What Is the Impact of a School District?

What Is the Impact of a School District?

by Eric Lerum

Do school districts matter?

The Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institute released an interesting report today that asks, and attempts to answer, this very question.

It’s an important question. The authors — Grover Whitehurst, Matthew Chingos, and Michael Gallaher — note that leaders of school districts soak up more than their share of the spotlight when it comes to education reform. And they’re compensated well to boot. As a result, one might expect that when it comes to raising student achievement, school districts and their leaders are a pretty big deal.

The findings?

For the Brookings authors, the conclusion is, “Yes, but other factors matter more and additional study is needed.” Districts do have a significant impact on student achievement. What we still don’t know, however, is what exactly they do to cause it or what else districts might be influencing (more on that later).

The report looks at the reading and math assessment data over the decade for every 4th and 5th grader in Florida and North Carolina beginning in the 2000-2001 school year (about 500,000 students). They examined data for classrooms, schools, and districts, while controlling for student demographics.

They found that they could only account for about 1 percent of the variance in student achievement at the school district level. This is compared to nearly 2 percent at the school level and a nearly 7 percent variance at the teacher level. Other factors, like unexplained characteristics, student level differences, and demographic controls account for the remainder of the variance.

Breaking down the analysis further, the report finds that there are districts at both ends of the spectrum — districts that negatively impact student achievement and districts whose impacts are significantly positive. In other words, there is a clear delineation among districts that add and subtract value when it comes to student learning.

What should we take away?

First, even though the effects of districts may be relatively small compared to other factors, districts are still important. In fact, the average 4th grader in a top-performing district in North Carolina was 80 percent of the school year ahead of the average 4th grader in the lowest performing district. How would you like to have an additional 7-8 months of learning packed into the same school year for your child?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the unanswered question raised by this study. There’s no mention of the role or impact districts have on increasing the likelihood that other factors exist (like highly effective teachers and high performing schools). This is a big deal — or at least, I sure think so.

District leaders are often the ones responsible for leading reform efforts, like improving teacher quality or creating new schools with special programs. District leaders find innovative ways to award greater autonomy for school leaders to achieve results. And district leaders are undoubtedly responsible for whether or not low-performing schools continue to exist (though it’s not as easy to say the same when it comes to personnel).

From my own experience working in D.C., I witnessed the effects of district leadership on all of the issues above: closing underperforming schoolsand creating new programs; setting higher standards for teachers; and establishing a new performance pay system that enables schools to attract and retain the very best teachers in greater numbers.

As the study shows (and numerous others have indicated before), better schools and stronger teachers have a significant impact on student achievement. And we’ve even seen research that describes the impact of school leaders on factors like teacher quality and student achievement.

Going forward, I am interested in knowing how much of the impact from school and teacher factors can be influenced and controlled by, and therefore attributed to, the quality of the district itself. Because if a high performing district is also responsible for exposing more kids to effective teachers and providing more quality options to families, then yes, that district matters.

A lot.

Close Corporate Tax Loopholes, Not Public Schools

Close Corporate Tax Loopholes, Not Public Schools

by Carl Gibson

If you’re in a canoe that’s got a hole letting in water, do you throw the other passenger overboard who is helping you row, or do you just patch the hole and keep rowing?

Chicago public schools are facing a $1 billion deficit. The corporate media would like you to believe it’s due to excessive spending and that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to close more than 50 schools, most of them in low-income neighborhoods, is the only solution. But the state of Illinois loses $4.8 billion annually in federal tax dollars due to corporate tax loopholes that shift profits overseas. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that simply closing these excessive loopholes would save the schools that so many kids in Chicago depend upon for their education.

These corporate tax loopholes cost us over $100 billion a year in federal tax dollars, which results in state and local budget cuts and tax hikes due to a decreased allocation of federal funds. The corporations most known for complex offshore tax avoidance schemes get these loopholes by spending millions on hiring armies of lobbyists and in campaign donations to chairmen and ranking members of tax-writing committees in Congress.

The lobbyists submit draft paragraphs of new gimmicks and loopholes to those committees. The campaign donations continue to flow toward reelection campaigns with the understanding that those who are making the donations get what they want out of their sponsored politicians. Thanks to this corrupt process, the tax code grows longer and more complex year after year, the most recent version topping out at roughly 72,000 pages.

