Terrible, terrible

519h66wukglAfter working 28 days as a substitute teacher, novelist Nicholson Baker wrote a book on education excerpted in Fortress of Tedium in the New York Times Magazine. Running the story was “a terrible, terrible decision,” cognitive scientist Dan Willingham tells the Times‘ editors.

The first “terrible” is for ignoring “conflicting priorities in setting goals for public good, policy constraints in achieving these goals, the science of learning, distribution of wealth” and other complexities, writes Willingham, who’s a University of Virginia psychologist professor.

The second “terrible” is for the content.

The author commits the common education newcomer blunder: “The school that would have been perfect for me, would be perfect for everyone.” He cannot understand why high school must be so stifling and soulless. Part of the blame goes to curriculum, where otherwise interesting topics are made dull, but there’s no mistaking that the teachers who inflict this boring stuff on students deserve blame as well. Baker reminisces fondly about his own experience at an alternative high school, where students studied what they wished.

Willingham lists some of the problems in Baker’s argument:

1. There is actually evidence regarding classroom instructional quality in this country (e.g., here). He might have made use of it. (It shows, by the way, that the emotional tone is, on average, much more positive than he lets on. Instructional quality, however, is not much better.)

2. Baker is not the first to suppose that much greater freedom for students would lead to greater motivation and better outcomes. The lesson over the last hundred years seems to be that such schools are wonderful when they work, but reproducing the successes has proven more difficult than most observers would guess.

3. Some parents prefer a lot of structure. The private schools in  my town do not all follow the lots-of-choice model, a la Waldorf, Montessori, or Regio Emilia. More parents pay to send their children to highly structured, traditional schools.

4. There are good arguments in favor of a common curriculum.

He finishes with a list of topics for wise editors to avoid:

1) Technology is poised to revolutionize learning and schools.

2) Competition would solve all problems in American education.

3) American education is the best in the world and all challenges in educational outcomes are due to poverty.

4) Teachers are fools, and the teacher’s unions are organized crime syndicates dedicated to protecting them.

5) All of America’s problems in education can be traced to standardized tests and if teachers were simply allowed to teach as they wished, all would be well.

You may nominate your own topics.

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.”

Too hard to fail?

Is it becoming too hard to fail?, ask Moriah Balingit and Donna St. George in the Washington Post.

School districts are making it harder to fail by banning zeroes for missed or failing work and letting students retake exams and turn assignments in late.

Under a new policy in Virginia’s Fairfax County, one of the nation’s largest school systems, middle and high school students can earn no lower than a score of 50 if they make a “reasonable attempt” to complete work. And for the first time this year, high school teachers who were going to fail a student had to reevaluate the student using “quality points,” making an F less detrimental to a student’s final grade. Prince George’s County in Maryland will limit failing grades to a 50 percent minimum score when students show a “good-faith effort.”

The goal is to keep students from giving up and give stragglers more time to learn the material. However, some teachers are dubious, reports the Post.

Forty-two to 69 percent of high school teachers had concerns about the proposed grading policy on a recent survey, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association.

“We have no problem being fair to students,” she said. “But if they are not doing the work and not performing, and we give them a grade they did not earn, how does that make them college and career ready?”

Sam Hedenberg teaches English to special education students at Fairfax’s Mount Vernon High School, where zeroes are banned. t=The lowest possible score is a 53.

“It definitely provides that opportunity for a kid to catch up,” Hedenberg said.

But he also has seen students game the system. One student was able to pass his class even though he skipped several essay-writing assignments. “Many students have already started to figure out that they don’t have to do very much but they can still pass,” he said.

The trend also is to base grades on students’ mastery of coursework, not on whether they do homework, turn assignments in on time or other measures of work habits.

At a Los Angeles charter network, seniors advised against test retakes in “exit interviews,”  reports KPCC.

Kayla Martin, who’s among this year’s graduates from PUC Community Charter Early College High, said some students felt comfortable blowing off tests because they could retake them. But that left them feeling less-prepared for college.

“Once you get to college, you can’t retest,” she said. “Once you get that grade, that’s it. You try to go to a professor and say, ‘Retest,’ and they’re going to laugh at you and say, ‘We don’t do that.'”

Now, students can retake quizzes, but not tests.

Teen hates: Group projects

Student-led discussions that waste time and group projects top the list of things teens dislike about school, writes Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Repeatedly, students told me they could learn twice as much in half the time if teachers rein in their rambling peers,” she writes.

As for group projects, “the smartest kids do all the work because the grade matters to them,” students say. Slackers slack.

One achiever told Downey he’d always dreaded group assignments or labs until he took nothing but advanced classes his senior year. “When you work with someone who wants the A as much as you do, group projects can be pretty fun,” he said.

My daughter ran into another problem in honors physics. Her lab partners wouldn’t let her do any of the work for fear she’d threaten their A+ average. They couldn’t teach her the material: It was so obvious to them that they couldn’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to her. Knowing they couldn’t carry her through the tests, she transferred to regular physics, where she was the A+ student who couldn’t understand how classmates could be so dim.

Chinese kids risk death to get to school


Children climb a cliff on bamboo ladders twice a month to get to their mountaintop home in southwest China from their school in the valley.

Fifteen Chinese children, ages 6 to 15, risk their lives to get to school, reports USA Today. They use bamboo ladders to climb down a cliff to get to boarding school in the valley. Twice a month, they climb up the cliff — a 90-minute trek — to spend a few days at home.

Photos by Beijing News photographer Chen Jie, went viral on Chinese media. “If you have any kind of accident, you will fall straight into the abyss,” Chen told the Guardian. Now, authorities are considering building a steel staircase.

Api Jiti,  head of the farming community, told Beijing News “seven or eight” people have died during the climb.

