Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Teacher autonomy

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

I’m still on the email list for D’s old school, because I still care a lot about the students and the school.  Like many other Northern Virginia schools, it failed to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP).  But because it’s failed in the past, it is now in the fourth year of "Title I Improvement Status."  What does that mean?  Here’s the official Alexandria public schools explanation:

"The sanctions dictate that ACPS must take one of six corrective actions.  The Superintendent chose the first option and as a result, has made significant staffing adjustments in several key areas. In addition, this year a school oversight committee will (1) monitor the implementation of JHAA’s three-year school improvement plan, and as necessary, modify it to better address the needs of students;  (2) verify weekly that teachers are effectively teaching the division’s curriculum and following the pacing guides; (3) analyze a variety of data to inform instructional practices and remedial programs; (4) provide staff development opportunities that focus on bolstering student achievement;  and (5) ensure JHAA staff and parents are aware of the committee’s decisions."

I have to say, number 2 on that list made me shudder in horror.  The best teachers I know all modify the curriculum to respond to children’s interests, or take advantage of a special event in the community.  This kind of pressure makes it harder for them to do things like this. 

And I just found out from another parent that D’s kindergarten teacher from the start of last year (before D was switched into a different classroom), who started every day with children gathered around him listening to a story, was not invited to return this year.  Because he paid more attention to the children than to the curriculum.  Sigh.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 6 months reading about what makes jobs good or bad, for a paper on job quality.*  One of the things that struck me is how much the ability to control how you do your job, what I call "worker voice" in the paper, matters to people’s evaluation of whether they’re happy at work.  I’m afraid that we’re systematically making teaching a worse and worse job in that respect.

*Executive summary here.  If you’re curious as to what I sound like, here’s a podcast interview with me talking about the report.

School time

Monday, August 27th, 2007

School doesn’t start here until the day after Labor Day.  Both boys are starting new schools, so we’re all a little twitchy waiting to see how everything works out.  D’s noticed that he’s shorter than kids who are younger than he is, and is a bit worried that kids will tease him about it.  I’m trying to tell him both that it’s perfectly normal to be a little nervous about starting a new school, and that it will be fine, and for some reason he seems to think that there’s a contradiction inherent in the idea that everyone’s scared of it but there’s nothing to worry about.

The most emailed article today on the NYTimes website is about teacher turnover, and how school districts are scrambling to fill their slots.  In case you thought this was limited to poor districts, go visit Jody, who’s got some stories to tell about teacher and principal turnover.  Having lived through D having 3 teachers (plus literally more short-term subs than I could count) last year, I’ve got my fingers crossed for some stability this year.

The Washington Post on Sunday had an opinion piece by Patrick Welsh, a local HS English teacher, on the battles over gifted and talented classes in Alexandria.  Apparently they’ve cut down enormously on the number of kids classified as G&T, especially in the more affluent schools.*  The problem is that there are lots of kids who don’t meet the new cutoffs, who are still bored/underchallenged in their regular classes, which (claims Welsh) are mostly focused on making sure that low-income minority kids are passing the SOLs.  He includes a quote from Superintendent Perry that’s fairly horrifying if accurate:

"To allay parental anxieties [Welsh has to be tongue in cheek here], Superintendent Rebecca Perry
has said that the students at the top of the regular classes — i.e.,
the white kids who didn’t get into TAG — will help to ‘challenge,
mentor and coach’ the students struggling with the SOL material."

Interestingly, today’s Post has an article on how gifted and talented students are the ones being left behind under NCLB.  It’s based on a research paper that actually argues that both the very advanced students and the very behind ones get less attention as a result of the NCLB requirements.  The paper argues, plausibly, that schools have huge incentives to devote their resources to the students who have a shot at passing the standardized exams, but aren’t guaranteed to do so, rather than those who definitely are going to pass or those who are definitely going to fail.  It’s the same argument for why campaigns focus on swing states, rather than New York or Utah.

Welsh cites the Carol Dweck work on Mindsets that I’ve written about here before to argue that the gifted and talented label is destructive both to the kids who get put in those classes and the ones who are excluded.   He concludes that the goal should be to challenge "all our kids, all the time."  I agree with him in theory, but think it’s easier said than done.  And sometimes easier done with differentiated classrooms, rather than with one teacher trying to cover the full range of skills and learning styles.  Especially with all those novice teachers who are standing in front of classrooms.

*I don’t know if it’s a real contrast, but the complaints I’m hearing in Fairfax are in the opposite direction, about the "watering down" of gifted and talented classes.  Who knows?