There is already legislation on the books in both the House and Senate to close most of these loopholes and rein in roughly $60 billion a year. A small sales tax on Wall Street transactions would raise roughly $150 billion a year, more than enough to offset the cuts that are closing 50 schools. These aren’t radical solutions; they’re based on the simple premise that if you hire Americans, sell to Americans, use American public services and infrastructure and make the bulk of your profits in America, you should pay the American corporate tax rate of 35 percent.

Ever since Brown vs. Board of Education, there has been a coordinated right-wing attack on free education. The latest plot is an attempt to close public schools and turn them into low-performing, for-profit charter schools funded by Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers. The attempts to do this are disguised as “reform,” but are really little more than an effort to bust teachers’ unions and cede public education over to the authority of big corporations.

Public schools to educate our children aren’t a burden to the state, they’re an investment. If you want more kids to grow up into responsible, successful adults who contribute to our society, and if you want lower crime rates and prison populations, investing in good public education makes sense. We need our kids to help row the canoe down the river, not throw them out while ignoring the gaping hole in the boat. It’s time to stop making our kids pay for their crisis.

Disappearing Act

Disappearing Act

by Virginia Myers

End the testing fixation before it erases more meaningful education.

WHEN IT COMES TO TESTING, teachers, parents and even some students agree on one thing: They have had about all they can take. And for good reason. The fixation on testing is putting undue stress on educators as well as students, and, in many instances, punishing teachers and schools. It’s also shortchanging vital parts of the curriculum, including arts, music and physical education.

Bonnie Cunard, who teaches eighth-grade language arts in Fort Myers, Fla., feels the pinch in her classroom, sacrificing hours to test preparation and administration. For seven of the 10 months in the school year, the entire language arts curriculum revolves around the writing portion of standardized tests, says Cunard, a member of the Teachers Association of Lee County. Students sacrifice time they could spend studying literature to practice persuasive and expository writing, because if they don’t do well the school could lose its Title I status and the corresponding resources it needs to serve these children.

The system destroys holistic learning, says Cunard, noting also that it adds a lot of pressure. “The school is depending on me for the writing scores.” Meanwhile, her personal evaluations (based on the value-added model) depend on reading scores—and she doesn’t even teach reading; that’s another teacher’s responsibility. “It’s frustrating,” says Cunard. “I feel like I have no control.”

In Chicago, children as young as 4 are lining up for multiple standardized tests. “We’re doing it to our babies,” protests preschool teacher Kristen Roberts. Chicago preschoolers face a test called the Kindergarten Readiness Tool before they even enter elementary school; kindergartners endure 14 different standardized tests in one year. “I find it very demoralizing,” says Roberts. “Testing young children is developmentally inappropriate. This is damaging to teaching and to learning.”

Many parents agree.

The pressure’s on

Amy Green’s daughter, a third-grader, comes home close to tears on test days: Despite teacher assurance that the child might not know many of the answers, the tests make her “feel stupid.” For that reason, Green is keeping her younger son out of public schools and will enroll him in a private kindergarten instead. “I won’t subject him to 14 tests that are going to absolutely kill his self-esteem about who he is as a learner.”

Older students feel the stress, too. Members of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) joined the Chicago Teachers Union to protest over-testing, carrying chains of more than 12,000 pencils strung together to represent the number of hours students lose to standardized testing in a single year. In addition to swallowing up precious learning time as teachers teach to the test, too many tests are closely tied to school and teacher evaluations. Students object to this. “Our test scores should not be used to jeopardize our teachers’ careers,” high school junior Victor Alquicira told a large CTU rally last September. Quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, he added, “It’s not fair to judge teachers on student test scores when there so many factors beyond their control.”

Those sorts of factors can severely affect test scores on any given day, points out Philadelphia English teacher Bonnee Breese. At her high-poverty high school, students may arrive on test days with any number of personal crises that prevent them from performing well. Some are homeless, bouncing from homeless shelters to makeshift arrangements with relatives and friends. Others have parents who are largely unavailable to care for them and their siblings. “Sometimes there has been some sort of traumatic violence in their lives the night before the test, and they come in the next day because school is the only place they had to come,” says Breese, a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. She’s even had students attend school on testing days when “they couldn’t keep their heads up off the desk and stop crying because a parent had died the night before.”

In New York City, some parents are boycotting test days. “I want my school to use tests to help instruction, to help find out if kids don’t know fractions,” parent Lori Chajet told the New York Times. “I don’t want my child to feel like her score will decide if her teacher has a job or not.” Chajet kept her daughter home from school to protest a test designed to choose which questions should be included on future state exams.

