Archive | Education

These Go to Eleven…

eleven.jpgThe NY Times reported last week that some of the area school districts are switching to report cards that document student progress with numbers rather than with the old-fashioned (and apparently dreadfully imprecise) letter-grade system. Now a student will get 2,3,4 on her report card, instead of C, B, A ; the new system, which is called a “standards-based” system is supposed to be clearer, more objective, and will somehow cure all that ails the public school systems.

Okay, that last part is an exaggeration – no one quoted in the article says that the new report cards will cure the system. They do say, however, that these report cards will help students chart their progress more clearly. A professor in Kentucky (a state that we all associate with academic excellence, of course), who is cited in the article (and has written a book about this new system) claims that the new approach is more accurate because it’s based on a stated set of criteria, not on a curve.

Can we take a step back here? Are the letter grades really the problem? Seems to me that if I want to grade on a curve, I can do so, regardless of whether I use 4s, 5s, and 3s; or Bs, Cs, and As – or gold stars, Elmo stickers, and rocks. 

As for “standards-based” – do the proponents of this system really mean to imply that everything prior to this moment has been simply a version of throwing-shit-to-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks? Do these “educators” really think that only with numbers there can be standards? And who, in this post-AIG, post-Lehman Brothers, post-credit-swap-defaults world, really thinks that numbers are any more or less subjective than anything else, or any less subject to manipulation? And, for that matter, what the hell is the difference between an “educator” and a “teacher”?

Last time I checked, learning (which is not the same as memorizing) doesn’t happen on a tidy curve or bar graph, as much as we might wish it did. Don’t any of us remember that sudden “aha!” moment when words unlocked on a page, or division made sense (never did, for some of us), or we figured out what the subjunctive was (I was in my mid-twenties, much to my mother’s chagrin)? Those moments didn’t happen in step with others in the class, or even (unfortunately) in time for the test.

Another “educator” cited in this article, the principal of an elementary school in Illinois, said the standards-based report cards can give parents a sense of their child’s “actual achievement” without “clouding the issue with how often they turned in homework or participated in class.” Right. Because stupid stuff like learning how to talk in class, or keep track of homework – has nothing to do with how well a student might succeed in secondary school, or college.  I thought that one of the lessons kids were supposed to be learning in elementary school is how to raise their hands in class, talk in front of a group, and keep track of their own little paper trails. So if that’s not part of second-grade achievement, then what is?

In Pelham, the second-grade report card comes with a FOURTEEN PAGE guide to the standards being measured. For your seven-year-old’s report card. Begging the question of why a seven-year-old needs a report card in the first place – (Sammy uses a pencil. Can spell name and other important words, like “pokemon,” “gameboy,” and “Yankees.” Doesn’t hit other kids too frequently. Can sit still for more than ten minutes) – does anyone else think that our attempts to chart learning the same way we chart widget production might be misplaced?

The Pelham guide offers a list of all the rubrics used for grading in every subject: a 4 means that you did things “with distinction” (surely not a second-grade word?) and a 1 means you “haven’t yet developed” that particular skill. They even has rubrics for art, music, and gym. In gym, to get a 4, one must be able to “demonstrate all locomoter and manipulative skills with fluidity and ease,” a definition that immediately would have put a 4 out of my grasp until about the same time as I understood the subjunctive.

A 4 or an A? Aren’t we really debating semantics here – and perhaps cushioning parents from the disappointment of seeing a C on their precious darling genius’s report card? What if we simply developed an unwieldy, badly written standards guide that correlated to letter grades? Would that make everyone happy?

Yes, of course we need standards, and we need to see our children progress, but this system? It’s as if the entire thing were devised by Nigel Tufnel, who realized that if he put an 11 on his amplifier dial, he could go “one louder” than 10. When asked if he couldn’t simply make 10 louder, he shook his head and pointed again to the dial.

“These go to eleven,” he said.

4 or A? 10 or 11?

