Some of the youngest learners need mental health treatment

Some of the youngest learners need mental health treatment

By Margaret Ramirez

A rare dose of treatment for preschoolers traumatized by violence

CHICAGO –– When 3-year-old Julian started throwing tantrums in preschool, his teachers were unsure how to handle him. His screaming, inconsolable crying and violent outbursts soon escalated to the point where he threw a chair at a teacher. He was subsequently kicked out of the childcare program.

His mother, Angelica Pabon, knew the reason for Julian’s anger and aggression: A few months earlier, the young boy had witnessed his father being shot to death. To recover from the traumatic experience, Julian needed a preschool capable of working through his emotional problems while supporting his academic growth.

After a referral from a social worker, Pabon enrolled Julian at Erie Neighborhood House, one of the few early childhood programs in Chicago offering educational and mental health services for young children. There, he received close attention from teachers in a therapeutic classroom to control his anger. He also attended one-on-one “play therapy” sessions with a psychologist. That was six years ago. Today, Julian’s mother says, he is a 9-year-old doing well in fourth grade at a Chicago public school.

“If I hadn’t come to this program, they would have placed Julian in special education, not because that’s where his mind is, but because of the way he was acting,” said Pabon, 28, a single mother of four who works in a hospital insurance department.

Angelica Pabon with her 3-year-old daughter, Liliana, who attends Erie Neighborhood House, a preschool program that provides academic and mental health services for young children. Her older child, Julian, received help there after witnessing the murder of his father. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

Julian’s case illustrates a larger, more complex issue simmering inside many of the nation’s early childhood centers that serve children impacted by violence and poverty. According to a recent nationally representative survey, 13 percent of infants a year-old and younger and 44 percent of all 2- to 5-year-olds were assault victims in the prior year. Eight percent of infants and 14 percent of 2-to 5-year-olds had also witnessed violence. Other studies have had similar findings.

Most assaults on young children did not involve a weapon or result in injury, and siblings and playmates were the most common perpetrators. Still, early education experts say, any experience of violence can be traumatic. Yet few preschools have mental health professionals on staff, leaving many children in danger of falling through the cracks. Early investment would save money as well as heartache later on, experts say.

“If we put that money at the front end, we will spend less on special education classes for behavior disorder, we will spend less on adolescent substance abuse, we will spend less on gang violence, we will spend less on the juvenile criminal justice system,” said Margret Nickels, a clinical psychologist at Chicago’s Erikson Institute who is known as an authority on early childhood mental health.

In West Town, the largely Latino neighborhood where Erie’s early childhood program is located, many young children have seen violence in their homes or communities. Others show anxiety due to family hardships involving poverty, unemployment or immigration status.

On weekday mornings, mothers clutching their young children’s small hands steadily file into the Erie Community Center for drop-off. Erie Community Center is home for the early childhood program and is one of three Chicago locations managed by Erie Neighborhood House. The sprawling three-story brick building on West Superior Street houses a dozen classrooms for more than 170 children. Five classrooms serve 2- and 3-year-olds and the remainder for 3- to 5-year-olds.

To offer mental health services, the program spends $160,000 annually for a full-time psychologist and social worker who provide treatment for about 70 children each year. But Erie also relies heavily on unpaid graduate students, and officials estimate the true value of their services is more than double the current budget, which is supported by federal, state and private funds.

Erie Neighborhood House psychologist Elizabeth Yelen works at a sandbox with 5-year-old Anjel. The sandbox is used in play therapy sessions with young children to help them express thoughts and feelings. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

Erie psychologist Elizabeth Yelen, who has treated hundreds of children in her 16-year career, said traumatized young learners who don’t get help in the early years are in danger of long-term academic difficulties that are far more expensive.

“A lot of them go to school with less information because their behavior impacts their learning,” she said. “They’re already feeling bad because they might have failed in preschool, which is hard to fathom, but it happens.”

She said children do better in school when they come out of preschool feeling safe and successful and knowing how to interact with their peers.

The long-term impact of violence on a young mind is real, experts say. And studies show that experiencing violence in early childhood can lead to lasting physical, mental and emotional harm, whether the child is a direct victim or a witness. Young children who are exposed to violence are more likely to suffer from attachment problems, anxiety and depression, leading to aggression and behavioral issues.

Exposure to violence can also lead to various health problems and make children more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. Even community violence that children do not directly witness has been shown to hurt their ability to pay attention as well as their cognitive performance.

According to experts, treating such children requires close collaboration between teachers, social workers and parents.

In the case of Julian, whose last name is being withheld for his protection, the boy was showing a range of intense emotions, from anger and aggression to profound sadness and neediness. He was literally breaking down, Yelen said. The beginning of his treatment, and in some ways the key to his later success, started with a simple act: A teacher held him.

“The teacher who was in that classroom at the time held him a lot,” Yelen said. “He needed to be held. He needed to be nurtured. And that’s what we were doing.”

For children like Julian who have witnessed murder, “how much scarier can it get?” she continued. “They are completely flooded with anxiety. A lot of our job is helping them to feel safe. And if you feel safe, you can learn.”

Ana Perez and her daughter Angelina, who received services at Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago with psychologist Elizabeth Yelen (right). (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

Julian’s mother also received guidance at Erie on how to work through Julian’s emotional problems at home. Pabon recalled how after his father’s death, her son would constantly ask questions. Before therapy, the young mother would become exasperated and tell him to “stop asking questions.”

“He would always ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ and it’s because he’s afraid, he’s scared, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “So now I know that I have to explain everything: ‘First, we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do that.’”

