‘Balanced’ illiteracy

“Balanced literacy” failed when it was tried in New York City schools, writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times. Yet, the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, plans to bring it back. She also promises to return “joy” to classrooms.

Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar, championed the idea: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” she wrote.

Students’ joyful exploration of reading and writing would be “unhindered by despotic traffic cops,” writes Nazaryan, who taught English. But “studies showed that students learned better with more instruction.”

I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.

The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it.

Middle-class students with lots of enrichment at home may be able to teach themselves to write, he concedes. His students needed to be taught.

Nazaryan was “yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10.” His English-as-a-second-language teacher, Mrs. Cohen, “taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb.”

He became a teacher “to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been.”

Update: Fariña is ignoring the research, writes Dan Willingham. Students in New York City’s Core Knowledge schools did much better in reading than students taught with the city’s version of balanced literacy.

Why return to a teaching method that didn’t work well? Marc Tucker thinks Fariña “knows how effective it can be in the hands of highly competent teachers with good leadership.”

‘New Americans’ start at community colleges

Minnesota isn’t  just for Larsons, Hansons and Olsons. The state has drawn Latino immigrants and African refugees to rural towns with jobs in meatpacking and agriculture.  “New Americans” are turning to community and technical colleges to move up the economic  and academic ladder.

Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Latinas learn to be ‘first teachers’

In an immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, Latina mothers are learning to be their children’s “first teachers,” reports Sara Neufeld in the Hechinger Report. Then they’re expected to spread the word about early learning by organizing playgroups and classes for their friends, relatives and neighbors.

Laura Barrios (left), leading activities for babies during an educational playgroup with Lorenza Pascual. (Kim Palmer / Hechinger Report)Many Latino immigrants think “their role is to keep their babies safe, clean, well-fed and loved,” say researchers. Parents think learning doesn’t start till kindergarten and happens at school. 

In a 2012 survey, 26 percent of young Latino children had been read to in the previous week, compared with 41 percent of African-Americans and 58 percent of whites.  

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association is training “early childhood ambassadors.” Most are stay-at-home mothers with limited formal education.

Trainers from Countdown to Kindergarten ran a “two-day workshop focused on easy and affordable activities, from turning toilet paper rolls into imaginary binoculars to helping children write their addresses on a drawing of a house to observing nature and the outdoors.”

Over the summer, the women began weekly playgroups outside their neighborhood YMCA.

One sticky August Tuesday, the playgroup attracted about 40 parents and children. Some embarked on a “wonder walk” around the building, looking for plastic animal and plant figurines placed strategically in the grass and visiting trees they had “adopted” by placing ribbons on them. Others practiced learning shapes and colors by painting potatoes cut into triangles, squares, circles and rectangles. Babies explored puzzles and books spread out on a blanket while older kids worked in a garden. 

Isidra Mena, 31, there with her 2-year-old nephew and 5-year-old daughter, said the children were starting to recognize real vegetables at home because of what the playgroups were teaching them. Rosa Tafoya, 22, who had been coming all summer with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, said the girls were doing better taking turns with each other, and sometimes they were choosing to draw with chalk on the sidewalk instead of playing video games.

Over the winter, the ambassadors helped to run a 10-week class for families with children 5 and under called Abriendo Puertas or “Opening Doors.”

If I ran a foundation, I’d fund the creation of a TV show — maybe a soap opera or telenovela — that would show people parenting well and coping with family problems. How do you read a book aloud to a small child? Not everyone knows. Show ‘em.

Should college aid be linked to readiness?

Pell Grants help low- and moderate-income students go to college, but graduation rates are low. Should Pell dollars be targeted at college-ready students? That would lower the college-going rate significantly.

A new private scholarship fund will help “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought here as children — attend low-cost colleges to pursue work-oriented degrees.

Finns slip

After acing international exams 12 years ago, Finland’s PISA rankings are slipping in reading, math and science. The Finns stopped trying to improve, educator Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, tells Marc Tucker. “The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools made the authorities fearful of changing anything.”

In addition, “non-Finnish speaking immigrants are coming to Finland in larger numbers than ever before.”

School rejects ‘Merica Day’

A group of residents hold American flags in front of Fort Collins High School in protest of the school's ban on 'Merica Day Tuesday morning Feb. 4, 2014. The school reached a compromise with students and will hold an event on Monday called, "My Country Monday."

Residents protest Fort Collins High School’s ban on “Merica Monday.”

