Dig deeper

Jason Wilson, founder of a Detroit program called Cave of Adullam, tells a frustrated boy that “it’s OK to cry” — as long as he’s willing to fight through the pain and “dig deeper.”

The virtues of virtual nagging

“Nagging is love,” I used to tell my daughter.

“I am a much-loved child,” she’d reply.

Some parents can't help with homework because they don't understand it.

Some parents can’t help with homework because they don’t understand it.

Parents who “positively nag” their children to complete homework and do their best raise more successful students than parents who lack time or academic skills, writes Jacob Murray, faculty director of professional education at Boston University’s School of Education. It also helps if parents supplement schoolwork and communicate with their kids’ teachers.

He proposes using technology — and all those retired baby boomers — to nag other people’s children about school work, engage them in learning activities and communicate with their teachers.

He envisions a corps of “virtual homework parents” using technology to connect with needy kids.

. . .  let’s say a retired school teacher from Newton completes a 10 to 15 minute Skype “check-in” every school night with a Boston 5th grader to review her homework assignments, answer questions, and compete a five-minute vocabulary building exercise. . . . Prior to that week/ on Sunday night, the retired teacher receives a 5 minute online briefing through an academic coaching software platform from the 5th grader’s teacher that outlines all the homework and learning concepts for the upcoming week.

At the end of the week, the virtual homework parent sends a brief report to the teacher on how the sessions went, mentions any areas where the student needs more help and reviews next week’s assignments and learning goals.

I think it’s an interesting idea — and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Choice raises graduation rates

 Vouchers, charters,  lotteries and small schools of choice have been shown to increase high school graduation rates without raising costs, according to Fourteen Economic Facts on Education and Economic Opportunity from Brookings’ Hamilton Project.

Also effective — but not cost free — are “double-dose algebra” in ninth grade, an intensive mentoring pilot and increased funding.

“Many urban charter schools are able to significantly improve test scores in math and English in one year,” the report found.

How to get first-gen students to a degree

Only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students earn a four-year degree within six years. Academic preparation isn’t the only issue, writes Mikhail Zinshteyn in The Atlantic. Better counseling is helping first-generation students master the “hidden curriculum.”

Reina Olivas, a straight A student in high school, had to improve her study skills to succeed at the University of Texas at Austin. Now, as a Dell Scholars mentor, she advises other first-generation students. When a first-year student said she “was having a hard time with the cultural experience, the college experience,” Olivas asked, “Have you gone to office hours?”

“Well, how do you do that?” Olivas recalls the student asking. “It took me back to the place where I was my first semester—what are office hours, and why do I need to go?”

About a third of college students are the first in their families to try higher education. Most come from lower-income families and many work more than 20 hours a week.

Mentors helped Reina Olivas adjust to the University of Texas, where she's now a mentor for others.

Mentors helped Reina Olivas adjust to the University of Texas, where she’s now a mentor for other first-generation students.

“Simple nudges and regular check-ins from mentors can go a long way toward making such students feel confident that they can navigate the strange waters of college academics,” writes Zinshteyn.

California State University Dominguez Hills, which enrolls many first-gen students, has lifted its graduation rate by offering a two-month summer program for new students with weak math and English scores. In addition, students learn “college knowledge,” such as how to find help, and “forge important relationships with peers and mentors,’ writes Zinshteyn.

The university created “a data tracker that monitors student performance and allows advisers to recommend more relevant coursework and support.”

In 2008, before mentoring and academic changes, the university lost 53 percent of students who’d started two years earlier. Retention rates are rising.

Are military academies the answer?

Youth Challenge cadets at the Grizzly Academy in San Luis Obispo, California

Military training can turn Strugglers Into Strivers, writes Hugh Price, the former Urban League chief turned Brookings’ fellow, in a new book. In a speech at Fordham’s Education for Upward Mobility conference in D.C., Price talked about the benefits of JROTC, public military academies and the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe corps, a residential program for dropouts that’s improved the success of participants.