Although Julian no longer receives services at Erie, two of his younger siblings, 5-year-old Anjel and 3-year-old Liliana, are currently enrolled there.

Nickels said there is a growing need for psychologists and social workers at preschools to support teachers in working with children’s emotional needs.

In response, the Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families last year opened a neighborhood-based therapy office in the Austin neighborhood, an underserved Chicago community with a high rate of violence. Nickels, the center’s director, said several of the first children who came for therapy were 3-year-olds who had been expelled from preschool or childcare centers by teachers with no knowledge of how to handle traumatized children.

While the link between trauma and brain development has been well documented, Nickels said she still encounters ignorance on the topic from childcare workers, preschool teachers and even principals who wrongly believe that young children don’t understand what is happening and are not impacted.

“Shouting, watching your parent get hit, these are emotional and physiological experiences that even infants perceive and trigger intense stress reactions,” Nickels said.

“These intense stress reactions are carried by brain chemistry that have, in turn, a very damaging impact on brain development. The substances that are being released during stress responses can either halt or reverse important brain developmental processes. It can literally destroy very vital connections that are formed as the brain develops during those first few years of life.”

Early recognition and treatment of emotional problems in young children would likely decrease disciplinary action and reduce the number of children misdiagnosed as special education students, she said: “If we understand that this kind of exposure to stress literally disables children in many ways that are needed for school success…then we understand why they’re not listening. It’s because they can’t. They’re not aggressive because they’re just bad. It’s because they don’t know what else to do. So it becomes an issue of, ‘What do we need to teach them?’ rather than, ‘Why are they doing this to us?’”

Angie Perez, 5, attended Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago for preschool and received therapy to help her handle a troubling home situation. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

Inside Erie Neighborhood House’s early childhood program, the preschool classrooms appear like most others at first glance, with children stacking blocks and coloring art projects. However, the program is different in several important ways. In addition to a lead teacher, each classroom has three psychology graduate students who assist in assessing each child’s emotional needs. This fall, Erie has a total of 11 psychology graduate students who will likely carry 10 cases each.

During naptime, teachers meet with Yelen and her psychology students to develop plans for emotional growth through play therapy and academic growth in the classroom.

On the building’s lower level, children who need individual attention participate in weekly play therapy sessions with Yelen or one of the graduate students. The cheery therapy rooms are painted in bright colors and stocked with toys, a sand and water play table, and a poster with photos and drawings illustrating various emotions including happy, worried, surprised and sad.

Of the 174 children enrolled at Erie, about 70 receive either play therapy services or psychological evaluations.

Children guide Erie’s process of play therapy and choose what to play, paint, color or say in a 60-minute session. Music is used when appropriate. Therapists observe and interact according to a child’s individual needs. But the overriding goal is to help children feel a sense of safety by developing a therapeutic relationship, Yelen said.

Erie preschool teacher Angelic Santos who has taught young children for 10 years, said the collaboration between teachers and psychologists is crucial to connect educational and emotional goals.

“For a child to be able to focus and learn and understand, they need to be settled emotionally,” she said. “If they are worried about all the other stresses that they have, whether it’s domestic violence or not having enough food at home, if they don’t learn how to cope, they are going to be too distracted. By addressing all those issues, we can help them to focus and even find solace in education and going to school.”

Though much attention focuses on traumatized children who display anger and aggression, others show more subtle behavioral changes that translate into a quiet cry for help.

Two years ago, Ana Perez recalled how a domestic violence incident caused her then-3-year-old daughter, Angie to change dramatically from playful and outgoing to detached and withdrawn.

Angie became a perfectionist, so obsessed with clothes and her appearance that she would cry if she didn’t like how she looked. Yelen said it is common for kids to manifest their internal struggles with a fixation on external appearance.

After two years of therapy at Erie along with family therapy, Angie, now 5 and in kindergarten, has gained self-confidence and become more engaged and excited about school, said Perez, 38, a petite, soft-spoken, mother of four working as an office assistant for a furniture company.

In play therapy, at Erie, “they’re able to be free in what they want to say because Mom is not there,” Perez said. “Now, Angie is very blunt, and I think that’s because of therapy. And I love that because I’m not scared that she’s holding something in.”

WTF: Teacher Asks Students How They Would Kill Her In Assignment

WTF: Teacher Asks Students How They Would Kill Her In Assignment

by Sean Levinson

A Maryland English teacher decided that a great way for her students to demonstrate their grammatical skills was to describe how they would kill her.

According to the Washington Post, four classes at Kingsview Middle School were told by Patricia Lorenzen to write a detailed story of the murder using specific types of words.

The story had to include at least three gerunds, three infinitives and three participles.

Only after parents voiced concerns did Lorenzen realize that some of the stories might not turn out to be PG-rated.

Lorenzen wrote a letter to parents in November of last year, explaining the purpose of the exercise and apologizing for assigning it.

She wrote,

I was trying to create an assignment that would be an engaging way to review some grammar concepts, but it was not appropriate and should not have happened.

Some of the students had already written their stories before the letter was sent.

Lorenzen gave those students full credit, while the others were excused from having to turn it in.


Kingsview principal James D’Andrea told the Washington Post that there haven’t been any problems with Lorenzen’s other assignments.

He wrote in an email,

When this occurred more than two months ago, I personally apologized on behalf of the school to the parents who contacted me. The matter has settled down since that time.

RT notes the assignment’s resemblance to an Oklahoma teacher telling her eighth graders last month to circle the verbs on a worksheet describing the 2013 murder of a Massachusetts teacher.