Once again, life imitates art.
Thumbnail image for nigel.jpg

Continue Reading · on March 29, 2009 in Education

Everyone Gets a Prize…

trophies.jpgThe other day at breakfast, I started to read part of an article about college students’ grade expectations. According to recent research, forty percent of students polled in a recent survey think that they should get a B just for completing the required reading; two-thirds think that if they tell the professor that they tried really hard on a project, the professor should grade the project more highly. A professor cited in the article said that his students assume the default grade is an “A,” and seem surprised when he tells them that his default grade is a C. I read some of these nuggets out loud to Husband and we chuckled at the research, which bears out what we both see all the time.

This sense of expectation causes students to come into my office insisting that I recalibrate their grades because a B+ just isn’t satisfactory, given how hard they worked on the final paper. Or students who seem surprised that their grade hovers in the realm of a low C because, while they come to class, they slouch in the back half-asleep and never open their mouths. 

Liam, sitting between us at breakfast, wanted to know what we were talking about. Husband waded in: “so let’s say you’re taking a math test with 20 questions,” he said. “You get them all right because you’re good at math but you don’t study at all. Someone else, who studies really, really hard, only gets 10 right. Should that person get the same score as you do?”

Liam smiled, shrugged, said “yeah, sure. I mean, they really tried, right?”

Husband tried again. “Well, okay, what if…someone works really, really hard on their book report, and even thought there are still lots of misspelled words and not much detail, the person put a lot of effort into the project. And someone else writes a great report, with no mistakes and lots of details, but does it without trying very hard, it’s just easy for her. Should they both get a check plus plus?” (Check plus plus is Liam’s teacher’s highest mark. It’s only third grade, after all.)

Once again, Liam nodded and said “uh huh. If the person really really tried, that’s good, isn’t it?”

By this point, I was snorting with laughter and Liam looked a little confused: I think he thought he was giving the right answer, but I knew that Husband was fishing for the “no way, effort smeffort, it’s the end result that counts” answer.

Husband tried a few more times but Liam’s answer remained steadfast: effort mattered as much as, if not more than, the actual finished product.

Having shattered his father’s expectations, Liam hopped down from the table to get ready for school. Husband stared after him.  “Brainwashed already,” he muttered.

Look, I’m not going to say that effort doesn’t count at all. Sure it does. But do you want the surgeon who is operating on your child to be someone who got an A for effort, or do you want the competitive jackass surgeon who aced every single bio and anatomy test?

The shelves in Liam’s room are already littered with “participation” trophies from T-Ball and AYSO, and I’m sure there are more to come. I guess those trophies bolster “self-esteem,” that most ephemeral and oft-quoted raison d’etre for what previous generations might have called “coddling” – but on the other hand, don’t those trophies extend the false promise that everyone is equally good at everything? (Which somehow connects to why people do steroids, but that’s an idea for another post.)

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum; I mean I don’t want to get all Great Santini and tell my kids that they’re crap unless they win, but on the other hand, I don’t want them to think that just showing up is sufficient (which I know flies in the face of what Woody Allen says at the end of “Annie Hall,” but hey: no one in that movie had kids.)

As usual when confronted with a dilemma of this sort, we must turn to the epic of our time, “The Incredibles,” in which the evil SynDrome creates a mechanical super-power so that everyone can be a superhero: “because when everyone is super, no one is super!” At the end of that movie, after SynDrome is defeated, the super-fast Dash races to…second place in the school relay (so as not to make the other kids feel bad) and his family is delighted with his second-place trophy.

Second place, as we tell our kids, can be fine – as long as you tried your best. It’s not winning or losing that matters…it’s the effort that counts, right?

Or is it?


Continue Reading · on February 21, 2009 in Education

A Coincidence?

nylottery.jpgI’ve long thought that the people who do lay-out and advertising for the Times have a larky sense of humor – that their ads act as subtle critique of the story running alongside. Today brought another example.

Towards the back of the “New York” section today an article ran about the city’s new contract with a company that will track special education data. Apparently if your child has special needs, or if you want to gather data about educating special needs children in the public schools, it’s nearly impossible to gather accurate, up-to-date information, which is obviously a problem. To fix this problem, the city has contracted with a company in Virginia to overhaul the current system. The price on this contract? About 55 million dollars, which doesn’t include another 23 million over five years for “related costs,” including training and equipment.