 (Common elements) include an emphasis on belonging, a strong focus on motivation and self-discipline, emphasis on academic preparation, close mentoring and monitoring of how youngsters are doing, accountability and consequences, demanding schedules, teamwork, valuing and believing in the young people, believing that they can succeed, structure and routine, frequent rewards and recognition, and of course, an emphasis on safe and secure environments.

Some urban districts, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, offer military academies. Others are charter schools, such as the New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy and Bataan Military Academy in Albuquerque.

Here’s a 2005 New York Times story on public military schools across the country.

MATCH Education’s Michael Goldstein sees the potential in Price’s approach, but says the zeitgeist is moving the wrong way. Charters are under fire for being too tough on students, he writes.

The darlings of the charter movement, schools like KIPP and so forth, are being (unfairly) attacked for having discipline policies deemed too strict.  Any quasi-military school would probably look at KIPP as hopelessly lax, but compared to many high-poverty schools where “anything goes,” it’s certainly true that KIPP is stricter.

. . . some top charters are reallocating spending to satisfy these critics.  They taking $ from extra-curriculars, school trips, books, advanced classes, art, sports, and just about any sort of item that could be perceived as discretionary — and reallocating for more full-time staff to work with a small group of kids who struggle to adhere to the rules.  The same thing is happening with limited teacher time — reallocation towards time-consuming discipline procedures and therefore away from other core topics like lesson prep, helping strugglers after school, showing up for the basketball game to cheer, and so forth.

I think it’s all about choice. Some students — or their parents — will choose structure, discipline and, perhaps, military cachet. It’s not for everyone.

Teacher picks wrong student to inspire every year

Despite 18 tries, Broderic says she hasn’t even come close to turning a smart but disadvantaged pupil’s life around through tutoring and mentoring.

Every year, Texas English teacher Jan Broderic has reached out to a struggling student, offering mentoring, tutoring and even school supplies, reports The Onion. She’s picked the wrong student to believe in every year.

Broderic told reporters that not one of the students she has taken a special interest in has ever turned into an inspirational success story and that she was now “zero for 18” when it came to identifying bright but underachieving pupils and successfully unlocking their potential.

“I’ve been reaching out to promising kids that just need a little guidance since 1996, and to be honest, none of them has really blossomed into anything,” said the ninth-grade English teacher, adding that she was baffled by her inability to help a single troubled student maintain a C average, let alone make the honor roll. “For Christ’s sake, is it so hard to find one impressionable young person who no one else has ever believed in and turn their life around?”

“None of the students she has championed over the years has returned to campus to tell her she changed everything,” Broderic told The Onion.

In a non-Onion vein, Diane wrote about the need for teachers to set boundaries on their relationships with students last week.

Why teachers quit: Working conditions

Half a million teachers switch schools or leave the profession every year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The churn is worst at high-poverty schools.

Improving working conditions will keep new teachers in the classroom, writes Ellen Moir, CEO of the New Teacher Center.

The most frequently cited reasons new teachers give about why they leave center on dissatisfaction with working conditions like issues with classroom management, opportunities for professional development, input into decision making and school leadership. . . . (Teachers) are looking for a work environment where they are supported to improve by the administration, feel valued and are able to contribute in a collaborative culture.

Beginning teachers leave because they “don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve,” reports the Carnegie Foundation.

High-quality mentoring and induction is effective, writes Moir.

Who gets to graduate?

Whether a college student earns a degree — or just a few memories and a lot of  debt — correlates very closely with family income, writes Paul Tough in  Who Gets to Graduate? in the New York Times.

Ninety percent of freshmen from top-quartile-income families will earn a degree by age 24 compared to a quarter of freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution.

