Make it really hard for kids to fail in school

To prepare “difficult” students for the real world, make it “really hard to fail,” argues Dr. Allen Mendler, an education consultant, on Edutopia’s blog.

An effective practice is to “appreciate and focus on the student’s strengths rather than emphasizing and punishing shortcomings such as lateness, lack of productivity, and disruptive behavior,” Mendler writes.

But critics say that’s preparing students to be fired.

Grading for progress rather than achieving a “group-based standard” also doesn’t work in the real world, critics say.

School isn’t like the workplace, Mendler argues. Students have to go to school and take courses in subjects they may not like or be any good at. In the real world, workers can specialize.

“Make it really hard for students to fail school,” he writes. “Not impossible, just really hard!”

Do what you can to impart important life skills such as a solid work ethic, promptness, patience, and getting along with others. Have rules and, as much as possible, “logical” consequences for unacceptable behavior. (For example: “Work needs to be completed. You can do it in class with others, at home, or during recess.”)

. . . I am far more likely to motivate an uninterested student with poor attendance to show up, and therefore make it more likely that she will pass my class and graduate, by telling how much we missed her during her absence rather than by giving her a zero on missed assignments.

School success doesn’t always predict success in life, he concludes. Of course, school failure usually does predict future failure.

Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.

Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?

Coddled kids vs. high standards

Common Core’s critics — “right-wing alarmists” and “left-wing paranoiacs” — have been joined by parents who think higher standards are too stressful, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. Are Kids Too Coddled? he asks.

Stress is “an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper,” writes Bruni. And school isn’t going to be fun all the time.

Higher standards are traumatizing children, according to New Yorkers at the state’s Common Core hearings.

One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”

A social worker testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.

A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”

“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause.

If children really are falling apart, writes Bruno, maybe it’s because they’ve been protected from blows to their egos. They’ve won trophies for participation. They’ve made “bloated honor rolls.”

“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.” Our global competitors are tougher.  “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

It’s those white suburban moms.

Study hard, work hard

Young people are told they must earn a bachelor’s degree to get a good job, says Mike Rowe, who hosted Dirty Jobs. That’s not necessarily so.

(Photo via mikeroweWORKS)

As a high school student in the late ’70s, Rowe decided to go to community college, which he could afford, rather than going into debt at a four-year university. His counselor pointed to a poster urging students to “Work Smart, Not Hard.” The smiling “smart” person had a diploma.

It was “the worst advice in the history of the world,” Rowe says. “Skilled trades are in demand.”

He’s created a new poster that advises: “Work smart AND hard.” In Rowe’s version, the college graduate looks glum, while the worker is smiling.

On his Profoundly Disconnected web site, Rowe challenges the idea that college is right for everyone. Hisfoundation gives trade school scholarships to students who show a strong work ethic and financial need.

Core to kids: You’re not so smart

At an Albany middle school, angry parents told New York Commissioner of Education John King what they thought of the new Common Core standards, writes Marc Tucker on Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog.

Kathryn Biel described her fourth-grade son’s response when he came home from Forts Ferry Elementary School in the North Colonie school district.  “New York State thinks we’re stupid.  We did not pass the test,” Biel said recounting his frustration and loss of self-esteem.  Deirdre Kelly, whose children attend Albany School of Humanities, said she is opting her children out of the testing and will urge other parents to take the same action.  “It hurts them. They go home feeling bad,” said Kathy Neuffer, a teacher at Greenville Central School District in Greene County.  “The new curriculum is not enjoyable,” said Reeve Churchill, age 13, an eighth-grade student at Myers Middle School.

U.S. parents and students expect school to be easy and fun, writes Tucker. “We are reaping what we’ve sown.”

Over the last 20 years or so, the reading grade level of upper division high school textbooks has fallen from 11th and 12th grade to 8th and 9th grade.  We have seen widespread grade inflation in our high schools.  When our children get to college they can expect more of the same.  At many, perhaps most institutions, B+ is, in effect, the lowest passing grade, and, in many institutions, college administrators effectively prevent college instructors from giving grades lower than that except in rare cases.  The record shows that our colleges are providing fewer and fewer hours of instruction with every passing year and students are spending less and less time studying.  But they still get the same degrees.

. . . Consistently given higher and higher grades for ever-more-mediocre work, our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess.

“It feels a lot like the housing market before the market crashed and brought on the Great Recession,” writes Tucker.

In Asia, especially in Korea, parents push their children to work hard in school, he writes. Standards are rising. Students expect they’ll need to work hard to get ahead.

The Common Core is our best chance to face reality, Tucker concludes.

Responding to the challenge is going to require both students and teachers to work a lot harder.  It may not be fun.  Maybe New York State does not think you are so smart because you have not demonstrated that you know and can do what millions of kids in other countries know and can do at your age.  Maybe it’s time to do something about that instead of reflexively doing what we have always done—lowering the standards, once again.

Comments?

Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.

From high school A’s to college F’s

Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student at an inner-city Los Angeles high school, went to Berkeley with a great attitude, a great work ethic, lots of “grit” — and weak reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother who works as a security guard, Campbell grew up with little exposure to the world outside his neighborhood other than watching Jeopardy. Although Berkeley felt like a “different world,” he embraced it enthusiastically.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

But he was shocked by the academic expectations.

At Jefferson, a long essay took a page and perfect grades came after an hour of study a night.

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Campbell chose to live with other black first-year students in the African-American Theme Program, two floors in a dorm. He became close friends with roommate Spencer Simpson, who was earning A’s in challenging classes at Berkeley.

Like Campbell, Simpson had been raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood and earned straight A’s at low-performing schools. Both were nerds who “didn’t try to act tough” and were “shy around girls.” But there were differences.

Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

Campbell coped with depression, kept working, joined study groups and — with an A in African American Studies — raised his GPA above 2.0. But he got an incomplete in the writing class on his second try. He’ll be back for a second year.

Teaching ‘grit’

Teaching “grit” – resilience, persistence, conscientiousness — is the topic of an Education Week roundtable.

Teaching non-cognitive skills blames the victim, writes Darnell Fine, a “multicultural educator who facilitates creative writing and education seminars, as well as social justice workshops.” Low-income kids shouldn’t have to adopt middle-class values, he argues.

The teaching of non-cognitive skills pushes a socialization process that homogenizes students into the mainstream culture if they want to “succeed.” These skills send cultural messages on how a student exhibits “good behavior.” They are built upon mainstream beliefs and values that could prove to be culturally irrelevant. Are low-income students therefore “bad” when they don’t assume mainstream society’s cultural ethos?

I hope Fine’s students enjoy being poor because they’re likely to stay that way.

Alison Wright, a math teacher, takes a more pragmatic approach to teaching her students to learn from mistakes, persist etc.

Last week, I gave a short 10-question quiz in my Algebra 2 class. Student A and Student B both received a score of 6/10. Student A looked at the paper, rolled her eyes, threw the quiz on the floor, and loudly complained that the assessment was unfair and “shouldn’t count.” Student B, on the other hand, read my comments, reworked the problems to find her mistakes, and then after class asked to set up an after-school meeting so we could go over the assessment together and discuss her study habits.

She wonders how she can help Student A “improve her motivation, self-efficacy and overall academic drive.”

“Self-efficacy” or “efficacious thinking” means the belief that what a person does makes a difference. If I do the homework and pay attention in class, I’ll learn something. If I study for the test, I’ll do better on it. Kids taught they’re the helpless victims of social injustice will see no point in working hard in school or even showing up every day. Why exhibit “good behavior” when you have no chance to “succeed.”