The exercise read,

He followed his teacher to the bathroom, beat her, and slit her throat… He, then, dumped her body in the woods behind the school… Police were notified when a pool of blood was found in the women’s bathroom.

The teacher was disciplined but allowed to keep her job.

Fewer and Fewer Students Are Applying to Law School

Fewer and Fewer Students Are Applying to Law School
By Jacob Gershman

The law school applicant pool appears to be getting more and more shallow.

The number of people applying to law school is down 8.5% compared to last year at this time, according to the latest figures released by the Law School Admission Council.

As of Jan. 9, just shy of 20,000 would-be lawyers had submitted applications to law schools. The downward trend is even starker if you compare it to figures from three years ago. By this point in 2012, about 30,000 students had applied.

The drop-off in applicants suggests that law schools may have an even harder time propping up their enrollment figures, which have also been shrinking.

As Law Blog reported earlier, the number of students who began law school in the fall of 2014 was down 4.4% from the year before, extending a slide that began in 2011.

Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago professor who tracks law school data, says this year’s applicant drop-off may not be quite as severe as we get further along into the admissions cycle.

“Another pattern from recent years is more applicants later in the season than in the past, so my guess is total applicants will be down less than 8.5% by the end of the application cycle,” he wrote in a blog post Thursday.

It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan will need a broad coalition to become a reality

It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan
will need a broad coalition to become a reality

By Andre Perry

I’ll never forget the moments after my grandfather proudly dropped me off at Allegheny College in 1989, and I became one of the first in my family to attend college.

We stood by his 1987 Honda Accord as he gave me the classic “You’re an adult in college now,” speech. After Grandpa lectured me about personal responsibility and hard work (variations of talks I heard before), he reached deep in the pockets of his blue, pinstripe slacks. That was the moment for which I was waiting. I thought to myself, “Hit me off with a little loot.”

Grandpa pulled out a bankroll that needed three mail-carrier strength rubber bands to keep its neat, cylindrical form. You can imagine how wide my eyes opened as Grandpa started to peel away bills. The bills seemed to fall off the roll like autumn leaves. In the end, Grandpa gave me $50. (The education cost more than $18,000 a year).

Now Allegheny College is more than $50,000 a year in direct costs, and according to Kiplinger’s, a private financial advising company, Allegheny College is again included among the 100 “best values” in liberal arts colleges in the nation.

Attending Allegheny College was one of the wisest investments I ever made (the first op-ed I ever wrote was about diversity, for the school newspaper, the Campus), and yet I still have loan debt. My Pell grant only covered so much, and the lifestyle of most of the students who attended Allegheny took away my grandfather’s $50 gift in the first few days.

But if I didn’t have a quality college education, I would probably still be in Pittsburgh driving my grandfather’s Accord (great cars).

College isn’t supposed to make smart people poor. That’s why I stood and applauded Obama’s proposal to make the first two years of community college free, which will increase access for low-income students.

In the words of a low-income high school graduate, I shouted, “Free college.” It sounded as loud as the cheers we heard from low-income mothers almost two years ago. Remember the bellow of “Free pre-K” we heard from urban and rural America after Obama announced his plan for universal pre-K from the House of Representative chambers during his 2013 State of the Union Address?

And most mothers were left with no more than the same $50 my grandfather left me, because Congress couldn’t find the money

If Congress can find the money this time (a tall task), Obama’s plan would pay 75 percent of the tuition of students who attend a community college at least half-time and take credits that are transferable to a four-year institution. States would have to agree to pony-up the remaining 25 percent (a taller task), and colleges would have to institute evidenced based reforms to improve student outcomes (maybe the tallest task).

“Put simply, what I’d like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said in a Facebook video.

Obama’s plan wouldn’t have helped me, but it’s a start toward having our educational system meet quality-of-life needs of the 21st century. The Pew Research Center found that the value of a college degree is increasing with time while the value of a high school diploma is depreciating. Today, 22 percent of Americans with a high school diploma only are living in poverty, compared with 7 percent of Baby Boomers who held a high school diploma only in 1979, when they were in their late 20s and early 30s.

The reality is that to live a middle-class lifestyle, at least two years of college is as necessary as high school. Consequently, we should think of the first two years of college as the 13th and 14th grades. We never think that everyone receives a grant in elementary and high school, but they do. Why not for college if it is as necessary?

In spite of seemingly non-partisan acknowledgement that universal pre-K is a worthy investment, Congress didn’t find the money. If we can’t find money for adorable babies, do you think we’ll find it for rusty adults? Obama’s latest proposal will receive the same kind of unfunded support if a new lobbying strategy isn’t employed.

We shouldn’t expect Congress put the money where the public’s mouth is. It’s time for disparate educational groups as well as civil rights organizations to move Congress to make universal pre-K and the first two years of college as accessible as elementary and high school.

The nature of our workforce demands a womb to tomb educational system – real lifelong learning. It will take the early childhood, K-12, and higher education lobbies to enjoin the support of civil rights groups and others to give the public what we want.

I’m calling for teachers unions and education-reform groups to rally their members and funders to lobby Congress to fund these “bookends” of an education. I’m calling for the Urban League, NAACP, Planned Parenthood and GLAD to issue joint statements demanding universal pre-K and free community college. Four-year institutions can’t be so self-interested that they don’t muster support for their community college brethren.

At some point, the education community should act like one. The need for universal pre-K and free community college can be the basis for a short-term convergence of interest.

For too long, disparate educational groups have fought selfishly for their own organizational survival. Consequently, we regularly cut off our noses to spite our faces. Education reformers and unions demonize each other, while all teachers and administrators struggle to meet the needs of every child. Democrats and the GOP stay fighting on vouchers and choice while we fail to provide quality public options. Four-year colleges give the side-eye to any support for community colleges.

