Kindergarten kids on first day of school

Kindergarten Kids Explain Their First Day of School.

Four million children will start kindergarten this year. Compared to new kindergarteners 10 years ago, these children are more racially and ethnically diverse, more than twice as likely to qualify for a subsidized lunch and more likely to live in neighborhoods their parents describe as safe, according to Child Trends.

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?

Ravitch’s alternative to reform

An “architect of school reform,” Diane Ravitch turned against it, writes Sara Mosle in The Atlantic.  Instead of leading a “mid-course correction,” she “further polarized an already strident debate” and became a leader of the anti-reformers.

Ravitch presents her new book, Reign of Error, as “an overture to dialogue with opponents, but her subtitle suggests otherwise: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” writes Mosle.

Her tour of the research is littered with bumper-sticker slogans—she indicts, for example, the “Walmartization of American education”—likely to put off the unconverted. The book reads like a campaign manual against “corporate reformers.” The first half challenges the claims of their movement; the second offers Ravitch’s alternative agenda. Her prescriptions include universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, and more measures to reduce poverty and school segregation.

These are worthy goals—and not one of them is necessarily incompatible with many reformers’ own aims. Yet Ravitch doesn’t address competing priorities or painful trade-offs. Further reducing class size in better-off suburban districts, for example, may leave less money for more urgently needed early-childhood programs in poorer communities.

In 2010, Ravitch understood that parents choose charters as a “haven.” Now she has dropped the eliminationist rhetoric for non profit charters but not for the forprofit operators.

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?”

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.

Poverty is linked to poor planning skills

Low-income students aren’t as good at planning, focus and attention as more advantaged classmates, concludes a study in Child Development.

Third graders’ ability to solve a puzzle predicted fifth-grade math and reading achievement, even when IQ was taken into account, reports Education Week.

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Cornell researchers asked children to play  “Tower of Hanoi,” which requires rebuilding a stack of rings of decreasing size on one of two other poles, moving only one ring at a time and always keeping a smaller ring on top of a larger one. “The puzzle requires students to plan their steps out in advance to avoid backing themselves into a corner, and being able to complete the puzzle quickly and with the minimal number of moves also requires focus and attention skills,” Ed Week.

The greater the level of poverty students experienced in their early childhood, the worse they performed on the puzzle.

Researchers blamed the stress of growing up in poverty.

“Low-income families are bombarded with numerous psychological and physical risk factors: … chaotic living environments, relentless financial pressure, familial disorder and instability, and social isolation,” the authors noted. “These circumstances could lead to an inability to focus on everyday tasks necessary for the development of planning skills.”

Surely, there’s also a correlation between poor planning skills, school failure, poorly timed pregnancy and poverty.

I’m not sure I could solve that puzzle.

Indiana rethinks A-F school grades

Indiana lawmakers want education officials to rewrite the A-F grading system for schools to reflect both students’ passing rate and progress — without comparing students to each other, reports StateImpact Indiana.

Critics say the system is too complex. (Indiana’s system is the most rudimentary scoring system I’ve seen yet, writes Matthew DiCarlo on Shanker Blog.) Others say Indiana needs to use value-added data — which is quite complex — to factor out poverty effects.

Eight AP Statistics students at an Indianapolis high school came up with their own A-F rewrite for the high school model, which they presented to three state lawmakers, a representative of the state superintendent and school officials.

Currently, 60 percent of a high school grade comes the percentage of 10th graders who’ve passed end-of -course exams in Algebra I and English 10, with another 30 percent derived from the four-year graduation rate. That leaves 10 percent for a “College and Career Readiness” measure: 25 percent or more of students must earn passing scores on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, earn three or more college credits or earn a career certification.

The Ben Davis High School students suggested decreasing the importance of the end-of-course exam pass rate, which correlate strongly with graduation rates. They’d make the readiness metric 30 percent of the school’s grade and include a measure of students’ improvement in high school. They also want to adjust the grades for students’ poverty — somehow.

House Education Committee Chair Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, suggested looking at the percentage of graduates who need remedial courses in college.

Schools vs. poverty, racism

Can Schools Overcome Poverty and Racism? Deborah Meier tackles Mike Petrilli’s question on Ed Week’s Bridging Differences.

. . .  it isn’t money “alone” (it actually rarely comes alone) that damages the children of the poor. Still, we both agree that money helps. For example, the poor are more likely to be in school while suffering from pain (e.g. toothaches, nausea, or a fever or untreated wound.) Going to the doctor, finding someone to stay home with the baby, taking a day or two off work are advantages that money buys.

It’s worse when poverty is generational, Meier writes. And it’s also about race. “There’s a difference when you know, for sure, that your poverty is not a reflection of your racial inferiority.”

For today’s poor, schools probably are better than before World War II, “but not good enough to wipe out poverty,” Meier writes.

Children need “to belong to a place that embraces them, their families, and their communities.”

 If from Day One we acknowledge their rich language (yes) and ideas and the experiences they are trying to understand we’ll do better than imagining they come to us as blank slates. We also need space so that a group doing “x” can get excited without bothering Group Y. So that “projects” don’t have to fit inside a notebook for lack of space to think bigger or get finished in an hour for lack of storage and display space.

We need quiet places and noisy places, places full of books and computers and others full of paint and clay. We need adults with the freedom to make spontaneous decisions—shifting the conversation in response to one of those “wonderful moments” and deviating from any designed curriculum. Teachers need the time to mull over what they have learned from student work (written as well as observed) and collegial time to expand their repertoires. We need feedback from trusted and competent colleagues. We need time for families and teachers to engage in serious conversations. We need settings where it seems reasonable that kids might see the school’s adults as powerful and interesting people who are having a good time.

Success should be defined “in broader ways than test scores or college completion,” Meier concludes. And “we need to also tackle poverty directly.

She recommends My Life in School by her “hero,” Tom Sobol, New York state commissioner of education in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Does it work? asks Petrilli inPoor kids need a hand up, not a hospice.

Does your vision of schooling work to help poor children gain the skills and knowledge and confidence and connections that will allow them to climb the ladder into the middle class? Does it help them do better than they otherwise would have, if they had gone to a “regular” (boring!) school?

. . . If you were seeking an “accountability waiver” for Mission Hill, or similar schools, what would you be willing to promise in terms of student outcomes? Higher graduation rates? Lower teenage pregnancy rates? Lower incarceration rates? Higher voting rates? Higher college matriculation and completion rates (including at the AA level)? Lower unemployment rates? Higher wages?

Without some way to assess student outcomes, “we’ve turned your beautiful educational vision—complete with books and computers, paint and clay—into a form of childhood hospice—a respite from life’s daily struggles, but also a surrender to the inevitable.”

Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

20% of schools serve high-poverty kids

One in five public schools was a high-poverty school in 2011, according to the U.S. Education Department. That means 75 percent or more of students qualify for a subsidized lunch. The number of high-poverty schools increased by 60 percent, according to Hechinger Report‘s Education By The Numbers. In 2000, only one in eight public schools was deemed to be high poverty.

According to this chart, a family of four could earn up to $42,643 to qualify for a reduced-price lunch and up to $29,965 for a free lunch.

It’s way past time to measure poverty directly and throw in other socioeconomic factors, such as parents’ education. The school lunch figures are skewed at the high school level: Many kids don’t ask for a free lunch, even if they’re eligible.