In today’s Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger writes an excellent piece on the do’s and don’t's of helping your kids get the teacher that will work best for him. CLICK HERE to read this piece at the Wall Street Journal website. I recommend that you go there just to read the parent’s comments! I absolutely love that Sue wrote about this topic. This was a huge issue at the schools my kids attended. Parents were always jockeying to get their kids assigned to the most popular teacher’s class. Our kids went to private school where we could barely afford the tuition, much less the extra donations to the annual fund. There, parents who gave the biggest gifts to the school always got the most consideration when it came to teacher placements. Still, Sue Shellenbarger offers some great advice here on things you can bring up to influence your child’s placement, without risking your child’s good standing with whatever teacher to whom she is assigned.
Dread of August: The Kids’ Teacher Assignments, by Sue Shellenbarger
As parents worry their kids will get stuck with a dud, more schools are trying to limit their input.
August brings high anxiety for many parents awaiting big news for fall: Who will be their child’s teacher? Will it be someone creative and inspiring? Or will they get stuck with a burnout, a bore or a scary drill-sergeant type?
Now, that angst is being further intensified by a combination of factors, including a less experienced teacher pool, faster gossip grapevines and schools’ increased strategies to limit parents’ involvement in the teacher-placement process.
In fact, school officials are sending a strong message to parents: Don’t ask. A growing number of principals hold parents at bay by sending questionnaires in the spring that ask for general information about a child, but prohibit requesting a specific teacher. More principals are skipping parent input altogether, setting firm policies that teacher assignments are up to the school.
Maybe that is because news of an unwanted teacher match can inspire less-than-productive interactions. “I’ve had parents get angry and pound on my desk” to protest their kids’ placement, says former principal Trish Dolasinski of Scottsdale, Ariz. Some pull out the violins, she adds, saying such things as, “When Billy saw he had Mrs. Smith, he was in tears. We’ve had the worst weekend of our lives. It’s been horrendous.”
Current and retired principals say they have seen parents threaten to quit the PTA or PTO, withdraw their child from school or band together with other parents to get a teacher fired. Some take their complaint to the top, storming district offices to meet with the principal’s boss. (Firing tenured teachers is a multi-step process governed by state laws and union contracts; even for new teachers who can be fired more easily, principals typically keep a tight rein on the process.)
For parents, of course, the stakes can feel very high. If they don’t protest, and their child has a bad experience, it could derail their academic development. But because many parents look to educators to be a nurturing mentor for their child, many fret that complaining about a placement or meddling too much will put them on that teacher’s bad side, making life even harder for their kids.
Teachers expect parental angst and most try to allay it early. Lori Attias, a teacher at Lindley Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., says she was a little nervous when she was assigned two years ago to teach a blended classroom of third- and fourth-graders. “It was a challenge,” she says. At the open house before school, parents were more anxious than usual, she says. One father who towered over her by nearly a foot “came up next to me and said, ‘How do you intend to handle this?’ I’ll never forget it,” she says.
She explained her plans for lessons and scheduling, reassuring parents she would help the two grades “gel as a class” while still getting the specific instruction they needed. “One of the most important things you do as you start the year is to get parent support,” she says.
Hollis Oberlies, mother of two elementary-age students, was one of those anxious parents. She says she was initially dismayed when the principal assigned her daughter Jessica to the blended classroom, in part because she had “heard a lot of horror stories” about them—and because she had requested a stable setup after Jessica’s second-grade teacher took several months off for maternity leave. By the end of the year, though, she says her daughter was thriving.
As the nation’s schools undergo a wave of teacher retirements, some 25% of teachers have only five or fewer years in the classroom, “a precipitous decline” in experience since the late 1980s, when the typical teacher had 15 years’ experience, according to a study by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit advocating teacher quality.
That may explain why some 43% of parents report being “extremely worried” about their kids’ elementary-school teacher assignments, according to a poll last month of 306 parents by CafeMom, a social-networking and community website.
Principals try to balance dozens of factors in making up classes, including ability level, race, gender, learning style, behavior and special needs, says Nancy Flatt Meador, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.
Some factors “don’t lend themselves well to being written down in a handbook, such as, ‘We need to be sure that the five worst-behaved kids in the grade don’t get assigned to the same classroom,’ ” says Celine Coggins, founder of Teach Plus, a Boston advocacy group.
A growing number of principals handle class-placement announcements like college admissions, sending parents a letter in August naming their child’s teacher. Some schools post class lists after the school office closes on the last weekend of the summer, to prevent parents from storming the office. Others post lists at an open house a day or two before school starts, in hopes that meeting a new teacher face-to-face at the event will defuse complaints.
Dr. Dolasinski, the former principal, once supervised a teacher who was unpopular with parents because she tended to be aloof in conversations. But in the classroom, she was caring and methodical, and excelled in teaching math and science, says Dr. Dolasinski, a Scottsdale, Ariz., writer for PTO Today, a magazine for parent groups.
Principal Aaron Woody of Lindley Elementary School, where Ms. Attias teaches, walks a line between allowing parents some input without giving up control. He sends parents of each of the school’s 450 students a questionnaire every March asking for information, but prohibiting requests for specific teachers. About 30 parents hand-deliver the questionnaire and ask to talk. He meets with all of them to hear out their concerns.
In May, he meets teachers at each grade level, using the questionnaires to help make up class groups for the next grade. He assigns a teacher to each group, then sends parents a letter in August. In the fall, he meets with every parent who complains.
All the meetings with parents “take a lot of time,” about 15 hours a year, he says. But it also builds trust. Early in his five-year tenure as principal of another school, he granted a few parent requests to change teachers, usually based on information the school didn’t have, such as an older sibling’s previous experience. But as parents got to know him during the last three years, changes dropped to zero. He is seeing the same pattern as he begins his third year at Lindley.
Mary Herbenick had a specific second-grade teacher in mind last year for her daughter Kara, to help build confidence in her reading skills. An active school volunteer, Ms. Herbenick knew the teacher strongly urged the children “to strive and achieve and read, read, read,” she says. She protested when Dr. Woody placed Kara with a different teacher. He listened and explained his reasons, including information from Kara’s previous teacher, she says.
As it turned out, the new teacher encouraged Kara to “read in a way that worked for Kara … My daughter is very theatrical and the teacher would say, ‘Can you act that out?’” Ms. Herbenick says. Kara now loves to read.
But Ms. Herbenick remembers how difficult it was when Dr. Woody asked her to “trust the process,” she says. “I agreed. But I was nervous.”
The ABCs of a Happy Teacher Match
How parents can help place their child in a classroom that suits him or her best.
Write school officials in advance
Identify your child’s optimal learning style—visual, verbal, or hands-on, alone or in groups, with structure and routine or with creativity or spontaneity
Mention any other student who might disrupt learning if placed in the same classroom
Describe older siblings’ experiences with particular teachers, positive or negative, if you think it is relevant
Let the school know about any family circumstances, such as a divorce or a move, that may affect behavior or learning needs
Ask for a specific teacher by name
Expect special treatment because you volunteer at school a lot
Yell at the principal, pound the desk
Threaten to get the teacher fired
Show your child disappointment or anger over a teacher assignment
Bypass the school principal and take your complaint to district officials
Sources: PTO Today, SchoolFamily.com, National Association of Elementary School Principals
Here is a story that is about to play out across the country. To read it at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE. The whole country (well, 45 out of 50 states) is moving to Common Core Standards in 2014. NYC DOE went ahead and tested students based on these new, harder standards in 2013. The results are not good. However, this is to be expected when moving students from easier to tougher standards. It may take years before kids test as well as they did with the older, easier standards. What is sad is that politicians are trying to make this into a political issue – Mayor Bloomberg failed in his quest to improve the NYC schools. That is not what happened here. I don’t know if moving to these tougher standards is a good or a bad thing. I do know that the dip in scores has everything to do with a tougher test that students weren’t yet prepared for. It is not a political failure.
Results of New Testing Standard Could Complicate Bloomberg’s Final Months
By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
Michael R. Bloomberg has staked much of his reputation as the mayor of New York City on improving students’ test scores, and has trumpeted gains in math and reading as validation of his 12-year effort to remake the city’s schools.
But the mayor’s telling of history is poised to receive one of its most vigorous challenges yet on Wednesday, when New York State is expected to report drastic drops in student performance across the state because of a new set of tougher exams.
In New York City, the proportion of students deemed proficient in math and reading could decrease by as many as 30 percentage points, city officials said, threatening to hand Mr. Bloomberg a public relations problem five months before he is set to leave office.
Already, many of Mr. Bloomberg’s rivals — the teachers’ union, parent groups, and several of the Democratic candidates vying to succeed him — have begun to use the prospect of a steep drop in scores to call into question the mayor’s record on education.
The United Federation of Teachers on Friday released a 1,000-word memo, in part blaming Mr. Bloomberg for poor test results, saying he had not done enough to train teachers for the new standards, known as Common Core.
But City Hall has dismissed those claims, and on Sunday the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, fired back. He said that a decline in scores was inevitable as part of a switch to more rigorous standards, and that it would take several years before students performed at high levels. Mr. Walcott, who has repeatedly criticized labor officials and mayoral candidates this election season, called the union’s efforts “despicable.” He urged the public to look at Mr. Bloomberg’s full record, citing improvements in graduation rates.
“This is about our students and the responsibility to prepare our students for the rigors of the 21st century,” Mr. Walcott said in an interview with The New York Times, which he requested.
As his mayoralty winds down, Mr. Bloomberg has sought to burnish an image as a savior of a school system rife with racial and socioeconomic disparities.
But several of the Democratic candidates for mayor have rejected that portrayal, seizing on anger among some parents rankled by what they say is his unilateral approach to governing. Bill de Blasio, a candidate and the public advocate, said on Sunday that the latest test results would be a “major wake-up call.”
“We can’t keep working at the margins and focusing on a handful of niche schools,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement. “We need a game-changer to raise outcomes for kids across the board.”
William C. Thompson Jr., another Democratic candidate, said the city should devote more resources to helping teachers with the new standards, echoing the position of the teachers’ union, which has endorsed him.
“The current administration has forced teachers to implement new standards without giving them the curriculum they need to do it successfully,” Mr. Thompson, a former city comptroller and Board of Education president, said in a statement. “Tests should not be gotcha moments.”
