African-American Students Report to the Gym

by Robert Pondiscio
April 30th, 2009

So now it’s come to this.

Students at a Sacramento-area high school attended standardized test pep rallies — er, sorry…Heritage Assemblies – organized by race to pump up each ethnic group to take state tests.  “Students could go to any rally they wanted,” the Sacramento Bee reports, ”but the gatherings were designated for specific races – African Americans in the gym, Pacific Islanders in the theater, Latinos in the multipurpose room.”

The paper describes a scene in the gym at Laguna Creek High School, where students gathered before a large outline of Africa on the wall. “Last year we scored the highest percentage increase of any group,” Vice Principal Hasan Abdulmalik hollered at the crowd.


Laguna Creek High School Principal Doug Craig said dividing the students by race allowed staff to talk about test scores without making any one ethnic group feel singled out in a negative manner. “Is it racist? I don’t believe it is,” Craig tells the paper, which reports the practice of holding race-specific test prep rallies has become more common in California.  

Gathering and reporting data based on ethnic groups is one of the few unambiguous wins of the NCLB era.  It’s pushed the achievement gap to the front of our education agenda.  But I’m not sure holding “heritage rallies” even rises to the level of well-intentioned but wrong-headed.  At best, it’s yet another example of how schools are putting their problems–and their desperation– on the backs of kids. And a particularly disturbing example at that.

Update:  I was remiss in not tipping my hat to Anthony Rebora, who brought this item to my attention via his forum at Teacher Magazine.

Hello, Sweetheart. Get Me Rewrite!

by Robert Pondiscio
April 29th, 2009

The ledes on yesterday’s NAEP numbers in papers across the country this morning:

“The basic math and reading skills of USA students have slowly, surely improved over the past 30 to 40 years, new findings show, with sharp increases among many of the nation’s lowest-performing students – especially in the past four years” – USA Today

“U.S. high-school students haven’t achieved any significant gains in reading or math for nearly four decades”  - Wall Street Journal

“Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools” — Washington Post

“The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics” — New York Times

The nation’s 9- and 13-year-olds are doing better in math and reading than they did decades ago, test results released Tuesday show” — Atlanta Journal Constitution

“American 17-year-olds aren’t performing any better in reading and math than their bell-bottom-clad counterparts in the early 1970s” — Christian Science Monitor

NAEP Reactions Cheat Sheet

by Robert Pondiscio
April 29th, 2009

Glass Half Full

“It shows that we are on the right track. It is not an accident. It is by design. It proves the policy principle.  Accountability is working. Where we’ve paid attention, grades 3 through 8, we are getting the best results. Where we have paid less attention, high school, we’re not” — Margaret Spellings

“Overall scores in both [reading and math] are up with nearly all gains reaching statistical significance (save 17-year old math scores). In many cases, all-time highs were hit” – Andy Smarick

Today’s new NAEP data is mixed news with enough kernels for people to argue that current policies are/are not helping improve achievement especially for traditionally under-served kids, are/are not hurting advanced kids, some encouraging results for early grades but not for high school etc…it’s a stimulus program for education partisans!  Short answer, we need to do a lot better but all is not lost”  Andy Rotherham

“Why the difference in elementary school reading, the sort of difference that could put a smile on even the most curmudgeonly of education reformers?  We might not want to say it out loud, but some may actually want to consider that Reading First and our emphasis on scientifically based reading instruction has actually worked” –  Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards

Glass Half Empty

“It is very disappointing to see flat scores at the high school level, but they should not surprise any of us….Huge numbers of high school students have not been challenged to read much that is beyond middle school level in difficulty and complexity. Too many students in middle school are allowed to read whatever they want in the name of “engagement.” It hasn’t worked. These flat scores are a serious warning: we need a substantive English curriculum from grades 6-12 ­ for all students. ” — Sandra Stotsky

“Overall, this report is further proof that we must do better. While it’s good news that younger students are making meaningful gains in reading and math, it’s deeply troubling that many high school students are not” — U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA)

Glass Deep Enough to Drown In

“The latest Long Term Trends…reveal a productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.  Anyone who points to the slightly higher scores in the early grades as cause for celebration is missing the point. What parents care about is that their children are well prepared for higher education and future careers at the end of their secondary education. The fact that scores have risen somewhat in the early grades means little since those gains evaporate for the vast majority of students by the time they graduate” — Andrew J. Coulson

Correcting Grammar is the Funnest Job

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2009

Do my ears deceive me?  Did Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs actually say on national television – on Meet the Press, no less – “this is the funnest, most rewarding job that I’ve ever had and it may well be the funnest and most rewarding job that I ever have.”

Funnest?  The man who speaks for the President, who speaks for the United States of America, said “funnest?”  Twice??

If Mr. Gibbs and I go out to breakfast, we might have fun.  We also might have pancakes.  Fun and pancakes are both nouns.  If our breakfast cannot be the pancakiest meal we ever had, then how could it be the funnest?

