Time to end summer vacation?

Summer vacation is bad for kids — especially low-income kids, writesMatthew Yglesias on Slate.  Middle-class kids may go to camp, play sports or travel, while poor kids sit at home with the TV. That creates “massive avoidable inequities,” he argues.

A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students

“While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer,” RAND concluded, “low-income students lose more ground in reading while their higher-income peers may even gain.” . . . Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer . . .

A majority of the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status students in Baltimore can be attributed to differences in summer learning loss, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

“School is important,” concludes Yglesias.   “It should happen all year ’round.”

Some urban districts are “blending academics with recreational activities” to prevent summer learning loss, reports EdSource. Most enrichment programs are run by nonprofits and supported by federal or state funds and foundation grants, not by district funds.

Traditional remedial summer classes can be “pretty grim,” said Katie Brackenridge, senior director for expanded learning initiatives with the Partnership for Children and Youth, whose “Summer Matters” campaign pushes for expanded summer programs. “Part of it is that kids already walk in the door probably not liking learning so much, and that’s how they got stuck in remediation in the first place. We’re looking at how do you make those learning opportunities engaging.”

Seventh graders at Oakland Unified’s Coliseum College Prep Academy visited San Francisco’s Exploratorium, then used baking soda and calcium chloride  to explain chemical reactions to the eighth graders.

Santa Ana-based THINK Together offers summer enrichment programs to nearly 13,000 students in 10 school districts throughout the state.

Enrichment programs typically run about six weeks and are offered for as long as six hours a day. Mornings are traditionally spent on academics, while the afternoons are dedicated to hands-on STEM studies – science, technology, education and mathematics programs – arts and crafts, lab work or sports.

According to a Summer Matters study, How Summer Learning Strengthens Student Success, students raised their vocabulary skills as much as one-third of an instructional grade in six weeks and improved their attitudes about school and reading.

Funding summer enrichment programs for disadvantaged and struggling students is a lot cheaper than extending the school year by one or two months.

Colleges should outsource remedial ed

Colleges aren’t good at remedial education, writes Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. Few remedial students go on to earn a degree. Colleges should outsource remediation and concentrate on college-level instruction.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were developed for motivated, independent learners. Now the Gates Foundation is funding proposals to create MOOCs for remedial students.

Study: Algebra for all hurt high achievers

Chicago’s algebra-for-all policy hurt high achievers who were placed in mixed-ability classes, concludes a study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, reports Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

Before the 1997 policy change, one group of high schools separated ninth graders into different math classes, including remedial courses for low-achievers. The other group placed most ninth graders in Algebra I.

The study found that the rate of improvement on math tests for high-achievers slowed in those schools that previously placed students into different classes based on ability level.

“When eliminating remedial math classes, schools are likely to put lower-performing students in algebra classes together with high-performing students,” says the study, authored by Takako Nomi of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Thus, peer skill levels declined for high-skill students.”

She suggests that what may be happening is that teachers are adjusting instruction to the “middle students” in a classroom, and so the declines in peer ability levels could result in “less-challenging content and slower-paced instruction.”

The switch to mixed-ability algebra classes wasn’t accompanied by training for  teachers or extra help for low achievers, Nomi points out, suggesting that might have helped.

Algebra-for-all didn’t help low achievers either, Nomi’s earlier research found.

. . . although more low-achieving students completed 9th grade with credits in Algebra I and English I, failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to enter college.

Placing struggling urban middle schoolers into algebra, not only fails to improve their achievement on state math tests, but also reduces the likelihood that they will take and pass higher-level math courses in high school,” adds Ed Week, citing recent studies in California and North Carolina.

New GED will test college readiness

The GED exam will add a college-readiness section that could help students avoid remedial community college classes.

Also: How to pick a community college.

STEM magnet goes remedial

Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was created to provide a demanding curriculum for high-aptitude students bound for “productive lives as scientists, engineers and mathematicians,” writes John Dell, a long-time physics teacher, in the Washington Post. The new Jefferson admits remedial math students.

Above all, what made Jefferson special was the extraordinary learning environment created by assembling a critical mass of truly prepared students.

. . . At the new Jefferson, students are no longer selected primarily on the basis of their promise in science, technology and mathematics. One-third of the students entering Jefferson under the current admissions policy are in remediation in their math and science courses.

Some of the most promising middle school math students are passed over for admission, Dell writes.

. . . Jefferson students are now selected using an admissions process that is highly random, subjective, and devoid of measures that distinguish students with high aptitude in STEM. This process that is more about memory, language skill, motivation to be successful in college admissions, test prep and just plain luck than the best available indicators of promise as a future scientist, engineer or mathematician.

Dell doesn’t name the “other agendas” that have replaced Jefferson’s original mission. However, the school’s demographics — mostly Asian, very few blacks and Latinos and predominantly male — have been criticized for years, reports the Post. “The school system tinkered with the admissions process several years ago in an effort to create a student body that more closely reflected the county’s entire population,” but the school remains heavily Asian and white and the gender gap is widening.

Is remedial ed necessary?

Connecticut colleges would stop requiring unprepared students to take remedial courses by 2014, under proposed legislation. All students could take college-level classes with “embedded” remedial support.

Remedial courses are holding students back instead of helping, said participants in a Georgia conference.

Colleges place too many on remedial track

Using unreliable placement tests, community colleges place tens of thousands of  students in remedial classes they don’t need, lowering their odds for success.

Placing poorly prepared students in “learning communities” that share classes and instructors has little long-term benefit, concludes a study at six community colleges.

Community college or adult ed?

Some 60 percent of new community college students aren’t ready for college-level classes. Those placed in basic math or reading rarely make it out of the remedial sequence, much less to a degree. Do they belong in college?

Can differentiation work?

With the demise of tracking, teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction,” tailoring instruction to advanced, average and struggling students in the same class.  It’s not easy, writes Mike Petrilli in Ed Next.

The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level.

Holly Hertberg-Davis, also at UVA worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction which included teacher training and ongoing coaching. 

 Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

Petrilli visits Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park, Maryland, a  high-achieving school with a very diverse student body.  How does differentiation work?

First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!)  . . .

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school’s 3rd-grade math classes, for example, is tackling the district’s 5th-grade math curriculum. . . .

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

. . . All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

The school also offers the “highly gifted” curriculum for very bright students in the same class with students who are working at grade level. Completely integrating the gifted class didn’t work. The performance spread was too wide.

What Piney Branch calls “differentiated instruction” looks a lot to me like fluid ability grouping for academic subjects.  Teachers, how does differentiation work in your school?  

Differentiated instruction is a fad with no basis in research, argued Mike Schmoker in Education Week.  

When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in  a letter.

But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?

Personalizing online learning

On Community College Spotlight: Inspired by Facebook, the University of Phoenix is working on a platform that would personalize online learning.

K12, which specializes in online learning for K-12 students, and Blackboard, which makes course-management software, will partner to sell online remedial courseware to community colleges.