Same schools for all?

Upper-middle-class parents aren’t rallying to reform the schools, writes Lewis Andrews in The American Spectator.  Affluent parents are getting the schools they want, responds Mike Petrilli.  The question is whether they’ll support reforms to help other peoples’ children. If those reforms — think test-based accountability — hurt their own children’s schools, they’ll resist, he argues.

Some high-spending districts get mediocre results, Andrews writes.

Affluent parents, confident their own children will do well academically, may not care about rigor, writes Petrilli.

 . . . I bet that many upper-middle class parents want to reach for something more: Emotional, spiritual, and physical growth, especially. And thus the frills that Lewis derides (like all manner of extra-curricular activities and “specials”) become quite important. And as for the test scores–well, who cares if they are really, really high or just really high?

Low-income and working-class parents have different priorities, Petrilli writes. Their children need a different sort of school.

So am I saying that we should provide one kind of education for the rich and another kind for the poor? That affluent kids get to develop their bodies, minds, and spirits, while low-income children suffer through endless weeks of test-prep?

Not exactly. The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students’ development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress. These elements would be overkill in many affluent schools. One size does not fit all.

It’s useless to debate whether students have too much homework, he writes. Which students? The ones who go to “hothouse schools in upper-middle-class enclaves” may be working too hard, while low-income and working-class students may not be challenged at all.

The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn’t due to concerns that the law isn’t working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it’s helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make affluent public schools worse–or at least worse in the eyes of their customers. If a principal asks a beloved teacher to scrap her favorite unit on dinosaurs or poetry or jazz or whatever in order to make room for test-prep, you better believe the affluent parents are going to be mad. As well they should be. Mandating statewide, test-based teacher evaluations will only make the situation worse.

Smart policy would focus on troubled schools and offer “benign neglect” to those that are meeting students’ needs, Petrilli writes.

Lashing the anti-testing backlash

To protest curiousity-crushing test prep, Penn State Professor Timothy Slekar told his 11-year-old son to write “I prefer not to take your test” on the state exam.

He has been forced to complete worksheets in language arts and mathematics. He can alphabetize spelling words and find the main idea of a paragraph. He’s had practice in sequencing. He can round numbers. He can add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions and decimals. And he has mastered the scripted art of estimating (Who knew there were incorrect estimates?). He has had multiple PSSA practice tests and according to these tests my son is ready.

. . . But what has been lost during these past five months? He sits in social studies and science classes that have been shortened to allow more time for reading and math instruction. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to engage real children’s literature.

Inspired by Slekar, a Pennsylvania mother opted her sons out of testing, falsely claiming a religious objection.

But there’s a backlash against the anti-testing backlash. At Jezebel’s Learning Curves, Anna North argues that testing is necessary, especially for children whose parents lack the “time, education and English proficiency” to monitor their children’s learning and spot when they’re falling behind.

Standardized testing is rarely fun — and it could almost certainly be improved — but it’s not nearly as antithetical to real, deep learning as its detractors suggest. Learning how to study will serve kids well throughout life — and while stimulating curiosity is important, most adults are probably glad our curiosity was supplemented by requirements from time to time.

If well-educated parents scuttle standardized testing, their children are likely to learn critical reading and math skills, North argues. Other people’s children may not.

Like North, I see no problem in teaching Pennsylvania children to find the main idea in a paragraph, or to add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions and decimals, or to learn sequencing, rounding and estimating. Apparently, the school is teaching in a boring way and without integrating reading and math into history and science. But it is possible to teach reading comprehension and math skills without drudgery.

Standardized testing is not the devil,” writes Robert Pondiscio. “Test prep is the devil.” Time-wasting test prep is most likely to be a problem at high-poverty, low-performing schools, he adds.

At my South Bronx elementary school, we had a Teachers College consultant who encouraged us to ”teach tests as a genre of literature.”  But even that pales in comparison to a grad student of mine who was mandated to spend two hours per day on test prep from the first day of school.

Instead of boycotting the tests, parents should demand good teaching, Pondiscio writes.

. . . I would march into the school office the first day of school with the following bargain:  “I’m sure you agree the best test prep is great teaching and a robust curriculum, Ms. Principal.  So let’s keep our focus right there.  Don’t worry about spending my child’s time and your budget dollars on test prep materials. Because if they show up in our kids’ classrooms, we can promise our kids won’t be showing up for the test.”