“We believe education should focus on developing the imagination of a child, not on putting them through stressful and mind-numbing standardized tests, day after day,” reads the website for New York’s Parent Voices, an advocacy group against high-stakes testing. “We are here to say: Enough is Enough!”

Research shows how extreme the testing culture has become: A superintendent in Monroe County, N.Y., testified that in the first two months of school, more than 20,000 pretests were administered to 4,000 students; Florida teachers say their schools have some form of testing 80-90 school days a year; and in Texas, up to 45 days each school year are spent on testing activities.

A tool that doesn’t work

Many who follow education policy assert that intensive testing does not help students advance. In fact, some studies show that more students drop out when faced with an exit exam, which they must pass to graduate from high school. That would be the opposite of our goal: to educate every student.

Too many tests can erode the quality of education for students who stay in school as well: Teachers feel compelled to produce high scores, to protect their jobs and to keep their schools open, so they focus on rote learning and memorization, test-taking techniques and shallow approaches to material that could otherwise be presented in more creative, enriching ways. By emphasizing test success, critical-thinking skills and deeper learning are ignored. In fact, entire subject areas are abandoned, as testing focuses primarily on English and math. Science, music, art and physical education are often lost, programs downsized or even eliminated.

This is not to say that all testing is detrimental. But as the AFT’s resolution against high-stakes testing states, testing should inform, not impede, teaching and learning. “Public education should be obsessed with high-quality teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing,” AFT president Randi Weingarten says. “Tests have a role to play, but today’s fixation with them is undermining what we need to do to give kids a challenging and well-rounded education and to fairly measure teachers’ performance.”

Testing is particularly problematic when it becomes the sole determinant of success—or failure. When many factors can skew test results—student absences, large numbers of English language learners, and the personal traumas and stresses that may influence an individual student’s ability to focus on a test day—the tests need to be supplemented with other measures. Classroom observation, student portfolios and performance-based assessment are some options.

Equity and fairness

The accepted intention of testing is to improve performance for all students, in all schools. But many would argue that the opposite is true. When poor test scores result in school closings, tests can take away the very institutions our neediest students rely upon to improve: their neighborhood schools.

“There’s a huge impact,” says Monique Redoe, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, co-chair of the Chicago Black Teachers Caucus, and a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher. “We know we have biased tests,” she explains, citing the subjective nature of creating test questions that reflect the cultural background of the majority population, and not the life experience of minorities. The result: Low-income, minority students fail at disproportionate rates. “Because of that,” she says, “8 percent of the school closures have been in black communities.”

Once those public schools close, private schools move in. “I believe testing is a weapon,” says Redoe. “It’s being used as a weapon to privatize education.”

Zombie Class At Oregon Middle School Canceled After Parents Complain

Zombie Class At Oregon Middle
School
Canceled After Parents Complain

The Armand Larive Middle School in Hermiston, Ore., has canceled its after-school zombie apocalypse survival class, the Associated Press reports — a move that could leave developing brains vulnerable should the undead infiltrate northern Oregon.

CNET.com reports teacher Rich Harshberge’s extracurricular program informed students about the viral nature of the zombie disease and what to do if grandma is bitten — but the course was really about getting students to read and write. Harshberge told the East Oregonian (subscription required) that he was able to engage students who would have otherwise ignored the material or reading assignments such as “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From The Living Dead.”

Parents who were concerned about the class’s emphasis on violence and who questioned its educational value complained to the district.

Apparently, the curriculum was not approved by state officials. A statement on the school’s website from superintendent of schools Dr. Fred Maiocco reads:

The use of zombie-related materials is unfortunate and was not approved in accordance with district curricular policies. We extend our regrets to anyone offended by their use.

While zombies may be a contemporary topic, the inclusion of zombie-related materials was deemed inappropriate for middle school students and has been replaced with age and content-appropriate materials.

Maiocco told Fox affiliate KPTV that he “couldn’t believe that would actually be a class.”

Geekier pundits have slammed the school’s decision to cancel the zombie class, calling it incredibly lame and its replacement course, Exploratory Reading, a guide to how to become zombie food.

Geekosystem.com accused school officials of canceling the class in order to uphold their “sacred duty to make middle school the worst,” and called out parents, too:

To the parents who complained about this course, and we presume have forgotten what middle school was like entirely, we’d like to issue this reminder: No zombie in the history of cinema has ever had the potential to be as cruel as your average 7th grader.

