Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage “ from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
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When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

Common Core standards? What’s that?

Sixty-two percent of Americans haven’t heard of the new Common Core standards adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, according to the new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. Of those who recognized the term, “most had major misconceptions about the standards and believed that they will have no effect or will make American students less competitive with their peers across the world,” reports the Washington Post.

As in previous polls, most gave the nation’s public schools a C grade,while rating their local school as an A or B.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans favor charter schools, up from less than 40 percent 11 years ago. However, support for vouchers hit an all-time low.

People were sharply split on closing underenrolled neighborhood schools to save money, a strategy that has made headlines recently in cities including Washington, Chicago and Philadelphia. Half of all respondents opposed such a policy; opposition was higher among those who were not white.

As lawmakers struggle to reach a compromise on comprehensive immigration reform, more than half of the poll’s respondents — 55 percent — said they opposed providing free public education to children of people who are in the country illegally.

The majority of those polled believe that testing hasn’t improved public school performance; nearly 60 percent opposed using test scores to evaluate teachers.

That contradicts a new poll for the Joyce Foundation by Associated Press and NORC, which found that 60 percent of parents support using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. The AP-NORC poll also found that most parents think standardized tests are an effective measure of their children’s performance and school quality, reports the Post.

Support for homeschooling is strong: Most say homeschooled students should be allowed to attend public school part-time and participate in athletics.

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?”

Teach the American dream

“As Congress moves towards opening new paths for immigrants, it should find a way to restore the foundation of American citizenship — the self-confident teaching of American history in our nation’s schools, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The American.

The immigration bill will reaffirm “quintessential American values” and restore “the American dream,” writes Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.
But “few of our students — foreign or native born — know much about the provenance of those values,” writes Sommers. “Our schools no longer teach the American dream.”

Once, immigrant and native-born children learned about America in school, “and came to view themselves as part of an extraordinary culture of liberty,” she writes. That civic mission has been neglected.

The latest Department of Education national history assessment (2010) shows that only 12 percent of American high school seniors have a firm grasp of U.S. history. More than half (55 percent) scored below the “Basic” achievement level. A 2012 Roper survey of college graduates found widespread ignorance about U.S. history and basic functions of government: only 17 percent of those polled, for example, could identify famous words from the Gettysburg Address or knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Noting a 2009 study that found that 39 percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment, civil libertarian Greg Lukianoff has described us as a nation in the process of “unlearning liberty.”

We are perilously close to testing Thomas Jefferson’s famous admonition: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in civics, U.S. history, and geography have been indefinitely postponed for fourth and twelfth graders, reports Heartland. The Obama administration blames a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. The three exams will be replaced by a new test on Technology and Engineering Literacy.

“Without these tests, advocates for a richer civic education will not have any kind of test to use as leverage to get more civic education in the classrooms,” said John Hale, associate director at the Center for Civic Education.

The immigrant advantage

In some racial and ethnic groups, children of immigrants are outperforming children of U.S.-born parents, according to Diverse Children, a Foundation for Child Development study.

For example, black children of immigrant parents do better then their native counterparts in income level, parent education and employment and high school graduation.

Overall, children of immigrant families are more likely to be poor and to do poorly in school than are children of native families, notes Ed Week‘s Inside School Research. However, immigrant families have some advantages.

Regardless of ethnicity, children of immigrant parents were as or more likely than children of native families to have parents with secure jobs, and less likely to live in one-parent families. Moreover, for all groups except Asians, immigrant families tend to move less frequently than U.S.-born families; that could be a benefit, in terms of stability and school continuity, but less helpful if it signals families trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods.

Hispanic immigrant families struggle financially: 71 percent of Hispanic children of immigrants are in lower-income families with a median income of $33,396. However, that’s higher than the median household income for black children of native parents, $29,977.

The median income of white and Asian families — regardless of immigration status — ranges from the mid- to high-$70,000s

Fourth-graders who speak English as a second language do nearly as well as native speakers on NAEP exams, but the racial/ethnic achievement gap is wide.

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High school graduation rates are higher for children of white and black immigrants, but lower for children of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. “Moreover, children from immigrant families were less likely to be disconnected—out of school without a diploma or a job— than students from U.S.-born parents,” the study found.

Lexington: Fix adult ESL

Adult classes in English aren’t helping immigrants (and some native-born English Language Learners) very much, concludes a Lexington Institute report. It’s believed only 40 percent of adult ESL improve their proficiency level.

While most adult ESL is taught at community colleges and school district adult education programs, Lexington advocates more flexible approaches being developed by community organizations, adult charter schools and employers.

For example, Los Angeles-based PUENTE Learning Center uses blended learning to individualize instruction and track student progress toward proficiency. The result is consistently lower drop-out rates and proficiency improvements than the national average. In one year (2005), fully 85% of learners advanced in proficiency compared to the national average of 40%.

Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington, DC is another example of a community-based program achieving strong results.

In addition, federal, state and local policymakers should gather “rigorous and useful data” and reward programs that accelerate language learning, Lexington recommends.

I’d bet more immigrants are going online to improve their English fluency. USA Learns, which is funded by the U.S. and California Education Departments, is free.