So isn’t that…78 million bucks over the next five years?  I guess that 78 million comes from some magic place, a place where the school budget isn’t facing cuts of about 1 billion dollars for the next school year. Yes, that’s right, I said ONE BILLION.

Where, you ask, might we find this magic place, where a person (or a school system) can find 78 million dollars?

The elves in charge of advertising and lay-out at the Times have an idea: running into this article about school budgets is an inset box featuring the winning lottery numbers for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Hey. All you need is a dollar and a dream, right?

Do you suppose Joel Klein buys his tickets in bulk?

Continue Reading · on January 14, 2009 in Education

Testing, One Two Three

testpreppencils.jpgNext week is standardized test week in New York. 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders will spend two or three days taking the English Language Arts standardized test (the math test happens in March). Please circle which statements apply to these tests:

A.These tests measure student achievement
B.These tests measure teacher effectiveness.
C.These tests measure a school’s overall performance.
D.These tests measure a principal’s overall effectiveness.
E.School budgets may be influenced by how students perform on the test.
F.A principal may be awarded a bonus by how students in his school perform on the test.
G.Kaplan Test Prep has been awarded more than 73 million dollars in NYC school contracts in the last decade.
H.All of the above.

The correct answer is H – all of the above. Isn’t it amazing that we’ve invented a measuring tool that can do so many things all at once?

Liam will take the third-grade ELA next week. Keep in mind, of course, that the third-grade scores don’t impact the students other than as predictors of how third-graders might (might) fare on the fourth-grade test. The third-grade scores are used by the school to help measure “effectiveness.” (But what does “effective” mean? If you’re a teacher and your class scores well, does that mean you’re a good teacher or that you’ve got a bunch of smarties in your class? Conversely, if your class does poorly does that mean you’re a bad teacher? Isn’t it more likely that the scores have to do with the alchemical combination of your teaching and the personalities of your students?)

Liam will spend two days next week answering multiple-choice reading comprehension questions. If the practice booklet is any guide, many of these questions are so badly written that even I can’t quite figure out the right answer.  For instance, if you had to distinguish between “explaining” something and “describing” something, could you articulate precisely what the difference is between doing those two things? Would you expect a third-grader to know the difference?

These tests – and the industry that has grown up around test administration (including test prep) – are big business. If I were investing in anything right now, I’d be investing in testing companies. Millions and millions of dollars have been generated for companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review; millions and millions of dollars have been spent in NYC in order to gather the information generated by the tests and then to use that information to generate the incredibly unhelpful school report cards (there is a link on this page to the city-wide report card, in an excel spreadsheet). Let me know if you can deduce any useful information from these scores, other than that some schools scored higher and others scored lower. And while we’re at it, let’s look at this article, which suggests that higher-achieving kids are being short-changed in an effort to focus on increasing basic competencies.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for basic competency. I’m just not sure that standardized tests are a way to get us there. I’ve taught too many college kids who have respectable SAT scores, but who cannot write a coherent sentence, read an entire novel, or even compute their own GPA. The test, in other words, doesn’t measure competency: it measures the kid’s ability to take the test. (Read this article for a grim account of a Kaplan test coach’s stint in the NYC public high schools…)

Malcom Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker article, talked about the difficulty of assessing teacher effectiveness, which is ostensibly one of the things measured by these standardized tests. But one of the reasons why it is difficult to measure teacher effectiveness is precisely because learning doesn’t happen on a standardized chart: people learn in hops and skips, circles and loops, moving backwards, stalling, and then bounding forwards. We’ve all watched kids learn to read (or remember ourselves that moment when the words unlocked on the page) – they mutter and mutter and hurl the book across the room and then one day, BAM!, they’re laughing to themselves about green eggs and ham.

Nevertheless, Liam has to take the tests. Do I tell him it’s no big deal, that it doesn’t matter? I don’t want to say that because next year, the test will matter. In a piece of DOE cleverness, the scores on the fourth-grade tests are the scores used on entrance applications for sixth-grade. Yes, that’s true. A test your kid takes in January of fourth grade will be used one year later to determine where she should go to school the following year (which is to say, almost two years after taking the test).  

