Red ink

When a former student was starting her first job as a teacher, Jessica Lahey gave her a fountain pen and bottles of red ink.

She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.

Lahey asked around and discovered bans on red-ink corrections are common — and despised.

From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”

. . . From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”

. . . From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’”

And again, from that same professor: “Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.”

She found research by Abram Rutchick, a Cal State Northridge psychology professor, showing that people identify more errors and give lower grades when using a red pen, compared to those using a blue pen. NPR asked the professor what color pen he uses to grade papers. “I used a red pen, actually,” Rutchick said. “I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.”

Yet Lahey is switching to green ink this year. “I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable,” she writes.  She hopes students will accept feedback more readily in a color that doesn’t say, “You messed up.”

Or her students will come to fear green ink.

‘Special’ kids

Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special? asks Erika Christakis, a Harvard staffer, in Time.  Before the everyone’s-special era, “there was a tendency to view children not as unique individuals but as a monolithic category of people to be managed, controlled, and often ignored,” she writes. Many kids were “abandoned, emotionally and academically.”

Take learning disabilities. Before each child became “special,” a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag. That’s easy to forget when people decry the coddling-and-cosseting trend.

Similarly, girls, children of color, gay teens, children with physical disabilities, even kids with allergies or unique religious and cultural attributes have all benefited from the chance to feel “special” and as worthy as any child of protection and respect.

I don’t know. As a baby boomer, I thought my parents believed I was special just for being me. I had to prove myself to the rest of the world. On the other hand, schools — and the culture at large — is much more supportive of kids who are different in a variety of ways.

Praise is out

Schools are rejecting self-esteem boosting, reports the Washington Post. It turns out that pumping up students’ self-esteem through easy, unearned praise doesn’t improve their achievement.

As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

. . . children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

Brain imaging shows “connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills.”  Montgomery County (Maryland) schools now teach children that they’re developing their brains when they struggle to learn something new. Teachers also try to provide specific feedback on how students can improve instead of a vague “Good job!”

Praise should be used to encourage students to take risks and learn from failure, Dweck said. “Does the teacher say: ‘Who’s having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.’ That is something that should be rewarded.”


‘You can do anything’

Saturday Night Live celebrates the self-esteem of the YouTube generation in this skit.

Self-esteem is making your kids weak and dumb, warns Gawker.

Judge tells ‘spoiled kids’ to respect administrators

“Spoiled and coddled” students with “excessive self-esteem” should “learn to roll with the punches” when faced with offensive political or religious messages, said Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago in a recent speech, reports Ed Week‘s School Law Blog. Courts should defer more to school administrators’ judgment, Posner told the national conference of the Education Law Association.

Some school litigation is caused by “hypersensitive” students with “aggressive” parents, the judge said.

“It seems to me you have to take a certain amount of buffeting to live in society,” said Posner, who recounted that in the early 1960s he took the bar exam in a room at Fordham University, a Roman Catholic institution in New York City, where he was greeted by a large crucifix.It was a “sad-looking Jesus Christ,” said Posner, a graduate of Harvard Law School. “What do you expect? It’s a crucifixion. He’s looking down on us balefully. I’m not religious. Some people would be offended: ‘This is a secular activity, what are they doing confronting us with this?’ I think people should roll with those particular punches.”

However, Posner ruled against school administrators who banned high school students from wearing  T-shirts that said “Be Happy, Not Gay.”

“First of all, these are high school seniors,” Posner said in his speech last week. “Since they have to form political opinions, they ought to be exposed to diversity of thought. … I think it is problematic for schools to try to suppress criticism of homosexuality.”

Also, school administrators’ arguments that the “Be Happy” shirts were a form of bullying were not backed by any hard evidence, the judge said.

On the flip side, the judge ruled against a group of gifted 8th graders at a Chicago magnet school who wanted to wear T-shirts calling their classmates “tards,” short for “retards.”

In his speech, Posner called for “a high standard for (free-speech) suits by schoolchildren against schools.”



Why so many hyperactive kids?

Nine percent of school-age children in America have attention deficit disorder, according to a health professional.   Why so many? Pediatrician Lawrence Diller blames a growing willingness to medicalize childhood misbehavior.  Uncertain about discipline and worried too much about self-esteem, parents turn to professionals, who are quick to prescribe drugs for what may be “minor differences in children’s behavior or performance.”

Children are under more stress at school, Diller adds.

. . . more than 20 years ago kindergartners only had to sing the ABCs and play “ring around the rosie.” Now, they are expected to read and do simple math before the start of first grade.

When both parents are working, children spend a long day trying to meet the “behavioral demands” of structured preschool and  after-school programs, he writes. “Parents are tired, too, when they finally get their kids at the end of the day.”

Via I Speak of Dreams.

Most students think they're above average

College students are more confident about their intellectual and social skills than in the past, according to a UCLA  survey of first-year students. They’re overconfident, San Diego State Psychology Professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, tells AP.

A larger percentage of incoming college freshmen rated themselves as “above average’’ in several categories compared with college freshmen surveyed in the 1960s, observes Twenge’s study, which is published in Self and Identity, a British journal.