Selection and schools

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

I wanted to pick up on Dave S’ last comment about the role of peer groups and selection in schools. There’s no doubt in my mind that KIPP schools and their like have a real advantage over the local public schools in their areas, in that their students have parents who value education enough to send them to KIPP.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not providing value-added — in most cases, the local schools were failing with those exact same students.  But it does mean that if you extended the school day at all high-poverty schools and otherwise copied the KIPP model, you probably wouldn’t get the same results.

And our old school suffered from negative selection — it’s not just that the parents hadn’t made a deliberate effort to send their kids there, but that any parent who didn’t want their kid to attend it could opt out.  And this was true long before NCLB, since it was a "focus" school and Alexandria schools allow parents to opt out of any of the focus schools (as well as out of the schools with a year-round calendar). So there was a real shortage of involved parents.  For example, when the school finally acknowledged that D’s class was having a new teacher in February, and invited us in to meet her, I was the only parent to come to the event.

Some of this is about class and race — JHAA’s student population is 80 percent low-income and 92 percent non-white, and that alone would scare off some white-middle class parents even if it were the best run school in the city (and it’s not).  (See this paper for a discussion of how parents "may prefer poorly run schools with good peer groups over those
that are more effective but enroll worse students" and The Failures of Integration for data on how rare it is for whites to live in majority non-white areas.)

But from listening to people around the neighborhood, I think that highly involved black parents were even less willing to send their kids to the school than highly involved white parents.  With a few exceptions (including the PTA president), they were less confident that their kids would do fine academically regardless of the problems with the school, and so less willing to take chances. 

Alexandria’s wealthy enough, and supportive enough of education, that the school had plenty of resources even without the support of an active group of parents — it’s not like DC, where PTA fundraising supports things like music teachers.  But I do think the lack of a core group of involved parents makes a difference, in things from the availability of volunteers to pull events together, to the amount of energy that teachers need to spend on maintaining order in the classroom.

I don’t know what can be done to reverse this pattern — just raising the test scores won’t do it.  The district for the school is so spread out — some say gerrymandered — that very few people see it as their neighborhood school.


On a related note, we just registered D for his new school.  As proof of address, they wouldn’t take utility bills — they want to see the deed to your house, your rental agreement, or a notarized letter from the owner or leaseholder that you live there.  I’d never heard of such a policy.

Best bang for the buck?

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Someone posted to some of my local email lists this Forbes article on best and worst school districts for the money.  Our old district, Alexandria, VA, ranked last on their list.  John Porter, who got promoted out of being HS principal into an administrative position (one of my pet peeves about the district) is quoted blaming the poor graduation rates on the large number of foreign-born students.

I’m somewhat skeptical about the methodology of the article (I don’t get why they only looked at the districts where most school funding comes from property taxes, and they admit that the graduation rate statistics are inconsistently reported).  It would be interesting to look at the demographics of the top ranked districts, which I suspect are generally quite affluent.  And Forbes almost certainly has an ax to grind.

But as we’ve discussed here before, I do think that Alexandria is probably not getting performance consistent with the spending levels.  Montgomery County certainly serves plenty of immigrants, and is ranked #5 on the Forbes list.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Monday, June 25th, 2007

At D’s end of the kindergarten year ceremony, the kids performed a little song about all the things they had learned during the year, and were each called upon to say what they want to be when they grow up.

D wants to be a scientist who builds rovers.  He explained that a rover is a kind of robot that goes to other planets and if anything bad happens to the rover, it means you can’t send people.  (Yes, the Mars imax movie did make an impression on him, why do you ask?)

Of the other kids in the class who didn’t totally mumble their answers, the choices were:

  • a soldier who drives a truck (said with truck driving action)
  • a football player
  • air force (said with plane flying action, which looks a lot like truck driving action)
  • nurse (said with a simpering "Doctor, here are your instruments")
  • ballerina (said with a pirouette)
  • a cheerleader (said with a jump)
  • a cheerleader (also said with a jump).

I found this intensely depressing.  Yes, I know they’re 6 years old, and "when I grow up" is further away than "once upon a time."  But it felt like they’re pulling from an awfully limited deck.  I don’t know; maybe I wouldn’t have felt so strongly about the exact same answers coming from a middle-class group of kids.

I think my dad still has hanging in his office the drawing I did when I was about that age of the different tools that a doctor uses, labeled in an adult hand, but clearly to my dictation (it says things like "this is the pointy part that shoots out.")  And no, I’m not a doctor.  But it was within the realm of what I could imagine.