But even if I were to tell Liam that his parents don’t think tests like this accurately measure what he’s learning, the teachers and administrators send the message that the tests are important, while at the same time trying to reassure the kids about this standardized sword dangling over their heads. Practice tests became the bulk of the homework about a month ago; all the students made “stress balls” in order to alleviate anxiety (Liam asked me if he was supposed to be nervous); and even the third-graders are taught relaxation skills in order to alleviate the stress produced by tests that are essentially, practice. Fourth and fifth graders are given (free of charge other than to taxpayers) Kaplan test-practice workbooks, although no one is really sure why fifth-graders take the test, other than as further fodder for the school’s overall profile: low test scores can result in schools being closed, and high-performing schools can get money if they take in kids from low-performing schools.

Liam’s school does seem to be sending a mixed message, but what else can they do? The reality is that the tests matter, if only for budgetary reasons; but at the same time, the tests (taking them and preparing for them) take away from what all the teachers consider “real” teaching time. For that matter, what message are we, as a society, sending to our kids by promoting these tests: do we really want our kids to think that the only thing that matters is “what’s going to be on the test”?

We live in a society in which the lack of accountability on Wall Street and in the real estate markets has driven us to the brink of financial collapse; a society that looked the other way while the Bush administration routinely tampered with public documents (and the public trust) in order to further its own agenda and line its own pockets. (See the most recent issue of Vanity Fair  for an infuriating explanation – description? – of how the Bush administration dodged accountability).

Does anyone else see the irony in our least accountable president insisting on accountability in the schools?

How can anyone think that these tests will somehow “account” for what happens in the classroom? Can a series of tests solve the problems caused by overcrowding, under-budgeting, and bad planning? Can we really quantify “learning” the way we can count widgets on an assembly line? Can we measure knowledge like flour: thanks, I only need a half-cup of math today?

If only it were that easy. If on
ly our public education system could be fixed with a number two pencil and a scan-tron sheet.

Imaginations can’t be standardized – and to fix the system, we’re going to need precisely the kind of creative thinking that can’t be measured by the ELA, SAT, ACT, or any other acronymed booklet.

Continue Reading · on January 9, 2009 in Education, Politics

(not) In the Zone

schoolbuilding.jpgNext year, Caleb will start kindergarten.

This simple sentence keeps me awake at night, not just because I worry that he will be the only boy in his class with a nookie in his pocket (looks a bit like a rocket, true, but neither is appropriate at morning story-time).
Nope, the nookie is only a fraction of my worry. My main worry is our address. We live outside the “catchment,” as it’s known, for the public school that Liam attends – a school we like and where Liam is pretty happy. Yes, I know that in some worlds, Caleb would attend the same school his brother does, no questions asked. But – cue maniacal laughter – we live in Manhattan. Which means that just because we got a variance for Liam to go to this school, we shouldn’t for a minute expect that Caleb will get one, too.

Maybe the next time I can’t sleep, I should call Joel Klein, our so-not-beloved Chancellor of Schools. I’m pretty sure he stays up nights too, plotting ways to make the lives of middle-class New York families ever more difficult. One of last year’s tricks, for example, was the “centralizing” of pre-K and Kindergarten choices: families filled out a gazillion forms, made copies of their lease, their mortgage, their birth certificates, and just about any other piece of paper they could find, and sent their packets of information to…

Pennsylvania. Which is, apparently, “central” to folks at the DOE.

You will be stunned to know that there were glitches with this centralization process: families with twins were told that each twin would be sent to a different school. Families “in district” were sent to far-away schools, and some families weren’t told where they were going until early September.

In short – a mess. And an expensive one – those people in Pennsylvania didn’t work cheap. But we’ll come back to money in a minute.

To get Liam into his school, we had to get a variance – or, in DOE parlance, “placement exception request.” Acquiring this form took about fifteen phone calls, several emails, and three trips to an office building in Herald Square. I had to fill it out and return it to the office on the first day of business in January of the year Liam entered kindergarten. So on January 2, I hauled ass out of bed and hustled over to 333 7th Avenue – and my form was far from the first in the pile. We didn’t hear from the school until mid-August, after we’d already started forking over money we didn’t have to a private school that had given us huge amounts of financial aid. Mostly we don’t regret our decision to shift from private to public, particularly when it comes time for birthdays, holidays, new winter coats, the occasional vacation… all of which would be a stretch if we’d had to continue to pay that tuition bill.

