Monthly Archives: December 2013

Friedberg: stupid textbooks + stupid teachers = stupid kids

Okay–though he doesn’t exactly say this in his December 11th op-ed, which could essentially serve as both a plug for the Common Core and an advertisement for profiteering corporations like Pearson (and which Paul Thomas suggests is the “Worst Education Op-Ed of 2013“), Solomon Friedberg reflects on America’s “appalling” PISA scores and wonders if our students can ever “get smart.” In short, Friedberg concludes that the Common Core is the answer to our country’s educational woes, but that we need to focus on three issues: textbooks, teachers, and testing.

Where to begin…

Textbooks: while I don’t think anyone would disagree that students should be working with the best materials available to them, in placing so much importance on textbooks (he says they not only shape students’ understanding, but that teachers are essentially useless without them–more on that later), Friedberg has effectively reinforced the narrow, myopic approach to education that so many critics of the Common Core decry. If disaggregated PISA scores clearly show that students living in poverty perform worse than their more affluent counterparts (see here and here, to start; and yes, we are the “most affluent country in the world,” but we also have the second-highest rate of children living in poverty among the world’s richest nations), are new textbooks really the answer Friedberg makes them out to be?? It’s glaringly ironic that as proponents of RTTT reforms complain our students aren’t being prepared to compete “globally,” they fixate on antiquated, drill-and-kill test preparation and testing that reduces students and their teachers to numbers in a database and hurts special-education and economically/socially disadvantaged children. Textbooks as a cure-all?  What year is it?

And even if, as Friedberg claims, “for Common Core to succeed, we desperately need new textbooks that are fundamentally different,” how will districts pay for them?  If urban districts–which have larger concentrations of struggling students–are operating on bare-bones, “doomsday” budgets so paltry that officials must ask citizens to donate pencils, paper, and tissues to schools, how will such districts afford new, expensive textbooks–especially given the amount of money they’re forced to spend on the testing that accompanies the CCSS?

And perhaps more importantly, who’ll profit handsomely when cash-strapped districts that are already starved of resources and staff are forced to buy new textbooks? And who will suffer immeasurably?

Rhetorical questions.  Moving on.

After his call for “fundamentally different” textbooks, Friedberg says that “teachers are the heart of the enterprise” of American education.  I’ll ignore the connotative meaning of “enterprise” that’s suggestive of business and profits for a second and focus instead on the fact that in the few sentences that follow this declaration, Friedberg manages to insult the “heart of the enterprise” by insisting that since they themselves learned from the flawed textbooks he describes, they are effectively unable to a) understand the concepts that they’re teaching, and b) “handle Common Core.”  But most offensive is Friedberg’s depiction of teachers as ignorant, struggling, confused souls who are so incapable of understanding the concepts they’re teaching that if not for a good textbook, they’re unable to master their content–as if there are no resources available to teachers in 2013. Friedberg then compares American teachers to teachers from Singapore who in the 1990s “had not even had four years of university instruction” yet were saved by newly-designed textbooks that were “so clear that they taught the teachers.” I’m not a math teacher, but I’m insulted by this depiction of American educators as hapless, unqualified novices whose efficacy as teachers and understanding of their content depend solely on the quality their students’ textbooks.

So really, it’s a wonder that any of us–educators or not–were able to survive school and develop into productive members of society.  If you’re managing to function despite an academic experience plagued by bad math textbooks and confused teachers, pat yourself on the back. Really–you did it.  Somehow.

Oh, and those tests: Friedberg says we should just make sure they’re really good so we can justify teaching to them.

If Professor Friedberg can oversimplify the teaching and learning processes–and ignore the real causes of many of our students’ troubles–to suggest ways the Common Core can fix our educational “stagnation,” I’ll take the liberty of oversimplifying his argument as I interpret it: we need to spend millions on new textbooks and millions on new tests to help justify the millions we’re spending on the Common Core. Only then will we be able to break the cycle of stupidity that’s polluting our society.