Looks like middle schoolers still interested in zombie apocalypse survival will have to wait and apply to colleges like the University of Michigan or the University of Baltimore — schools that offer more advanced information on the theme.

The War Over Math and Reading

The War Over Math and Reading

by Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling

There is a simmering war (of words) about boys, girls, math, reading and why fewer women become scientists or technology experts. Sometimes, as with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summer’s 2005 remark that “there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences [with regard to becoming engineers] between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization,” the war explodes onto the front pages of the papers and wildly disrupts a major institution. Other times, it softly bubbles along in the arcane pages of scientific journals. Here the battle weapons include difficult to fathom statistics and uncertain claims about educational and social policy. A recent publication by psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary (Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading in the open access journal PLOSIone, provides a case in point.

Caveat Lector

All scientists have a point of view. This doesn’t necessarily make their results wrong, or unworthy of notice. But it does mean that readers need to understand interpretive angles as well as the actual data. One of my favorite sociologists, Bruno Latour nailed this in his pioneering book Science in Action. He compared the opening section of scientific papers — the one where the authors gather all the relevant literature and make a case for the importance of what will follow — to a grand opera. “Crowds of people,” Latour writes, “are mobilized by the references; from offstage hundreds of accessories are brought in…the heroes triumph over the powers of darkness, like the prince in The Magic Flute.” Latour has made me ever alert to opening gambits and I tripped over Stoet and Geary’s first paragraph well before I could dig into the meat of the article. Despite all the efforts, they write, to improve women’s participation in the scientific workforce, there continue to be “striking differences” in college majors and career choices. “Particularly notable” is the lack of Nobel Prizes going to women and the fact that no women have won any of the three major awards in mathematics.

Lack of prizes, the first accessory dragged on stage, provides the protective artillery for the next set of citations, all from a well-worn, heavily disputed literature on the performance of girls and boys on standardized tests in math and reading. For the authors the leap seems seamless. Lower performance on skill tests has something to do with the fact that women rarely earn Nobel or math prizes. I almost stopped reading right then except that this opening gambit made my blood boil. Prizes go to people who have done amazing work and who are known to and respected by their fellow scientists. But from the days that Robert Boyle first offered the idea that true science required the assent of “modest witnesses,” women have been denied fellowship. Boyle deemed women incapable of being modest witnesses (because they felt sorry for the birds killed during his vacuum experiments), and women were excluded from the major societies of accomplished scientists until surprisingly recently. For example, women were first admitted to the British Royal Academy of Sciences in 1945 (I was already one year old). Even today fewer than 10 percent of living Royal fellows are women, similar to the percentage of women members of the 150-year-old U.S. National Academies of Science.

What They Found

I had to get past what felt like a deliberate ignorance of the history of women in science before I could clear the stage for what, it turns out, is a not all that new or impressive a set of findings. Stoet and Geary used the results of standardized achievement tests in reading and mathematics from 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 provided by an international testing consortium called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Their data included almost 1.5 million 15-year-olds from about 75 different countries.

First, math: they divided the kids into low, average and exceptional test performers. The poorest and intermediate performers did not differ by sex, but at the highest achievement levels boys outperformed girls by a statistically significant but not very large amount (in technospeak about 0.2 of a standard deviation for the top 5 percent of math achievers). These differences were larger in some countries, non-existent in some and reversed in others. Stoet and Geary couldn’t really explain why. Did some countries (e.g. Iceland) do something right with regard to gender and math education, and others not? Is gender really the issue at all, or just figuring out how to convey mathematics in a way that students can learn it?

Next, reading: One of the interesting findings in this paper is that the relationship between reading performance and sex was the inverse of math. There were up to three times more low-achieving boys than girls (with a score difference of about 0.4 standard deviations). Again in the middle the difference almost disappeared and at the higher levels there were again small differences, this time favoring the girls. For both math and reading, these differences did not change much between 2000 and 2009.

What Does It All Mean?

Stoet and Geary wondered if the general level of gender equity in a particular country had an effect on math and reading achievement. If the answer was “yes” then we might expect that improving overall conditions for women would also eventually help on the math and science front. If not, those interested in equity need to rethink their approaches to bringing more girls into the sciences and helping boys learn improve their reading skills. Stoet and Geary found no correlation between their measures of human development and equality and math and reading achievement. It seems likely, however, that they did not use the best measures of gender inequity. For example one of the composite measures they used did not include a comparison of number of years of schooling. (Indeed one could do an entire blog on how to measure gender equity across nations.) Still, earlier work has found only mixed support for a crude gender equity explanation of math and reading achievement differences, so their findings continue to add to the question mark column for the gender equality/math achievement hypothesis.

