There’s a lot of important, nuanced debate to be had between the most optimistic education reformers and those who are more skeptical. But I think there are many, though of course not all, on the education reform critic side who tie themselves in knots telling inconsistent stories about education in this country. So here are the most common paradoxes of that movement. This isn’t to say those who criticize some or even many aspects of education reform embody all these paradoxes, but I would argue they are relatively common. I think education reform critics spend a lot of times opposing individual policies or ideas or changes, and so it is hard to tie all of those disparate criticisms together into a coherent vision that also explains what education policy should be. These paradoxes, I would argue, identify a problem.
1. Administrators can’t be trusted with firing, but are perfect at hiring.
One of the arguments for lots of job protections in schools is that you can’t trust administrators to decide who to fire. If you give them discretion, they will fire good teachers who they don’t like, or who do anything other than toe the administration line, or for other cronyism reasons. On the other hand, we are told that firing more teachers won’t solve anything because we most teachers are good at their job or at the most just need more coaching. So while we can’t trust administrators to fire competently, we also have arrived at a place where their hiring decisions involve impeccable foresight to never make a bad hiring decision. It’s a strange paradox of asymmetric incompetency.
Fewer than one-third of California students who took a statewide physical fitness test this year managed to pass all six areas assessed, new results show.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a longtime cross-country coach who has made physical fitness a signature issue, announced the results this week as he launched a program to improve children’s health. The campaign will use such celebrity athletes as NBA all-star Bill Walton and others to visit schools to urge students to drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables and increase their exercise.
“When only 31% of children are physically fit, that’s a public health challenge we can’t wait to address,” Torlakson said in a statement.
By Reihan Salam
I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the latest issue of National Affairs, which includes Rick Hess’s fascinating and at times provocative discussion, or perhaps I say “devastating takedown,” of “achievement-gap mania.” The following paragraph gives you a hint as to Hess’s conclusion:
In essence, NCLB was an effort to link “conservative” nostrums of accountability to Great Society notions of “social justice.” The result was a noble exercise hailed for its compassion. The sad truth, however, is that the whole achievement-gap enterprise has been bad for schooling, bad for most children, and bad for the nation.
I found his discussion of the neglect of advanced and gifted education particularly convincing, as well as his recounting of how the “delusion of rigor” has undermined quality control across many domains. Hess ends his essay with an accounting of where “achievement-gap mania” has left the politics of K-12.
(1) Reforming education has become someone else’s problem:
First, achievement-gap mania has signaled to the vast majority of American parents that school reform isn’t about their kids. They are now expected to support efforts to close the achievement gap simply because it’s “the right thing to do,” regardless of the implications for their own children’s education. In fact, given that only about one household in five even contains school-age children — and given that two-thirds of families with children do not live in underserved urban neighborhoods, or do not send their kids to public schools, or otherwise do not stand to benefit from the gap-closing agenda — the result is a tiny potential constituency for achievement-gap reform, made up of perhaps 6% or 7% of American households.
Because middle-class parents and suburbanites have no personal stake in the gap-closing enterprise, reforms are tolerated rather than embraced. The most recent annual Gallup poll on attitudes toward schooling reported that just 20% of respondents said “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” was the most important of the nation’s education challenges. Indeed, while just 18% of the public gave American schools overall an A or a B, a sizable majority thought their own elementary and middle schools deserved those high grades. The implication is that most Americans, even those with school-age children, currently see education reform as time and money spent on other people’s children.
(2) Reforming education for the majority of students who come non-poor families is seen as somehow unnecessary:
Second, achievement-gap mania has created a dangerous complacency, giving suburban and middle-class Americans the false sense that things are just fine in their own schools. Thus it’s no surprise that professionals and suburbanites tend to regard “reforms” — from merit pay to charter schooling — as measures that they’ll tolerate as long as they’re reserved for urban schools, but that they won’t stand for in their own communities. …
Gap-closing strategies can be downright unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving most students and families, and so can turn them off to education reform altogether. Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low achievers, but may be a recipe for backlash if imposed on families who already offer their kids many summer opportunities and extracurricular activities. Policies that seek to shift the “best” teachers to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children represent a frontal assault on middle-class and affluent families. And responding to such concerns by belittling them is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of most middle-class families.
This is one reason why Hess rightly bristled at the crusader mentality that informs films like the recent Waiting for ‘Superman.’
