Behind the Myths tour, Savage ran a video of “favorite explosions and catastrophic failures” from over the years.  It was a “montage of exploding water heaters, cement trucks, and cannons made out of trees, complete with custom-made Dolby sound.”

In his teens, Savage became obsessed with juggling, he told the audience.

I used to practice juggling for hours in my upstairs bedroom, and the sound of me dropping the balls over and over again—thump-thump-thump, thump-thump-thump—as they hit the ground was the sound of my teenage years. I spent entire afternoons practicing tricks that just would not work. But as I slept, and my brain fermented on them overnight, the next morning they would suddenly work. I thought I was just learning how to juggle, but I wasn’t. I was learning how to learn.

That thump-thump-thump? That wasn’t the sounds of failure. That was the sound of learning.

“Play is simply a process of running experiments,” he said. “We do things because they are fun. And remember …” He paused, allowing the audience to complete his sentence: the classic Mythbusters catchphrase. “The difference between screwing around and science is writing it down!” audience members shouted, chanting along with Savage.

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.”

City College was ‘too big to fail’

City College of San Francisco has dodged an accreditation commission’s closure order and won two more years to improve. With 77,000 students, City College was “too big to fail,” writes Kevin Carey.

Elite rejection

Don’t despair if you didn’t get into an elite college, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni advises 12th-graders. It doesn’t mean you’re less capable or worthy.

It may mean only that you lacked the patronage that some of them had, or that you played the game less single-mindedly, taking fewer SAT courses and failing to massage your biography with the same zeal.

A friend of mine in Africa told me recently about a center for orphans there that a rich American couple financed in part to give their own teenage children an exotic charity to visit occasionally and mine for college-application essays: admissions bait. That’s the degree of cunning that comes into this frenzy.

Dumb luck plays an important role too. Top colleges get many, many applicants who are very well qualified. They could decide by dart board and get a great bunch of students.

I was rejected by Radcliffe (girls didn’t apply to Harvard then) and wait-listed by Yale. It was the first time I’d ever tried and failed. It hurt, even though I got into Stanford. Being rejected turned out to be great practice for job hunting and life.

Let your kids fail

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success

Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg. Her new book, The Up Side of Down advocates “learning to fail better.” That includes taking on challenges and being ready “to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out.”

After a book talk, a 10th-grade girl said she understood about “trying new things, and hard things,” but she couldn’t risk it. “I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?” 

High school shouldn’t be about perfection, writes McArdle.

If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines.

Too many achievers are trying to get into a small number of elite colleges, writes McArdle. Upper-middle-class parents are pushing their children “harder than ever — micromanaging their lives.”

James Dyson: ‘Failures are interesting’

Dyson at a workshop with students.

Inventor James Dyson built 5,127 prototypes before completing his first bagless vacuum, notes Science Friday. “My life and my day are full of failures,” he says. “Failures are interesting.”

Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?

A teacher in virtual charter hell

After 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell, Darcy Bedortha quit her job as a high school English teacher for K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual education company. She couldn’t meet students’ learning needs, she writes in Education Week Teacher.

K12 pays full-time teachers $42,000 a year to teach a minimum of 226 students, writes Bedortha. Some full-timers have more than 300 students.

Students can enroll at any time.

In a given day in mid-November I would grade introductory assignments, diagnostic essays and end-of-semester projects, and everything in between, for each course (this month I had 30 separate courses). I found it to be impossible to meet the learning needs of my students in that situation.

Many students are phantoms, Bedortha writes. Fewer than 10 percent of students “attended” the weekly 30-minute “class,” which used an interactive blackboard. Only a small percentage communicated by email.

Most were behind in high school credits and “could not afford another failure.”

. . .  as I wrote this in early December, nearly 80 percent of our students were failing their classes.  At that time there were 303 students (12 percent of the school) enrolled in special education programs – and 259 of them were failing while 17 had no grade at all. Eighty-two percent of the 9th graders were failing. 

Other virtual schools face similar failure rates, writes Bedortha. Only 37.6 percent of students at full-time virtual schools graduate on time, compared to 79.4 percent of all public high school students according to a July 2012 National Education Policy Center report.

Virtual schools do best for mature, self-directed learners or for students with a homeschooling parent. Most students who’ve failed in schools with in-person teachers won’t succeed with less personal contact with a teacher. But they need an alternative to traditional schooling.

Virtual schools are bound to attract transient students. We need a way to fund virtual charters so they’re not compensated for students who aren’t using the school’s services.

Teaching the physics of ‘Angry Birds’

Video games have become teaching tools, reports the Wall Street Journal.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

Teachers are using games such as “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach “math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion,” reports the Journal.

In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

Video games let students try, fail, reassess and try again, says Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

Games “provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies,” advocates say.


Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, uses “Minecraft” to build virtual cities. He learned the game in an after-school club but it’s now used in his architecture class. The game lets his “imagination run wild,” says Villasenor.

Not everyone is happy to see video games in the classroom. “Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning,” reports the Journal.

The newest games are “aligned” with Common Core standards — or so the makers claim.