There should be moments when all sects of education rally behind a common cause or enemy. And then, educators have to convince other organizations and voters to apply similar pressure.

Can’t we all just get along? Probably not. However, we should be able to agree that the bookends of pre-K and the first two years of college are as essential as elementary and secondary schooling. The proposal simply won’t get funding without a new, broad coalition of people who do not typically work together.

I loved my Grandpa (When he died, I looked in his mattress for that bankroll), but he shouldn’t have been responsible for subsidizing the education society demands me to have.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

One thing schools should do to boost students’ intellectual growth

One thing schools should do to
boost students’ intellectual growth
by Valerie Strauss

Marion Brady is a veteran educator who has long argued that public education needs a paradigm shift, though not the same one that school reformers who push the Common Core State Standards, school choice and vouchers want to see. What Brady and like-minded educators say is needed is an overhaul in what and how students learn. You can see some of his earlier pieces on this here (Why Common Core isn’t the answer), here (One way to solve America’s major curriculum problem) and here  (‘The Procedure’ and how it is harming public education). Here’s his newest.

By Marion Brady

America’s schools aren’t going to significantly improve until their flat performance is correctly diagnosed and addressed.

The problem isn’t teacher incompetence. Neither is it poor subject-matter standards, too-short school days or years, kids’ lack of grit, inadequate teacher training programs, failure to unleash market forces, union protection of bad teachers, insufficient academic rigor, or any of the other reasons currently being advanced.

Much that affects learner performance—poverty, disability, education of parents, local culture, and so on—can’t be fixed by education policy.  A fundamental performance-limiting problem that can be fixed in school but has never been adequately addressed is this: INFORMATION OVERLOAD.

The human brain is wonderful. Nobody yet knows the extent of its potential. But about one of the brain’s characteristics, there’s not the slightest doubt: IT DOES A POOR JOB OF STORING AND RETRIEVING WHAT THE TRADITIONAL CORE CURRICULUM GIVES IT—RANDOM, UNORGANIZED INFORMATION.

Every adult who has attended a typical secondary school knows that’s true, but the core is treated as if Moses had brought it down from Mt. Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. (Actually, it emerged from a three-day meeting of 10 school administrators in 1892.)

That the information being dumped on millions of kids by the core curriculum is “learned” is a myth, a fiction, a very expensive joke.

SKEPTIC: You’re not serious! Where’s the proof?

MB (Me): The end-of-course testing ritual.

SKEPTIC: How does that prove that learning isn’t happening?

MB: Learners prepare for the tests by cramming.

SKEPTIC: Cramming is what serious students do. It’s a normal part of learning.

MB: No, it’s a normal part of test-driven schooling, which has little to do with learning. Cramming of previously “covered” information isn’t learned. It’s shoved into short-term memory to meet a short-term goal—passing a test. When the test is over, the information is dumped.

SKEPTIC: Some of it will be remembered.

MB: That’s the hope of those who subscribe to the discredited learning theory that if you throw enough mud on the wall, some of it is bound to stick. America is spending well over a half-trillion dollars a year on schooling. That “some of it will be remembered” isn’t much of a return on that enormous investment. Even more alarming is the waste of learner time and intellectual potential, the costs of which are inestimable.

SKEPTIC: So what do you suggest?

MB: We need to face up to the information overload problem. It’s not the amount of information the core unloads on kids—the brain can handle that, and much more. The problem is the core’s lack of information organizers. Even if every subject in the core had a simple, workable memory-organizing system (and none of them does), it’s unreasonable to expect kids to cope, simultaneously, with five or six different information-organizing systems.

SKEPTIC: I don’t see an alternative.

MB: And neither will anyone else as long as the adequacy of the core is taken for granted. What learners must have in their heads if they’re to cope with the knowledge explosion is an information organizer that makes everything they know part of a single, simple, easily used structure of knowledge. Logic, not undependable memory, is the best tool for retrieving what’s in our heads.

SKEPTIC: How is that possible? The kinds of information the core subjects cover is just too different and too specialized to be stored and accessed by just one organizer.

MB: Thousands of years before the academic disciplines and the school subjects based on them became the organizers of schooling, humans were creating complex civilizations, dreaming up sophisticated theories and philosophies, completing vast engineering projects, building still-standing monuments. Could they have done that without organized thought? No.

SKEPTIC: Well, they might not have given names like “biology,” “geography,” “chemistry,” “economics,” and so on to specialized knowledge, but they were specializations just the same.

MB: True. But those specializations morphed out of organized general knowledge.

SKEPTIC: General knowledge doesn’t have organizers.

MB: Of course it has organizers. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be knowledge, just random information. Organized information—knowledge—is fundamental to humanness, survival, civil society, routine functioning.

SKEPTIC: And those organizers are…?

MB: The ones I’ve been pointing out for decades, the ones everyone uses all the time, the ones ignored by policymakers. The basic organizers of all knowledge—general and specialized—are the five elements of our best models of reality—stories and drama. We create stories, plays, and common sense by locating experiences in time and space, identifying the participating actors, describing what happened or is happening, noting, insofar as possible, the states of mind of the actors, then weaving the five together systemically. That’s five kinds of information—time, place, actors, plot, action—systemically integrated. Or, to put it even more simply—when, where, who, what, why—systemically integrated.

SKEPTIC: That’s too simple to be useful.

MB: Simple, yes, but only at the most general level, which it needs to be to provide initial access to everything stored in memory. Think of the five elements as the brain’s interstate highways, connecting to state roads (history, geography, government, etc.) which connect to county roads (time lines, topography, democracy, etc.) Everything connected to everything, on a single map.