Pro-testers think anti-testers are like parents who won’t vaccinate their children, suggests Alexander Russo.

Students recognize good teaching

Students’ assessments of their teachers tend to match value-added measures of effectiveness, concludes research funded by the Gates Foundation. From the New York Times: 

Teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their charges learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores . . . 

Researchers are looking for correlations between value-added rankings and other measures of teacher effectiveness, reports the Times.

Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores, the report said.

The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.”

“Kids know effective teaching when they experience it,” said researcher Ronald Ferguson, who designed the student questionnaires. “As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts.”

Twenty states are redesigning their systems for evaluating teachers, often asking the Gates Foundation for help in assessing effectiveness, Vicki L. Phillips, a director of education at the foundation, told the Times.

Teachers who spend a lot of time on test prep have lower value-added learning gains than those who “work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics,” Phillips said.

Family Tree

From Signe Wilkinson’s Family Tree.

Family Tree - November 30, 2010

What would Disney learn in school today?

Would we give (Disney) an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Short-sighted administrators reject “critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” as “fluff,” writes Colucci, who teaches gifted elementary students. Teachers are forced to spend time on mindless test prep instead.

Teaching reading and math basics to students who’ve already mastered the basics is a  waste of time, even if the only goal is boosting test scores. But I don’t think schools of any era have been set up to nurture geniuses.

Walt Disney developed his artistic talent by taking private art classes on Saturdays and in night school. He dropped out of high school to serve as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I.

Thomas Edison attended school only for a few months.

He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own.

. . . At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit.

As a 10-year-old boy, Albert Einstein read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Euclid’s Elements with a family friend. Einstein left high school early, complaining “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.” (Depending in which account you believe, he ran away or used a doctor’s note.) Unlike Disney and Edison, Einstein went on to study at a university.

It’s very hard for any conventional school to cater to the needs of a 10-year-old who is  turned on by Kant and Euclid. Geniuses have to make their own way.

Good schools only for the 'gifted'

I think Sara Mead is exactly right in The Real Problem with NY’s “Gifted” Tests for Kindergarteners on her Ed Week blog.

She links to a New York Times’ story on “how the city’s gifted assessment serves to lock in educational inequities between low-income children and middle-class and affluent families who can pay to prep their youngsters for the test.”

But the core issue here is NOT the use of test prep providers by middle class parents, the validity of the “gifted” designation for kindergarteners, or the developmental appropriateness of the tests used. The real problem is that New York City — and too many other places — use the “gifted” designation as a way to ration access to quality educational opportunities, and that kids who don’t win the “gifted” lottery too often don’t have access to good public schools that enable them to fulfill their potential.

What she said.

Extra study, higher scores

Eve Moskowitz — “Evil” Moskowitz to her many enemies –  is profiled in New York magazine. A former New York City councilwoman, she founded a high-scoring, all-minority charter school, Harlem Success Academy, which is expanding rapidly.

Harlem Success Academy’s first class of third-graders outperformed “all but seven of the city’s 788 elementary schools, including perennial high fliers like P.S. 6 and P.S. 321″ and “trounced every third grade in Mamaroneck, Chappaqua, and Rye.”

. . . in contrast to their drill-and-kill competition, Moskowitz says her teachers prepped their third-graders a mere ten minutes per day … plus some added time over winter break, she confides upon reflection, when the children had but two days off: Christmas and New Year’s. . . . After some red-flag internal assessments, Paul Fucaloro kept “the bottom 25 percent” an hour past their normal 4:30 p.m. dismissal — four days a week, six weeks before each test. “The real slow ones,” he says, stayed an additional 30 minutes, till six o’clock: a ten-hour-plus day for 8- and 9-year-olds. Meanwhile, much of the class convened on Saturday mornings from September on.

The schools also provide enrichment, including “classes in chess and dancing, Greenmarket field trips, 150 science experiments per year. Their art is shown off at Sotheby’s, their essays at Barnes & Noble. It’s a college-bound culture, stem to stern.”

Moskowitz wanted to create schools “where I’d want to send my own children,” and now she has, the magazine notes. “Harlem Success Academy 3 enrolls Dillon, 7, and Hannah, 5, the lone white students there.”

