Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good – if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

Mother-child language researcher dies

Betty Hart, whose research showed the importance of mother-child communication in the early years, has died at 85 in Tucson, reports the New York Times.

“Rather than concede to the unmalleable forces of heredity, we decided that we would undertake research that would allow us to understand the disparate developmental trajectories we saw,” she and her former graduate supervisor, Todd R. Risley, wrote in 1995 in “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” a book about their findings, which were reported in 1992.

. . . “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” Drs. Hart and Risley wrote.

“By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family,” they added.

Educated mothers were much more likely to use an encouraging, warm tone with young children,  while welfare mothers were more likely to reprimand their children.

The Hart-Risley research has been very influential, yet I think we could do more to help poorly educated mothers improve their parenting styles. Early childhood education funding should be focused on very disadvantaged children who need social and emotional support and exposure to language.

Graduates, ‘you are not special’

“You are not special,” English teacher David McCullough Jr. told graduates of Wellesley High School in a commencement speech that’s gone viral on YouTube.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

. . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.

. . . your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe.  In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.

. . . You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.

It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 (high schools) nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.

. . . If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

McCullough concludes by urging graduates to “be worthy of your advantages” and “read all the time.”

Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. 

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Here’s the video. He gets warmed up about three minutes in.

The birth of a word

MIT researcher Deb Roy analyzed 90,000 hours of home video to catch his infant son’s “gaaaa”  turn into “water.”

Slate has more on linguists using their children as experimental subjects.

Kids, you’re doomed to failure

President Obama’s back-to-school speech contained blatant lies, writes Ann Althouse, who objects to telling kids that “nobody gets to write your destiny but you,” and that “nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard.”

If you believe that, you are so dumb that your chances of controlling your own destiny are especially small. But it’s absurd to tell kids that if only they dream big, work hard, and get an education, they can have anything they want. Do you know what kind of dream job kids today have? A recent Marist poll showed that 32% would like to be an actor/actress. 29% want to be a professional athlete. 13% want to be President of the United States. That’s not going to happen.

Even young people with more modest dreams — like getting a decent law job after getting good grades at an excellent law school — are not getting what they want.

Obama doesn’t really believe this or “he’d be all about reducing the role of government and unleashing private enterprise,” Althouse writes. He doesn’t look at a poor person and “his life is what he made it.”

OK, it’s hyperbole to say you can do absolutely anything if you put your mind to it and you can all grow up to be Lady Gaga. (This is my only pop culture reference.) But people who think they can control their destiny do a lot better in life than people who think that what they do doesn’t make a difference. A sense of self-efficacy is very powerful. If you think hard work will improve your life, you’ll work harder and improve your life.

Obama to students: Work hard

“Your life is what you make it,” President Obama will tell students at a Philadelphia magnet school in a back-to-school speech that will be broadcast nationwide.

And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.

. . .  here’s your job. Showing up to school on time. Paying attention in class. Doing your homework. Studying for exams. Staying out of trouble. That kind of discipline and drive – that kind of hard work – is absolutely essential for success.

Obama will confess that he was a slacker in high school, till his mother told him to get his act together.

You see, excelling in school or in life isn’t mainly about being smarter than everybody else. It’s about working harder than everybody else. Don’t avoid new challenges – seek them out, step out of your comfort zone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help; your teachers and family are there to guide you. Don’t feel discouraged or give up if you don’t succeed at something – try it again, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t feel threatened if your friends are doing well; be proud of them, and see what lessons you can draw from what they’re doing right.

Obama will promise to speak at the commencement of a high school that shows “how teachers, students, and parents are working together to prepare your kids for college and a career.”

The speech ends with a call to show respect for classmates and avoid bullying.

President Obama chose to speak at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration school, a high-scoring school for fifth- through 12-graders that primarily serves middle-class students. Masterman requires “high PSSA scores, excellent grades, and good behavior” for admission, according to the Inquirer.

Mr. President, don’t interrupt class time

President Obama will speak to students on Sept. 14, which is the second, third or fourth week of school for most students. Don’t interrupt school time, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.

Every study I have seen of how to raise achievement for students, particularly in low-performing urban and rural schools, indicates that two factors are essential — better teachers and more time for them to teach. It is difficult for regular public schools to follow the most effective charter schools in adding two or three hours to the school day, but they could at least use the six and a half hours they have each day as effectively as possible. The president’s choice of speaking time suggests he doesn’t think such efforts are very important.

Unless a class is studying rhetoric or politics or some other relevant topic, watching the speech is a waste of precious time, Mathews writes.

Don’t expect much controversy, writes Neal McCluskey on Cato@Liberty.  The White House won’t release lesson plans unless they’ve been focus-grouped for complete banality. But the benefits of telling students to work hard and stay in school aren’t worth the down side of an “inevitably politicized, time-grabbing” speech.