A ‘culture of chaos’

Two weeks after a 17-year-old fractured the skull of Bartram High’s “conflict resolution specialist,” Philadelphia school officials sent a team to assess the troubled school, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Violence is “the new normal,” said a teacher.

A brawl erupted in the school cafeteria, students set off firecrackers and the 17-year-old who assaulted the staffer was seen at school for two days.

Administrators don’t remove problem students, say teachers. That’s created a “culture of chaos and disregard for authority.”

The cafeteria melee was captured by a cellphone camera and posted on social media.

. . . dozens gathered, with several students exchanging punches. A male school police officer attempts to separate the combatants as the room fills with screams.

In short order, a larger brawl erupts, mostly between female students. A female police officer attempts to break up one skirmish, then others. At one point in the video, that officer appears to fall to the floor.

“We have to go beyond police officers,” said Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get these young people to care for others.”

“The administration has begun attempting to crack down on students who come late to school, and those who ditch class or use cellphones, but many students, accustomed to having wide latitude in the building, aren’t taking the adults seriously,” reports the Inquirer

I’m sure many students at Bartram High would prefer a safe, orderly school where they can learn. But nobody can learn — or teach — in a “culture of chaos.”

Students at high-poverty high schools receive “an average of half an hour less instruction per day than their higher-income peers” due to disruptions and “poverty-related challenges,” according to a new study, reports Education Week.

Why people love to talk about themselves

“Talking about ourselves . . . triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

“Forty percent of everyday speech is devoted to telling others about what we feel or think, say researchers. That’s because it feels so great.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir.

In several tests, they offered the volunteers money if they chose to answer questions about other people, such as President Obama, rather than about themselves, paying out on a sliding scale of up to four cents. Questions involved casual matters such as whether someone enjoyed snowboarding or liked mushrooms on a pizza. Other queries involved personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity or aggression.

Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information.

Via Roger Sweeny, who wonders “if this is one reason why teaching, even with all the crap, can be so pleasurable, even addictive. If you talk about what you know and care about, you are in a certain sense talking about yourself — and the more personal your teaching, the more true that is.”

Smart and not-so-smart college majors

Statistic Brain’s IQ Estimates by College Major put education majors — including elementary, early childhood and special education — at the bottom. Student counseling also comes low on the list.

Physics and astronomy, philosophy and math top the list.

IQ is estimated by looking at SAT scores. So, for example, the average elementary education major has SATs of 968 and an estimated IQ of 108. The average physicist hits 1269 and 133. And I’m a genius. Which I’m not.

Emotional intelligence may be more valuable than “academic intelligence” in some fields, points out The Richest.

Physicists — and painters — score well on Pantheon‘s list of “cultural production.” Politicians are even more influential.

Core English in action

At a Florida middle school, the Common Core doesn’t just mean new standards, educators believe. It calls for”a package of teaching techniques – such as students working in small and large groups,” writes John O’Connor on the Hechinger Report.

Dawn Norris plans lessons for her sixth graders, but has given up some control. “It’s up to students to question, challenge and prod each other toward the goal written on the classroom whiteboard.”
A classroom chart explaining the differences between claims, claim evidence and commentary. Hillsborough County schools are teaching the Three Cs as the building blocks of student writing. (Photo: John O'Connor)
Norris breaks the students into groups to write about how different cultures tell the same fairy story.

Two girls discuss Chinye, a West African version of Cinderella.

“And that’s your claim, which is your topic sentence,” one boy tells another. “This is your thesis, the central claim.”

“Supporting ideas with evidence from a text is a central pillar of the Common Core language arts standards,” writes O’Connor.

“In Christina Phillips’ sixth-grade classroom, students learn about the “three C’s – claim, claim evidence and commentary.”

“This pig made his house of bricks,” reads Phillips. “Is that factual evidence from the text? Or is that my opinion?”

“That’s evidence!” a student says.

ClassDojo: Teachers disagree

ClassDojo is free software that makes it easy for teachers to award positive or negative points for students’ behavior, track the data and show reports to parents and administrators.

Larry Cuban looks at why some teachers use it and others don’t, analyzing the perspectives of two teachers in British Columbia.

Karen, the first-grade teacher, said the tool would undercut her goals of getting six year-olds to manage their impulses. She wrote:

1. Class Dojo reinforces external rewards. They may work in the short run but fail over time to get students to regulate their behavior.
2. One-click assessments of children’s behavior miss the complexity of individual students and why they do what they do.

3. It is “humiliating” to display publicly those students who get minus points; shame doesn’t help students learn.

Erin, another primary-grade teacher, worried that ClassDojo depended on points, rewards and punishments rather than intrinsic rewards. But when she tried the software, she found it goes “beyond extrinsic rewards.”

. . . ClassDojo helped students state and track their expectations in reading and writing. In addition, the software tool collected and displayed information that helped the teaching assistant monitor special-needs students’ behavior in the class as well as the overall group’s behavior.

Other teachers have written about ClassDojo  herehere and here.

Cuban interviewed Mayrin Bunyagidj, a first-grade teacher at a Menlo Park (CA) private school. She has 16 students in her class.

Because the school focuses on building character–the “Code of the Heart” (e.g., being caring, ready to work, respectful, and responsible) she showed me on her Smart Board how she uses the software to reinforce “positive” student behaviors daily and connect those behaviors to “Code of the Heart.” With this tool, she no longer “nags students.”

When I asked her whether using rewards (e.g., sitting at the teacher’s desk, winning tickets for a weekly lottery to get bracelets and other school gifts) kills intrinsic motivation, she quickly replied that it has the “opposite effect.”  Children want to improve, she said. They work hard to do better, not for the rewards but because they want to. Mayrin suggested that ClassDojo helped her bridge the ideological differences between using extrinsic and intrinsic rewards in motivating students.