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My planned home remodel—with inspiration from a NY KIPP elementary school

I was in my ninth year of teaching high schoolers when I went on maternity leave with my son, and as I anticipated his arrival, I convinced myself that since I had spent 180 days per year for nearly a decade with about 100 “other people’s kids,” I was well-prepared to handle my own child.  After all, there would only be one of him—and I (inaccurately) guessed that because newborns are relatively stationary and unable to speak, my experience as a teacher would automatically make me more than qualified to raise a child.

LOL.

I should mention that I’ve always recognized I wouldn’t be a great elementary school teacher, mostly because I never considered myself to be “good” with large groups of small children.  (I subbed for a third-grade teacher for one day when I was in college, and I broke out in hives while the kids were at their “special” and took three ibuprofen—and a three-hour nap—when I got home.  And they were well-behaved.)

Anyway, I’ve always admired elementary school educators, and I started paying even more attention to what makes them so good at what they do when I had my son–especially when I realized that one of him could be immeasurably more difficult for me to handle than thirty 18-year-olds.

So imagine my joy when I came across a recent article in the New York Daily News that exposes just one of what I’m sure are many effective strategies the KIPP Star Washington Heights Elementary [charter] School in NY implements: the “calm-down room.”

My son is almost 4 years old now, so I often find myself researching ways to make sure he’s happy, healthy, and engaged; but it just so happens that lately I’ve also been thinking of ways to rearrange, remodel, or otherwise renovate our home, since save for some minor improvements we’ve made over the years, it’s been relatively unchanged since my husband and I bought it in 2007.  Thanks to this KIPP school, I’m inspired to combine these two endeavors into one seamless toddler-behavior-modification and home-remodel project.

Here’s how:

  • I’ll obviously need a “calm-down” room (which, in retrospect, I should have thought of myself! Fail!), and since we have an unused walk-in closet in a spare bedroom, all I’ll really need to do is cut a little hole in the door—it’ll need to be high enough so I can see my son but he can’t see me—and slap some pads on the floor and walls. Done.
  • As my son is a picky eater who is adamantly against trying new foods—and sometimes adamantly against eating in general—my next and most immediate project will be an “eat your food” room.  We do have a pantry in the kitchen that would probably be large enough for such an undertaking, but I’m not really willing to give it up because my husband and I actually do eat food and I need the storage.  I did just watch A Christmas Story, and Randy seemed content to sit in a cabinet under the family’s kitchen sink—so I might explore that option.  It should be easy enough to install a trap-door (NO, not like the ones they have in jails, silly!—this one would be more like a drive-thru window at a fast-food restaurant) through which we could pass meals–and also a bracket on which we could mount a water bottle similar to the ones that deliver fluids to hamsters and other small, caged animals.
  • We read to my son all the time, but with all this KIPP inspiration, I’m thinking he needs his own “reading” room that’s separate from the libraries we have for him in the playroom and in his bedroom. If the “reading” room is padded in the same way as the “calm-down” room and has nothing else but books (I’ll shop specifically in the Common Core section of our local bookseller just to make sure he has an extra jump on College and Career Readiness…WIN), I imagine that it will be a wonderfully-cozy retreat for him when he decides it’s time to hunker down for some learning.  When he’s older, I’ll throw some CCSS flash-cards, number 2 pencils, and scantron sheets–maybe even an iPad loaded with Pearson software if I can get my hands on one from LAUSD–in through the observation window and he can quiz himself until he’s ready to come out.  And if I move all of the clothes he has in his closet into a larger dresser, we won’t really have to do too much in the way of renovation to make this happen. YES.
  • Speaking of my son’s bedroom: he does have a lovely space that’s all his own, but lately he’s been protesting bedtime by yelling ridiculous, stall-tactic complaints, observations, and questions from bed (“I’m thirsty,” “I think there’s a woodpecker in my room,” “I hear a train horn,” “There’s a shark in here,” “Is it a trash day?” etc.)–so a sound-proof “go to sleep right now” room might serve to eliminate ALL distractions and help him get to sleep each night.  (With the soundproofing, we wouldn’t be able to hear him either.  WIN again.) And really, does anyone actually need anything other than padding to achieve a peaceful night of slumber?  I think no.  I’ve actually found blankets and pillows to be cumbersome, so obviously those distractions will have no place in the “go to sleep right now” room.
  • Finally, anyone with a toddler will likely understand our need for a “stop asking questions” room.  This, too, will be sound-proof (for obvious reasons) and will effectively limit the incessant inquiries that so many parents of little ones are plagued by each day.  Let’s be real: who doesn’t want to hear the word “why” about two dozen fewer times within a 24-hour period?  “‘Why?’ Get in the ‘stop asking questions’ room. That’s why.” I like it.

