Carnival of Homeschooling

Homeschool Atheist Momma, a Midwesterner living with her family in Australia for a year, is hosting this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling. The theme is parenting.

The child philosopher

Socrates (In The Form Of A 9-Year-Old) Shows Up In A Suburban Backyard In Washington, writes NPR’s Robert Krulwich introducing a video that’s gone viral. Videographer Zia Hassan met the boy and his brother, 7, and sister, 2, through their babysitter.

The parents “treat their kids as if they’re intelligent young people, and not children who couldn’t possibly understand how the world (or universe) works,” Zia told Krulwich. ”I think there are a lot of kids who think about interesting things,” Zia says. “It’s my guess no one really asks them about it.”

Could earlier kindergarten be the achievement gap solution?

Here’s a mostly filler piece from Julia Lawrence over at EducationNews. I use it merely as a launching point for a slightly different inquiry.

During his State of the Union speech last year, President Barack Obama called for the federal and state lawmakers to work together to offer early pre-school to every child. Once the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, “every” turned out to mean more like everyone from families making 200% of the federal poverty line or less.

Some critics say that sending children to school at the age of four does not work. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, on March 20th new results were announced from a study of nine-to-11-year-olds in New Jersey. This report found that disadvantaged children who had attended pre-school had better literacy, language, maths and science skills. And two years of pre-kindergarten were better than one.

Starting schooling early doesn’t just have academic benefits, but social ones as well. Those who begin learning at an earlier age are less likely to commit crimes and end up in prison later in life.

Let’s first remind ourselves, then remind ourselves again, that what we are talking about is earlier kindergarten for “disadvantaged” children. (And let’s also remind ourselves that when we say “disadvantaged”, what at least some of us really mean is “Black and Hispanic”.) 49% of students will always be below average, and people could be fine with that. But what drives a lot of people crazy is the fact that what passes for academic performance (as measured by the NAEP, mostly) seems in startlingly short supply in student “populations” defined in terms of their race or income. It’s especially, I think, the race thing that gets people in their gut, but as a practical matter we often focus more on the socioeconomic issues because that’s a less politically charged terrain.

So here’s what we’ve got: Student group A has crappy test scores. Student group B has good test scores. There’s a gap, and we want to close it.

What do we know? Well, we know that the typical member of Student group B gets read to at home, has access to books, has school pushed on them by their parents, has parents who themselves have at least some sort of academic disposition and training, and grows up around other students who are similarly situated. They tend not to be shot at by their classmates on a regular basis, and oftentimes it seems that their family situation is somewhat stable. There may even be a father around. They have interesting toys, and go on trips to places like museums and factories and orchards. They have a quiet place to study, and they tend to get three or four balanced meals a day.

These seem to be the relevant differences. We can call them “advantages” because they seem to give children a leg up on doing well in school, and their absence tends to hurt school performance. Typical members of Student Group A, on the other hand, don’t get these “advantages” — that’s why they’re called “disadvantaged”. A headline that says something like “disadvantaged kids do worse in school” is actually something of a truism: the reason they are called disadvantaged is because they happen to have the characteristics that we have statistically correlated with doing poorly in school, and lack the ones that we think benefit academic achievement.

By way of analogy, if it turned out that 100% of low-performing students grew up in blue-, green-, and red-painted bedrooms, while 100% of high performers grew up in yellow-painted bedrooms, growing up in a yellow bedroom would be an advantage. And those “children of darker colors” who grew up in blue, green, and red rooms would be “disadvantaged”. And it shouldn’t surprise us that, when we go looking for disadvantages in this way, that the disadvantaged don’t do as well.

Now, I’m just musing here, but it seems like the VERY FIRST thing to do if you wanted to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids is give the disadvantaged kids some advantages. Then they wouldn’t be disadvantaged, and if they weren’t disadvantaged, well… then at least in theory there would be no achievement gap. So how to do that? Well, “advantages” seem to track with growing up in a certain sort of family. So the most obvious way is to take the kids away from “disadvantaged” families at birth and give them to “advantaged” families to raise. No raising kids for you if you’re statistically suspect: there’s social good to promote. Trust me, that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

That probably won’t go over so well, though. (For some reason I’m imagining cries of “cultural genocide”, although it seems pretty clear that the “advantages” we wish to promote and the “disadvantages” we wish to eradicate are profoundly cultural.) So let’s look for a less drastic solution that accomplishes more or less the same thing.

Howsabout this: If we can’t take the A-kids kids completely away from their families at birth, we just take the kids away, at an incredibly early age, and have those kids “raised” in an environment which simulates the “advantagedness” of Student Group B? In the A-Group’s cognitively formative years, we’ll give them a bright, busy, happy linguistically-charged environment that sort of will be like the environment that the B-Group already grows up in. We can call it “early kindergarten” at first, and then after that, we’ll just call it “school”. Eventually, we’ll call the whole thing “school”. And we won’t take the kids out of their homes completely — just for most of the day. Their disadvantaged parents will still be (mostly) responsible for clothing and feeding and the like, and for providing a place to sleep. This also reduces expenses.