What are we to make of findings such as Stoet and Geary’s? First, sex differences in math and reading for high achievers are not very big. We may want to close the remaining gap for these kids, and we still are not entirely sure how to do that. However, having personally endured life as a scientist in a male dominated field and institution, I think it is likely that we can explain the gap with many of our tried and true methods: There is still discrimination, there aren’t many role models, girls and boys are not treated the same in the classroom, etc. etc. Neither are male and female adult scientists equally regarded, paid or given the same lab space. I am not convinced we need any more big international studies to make policy changes and continued progress. The latter, by the way, probably needs to be measured over several decades, not just nine-year gaps.

I think Stoet and Geary’s most interesting findings concern our low achieving students. Of course, if you have a variable population, shaped in the proverbially Bell curve somebody has to perform in the bottom 5 percent. But who, and why? What can we do for these kids? What do we know about their abilities, about their early development? Are there medical issues, poverty and malnutrition? What is going on here? Maybe these kids are not going to be our future scientists and engineers, but surely we want them to be able to read and cope in a technical world. I don’t want to slow down the engine that is promoting improved access for girls and women in science and technology. But Stoet and Geary’s data actually beg for answers about educating the low achievers. I’m just sayin’.

St. John’s Military School Received 339 Abuse Complaints In Five Years

St. John’s Military School Received 339 Abuse Complaints In Five Years
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By Roxana Hegeman

WICHITA, Kan. — Nearly 340 current and former students made complaints to a Kansas military school claiming they were beaten, hazed, harassed or abused during the past five years, including 21 who say they were branded, according to a court document.

The numbers surfaced last week in a federal lawsuit brought by 11 former cadets and their families against St. John’s Military School. The latest filing in the case makes public for the first time the extent of abuse that the plaintiffs claim is part of the culture at the Salina boarding school.

But the school says the number reflects its concern for student safety and welfare because it investigates and corrects every such instance, including the most minor, and keeps records of them. St. John’s president Andy England said in an email to The Associated Press that the school averages fewer than six incidents a month even though students are in close contact 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The school has been sued by former cadets from California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee and Texas. They claim its quasi-military program, which gives higher-ranking cadets the power to discipline other students, encourages physical and mental abuse. They also say the school intentionally fails to supervise its students, allowing the abuse to continue.

The school reported receiving 339 verbal and written complaints from students over the past five years. A more specific list of complaints was filed under seal. The public filing does not detail how many, if any, of those complaints were turned over to police or other authorities.

One former student, Michael Kelly, who attended St. John’s from October 2009 until November 2010, testified in a deposition about being beaten and branded.

Court documents show that the school has identified 20 cadets, not including Kelly, who were branded while they were students there, and a former St. John’s employee, John Koop, testified in his deposition that he was aware of students being held down and branded against their will.

England said in email that branding became “a badge of honor” for some students, while others used it as a way of getting themselves withdrawn from the school.

“As far as the allegations of branding are concerned, following thorough investigation by the school, nearly all of the alleged incidents were determined to be self-inflicted,” he said. “Proper corrective action was taken in each case.”

The school has tried to discredit Kelly, sending out a news release saying he admitted in his deposition to lying earlier about being taped, bound and gagged against his will. It also asked a judge to rule partially in its favor based on Kelly’s testimony that the incident began as a joke and he asked his classmates to send a picture of it to his mother in Tennessee so she would take him out of the school.

Kelly’s attorneys did not have a response to an email sent Monday seeking additional comment. But they said previously that the school is only questioning one of the many experiences described in the lawsuit and sworn testimony and that they stand by the former students and allegations in the lawsuit.

In their latest court filing, they note that the school is basing its request for summary judgment on only a brief excerpt from a deposition that lasted more than eight hours and consisted of more than 400 pages. They also say Kelly made it clear that while the incident may have started as a joke, it didn’t end that way.

“It all began as just a simple no harm intended joke, but in my mind it escalated and I realized it wasn’t a joke and it didn’t feel like it was set up. It felt to me like it was intentional,” Kelly testified.