Laura at Geeky Mom has a series of posts up about why she’s not a scientist.  There’s a lot of good evidence that girls tend not to take the prerequisite courses math and science in high school, shutting off options before they’ve really considered them.   That wasn’t me. 

In high school, I took calculus, Honors Bio, AP Chemistry (you had to dissect a cat in AP Bio, and that really wasn’t something I wanted to do.)  And then I went to college, and took the minimum 3 classes in hard math and science needed to graduate.  I was still interested in the topics, but where in HS I could take math and history and English and French and a science and economics and still have room for pottery, in college, you couldn’t take more than 4 or 5 classes a term.  And the introductory level science classes were notorious for being both boring and difficult.  And up a hill a 15 minute walk from the rest of campus.  By then I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a doctor.  So I signed up for the "great books" set of humanities classes and never looked back. 

Kindergarten blues

Monday, June 4th, 2007

Jody and Phantom Scribbler and chicago mama all have thoughtful posts up about the NYTimes article about redshirting kindergarteners.

D’s birthday is in January, so he’s in the middle of his class age-wise, one of the smallest kids, one of the most advanced academically.  One of his good friends, with a July birthday, is doing "junior kindergarten" this year — but he has some sensory issues, and I know his teacher were worried about his ability to stay on task.  It’s not clear how much easier he’s going to find it next year, though.  N’s birthday is in October, so he’ll be nearly 6 before he starts Kindergarten.  If I didn’t know that other parents were likely to be holding their summer-birthday kids back a year, I might be in the school office, arguing to let him start a year early.   I was 4 when I started school (November birthday, December cutoff) and didn’t suffer.

I think the points the author made about the class issues are real ones — redshirting kindergarteners is definitely an upper-middle class phenomenon — but am unconvinced that it matters in the scheme of class inequities in education.  For one thing, I’m doubtful that many poor kids are going to be sitting in the same classrooms as those redshirted kids.  EdWeek has a new tool out that lets you generate reports for any school district in the country on graduation rates and school segregation levels. I took a look at the one for Alexandria and was shocked to see that its school system scores a .78 (on a 0 to 1 scale) for racial segregation and a .52 for socioeconomic segregation.  Those numbers are far higher than average for either Virginia or the country as a whole, but what makes them really shocking is that all the segregation is in the elementary schools — there’s only one high school (TC Williams, of Remember the Titans fame) and two middle schools.

And we’re not talking separate but equal either.  My friend who has her kindergartener in one of the predominantly white, middle-class, active PTA schools has been told that her son has been identified as gifted and talented (even though the pull out activities don’t start until 3rd grade) and invited to come in for a meeting to discuss the curriculum.  I’m quite confident that if any such process were happening at D’s school, we’d have heard about it.  We haven’t.

A year ago, in my post about the decision to send D to this school, I wrote " What I worry about is whether they’ll learn that school is something to be endured."  I do think this fear has somewhat come true.  D’s bored a fair amount of the time at school — his biggest complaint is that it takes up too much of his day.  And the whole class often loses privileges when some kids misbehave.  D’s counting days to the end of school.  And frankly, I am too.


Monday, March 5th, 2007

As I indicated a couple of weeks ago, we may be moving.  We made an offer this evening.  We gave the seller 48 hours to respond, but I expect that she will accept: it’s a fair offer in a buyer’s market, and she likes us.  If she accepts, posting may become very erratic for the next month or so while we deal with all the logistics and get this house ready to put on the market.

Everyone we talk to seems to be assuming that we’re moving because we’re unhappy with the local school.  It’s certainly a factor, but not the only one.  Overall, I’d say that D’s had a pretty good year at school.  He’s learned to read (to the point that I find myself having to explain newspaper headlines), to count up to a thousand or so, to color between the lines.  He considers almost all of his classmates to be his friends, and was heartbroken last week when he was too sick to go to school to perform his role in the Black History Month skit.  (He was supposed to be the manager who hires Jackie Robinson.)

But we do have some frustrations with the school.  D’s teacher has been out sick for two extended periods.  That’s not something that the school can control, but it would be nice if they had sent a letter home saying something about it, rather than leaving me to interrogate D each day about whether she was back.  When I commented to the principal that it was hard on the kids for her to miss yet another day for training right after she had been out for 3 weeks, the principal got all defensive about it, instead of agreeing that it was unfortunate.  None of the kids in D’s class got awards (other than attendance) at the first honors assembly, because the teacher had been out and hadn’t submitted them, so the principal said that they’d have a separate assembly just for that class.  It didn’t happen.