An unexpected consequence (bonus, really) of this remodel will be that we’ll need to get rid of my son’s playroom to free up space for renovations.  All the trains, trucks, cars, and fire engines that have been cluttering our house have got to go.  But really, if our goal is College and Career Readiness, who cares?  (We’ll probably chuck his nebulizer and both of our pets, too–because really, what are they doing to get him ready for the PARCC tests?–but that’s a project for another day.)

And if I can make this all happen within the next 36 hours, my son will forever be grateful to Santa for giving him the best Christmas gift of all: an environment that’s conducive to scholarship, academics, test-taking, and the general Common Core lifestyle for which all parents and children should strive.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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Do “no-excuses” schools create damaging “toxic stress” in children?

Alfred Lubrano, a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer who has written extensively about poverty and its effects, published a piece on December 11th about the ways in which “harsh or authoritarian parenting,” a disciplinary practice that researchers say is more common among families living in poverty, affects the children who are victims of it.

When children who do not feel supported or loved are disciplined harshly, says pediatrician Daniel Taylor, their bodies release cortisol–a hormone that, when released in large amounts, is “toxic to developing brains.”  The resulting “toxic stress,” as it has been labeled, can affect a child’s health, behavior, and ability to learn–resulting in uncontrolled emotions, attention deficits, hyperactivity, combative behavior, problems focusing, reading difficulties, and even physical issues like heart disease.  And unfortunately, since children often parent the way they themselves were parented, many experts suggest that “poor neighborhoods likely hold countless families suffering from compromised brain development, generation after generation.”

People who work with children of low-income families are too familiar with the effects poverty has on kids’ lives, yet many so-called education reformers consistently decree that teachers and children use poverty as an “excuse” for poor academic performance.  In fact, those same reformers are often proponents of “no-excuses” charter schools that force their students to conform to very strict rules and behavior codes, many of which have been described by teachers and parents as unreasonable and even abusive.  At such schools, children (and teachers, for that matter) are under such stress to produce high test scores that the quest to perform well on standardized tests often supersedes the humanity, compassion, and empathy that should be central to a child’s upbringing, education, and overall development.  Children who cannot comply with the “no-excuses” model are often expelled, “counseled out,” or otherwise forced to seek education elsewhere–and often return to the very neighborhood schools from which charter operators suggest children should flee. Children who choose not to comply often seek educational alternatives willingly, and their voluntary attrition is typically not reflected in the statistics and graduation rates “no excuses” schools like to advertise.

So if research shows that “harsh or authoritarian parenting” can damage to a child’s developing brain, can’t the same be said for a school whose “no-excuses” policies are militaristic and uncompromising?  What do such schools teach children when they promote the idea that standardized test scores in English Language Arts and math, which are virtually meaningless to children, are so supremely important that anyone who cannot or does not focus solely on improving such scores will face harsh consequences?

Lubrano’s article concludes with Philadelphia social worker Marcy Witherspoon’s observation that “parents need advocacy and support” in order to effectively break the cycle of toxic stress–and theoretically, schools should be staffed with educators (and counselors, social workers, and child psychologists) who are equipped to undertake such challenges. (The fact that traditional urban public schools have been subjected to budget cuts that force them to eliminate such positions is no accident, but that’s content for another post.) “No-excuses” schools with authoritarian disciplinary policies, however, can actually perpetuate or create toxic stress in children, and as a result, such schools effectively contribute to the problem they claim they want to fix.  Thus, in their seeming quests to close the “achievement gap” and address the problem of poverty, they actually create the toxic stress that precludes children from developing both emotionally and intellectually to their full potential.

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