Will that close, or at least narrow the achievement gap?

Sure. I don’t see why it wouldn’t.

Will this boy graduate high school?

subwayThe other day, on the subway in NYC, I saw this ad. It turns out there has been some commotion over it. (Approved and defended by Mayor Bloomberg, it is part of New York City’s recent campaign to raise awareness about teen pregnancy.)  I would like to add my own two or three objections to the mix.

First, this is an example of the “precision fallacy” in statistics. (That’s the best term I could find; there may be better.) Specifically, the ad confuses the individual’s probabilities with those of the group. It may be that “kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than [sic] kids whose moms were over age 22,” but this probability doesn’t hold for individuals.

Second, adults put words in this child’s mouth (and banal words at that). A baby or toddler would not say anything remotely close to this, unless someone had prepped him to do so.

That brings up a larger problem: from a young age, children are trained to describe themselves in statistical terms, at school and elsewhere. They learn to say, “My growth in such-and-such a skill is 30 percent,” or “I was one of the sixty percent who had the right answer.” In measure, in the right context, this may be fine–but when it’s the dominant lingo and mode of thought, it crowds out substance and meaning. (I wrote a satirical piece about this tendency.)

Beyond that, I did not bear this child as a teen, nor did 99.999999 percent of NYC subway riders, in all likelihood. (For all we know, this kid’s mom might have a chauffeur.) The “you” is not a real you, nor the “I” a real I. Yet here’s a tear-streaked face bringing sadness to a passenger’s day–and to what end?

What good does it do even for the target audience, teens who might get pregnant or father a child? If I were a teen looking at the picture, I’d want to wipe the little boy’s cheeks. I’d want to take out a book and read to him. Yet I wouldn’t be able to do so. I might dream of being a parent one day–and, if I were foolhardy enough, I’d want that day to come soon.

Worst of all, this ad gives the impression that the boy’s existence is a mistake and his fate sealed (or at least tipped in a direction). This is wrong. Once a child comes into the world, he or she is no mistake. Nor do we know what that child’s life will be.

Of course teen pregnancy is no light matter, no matter how it’s handled. I imagine many involved with the ad had good intentions. Still, it  fails to inform, enlighten, or persuade. And what a sad-looking kid.

Parents know best

Busybodies are eager to tell parents how to raise their kids, writes Paula Bolyard on PJ Media. Ignore the “experts,” she recommends. Parents know best.

She quotes Dr. Ray Guarendi, clinical psychologist and father of ten, who says children don’t need perfect parents: ”Kids are emotionally durable. The good Lord knew that children were going to be raised by humans, with all of our shortcomings, inconsistencies and flaws. So he built them to withstand us, and all the trial and erroring we do on our way to better parenting.”

Teaching physics — and the power of love

As a physics teacher at a Kentucky high school, Jeffrey Wright is known for exploding pumpkins and lying under a nailed board as students use a sledgehammer to break cinderblocks above him. Most of all, he’s known for his annual lecture on raising a severely disabled son who taught him “the meaning of life, love and family,” reports a New York Times blog.

A former student of Wright’s at Louisville Male Traditional High School in Kentucky (it’s been coed for nearly 60 years) made an award-winning video, Wright’s Law.

“When you start talking about physics, you start to wonder, ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ” he said in an interview. “Kids started coming to me and asking me those ultimate questions. I wanted them to look at their life in a little different way — as opposed to just through the laws of physics — and give themselves more purpose in life.”

One day, Wright realized his son could see, play and think, he tells students. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”

In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “. . . “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

Students are looking for purpose, “the purpose in your heart,” to answer the question, “who cares?” Wright believes.

He hopes to inspire students to pursue careers in science and genetic research. “We might be able to come up with something we can use to help Adam out one day.”

Eat, drink and behave

San Francisco parents are outsourcing table manners, reports the New York Times. Well-to-do parents like to eat out, but they’re not good at teaching their children how to behave in public.

It’s dinnertime, and 6-year-old Joaquin Hurtado is staying in his seat. He hasn’t stood up, run around the table or wrestled with his little brother. Good thing. It wouldn’t take much unruly behavior to shatter the dishware or the mood in this upscale restaurant.

“This is a place where you come to eat,” the boy says softly, explaining nice manners. “It’s not a place to play.”

The place is Chenery Park, a restaurant with low lights, cloth napkins, $24 grilled salmon and “family night” every Tuesday. Children are welcome, with a catch: They are expected to behave — and to watch their manners, or learn them. Think upscale dining with training wheels.

Some parents pay for etiquette classes. Robin Wells, the founder of Etiquette Manor in Coral Gables, Fla., teaches children to use forks and look the waiter in the eye.  She charges $285 for five one-hour lessons.