I’m also frustrated by the lack of community.  Only a very few kids ever play on the playground after school.  The PTA is essentially inactive.  And in spite of D’s popularity — kids rush up to him at school to give him hugs — he’s been invited to exactly one playdate and one birthday party by kids from school.  (My guess is that this is a class thing — as Lareau discusses, working class and poor kids are far more likely to play with the kids next door than to go to an arranged playdate.)  And this might be ok if there were other neighborhood kids for the boys to play with, but there doesn’t seem to be much of that either.  T and I finally figured out that, having chosen a place to live based largely on its convenience and access to the metro, we’re surrounded by other people who chose a place to live largely on its convenience and access to the metro.  And our attempts to build community through drop-in-dinners have been a flop.

We’re also bursting at the seams a little bit.  I feel more than a bit silly and self-indulgent saying that, given that my parents raised 3 children to adulthood in an apartment smaller than this house, not to mention the vast majority of people in the world who live in smaller spaces.   But the idea of having a place to put the boys’ bikes that isn’t in the middle of the living room is really appealing.

Wish us luck.

You blog so I don’t have to

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Here are some links that readers have recently sent me:

And don’t forget to send your comments on the FMLA.

What it takes

Monday, November 27th, 2006

The NY Times Magazine cover story yesterday was on the disadvantage faced by low-income students and what it would mean to take seriously the idea of "no child left behind."  It’s an interesting article, pulling together a lot of different strands of research and thinking.  I want to try to pull the different strands apart, though, because I agree with some of the assumptions behind the article, but not all.

1)  The first claim is that low-income children enter school at a significant disadvantage compared to middle-income children.  I think there’s pretty much broad consensus behind this one.  Anyone care to argue it?

2) Next, Tough argues that this disadvantage is primarily due to differences in parenting styles, especially the use of language.  There’s not a consensus on this one.  On the one hand, there are those (cf. The Bell Curve) who argue that the differences in performance are larguely genetic.  I think that’s wrong — there’s good evidence that genetics is a strong driver of differences in IQ among middle- and upper-class children, but that poor kids often don’t get to develop up to their full potential.  On the other hand, there are a lot of liberals who would reject Tough’s claim that parenting style matters more than the material deprivation that poor kids experience.

(Tough doesn’t entirely dismiss the role of poverty, but concludes that parenting matters more: "True, every poor child would benefit from having more books in his home and more nutritious food to eat (and money certainly makes it easier to carry out a program of concerted cultivation). But the real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey.")

As Jal Mehta points out at TMPCafe, this isn’t just an academic dispute — it has real policy consequences.  If you think that material hardship is the main reason poor children are lagging, it points you in the direction of child allowances and other income redistribution schemes.  But if parenting matters more, just giving poor parents more money won’t solve the problem.  You either need to somehow change their parenting practices (possibly through some form of home visits), or compensate for them (through programs like Head Start and redesigned schools).

I think the evidence that there are class-based differences in parenting practices is strong (I’ve written about Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods here before), but am not quite willing to write off the role of money. 

3)  The next question is whether poor kids are entering school so far behind that they couldn’t succeed if given schools with the resources of the average American public school.  Tough suggests that they can’t, because there are so few examples of schools that are succeeding with overwhelmingly poor, minority populations.  I’m not convinced that makes his point — as Kozol argues in Shame of the Nation, it’s essentially an experiment that has never been tried.  The best argument for Tough’s position, I think, is that the small number of low-income kids in predominently middle-class schools have generally not done particularly well.  (And I think the strongest part of NCLB is the attention that it has forced school administrators to pay to that achievement gap.)

Tough argues that the kinds of schools that have succeeded — and are needed for widespread success — provide three key components: extended school days and years, highly structured lesson plans, with frequent testing to make sure that the desired skills are being aquired, and an explicit focus on affecting the behavior and values of the students by "teaching character."  He writes:

The message inherent in the success of their schools is that if poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better-trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually, for the challenges ahead of them.

But is this a better education?  It’s certainly a more costly education, once you burn through the supply of true believers who are willing to subsidize such schools by working extra hours for no extra pay.

