More pre-K, more ADHD

More pre-k could lead to more ADHD diagnoses warn Berkeley researchers Stephen P. Hinshaw and Richard M. Scheffler  in a New York Times op-ed. 

Introducing millions of 3- to 5-year-olds to classrooms and preacademic demands means that many more distracted kids will undoubtedly catch the attention of their teachers. Sure, many children this age are already in preschool, but making the movement universal and embedding transitional-K programs in public schools is bound to increase the pressure. We’re all for high standards, but danger lurks.

Early intervention helps kids who really have ADHD, the professors write. But millions of children with ADHD labels — and prescriptions — don’t truly have the disorder.

Our research has revealed a worrisome parallel between our nation’s increasing push for academic achievement and increased school accountability — and skyrocketing ADHD diagnoses, particularly for the nation’s poorest children.

“By age 17, nearly one in five American boys and one in 10 girls has been told that they have ADHD,” Hinshaw and Scheffler write. That’s a 40 percent increase from a decade ago.

Am I a bad mom if my kids aren’t superstars?

Back-to-School Night Made Me Feel Like a Bad Mom, complains Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic.

When I left the house for parent-teacher night, I was a good mom. My younger son was doing his homework, and my older son was in his room practicing the opening riff of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the guitar.

. . . Kevin’s mom was out of breath because they had to rush to school from his cello lesson and Ilse’s swim team practice. Heather came in late because her daughter, one of the top Nordic ski racers in the northeast, was at dry-land training. Jason and Brian, on the other hand, were on time–because they stay after school to help with math tutoring and soccer practice. Suddenly, my sons’ after-school activities seemed less impressive.

. . . My younger son had spent his afternoon not at dry-land training, but in the backyard, whittling a sorcerer’s staff out of a stick with one of my good kitchen knives.

The compulsion to compete for most outstanding child has been named Pressured Parents Phenomenon by Wendy Grolnick, a Clark psychology professor. Competitive parenting is contagious, says Grolnick.

Lahey includes tips to “vaccinate” yourself against PPP. I will summarize: Chill.

Britain looks East for better schools

Longer school days and shorter holidays would help British students catch up with  Asian students, Education Secretary Michael Gove said at an education conference in London.

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove should “know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be,” responds Clarissa Tam, a graduate of Singapore schools.

Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent?

. . . The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’.

And yet, the drive for excellence can be empowering, Tam writes. When she faces challenges, she recalls that “my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself.”

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Gove’s “Look East” policy comes at a time when many Asian countries are looking West in search of “inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking,” she writes. Singapore has created arts and drama schools and is “introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.”

A nuclear engineer who can’t work under pressure

This piece about students handling pressure is older, from early February, but I wasn’t blogging back then when I read it, and I am blogging now. It’s an interesting article that discusses a distinction between two genotypes, the effects of a gene on the brain’s ability to clear dopamine, and the effect of that ability on academic performance of various sorts. There’s no way to summarize the really interesting part in quotes, so go read the whole thing. I’ll settle for quoting the overall conclusion about competition:

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

To this I’d only add that being able to perform under high pressure is itself an important skill, one that is needed in many fields. When the stuff hits the fan, you hope you’ve hired the person who isn’t going to freeze on you, who isn’t going to panic. You want to have hired the person who can keep their head when all around them are losing theirs. For some fields, this isn’t really an issue: you don’t need high pressure librarians, for instance. And no poet I’ve ever met needed to make a snap decision NOW.

Now, I fully admit that how a small child handles stress isn’t necessarily indicative of how the adult he or she will become will handle stress. I also recognize that there are many types of nuclear engineers, and some work solely in design. But still, this tickled my funny bone:

Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

How do you raise a child prodigy?

How Do You Raise a Prodigy? asks Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

Chloe Yu’s son, Marc, “picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers” when he was “almost 3.” As a preschooler, he began performing at retirement homes. By 5, he added the cello.

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. . . . “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

. . . Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a conductor and a former wunderkind, thinks the U.S. education system has little tolerance for spiky genius. “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

64% say parents don’t pressure kids enough

Parents don’t pressure their children enough to do well in school, according to 64 percent of Americans, reports Pew Research Center. Only 11 percent say parents put too much pressure on students.

By contrast, 68 percent of the Chinese public say parents put too much pressure on their children to succeed academically.

Respect teachers, blame cheaters

Show respect for educators by blaming the cheaters rather than the tests,  argues Ed Sector’s Kevin Carey in The New Republic. Blaming the recent cheating scandals on the pressure to produce results is like giving Bernie Madoff a pass because he was under pressure to make money for is clients, Carey writes.

. . .  every time news of cheating breaks, opponents of standardized testing and accountability in public education have been quick to deflect blame from morally challenged educators and aim it toward the tests themselves. When asked about Atlanta, noted school reform apostate Diane Ravitch pointed the finger at the federal No Child Left Behind law, saying that, when high-stakes incentives are attached to test scores, we are “virtually inviting” teachers to cheat. At the Daily Kos, readers were told that “the tests, and the stakes attached to them, are the issue. No rational person can look at cheating this widespread and decide its existence is about the individuals, however blameworthy their behavior may be.” One Atlanta-area teacher put it this way: “Anybody whose job is tied to performance, it is a setup.”

Testing opponents often invoke “Campbell’s Law,” which holds that “[t]he more any quantitative social indicator [e.g. standardized testing] is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures.”

As a way of understanding education policy, or anything else, Campbell’s Law is both inaccurate and banal. In reality, most people are quite adept at resisting corruption pressure, which is why the vast majority of teachers whose students take standardized tests do not cheat.

The good news, Carey writes, that “public schools finally care enough about student performance that some ethically challenged educators have chosen to cheat.”  It’s worth lying about.

No pressure, no progress

Pressure to improve test scores is getting the blame for the cheating scandal in Atlanta (and Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and elsewhere). But if there’s no pressure, there will be no progress, argues Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Pressure doesn’t have to come from a high-stakes test, he writes. Pressure can mean Mom’s raised eyebrow.  In some countries, it’s a report from the school inspector.  But it’s got to come from somewhere.

School administrators and teachers who changed answers did something worse than cheating. They lost faith in the ability of their students to learn.

. . .  teachers and students, like all of us, must learn how to deal with some forms of pressure. Reducing stress in the either/or dynamic of public schools can lead to eliminating it altogether, which is bad. If we don’t have a chance to fail, no one will know that we need help. We won’t be able to improve.

Then we will be back where we were before, patting some kids on the head, deciding they weren’t up to anything tough and passing them on to the next grade until they are fit for nothing better than the unemployment line.

Those pat-on-the-head diplomas are another form of cheating.

Update: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, adds Justin Baeder.


Too much homework?

Schools are setting limits on homework — typically 10 minutes a day per grade level and no work on weekends or holidays — reports the New York Times.  Usually these are schools in middle-class areas where parents worry their kids are under too much pressure — and kids have lots of extracurricular sports and lessons scheduled after school.

For elementary students, the 10-minute rule — 10 minutes in first grade, 20 minutes in second grade and so on — makes a lot of sense. Kids who do more homework don’t learn more.  However,  I worry about older students who expect breaks on weekends and holidays. One of the most valuable things students can learn in K-12 is how to schedule their time to get assignments done.

Of course, the quality of homework assignments varies: I’m not a fan of assignments that require a parent’s extensive involvement — especially if that parents is supposed to have arts and crafts skills.

Pressure points

A Pew Research Center poll from 2006 explains why Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, is striking a nerve, writes Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.