My mom once asked me about the first steps I would hypothetically take to make a “better school.” I don’t claim to be an education expert, but I do have personal opinions about the ideal school — one I’d like to go to. Among many other things, I said that I would change school starting times, improve cafeteria lunches, and bring back recess. These would be good first steps because they help a lot of students a little bit. And they can have wide-reaching impacts.
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, especially children with developing brains, need a good amount of high-quality sleep. It’s difficult to get when you have to worry about waking up at 7 in the morning to go to school. Not everyone is a morning lark, and by starting school so early, not only students but also educators have to stave off yawns throughout the day.
I was at a conference where a well-respected sleep researcher, Dr. James Maas, revealed that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 a.m. and end at 11 a.m. Yet we’re starting school at 7 or 7:30 a.m. While I wouldn’t quite change school start times to 11 a.m. (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after. Then hypothetically a teenager could go to bed at 12 a.m. (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with eight rather than five or six hours of sleep.
Another step: improve cafeteria lunches. Put a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Mandate nonfat or 1 to 2 percent milk (and in smaller containers — who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole milk. Get rid of chocolate milk, soft drinks, and vending machines with unhealthy items. Require a certain percentage of food served be organic and/or local, and have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school’s cooking classes (or maybe the entire student body) help make lunch on certain days.
A bigger step: I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. This might be controversial among students, but the social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, it seems that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I’ve learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students — at least on certain days — (and really, if they really can’t stand students to the extent that they can’t eat with them, should they be teaching?)
The charter-school movement appears to be catching up to the teachers union in political giving to Albany.
With the help of hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street financiers, charter-school advocates gave more than $600,000 to Albany political candidates and party committees since January, according to the latest campaign filings. That’s more than twice as much as in prior reporting periods, according to allies of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
Pro-charter donations appear to have surpassed the $500,000 or so that candidates raised from teachers unions during the six-month period.
Recess will be one of the topics on today’s The Conversation starting at noon. Call in if you have thoughts, 543-KUOW. Here’s their report on it. Interesting finding:
Another big difference between the schools is that at Thornton Creek, most of the students are white and middle-class. At Dunlap, nearly all of the students are black, Latino or Asian and from low-income families.
That corresponds to what KUOW found when we surveyed recess times across the Seattle school district. For instance, we looked at the 15 highest-poverty and lowest–poverty schools. Kids at the low-poverty schools average 16 minutes more recess than kids at the high-poverty schools. That amounts to about one whole recess more.
And amount of recess?
Dornfeld: “A lot of schools in the district give kids 45 minutes to an hour of recess every single day. Is that something that you see as realistic for this school?”
The ongoing health care debate has focused on accessible and affordable health care. Although reforming health care policies is important, we need to change the health behaviors that make our health system one of the most expensive in the developed world. Costly chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are linked to obesity, smoking and diet – things we can do something about.
The Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that nearly one-fifth of high school students smoke cigarettes and binge drink. Over 50% do not attend any physical education classes, and the number of overweight youth has been increasing. These behaviors set the stage for lifelong obesity, smoking habits and poor diet.
According to Trust for America’s Health, in five years, Michigan could save $545 million in annual health care costs by spending just $10 per person on programs to increase physical activity, encourage better nutrition and prevent the use of tobacco.
The public schools, perhaps more than any other institution in American life, are afflicted with “sounds good” syndrome. Let’s teach kids about the dangers of smoking. Sounds good. Let’s improve math scores with a new curriculum called “whole math.” Sounds good. Let’s reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by teaching sex ed. Sounds good. Let’s have cooperative learning where kids help one another. And so on.
The Fairfax County, Va., schools (where my children attend) recently joined a nationwide “sounds good” trend by introducing a character education curriculum. Students were exhorted to demonstrate a number of ethical traits like (I quote from my son’s elementary school’s website) “compassion, respect, responsibility, honesty.” It would be easy to mock the program — each trait, for example, is linked to a shape (respect is a triangle, honesty is a star). The intention to help mold character is a laudable one. But this program, like so much else about the public schools in the “sounds good” era, has foundered.
The curriculum made news recently when a report ordered by the school board evaluated student conduct for “sound moral character and ethical judgment” and then grouped the results by race. Oh, dear. It seems that among third graders, 95 percent of white students received a grade of “good” or better, whereas only 86 percent of Hispanic kids did that well and only 80 percent of black and special education students were so rated.