Some will argue that “fun” has gained traction as an adjective, as in “That was a fun breakfast.”  But if you want to be a stickler about it (and having gone this far down the path, why not go the rest of the way?), “fun” used to describe the breakfast is not an adjective, but an attributive noun.  Here’s a great explanation from the blog Grammar Girl:

In the phrase “sugar cookie,” “sugar” is a noun, but it’s being used in an attributive way to describe the cookie. Attributive nouns do exactly the same thing as adjectives. You could say, “I ate a sugar cookie” or “I ate a yummy cookie.” The sentences are constructed the same way, but “sugar” is an attributive noun and “yummy” is an adjective.

No adjective?  Then no comparative (funner) and no superlative (funnest).

Your job may be the most fun you’ve ever had, Mr. Gibbs, but it’s not the funnest.

New NAEP Numbers

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2009

NAEP long-term trend numbers are out.  Headlines and links:

Improvements seen in reading and mathematics

Black students make greater gains from early 1970s than White students

Most racial/ethnic score gaps narrow compared to first assessment

For students whose parents did not finish high school, mathematics scores increase compared to 1978

Percentages of students taking higher-level mathematics increasing

USA Today’s Greg Toppo highlights sharp increases in math and reading among many of the nation’s lowest-performing students. especially in the past four years, but notes “the stubborn, decades-long achievement gap between white and minority students shrank between the 1970s and the first part of this decade, but has barely budged since 2002, when the federal government compelled public schools to address it through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).” 

Over at Curriculum Matters, Mary Ann Zehr notes average scores have remained flat for 17-year-olds both in reading and math since the early 1970s.  “The scores for 17-year-olds in reading, however, did increase by three points, to 286, from 2004 to 2008, which is considered significant. But the same was not true for 17-year-olds in math. The scores remained stagnant for that age group in math during that same period,” she notes.

Freire Is Foul and Foul is Freire

by Robert Pondiscio
April 27th, 2009

Mention the name Paolo Freire at a gathering of educated people and you’re likely to get blank stares.  Unless members of that group went to ed school, where the Brazilian theorist is nothing less than a rock star, and his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Opressed is part of the canon.  In the new City Journal, Sol Stern examines the curious case of Freire and asks  how his “derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever gets confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools?”  For starters, Stern says Freire’s seeds were cast upon fertile soil.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed resonated with progressive educators, already committed to a “child-centered” rather than a “teacher-directed” approach to classroom instruction. Freire’s rejection of teaching content knowledge seemed to buttress what was already the ed schools’ most popular theory of learning, which argued that students should work collaboratively in constructing their own knowledge and that the teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

Freire opposed what he described as the “banking” concept of education, in which the student is a seen as a tabula rasa to be filled by the teacher.  Banking, naturally, is a tool of the oppressor in which the teacher talks and the students listen, the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply, and the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.  “Freire’s strictures reinforced another cherished myth of American progressive ed,” Stern notes, “that traditional teacher-directed lessons left students passive and disengaged, leading to higher drop-out rates for minorities and the poor.”

Stern finds no evidence that Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed has gained much traction or met with much success anywhere in the Third World.   “Nor have Freire’s favorite revolutionary regimes, like China and Cuba, reformed their own ‘banking’ approaches to education, in which the brightest students are controlled, disciplined, and stuffed with content knowledge for the sake of national goals—and the production of more industrial managers, engineers, and scientists,” he notes.  Why, Stern finally wonders, does American education’s love affair with Freire persist?

A broad consensus is emerging among education reformers that the best chance of lifting the academic achievement of children in the nation’s inner-city schools is to raise dramatically the effectiveness of the teachers assigned to those schools. Improving teacher quality as a means of narrowing racial achievement gaps is a major focus of President Obama’s education agenda. But if the quality of teachers is now the name of the game, it defies rationality that Pedagogy of the Oppressed still occupies an exalted place in training courses for those teachers, who will surely learn nothing about becoming better instructors from its discredited Marxist platitudes.

Stern challenged me a few months ago to find a published piece critical of Friere’s work and its impact on American education.  I failed.

WSJ Catches Up With Willingham

by Robert Pondiscio
April 27th, 2009

Dan Willingham gets serious national ink today with a glowing review of his book Why Don’t Students Like School in the Wall Street Journal.  And if you haven’t read Dan’s book yet, what are you waiting for?

Update:  The Journal is stingy in its praise compared to Bill Evers.

Wrapping Up the Week of the Young Child

by Alice Wiggins
April 26th, 2009

The week has ended and observation of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Week of the Young Child is drawing to a close.  I hope you found at least on nugget to take away from my “top 5 for improving early childhood education”

5.  Clear and specific early childhood standards

4.  Alignment of PreK schooling & standards with K-8 schooling & standard

3.  Recognition that quality is comprised of both process and structure (what teachers DO and what teachers HAVE)

2.  Access for all children in need

1.  The importance of play and intentionality in the preschool classroom

I hope that you noted the interrelationships between these items as well.  We tend to talk about them as specific entities, but preschool access isn’t beneficial if it isn’t high-quality. Although clear and specific standards may be a measure of quality, they are nothing with out teacher intentionality in their implementation. Teacher intentionality is most effective when interactions with children are high-quality, and, OK, I can see I have the vicious circle thing going. 

