Saturday, July 30, 2016

And what power do parents have over today's schools?

Earlier, I wrote about how schools weaken parental prerogatives at home. To what degree can parents, conversely, influence what happens in schools?

This, too, is an area in which the past favored parents. In my parent’s generation, organizations like the PTA had at least some control over the school curriculum. At the very least, it wasn’t out of bounds for parents to explore ways in which particular courses might change for the better. My mother, for example, served on a curriculum committee that advocated, among other things, that teachers assign and grade more essays.

Now, with the growing forces of centralization channeling through district-level administration and state-level high stakes testing, academics are increasingly out of our hands. While PTAs and HSOs still exist, their main function, so far as I can tell, is fundraising and volunteer activities that merely enable current practices. The officers of these organizations, our fellow parents, have often become yes-men for the principals, and the free and open discussions that PTA/HSO meetings are supposed to welcome are often hijacked by those “facilitating” them. At a meeting at our neighborhood school that was billed as a discussion of the school’s math curriculum, for example, we were told to write down our questions ahead of time on index cards, with our names included. Then, when the “math expert”’s presentation went on “longer than expected” and there was “unfortunately” no time for any questions, those index cards were simply collected. Not that they were ignored and tossed out; rather, they were used against us. That is, certain of us parents were publically criticized by our yes-men peers for being overly critical of the math program. In other words, as with all that excess homework I wrote about earlier, a certain cohort of powerful parents are effectively working against the rest of us.

What precisely, is going on here? What’s preventing us from unifying into a gigantic squeaky wheel? One is that schools can safely ignore us. Growing centralization means (1) that some schoolboards are no longer elected, and (2) that, regardless, these boards increasingly deflect all curriculum decisions to superintendents and their administrative underlings: people who are appointed rather than elected. But not all the power over us is centralized. For the balance, we need look no further than our friendly neighborhood elementary schools.

It’s during the elementary school years ;when parental power should be at its greatest. It’s at this point when there’s the most opportunity for parents to come together and bond—in the school yard of what is typically a local, neighborhood school where we drop off and pick up our kids; during after-school play dates; during neighborhood soccer practice and other neighborhood-based extracurricular activities. Later, when our kids are in high school, there’s a lot less opportunity for spontaneously bonding: school is often out of the neighborhood; different local kids may be spread across different schools, and our kids’ social lives and extracurriculars are increasingly independent of us parents.

So why do elementary schools, in particular, have such power over us? The answer is our kids’ futures: specifically, what comes after elementary school. In many large districts, we find an increasing scarcity of decent middle schools and high schools; a growing disparity between good magnet schools and terrible local schools. Maximizing our kids’ chances of getting into one of the former is, increasingly as the application deadlines approach, first and foremost on our minds. And this means ensuring that our children get good grades and recommendation letters. Since, as I’ve argued elsewhere, grades (especially in elementary school) are increasingly subjective (with perceived effort and attitude—or “grit” and “growth mindsets”--figuring as never before), there’s plenty of latitude for students of “problem parents” to get problematic grades, not to mention problematic recommendation letters. Maybe this rarely happens, but perception is all that matters, and perception is what ultimately drives the yes-men parents and the silent, compliant majority of the rest of us.

Of course, grades and recommendation letters also matter in high school, but here, again, parents have fewer opportunities to come together and organize. Even more forbidding is college, where parents are more separated from one another than ever, and privacy laws allow college students to hide their progress, or lack thereof, from parents. Of course, most parents don’t even consider trying to influence academics at their children’s colleges; but parents of students with special needs may occasionally feel the urge. However, even if, say, the parents of students on the autistic spectrum at a particular college or university wanted to get together and advocate, say, for a change in the college English requirements, privacy laws—designed, of course, to protect our children with disabilities--ensure that we won’t even find out who we are, let alone unite and try to help our kids.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core inspired explained answers

From the 8th grade Pennsylvania Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics Item and Scoring Sampler for Grade 7:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Parents vs. schools: who's in charge of kids

One of the things I’m going to have to do prepare my daughter for regular school next year is get her her own private laptop. While it’s understandable why schools—at least high schools--require this, it also represents one of many ways in which school policies end up weakening parenting prerogatives. Once your child’s face has a screen up in front of it, it becomes a lot harder to observe whether she’s focusing on what she should be—short of sitting down next to her and breathing down her neck. Computer use in the classroom is even worse: you’re not there, and the teacher can’t monitor everyone at once.