She often exhorts her young students: be polite to your mother because she’ll be happier, and if she’s happier, you’re happier.

I did this with my daughter when she was two, explaining that if she whined, nagged or sulked, she’d have a mean, crabby mother, but if she refrained from whining, nagging and sulking, she’d have a nice, cheerful mother.  It worked — and lasted through her teen years. Didn’t cost a dime either.

Many families eat with the TV blaring in the background. Parents and kids are checking social media instead of talking to each other at the table.

Modern children don’t want to hear about “manners” or “etiquette,” says Faye de Muyshondt, the founder of Socialsklz, which teaches workshops in New York City on etiquette and social skills. She teaches children that they are “building the brand called ‘you,’ ” reports the Times.

Hmmm. Well, I did tell my daughter that I wanted her to behave well at her friends’ homes so their parents would say, “What a well-behaved child. She must have a wonderful mother to raise her to be so well behaved.” This worked too. I

Hispanic kids lag in language, not social skills

Mexican-American preschoolers fall behind white children in language and preliteracy skills, but do just as well in social skills, according to a Berkeley-UCLA study.

Mexican American toddlers between ages 2 and 3 displayed language and cognitive skills about eight months behind those of their white peers, whether assessed in English or Spanish. This gap persisted through ages 4 and 5, with Mexican American children entering kindergarten already behind.

. . . “The slight schooling of Mexican-heritage mothers, juggling more young children at home, and weak traditions of reading with one’s child, conspire to suppress early language and cognitive growth,” (UCLA pediatrician Alma) Guerrero said.

Mexican-American parents are much less likely to read to their children regularly. But, in other ways, they were warm, supportive parents, said Berkeley sociologist and study co-author Bruce Fuller. “We find robust cultural strengths in Mexican American homes when it comes to raising eager and socially mature preschoolers.”

What do parents want? It depends

Parenting styles vary by education and social class, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. Does it matter? Mathews has been reading Michael Petrilli’s new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma, which cites the research.

A middle-class, college-educated parent of any ethnicity is likely to be like me: Overscheduling children’s free time but preferring innovative instruction and informal discipline at school.

. . . working-class and poor parents of any race are more likely to let their children amuse themselves as they see fit once their homework is done but tend to prefer schools with traditional teaching styles and strong discipline.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau found “the center of life in middle-class families was the calendar” listing “scheduled, paid, and organized activities for children.”

But despite the forced march to improvement that characterized their children’s free time, those parents tolerated a lot of back-talk and often negotiated with children about what they wanted to do. They preferred teachers who did not give orders but encouraged creativity..

Working-class and poor parents, researchers found, left their children on their own on weekends and summer days but were more likely to set strict behavior rules. Those parents tended to like teachers who were tough and structured.

Middle-class parents think parenting is very important: It’s their job to cultivate their children’s “talents, opinions and skills,” Lareau writes. She contrasts “concerted cultivation” with “natural growth” parenting. Low-income and working-class parents think children develop naturally, if parents provide “comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”

Diverse schools face a challenge: If middle class and low-income parents have different expectations, what should principals and teachers do?

Helicopter-ed kids in the classroom

At 50, after a successful career selling magazine advertising, Rod Baird became a high school English teacher at an affluent high school near New York City. Counterfeit Kids criticizes education fads — Baird thinks the “sage on the stage” makes a lot of sense — but the book’s real target is overprotective, esteem-boosting, college-obsessed parents.

Baird’s privileged students don’t like to read books, think or learn. Victims of the “cult of college,” they’ve been pushed by their parents to earn good grades and get into a “good” college. Nothing else matters.

In his first year, he taught non-honors English to 11th graders — B and C students — who’d figured out they’d already lost the college race.

“A palpable contempt had set in, they way they slouched in their seats, the way they openly cheated. . . . they no longer cared.”

Thanks to their parents, they had way too much self-esteem to blame themselves for their lack of success, Baird writes. Instead, they assumed the system was unfair.

Teachers are too student-centered, Baird writes.

We are trying so hard to teach that we are accepting their responsibilities. With all of our elaborate rubrics and review sheets and methodologies and layers upon layers of special education services and ever-changing pedagogies and assessments, we are smothering them, preventing them from learning the basics, from how to think for themselves, to self-discipline, to English grammar, stunting their growth . . .

Students who’ve been told they learn by doing believe they have no obligation to listen or read, Baird writes. Group work — “collaborative learning” — teaches them to follow the group leader, who does most of the work. “We love group work,” a student tells him. “Usually you don’t have to do anything until the teacher comes around with her clipboard and rubric. Then we pretend we are doing what she asked us.”

His students are good at following specific directions — if there’s a grade to earn. Asked to think for themselves, they flounder.

Baird shares his techniques for jolting students out of their complacency and getting them to think.