College prep in 1st grade

First graders wear hats with the name of their first-choice college. Credit: Travis Dove for The New York Times

Is Your First Grader College Ready? asks Laura Pappano in the New York Times.

At a rural North Carolina school, Kelli Rigo’s first graders choose colleges and careers, then write applications.

(A) future Harvard applicant wants to be a doctor. She can’t wait to get to Cambridge because “my mom never lets me go anywhere.”

. . . “The age-old question is: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ You always ask kids that,” Ms. Rigo said. “We need to ask them, ‘How will you get there?’ Even if I am teaching preschool, the word ‘college’ has to be in there.”

Rigo was the first — and only — person in her family to complete college.

It took eight years at three institutions in two states. “I was lost,” said Ms. Rigo, who dropped out first semester, aghast to discover textbooks cost $600. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to about that.”

. . . She wants students to know what she did not: the effort, cost and planning required to earn a degree. “They have to understand there are lots of steps, that you can’t all of a sudden be a teacher.”

Across the country, “college weeks” are as common as the winter band concert, writes Pappano. Campus tours have become popular field trips for middle and even elementary school kids.

College can help you achieve your dreams, Javier Scott, a University of Maryland student told visiting sixth graders. “When you work hard, more opportunities will open up to you.”

However, the story veers to anxious college-educated parents prepping their tweens for elite colleges. Pappano worries that our “competitive culture . . . has turned wide-open years of childhood into a checklist of readiness skills.”

That’s not an issue for Rigo’s first graders. Getting kids whose parents aren’t college educated to think about where they might go, what they might study and how they might use it to make a living is not the same as pressuring Muffy to build her “resume.”

Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

Can schools build character?

“Performance character” strengths — qualities such as prudence and drive — lead to success in school and work, concludes a Brookings study, The Character Factor.

“Family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths,” the study concludes. That is, the children of educated, middle-class mothers tend to be better at deferring gratification, working toward a long-term goal and persisting in the face of obstacles.

Brookings has posted essays on character and opportunity, such as Ross Thompson on how chronic adversity leads to self-regulatory problems.

Brookings researchers want policymakers to pay attention to the “cultivation” of character skills, notes Robert Pondiscio. What does that mean? “Character value-added measures?”

A figure in the report is headlined “Drive and Prudence Matter as Much as Book Smarts for HS Graduation” (“Book Smarts?” Seriously, Brookings?), but the bar graph clearly shows “high reading skills” matter a lot more.

“Schools need no additional reasons to short-shrift academics,” Pondiscio writes. Telling “fad-prone” educators that grit trumps academics “wouldn’t be prudent.”

Teens are busy, stressed, exhausted

Too much schoolwork leaves teenagers stressed and exhausted writes Vicki Abeles in USA Today.

Since school started this month, my 15-year-old son, Zak, has been having trouble sleeping. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night, worrying if he’s finished everything on his to-do list.

Compared to many students in our San Francisco neighborhood, Zak has a “light” schedule. He goes to school, participates in jazz band and does his homework. By design, he’s not the classically overscheduled child.

And yet, Zak’s daily routine of school-band-homework still manages to eat up most of his day. When Saturday finally rolls around, he’s not the carefree teen I wish he could be. Instead, he’s anxious, calculating whether he has enough time to get together with friends in between weekend assignments.

Her anti-stress documentary, Race to Nowhere, which debuted five years ago, is airing on public television this week. Abeles is launching a social media campaign called Ban Busy.

Some high school students work very hard to get into selective colleges, which now require lots of AP courses and extracurriculars. What percentage of teens are on the high-stress track?

Rethinking stress at test time

It’s hard to avoid stress at test time, but students do better if they think of stress as a sign they’re ready for a challenge.

What leads to college success

Asking students “about how they organize their time, what they value in a college degree, and how they cope with stress, challenges and financial or family pressures” could enable community colleges to help students develop the behaviors that lead to success.