Keep your eye on the prize…the child.

In Support of Intentional Play

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

Last month, the Alliance for Childhood released a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.“  They had me with the first sentence: “The argument of this report, that child-initiated play must be restored to kindergarten will be dismissed and even ridiculed in some quarters.”  

I let out a cheer that startled my co-workers.

I am a huge fan of play in the early childhood classroom (preschool through grade 3).  The research is clear.  Through play, children develop a host of important skills and knowledge including social skills (for negotiating and cooperating with peers), language (particularly in dramatic play, which studies show fosters children in using more complete and complex language), literacy (as they interact with literacy materials in the play environment), as well as math and science (as they interact with manipulatives including blocks, puzzles, and toy vehicles).

For those of you who didn’t let out a supportive cheer at news of this report, I’d like to clarify two things that I spend a great deal of time communicating to teachers during professional development.  “Free play” doesn’t mean “free for all” and “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.”

Free play is distinguished from “structured” play by its opportunity to engage the imagination and its lack of rules (as in game rules, not behavior and classroom management rules).  To reap the greatest benefits from free play, teachers need to be intentional about the activities and materials available during this portion of the day.  Unfortunately, many teachers provision their centers with things like dolls and dishes, blocks, and a sensory table (sand and water table) but don’t rotate or supplement these provisions regularly.  Day after day children can play house, build towers, and dig in the sand. The teachers are happy. The kids are happy. What else is there to do? Well, consider how the learning opportunities change if one day instead of a housekeeping center, there’s an airport setup; instead of a sand table, there’s an archaeological dig; and instead of 120 unit blocks, there are 120 unit blocks, a level, a tape measure, a book of home plans, and a construction hat. Consider further, how learning opportunities change if a week later the airport is replaced by a cruise ship complete with ball gowns and a captain’s buffet, and the sensory table is filled with balls of different sizes and a variety of containers with different sized openings.   Or if the construction tools are replaced by plastic animals and vegetation. With intentionality, teachers can create play opportunities that reinforce specific skills and knowledge. This involves a planning on the part of the teacher, but enhances children’s opportunities to learn during free play.

With regard to my second clarification, “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.” The research is also clear about the role of teacher-child interactions in supporting children’s acquisition of knowledge. Adults support children’s learning by allowing children to demonstrate existing skills, and by scaffolding children in support of attaining more complex skills. By assuming a role in the play and minimizing directive behavior, adults can extend children’s opportunities to learn.  For instance, by assuming a role during dramatic play, teachers can model language and actions for children without telling them what they should say or do. Children take the imaginative lead and teachers follow. By asking children about their work products in ways that require brainstorming, reflection or analysis, adults can extend children’s learning. For instance, “How do you think we can build the opening large enough for the animals to fit through?” Teacher-child interaction during play requires restraint on the part of the teacher to ensure that children are initiating and teachers are facilitating.

PreK: Access for All? Or For All At-Risk Children?

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

A Washington Post reader last October asked education columnist Jay Mathews to “start a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten.”  The writer cited evidence that the effects of pre-k wear off and expressed concerns attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be “a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor.”

In response, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation laid out a case for universal pre-k (UPK) largely based on research demonstrating that all children, not just low-SES kids, would benefit.  “It’s true,” she wrote, “that the high-quality, randomized controlled trials that demonstrated long-term benefits to participation in high-quality pre-k programs focused on low-income students.”

But data from more recent evaluations of pre-k programs suggests that these programs also have benefits for middle-class children. For example, a Georgetown University study that looked at children in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program found that all groups of students participating in the program, including middle class kids, made learning gains as a result, compared to students who didn’t. But the greatest gains were for low-income and otherwise at-risk students. Other studies looking at state pre-k programs have found similar results.

Mathews’ correspondent observed that the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed.  Mead cited research that shows a lot of working- and middle-class families can’t afford pre-k either.  And she’s especially persuasive when she notes “the simple fact that we don’t restrict children’s access to K-12 education based on their parents’ incomes.”

In the end, the question of universal pre-k vs low-income pre-k is a political question.  But the benefit of preschool for low-SES children can no longer be seriously disputed.  There is no doubt that access to high-quality preschool programs helps. But the key phrase in that sentence is not access, but high-quality.  Universal access to low-quality preschool would be a high-cost, low-value proposition.  Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows most programs in the United States are rated mediocre, and fewer than 10% meet national accreditation standards:

Across the nation child care fees average $4,000 to $10,000 per year, exceeding the cost of public universities in most states. Yet, nationally only 1 in 7 children who are financially eligible for child care subsidies is being served, and only 41% of 3 and 4 year old children living in poverty are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58% of those whose families have higher incomes.

Cracking the nut of ensuring high-quality is a work in progress.  What we do know is that it is dependent on what teachers do in the classroom, not just what they have in the classroom.            

In the end, I’m agnostic on universal PreK.  It certainly would do no harm, and much good.  But we must find a way to guarantee every low-income child a place in a high-quality preschool. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, it’s not going to happen without a robust program that captures all of our most vulnerable, at-risk children.