For example, my morning paper tells me that Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to demolish the West Bank Settlement of Amona because it was built on privately owned Palestinian land. Kids coming to that news item “cold” wouldn’t be able to make adequate sense of it. Kids bringing the five organizers to the news item wouldn’t be able to make good sense of it either, but they’d know what they needed to find out. The news item tells them who, when, where, and what, but says nothing about the fifth element, the “why” that explains Palestinian and Israeli actors’ actions. Knowing what they didn’t know, kids would start down the “why” road searching for Palestinian and Israeli actors’ values, beliefs, world views. Eventually, they’d learn about the complexities of the situation.

If, before subjecting adolescents to the intricacies of specialized studies, they’re given activities that help them conclude, for themselves, how their brains select, sort, store, relate, integrate, and manipulate existing information and create new information, their intellectual performance will easily surpass that of every previous generation.

Don’t tell me I’m exaggerating the benefits of helping adolescents understand how they process information. Thousands of hours of working directly with them, reading their journals, listening as they generate explanatory hypotheses, postulate causal sequences, invent graphic representations of complex relationships, interpret unfamiliar data from other cultures, and much, much else, tell me I’m right.

Formal, deliberate use of the five-element information organizer we routinely use except in school would give us something we don’t now have—a true general education academic discipline. Not only could that discipline replace thus-far failed attempts to create coherent curricula using various mixes of specialized studies, it would radically enhance memory, make clear the holistic nature of knowledge, lay a solid foundation for life-long learning, stretch learners’ minds in ways the core will never be able to do, make apparent the importance of fields of study and ways of learning shoved aside by reading and math test prep, expose the superficiality of instruction limited by what commercial publishers produce—just to start a list of the benefits of a curriculum that respects the systemic nature of knowledge.

A true general education discipline can do all that and more, and do it better and quicker. Its efficiency would give magnet schools more time to focus on their specializations. Project-based schools could undertake more complex projects. Art, music, dance, drama, and other electives sacrificed to test-based “reform” could be reinstalled and expanded. Highly specialized classes could be offered. Learners could undertake field work and apprenticeships. And teachers could plan together, exploiting the richness of a curriculum that aligns and integrates their specializations.

Skepticism is acceptable. Rejection without a trial, isn’t.

What Schools Could Use Instead Of Standardized Tests

What Schools Could Use Instead Of Standardized Tests
by Anya Kamenetz

Close your eyes for a minute and daydream about a world without bubble tests.

Education Week recently reported that some Republican Senate aides are doing more than dreaming — they’re drafting a bill that would eliminate the federal mandate on standardized testing.

Annual tests for every child in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, plus one in high school, have been a centerpiece of federal education law since 2002. No Child Left Behind, the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires them.

But this law has been overdue for reauthorization since before President Obama took office. The Senate plans to take the matter up early this year.

Discussions about cutting back on these requirements comes at a time of growing concern about the number of tests kids take and the time they spend taking them. Parents in some communities have formed “opt out” groups and removed their children not only from federally mandated tests but also the legions of state- and district-required tests that have followed.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the country’s largest school districts have spoken out in favor of reducing the number of standardized tests students take. The national teachers unions and other traditionally Democratic groups are on board with the idea too.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he is concerned about testing too, but he has written he “strongly believes” in annual tests as an educational tool.

Missing from this debate, however, is a sense of what could replace annual tests. What would the nation do to monitor learning and ensure equity and accountability if states didn’t have to test every child every year?

Here are four possible answers. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, they could all happen at the same time, as different states and districts make different decisions.

1) Sampling. A simple approach. The same tests, just fewer of ’em. Accountability could be achieved at the district level by administering traditional standardized tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year.

That’s how the “Nation’s Report Card” works. Formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, it’s one of the longest-running and most trusted tests in the U.S. education arsenal, even though it’s not attached to high stakes. It’s given to a different sample of students each year, in grades 4, 8 and 12. The widely respected international test PISA is given to a sample of students too.

2) Stealth assessment. Similar math and reading data, but collected differently.

The major textbook publishers, plus companies like Dreambox, Scholastic and the nonprofit Khan Academy, all sell software for students to practice math and English. These programs register every single answer a student gives.

The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost and anxiety of “stop and test” in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year or entire school career. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University and former principal research scientist at ETS, coined the term “stealth assessment” to describe this approach.

Stealth assessment doesn’t just show which skills a student has mastered at a given moment. The pattern of answers potentially offers insights into how quickly students learn, how diligent they are and other big-picture factors.

“Invisible, integrated assessment, to me, is the future,” Kimberly O’Malley, the senior vice president of school research at Pearson Education, told me. “We can monitor students’ learning day to day in a digital scenario. Ultimately, if we’re successful, the need for, and the activity of, stopping and testing will go away in many cases.”

Applying this approach on a national scale using scientific methods has never been done, in part because the products are still new. It would probably require a large outlay in terms of software, professional training and computer equipment — and would result in a corresponding windfall for companies like Pearson.

3) Multiple measures. Incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and school performance into accountability measures.

Statewide longitudinal data systems now track students in most states from pre-K all the way through high school (and in some states, college). That means accountability measures and interventions don’t have to depend on the outcome of just one test. They could take a big-data approach, combining information from a number of different sources — graduation rates, discipline outcomes, demographic information, teacher-created assessments and, eventually, workforce outcomes. This information, in turn, could be used to gauge the performance of students, schools and teachers over time.