The city said it had spent three years developing curriculum and was offering additional training to teachers this summer. The Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, have garnered praise for their emphasis on free-form thinking, but they have met resistance in some corners, including from conservatives skeptical of national standards, and parents wary of testing.
The outcry facing Mr. Bloomberg may soon confront officials across the country; many states are expected to administer Common Core exams in the 2014-15 school year. New York was one of the first states to create tests aligned with the standards, but the exams were met with mixed reviews when they made their debut in April. Teachers said they had not received adequate preparation, and some students said the tests were too hard.
The exams required students to complete more open-ended questions and analyze lengthy passages of text, much of it nonfiction. The tests demanded a deeper understanding of a narrower set of topics and analysis previously reserved for higher grades.
Advocates of Common Core acknowledge that scores may drop initially, but say that over time the new standards will help students develop better critical thinking skills.
The Common Core exams replaced New York State tests that critics said had created a culture of rote memorization. In 2010, responding to complaints that scores had become inflated, the state tests were changed and made harder to pass, prompting a similar round of questions about claims of progress. Last year, in New York City, 47 percent of students in the third through the eighth grades were deemed proficient in reading, compared with 60 percent in math.
The city has said it will account for the decline expected this year, so that teachers and students are not unfairly punished.
Aaron M. Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University, said the changing standards would make it difficult for the public to judge how schools were performing.
“The fear is that the lower scores are going to lead to the perception that all of a sudden our schools are doing worse, our teachers are less effective,” he said. “Neither of those is true. This is just a much higher bar being set for judging whether students are on track for college and career readiness.”
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon writes about the evolution of “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.” If you would like to read the piece at the WSJ website, CLICK HERE. It is a fascinating piece (for those of us who love Richard Scarry’s books). I never thought about how the world had changed from the time he began writing books until now, but of course it has. And mores that were acceptable to all of us in the 50′s and 60′s are no longer the norm! In Richard Scarry’s world, the woman was the nurse and she worked in the kitchen. The man was the soldier and he worked in the fields. That has changed and with it, editors changed his books. A new 50th edition of “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever” is coming out. According to the author, it’s not as wonderful as the original book. I would absolutely love to get my hands on an original edition and see what she is talking about! Still, if you ask me, there’s nothing like Richard Scarry books for kids!
In my own world of helping children get ready for testing, the one book I invariably recommend to parents is “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.” It represents page after page of Richard Scarry putting pictures of things that go together into categories. Analogy is one of the first big thinking concepts that children are expected to master for school and testing (and life and thinking). Richard Scarry books help children “get” this in the most delightful way possible. Enjoy this article and if your child hasn’t yet started a collection of Richard Scarry books, why not start with this new 50th Anniversary Edition of “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever!”
Scarry Stories for Small Children
Meghan Cox Gurdon celebrates Richard Scarry’s books for busy children.
By Meghan Cox Gurdon
The grown-up world as depicted in children’s books often seems both dull and taxing, a complicated and distant place to which no child with any sense ought to be in a hurry to get. A couple of generations ago, by contrast, the legendary children’s book author and illustrator Richard Scarry made adulthood seem industrious and purposeful, an inviting realm to which children must naturally aspire. Born in 1919, Scarry imbued his cheerful, colorful work with the can-do spirit of mid-20th-century America. His more than 100 picture books are populated by anthropomorphic animals engaged in productive work: billy goats hoeing fields, owls operating lathes, sows baking bread.
Scarry loved to depict tools and machinery in his drawings—combine harvesters, forklifts, trowels, saws and gears. He died in 1994, so he missed the next great blossoming of American ingenuity. With his knack for finding witty, telling details, he might, in time, have slipped smartphones and earpieces into his characters’ possession. That he would have chosen to depict the passivity that technology has brought to the culture—adults with heads bowed and thumbs scrolling in silent thrall, sedentary children living virtually—is harder to imagine. There are no inactive creatures in Scarry’s eventful tableaux, let alone portrayals of indolence or torpor.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the book that made the Boston-born illustrator famous. In the fall of 1963, Golden Press published “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever” to immediate acclaim. With its large, inviting pages, bright colors and hundreds of droll little drawings, the book introduced young children to the splendid panoply of objects and personalities that they might see in a city, or at the beach or at the airport, as well as to various professions, parts of the body, and shapes and sizes, and to the many types of cars, trucks, ships, planes, trains, foodstuffs, clothes, toys and zoo creatures.
With more than 1,600 labeled objects, the book had, as Leonard Marcus put it in “Golden Legacy,” his 2007 history of the deliberately affordable children’s-books imprint, “the festive atmosphere and compressed design of a theme park.” Scarry’s first best seller offered a commercially successful combination that “translated for parents to good value, and for children to a bounty of worldly possibility to explore.”
Never out of print, “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever” has sold 4.5 million copies in the U.S., and Random House is marking its half-century anniversary by reissuing it—and other books in the Scarry oeuvre, including “Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town”—with a clean, streamlined design and unifying logo. The anniversary edition is welcome, of course, not least if it brings Scarry to parents or children who may somehow have missed him. But it is a sad fact that the book of 2013 is a bland simulacrum of the original. As a cultural artifact, it shows in sometimes poignant ways how much half a century has wrought in cultural expectations—and perhaps in childhood itself. A young child picking up the new edition may well feel the delight of his counterpart 50 years ago—Scarry’s charm survives the relaunch—but he will have no way of knowing that children in 1963 held a heftier and much richer volume.
The world that Richard Scarry presented in the original edition was excitingly broad and open and chronicled with vivid specificity. Children could pore over pages crowded with labeled pictures of all sorts of birds (the quail, pheasant, wren, bittern), buildings (a cathedral, pyramid, fort, skyscraper), flowers (clover, pansies, asters, foxgloves) and houses (the igloo, grass house, half-timbered house, chalet). These images drew young imaginations up and out, inviting them to appreciate the astonishing variety of things. The labels gave children a kind of mastery over them.
The world as it appears in the 2013 relaunch is narrower in scope and confined to categories already familiar to most little children. Oh, a bunny still works as a cashier at the supermarket, uniformed cats patrol the zoo and we see a tiger cub getting his checkup from a lion-doctor with a hurt tail (the bandage forms a neat bow). But gone are all the vivid and particular birds, plants and buildings, the “Out West” tableau, with its covered wagon, blacksmith and frontier locomotive, and two pages about tidying up one’s house, along with the category of “music making,” which showed animals making merry on instruments such as the bassoon, piccolo, cornet, saxophone and oboe.
Gone, too, are courtly little authorial observations and depictions acceptable in the “Mad Men” era that today would irritate feminists. The “handsome pilot” and “pretty stewardess” who used to work on the passenger jet have been dryly replaced by a “pilot” and “flight attendant.” Two pages dedicated to fire fighting used to show a “brave hero” in fireman’s garb climbing a ladder to save a “beautiful screaming lady.” The drawing is unchanged, but now it is simply a “fire fighter” rescuing a “cat in danger.”
These aren’t sudden changes. Over the years and through ensuing editions, successive editors have tweaked Scarry’s labels and small bits of text to remove traditionalist presumptions and install a more egalitarian, “enlightened” view. A small bear in the original book “comes promptly when he is called to breakfast,” whereas the same bear in the new edition “goes to the kitchen to eat his breakfast,” uncommanded by his parents. The sex of characters has been changed throughout so that males and females aren’t confined to traditional roles.
On the first front cover, a female bunny makes breakfast while her farmer-husband works outdoors; the new book loses the logic of the original by depicting one male-and-female pair in the kitchen and another couple in the field. Driving home the idea that daddies cook too, one of the little piglets helping mother pig in a kitchen scene has been—rather alarmingly, when you think about it—relabeled “father pig.” In a section titled “When You Grow Up,” the (male) soldier has been replaced by a (female) judge. One may be sympathetic or not to the editorial urge to modernize, but the result here is an artifact with less pungency and a lot less information. The new edition has 21 fewer pages than the original and some 360 fewer objects. So while it may still count as “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever,” it definitely isn’t his most comprehensive. The original is more striking and delightful, whatever you may think of its traditional gender depictions or the retrograde inclusion of “Indian” and “squaw.”
Such terms were, of course, uncontroversial when Scarry got his start in children’s-book illustration shortly after World War II. During the war he had worked for the Morale Services Section of Allied Headquarters in North Africa, illustrating manuals and drawing maps with skills he had developed at art school in Boston. By 1948, he was illustrating ad copy for Simon & Schuster, a job that quickly turned into a contract to create artwork for Golden Books. In his history of the imprint, Leonard Marcus writes that Scarry’s editors found him “round-faced and wide-eyed,” a tall and “meticulously groomed, solemn young man.” It was while pursuing his new career that he met and married Patricia Murphy, an advertising copywriter. Along with their domestic collaboration, the two joined creative forces for picture books, including “The Bunny Book” (1955), a cozy, lovely and still popular paean to the twin joys of work and family.
Scarry was a warm and playful parent, according to his son, Richard “Huck” Scarry, who has perpetuated his father’s legacy by completing unfinished manuscripts as well as producing Richard Scarry-style books of his own. “My father intensely loved what he was doing. His drawings are so fun and funny because he had fun creating them,” Huck Scarry said recently in an email from Switzerland, where Richard moved the family in 1968 after discovering the thrill of downhill skiing. The illustrator was fond of the Mittel-European aesthetic and often added alpine touches to his drawings. The oft-occurring character of Lowly Worm, for example, wears a green Tyrolean hat modeled after one that Scarry bought in 1950.
Poking around his father’s studio not long ago, Huck Scarry—who himself inspired the oft-appearing character of Huckle Cat—discovered a portfolio of unfinished sketches under a table that seemed to form an entire, if unfinished, book about Lowly Worm. He has completed and colored in the undated drawings, which he believes his father created around 1990. Random House plans to publish “The Best Lowly Worm Book Ever” in August 2014. It is an agreeable thing, this discovery, for in our sedentary, touch-screen era, young children surely need the industrious and purposeful animal role models of Richard Scarry’s busy world more than ever.
