Wednesday, June 22, 2011


As you may have guessed, the kids are out of school, I’m mostly not at work, and this blog has gone into summer mode. I’ve used the onset of summer as an excuse to go on something of a holiday from the blogosphere (well, almost), and I can report that life goes on quite happily. (When necessary, I remind myself of this cartoon.)

I’ll still be posting once in a while, but I won’t be keeping up my usual pace. In the meantime, check out this post by northTOmom, which I wish I had written myself, on the mindlessness of what passes for “school spirit.” Or this article by Anne Marie Slaughter. Or FedUpMom’s ongoing account of her temporary experience with unschooling as her family is on an extended trip.

(One of my summer projects is to digitize our old family photos. The one above is of me with my best friend Maria in the summer of 1969, before either of us had started school. Happy times!)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Parents vs. politicians

Helen Gym on how our schools increasingly bear no resemblance to the schools parents want for their kids:
-- While parents talk about programs rich in the arts, sciences and history, politicians talk about covering the basics through a one-size-fits-all curricula.

-- While we talk about building critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers for a complicated and dynamic world, they talk about hiring billion-dollar testing companies that infiltrate every aspect of teaching and learning, drilling the notion of knowledge down to a single test score.

-- While we talk about smaller class sizes to help students and teachers build nurturing relationships with one another, they talk about maximizing capacity and “creating efficiencies.”

. . .

And in this lies the critical difference between what many parents see as their hopes for a quality school system and the politicians and billionaire venture philanthropists dominating the education reform landscape. The latter have become so enamored with the structure and management of education that they’ve forgotten about the substance and practice of it.
Unfortunately, in the political system we’ve created for ourselves, it is not in the interests of politicians to take ordinary parents’ opinions into account. Ironically, I discovered this article through a tweet by our school superintendent.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

They blinded us — with science!

I am always discouraged by how much of the debate over educational policy focuses on factual disagreements to the neglect of value disagreements. Facts are relevant and important, of course, but only in the context of value judgments about what kind of world we want to live in, and what we think it means to be well educated. No amount of empirical evidence can tell us what to want. All the evidence in the world might show that corporal punishment raises standardized test scores, but it doesn’t follow that we should beat our kids.

Somehow, though, virtually all of the discussion of education “reform” proposals is about whether they “work,” without any reflection on what that means. When a study purports to show that a program like KIPP raises its students’ standardized test scores, the program’s detractors chime in to say, “No, it doesn’t!” -- and the entire argument proceeds on the apparently shared assumption that, if they do raise test scores, there can be no argument against them.

Ask these empiricists why we should make raising standardized test scores the only measure -- and thus the only goal -- of education, and their empirical answer is some variation on “Because of course we should.” Even on that rigorously empirical foundation, the inherent weaknesses of social science research render any conclusions extremely contingent. We’re not talking about randomized clinical trials in which one variable is altered while others are held constant. Can the studies of KIPP schools sort out the effects of selection bias and attrition over time? Can they sort out the effects of KIPP’s more authoritarian practices from the simple fact that KIPP provides more child care coverage than ordinary schools? The “empirical findings” of these studies are castles in the air.

None of these questions stop school reform enthusiasts from declaring that “KIPP schools work,” however. The proof apparently goes something like this:

1. Assume, without discussion, that x (increased standardized test scores) causes y (a better adult life).

2. Start a school program that changes thirteen variables at once.

3. Publish data that is consistent with the possibility that your program increases x, but is also consistent with several other plausible hypotheses.

4. Declare that all thirteen variables are proven to increase y.

That’s some weird science! A simpler version of the proof is: “I want to believe it; therefore it’s true.”

Does anyone doubt, though, that if a school is willing to do anything to raise test scores, it can raise them? I suppose we should just count ourselves lucky that the KIPP program didn’t include, say, the use of carefully calibrated electrical shocks. If it had, the studies would obviously prove that such techniques “work,” and any questions about the values underlying the program could justly be ignored.

Having been an Eighties teenager, I must now include this:


Monday, June 6, 2011

Great news! Boot camps for poor kids!

America’s education reformers are fawning over the “Knowledge is Power Program” for charter schools, the latest manifestation of our national love affair with authoritarian -- er, I mean, “tough love” approaches to education. KIPP schools believe in a long school day (some schools go from 7:30 am to 5 pm, with two hours or more of homework a night) and a long school year (with Saturday classes and three weeks of summer school) -- resulting in 67% more time in class than typical public school students. Discipline is emphasized. Students are taught to “sit up straight,” “nod,” and “track the speaker with your eyes.” Teachers use chanting, repetition, and clapping and posture rituals. (See FedUpMom’s posts on the topic here.) KIPP’s promoters claim that it boosts achievement as measured by test scores and college acceptance rates, though these claims are, of course, disputed.