P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, also known as Beacon School of Excellence, also posts very high test scores despite serving many low-income Hispanic students, reports the New York Times.  Like the Success Academies, the school schedules extra learning time for students who need it.

P.S. 172′s principal “finds money for coaches in writing, reading and math. Teachers keep detailed notes on each child, writing down weaknesses and encouraging them to repeat tasks. There is after-school help and Saturday school.” The school hired a speech therapist to figure out why seven or eight students were having language problems; a psychologist recommended how to help. There’s even a dental clinic on campus.

Students at P.S. 172 who need more help stay in their classrooms until 4:45 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, after a short snack break at the regular 3:05 quitting time.

The school benefits from consistent leadership: Jack Spatola has been the principal since 1984, the Times reports. He has a simple formula: “Teach, assess, teach, assess.”

Mr. Spatola attributed the coaches and other extra help to careful budgeting and fighting for every dollar from the Department of Education; the school’s cost per pupil, in fact, is lower than the city’s average.

Years ago, parents asked for their children to be “placed directly in English-only classes, with extra help from teachers of English as a Second Language.” The school dropped bilingual classes.

Anna Phillips of Gotham Schools visited a B-rated school where bored students filled out test-prep workbooks — or played computer games or slept or stared into space. She saw no teaching by teachers, who were “were barely present.”

Core standards pushback

Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top is pushing states to sign on to proposed core standards, but some are pushing back.

Massachusetts, which spent six years creating successful academic standards, lost points in its RTTT application for refusing to commit in advance to “inferior national standards,” write Jim Stergios and Charles Chieppo of Pioneer Institute in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

While educational fads come and go –the governor is pushing “21st century skills” like “global awareness” and “cultural competence,” they complain — the academic standards are a bulwark against backsliding.

The national standards may be better than most state standards, but they’re still dumbing down schools, writes Terrence Moore in Big Government. He wants students to develop “depth of insight into how human beings think, believe, hope, and act.”

I ran a K-12 classical charter school for seven years. Not once did I or any of the teachers look at a state standard in reading or writing (math is something of a different case). The students did no test prep. When our students took the state exams, all they did was complain about how easy and worthless they were and how they wanted to get back to real learning. Every year the high school ranked in the top three in the state, twice coming out first. . . . The way to teach literacy for the twenty-first century turns out to be the same way it has been done in the last thirty centuries of civilization: to hire the brightest and best-educated teachers (usually not those coming out of a school of education considered “certified”), to put in their hands the best works of literature and history and philosophy, to invite young people to have a conversation about what it means to be a human being, and to require those students to work hard and demonstrate good character while doing so.

Test-prepped in K-12, college students can’t read critically, writes Heather Kim, a remedial writing instructor at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her students rely on strategies for guessing what a passage means. They all did well enough in high school to qualify for California’s flagship state university, which is supposed to be one of the best in the country.

If Moore’s students could ace state tests by discussing literature, I wonder if test prep really helps students pass tests. I was told once by a researcher that test prep didn’t produce higher test scores in Texas; what worked was time spent teaching writing skills.

Test-prepping for 'gifted' kindergarten

To get their children into “gifted” kindergarten classes, affluent New Yorkers are hiring tutors to test-prep three- and four-year-olds, reports the New York Times.  A “gifted” public education is free, while private school may cost $20,000 a year. So the cost of tutoring seems small by comparison

Bright Kids, which opened this spring in the financial district, has some 200 students receiving tutoring, most of them for the gifted exams, for up to $145 a session and 80 children on a waiting list for a weekend “boot camp” program.

New York City uses the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, a knowledge test, to decide which children qualify for gifted programs. Applications have soared and the number of children scoring above the 90th percentile has increased from 18 percent to 22 percent.

If demand is so high for “gifted” classes, why not expand them? The easy-to-teach kids can learn in a larger class;  the non-gifted classes could get a bit smaller.

Education Week reports on a National Association for Gifted Children study, which says gifted students’ access to programs varies greatly depending on where they live.

Update:  The intelligence tests given to pre-kindergarteners don’t predict future school performance accurately, write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Nurture Shock. A few years down the line, only 27 percent of “gifted” students are high performers. That’s because little kids’ brains are developing.