By interesting coincidence, “Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever” came out at the same time as a very different but also popular and enduring work, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” The two books seem almost, at this remove, to be like the two faces of the era. Whereas the young Sendak went for moody colors, emotional ambiguity and the lurking id, Scarry gave children the friendly assurance that life is pleasant and comprehensible and chock-full of whiz-bang inventions. There is no need to choose between the two authors, of course. But there is every reason to take Scarry’s worldview, for all its sunniness, just as seriously as Sendak’s, and to make Scarry’s books—updated or not—part of every child’s experience.
Here’s an interesting article from Today’s NY Times. It seems that visual-spatial reasoning abilities may be a better predictor of future creativity and innovation than math or verbal skills. These are the abilities that are assessed on tests such as the Naglieri Nonverbal Abilities Test or on the spatial portions of the CogAT or OLSAT tests. To read this article at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE.
Study Finds Spatial Skill Is Early Sign of Creativity
A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.
The study looked at the professional success of people who, as 13-year-olds, had taken both the SAT, because they had been flagged as particularly gifted, as well as the Differential Aptitude Test. That exam measures spatial relations skills, the ability to visualize and manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects. While math and verbal scores proved to be an accurate predictor of the students’ later accomplishments, adding spatial ability scores significantly increased the accuracy.
The researchers, from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said their findings make a strong case for rewriting standardized tests like the SAT and ACT to focus more on spatial ability, to help identify children who excel in this area and foster their talents.
“Evidence has been mounting over several decades that spatial ability gives us something that we don’t capture with traditional measures used in educational selection,” said David Lubinski, the lead author of the study and a psychologist at Vanderbilt. “We could be losing some modern-day Edisons and Fords.”
Following up on a study from the 1970s, Dr. Lubinski and his colleagues tracked the professional progress of 563 students who had scored in the top 0.5 percent on the SAT 30 years ago, when they were 13. At the time, the students had also taken the Differential Aptitude Test.
Years later, the children who had scored exceptionally high on the SAT also tended to be high achievers — not surprisingly — measured in terms of the scholarly papers they had published and patents that they held. But there was an even higher correlation with success among those who had also scored highest on the spatial relations test, which the researchers judged to be a critical diagnostic for achievement in technology, engineering, math and science.
Cognitive psychologists have long suspected that spatial ability — sometimes referred to as the “orphan ability” for its tendency to go undetected — is key to success in technical fields. Earlier studies have shown that students with a high spatial aptitude are not only overrepresented in those fields, but may receive little guidance in high school and underachieve as a result. (Note to parents: Legos and chemistry sets are considered good gifts for the spatial relations set.)
The correlation has “been suspected, but not as well researched” as the predictive power of math skills, said David Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, who was not involved in the study, which was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The new research is significant, he said, for showing that “high levels of performance in STEM fields” — science, technology, engineering and math — “are not simply related to math abilities.”
Testing spatial aptitude is not particularly difficult, Dr. Geary added, but is simply not part of standardized testing because it is considered a cognitive function — the realm of I.Q. and intelligence tests — and is not typically a skill taught in school.
“It’s not like math or English, it’s not part of an academic curriculum,” he said. “It’s more of a basic competence. For that reason it just wasn’t on people’s minds when developing these tests.”
It is also a competence more associated with men than women. In the current study, boys greatly outnumbered girls, 393 to 170, reflecting the original scores of the students in the ’70s. But the study found no difference in the levels of adult achievement, said Dr. Lubinski, though the women were more likely than the men to work in medicine and the social sciences.
This article is an oldie but goodie and I put it up for those of you who haven’t read it before. The comments from parents and educators are worth reading as well. CLICK HERE to access the piece at the New York Magazine website. We are putting a lot of pressure on our little 4-year-olds to prove themselves worthy of a better education before many can write their own names. But what’s a parent to do? This is not only a NYC phenomenon. Parents all over the country must prepare their children – who have only learned to talk in the last 3 years – to solve complex analogies and compute addition and subtraction in hopes of getting them a spot in a competitive school. If they don’t get qualify at the kindergarten level, it becomes much harder to get them in later when open spots in gifted programs depend on attrition. This article is worth reading if you haven’t seen it before.
The Junior Meritocracy
Should a child’s fate be sealed by an exam he takes at the age of 4? Why kindergarten-admission tests are worthless, at best.
Skylar Shafran, a turquoise headband on her brunette head and a pink princess shirt on her string-bean frame, is standing on a chair in her living room, shifting from left foot to right. She has already gulped down a glass of orange juice and nibbled on some crackers; she has also demonstrated, with extemporaneous grace, the ability to pick up Hello Kitty markers with her toes. For more than an hour, she has been answering questions to a mock version of an intelligence test commonly known to New York parents as the ERB. Almost every prestigious private elementary school in the city requires that prospective kindergartners take it. Skylar’s parents, Liz and Jay, are pretty sure they know where they’re sending their daughter to school next year, but they figure it can’t hurt to get a sense of where she sits in the long spectrum of precocious New York children. And so, although it wasn’t cheap—$350—they’ve hired someone to find out. Skylar has thus far borne this process with cheerful patience and determination. But every 4-year-old has her limits.
“What is an umbrella?” asks the evaluator, a psychology graduate student in her mid-twenties.
“To keep me dry.”
“And what is a book?”
“Something you read.”
“What is a house?”
Skylar squirms, teeters a bit.
“A house?” the tester repeats.
Skylar looks at her mother. “I have to go pee.”
Later, when the evaluation is over, Liz confesses she’s ambivalent about inviting a stranger into her home to assess her 4-year-old and even more ambivalent about the idea of prepping her for a standardized test, should it turn out she needs preparation. “It’s just that I want choices for her,” she says. “It’s an immigrant mentality. You want what’s best for your kid.”
The beauty of a meritocracy is that it is not, at least in theory, a closed system. With the right amount of pluck and hard work, a person should be able to become whoever he or she is supposed to be. Only in an aristocracy is a child’s fate determined before it is born.
Yet in New York, it turns out that an awful lot is still determined by a child’s 5th birthday. Nearly every selective elementary school in the city, whether it’s public or private, requires standardized exams for kindergarten admission, some giving them so much weight they won’t even consider applicants who score below the top 3 percent. If a child scores below this threshold, it hardly spells doom. But if a child manages to vault over it, and in turn gets into one of these selective schools, it can set him or her on a successful glide path for life.
Consider, for instance, Hunter College Elementary School, perhaps the most competitive publicly funded school in the city. (This year, there were 36 applicants for each slot.) Four-year-olds won’t even be considered for admission unless their scores begin in the upper range of the 98th percentile of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, which costs $275 to take. But if they’re accepted and successfully complete third grade (few don’t), they’ll be offered admission to Hunter College High School. And since 2002, at least 25 percent of Hunter’s graduating classes have been admitted to Ivy League schools. (In 2006 and 2007, that number climbed as high as 40.) Or take, as another example, Trinity School. In 2008, 36 percent of its graduates went to Ivy League schools. More than a third of those classes started there in kindergarten. Thirty percent of Dalton’s graduates went to Ivies between 2005 and 2009, as did 39 percent of Collegiate’s, and 34 percent of Horace Mann’s. Many of these lucky graduates wouldn’t have been able to go to these Ivy League feeders to begin with, if they hadn’t aced an exam just before kindergarten. And of course these advantages reverberate into the world beyond.
Given the stakes, it’s hardly a surprise that New Yorkers with means and aspirations for their children would go to great lengths to help them. Rather, what’s surprising is that a single test, taken at the age of 4, can have so much power in deciding a child’s fate in the first place. The fact is, 4 is far too young an age to reach any conclusions about the prospects of a child’s mind. Even administrators who use these exams—indeed, especially the administrators who use these exams—say they’re practically worthless as predictors of future intelligence. “At information meetings,” says Steve Nelson, head of the famously progressive Calhoun School, “I’ll often ask a room full of parents when their children started to walk.” Invariably, their replies form a perfect bell curve: a few at 9 and 10 months, most at 12 or 13, a few as late as 15 to 18. “And then I’ll ask: ‘What would you think if you were walking down the street, and you saw a parent yanking a 1-year-old child up from the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Walk, damn it?’ ” The same, he says, is true of a system that insists a child perform well on a test at 4 years of age. “Early good testers don’t make better students,” he tells me, “any more than early walkers make better runners.”
Let’s start with the most basic problem: School starts in kindergarten. No matter how a child is doing at that moment, no matter where that child is in the great swoop of his or her developmental arc, that’s when parents send their kids off to school. Given this very concrete constraint, standardized tests seem as fair a means as any to find gifted 4-year-olds—if not the fairest, considering the city’s tremendous cultural and socioeconomic diversity. That one test-taking experience may be the sole experience all kids share, and their scores the sole application datum that’s neither prejudicial (like a family’s net worth) or subjective (like recommendations from nursery schools). Unfortunately, not all city schools use the same tests, which means that first-time parents, already overwhelmed by the usual formalities of school enrollment, are forced to cut through a smog of acronyms. New York City public schools use the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or OLSAT, to help determine which students are eligible for their gifted-and-talented programs. The private schools use a modified version of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, or WPPSI-III, pronounced “whipsy.” (Yet because the Educational Records Bureau administers it—for a cost of $495—it is still better known to some parents as the ERB.) Hunter, because it operates under the auspices of Hunter College rather than the Department of Education, uses the fifth edition of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, or SB-5, to narrow down its first round of applicants. How these tests differ is mainly a question of emphasis and style: The OLSAT looks much more like an actual school exam—it’s administered by a licensed teacher, answered in multiple-choice bubbles in a workbook, and a bit more biased in content toward school readiness, like following verbal directions—while the WPPSI and SB-5 are IQ tests, interpreted by psychologists and more biased toward abstract reasoning. But the truth is, all three are pretty similar, at least at this level. As W. Steven Barnett, co-director of Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, notes: “Odds are they’re all going to have kids do something with triangles.”