‘I Learn America’

A new documentary, I Learn America, follows five immigrant students at Brooklyn’s International High School at Lafayette.

Parents are the silver bullet for kids in poverty

Parents, not teachers, are the “silver bullet” for kids in poverty, writes Pérsida Himmele in Charting My Own Course on Ed Week Teacher.

Her immigrant father, who had an eighth-grade education, asked all seven of his children the same question. “To what college you go?”

 Though we lived in the poorest neighborhood, surrounded by rampant drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence, we all followed through on his expectations for us. Our highest earned degrees consist of two PhDs, two master’s degrees, one theology degree, one bachelor’s degree, and one high school diploma (earned by my sister, who has special needs). Our success was no accident.

Now an education professor, Himmele tells future teachers to help parents understand that their expectations are likely to determine their children’s future.

Do the parents in high-poverty areas know that the schools can’t educate their children alone? Do parents of children at-risk know that the odds are against their children, unless they start pressuring their children to do well in school, and pressuring the school to do well by their child? Do Latino and Black families know that in some urban programs, their children’s chances for completing high school are less than 50 percent? Do they realize that if their child drops out he or she will be working twice as hard for less than half the pay as compared to their college-bound friends? Do they know that a dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison than a high school graduate?

She tells parents in high-poverty areas about the choices: “Your kids can work twice as hard for a little while, or they will work twice as hard for the rest of their lives.”

At San Jose’s high-poverty Overfelt High School, two-thirds of students who started four years ago have earned a diploma. Many of the “miracle” graduates heading for college grew up in immigrant families, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Jessica Nuñez, who started school speaking no English, won a scholarship to Berkeley.

Ruben Contreras Rios, 17, received a full scholarship to Santa Clara University, where he’ll major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “The comfort he found in science and math, when ostracized as a new immigrant, is paying off.”

Juan Guzmán, who “retreated into books when classmates teased him for his immigrant accent and clothes, hopes to become a teacher like Natalia Baldwin, an Overfelt teacher.

With Baldwin’s encouragement, Cesar Torres raised his grades from F’s to A’s. He plans to study business at Chico State and become a billionaire, so his parents won’t have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work long hours at tough jobs.

Schools can’t assimilate immigrants

Urban schools struggle to educate and assimilate immigrant students — especially those who arrive in their teens, write  Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco, a dean and professor at UCLA.

In 1997, they began a study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and the San Francisco Bay Area. Many were fleeing violence and living in high-crime neighborhoods in the U.S. Asked  “what do you like most about being here?” an 11-year-old Haitian boy in Cambridge said, “There is less killing here.”

The Chechen brothers accused in the Boston bombings were 16 and 9 when they started school in Cambridge. They were not in the study, but they fit the demographic profile.

Many newcomer students attend tough urban schools that lack solidarity and cohesion. In too many we found no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants. Only 6 percent of the participants could name a teacher as someone they would go to with a problem; just 3 percent could identify a teacher who was proud of them.

. . . many educators, already overwhelmed by the challenges of inner-city teaching, considered immigrant parents uninformed and uninvolved.

Immigrant students who made a friend who spoke English fluently did significantly better in school, they write. But many didn’t interact with native-born students, much less make friends.

Students who did well academically “tended to be enrolled in supportive schools, to have caring teachers, and to develop informal mentorships with coaches, counselors or ministers.”

Catering to “difference” is a mistake, responds Stanley Kurtz in National Review Online. He cites a study by John Fonte and Althea Nagai, America’s Patriotic Assimilation System is Broken, which found a “patriotic gap” between native-born and naturalized citizens. For example, “by roughly 31 points (81% to 50%), the native-born are more likely than immigrant citizens to believe that schools should focus on American citizenship rather than ethnic pride.”

Schools “riven by racial and ethnic divisions and a lack of common purpose” should affirm  ”the shared American identity that used to unite this country,” Kurtz concludes.

Educating Hispanic students

How Can Schools Best Educate Hispanic Students? On Education Next, Harvard Education Professor Nonie Lesaux calls for teaching higher-order literacy skills, while Juan Rangel, president of Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, stresses civic responsibility and good citizenship.

It’s not enough to teach basic conversational and reading skills, writes Lesaux. Students learning English — and their classmates — need to be “in strong and supportive language- and content-rich classrooms” that build academic vocabulary and knowledge.

Schools have done a good job teaching most students the basic skills necessary to be proficient readers in the early grades, decoding and comprehending the conversational language that conveys ideas and topics in beginner books.

But in higher grades, many Hispanic students don’t have the vocabulary and knowledge to comprehend the “academic language of print,” learn academic concepts and “generate ideas and questions,” Lesaux writes.

Immigrants are chasing the American dream, but public schools no longer teach them how to become Americans, Rangel writes. “A quality public school that emphasizes civic responsibility and good citizenship” will . . .  ”transition immigrant families into the American way of life, into making American values, culture, norms, and language their own.”

Schools in the UNO network are 95 percent Hispanic in enrollment and 93 percent low-income, but are “classic American schools,” writes Rangel. Instead of special programs, immigrant students — and others — need  ”a great teacher, a core curriculum, a disciplined school culture, and strong accountability.” UNO uses Structured English Language Immersion for its students rather than bilingual classes and offers a longer school day and year.