But required computer use is only one example of how today’s schools weaken parenting. There’s also:

--The vastly increased homework, including summer reading, writing and math; large amounts of busywork; and big projects that end up requiring heavy parental involvement (trips to art supply stores; organizational help; nagging). All this subtracts substantially from the time the child spends with family in family-chosen activities.

--All those “Dear Parent or Guardian” letters--a staple of Reform Math--that tell us how to, and how not to, teach our kids math. They sometimes require us to get actively involved in our child’s homework, but only on their own terms. They warn us not to teach our children how to “stack” numbers and use traditional algorithms. They sometimes ask us to teach our children their multiplication tables—claiming that there isn’t enough time to at school.

--All the time we’re expected to volunteer in classrooms and attend in-class events: expectations that, while exceeding those of a generation ago (my parents were never invited into any of my classrooms), assume a 1950s style household in which at least one parent is free of pressing professional responsibilities. The time we take off from work is time many of us must make up after hours when our kids are home.

--All the hours we must take out of quality family time to teach our kids things they’re no longer learning in school: not just the multiplication tables, but phonics, penmanship, and those traditional algorithms—which, for all the naysaying, are essential for more advanced math classes.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the Scoring Sampler for the 6th grade PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessments):

Extra Credit:

Is knowing the meaning of "quartile value" an indicator of college and career readiness?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Autism as anything but social

According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, social deficits remain core to autistic spectrum disorders. But that hasn't stopped several distinct parties from acting otherwise.

First there are autism parents. While many of us freely acknowledge our children's social limitations, many find these limitations hard to accept. "What a horrible thing to say about a child," I once heard a parent say during a radio interview, "that he or she lacks empathy." There must be something else at fault: sensory overload; anxiety; faulty but fixable wiring. In other words, there must be a normal child in there somewhere.

Which brings us to the next party: the popular media. Its infatuation with autism miracle cure tales is unrelenting: here, some sort of magic bullet (most recently, Pok√©mon Go) unlocks the normal child inside the child who "has autism." Or, if not the normal child inside, then the child who, once liberated and/or truly appreciated for what he or she is, turns out to be "very social," or, as a movie critic recently wrote of the protagonist of the documentary Life, Animated, a "born leader."

While most contemporary autism research finds social deficits to be central to autism, some try to argue that these deficits are merely byproducts of other, more fixable issues. This paper, for example, claims that abnormalities in eye contact and gestures are the result of motor difficulties, and that poor performance on perspective-taking tests are the result of language delays. But even when you disentangle motor tasks and linguistic tasks from social tasks, children on the autistic spectrum do poorly on tests of social reciprocity and perspective taking.

Moving from psychology and neurology to philosophy and disability studies, one does find the occasional attempt to argue against core Theory of Mind deficits in autism. Here the argument involves claiming that the whole notion of a normal or defective Theory of Mind assumes a certain faulty, out-of-date "Cartesian dualism"--i.e., the existence of a mind that is separate from the body/brain. In fact, neither the various Theory of Mind experiments, nor their various conclusions, depend on any such assumption.

But the most bizarre embodiment of the notion that social skills aren't a core deficit of autism, in my experience, is the occasional person who claims to be autistic because they have sensory issues. These are people who show typical levels of social reciprocity and social sensitivity in their conversational interactions (for example during their interview on Fresh Air), but who say they probably have (or could be diagnosed as having) an autistic spectrum disorder because of those sensory issues.

Now, I'm someone who regularly removes labels from my shirts, and who regularly covers her ears when ambulances go by, and who can't stand bananas because the texture is so tremendously disturbing--but I'd hesitate to diagnose myself as being anywhere on the autistic spectrum. At least for those particular reasons.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turning in assignments in the 21st century: a 21st century skill?