Those who are bullish on intelligence tests argue they’re “pure” gauges of a child’s mental agility—immune to shifts in circumstance, immutable over the course of a lifetime. Yet everything we know about this subject suggests that there are considerable fluctuations in children’s IQs. In 1989, the psychologist Lloyd Humphreys, a pioneer in the field of psychometrics, came out with an analysis based on a longitudinal twin study in Louisville, Kentucky, whose subjects were regularly IQ-tested between ages 4 and 15. By the end of those eleven years, the average change in their IQs was ten points. That’s a spread with significant educational consequences. A 4-year-old with an IQ of 85 would likely qualify for remedial education. But that same child would no longer require it if, later on, his IQ shoots up to 95. A 4-year-old with an IQ of 125 would fall below the 130 cutoff for the G&T programs in most cities. Yet if, at some point after that, she scores a 135, it will have been too late. She’ll already have missed the benefit of an enhanced curriculum.
These fluctuations aren’t as odd as they seem. IQ tests are graded on a bell curve, with the average always being 100. (Definitions vary, but essentially, people with IQs of 110 to 120 are considered smart; 120 to 130, very smart; 130 is the favorite cutoff for gifted programs; and 140 starts to earn people the label of genius.) If a child’s IQ goes down, it doesn’t mean he or she has stopped making intellectual progress. It simply means that this child has made slower progress than some of his or her peers; the child’s relative standing has gone down. As one might imagine, kids go through cognitive spurts, just as they go through growth spurts. One of the classic investigations into the stability of childhood IQ, a 1973 study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Robert McCall and UC–San Diego’s Mark Appelbaum and colleagues, looked at 80 children who’d taken IQ tests roughly once a year between the ages of 2½ and 18. It showed that children’s intellectual trajectories were marked by slow increases or decreases, with inflection points around the ages of 6, 10, and 14, during which scores more sharply turned up or down. And when were IQs the least stable? Before the age of 6. Yet in New York we track most kids based on test scores they got at 4. (And we may not even be the worst offenders: As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman note in their new book, NurtureShock, there are cities with preschools that require IQ tests of 2-year-olds.) “How can you lock children into a specialized educational experience at so young an age?” asks McCall. “As soon as you start denying kids early, you penalize them almost progressively. Education and mental achievement builds on itself. It’s cumulative.”
Most researchers in the field of childhood development agree that the minds of nursery-school children are far too raw to be judged. Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, is in the midst of a decades-long study that examines reading development in children. She says she couldn’t even use the reading data she’d collected from first-graders for some of the longitudinal analyses. “It simply wasn’t stable,” she says. I tell her that most New York City schools don’t share this view. “A young brain is a moving target,” she replies. “It should not be treated as if it were fixed.”
Complicating matters further, IQs are least stable at the highest end of the spectrum no matter what age they’re assessed. The explanation for this is simple: There’s more room to fall the higher you go, and hence a greater likelihood that the score will regress toward the mean. Chance figures more prominently into high scores—a good night’s sleep, comfort with the tester—and lucky guesses on tough questions are worth more points than answers to midrange questions. In 2006, David Lohman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, co-authored a paper called “Gifted Today but Not Tomorrow?” in the Journal for the Education of the Gifted, demonstrating just how labile “giftedness” is. It notes that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or above on the Stanford-Binet would do so on another, similar IQ test at the same point in time. Combine this with the instability of 4-year-old IQs, and it becomes pretty clear that judgments about giftedness should be an ongoing affair, rather than a fateful determination made at one arbitrary moment in time. I wrote to Lohman and asked what percentage of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds. He answered with a careful regression analysis: about 25 percent.
The implications of this number are pretty startling. They mean that three quarters of the seniors in a gifted program would no longer test into that program if asked to retake an IQ test on graduation day. So I wrote Lohman back: Was he certain about this?
“Yes,” he replied. “Even people who consider themselves well versed in these matters are often surprised to discover how much movement/noise/instability there is even when correlations seem high.” He was careful to note, however, that this doesn’t mean IQ tests have no predictive value per se. After all, these tests are better—far better—at predicting which children will have a 130-plus IQ at 17 than any other procedure we’ve devised. To have some mechanism that can find, during childhood, a quarter of the adults who’ll test so well is, if you think about it, impressive. “The problem,” wrote Lohman, “is assigning kids to schools for the gifted on the basis of a test score at age 4 or 5 and assuming that their rank order among age mates will be constant over time.”
Appelbaum, McCall’s co-author, puts an even finer point on the stakes. “No university I know,” he says, “would think of using a 4-year-old’s data to decide who to admit.”
A January 5 thread from the parenting website DCurbanmom:
Can anyone offer advice on whether I should by [sic] Aristotle Circle? I’m in a time crunch. Thanks!
My sister-in-law bought Aristotle Circle workbook and showed it to me. As a child psychologist, the workbook is so close to the real thing, I think it is cheating. That said, my nephew aced the test …
It is so sad that we have to do this—but what to do? [dear child] is at a disadvantage if everyone else is prepping and we are not.
There was a time, not that long ago, when few parents attempted to prep their 4-year-olds for kindergarten-admission exams. But then a few more began to do it, and then a few more after that, and then suddenly, normal-seeming people with normal-seeming values began doing it, too, and an arms-race mentality kicked in. Responding to parents’ anxieties and fears, some of the fancier preschools began subtly prepping their students—giving them similar exercises to do with blocks, introducing them to the concept of analogies. Expensive test-prep kits suddenly began to appear on the market. And high-end education consultancies began to bloom, like Aristotle Circle. Founded in 2008 by an M.I.T. graduate and former Wall Street analyst named Suzanne Rheault, it provides tutors, advisers, and—most important—prep books for apprehensive and even merely conscientious parents.
“I can understand people getting offended by 4-year-olds getting tutoring for these exams,” says Rheault when we meet in her Soho conference room. “But I’m not the one making them take them.”
She dumps a bag of blocks onto the conference table. They’re essentially the same ones used on the WPPSI, except hers are white and blue rather than white and red. Then she plops down her meticulous, brightly designed prep book, which she just completed last August. She opens to the “Vocabulary” section, illustrated by a former cartoonist for Disney. “Any vocabulary the child needs,” she tells me, “is in this book,” whether it’s to complete picture analogies or understand questions that are asked of them. Then she flips to a section of the types of questions the children will be asked aloud—What is a villain? What is a liquid?—and a few pages after that, she gets to what she believes is the “core intellectual meat” of the exam: “Concept groupings,” or pages of pictures organized by how the objects in them are linked. Containers: picnic baskets, suitcases, matchboxes. Things that open and close: zippers, eyes, locks. Measuring instruments: hourglasses, watches, thermometers. “Any of the abstract groupings the child needs to understand are also here,” she tells me.
How does Rheault know all this? I ask her, incredulously. Has she seen one? You have to be specially registered with the publisher to buy the WPPSI. Like most IQ tests, it is updated only periodically, which makes it coveted by parents—if you’ve seen one lately, you’ve likely seen the version your child will take.
“I’m not going to talk about it,” she replies. “But the people who helped us develop the workbook are psychologists who’ve seen them.”
But copies of this test are obviously floating around. Skylar’s mother, for instance, says she was offered a copy of the WPPSI by a fellow mom. Type a few key search words on Urbanbaby.com, and within 30 seconds you’ll find this post: Have WWPSI-III to sell. Excellent condition. Complete set. E-mail me if you are serious and discreet. No questions asked. Cost is $3,000. (An e-mail address follows.) This past fall, a parent admitted to a psychologist who administers SB-5 tests for Hunter that he’d purchased a copy of the exam right off the publisher’s website. “The type of tests we sell are primarily for special education, so it’s never been an issue for us in the past,” says Elizabeth Allen, the director of research and development of Pro-Ed Inc., which only recently acquired the rights to the Stanford-Binet. “When I heard, I was like, ‘You’re kidding me! Some parent paid a thousand dollars so they could get their kid into a gifted program? Wow.’ ” (The company has since fixed the problem; now only licensed professionals can buy them.)
There are some who insist that studying for these exams can’t possibly budge a child’s scores. “I don’t know how prepping could help on the OLSAT,” says Anna Commitante, head of the Gifted and Talented programs for the city’s Department of Education. But Rheault can’t believe there’s still any debate about the subject. “The psychologists we work with,” she says, “say that 50 to 60 percent of the material is learnable.” Yes, her point of view may be colored by her commercial interests—her WPPSI prep books go for $500, and she’s now completing a workbook for the OLSAT and will shortly start one for the SB-5. But she’s hardly alone in her beliefs. “When people say this stuff isn’t really coachable, I always scratch my head and say, ‘Yeah, except for the parts that are,’ ” says Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. “I understand the nature/nurture debate. It’s a complicated relationship. But to say that families with greater means and more interest in education can’t influence test outcomes—I can’t understand that reasoning. It’s common sense.”
The practice of prepping can run families into the thousands of dollars, posing a clear disadvantage to those who can’t afford it. But the truth is, even without coaching, children coming from economically and culturally rich backgrounds do far better on these tests. And that’s a far more urgent reason to challenge the widespread reliance on them.
“An analogy people use a lot for this is planting corn,” says Barnett, from Rutgers. “If you want to know about the properties of different kinds of corn, you have to plant it in land that’s well fertilized and well irrigated. If you plant it in soil that’s dried up and rocky, you won’t know, because nothing will grow.” The same, he explains, goes for children. How can one possibly know anything about their minds if they’ve spent their first four years in unstimulating environments?
“People have the idea that with these tests you can cancel out socioeconomic background and get to some real thing in the kid,” agrees Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia and author of The Big Test, a history of the SAT. “That’s a chimera. If you’re a 4-year-old performing well on these tests, it’s either because you have fabulous genetic material or because you have cultural advantages. But either way, the point is: You’re doing better because of your parents.”
Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it’s already stratified—and then perpetuate that same stratification.
“Instead of giving IQ tests, you could just as easily look at Zip Codes and the education levels of the parents to determine who gets the better schooling—you get a very high correlation between IQ and socioeconomic status in the first seven or eight years of life,” says Samuel J. Meisels, assessment expert and president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, the renowned graduate school in childhood development. “Giftedness is a real thing, no question. But giftedness can be extinguished, and it can be nurtured.” He mentions a New York Times education analysis from 2008, which noted that after the city streamlined its G&T program, requiring specific cutoff scores for the OLSAT, the percentage of white students had shot up from 33 to 48 percent, while the percentage of black and Hispanic enrollment had fallen. “Sometimes,” he says, “you look at a big city’s decisions to do this and wonder if it’s about nurturing giftedness or if it’s about keeping middle-class families in the city limits.”