Martina A. “Tina” Hone, an African-American member of the school board, told the Washington Post that the decision to aggregate the evaluations by race was “potentially damaging and hurtful.”
Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline. Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth-graders reading at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels: Massachusetts now has the largest percentage of students reading at that higher level, and it is No. 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.
E.D. Hirsch Jr. is an author, most recently of “The Knowledge Deficit,” and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.
To those concerned about the success of the Madison Schools,
I am writing to express my support for the positive changes proposed by the district with respect to food policy. It is exciting that the district has been proactive in including students, parents, health providers, educators, and policy makers. As a pediatrician working with childhood obesity and childhood diabetes, I believe our schools do- and can have an even more positive influence- on the health of our children.
We are all struggling with the epidemic of childhood obesity, its costs, ramifications, and its effect on children and their families. We need to address this problem though our families, through our communities, and definitely through our schools. We continue to “leave many children behind” when it comes to healthy nutrition and physical activity. The State of California has shown that children with greater fitness levels, also have greater academic levels. Supporting an environment for achieving this is imperative for our children.
Healthy food choices should always be offered even if it means different fund raising methods in our schools including removing soda, and other unhealthy food practices. It is time for the Board to look carefully at how they can help be part of the solution regarding this problem and the long-term health of our students.
Students at Lowell Elementary School are learning better ways to release pent-up energy than by kicking a desk or taking a poke at a classmate.
Through an innovative series of exercises designed to link body movement to breathing to a calm and focused mind, students and teachers, as well as some entire families, are finding an alternative to the restless energy that creates conflict and disrupts classrooms.
“The 3S Smart Learning System is transforming,” said Elisabeth Phillips, a special education teacher at Lowell who has been instrumental in developing the yoga-like program at Lowell.
Did anyone else read Michael O’Shea in Sunday’s Parade this weekend? Only one state, Illinois, has PE mandatory in K – 12 and 40% of our elementary schools throughout the nation no longer set aside time for recess. See www.actionforhealthkids.org or www.liveitprogram.com.
Is it me or is there a reason students are heavier, and is there a reason 1/4 of students attending American schools take some form of mood altering medication?
My happy, busy 2nd grade son, who loves school and gets along well with his peers, has been the subject of well meaning teachers requesting an ADHD evaluation. Are we treating kids so they can survive an 8 hour day without activity? Is this in the best interest of our children or to accommodate the “union approved schedule”?
My son has P.E. three times a week and recess for 25 minutes in an 8 hour day 4 days a week. He is 8. I take more breaks from work than he does. We (the nation) really don’t get it. I look at the people I currently know who are successful as adults and not many of them sat still for 8 hours a day without activity, creativity, and pure frustration from adults around them nor were they medicated or prevented from physical activity due to budget cuts and testing. I can include in this list
- my physician husband, (76 stitches by the time he was 10),
- my cardiac surgeon brother-in-law, (who was told by teachers over and over he would never succeed because he never sat still as is his the same with his son),
- my lawyer cousin who was always fighting those in authority (as is his son).
Not one of these adults were medicated as children but everyone of their children have been asked to be evaluated for ADHD. I don’t disapprove of meds to help a real problem and I have seen the devastation of mental illness in my own family but students that love school, and have positive relationships at school, do we do them a disservice by turning to meds first?
We should let them move first then see what happens. I don’t encourage hostile, ill behaved students but are we encouraging growth, creativity within unique students that succeed by eliminating movement? We need to let kids move so they can concentrate.
Let’s keep Madison kids moving so they can think.
In a mirror-lined dance studio, teenagers sashay through a number from the musical “Hairspray.” Next door in the weight room, teacher Shawn Scattergood demonstrates proper form on the leg press. At Northport High School on Long Island, physical education also includes yoga, step aerobics and fitness walking, as well as team sports like volleyball and basketball. There are archery targets, soccer fields and a rock-climbing wall where students inscribe their names to show how high they get.
For anyone who grew up when P.E. meant being picked last for softball, it’s a dizzying array of choices.
“What we try and do is give them a real broad offering so that they can choose things they want to do,” said Robert Christenson, the director of physical education. He said the current curriculum has been developed over the last five years.
The Documentary SuperSize Me has two segments useful to readers: School food and PE. The school food segment includes a visit to Appleton Central Alternative School and a discussion of their healthy food partnership with Natural Ovens of Manitowoc. Interesting. 20MB Video excerpt from the film SuperSize Me