Students with similar SAT scores have very different odds of making it through college. Vanessa Brewer was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with 22 on the ACT (equivalent to a 1020 SAT score) and a 3.5 grade point average because she ranked in the top 7 percent of her high school class. She wants to major in nursing and become a nurse anesthesiologist. Students with similar grades and test scores have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating if they come from families in the top-income quartile, writes Tough. “If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.” Only 52 percent of UT-Austin students complete a degree in four years, compared to 70 percent at comparable flagship universities. Admitting students by class rank raises the percentage of first-generation-to-college Latinos, blacks and rural whites, but disadvantaged students tend to have lower test scores than the UT-Austin average. And they’re less likely to make it through. UT is trying to help high-risk students through “student success programs” that include “small classes, peer mentoring, extra tutoring help, engaged faculty advisers and community-building exercises,” writes Tough. Some students get an extra scholarship in exchange for leadership training. Telling students their anxiety is normal and won’t last can be very powerful, researchers have found. In one experiment at an elite college, first-year students read brief essays by older students.

The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. . . . Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A.

Vanessa Brewer failed a statistics test in her first month at UT. She was shaken: High school math had been easy. But she persevered, pulling out a B+ for the semester. When she struggled with chemistry, she spent six or more hours a week at the tutoring center. She earns A’s or B’s on every test. And she’s met two juniors, also black women majoring in nursing. She told Tough: “I felt like I was alone, but then I found people who said, you know, ‘I cried just like you.’ And it helped.”

The path out of poverty

A 15-year-old from a poor U.S. family asks you, “What can I do to escape poverty?”  How would you answer? Bryan Caplan poses the question on EconLog. A number of readers suggest: graduate from high school, stay out of jail, don’t get pregnant (or get someone pregnant).

Education Realist agrees with “don’t get knocked up or locked up,” but adds more advice.

First, don’t let your family’s needs drag you down.

No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class.

Stay away from people who don’t share your goals. This is a tough one for kids who grow up in lousy neighborhoods, but it’s critical. Your brother, cousin or best friend from elementary school can get you arrested (or shot).

It’s not enough to graduate from high school: Find a mentoring program that helps at-risk youth prepare for college. There’s a lot of support out there. Ask your teachers for help. Work hard to improve your grades.

If you’ve worked hard and still aren’t doing well, “start thinking in terms of training, not academics,” Ed Realist advises.

Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. . . .  Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic.

Finally, “do not overpay for college.”

Years ago, I volunteered to help sort donated books for a Christmas giveaway at a library in a mostly Hispanic community. Eighth-grade tutors were supposed to be helping, but only Jorge showed up. The library had hired middle schoolers to tutor elementary students. Despite the pay, most tutors were unreliable, said the librarian. But “Jorge always shows up,” she said with pride. Even when the bus didn’t show up at the middle school, Jorge found a way to get to the library.

I worked with Jorge for a few hours. He made sensible suggestions on which books would be appropriate for which age groups. He was as useful as any of the adults.

Jorge must be in his early to mid-20’s now. I’d guess that he’s earned a college degree. I’m certain that he’s working. He may not earn much yet, but he will not live in poverty. In addition to Education Realist’s advice, I’d add: It’s your life. Show up.

Matt Miller thinks poor kids are buffeted by gale force winds (it’s a Hurricane Sandy metaphor) beyond their control and would get more help if we all realized that everything is determined by luck, including the propensity to work hard. Jorge probably was lucky in his parents. They taught him that he wasn’t a victim of forces beyond his control.

Requiring attendance won’t cut dropouts

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better,” said President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address. “So tonight, I am proposing that every state, every state, requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Raising the compulsory school attendance age wouldn’t raise high school graduation rates, concludes a Brookings Institution analysis by Russ Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield. States that require attendance till 18 don’t have higher graduation rates than states that let students quit at 16 or 17. In fact, states with a higher attendance age have slightly lower graduation rates, even with controls for “state demographics that correlate with graduation rates (e.g., the racial composition of the student population).”

“Compulsory” attendance is a “misnomer,” they write. Teens drop out when they feel like it, regardless of the law.

There are effective interventions for high-risk students, the researchers write. For example, “Check and Connect, a dropout prevention strategy that relies on close monitoring of school performance, as well as mentoring, case management, and other supports, results in a substantially increased likelihood of students staying in school.”