When it came to social self-confidence, about half of freshmen questioned in 2009 said they were above average, compared with fewer than a third in 1966. Meanwhile, 60 percent in 2009 rated their intellectual self-confidence as above average, compared with 39 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was given.

In the study, the authors also assert that intellectual confidence may have been bolstered by grade inflation, noting that in 1966, only 19 percent of college students who were surveyed earned an A or A-minus average in high school, compared with 48 percent in 2009.

“So students might be more likely to think they’re superior because they have been given better grades,’’ Twenge says.

Others see little change in young people over the years or argue that increased confidence can be a positive.

Trophy kids in therapy

Parents who protect their children from frustration and disappointment, who turn every failure into “good try!” and every routine task into “great job!,” who devote themselves to making their children happy all the time are raising empty, confused, anxious, unhappy young adults who can’t deal with the normal frustrations of life, writes therapist Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic.

Patients in their 20s or early 30s  report depression, anxiety,  difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, poor relationships, a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose — and loving, caring, endlessly supportive parents who are “my best friends in the whole world” and “always there for me.”

Since the 1980s, self-esteem has risen in tandem with rates of anxiety and depression, says Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic and professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

“Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are.”

. . . In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. . . . They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right—they don’t.”

Instead of learning to face frustration at the age if six, when a better soccer team wins the game, overprotected kids face it for the first time in college, says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. And that’s only if Mom and Dad don’t swoop in to save the day.

Parents refuse to believe their children might be average, Mogel says. “Every child is either learning-disabled, gifted, or both.” Parents prefer a learning-disability diagnosis to the possibility their child just isn’t all that smart. “They believe that ‘average’ is bad for self-esteem.” (A friend who was a school psychologist in an affluent suburb told me the exact same thing.)

Self-esteem doesn’t predict happiness, writes Gottlieb, “especially if the self-esteem comes from constant accommodation and praise rather than earned accomplishment.” Perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing are better predictors of fulfillment and success.

It makes me feel thankful I wasn’t that nice to my kid. Her father and I made a habit of singing “You can’t always get what you want” to her when she confused her desires with reality.

Wristbands for all?

Wristbands for students who scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the state exam, plus an invitation to a barbecue, spurred a parent protest at Thorner Elementary School in Bakersfield, California.

“It’s good to recognize kids, but they’re humiliating the kids who didn’t do well,” (parent Charlie) Pike said.

This, he said, was unfair to students who traditionally score lower on standardized tests and might not reach proficiency no matter how hard they try — mainstreamed special education students, for example.

After Pike complained, the school included all students in the barbecue, which featured hot dogs and chips. But the debate continues, reports the Bakersfield Californian.

. . .  parents, teachers, administrators and testing experts say schools must be careful when rewarding students on how they do on state tests. It’s more important to reward student gains, or the student body as a whole, than subgroups, they say.

Proficiency can be “an unfair target” for some students, said Morgan Polikoff, a University of Southern California professor.

About 60 percent of Thorner Elementary students scored proficient or better in English last school year, 67 percent in math, and 40 percent in science. That’s significantly higher than the local average in English and math.

Phillip Brown of the California Teachers Association, said it’s a mistake to reward students based on test scores.

“It’s a very positive thing to recognize kids for their achievements,” Brown said. “But you recognize them as a group for working together and working hard. Recognition needs to be where it enhances and brings everybody in at the same time.”

Students can be recognized for achievement only as a group? Just like teachers.

Recognizing students who make significant progress, along with those who’ve achieved proficiency, would make sense.  But the idea that it’s unfair to honor  achievers . . .

Short-term mentors don’t help kids

Mentors can help students’ succeed — or harm their chances, reports Education Week. Long-term mentoring relationships benefit children. Students with short-term mentors — less than six months — do worse than those with no mentor at all, concludes David L. DuBois, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher and a co-author of a study in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report.

“You could actually see studies where the youth in the treated group end up showing more negative change to things like self-esteem, propensity to get involved in risky behavior” than the control group, Mr. DuBois said in a panel on the studies earlier this month. “So obviously, it’s a handle-with-care intervention.”

Low-performing schools often try to recruit volunteers to serve as mentors. Federal funding for school-based programs peaked at more than $100 million in 2006. But most school-based programs don’t create lasting mentor-student relationships. In three studies, researchers found the mentor-student relationship averaged less than six months.

. . . The Social Policy Report meta-analysis found school mentoring programs improved students’ sense of academic efficacy, the level of peer support they had, and relationships with adults outside the family, while reducing truancy and school misconduct, provided the students remained in the program for a year. Still, the researchers noted that the results suggested those improvements could be lost if the students’ mentoring did not continue.

Most school-based mentoring programs last a semester or an academic year and include only campus activities. But  “41 percent of students in the Big Brothers Big Sisters study continued to meet with their mentor, both in school and out, into a second year.” The “bigs” spent more time with their ”littles” and developed a closer bond.

I just volunteered to be tutor two elementary students in reading. Since I travel quite a bit, I enlisted my sister to fill in when I’m out of town. I don’t want the kids thinking they’ve been forgotten. Of course, Peggy and I no longer pass for identical twins.