Exam stress is higher overseas

U.S. students take lots of tests, but exam stakes are higher overseas, reports NPR.

In England, 16-year-olds take “15 or 20 substantial examinations” as part of a test deciding whether they’ll finish high school, says Dylan Wiliam, a professor emeritus of educational assessment at the University of London.

For those who do well and go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

“And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you’re offered places at,” Wiliam says.

Grades don’t matter. It’s all about the tests.

Finland has no standardized exams — until the end of high school, when students spend 40 hours taking a half-dozen daylong exams. Students know their futures depend on doing well on the exam, says Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Japanese students have to take entrance exams to get into an academic high school.

 “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

Japanese (and Finnish) universities also give their own entrance exams.

Around the world, except for the U.S., high school grades, teachers’ recommendations, extracurriculars and essays don’t determine college admissions, says Wiliam. “Basically, it’s how well you do on those exams.”

Mommy and Daddy are tired

Modern middle-class parenting is All Joy and No Fun writes Jennifer Senior. Deeply invested in their children’s happiness and success, parents invest less energy in their marriages.

The book is No Ode to Joy, notes Abby W. Schachter in Commentary Magazine.

I am not a great believer in our style of parenting,” Jerry Seinfeld said recently. “What I mean is our generation…I just think we’re too into it…The bedtime routine for my kids is like this royal coronation, jubilee centennial of rinsing and plaque and dental appliances and a stuffed animal semi-circle of emotional support.”

Senior offers portraits of mothers and fathers trying to figure out what skills, sports, classes, and aptitudes would be best for future success, even as they acknowledge the economy is so complex and confusing that it is nearly impossible to have a guaranteed path. They are exhausted by all the effort, the driving and the scheduling, but not one seems willing to push their kids out the front door and let them figure it out for themselves.

“Almost all middle-class parents” believe  that “whatever they are doing is for the child’s sake, and the child’s alone,” Senior writes. “Parents no longer raise children for the family’s sake or that of the broader world.”

These “exhausted parents” are raising ” children who are less independent, less resilient, and more disrespectful,” Schachter writes. And they’re putting their own marriages at risk — if they’re married at all.

Beware of parenting advice

new parenting study shows that “if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit,” reports The New Yorker.

Susan Waterson, a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Massachusetts, interviewed 127 families about “articles that begin with a wryly affectionate parenting anecdote, segue into a dry cataloguing of sociological research enlivened with alternately sarcastic and tender asides, and end with another wryly affectionate anecdote that aims to add a touch of irony or, failing at that, sentimentality.”

Paul Nickman, 45, was taking a coffee break at his Visalia, California, law office when he began to leaf through an article about the importance of giving kids real challenges. “They mentioned this thing called grit, and I was like, ‘O.K, great. Grit.’

Then I started to think about how, last year, I’d read that parents were making kids do too much and strive too hard, and ever since then we’ve basically been letting our kids, who are 10 and 6, sit around and stare into space.”

Nickman called his wife and started to shout, “Make the kids go outside and get them to build a giant wall out of dirt and lawn furniture and frozen peas!” He added, “Get them to scale it, and then make them go to the town zoning board to get it permitted, but don’t let them know it was your idea!”

He was discovered some time later standing in a fountain outside a European Waxing Center, rending his clothes.

Every style of parenting produces miserable adults, reports The Onion. “Despite great variance in parenting styles across populations, the end product is always the same: a profoundly flawed and joyless human being,” reported the California Parenting Institute. “The study did find, however, that adults often achieve temporary happiness when they have children of their own to perpetuate the cycle of human misery.”

Choosing death at 15

At a suburban Virginia high school six students have committed suicide in the last three years, reports the Washington Post.

“There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family,” wrote Jack Chen, 15. He’d earned a 4.3 grade point average, captained the junior varsity football team and competed in crew and track. He stepped in front of a train.

The six boys who killed themselves were good students and athletes with supportive parents, according to the Post. They did not appear to be “troubled.”