As part of a multiple-measures approach, some districts are also collecting different kinds of information about students.

3a) Social and emotional skills surveys. Research shows that at least half of long-term chances of success are determined by nonacademic qualities like grit, perseverance and curiosity. As states expand access to pre-K, they are including social and emotional measures in their definitions of “high quality” preschool. As one component of a multiple-measures system, all schools could be held accountable for cultivating this half of the picture.

The Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland survey both students and teachers on social and emotional factors and use the results to guide internal decision-making. The district uses the Gallup student poll, a 20-question survey that seeks to measure levels of hope, engagement and well-being.

“Engagement” is basically a measure of how excited students are to be in the building. Last year, 875,000 students took the Gallup poll nationwide, in grades 5-12. According to one study, student hope scores on this poll do a better job of predicting college persistence and GPA than do high school GPA, SATs or ACT scores.

3b) Game-based assessments.

Video-game-like assessments, such as those created by GlassLab and the AAA lab at Stanford, are designed to get at higher-order thinking skills. These games are designed to test things like systems thinking or the ability to take feedback — measures that traditional tests don’t get at. Of course, they are still in their infancy.

3c) Performance or portfolio-based assessments.

Schools around the country are incorporating direct demonstrations of student learning into their assessment programs. These include projects, individual and group presentations, reports and papers and portfolios of work collected over time. The New York Performance Standards Consortium consists of 28 schools, grades 6-12, throughout New York State that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests. These public schools tend to show higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools.

4) Inspections.

Scotland is a place where you can see many of the approaches above in action. Unlike the rest of the U.K., it has no specifically government-mandated school tests. Schools do administer a sampling survey of math and literacy, and there is a series of high-school-exit/college-entrance exams that are high stakes for students. But national education policy emphasizes a wide range of approaches to assessment, including presentations, performances and reports. These are designed to measure higher-order skills like creativity, students’ well-being and technological literacy as well as traditional academics. Schools and teachers have a lot of control over the methods of evaluation.

At the school level, Scotland maintains accountability through a system of government inspections that has been in place in the U.K. since 1833. Inspectors observe lessons, look at student work and interview both students and staff members.

Teachers to the Test

Teachers to the Test

by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Evaluating educators based on their students’ exam
scores is misguided and threatens reform efforts.

GREAT NECK, N.Y. — On September 2, the day her principal shared each teacher’s annual evaluation, Sheri Lederman came home from work and announced to her husband that she was ready to quit.

In the span of one year, Lederman’s score dropped 13 percentage points. Suddenly, she was demoted from an “effective” teacher to an “ineffective” one. It was enough to make her head spin. After all, this marks Lederman’s 18th year in the classroom. She teaches fourth grade at the Elizabeth M. Baker Elementary School in Great Neck, a middle-class suburb about 20 miles from New York City.

A statewide teacher ranking system was implemented in 2012 and changed how educators were assessed. Nearly half of Lederman’s score—40 percent—was tied to her students’ test scores and the number of kids who progressed on statewide exams. The rest of the rating was based on classroom evaluations conducted by administrators. Depending on the final percentage, teachers in New York received ratings of “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing,” or “ineffective.” Teachers who received ineffective ratings for two consecutive years could face an expedited dismissal process—a fate that Lederman now fears might soon be her own.

The same year these new test-based evaluations went into effect, New York State launched the Common Core State Standards, controversial learning benchmarks that are being rolled out across the country. Along with these new standards came tests more difficult than schools had ever seen—and these exams sent student scores plummeting. This presented a great problem for teachers, who now had to depend on good scores on hard tests just to achieve a rating that wouldn’t put their job in jeopardy.

Lederman was an early believer in the Common Core, standards that aim to deepen students’ critical thinking and enhance problem-solving skills. With a Ph.D. in human development and educational psychology, Lederman was drawn to the idea that students in different states could develop a similar knowledge base and shared skill sets across an array of subject areas. But the concurrent rollout of new standards on top of harder tests—not to mention the addition of the stringent teacher evaluation system—has more than soured her on the Common Core.

Among educators, Lederman is hardly alone in her belief that that the one-two punch of Common Core and new test-based school reform is far too cumbersome and overwhelming—for both teachers and students.

At first Lederman was fine with the changes. Nearly 70 percent of Lederman’s fourth-grade students did well on the new Common Core-based tests, scoring far above the state average. And after scoring perfectly on her classroom observations and students’ district test performance, Lederman easily achieved an “effective” rating.

But things changed this year. The state gave her just one out of 20 possible points on the state’s Common Core-test ranking because her new batch of students performed slightly more poorly than her previous class, and teachers’ ratings are based largely on year-to-year progress. Even though these new 18 students far surpassed state averages in both reading and math—and even though Lederman once again achieved high district scores—these strides weren’t enough to overcome the low score on the state portion of the evaluation.

So, Lederman, whose husband is a lawyer, decided to take action: In late October, she filed a lawsuit against the state’s education department alleging that the new evaluations punish teachers rather than award excellence, among other claims. A hearing is scheduled for March 20.

Lederman’s lawsuit is emblematic of a major backlash that’s erupted across the country over the last year against both teacher evaluations and the Common Core—an uproar that’s become mainstream, extending beyond the realm of teachers and administrators. The outcry has fueled legislation in some states, as well as multiple lawsuits aimed at dialing back the new policies.

A coalition of policymakers and business leaders introduced the Common Core in 2010, and more than 40 states adopted it by the following year. Simultaneously, over the past few years nearly 40 states have adopted laws linking teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests—and these tests typically assess whether kids are fulfilling the new standards.