Skylar is allowed her potty break. She returns and stands on top of her chair.
“Okay!” says her evaluator, smiling. “So … what is a house?”
“I already know. A home.”
She gives Skylar a playful look and tips her head. “And what’s a home?”
Skylar mirrors her tipped head. “A house!”
She laughs. “What’s a bird?”
Skylar picks up her Hello Kitty pen and bounces it on her tester’s arm. “Look, a hopping marker!”
Her tester smiles. “What’s a bird—”
Skylar races the pen up and down. “Vrooooooooom! Magic marker! Vroom vroom!”
Watching this exchange is a reminder of something any parent knows: Four-year-olds, no matter how smart and delightful they may be, have obvious limits as test takers. Many, especially boys, can’t sit still for the full duration of an exam; others can’t stay awake or concentrate for that long, choosing at some catastrophic point to crawl under their desks and give up. Nor is the context in which these tests are administered exactly relaxing for young children. Both IQ tests require that they sit alone in a room with a tester they probably haven’t seen before. In the case of the WPPSI, the tester often isn’t allowed to prompt the children to give more complete answers, even if it’s clear they’re capable of delivering them (and would score better if they did). In the case of the OLSAT, the testers can’t even repeat the questions.
“What is a pet?”
“An animal. I have pet goldfish.”
Her tester decides to play along this time. “Do they have names?”
“Zoe and Tangerine.”
Skylar plants her marker next to a rectangular-shaped sticker she’d gotten as a reward for a previous exercise and admires the shape she’s just made. “Look! A flag!”
Stephen J. Bagnato, a professor of pediatrics and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, is fond of quoting Head Start co-founder Urie Bronfenbrenner, who in 1977 famously wrote, “Much of contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time.” It’s hard not to think about that observation in the context of intelligence-testing 4-year-olds. The script is so rigid, the tasks are so narrow and precise. Skylar did extremely well on her evaluation. Yet to me, the loveliest and most intellectually revealing moment was when she blew off all rules and made that whimsical little flag. If it were a real exam, the tester wouldn’t even have written it down. “Well, right,” says Bagnato. “When the examiner can only say certain things to these kids, and the child can only say certain things back, of course it’s too confining. We know that the way kids display their skills best is through creative play and everyday interactions at home and at school.”
As it turns out, intelligence tests miss lots of things, not just creativity. And perhaps that explains why IQs alone are not especially good predictors of excellence. In the twenties, for instance, Lewis Terman, a psychologist and deep believer in intelligence testing—it was he who revised Alfred Binet’s original test and came up with the Stanford-Binet model—started a now-famous longitudinal study of nearly 1,500 California children with extremely high IQs. He grandiosely called it “Genetic Studies of Genius,” and his hope was to show that these children, whom he called “exceptionally superior,” would one day form the backbone of the nation’s intellectual and creative elite, making crucial advances in sciences and public policy and the arts. But as David Shenk, author of the forthcoming The Genius in All of Us, points out, his subjects only grew less and less remarkable as time wore on. None won Nobel Prizes, though two who were specifically rejected for the study—William Shockley and Luis Alvarez—did, both in physics. None became world-renowned musicians, though two other rejects—Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin—did, for their virtuosic violin-playing. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point, noting that one’s IQ needn’t be super-high to succeed; it simply needs to be high enough. “Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.” In Genius Revisited, Rena Subotnik, director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Gifted Education Policy, undertook a similar study, with colleagues, looking at Hunter elementary-school alumni all grown up. Their mean IQs were 157. “They were lovely people,” she says, “and they were generally happy, productive, and satisfied with their lives. But there really wasn’t any wow factor in terms of stellar achievement.”
So what do psychologists and educators think makes the difference between good and exceptional? Opportunity, connections, mentors. Perseverance and monomaniacal devotion, or what the psychologist Ellen Winner calls “the rage to master.” Creativity, a willingness to fail. Nelson, the head of Calhoun, can go on at urgent, passionate length about this.
“I want a school full of kids who daydream,” he says. “I want kids who are occasionally impulsive. I want kids who are fun to be with. I want kids who don’t want to answer the questions on those tests in the way the adult wants them to be answered, because that kid is already seeing the world differently. In fact,” he adds, after thinking it over for a moment, “I want kids who are cynical enough at age 4 to know that there’s really something wrong with someone asking them these things and think, ‘I’m going to screw with them in the process!’ ”
Granted, Calhoun is an unusual school, a place where kids don’t even get test scores until they’re freshmen. But one needn’t be particularly subversive to appreciate Nelson’s philosophy of educating 4-year-olds, or his frustration with current practice. “You have to play with blocks,” he says. “You have to make up stories. You have to muck around. Arithmetic and decoding language aren’t life—they’re symbolic representations of other things. And education is being diverted into focusing on these symbolic representations of the very experiences kids are being denied.”
Nelson says he’s considering scrapping the WPPSI as an admission requirement for Calhoun’s lower school, possibly starting as early as next year. As it is, he barely takes a kid’s score into account. One of the most compelling reasons to get rid of it, he notes, isn’t because the test is intellectually pointless. It’s because it’s emotionally insidious. “When we resort to any kind of measure of kids that’s supposed to be qualitative at a young age,” he says, “no matter how cheerfully we do it, no matter how many lollipops we hand out to de-stress the process, young children are extraordinarily discerning. They absorb their parents’ anxiety about it, they absorb the kinds of judgments people are making about them. So there’s a process of organizing kids in a hierarchy of worth, and it’s beginning at an age that’s criminal.”
The irony is that doing well on these exams can be just as damaging as doing poorly on them. “Gifted” is an awfully uncomfortable label for some children to wear. It can cripple their thinking, make them terrified of risk. “It’s not entirely inaccurate to observe that more and more high-achieving students go off to university and don’t care about anything,” says Nelson. “They don’t ask questions, they don’t have original ideas. And it’s not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they were conditioned to believe that learning is about giving back the right answer.” Nelson knows it’s heresy to say this, but he wonders if it’s true. “These tests, at 4, start that long process of conditioning,” he says. “Right then, children start to believe that learning means pleasing the powerful adult in whose presence you are.”
It’s unlikely that most city schools will follow Nelson’s lead and stop testing 4-year-olds. But it is possible that these tests could earn less and less weight in the selection process as they become tainted by excessive prepping and anxiety. That doesn’t mean, however, that the selection process will become more democratic. “I’m afraid schools will be judging the child in ways that aren’t any better,” says Emily Glickman, founder of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. “There’ll just be more weight on the school report, and what the nursery-school director says about the child verbally. And often kids who come from expensive, high-cachet nursery schools have elaborate evaluations written about them, because the preschool directors themselves have a high stake in the class’s placement success.” And in the case of private schools, she notes, even more emphasis may be given to a family’s socioeconomic status: “The kindergarten-admission process has always been about openly judging a 4-year-old and secretly judging the parents’ wealth, connections, and likeliness to give.”
Giving less weight to these tests doesn’t guarantee that the selection process would become more sensible, either, or more sensitive to finding those children who’d profit from an enriched education. After all, what mechanism should schools use?
This is the hardest question. Most education researchers can tell you just what’s wrong with intelligence-testing 4-year-olds. But few can tell you what should emerge in its stead. “Before we adopted the OLSAT,” says the Department of Education’s Commitante, “we had 32 different school districts using a huge … a tremendous variety of assessments.” Some, she says, relied on expensive IQ tests; others required teacher evaluations. The result was a hodgepodge of arbitrary standards—ones that, the city believed, worked against children who spoke English as a second language (the OLSAT is given in eight languages) or had lower incomes (the city gives the OLSAT for free).
Given his druthers, Meisels, at Erikson Institute, says he’d try to get a more comprehensive picture of the child. “And that can only be found through watching children in classroom situations,” he says. “And looking at the products of their work. And getting to know them. And that can be done through observational assessments.”
I try to interrupt him, but he anticipates my objection. “It’s not very practical, I know,” he says. “It means teaching teachers how to do it. It’d be more expensive. But you could do it. And then you’d get the right kids into these differentiated programs.”
Many researchers agree with him—and will add, as Meisels later does in our conversation, that kids ought never to be evaluated just once. “If one believes that kids do learn and improve,” says McCall, “then a few new kids should be eligible for gifted programs each year.”
If you’re looking for practical answers though, Plucker, of Indiana, has a modest proposal. He suggests that schools assess children at an age when IQs get more stable. And in fact, that’s just what City and Country, one of Manhattan’s more progressive schools, does. Standardized tests aren’t required of their applicants until they’re 7 or older. “That way, the kids are further along in their schooling,” explains Elise Clark, the school’s admissions director. “They’re used to an academic setting, they can handle a test-taking situation, and overall, we consider the results more reliable.” Even then, she says, her school still doesn’t weight IQ scores very much. “If we did, what we’d have is a group of kids with good test-taking skills and … I don’t know what else.”
But my money’s on the marshmallow test. It’s quite compelling and, apparently, quite famous—Shenk talks about it with great relish in The Genius in All of Us. In the sixties, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel rounded up 653 young children and gave them a choice: They could eat one marshmallow at that very moment, or they could wait for an unspecified period of time and eat two. Most chose two, but in the end, only one third of the sample had the self-discipline to wait the fifteen or so minutes for them. Mischel then had the inspired idea to follow up on his young subjects, checking in with them as they were finishing high school. He discovered that the children who’d waited for that second marshmallow had scored, on average, 210 points higher on the SAT.
Two hundred and ten points. Can Princeton Review boast such a gain? Maybe our schools ought to be screening children for self-discipline and the ability to tolerate delayed gratification, rather than intelligence and academic achievement. It seems as good a predictor of future success as any. And Mischel’s test subjects, too, were just 4 years old.
This terrific article by Sue Shellenbarger appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal. CLICK HERE to read the piece at the WSJ site. I’ll tell you, there’s an app for everything these days! I think some of these apps are brilliant! You might want to give them a try.
Few parents see digital games as a promising way to pry kids off the couch—much less inspire them to be useful around the house. But a new generation of chore apps, designed primarily for the under-12 set, aims to turn kids into bed makers, laundry folders and toy picker-uppers by offering rewards ranging from funny collectible monsters to redeemable digital coins.