Many people love the idea of making the KIPP option available to the urban poor. But Dana Goldstein reports that there are “troubling questions” about whether middle-class and affluent parents are willing to send their own kids to KIPP schools, which present “particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.” She describes one suburban mom’s experience of enrolling her child in a regionally-based KIPP kindergarten:
Kerryn Azavedo, a graphic designer in Lincoln, Rhode Island, pulled her son out of Blackstone Valley after his kindergarten year, dismayed by what she calls the school’s overly strict discipline policies and lack of after-school activities. She complained that Blackstone Valley’s extended school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., left her son exhausted and with little opportunity to participate in organized extracurriculars. (Extended learning days were originally intended to provide enrichment for poor children whose parents are unable to provide after-school supervision or activities.)

When Azavedo brought her concerns to the Blackstone Valley administration, “I never felt welcome,” she said in a phone interview. “They say, ‘This may not really be for you, somebody else might really need your spot, you’d be okay wherever you went.’” Azavedo didn’t like the fact that the school lacks an independent parent-teacher organization; instead, administrators organize parental involvement. And she was surprised to learn her son had sat for standardized tests five times during the school year, and unhappy that the school did not notify parents of each individual testing date.

Though initially attracted to the idea of an integrated charter school, Azavedo is now actively organizing against the opening of new Rhode Island Mayoral Academies throughout the state. “If it’s not good enough for mine, dammit, it’s not good enough for yours,” she said. “I can do something about it because I’m an in-tune parent. I bought it for a year, but I caught on.”
I can see why parents who are poor and stuck in a really bad school district might enlist their kids in a KIPP school. They’re trying to beat some tough odds and could reasonably decide that KIPP is their least bad option.

But is it surprising that the KIPP model might be unappealing to middle- and upper-income parents? Maybe they’re happy to leave KIPP schools to the urban poor for the same reason they’re happy, on the whole, to let poor people staff the prostitution industry: Because they’re not that desperate yet. Maybe they can see how oppressive and dehumanizing the KIPP model is, and are fortunate enough that they don’t need to do that to their kids.

Does that necessarily mean we should take the KIPP option away from the urban poor? No. But it’s hardly cause for celebration that urban poor families are so bad off that they’re grateful for options that more fortunate people won’t even consider. If we support prison-like schools for the urban poor while declining to impose those schools on our own kids, we have good reason to feel queasy -- especially at a time when the government seems uninterested in addressing urban poverty in any systematic way.

Goldstein, by the way, notes “that although other charter school models are less trendy, they do exist.” She mentions Community Roots, “a diverse Brooklyn charter based on more traditional philosophies of educational progressivism and activity-based learning. The school is overwhelmingly popular with both middle-class and poor families in its neighborhood.” How much money is being poured into studies designed to show that those schools “work”? How much attention is being lavished on them by educational pundits and “reformers”?

I’ve been mixing it up with people on this issue in the comments over at E.D. Kain’s blog. For someone who claims a big libertarian streak, Kain is surprisingly unbothered by what goes on in KIPP schools -- disappointing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

“Full academic surveillance”

CNN reports on some of the questions raised by the latest technological “advance” in education: the trend toward giving parents online access to their kids’ homework records and grades. “I post all my students’ responsibilities, their current and upcoming assignments, and timelines for every project they have,” said one teacher who won an award for her use of technology. “I also post messages detailing the status of homework, whether it’s missing, late, or incomplete.”

“Indeed,” the article asserts, “online programs have expanded to such a degree parents can now conduct full academic surveillance.”

It turns out, though, that not everybody wants “full academic surveillance.” One mother said:
I tell them flat out, I don’t do that. I don’t think it’s normal to be so involved. It creates an unhealthy relationship between parents and their kids. I think kids resent it. My job as a parent is to teach them how to do things on their own. I don’t want to be that kind of policeman in my house.
Unsurprisingly, the kids aren’t that fond of it, either:
One child complained on a discussion board, “Every single time a teacher entered a grade incorrectly, I had a missing assignment, or something else bringing my grade in a certain class down, it was hell at home. I began to stress more over my parents’ reaction to grades than the actual grades.”

Another student railed, “My mom now seems like the enemy.”
A psychologist interviewed for the article warned that “When parents exert too much control, children can become depressed and have increased levels of anxiety.”

But who cares, as long as their grades and test scores go up? No one assesses schools by how much anxiety and depression they cause. No funding hinges on those metrics. No school jobs are on the line. Nor does the law care whether the kids get any experience with being independent, or whether they become adults who hate learning, or whether they are immersed for thirteen years in authoritarian values. Under No Child Left Behind, education now has one and only one goal: get those scores up, and nothing else matters.

It’s a nice coincidence, though, that this “full academic surveillance” became possible at just the same time that it became fashionable again for the government to spy on its own citizens. No one can say we’re not preparing these students for life in the real world!

Related post here.