The school told AP it encourages students to report all incidents of unwanted physical contact, no matter how minor. England said St. John’s uses them as “a teaching moment” at which the school excels.

“Counseling is given, aggressors are disciplined and lessons are learned,” England said.

 

Bring Your Own Tech to School… and Become a Hacker!

Bring Your Own Tech to School… and Become a Hacker!

by John Pavley

Getting a new computer is quite a traumatic experience for me. On my personal Mac Mini (vintage 2009) I have all my favorite apps installed and all my folders and files just where I like them. I have all my accounts, system settings, network settings, and fonts customized and optimized. It took me weeks of trial and error to get it set up so I can focus on thinking and producing and not getting distracted by missing bits and bytes.

Over the years Apple has helped out by allowing me to “migrate” my data, accounts, apps, and network settings every time I buy a new Mac (which isn’t often). And Google helps with synchronizing my bookmarks and browser plugins when I sign in to Chrome. I don’t use iCloud or Google Drive, but I do use Dropbox to ensure important documents follow me around as I wander from machine to machine. These tools all help me feel at home on the computers I use.

It’s important to feel at home with your tools in order to perform well. Using someone else’s computer always gives me a feeling of cognitive dissonance. I see this with the developers we hire at Huffington Post: It always takes a day or two to configure a new employee’s new computer. Even then, as new tasks and new projects come up, a developer’s computer needs continuous tweaking so that work isn’t interrupted by firewall complaints or missing UNIX libraries.

All this synching, optimizing, and personalizing is known as configuration management and it’s a thriving technology business. Tools like Puppet enable professional system administrators to automate the setup of server farms and user’s computers. Tools likes Apple’s Migration Assistant, Google Chrome Sign In, and Dropbox bring configuration management to ordinary mortals.

Last week the New York Times published a great story on the issues around kids using their own tech gear in school. It’s a great idea to help with ever shrinking public school budgets but some educators are worried about tech support problems or the lack of research on personal devices and learning. Well, I have an excellent domain expert at home on the whole Bring Your Own Tech (BYOT) issue: My high school-aged son.

(When my kids are all grown up I will have to adopt new ones so I can continue to stay current on tech trends!)

My son’s high school lets you BYOT. And he has friends at a nearby high school where every student is given an iPad. I don’t know what the official analysis of these programs is but my son gave me the test subject’s perspective and embedded journalist’s analysis.

School X lets students bring their own phones, pads, and laptops into class — if the teacher thinks it’s a good idea. Some kids use the devices to take notes or catch up on Reddit. This is the equivalent of the spiral notebook back in my day. Sure, browsing the web during class should be frowned upon but everyone doodles (the pre-Internet age equivalent of browsing). When the lessons are interesting the students use their devices to google unfamiliar topics, chat with friends in other classes to get their opinion, and bookmark sites for research later that day. This is exactly what I see people do in meetings I attend. Unless there is some harebrained no-devices-in-meetings rule we’re all multitasking.

School Y gives every student an iPad. At first this is awesome because every kid wants a free iPad and it levels the playing field. If your parental units (that’s what they call people like me) can’t afford or just don’t understand the value of an iPad the school steps in and provides.

But the kids at School Y have learned the harsh lesson that nothing is really free. The school supplied iPads have configuration management and monitoring software installed. iPad usage is controlled. Only approved programs are installed. The students can’t multitask. These tightly controlled iPads prevent the free flow of communications and information that make our mobile Internet age empowering.

In response to this aggressive monitoring kids at school Y jailbreak their iPads. I actually like the irony of a whole school of high schoolers motivated to become hackers because of a poorly thought-out school technology program created by well-meaning but out-of-touch administrators.

It would be better for everyone if school Y followed school X’s example and allow uncontrolled BYOT in the classroom. It’s more productive and it lets kids develop the skills they will need in the workplace. What about families that can’t afford to buy their kids high-tech gear? These lines from the NYT article address that problem nicely:

And while district administrators worried initially that poorer students would not own devices, they discovered something of ‘an inverse relationship’ between family income and the sophistication of their devices, particularly smartphones, said Don Boulware, the district’s director of technology services.

It is hard to live well, let alone go to school, in the 21st century without a smartphone. The “inverse relationship” observed by Boulware is caused by over protective helicopter parents keeping tech out of their children’s hands for fear of the negative affects of technology on a child’s cognitive development. I think this strategy is counterproductive, as nothing is more positive than having all the world’s information and opinions at a high school student’s fingertips.