Brooke Wise of Dallas says a $3.99 smartphone app called You Rule Chores has her three children, Justin, 12, Rafaela, 9, and Will, 4, actually competing to see who can do more housework. The children were involved from the start, helping their mom enter the list of chores, including laundry, cleaning up after the family dog and loading and unloading the dishwasher. Each child chose one of the app’s six avatars, which include a pink kitty, a robot scientist and an intergalactic policeman.
For chores completed—and approved by Ms. Wise—the app doles out digital coins the kids can redeem for rewards, such as TV time or a trip to the yogurt store. The siblings compete to see who wins the most coins and like seeing their avatars earn new strengths and skills each time they finish a job. Rafaela says she loves playing with her kitty avatar, and “it’s fun getting paid” in rewards.
For Ms. Wise, who says she was concerned about keeping the kids busy this summer, the results have been surprising: “They make their bed, pick up their rooms, and my daughter goes out in the yard and picks up the dog poop! I’m like, ‘Who are these children?’ ”
While preschoolers often like to lend a hand with adult tasks, fewer parents are optimistic they will hear the words “What can I do to help?” from their older kids. The number of 9- to 12-year-olds who help with household tasks fell 9% between 1997 and 2003 to 72%, according to the latest trend data available, published in a study in the International Journal of Time Use Research. And it may have fallen further amid kids’ rising use of videogames, computers and cellphones, says the study’s author, Sandra Hofferth, a family-science professor at the University of Maryland and an authority on children’s time use. By ages 16 to 18, only 65% of kids take part in chores, Dr. Hofferth says.
App designer Brian Linder says he and his business partner Nathan Clark launched You Rule Chores in 2011 because “we knew it was always a pain in the butt to get our kids to do work around the house.” They wanted to motivate kids without “the nagging and the repeating yourself over and over until you sound like an insane person and end up doing the chores yourself,” says Mr. Linder, of Dallas, whose own sons are 9 and 12.
Parents don’t mind the apps’ resemblance to videogames because so many children are already entranced by games on their smartphones and hand-held game consoles, he says.
Chris Bergman of Cincinnati, father of an 18-month-old son, says he worked with another dad to launch an app called ChoreMonster earlier this year because he wanted housework to be fun for kids. “Chores were a huge tension point in my home” when growing up, he says. “I was always getting in trouble.” The app, available at $4.99 a month for use on the Web and with Apple’s mobile devices, gives points and rewards for chores, along with passes to a Monster Carnival where kids play to win either one of the game’s 200 humorous monsters or a booby prize such as stinky socks.
Hannah Carpenter of Searcy, Ark., says she had trouble structuring a housework system for her four children, ages 1 through 10, until she started using ChoreMonster in February. The app “is a huge motivator,” and her kids are gaining skills, she says. Her 4-year-old daughter Enid has learned to fold and put away laundry, Ms. Carpenter says, and her 10-year-old daughter Tristin rushes to help out, saying, “Don’t unload the dishwasher—I want to do it.”
Other apps include Epic Win, a role-playing to-do list manager, and iRewardChart and Chore Pad, digital replacements for traditional chore charts with stickers or stars.
Chores teach kids self-control and self-regulation, says Jim Fay, co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute, a Golden, Colo., provider of parent training and resources. Research shows self-regulation—learning to invest effort and persist in finishing difficult tasks—is a powerful predictor of academic and career success. It’s best to start instilling the habit early, Mr. Fay says, teaching children that chores are a shared family responsibility and each member is expected to contribute. If parents can find a way to make chores fun by, say, pretending the open washing machine is a basketball hoop, he says, “go for it.”
Working side by side with youngsters on household jobs can be a motivator. By the time they were 3, each of Denise Benham’s four kids was pushing a toy lawn mower around the yard behind their father Royce, says the Kennewick, Wash., mother. They learned as toddlers to measure and do basic math by breaking eggs for pancake batter and pouring soap into the washer. Now 4 to 16, the kids do chores with their parents most Saturdays. “A bond is created when we work together,” Ms. Benham says, while also conveying the importance of a clean, orderly home.
Parenting experts advise treating teens like adults, setting clear expectations and consistent consequences. Jayna and David Cox write and sign a housework contract annually with their 13-year-old twins, Seth and Jenna, paying $5 a week for duties such as laundry and kitchen cleanup, says Ms. Cox, of Oklahoma City. This year, they added mowing the lawn. “We’re businesspeople, and we feel it doesn’t hurt for the children to learn a few things about business,” says Ms. Cox, an information-technology project manager. The twins can earn bonuses for extra work, but their pay is docked if they slack off.
Such setups require parents to coach their kids on housework skills, but also to give up some control—and avoid micromanaging, which can lead to conflict with teens trying to assert their independence. Ms. Cox says that while she has shown Seth and Jenna how to do laundry correctly, Seth still washes colors and whites together sometimes. “He doesn’t always care if his socks were once white and are all gray now,” she says.
More important, she says, is that the twins are learning the natural consequences of failing to be responsible: “If they don’t do the laundry, they don’t have clean clothes.”
Tips to Get the Family to Clean Up
Start giving children regular jobs when they are young.
Be consistent in teaching that chores are a shared family responsibility.
Let children take part in deciding who does which chores.
Thank them for helping out.
Follow through on any reward system you set up.
Set deadlines and consequences for slackers, and stick to them.
Plan a group cleanup with the whole family, setting a quitting time in advance.
Work together in pairs on tough jobs, letting a child pick music.
Raise the fun quotient by, say, using the open washer as a basketball hoop.
Let children use appliances they like, such as a Swiffer or a vacuum.
Sources: Love and Logic Institute, parenting author and speaker Kathi Lipp.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com
Gifted programs are everywhere these days! According to the Miami Herald, Miami’s gifted population has increased by more than 50% since 2003. To read this article at the Miami Herald, CLICK HERE.
At first, A.J. Vazquez was “kinda grossed out” at the thought of seeing his guts. But it all made sense once he and 20 Coral Gables Preparatory Academy classmates began making life-size diagrams of their own digestive systems.
“This green string is A.J.’s small intestine,” said Alexander Yagoda, 10, holding up part of a rainbow-colored trail of yarn created to map the path and distance from 11-year-old A.J.’s mouth down through his intestines.
Textbooks and lectures don’t quite get Jill Gonzalez’s brainy fifth-grade math and science class going, so their advanced lessons are often hands-on, independent activities like mapping students’ bodies or tossing parachutes off the second floor. It’s the kind of class designed for a small group of Florida’s brightest students – the “gifted” – but increasingly found throughout Miami-Dade schools.
In the last decade, Miami-Dade has experienced a remarkable boom in its gifted population, much of it by design. The number of such kids has increased by more than 50 percent since 2003, to the point where more than 10 percent are now labeled gifted.
The development is unusual in a state where the rate is just 1 in 20. Consider:
• Miami-Dade’s gifted population grew during the last 10 years from 24,434 to 37,238in a district of 353,000. That’s more than double Broward and Palm Beach counties’ rate and trumped in Florida by only Alachua and Sarasota schools.
• Of the 12,804-student increase, 11,337 of them are black or Hispanic students, who throughout the country are chronically under-identified. There are now more gifted Hispanic students in Miami-Dade than in the rest of the state. White students are increasingly deemed gifted, too, with nearly one in four now qualifying.
• Certain schools are practically gifted hubs, with a quarter or more of their students placed in gifted courses. Numbers from the 2011-12 school year show the rates were generally highest at magnet schools like MAST Academy, where half the children are gifted – but they came from all over the county via lottery admission. Still, other traditional schools with geographical attendance boundaries had substantial concentrations. They include North Beach Elementary (43.1 percent), Pinecrest Elementary (35.9 percent) and Coral Gables Preparatory (30.5 percent.)
Administrators say the numbers reflect efforts to better identify and serve advanced students that began in 2006 when the Miami-Dade School Board voted to improve its programming. The district sought the advice of experts, spent millions to add services, and trained parents, teachers and principals to spot exceptionally bright students, including those unique to minorities. Services were also expanded so that every school could provide gifted education to its students rather than bus them twice a week to a gifted center, as they often did in the past. Charters still provide their own services.
After one year, the number of gifted students jumped by more than 6,000, or almost 25 percent. That was due in part to an expansion of services for older students, who otherwise would have dropped off the map because the state only identifies children receiving a gifted education.
“By expanding our services and making them available districtwide, we saw an increase in our numbers,” said Lisette Rodriguez, head of Miami-Dade’s gifted programs. “It’s the whole ‘build it and they will come.’ ”
Miami-Dade’s gifted boom is celebrated by some experts, while others ask whether the district is watering down services for the “truly gifted.” It comes at a time when the very definition of giftedness is changing. Experts say more states and districts are moving away from dependency on IQ tests and are increasingly considering classroom achievement and behavior.
In Florida, a number of factors go into whether a student is deemed gifted, though IQ remains a hard-line requirement. Students take an intelligence test administered by a psychologist and must score at least 130, which ranks in the 98th percentile. That common requirement generally limits giftedness to a small group.
“Typically, you hear 2 to 5 percent, whether you’re in Dade County or Siberia, Russia,” said Shari Valencic, president of the Florida Association for the Gifted.
For students who are poor, or learning English, the state’s “Plan B” threshold for IQs is lower, at 115, due to evidence that they tend to score lower on such tests largely because of cultural and language issues. Each district establishes its own criteria with state approval, and each school has a committee to identify or deny individual students.
Like districts, states also identify giftedness differently, which can make comparing numbers deceiving.
“It’s comparing apples and oranges,” said Florida Department of Education gifted specialist Carol Bailey, who applauds Miami-Dade’s gifted boom.
What’s clear, though, is that Miami-Dade, and to a greater extent some of its schools, is among the outliers in the state and in the nation.
That might have something to do with the district’s standards for giftedness. For one, the district regularly accepts partial IQ scores, meaning a student who scores high on the verbal portion of a test, but not the non-verbal, may still be admitted. The district also allows for standard error on IQ tests, so minimum scores in Miami-Dade are actually 127 instead of 130 and for “Plan B” students 112 instead of 115.
Broward, by comparison, accepts partial scores only on a special basis and doesn’t bend on the 130 IQ score. Its gifted percentage is 4.2 percent.