Now it’s Caleb’s turn and, given the DOE’s proclivities to change its procedures whenever Joel Klein can’t sleep, there’s a new PER policy (love those acronyms, dontcha?) But no one knows what the policy will be. No one can tell me when variance forms will be available, when the forms will be due, or when we’ll find out. The “centralizing” process that was put in place last year has been yanked, according to a recent article in the Times, but it’s not clear what (if anything) will take its place. The article made it sound like children in Caleb’s category are not precisely high priority: first to enroll are kids who live in the school’s zone, and next are kids who live in the district but outside the zone. Then we get to Caleb’s situation: kids outside the district who have a sibling in the school.

Thumbnail image for doemap.jpgThis map, from the DOE website, is supposed to help clarify things. But nowhere on the site does it explain those red lines. Are those “catchments?” Maybe they are “regions?” Or “zones?”

What are our options? We could try again for private school and simply close our eyes to the financial strain and to the potential inequity of sending one kid public and the other private. But without financial aid…? Well, tuition at Friends Seminary, for example, a wonderful private Quaker school nearby, is upwards of thirty grand (not including mandatory fees and “donations”).  Unfortunately, I have not a spare pile of cash on hand.

Other options: Hunter College Elementary School, the holy grail of public elementary schools in NYC because it’s the hardest to get into: you need to hit some mark (upwards of the 96th percentile) on an IQ test even to be allowed to the second round of the admission process. Hunter takes 48 kids in kindergarten (and another batch later, in seventh grade) – 24 girls and 24 boys. Hunter gets more than a thousand applications a year and I’ll bet that this year, as the economic bad news penetrates further and further into formerly affluent households, even more applications will come flooding in.

What else? We could aim for the so-called G&T programs (and no, unfortunately, these are not schools that serve gin and tonics at their PTA meetings, but what a good idea). These are the “gifted and talented” programs, some of which draw from a city-wide population and others that are local (in terms of district, zone, catchment…who knows). The DOE instituted a new policy last year for TAG programs that was supposed to increase diversity among TAG programs (and did precisely the opposite) by standardizing admissions. 

Here’s how that standardizing works: kids take a test and depending on their score, they are admitted or not. Period, end of discussion.

Right. Depending on how your four-year old fares during a particular hour on a particular day (and on whether you can wring the correct information from the DOE website about how to apply), your child may or may not be eligible for an advanced curriculum, smaller classes, and (probably) more engaged classmates.

Basically, despite all this standardization, it’s a crapshoot: did Caleb play nicely with the doctor who administered the IQ test for Hunter admissions? Will Caleb tell the examiner that the TAG tests are stupid? Where does recalcitrance fall on the “talented and gifted” grid? Will my variance request, when I ever get it, be mis-filed because I don’t have the same last name as my son?

If it weren’t the educational fate of my children at stake here, this whole scenario would make me laugh. All these efforts to standardize and streamline, so much energy put into plotting points on a grid, arranging data in a graph – but does anyone know a four-year old who plots tidily into a chart?  And what does this data really tell us?

Let’s look at a different data set for a minute, shall we? Let’s look at some costs: the city spent 130 million dollars designing and implementing “school report cards” that are supposed to increase “transparency” in the schools – if you can figure out how to read the report card (click here to see the spreadsheet). Another eighty million bucks got spent on a computer record-keeping program that doesn’t work and then there was the paltry six million they spent on surveys for parents, teachers, and students. Let’s see…that’s about TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS for…paperwork?  Wonder how these numbers factor into the recently announced 1.5% school budget cuts – Liam’s school just lost fifty thousand dollars from its budget, with warnings of more cuts to come next year.

What happens when a city – oh hell, let’s extrapolate, shall we? – when a country can’t properly educate its children?

That’s why the question of Caleb’s kindergarten keeps me up at night.

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Continue Reading · on November 23, 2008 in Children, Education, NYC

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