In the real world, which increasingly is becoming the virtually augmented reality world, a smartphone, a pad, or a laptop are survival tools. Even the Amish have a word processor. (This is not a joke but rather a great example of off-the-grid-I-will-not-participate-in-your-broken-culture thinking.)

Yes, there are kids in both schools X and Y who cannot afford fancy computing devices and they should be helped. Helped in a way that actually addresses their problems in a real and permanent way that a school monitored iPad does not. Let’s save the configuration management software for the server farms and give kids what they need without digital strings attached.

Let’s Re-Learn How to Read for the Common Core

Let’s Re-Learn How to Read for the Common Core

by Stephen Chiger

It’s about time I said I was sorry to Professor Smith.

One of my most vivid college memories is of him rebuking my modern drama class for our lazy reading of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Why did no one notice, let alone try to analyze, the symbolism of Nora dancing the tarantella?

I felt terrible, and as Smith pushed us, I realized why he was so flustered: Ibsen had selected details like the tarantella (Not a tango! Not a waltz!) to articulate a controversial and groundbreaking message. We had skimmed.

Professor Smith, I want to make amends. The new national education standards called the Common Core are designed so that your students will now be better prepared for the type of analysis you expect — but to make that work, we’ll have to start training teachers in the same way you trained me.

If we narrow the Common Core down to a handful of changes, one of the largest is that students will need to read texts much more attentively than ever.

According to the standards, students will begin analyzing figurative language in fifth grade; they’ll tackle allusions in eighth. And these skills can’t be taught in isolation, either — the Common Core asks us to create authentic experiences with text. Essentially, if you see a literature discussion in which kids aren’t flipping through pages feverishly, the class likely isn’t standards-aligned.

With that running start, I can easily imagine students picking apart the symbolism in A Doll’s House by the time they reach your class.

Who knows, Professor Smith? Maybe this time they’ll read Nora’s dance as a wild and undulating metaphor for her decaying, oppressive marriage. If I can send you that kind of student, I’ll feel better about having let you down.

But to teach students how to analyze text at that level, we need to train their teachers to do the same — and that’s something we haven’t done much of before now.

When I taught English, I’d gather the books I’d be teaching the following year and shutter myself in the library for the summer. I’d read them and re-read them and annotate the heck out of them.

You taught me that, Professor Smith. I knew if I spent that kind of time with books, they would tell me how and where to focus.

Not all of our teachers have this advantage. Our reading teachers didn’t necessarily major in English. And even those who read voraciously may never have been pushed to do the kind of analysis your class demanded.

As a friend recently reminded me, English isn’t easier than math
— it’s just easier to fake.

I accept full blame for leaving the tarantella uninvestigated, but you can understand why I thought that’d be OK. So often, our English classes stay at the level of making broad inferences about theme and characterization. Those discussions can be powerful and fruitful. If they’re the only ones we conduct, however, class can wind up talking around the language of a book rather than truly talking about it.

The Common Core is a reminder of the credo literature professors live by. Language is the building block of great sentences, great paragraphs, great chapters, and great books. We cannot take it for granted.

So, it’s time to help our teachers take their students back to the level of language.
There are a few things schools can start doing right now:

1. We can give teachers a chance to (re-)experience close reading as students.
2. We can provide teachers time to discuss texts with each other. They need to
reconnect with the joy of picking apart a text and flexing their analytical muscles.

Close reading is an acquired skill. We can require folks to teach it all we want; the proof is in the practice.

A few months back, I wrote about a class I took with The Academy for Teachers: how it made feel like an intellectual and refreshed my ability to analyze the language in Hamlet. The wonderful thing about giving teachers space to “geek out” about texts is that it respects them as thinkers and learners and lovers of the written word.*

And, not for nothing, it’s serious fun. Imagine it: middle and high school teachers sitting down with an expert or experienced colleague to conduct close readings of the books they’re going to teach.

This isn’t just a passing fancy; it’s going to influence all corners of U.S. education. The Common Core is quite clear that close reading is expected with science and social studies texts, too.

School districts — perhaps with the help of experts like you, Professor Smith — should create forums like The Academy For Teachers to help our educators dive into the language of the works we’ll read with children. When teachers learn how to spot when a tarantella is not just a tarantella, we can begin to talk in earnest about how to bring that skill into our classrooms.

If we don’t, our students will just keep dancing around the text.