Turning in homework used to be child’s play. In the early grades, before most kids had developed all the necessary organizational skills, teachers would simply walk around and collect it. There was no question of stuff getting lost. Of course, there was also less homework back then—in the early grades. It wasn’t until the later grades—high school, college—that it was up to kids to turn things in themselves.

Nowadays it’s all so much more complicated. In the early grades, the fact that some kids have the necessary organizational skills to turn things in (and complete large, open-ended projects, and design their own science experiments, and give multi-media presentations in front of the class) has caused teachers to expect everyone to do so. It’s the 21st century, after all, and kids need to learn to take responsibility.

In the upper grades, meanwhile, homework is increasingly supposed to be turned in online. In principle, this ought to make things more convenient. But in practice, the e-turn-in procedures are often non-transparent or susceptible to technological mishaps. You think you’ve turned something in, and then it turns out later—typically after it’s too late—that you haven’t. There was some additional button you were supposed to click on.

Both trends—the lower grade “take responsibility” and the upper grade high tech turn in protocols--have dogged J as he’s moved through the system. As with so many kids on the spectrum, his ability to keep track of things is, if not lacking, then lagging. Countless man hours have gone into IEP meetings, and follow-up meetings, and follow-up follow-up meetings, in which different “stakeholders” have proposed various elaborate strategies to address the lost homework/failure to turn it in problem: all sorts of checklists and reward systems and back-and-forth communication systems. Why can’t teachers simply collect assignments (at least J’s) as they did back in the dark ages, I’d ask repeatedly. Teachers don’t have time for that, someone explained at one point. But what about all the time everyone is therefore spending in meetings coming up with alternative strategies and afterwards attempting to implement them?

If you look through Listservs for autism parents, concerns about points off for homework that was completed but not turned in on time are ubiquitous. Serious problems that lack obvious solutions are a staple of autism; lost homework shouldn’t be one of them.

No sooner had J became organized enough to turn things in on his own—this milestone occurred sometime between the end of high school and his freshman year in college—than the rules of the game up and changed. Suddenly, for his computer science classes, it turned out (a) that he was supposed to be turning things in using a program called Bitbucket, and (b) that he was getting zeroes because he hadn’t paid attention to this requirement, let alone to the logistics of Bitbucket. Of course, now that he’s in college, it’s too late for IEPs, so all I can do is bug him at the start of each next class about keeping an eye on the latest turn-in protocol and emailing his professor if anything’s unclear.

Further complicating matters, the rules for contacting professors are also changing. Some don’t want to be contacted at all via regular email, but only via Blackboard or Canvas.

Then there’s the issue of acquiring new assignments and getting back old ones—in a timely fashion, with perspicuous feedback. Theoretically, programs like Blackboard or Canvas make this easier. In practice, as with so much else on the web, the logistics are often byzantine: multiple pages to navigate among; multiple sequences of non-obvious, hard-to-find tabs to click on. You think the new assignment hasn’t been posted yet, only to discover that it was posted several days ago. You see the score on your last assignment; you might even see statistics on how the class did overall (complete with median, mode, and range); but you don’t necessarily get that crucial, qualitative feedback that one used to get back in the dark ages: personalized feedback about where one might have gone wrong and what one needs to work on in the future.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired explained answers

More from Maryland:

Extra Credit

Might there be a bias towards verbosity and against poor penmanship and spelling?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pronoun ambiguity

Speaking of prose that's are hard to follow, consider this passage from a local online news source:

Jung-Allen identifies as transgender, as they do not identify with the gender they were designated at birth. Terms like non-binary, genderqueer and gender non-conforming are more tailored fits, but are still also umbrella terms for people who place themselves on a spectrum among multiple, if not endless, genders. Jung-Allen does research, but isn’t pressed on defining what exact subgroup they might fall in at the moment, putting it this way: “I’m 16.” Their focus, aside from school, looking at colleges in New York and Connecticut, poetry and using their work to create conversations around transgender lives, is more focused on getting people not to misgender them in speech, or refer to them with the proper name.
They transitioned around last summer. The word “she” began to feel like a curse word or a slur, Jung-Allen explains. Support came through conversations with PYPM (Philadelphia Young Poetry Movement) members and staffers. Lee Mokobe, one of their good friends, shared stories about Mokobe’s own path to becoming a transboy. “When I heard that you could be either or both, you could be gender noncomforming, you could agender, you could be whatever you wanted. That was the light for me,” they recall.
If someone wants to be called "they," I'm find with it--so long as they show tolerance towards me as I adjust linguistically and occasionally slip up and "misgender" them.