Celebrating America during spirit week might offend immigrants, said Fort Collins High administrators. They rejected students’ request for “Merica Monday,” reports The Coloradoan.

“It’s kind of absurd that we can’t celebrate the country we’re in — whether you’re from it or just visiting,” said Ellie Goodspeed, a senior and treasurer of the school’s student council.

“Building administrators met with the students to discuss the inconsistency of this day versus the other planned theme days, including PJ day and Twin day,” said Poudre School District spokeswoman Danielle Clark in a statement.

Students proposed “My Country Monday” as a compromise. Administrators rejected that idea too, said Goodspeed, but changed their mind on Monday.

Students celebrate the Mexican culture holiday Cinco de Mayo, senior Stephanie Livingston told the Coloradoan.

My old high school will go bilingual

More students are choosing bilingual education in Chicago’s North Shore, reports the Chicago Tribune. Highland Park High — my alma mater — will offer core subjects taught in English and Spanish in the next five years.

Officials say no standardized test fully illustrates the impact of the K-8 dual language program.

But school officials say data from various student achievement measures, as well as student and parent testimonials, show a clear benefit from native English and native Spanish speakers learning together in a dual-immersion environment where Spanish is the dominant language from kindergarten through second grade. By the time students reach fifth grade, classroom work is about 50-50 Spanish-English.

In my day, Highland Park High enrolled HP kids (middle or upper-middle class and often Jewish), Highwood kids (working class and Italian) and Fort Sheridan kids (lots of Southerners). Now, the fort has been turned into condos. I guess the Italians have moved up and out. More than 70 percent of students are Latino at Highwood’s Oak Terrace Elementary School. Districtwide, it’s about a quarter. Almost 15 percent of district students are in bilingual classes.

To better nurture the bilingual identity, Highland Park High will phase in dual language math, science and social studies classes over the next five years, Assistant Principal Tom Koulentes said. The school is about 18 percent Latino.

The district uses a double immersion model:  It mixes equal numbers (if possible) of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. In kindergarten through second grade, students are taught in Spanish 80 to 90 percent of the time. “Your child’s going to get that English,” Jaime Barraza told parents at the informational meeting. “We need to get more Spanish in there.”

Bilingual students catch up in reading and math by fifth grade, said Barraza, who oversees the bilingual program.

So why do they need to learn math, science and social studies in Spanish in high school?

PISA: U.S. has fewer high flyers

It’s PISA Day! Once again, U.S. students score at the international average among developed nations that take the exam.

“Our economic competitors, including Japan, Korea, and Germany,” score much higher, notes Mark Schneider on The Quick and the Ed. “What should scare us is the low percentage of students in the highest levels of performance (PISA level 5 and above).”

The U.S. has concentrated on leaving no child behind. NAEP “scores of African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income fourth and eighth graders in reading and math have leaped upward,” but  “the percentage of students who score at NAEP’s advanced level has stagnated.”

Child poverty doesn’t explain U.S. mediocrity, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. The U.S. does better in reading, which is far more linked to parental education, than in math, which is more school-dependent.

The U.S. is about average for child poverty for countries in the survey, adds Marc Tucker, director of the Center on Education and the Economy.  Diversity doesn’t explain it either. Five PISA countries — some with higher scores have a higher percentage of immigrant students.

Others say that the U.S. is unique because in that it educates everyone and the countries listed among the top performers only educate their elite. In fact, the dropout rate in our high schools is around 25 percent, while some of the top performers are graduating close to 90 percent of the students who enter their high schools. It is they who are educating everyone.

Top-performing countries invest heavily in teachers’ skills, says Tucker. Some let only the best students go into teaching.

International test scores show U.S. prosperity is at risk, argues Tucker in a Washington Post debate with anti-tester Valerie Strauss.

U.S. high school students have trouble applying skills to real-world problems, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate.

One math activity asked students to compare the value of four cars, using a chart showing the mileage, engine capacity, and price of each one. American kids were especially bad at problems like this, in which they were not provided with a formula, but had to figure out how to manipulate the numbers on their own.

A reading activity asked test takers to read a short play, and then write about what the characters were doing before the curtain went up. The challenge is that the question prompts students to envision and describe a scene not actually included in the text itself. These are good questions that most of our kids should be able to tackle—we want analytical, creative children, not just kids who are good at memorization.

The “Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth,” so it  “probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA,” Goldstein writes. But it will take more than that.

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?