Harvard’s Dr. John Ratey “Sparks” a Revolution: Exercise Makes You Smart

Harvard’s Dr. John Ratey “Sparks”
a Revolution: Exercise Makes You Smart


By Hope Katz Gibbs

Plato said: “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

And so begins Dr. John Ratey’s breakthrough book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why,” says Dr. Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose books in addition to “Spark” include “Driven to Distraction,” “Shadow Syndromes,” and “A User’s Guide to the Brain.”

“We assume it’s because we’re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension, or boosting endorphins,” he explains.

“But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best … I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”

Ratey believes that in this age, when we spend so much time in front of our laptops, it’s easy to forget that we are “born movers.”

“Ironically,” he says, “the human capacity to dream and plan and create the very society that shields us from our biological imperative to move is rooted in the areas of the brain that govern movement.”

In fact, he shares, as we adapted over the last half million years, our thinking brain evolved from the need to hone motor skills. “We envision our hunger-gatherer ancestors as brutes who relied primarily on physical prowess, but to survive over the long haul they had to use their smarts to find and store food.”

As a result, Ratey insists, the relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry.

But here’s the rub.

We no longer hunt and gather, and our sedentary lifestyle poses one of the biggest threats to our survival. Consider these statistics:

    65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese.

    10 percent of the population has Type 2 diabetes.

“We are literally killing ourselves, and it’s a problem throughout the developed world,” Ratey tells us. “What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one realizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains—physically shriveling them.”

Welcome to the Revolution

In his 300-page hardback, Ratey offers 10 chapters to help us reconnect our bodies with our minds so that we can create better, healthier lives for ourselves, and for our children.

He begins with a case study on exercise and the brain, sharing a physical education program conducted in Naperville, Illinois, in 1999—the spark that inspired Ratey to write his book.

It also inspired Katherine Tullie, creator of BOKS Kids, to start an organization that got gobbled up by Reebok International as its newest nonprofit outreach program.

Let Kids Know That Failure Is a Normal Part of Life

Let Kids Know That Failure Is a Normal Part of Life

by Livia McCoy

As parents, we want to protect our children from failure. What we don’t realize is that failure is an important part of life. If children do not experience failure, they may not learn to struggle through to success. Think about when you watched your child learn to walk. If every time they fell down you rescued them, they may have taken much longer to learn to walk on their own. On the other hand, there were times when they may have needed encouragement from you to keep trying.

The students I teach are dyslexic. This means they have a specific language learning difficulty that affects them in many ways. They often experience school failure before coming to our school. More than once I have heard my students say they feel their strength is that they know how to fail, sometimes over and over again, and not get too discouraged. To get to this point, however, takes support from parents, friends, and teachers.

When your child fails (such as getting a low grade on a test or project they thought was really good), you can help them to learn resilience—to bounce back and keep trying until they finally succeed. Here are some suggestions for what you might do.

Ask them to help you figure out exactly what went wrong. It is important to identify what caused the failure. Was it that they did not understand the task? Was it that they did not study? Or, was it that they did study, but it did not work? Was it a time management problem? Did they complete all the pieces of the project? Once you have identified a problem, you can take steps with them to solve it the next time they are faced with a similar task.

Remind them that they are really good at doing other things, such as playing a musical instrument, participating in sports, painting, or entertaining children. Genuine praise goes a long way in uplifting the spirits of a discouraged child. Everyone is good at doing something, and children need to celebrate their gifts as they are struggling with their weaknesses.

If you can think of a time when you failed at something and later made it through your struggle, discuss what you learned from the experience. Did you give up? Did you try again to see if you could do it better the next time? Did you ask for help from someone along the way?

Give your child a big hug and assure them that you love them no matter what. Tell them that you believe that they will make it through tough times and that you will be there to help them. Adults who succeeded in school despite having a learning difference often attribute their success to one person. This person—whether a parent, teacher, coach, bus driver, or custodian—simply told them often that they believed in them. This helps to build resilience—the ability to bounce back after failure and to keep on trying.

If you have a child who struggles in school, resist the urge to do their work for them. This will not help them to be successful. It will instead, teach them that they cannot do it without you (or someone else who will do it for her). It is OK to help, but be careful not to do the work. On the other hand, if you see that they are getting too discouraged and are unable to bounce back, it is time to see a professional to help your child find out why school is so difficult for them. The school psychologist is a good place to start. If one is not available, ask their teacher for advice for where to get the help they need.