Essentially, two groups of reformers were plugging away at ideas to transform education—and they came barreling down the track at exactly the same time. Though New York was one of the first states to tie teacher evaluations to the test scores, a slew of other states has followed suit. The reviews are designed to determine teachers’ tenure, promotion, or termination as a means of ensuring, in theory, that the best educators stay in the classroom and the worst ones are weeded out. But educators say the policies’ joint rollout has been flawed. Now, even die-hard advocates for the reforms are questioning whether the clashes over the changes will ultimately derail both ideas.

Sandi Jacobs, an executive at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a controversial nonprofit that advocates for tougher teacher standards, described this double-whammy as the accidental convergence of reform efforts: “How didn’t we see this coming and the problems it was going to cause with the federal government prioritizing these two issues all at once?” Jacobs continued. “There wasn’t enough concern about how these things were running down the path together until the tests became an issue.”

Even Joe Williams, who directs Democrats for Education Reform—a contentious advocacy group that supports test-based evaluations and changes to current tenure laws—agrees that the rollout has been clunky. Different factions of the reform world seized upon opportunities that occurred at the same time and ignored what their counterparts were doing, he suggested. “There were two separate conversations happening,” he said. “One hand didn’t necessarily always know what the other hand was doing.”

Some supporters of the new standards have blamed the Obama administration for stepping in with its own ambitious and controversial education initiatives, including the competitive Race to the Top program. The program incentivized a number of states, including New York, to attempt a potpourri of reforms at once, including the stringent teacher evaluations and standards that eventually became known as Common Core. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blames Race to the Top and its “fixation on data and testing” for squelching the enthusiasm that initially accompanied the standards. New York’s rollout, she said, was particularly egregious.

“This does not create confidence in public education, and a lot of people are saying let’s just throw the whole thing out,” said Weingarten, referring to the Common Core. “For those of us who believed in the potential of the standards, we’ve also lost a lot of credibility.”

Now, some states look like they’ll delay accountability efforts indefinitely, while others are tweaking how much the assessments count in teachers’ annual evaluations.

Even people who helped develop the standards are worried about this collision, including Phil Daro and Susan Pimentel, who co-authored the math and reading benchmarks. But Daro said factors outside of the standards are to blame, namely testing: “Right now, everything is being blamed on the Common Core. There’s an ‘everything at once’ mentality, as if slowing down is bogging down,” Daro said. Pimentel, meanwhile, has been working to align materials and tests to new standards, while helping teachers make huge shifts. She said prematurely tying the assessments to teacher evaluations risks alienating teachers from the standards themselves.

And, last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the Common Core standards’ development, called on states to hold off on tying teacher performance to the tests. Education secretary Arne Duncan announced something similar later that summer.

It’s no surprise that teachers’ support for the standards has quickly waned. Among 1,600 teachers polled from around the country, the percentage of those who are enthusiastic about the Common Core has rapidly dropped—from 73 to 68 percent in the last year alone, according to a study commissioned by Scholastic.

Many educators in New York are wary things can be salvaged, including Adam Urbanski, the longtime president of the Rochester Teachers Association. “I do not have confidence this can be fixed,” he said, noting that the state’s new reforms are “poisoning the well.”

Last year, labeling the rankings “junk science,” the union filed a pending lawsuit against the state, citing a discrepancy in how urban teachers are ranked versus their suburban counterparts. Moreover, while only 2 percent of Rochester’s 3,400 teachers received “highly effective” ratings during the 2012-13 year, that figure suddenly jumped to 46 percent the year after.

“Unless you believe in miracles, I predict that next year, we’ll see another incredible swing,” said Urbanski, a retired social studies teacher who used to support the standards. “Huge variations are part and parcel of unreliable systems. If it weren’t so sad, it would be laughable.”

Urbanski also said the new metrics unfairly penalize teachers who work with disadvantaged students, noting that an unprecedented number of educators have voluntarily resigned or retired early in the last two years. More concerning, he sees tenured teachers unwilling to work with student teachers for fear of disrupting their students’ test scores. As a result, Rochester-based private and charter schools have used their exemption from the Common Core to recruit faculty and lure students.

Meanwhile, while teachers in other states that have adopted the changes more gradually seem to be benefitting, many are still confused. One such teacher is Arizona’s Lauren D’Amico, who’s experienced the sudden jolt of the new system. Two years ago, D’Amico’s district launched test-based evaluations, with scores accounting for 25 percent of teachers’ ratings. That ratio shot up to 40 percent the following year. For the 2012-13 school year, D’Amico was labeled as “developing.” This past September, her score shot up two levels—to “highly effective”—as part of a rating system that mirrors that in New York.

But Williams, of Democrats for Education Reform, cautions against reverting back to the old evaluation system, which he described as unfair to good teachers. In New York, teachers previously received two ratings: “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” And, despite mediocre student test scores, 94 percent of teachers across New York State received “highly effective” or “effective ratings” this past fall; in some districts, not a single teacher received an ineffective rating.

“I’m scratching my head and wondering what kind of teacher I’m going to be this year,” said D’Amico, who’s been a elementary-school teacher for eight years. “If I went from developing to highly effective, what could this year have in store for me? It’s a bogus system.” (Now, her district has further ratcheted up the stakes by implementing a merit-pay system that ties final ratings to annual bonuses, which range between $1,000 and $5,000.) And to make matters more confusing, Arizona has stopped using the Common Core-based test it used initially, forcing students to take and teachers to adapt to an unfamiliar end-of-the-year exam.