But I’m reminded of Scrivenings’ post about his horror at a New York Times story about a kindergarten class that is operated along such lines.  While some parents would welcome the eased demand for after school care, I think an equal number of middle-class parents would be outraged if their kids’ schools added another 3 hours of classes a day, especially if that time were spent on core reading and math rather than "enrichment" activities.  I know that my biggest concern about sending D to a school with lousy test scores was fear that they’d adopt a drill-and-kill approach.

And I know a lot of good teachers resist such a highly structured approach, prefering the flexibility to follow the children’s interests and take advantage of teachable moments.  Kozol argues that schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods get caught in vicious cycles, where they get the least experienced teachers, so the administrators rely on scripted lessons, which makes the schools even less attractive for creative teachers.


Edited to add that none of this says that any individual child can’t succeed.  There are certainly kids who overcome mediocre parenting and indifferent schools to achieve great things.  And there are poor parents who devote all their limited resources to making things better for their kids.  All this is about averages.

TBR: Kindergarten Wars/Ivy Chronicles

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Today’s book review is a special two-for-one deal: two books on the crazy world of private elementary school admissions, one non-fiction, one fiction.

The nonfiction book is The Kindergarten Wars: The Battle to Get Into America’s Best Private Schools, by Alan Eisenstock. (Tip of the hat to Jennifer at MamaNoire who recommended it a while back.) Eisenstock was on the board of directors of his kids’ private school, and after years of watching the admissions process, decided to write a book about it. He interviewed a bunch of families across the country, and writes about the experiences of four composite families as they move through the process, from the first tours of the campuses until they receive the admissions letters and decide which schools to attend.

The main message of the book is that the process is nuts. The schools have far fewer slots than applicants. They can rule out some kids who are emotionally or mentally delayed (private schools are not required to accept children with disabilities or other special needs), but that still leaves them with far too many applicants. So, they wind up deciding based on arbitrary factors such as the gender breakdown of the kids who have sibling preference, and the characteristics of the parents. And because the only way to for the parents to justify the high cost of private school and the pain of the applications process is to fall in love with the schools that they’re applying to, they wind up convinced that their kids’ lives (or their own) will be notably diminished if they don’t get in.

Overall, Eisenstock sends a somewhat mixed message about the private schools. On the one hand, he seems to uncritically accept the parents’ claim that they have given their public school options a fair consideration and found them lacking. He even loads the dice by talking about Pastor Sweetie Williams, whose son, Eliezer, was the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the state of California for inadequate funding of public schools. (Williams appears for a few pages and then disappears from the book – I’d love to have heard more of his perspective on the applications process.) But then, in the end, Eisenstock suggests that the children who go through this process wind up burnt out and exhausted by the time they finish high school.

As it happened, while I was reading The Kindergarten Wars, I happened to notice The Ivy Chronicles, by Karen Quinn on the book swap shelf in my office. I picked it up, and finished it off in a few days worth of commutes. The heroine of the book, Ivy Ames (like Quinn herself) is a downsized corporate executive who reinvents herself as a private school admissions consultant. The back of the book proudly quotes a review from the New York Post that claims that The Ivy Chronicles "picks up where The Nanny Diaries left off." Well, this book makes the Nanny Chronicles look subtle and deeply characterized. Early in the book, Ivy needs to make herself a crib sheet to keep her clients apart with shorthand tags (the mobster, the lesbian couple with the adopted child in a wheelchair, the wall street mogul) and I found myself flipping back to that page with alarming frequency.

As you’d expect, the Ivy Chronicles ends with everyone getting what they deserve, including Ivy herself finding true love, while her most obnoxious client goes to jail for trying to bribe the FDA to approve a drug in order to influence kindergarten admissions. Over the top? Implausible? Yes. Except that we live in a world where Jack Grubman really did get an analyst at Saloman Smith Barney to change his rating of AT&T to get his kids into preschool. (As a writing teacher once told me, "In a world this strange, who needs fiction?")

In her comment, bj suggested that parents who aren’t going through the process are unlikely to read The Kindergarten Wars. I’m not sure that’s true. One audience for the book is certainly parents of pre-school aged children, who want to learn what to expect. But I also think there’s an audience of people who would never apply to private schools, and read the book so they can shake their heads at those goofy rich people. The scary thing is both audiences will find the Ivy Chronicles fills the purpose almost as well.

As for me, what I took away from the books is that no school is so good as to justify the pressure that some of these parents put on their children. No 5 year old should see that their parents’ happiness and self-esteem depends on how well they perform. I may yet someday apply to private school for my kids, but if I do, it will be knowing that the application process is a crapshoot and largely beyond my control. And that they’ll be just fine whether they get in or not.