Rodriguez said Miami-Dade also seriously considers other indicators, such as creativity and leadership.
“We certainly feel gifted isn’t just about your IQ number,” she said. “It’s much more complex than that.”
By conservative standards, Dade’s criteria strays from the idea that children with high IQs have specific needs met through gifted education. But they’re closer in line with modern thinking, which increasingly considers achievement and motivation and downplays IQ as a flawed indicator. For instance, the National Association for Gifted Children in 2010 released a position paper redefining giftedness to include not just exceptional intelligence but also achievement in the top 10 percent of any field, such as math, music or language.
“The big issue in Florida has always been the state’s 130 IQ cutoff score,” said Joseph Renzulli, a University of Connecticut professor and director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. “One of the things that does is it discriminates against low-income, minority and bilingual students. Those kids don’t do well on those tests.”
Renzulli, a leading expert in the field whom Miami-Dade consulted in the mid-2000s, said a far better approach is to consider other factors, such as creativity and task commitment, and place more children under the gifted umbrella. The argument carries even more weight in a district where 238,000 students are on free or reduced lunch and about one in five children is considered an English language learner.
“What I’m concerned with in young people is kids who do have a higher potential than their peers and who could benefit in special services,” he said. “So you cast your net a little broader so you get more kids in. You’re just going to create more seats.”
Daniel Peters, co-founder of the Summit Center, a West Coast organization offering therapy for gifted children, said those students have social and emotional needs that should be addressed by an accelerated curriculum and by being around their peers. Having them share a class with “high achievers” who aren’t actually gifted can be problematic, he said.
“Truly gifted kids and highly gifted kids truly do need differentiated instructions and accommodations. So it can’t be true,” Peters said of communities with high gifted populations and broad definitions. “All those kids can’t have the same special needs.”
The argument, and the fact that gifted students are overwhelmingly white and wealthy, is often what leads to criticism of gifted programming as elitist. But parents like Claudia Correa say gifted children absolutely need special classes – and they’re entitled to them under Florida education policies, which considers gifted schooling exceptional student education under the same umbrella as children with disabilities, and provides schools extra money for gifted students.
Correa said a first-grade teacher at Tradewinds Elementary in Coconut Creek told her years ago that her son, Douglas, now a teenager, was hyperactive and probably needed medication. But a retired substitute teacher told her he was probably gifted and just bored. So she had him tested – twice – and after the second go he was placed in a program. Her daughter, Julia, now in fourth grade, also had to be tested twice to be deemed gifted.
“They’re doing excellent now, both of them,” Correa said. “They’re thriving.”
In Northeast Dade, Lori Colan’s son and daughter attend full-time gifted classes at Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary. But last year she questioned whether Maxwell’s class was up to snuff.
“He walked into the first day of first grade and they were reading ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ and he had just finished a children’s version of The Odyssey,” she said. When she began asking questions, she learned that the school had a gifted rate of almost 35 percent, a rate she called “impossible” and believed was slowing a supposedly accelerated class. She said that was really important for Maxwell, who she said as a Davidson Young Scholar is identified with an IQ in the 99.9th percentile. He eventually skipped second grade.
“I don’t have a problem with the class size,” she said. “I just wish the gifted program meant the children were actually accelerated.”
Renzulli said the criticism about watering down gifted programming for the “truly gifted” is common. But he said the alternative – relying heavily on flawed IQ tests – is worse.
“When I hear ‘the truly gifted,’ I say ‘tell me what you mean by truly gifted’ and it always boils back to scores,” he said.
With a wide range allowed for the definition of giftedness, one class can have children with varying levels of abilities, said Gonzalez, the fifth-grade Coral Gables Preparatory Academy gifted teacher. She said that makes teaching challenging, but certainly not impossible.
“You have to juggle that,” she said. “It becomes quite challenging as a teacher.”
Gonzalez has been teaching for 19 years, gifted for six. These days, by using differentiated learning, she allows her students to learn at different rates in different subjects but continue moving forward as a class. She said the definition of giftedness means less than the quality of teaching provided to students.
“A lot of times,” she said, “gifted is in the eye of the beholder.”
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/06/08/v-print/3441241/miami-dades-gifted-student-population.html#storylink=cpy
You needn’t worry if you have an only child. There’s lots of research to say that they will be just fine! Read this article at the NY Times website by clicking HERE. The author of this piece has a book coming out soon on the joys of having just one child!
Only Children: Lonely and Selfish?
By LAUREN SANDLER
CALL me a terrible mother. I have an only child. For now at least, I’m planning to keep it that way, for my happiness and for hers. But the notion that an only child might be a happy one contradicts strong cultural beliefs. According to these, children like mine will end up rotten with selfishness and beset by loneliness.
And negative assumptions about parents who deprive their child of siblings strengthen the general opprobrium against only children. If a child doesn’t have siblings, it’s generally assumed that there’s a hush-hush reason for it: we don’t like being parents (because we are selfish), we care more about our status — work, money, materialism — than our child (because we are selfish), or we waited too long (because we are selfish). When have you heard someone say an only child is better off?
A general picture emerges that only children are loners, misfits and always, always selfish. I don’t buy it. As an only child, with one of my own, and as someone who has just spent three years writing about the subject, I’m convinced that if, by dint of will or biology, you have an only child, you can stop worrying about it.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the data: in hundreds of studies during the past decades exploring 16 character traits — including leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment — only children scored just as well as children with siblings. And endless research shows that only children are, in fact, no more self-involved than anyone else. It turns out brutal sibling rivalry isn’t necessary to beat the ego out of us; peers and classmates do the job.
Nor are only children lonelier. Toni Falbo at the University of Texas and her colleague Denise Polit are among the many researchers who have explored the question of whether only children are lonelier than those who have siblings. Their findings suggest that solitude is not synonymous with loneliness and often strengthens character. As one psychotherapist explained to me, only children tend to have stronger primary relationships with themselves. And nothing provides better armor against loneliness.
An Ohio State survey of more than 13,000 children found that only children had as many friends as anyone else; many of the only children I interviewed had cherished and nurtured friendships that they often regarded with a familial sense of permanence and loyalty.
The differences between only children and those raised with siblings tend to be positive ones. Ms. Falbo and Ms. Polit examined hundreds of studies in the 1980s and found that only children had demonstrably higher intelligence and achievement; only children have also been found to have more self-esteem. These findings, which have been confirmed repeatedly in recent years, hold true regardless of whether parents of only children stayed together and regardless of economic class.
Researchers like the sociologist Judith Blake believe these qualities result from the fact that parents who have just one child are able to devote more resources — time, money and attention — to them than parents who have to divide resources among more children.
The idea that only children are precocious persists and may, as Ms. Blake suggests, be connected with the fact that only children are often raised in richer verbal environments and share meals and other activities with adults. (I love it that an artist friend still brags that my daughter was 2 when she insisted that a crayon was “magenta, not pink.”)
My research suggests that only children experience more intensely emotional family lives. The parental gaze is more focused; the love more concentrated. This intensity can be enriching, and also suffocating. Many adult only children told me that they wanted their first child to have a sibling precisely because this kind of intensity was too much for them.
At the end of their parents’ lives, only children are sometimes said to be burdened in ways that children with siblings aren’t. Data from the National Alliance for Caregiving show that, in fact, the closest living sibling most often shoulders responsibility for elder caretaking. Still there is something existentially troubling about the idea of facing one’s parents’ mortality alone; in my interviews with hundreds of only children, I found that this was the issue people felt most viscerally about when deciding whether they wanted to have one or more children.
Given that about one in five American families now have just one child, this seems like a good time to question the misconceptions about only children and the dangers of raising a child without siblings. For one thing, one-child families make obvious sense in a time of diminishing resources. This may explain recent studies showing that parents who have one child tend to be happier. (In a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, Hans-Peter Kohler surveyed 35,000 sets of twins and found that of those women who had children, the happiest ones were those who had just one child.) Call me selfish but, as the mother of one child, I enjoy more time, energy and resources than I would if I had more children. And it is hard to imagine that this isn’t better for my family as well as for me.
Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first. But if children aren’t inherently worse off without siblings, who is best served by this kind of thinking? Instead of making family choices to fulfill breeding assignments we imagine we’ve been given, we might ensure that our most profound choice is a purely independent, personal one. To do so might even feel like something people rarely associate with parenting: it might feel like freedom.
Lauren Sandler is the author of the forthcoming book “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.”
Here’s an interesting perspective on Common Core Standards by a middle school English teacher. Read the opinion (and comments) at the NY Times website by CLICKING HERE.
“IT’S sad,” the kid at the far table told me, “but it’s my favorite poem we worked on.” He was talking about “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes, and although his emotional language was rudimentary, his response was authentic. “So we should read literature that makes us sad?” I asked. He laughed. “Well, sadness, Ms. Hollander, is something people pretty much feel every day.” He looked up at me and smiled incredulously. The connection was obvious to him.
I like it when my students cry, when they read with solemnity and purpose, when the project of making meaning becomes personal. My middle school students turn again and again to highly charged young adult novels. The poems and stories they receive enthusiastically are the ones that pack the most emotional punch. Just as teens like to take physical risks, they are driven to take emotional risks. For teachers, emotion is our lever. The teen mind is our stone.
Put another way, emotion is the English teacher’s entry point for literary exploration and for the development of the high-level skills outlined in the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in 45 states. Unfortunately, the authors of the standards are not particularly interested in emotional risk taking but rather in the avoidance of political risk. It is a rather bloodless effort.
Agreement on the skills American schoolchildren need to learn to read and write is much easier to arrive at than agreement on what they should read and write. For this reason, the Common Core’s list of text exemplars for English at each grade level is slender, a few lines in an appendix, and centers on safe choices, like “Little Women,” a novel dismissed as “moral pap” by its author more than a century ago. The authors of the Common Core standards have, however, exhaustively itemized skills required for reading and writing at each grade level. There is so much fine print that even the young teachers I know now need reading glasses.
I spend hours with my teacher-geek colleagues poring over distinctions between Common Core grade-level skills that have little practical import in the classroom. As one of my colleagues pointed out, it is more of a challenge to avoid teaching the skills enumerated in the standards than it is to be certain you are covering them all.