There are 17 vine ladders on the 800-metre-high way home, but the most dangerous part is a path on the cliff without a vine ladder. The most dangerous part of the climb is a path on the cliff without a ladder. Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Images

Do I belong?

Victoria Baskerville, right, and BUILD Training Program colleague Isis Cabassa prepare dilutions in their SCI 101L class on Sept. 15, 2015, at University of Maryland--Baltimore County.

Isis Cabassa, left, and Victoria Baskerville, right, prepare dilutions in a University of Maryland–Baltimore County lab. First-generation and minority students, and female STEM students, may feel they don’t belong. Photo: Laura Ott

When students feel they don’t belong, it has “devastating effects on student motivation,” said Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen in a talk at Yale recently. First-generation college students, women in math and science fields and African-Americans and Latinos on mostly white/Asian campuses may feel an “apartness” that makes it harder to engage in class and keep trying.

Transitions — from elementary school to junior high, from high school to college — are critical, writes Annie Murphy Paul.

Three interventions can counter the lack of belonging, says Cohen.

Students receiving feedback on an essay are told, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high standards and I know you can meet them.”

Students experiencing a transition are told, “It’s normal and natural not to feel comfortable in a new situation. It will get easier.”

Students facing a challenge are asked to write about a value that’s important to them, an exercise that leads them to feel that “I’m bigger than this. This challenge doesn’t define me.”

After a one-hour discussion of the college transition,black college students earned significantly higher grades, shrinking the minority achievement gap by 52 percent, according to research by Cohen and a colleague.

Atlanta merges best, worst high schools

Atlanta has merged its highest-performing high school with one of its lowest-performing schools, reports Molly Bloom for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches his world geometry class at Early College High School At Carver on Wednesday, Jan. 20. Atlanta school superintendent Meria Carstarphen has combined one of the worst high schools in the city with the very best one. If Carver School of Technology doesn’t improve this year, it could be eligible for state takeover under Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District plan, if voters authorize it in November. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Dr. Thomas Gosha teaches world geography at Early College High School. Photo: Hyosub Shin, AJC.com

In 2005, Carver High was split into an Early College school for motivated achievers and several open-enrollment schools, including Carver School of Technology, an F school at risk of takeover by the state.

“They’ve gotten rid of their top performing school by combining it with the lowest performing school,” says Sandra Bethea, who chose Early College High for her daughter two years ago. “They’ve set the school up for failure.”

There are more fights, she said. Her daughter’s teachers spend more time disciplining students and less time teaching. School staff have less time for extra help. And her daughter spent the first semester her English class reviewing last year’s material, so School of Technology students could catch up.

Suspension rates are down and attendance rates are up for School of Technology students this fall, writes Bloom. “Significantly fewer fights were reported.” But suspensions are up for Early College students and “three fights were reported, compared to none reported last fall.”

Early College students meet most high school requirements in their first two years, then take college classes at Georgia State University or Atlanta Metropolitan State College as juniors and seniors.

Winning school


Shawn Young, founder of Classcraft, uses the game in his physics class. 

Competition shouldn’t just be for athletes — or brainiacs — writes Greg Toppo in Game Plan for Learning in Education Next.  Academic competition can engage and motivate students, writes Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Schools “use sports, games, social clubs, and band competitions to get students excited about coming to school,” he writes, but rarely “use academic competition to improve instruction for more than just a few top students.”

That’s starting to change.

Shawn Young, a 32-year-old Canadian physics teacher, has created a peer-driven classroom learning and management system, dubbed Classcraft, that resembles a low-tech, sword-and-sorcery video game. In it, students work in teams to meet the basic demands of school — showing up on time, working diligently, completing homework, behaving well in class, and encouraging each other to do the same — to earn “experience” and “health” points.

Arete (originally named Interstellar) lets students compete to solve math problems with rivals anywhere in the world. Tim Kelley was inspired by watching the school rowing team compete to improve their personal bests in endurance.

Kelley began to wonder how one might replicate that fighting spirit in the classroom. He soon imagined a computer application that would use students’ day-to-day results to match them up with comparably skilled contestants in head-to-head academic competition — in everything from classroom pickup games to bleacher-filling, live-broadcast amphitheater tournaments.

Yes, Kelley hopes to make math a spectator sport.

ednext_XVI_2_toppo_sidebar-small

Math teachers group-think about what’s best

Traditional teaching is “outmoded and ineffective,” according to the new guard’s group-thinking, writes math teacher Barry Garelick after a day at “education camp.” Teachers no  longer debate “best practices,” he writes as the only traditionalist.

Scaffolding — starting with what students know and teaching more in small steps — is out, he learned at ed camp. Instead, teachers are supposed to provide “feedback and guidance” that helps students solve completely new problems, a moderator said.

“Think-Pair-Share” — students discuss a problem or question with a partner, then share their ideas with the class — is obsolete, Garelick learned.

. . . students didn’t know what to say to each other about whatever it was they were to discuss. And that was likely because they had little or no knowledge of the subject that they were supposed to talk about, and which was supposed to give them the insights and knowledge that they previously lacked.

However, student-centered and inquiry-based approaches are still alive and well,” he writes. Feedback and guidance are the new think, pair, share of math teaching.

Effort isn’t enough: Kids have to learn

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” theory — students work harder and learn more if they believe they can “grow their brains” — is red-hot in the education world.

Everyone says they believe in the growth mindset, even when they don’t really, Dweck writes in Education Week. A “growth mindset isn’t just about effort.” It’s about learning and improving.

The student who didn’t learn anything is told, “Great effort! You tried your best!”

Instead, a teacher might say, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

Dweck has a fear that keeps her up at night, she writes.

. . . that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!”

She calls for “telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”