Another Reason to Hate Russo

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

This Week in Education uberblogger Alexander Russo works hard at burnishing his curmudgeonly image, from the “make my day” picture that tops his blog, to the Andy Rotherham pinata he hung over his desk to smack when he’s bored. OK, I made that up, but this is true: he’s stolen away John Thompson, who guest-blogged here only last week, to contribute to TWIE while he’s at writing class this summer. (Teaching it or taking it, Russo?)

It’ll be great to read regular posts from John, a teacher’s teacher and a fine individual. Congratulations all around. Hey Russo…ever heard of Wally Pipp?

Houston, We Have a Problem

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

I’m all about committed parenting, academic rigor and student achievement so why does it feel excessive to me that children as young as four are being tutored to get ahead in school? The Houston Chronicle reports some parents are hiring tutors, “because they’re feeling the pressure of looming high-stakes tests, which begins in Texas with the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills for third-grade children. Others are thinking about college.”

Houston-area tutors work with hundreds of young children on phonics, numbers, colors, study skills and fine motor skills. Some take children as young as 3 1/2 . But some caution that putting pressure on young children might give them a distaste for school. Rather than spending upward of $45 an hour on private tutors, they say parents should use outings to stores, libraries and museums as teaching moments.

“A child needs summer,” Kay Hall, director of the Early Learning Academy in the Spring school district tells the paper.  ”There’s a lot of learning that can take place over the summer, but it doesn’t need to be in a classroom in a structured environment.”

N is for Nerve

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

Mom sends her 2nd grade daughter to school wearing a t-shirt reading “N the N Word” (whatever that means), doesn’t explain to little 8-year old Jaiden (she’s white) why “N-word” on a t-shirt might be offensive to her classmates in her 90% non-white school because she wants to “keep her innocent.” Now mom is upset because the school made her child change instead of “seizing the moment” to discuss the shirt that supposedly encourages tolerance.  Now the ACLU is involved because the school violated the little girl’s First Amendment rights, even though the child has no idea what the N word means and thinks Mom only put it on her because “it looks nice on me.”

“I never expected it to be blown up like this,” said the mom. “But innocently enough, Jaiden’s made an impact on society — maybe even history.” 

Please.  Mother knows (what’s) best (for other people’s children).

(Finder’s Fee: Joanne Jacobs)


“People Cannot Work at This Level All Their Lives”

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

Jennifer Medina’s piece in this morning’s New York Times is a step up from the usual happy-talk cheerleading for small schools.  Yes, small schools are better than faceless, anonymous megaschools, but Medina’s take on NYC’s Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Fort Greene, Brooklyn makes it clear that success, when it comes, is less a function of structure, but staff effort.

To hear the tales of the new graduates is to understand the enormous effort and amount of resources it takes to make a school succeed. Teachers and other staff members routinely work 60 hours a week. Millions of extra dollars have been collected in grants and private donations. Parents and students regularly attend workshops until 10 p.m.

Principal Elana Karopkin, 32, launched the school four years ago, and is leaving to work for Achievement First.  She tells the Times she is nothing less than “exhausted,” both physically and emotionally.

“You are taking a bunch of hyper, type A perfectionist people and giving them a herculean task,” she said. “People have to work much too hard to do what we are doing. People cannot work at this level all their lives and nobody is prepared to do something at a level of mediocrity.”

Update:  Over at Eduwonkette, Skoolboy weighs in smartly:  “We need to disrupt this ridiculous myth that expects superhuman effort from educators in order to achieve success for kids….We don’t need cartoon-like superhero educators; we need a system that supports teachers to work hard and honestly at their craft, without the risk of burnout after a couple of years.”

Just so. 

Social Promotion Watch

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

A Georgia law passed in 2001 was supposed to stop social promotion, but state school districts are promoting nearly everyone anyway, “even if they fail a second-chance retest, or blow it off altogether” according to an analysis of 2006 and 2007 state data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A state law aimed at stopping so-called “social promotion” says students in grades 3, 5 and 8 should repeat the year when they fail certain standardized tests. The findings show state and local educators are balking at enforcing the 2001 law — routinely resorting to an appeals process that allows schools to promote students who never pass the tests.

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox argues that retention “should be a last resort” and defends use of the appeal process, which allows promotion if the principal, parent and teacher agree.  “They’ve used that as the rule rather than the exception,” former Gov. Roy Barnes, who championed the law, tells the AJC. “Did people think that I was not serious?”

Er, apparently so Governor. 

Rarely discussed in social promotion debates is the effect of no-stakes testing and infinite second chances on the empty homily of “high expectations.”  Kids aren’t dummies.  First we narrow the curriculum to prep kids for state tests, then we teach them through our actions that the tests really don’t matter anyway.  The perfect storm of mediocrity. 

Update:  Opinion on the AJC’s Get Schooled blog is strenuously in favor of enforcing the No Social Promotion rule.

The View From 1869

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

While at the Grand Canyon last week, I spent time reading the journals of the members of the 1869 Powell expedition down the Colorado River. It’s impossible not to be struck by the everyday erudition of Americans of even modest educational attainment of earlier times.

George Bradley described how he “would be willing to explore the River Styx” if it meant getting out of the Army. Later he described a particularly rough night on the river. “We need only a few flashes of lightning to meet Milton’s most vivid conceptions of Hell,” he wrote.

It’s hard to imagine such allusions finding their way into the diaries of even the best educated contemporary Americans, let alone a sixth-grade dropout like Bradley. Spend some time reading the letters of ordinary Americans of the 19th century and you immediately grasp how much poorer our discourse is for a lack of a common set of references. It’s lack makes the lowest common denominator not merely lamentable, but necessary for us simply to understand each other.

While You Were Out

by Robert Pondiscio
June 30th, 2008

I’m almost sorry I chose to be on the north rim of the Grand Canyon when my home state of New York announced that universal proficiency is nigh. Better than four out of five public school students in the Empire State are suddenly at or above grade level in math up from 73 percent last year while 69 percent of students were at or above state standards.

There’s so much to say about lowering the bar and how the good news doesn’t square with NAEP results, but lots of other commenters including Sol Stern were on the job while I was away:

Sometime in the next decade, the white children of Lake George and the black children of New York City will come face to face with reality. On a high school math Regents test—or on an SAT test, or in a college remediation course—they will discover that they are not quite as proficient as New York State once assured them.

Other fascinating items waiting in my inbox: Karin Chenoweth’s take on the IES Reading First report is crystal clear on what the data shows…and what it doesn’t; and a study shows elementary-school teachers are poorly prepared by education schools to teach math. Hmmm. I wonder why no one is suggesting copying whatever it is that has helped New York’s teachers do so well.

Nice to be back.