Language skills as we define them are useful fictions. Many types of knowledge and cognitive functioning are embedded in every skill area, and many, if not all, of the standards merely translate the obvious requirements of English work into wordy abstractions. What does it really mean to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices”? What else is there? A real checklist of all that is involved in the act of reading would border on the absurd.
The truth is that high-stakes standardized tests, in combination with the skills-based orientation of the Common Core State Standards, are de-emphasizing literature in the English classroom in favor of “agnostic texts” of the sort familiar from test preparation materials. These are neutral texts created to be “agnostic” with regard to student interest so that outside variables won’t interfere when teachers assess and analyze data related to verbal ability. In other words, they are texts no child would choose to read on her own.
There are already hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit providers of “agnostic texts” sorted by grade level being used in English classrooms across the country. There is also a lot of discussion among teachers over whether lessons align well with the new standards, but far less discussion regarding which texts are being chosen for students to read and why. In a sense the students, with their curiosity, sadness, confusion and knowledge deficits, are left out of the equation. They are on the receiving end of lessons planned for a language-skills learning abstraction.
The writers of the Common Core had no intention of killing literature in the classroom. But the convenient fiction that yearly language learning can be precisely measured by various “metrics” is supplanting the importance of literary experience. The Common Core remains neutral on the question of whether my students should read Shakespeare, Salinger or a Ford owner’s manual, so long as the text remains “complex.”
New teachers may feel so overwhelmed by the itemization of skills in the Common Core that they will depend on prepared materials to ensure their students are getting the proper allotment of practice in answering “common core-aligned” questions like “analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure … contributes to its meaning.” Does good literary analysis even answer such questions or does it pose them? Does it matter whether a question like this is tackled while reading an actual play, or will a short excerpt do the trick so long as the “skill” is practiced?
Language may compose who we are as much as we compose it. Language teaching, therefore, is unlike other content areas. Text selection is the most critical component of any English curriculum, but our educational leaders have avoided the discussion of what works of literature a national canon might include in favor of a curriculum that treats the study of literature as though it were a communication system unrelated to who we are as people.
My fear is that we cannot reckon with the difficult truths of real works of art, that the disturbance we feel when reading Alice Walker’s “Color Purple” is rated too disruptive to the analysis of student yearly progress to be read for a test. My suspicion is that the Common Core enumerates skills and not books because as a country we still feel that real works of art are too divisive. It is more comfortable to remain agnostic, to permit our teens to remain an education-product consumer group, fed skills-building exercises that help adults to avoid the hard truths our children have no choice but to face.
There are no agnostic texts on college campuses, but texts dense with philosophical, psychological and moral meaning. There are no state tests for college students. It is time to align our education system with college demands by opening a real discussion about what teens should read in middle school and high school. Tests given to adolescents need to be based on books students read in school.
Put this way, it sounds obvious, but it isn’t what we’re doing. Skills-based standards ignore the basic fact that language learning must occur in a meaningful context. The basis for higher-level learning — for philosophy, psychology, literature, even political science — is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.
Claire Needell Hollander is an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan and the author of the young adult novel “Something Right Behind Her.”
Common core standards are HERE TO STAY (at least for now)! Read about them at the NY Times – CLICK HERE. If your child is taking an achievement test based on Common Core Standards, practice questions are available at www.TestingMom.com.
IN April, some 1.2 million New York students took their first Common Core State Standards tests, which are supposed to assess their knowledge and thinking on topics such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and a single matrix equation in a vector variable.
Students were charged with analyzing both fiction and nonfiction, not only through multiple-choice answers but also short essays. The mathematics portion of the test included complex equations and word problems not always included in students’ classroom curriculums. Indeed, the first wave of exams was so overwhelming for these young New Yorkers that some parents refused to let their children take the test.
These students, in grades 3 through 8, are taking part in what may be the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history. By the 2014-15 academic year, public schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia will administer Common Core tests to students of all ages. (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have so far held out; Minnesota will use only the Common Core English test.) Many Catholic schools have also decided to implement the Common Core standards; most private, nonreligious schools have concluded that the program isn’t for them.
Many of these “assessments,” as they are called, will be more rigorous than any in the past. Whether the Common Core is called a curriculum or not, there’s little doubt that teachers will feel pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen. In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions about grade promotion for students, teachers’ job status and school viability.
It is the uniformity of the exams and the skills ostensibly linked to them that appeal to the Core’s supporters, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill and Melinda Gates. They believe that tougher standards, and eventually higher standardized test scores, will make America more competitive in the global brain race. “If we’ve encouraged anything from Washington, it’s for states to set a high bar for what students should know to be able to do to compete in today’s global economy,” Mr. Duncan wrote to us in an e-mail.
But will national, ramped-up standards produce more successful students? Or will they result in unintended consequences for our educational system?
By definition, America has never had a national education policy; this has indeed contributed to our country’s ambivalence on the subject. As it stands, the Common Core is currently getting hit mainly from the right. Tea Party-like groups have been gaining traction in opposition to the program, arguing that it is another intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans by a faceless elite. While we don’t often agree with the Tea Party, we’ve concluded that there’s more than a grain of truth to their concerns.
The anxiety that drives this criticism comes from the fact that a radical curriculum — one that has the potential to affect more than 50 million children and their parents — was introduced with hardly any public discussion. Americans know more about the events in Benghazi than they do about the Common Core.
WHAT became the Common Core began quite modestly. Several years ago, many organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, whose members are top-ranking state education officials, independently noticed that the content and scoring of high school “exit” tests varied widely between states. In 2006, for instance, 91 percent of students in Mississippi passed a mathematics exit exam on the first attempt, while only 65 percent did so in Arizona. At the same time, students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress often differed from the state results.
This was not just embarrassing: it looked unprofessional. The governors and the school chiefs decided to work together to create a single set of standards and a common grading criteria. Private funding, led by some $35 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, allowed the coalition to spread its wings. Aligning tests became an opportunity to specify what every American child should know.
In 2009, an education consultant named David Coleman was retained to help develop the program, and he and other experts ended up specifying, by our count, more than 1,300 skills and standards. Mr. Coleman, a Rhodes scholar and the son of Bennington College’s departing president, is known as a driven worker as well as for his distaste for personal memoir as a learning tool. Last year, he was selected to lead the College Board, which oversees A.P. exams and the SATs.
Of course, the 45 states that have decided to implement the Common Core did so willingly. While federal agencies did not have a role in the program’s creation, the Obama administration signaled to states in 2009 that they should embrace the standards if they hoped to win a grant through the federal program known as Race to the Top.
For all its impact, the Common Core is essentially an invisible empire. It doesn’t have a public office, a board of directors or a salaried staff. Its Web site lists neither a postal address nor a telephone number.
On its surface, the case for the Common Core is compelling. It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math, an alarming shortfall in a competitive era. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks 24th out of 34 countries in “mathematics literacy,” trailing Sweden and the Czech Republic, and 11th in “reading literacy,” behind Estonia and Poland. (South Korea ranks first in both categories.) Under the Common Core, students in participating states will immediately face more demanding assignments. Supporters are confident that students will rise to these challenges and make up for our country’s lag in the global education race. We are not so sure.
Students in Kentucky were the first to undergo the Common Core’s testing regimen; the state adopted the standards in 2010. One year later, its students’ scores fell across the board by roughly a third in reading and math. Perhaps one cannot blame the students, or the teachers — who struggle to teach to the new, behemoth test that, in some cases, surpasses their curriculums — for the drop in scores.
Here’s one high school math standard: Represent addition, subtraction, multiplication, and conjugation of complex numbers geometrically on the complex plane; use properties of this representation for computation. Included on New York state’s suggested reading list for ninth graders are Doris Lessing, Albert Camus and Rainer Maria Rilke. (In many parts of the country, Kurt Vonnegut and Harper Lee remain the usual fare.)
More affluent students, as always, will have parental support. Private tutoring, already a growth industry, will become more important if passing scores on the Common Core are required for graduation. Despite worthy aims, the new standards may well deepen the nation’s social divide.
The Common Core is not oblique in its aim: to instill “college and career readiness” in every American teenager — in theory, a highly democratic ideal. In the past, students were unabashedly tracked, which usually placed middle-class students in academic courses and their working-class peers in vocational programs. New York City had high schools for cooking, printing and needle trades. (There was even one in Brooklyn called Manual Training.) Indeed, the aim of these schools was to prepare a slice of society for blue-collar life. Since the 1960s, this has been seen as undemocratic. Today, students are typically required to take algebra, so they will have more options upon graduation (should they graduate). The irony — and tragedy — is that students who don’t surmount these hurdles now fall even further.
Already, almost one-quarter of young Americans do not finish high school. In Utah and Oklahoma, roughly 20 percent don’t; the proportion rises to 32 percent in South Carolina and 42 percent in Nevada. What does the Common Core offer these students?
The answer is simple. “College and career skills are the same,” Ken Wagner, New York State’s associate commissioner of education for curriculum, assessment and educational technology, told us. The presumption is that the kind of “critical thinking” taught in classrooms — and tested by the Common Core — improves job performance, whether it’s driving a bus or performing neurosurgery. But Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, calls the Common Core a “one-size-fits-all pathway governed by abstract academic content.”
IN sum, the Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges. Is this really a level playing field? Or has the game been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail?
Debate is now stirring within partisan circles. Glenn Beck sees the Common Core as “leftist indoctrination.” The Republican National Committee calls it “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Republican governors and legislators in Indiana, Kansas, Georgia and several other states are talking about reconsidering their participation. Yet conservative scholars at the Manhattan and Fordham institutes laud it as promising “a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K-12 education.” Some corporate C.E.O.’s favor it because they say it will upgrade the work force. Mr. Duncan is one of the lone liberal voices in support of the program. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls “revolutionary.” That said, she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes being implemented hastily and without needed support.
For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant education secretary, the program is predicated on “the idea that you can’t trust teachers.” If we want our children taught from standardized scripts, she told us, let’s say so and accept the consequences.
For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.
Still, there’s an upside to the Common Core’s arrival. As the public better appreciates its sweep, there is likely to be much discussion about schools and what we want them to do. Ideally, this will involve a reconsideration of the contours of knowledge and the question of how we can become a better-educated nation.
Andrew Hacker is an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York. Claudia Dreifus is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. They are working on a book about mathematics.