Teachers can use points and rewards — or names on the chalkboard — to help children internalize what they “ought to do,” concludes Cuban. Socialization is a “primary function” of tax-supported public schools.

Together but unequal

Some kids are ready to learn algebra, others haven’t figured out fractions and Johnny can’t add 2 + 2 and get 4. Their teacher is supposed to “differentiate instruction” for students at different levels in the same class. Get smart, writes the Math Curmudgeon. Differentiate by grouping students of similar readiness and ability in the same class.

If one-half of the room is “ready” for what you want to do and the other half is not, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap.

If the “simple” start for one group is too complex for the other, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap.

If “what is known” is too different, differentiation is futile. Those who start out ahead are held back and those who start behind are constantly trying to keep up, repeatedly reminded that “Masahiro and his friends” are the smart ones and that there is no point to trying to learn; one can only cling by the fingertips and hope for partial credit.

If the readiness gap is too wide, “algebra” will be two separate, simultaneous classes learning different things — and neither learning as much as possible, concludes the Curmudgeon. Or it might be three classes.

Getting started with core standards

Fordham’s Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers examines how school leaders and teachers are implementing new standards “in a high-performing suburb, a trailblazer, an urban bellwether, and a creative implementer.”

“In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own, the report finds.

Delivering quality CCSS-aligned professional development also is “crucial” and “patchy.”

Core-aligned tests aren’t ready either. 

Seventy-three percent of teachers in Common Core states say they’re enthusiastic about the new standards, but think implementation will be challenging, according to a survey by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation.

Many teachers say they need more training and resources, especially for low-achieving students.

Fifty-seven percent of teachers believe the new standards will be positive for most students; only 8 percent predict a negative impact.

New standards are tough on special-need kids

Teachers are supposed to enable all students — including those with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” — to “access” the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, writes Katharine Beals in The Atlantic. How?

Beals teaches special education teachers at Drexel and Penn education schools. Most have been told that all their students must be given grade-level assignments, regardless of their abilities.

Common Core tells schools to offer “support services, individualized instruction, and assistive technology,” but don’t “state what these services are or how they would work,” writes Beals. Curricular materials may be altered or presented “in multiple ways,” but only “within the framework of the Common Core.”

One eighth-grade English language arts standard:

 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Using a simplified or alternative text at the student’s reading level appears to violate the requirement for “grade-appropriate level of verbal complexity,” writes Beals. A teacher might add glossaries and storyboards, but not provide a readable text. 

A sample task is provided: 

Students summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, setting, and plot.

Beals imagines a 14-year-old who comprehends language at a fourth-grade level. No technology or storyboards could provide “access to how accountability and authenticity play out in the complex paragraphs of Tom Sawyer.” Take the sentence describing Tom taking a beating from the schoolmaster for an infraction committed by Becky Thatcher:

“Inspired by the splendor of his own act, he took without an outcry the most merciless flaying that even Mr. Dobbins had ever administered; and also received with indifference the added cruelty of a command to remain two hours after school should be dismissed—for he knew who would wait for him outside till his captivity was done, and not count the tedious time as loss, either.”

What, short of simplifying the text or spoon-feeding its meaning to her, will it take for our language-impaired 14-year-old to grasp this 67-word sentence, with its complex syntax, words like “flaying,” “indifference,” and an outdated sense of “should,” and the inference needed to grasp the contextual meaning of “captivity”?

And just wait till she gets to Shakespeare.

Another eighth-grade reading goal, R-L 8.3:

Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Students with autism struggle to understand character and motivation and to draw inferences from dialogue, Beals writes. In a journal article for special-ed teachers, Stephen, an eighth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome (mild autism), doesn’t understand a text in which a bullied and ostracized boy quits going to school.

How, the authors ask, can Stephen’s teacher help him meet R-L 8.3? By creating a comic strip that shows the characters’ thoughts, including a thought bubble for Matt that reads “I am a loser. Everyone hates me. I am never going back to school!”
In other words, the teacher can help Stephen meet the standard by giving away the answer!

Six percent of students have significant cognitive disabilities, writes Beals. “Forcing all students into the same, age-pegged standards deprives atypical students of optimized learning opportunities and attainable goals” and lowers their achievement.

How do you teach grit?

Nobody really knows how to teach “grit,” says Penn researcher Angela Duckworth in a Scholastic interview.  “How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set?”

Duckworth’s nonprofit, Character Lab, is “organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics” and is  helping put together a MOOC for teachers.

Duckworth chose “grit” over pluck, tenacity, persistence and perseverance as the best word to describe the non-cognitive skills that lead to success.

‘Core-aligned’ math books are a ‘sham’

It’s a “sham” to say new math textbooks are “aligned to Common Core standards, says William Schmidt, co-director of Michigan State’s Education Policy Center. After analyzing more than 40 textbooks being used by 60 to 70 percent of students, Schmidt found 800-page behemoths  stuffed with material that isn’t in the standards.

“Core-aligned” math books “do not look that different from the previous versions,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate education professor at USC. Polikoff analyzed three “Common-Core aligned” fourth-grade math textbooks adopted in Florida and one commonly used textbook that is not aligned to any particular standards.

He found that 15 to 20 percent of textbooks cover topics outside the Common Core standards, while 10 to 15 percent of the standards are not reflected in the texts.

What is missing? Questions and problems that get to the higher levels of cognitive demand, he said.

Teachers will need to beware, said Polikoff. “If they follow the book they will not be teaching the Common Core.”