But using "they" to refer to individuals does have a linguistic downside. In erasing the distinctions not just between male vs. female, but also between singular vs. plural, such usage supports not just gender ambiguity, but also linguistic ambiguity. The alternatives to the ambiguous pronoun references seen in the above passages are either a probably dehumanizing use of "it," or a potentially tedious repetition of proper names, as in my rewrite of paragraph 2:
Jung-Allen transitioned around last summer. The word “she” began to feel like a curse word or a slur, Jung-Allen explains. Support came through conversations with PYPM (Philadelphia Young Poetry Movement) members and staffers. Lee Mokobe, one of Jung-Allen's good friends, shared stories about Mokobe’s own path to becoming a transboy. “When I heard that you could be either or both, you could be gender noncomforming, you could agender, you could be whatever you wanted. That was the light for me,” Jung-Allen recalls.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading contradictions

It's hard to know whether to blame deficient attention spans, insufficient practice with challenging texts, sloppy reading habits driven by online reading via key word searches rather than the parsing of entire sentences, and/or the bottleneck to fluent reading caused by insufficient phonics instruction, but reading comprehension skills continue to be in serious decline.

However, the decline in reading comprehension, in my experience, is not accompanied by a decline in reading confidence. Take a student who reads something--say in one of your comments on his or her paper--that sounds unreasonable or contradictory. Does that student first go back and re-read to make sure you're really saying what he or she thinks your saying before emailing you his or her objections? Perhaps many students still do that. But recently I'm starting to get messages like:
In your feedback, you contradict yourself. First you tell me I shouldn't have done X. But later you tell me I should have done more of X.
I look back at my comment, which reads something like:
You weren't supposed to be focusing on X. Instead, you were supposed to be focusing on Y. Given A, B, and C, it's odd that your paper should have focused so much on X.
And then I realize that my second sentence was too complex for my student. She hadn't processed it as a whole, but instead had extracted the embedded clause "your paper should have focused so much on X," and interpreted that as a contradiction of "You weren't supposed to be focusing on X."

I pointed this out to my student, who then said that my wording was confusing and that my sentence had been hard to follow since I had "broken it up with commas."

Up to a certain point, I can simplify sentences for reading impaired students, or explain things orally. But, as I wrote earlier:
Some ideas are so complex that they can only be expressed in a series of complex sentences. Sentences beyond a certain level of complexity can only be fully digested in written form, where readers can take them in at their own pace and reread as necessary. If you aren’t able to sustain the attention it takes to parse such sentences in all their complexity, or to develop the skills it takes to write them, you are shut off from whole worlds of ideas, across all sorts of disciplines, from economics to psychology; from chemistry to literary analysis.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Autism diaries: repetitive questions and fan brain

J knows that his repetitive questions bother people. He also knows that asking repetitive questions is characteristic of autism. Together, we've Googled sites and blog posts like like "Autism and why all the repetitive questions? I am going crazy!". No amount of repetitive questioning on my part gets him either to explain why he does this, or to let up.

Not that J isn't capable of asking really interesting questions. It's just a matter of getting him off of topics like bomb hoaxes, terrorist attacks, and, of course, ceiling fans. But whenever there's a vacuum, those topics creep back in--especially around his father, who tolerates them better than I do.

One recent evening, after D had just returned from a week-long trip, J followed him into the kitchen and unleashed a bonanza of pent up questions--about bomb hoaxes, terrorist attacks, and ceiling fans. Poor D was completely exhausted and was just trying to have a beer in peace. So I joined them and tried to get J to stop, finally resorting to "asking stupid questions makes you stupid."

At which J gently pushed me out of the kitchen and closed the door.

Sitting down at the table in the adjacent room, I got out my iPhone--my go-to device for communicating with J when we're in different parts of the house.

"Asking repetitive questions give you fan-brain," I typed.