Among the changes is another round of shifts in how Arizona teachers get evaluated. D’Amico used to come away with detailed feedback from her principal; now, she’s graded on a rubric. D’Amico says she’s sensing a precipitous drop in morale among her colleagues.

“When you have everybody reduced to numbers, it doesn’t create a good atmosphere,”

said D’Amico, who also initially supported the Common Core. “It doesn’t help teachers teach and it doesn’t help children learn. Launching everything all at once, it just takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.”

Yes, You Can Use Government Money to Get Out of Student Loan Default

Yes, You Can Use Government Money
to Get Out of Student Loan Default

by Steve Rhode

Sometimes in life you come across something that seems like it just simply can’t be true. This seems like one of those things, but in this case it is absolutely and unbelievably true.

In almost all other parts of the financial world, someone who is even slightly behind on their bills is considered to be a bad credit risk and lenders shun them. Nobody seems to want to lend you money when you need it the most. That is till this program came along.

But much of what you would assume when it comes to dealing with student loan debt is in reality the opposite of what you would expect.

Take being more than 270 days past due on your federal student loans. It’s not till you get nine months behind on your student loans that you are even considered to be in default. Up till that time you’ve just been mildly delinquent.

The government doesn’t like student loan holders to be in default. But what they like even less is for people to put their head in the sand and ignore the situation so horribly that it winds up requiring the government to engage an Administrative Wage Garnishment. But hell, even those are easy to stop if you know what to do. In fact if you want to know that secret, click here.

So to wrench defaulted people back from the clutches of being behind on their student loans, the government wants to lend you low interest rate money to not only bring your loans instantly current, but to also lower your payment at the same time.

By now you must be saying to yourself, why don’t more people take the government up on this great offer? Well that answer isn’t so complicated. You see most of the government student loan servicing gets farmed out to outside companies. And those folks either really suck at their jobs, don’t care, or have other reasons for not sharing the easy answers.

If I was a conspiracy nut I might even think the collectors make more from keeping someone in collections than helping them to get out of default and current again.

And as if this all sounds too good to be true, let me share with you another unbelievable fact, the government offers this program for free and charges no fee to allow you to borrow your way out of student loan default.

All the details on this program can be found right here.

Frankly, if someone you know is facing a default on their federal student loans, and they don’t learn more about this program, they are just plain silly.

This government program will make an Administrative Wage Garnishment unnecessary, prevent tax refund intercepts, prevent people from being sued, and lower the monthly payment based on what the student loan holder can afford.

For once, something that sounds too good to be true, really is.

Teachers Will Embrace Students’ Smartphone Addiction In 2015

Teachers Will Embrace Students’ Smartphone Addiction In 2015
by Joe Mathewson

These are heady days for education technology. In fact, with big investments in outfits like Everspring and Udemy, I’d say 2014 was the biggest year yet in edtech. However, if you thought that was impressive, you haven’t seen anything yet. What does 2015 hold for the year in this fast-moving sector?

Technology Will Get Embedded

Of course, classrooms have been using computers for decades, but 2014 was a year when many schools began to adopt technology as an embedded, natural part of teaching and learning. As many schools have tried out these products and services, teachers and pupils alike have whetted their appetites with early glimpses at the possibilities.

Next year is when institutions will consolidate their positions and settle on solutions for adoption in the years ahead. As this happens, technology will become an intrinsic part of the learning process rather than an afterthought.

Cloud Will Come Into Its Own

Adoption of cloud-based technologies is booming. But education lags behind other industries in embracing the opportunity. This year, educators will finally start to really take advantage of the possibilities, e.g. storing documents and managing webmail, as well as more classroom-specific services including cloud-based learning management systems.The more that schools are allowed to manage their own budgets, and the more that local governments themselves look to cut costs, the more schools will move toward cloud solutions. This can significantly reduce spending and allow schools to focus on teaching rather than technology.

Expectations Will Increase

Now that many educators have begun to use connected classroom technologies, their demand for ever-more sophisticated solutions will blossom.

Indeed, many teachers are now used to using highly effective but easy-to-manage web tools in their personal lives. In the year ahead, they will bang the drum for similar adoption at school, not wanting to settle for shoehorning an education imperative in to off-the-shelf consumer products.

Teachers Will Embrace, Not Outlaw, Pupils’ Mobiles

Smartphones have entirely changed the way we interact. A recent study found many people check theirs as many as 100 times a day. Teachers recognize the pattern among youngsters, but fighting against the tide is futile, and banning a device to which pupils are so emotionally connected is more destructive than helpful.

However, U.K. experiments in which schools give students mobile devices in classrooms showed higher motivation, attentiveness and achievement. In the year ahead, as more proof of outcomes emerges, more teachers are likely to work with, not against, the gadgets.

Curation Will Become Crucial

English education minister Nick Gibb recently called for a textbook “renaissance” in schools. Of course, the Internet has provided stiff competition to the printed tomes, offering up-to-date information on subject areas that can often move fast. But in my view, this increases the necessity for the kind of editing and curation that books have provided for decades.

The authority of qualified editors helps students better judge which content to believe in. As a sea of available information threatens to swamp students in 2015, many will recognize that single truths are crucial. That may not mean a comeback for books in print, but it will mean a newfound respect for the kind of knowledge they can deliver in digital.

Parents Use Technology to Complement Passions

Parents are increasingly demanding online access to their children’s learning and development progress. Caring parents in 2015 will make sure they are aware of and are using all the positive educational benefits technology can provide to learning, research and homework.

But it will be important to deploy technology in ways that truly engage children. This is best done by discovering what children are most interested in — be it coding or poetry — and helping to provide new lenses on those topics to explore a wealth of inspiring content.