No response. The questions to D about bomb hoaxes, terrorist attacks, and ceiling fans continued.

My next text: "Is your brain on fast? Or on reverse?"

J's questions to D did not relent. But suddenly I noticed that the topic had changed. Apparently of his own initiative, J was asking a question completely outside his typical triad. "When did it become illegal to advertise cigarettes on TV?"

"Good question!" I immediately texted, while D, still behind the closed door with J, racked his memory for an answer.

I hear J's cell phone buzzing with my praise, and he asks another question. "When you were a boy, were there restrictions on cigarette ads?"

"Another good one!" I texted while D gave his reply.

Another buzz behind the door, and another new question: "Did it used to be legal to smoke inside hospitals?"

"That is a really great question!!"

And so on, for about 20 turns of text, buzz, new question, new answer. D finishes his beer, opens the door, and I beckon him over to show him what I've been up to on my phone screen. J follows behind, sees what's going on, and beams in an beautiful broad smile.

Then he heads back up to his bedroom and his assorted fans.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the Maryland's test guidelines:

I. A 1 out of 3 point score for explanation:

II. A 3 out of 3 point score for explanation:

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Who are the real educational colonialists?

Many of us education bloggers have complained about people who advocate policies for other people's children that they would never inflict on their own. My own litany includes these types:

1. People who oppose school choice but have school choice themselves (i.e., the ability to pay for private school or get their kids into magnet schools or move to a different district).

2. People who oppose selective charter schools, but send their kids to selective schools.

3. People who think publicly funded schools shouldn’t remove disruptive kids, but make sure their own kids’ classrooms are disruptor-free.

4. Parents who oppose tracking and ability-based grouping, but make sure their own kids attend high-level classes with high-level peers.

5. Parents who say charters and vouchers are destroying public education, but opt their own kids out of public education.

6. Parents who lament the college admissions rat race and say that SAT scores and what college you go to don't matter but, when the time comes, hire tutors and SAT coaches and stuff their kids’ schedules with after-school activities.

To this list, I might have added one other:

7. People (typically education experts or education software developers) who would like to see the latest education fads--heterogenous group work, child-centered discovery, Everyday/Investigations Math, online, project-based learning--applied to children in general, but send their kids to more traditional schools that evade these fads.

So, when I recently stumbled across Chris Lehmann's book Building School 2.0, I was intrigued to hear what he has to say about this phenomenon, which he calls "educational colonialism."

The problem is, I can't actually quote from the book.  That's because I can't bear to actually possess it. The book bills itself as a Martin Lutheresque manifesto (It consists of 95 short "theses"). But, unlike Martin Luther's theses, there's nothing new, let alone revolutionary here: these are simply repackagings of the various Constructivist/21st Century Schools ideas that have been around for at least the last two decades.

Luckily, though, Lehmann doesn't just repackage other people's ideas: he also cannibalizes from his own writing. In particular, Lehmann's thesis on "educational colonialism" comes straight from a piece he wrote several years ago for the Huffington Post.

Here are some nuggets:

there are a lot of powerful folks right now who are advocating for a pedagogy that they do not want for their own children. Some of these powerful people are running networks of schools that have a pedagogical approach that is directly counter to the educational approach they pay for for their own children. Moreover, these same powerful people tend to get upset when asked about the disconnect, saying that that question is off limits.
I don’t think it is.
So far so good, though I don't know anyone who has dismissed that question as off limits.

But then, in explaining why we should question it, Lehmann goes on to explain what he means by this colonialist pedagogy:
I think that’s a very dangerous thing not to question.
Because we’ve done this before in America, and when we did that to the Native Americans, it did damage that has effects today.
To me, when you ensure your own child has an arts-enriched, small-class size, deeply humanistic education and you advocate that those families who have fewer economic resources than you have should sit straight in their chairs and do what they are told while doubling and tripling up on rote memorization and test prep, you are guilty of educational colonialism.
Observers at Lehmann's school have reported kids surfing the internet rather than attending to classroom activities; test scores show Lehmann's students earning low scores on assessments of scientific knowledge. I'm not sure what we did to Native Americans, but I'm guessing that most parents want kids--including their own--sitting up straight in chairs and acquiring content knowledge.