If you live in NYC and you have a bilingual child and your child will be taking the G&T tests next year, be sure to build up the English you are speaking to your child over the next year. Those are the recommendations after seeing scores drop for bilingual kids after the DOE changed the weighting of the two tests it uses to determine qualification for gifted programs. To read this article at the DNAInfo website, CLICK HERE.
QUEENS — Tim Wang wishes he’d spent more time speaking English to his son at home.
Wang’s 4-year-old recently scored in the 97th percentile on the city’s gifted and talented exam — a very high score, but likely not high enough to earn him a spot in the city’s most elite G&T programs, like the Upper West Side’s Anderson School and the Lower East Side’s NEST+m.
Wang’s son, who learned English as his first language, but now primarily speaks Mandarin at home, did better on the nonverbal section of the exam, which asks kids to identify patterns and shapes and draw logical conclusions, than he did on the verbal section, in which an adult reads a question out loud to a child once and then asks for an answer.
That wouldn’t have mattered as much last year, when the nonverbal section held more weight in determining a child’s overall score — but this year the Department of Education changed the scoring to give the two sections equal weight.
Scores fell sharply across the city, and test prep experts and families said children who speak more than one language had a tougher time achieving top scores this year.
“I was very proud of my son, especially what he did in the verbal,” said Wang, a 41-year-old software engineer who moved from Taiwan to Flushing in 2000.
But if Wang had known about the grading changes, he said, “I may [have] spent a little bit more time to read English stories for my son.”
The score drop in immigrant communities was most apparent in three school districts in Queens — a borough where nearly half of residents are foreign-born, according to city data — where scores of children trying to test into kindergarten G&T programs plummeted more than anywhere else in the city.
District 30, which encompasses Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights and Woodside, saw the number of top scorers drop by 58 percent compared to last year. In District 25 — Wang’s district — which includes Flushing, the number of top scorers dropped by 54 percent.
And District 26, which covers Bayside, Fresh Meadows and Jamaica Estates, saw the number of top scorers fall by 52 percent. Because of the district’s strong schools, many immigrant families from South Korea, China, India and Japan have moved to the area, according to Insideschools.
The drops are even more striking considering that hundreds more children across the city took the G&T qualifying test this year compared to last year, records show.
Deb Alexander, who sits on District 30’s Community Education Council and is a parent of a G&T student, said families in her neighborhood complained the new test is “disadvantageous” to English learners.
“Our district has an incredibly high number of homes where English is not the first language,” she said. “The child may be a native English speaker, but it’s what they’re used to listening to.”
The DOE declined to comment on the impact of the testing changes this year on kids who speak English as a second language. A spokesman released a statement saying, “The tweak in the weights was designed to improve the psychometric balance across the two tests based on the data from the previous year, when the DOE first introduced this particular test combination.”
The Department of Education does provide translators for English language learners on the verbal and nonverbal portions of the test in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.
But many families said the quality of translation services varies. In addition, they say, the verbal part of the G&T exam wasn’t designed for non-English-speaking children — leaving nuances to get lost even with a translator, said Michael McCurdy, co-founder of test preparation website Testing Mom.
“For example, even in the Department of Education gifted and talented handbook they have questions that use traditional American boy names and foods that are American, like pizza,” McCurdy said. “If a child is growing up in a household that only speaks Mandarin, for example, and has never eaten or seen pizza, they would be at a disadvantage.”
Bige Doruk, founder of test prep company Bright Kids NYC, analyzed data from her students’ scores after the changed G&T test this year. Though the scores were still high overall, she said, “Our ELL [English language learner] kids definitely scored much lower this year.”
Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center education professor David Bloomfield said the results highlight the “mutability” of test scores.
“You switch to this 50/50 arrangement [equally weighting the verbal and nonverbal sections], and you change who’s considered gifted or not,” he said. “It just seems to me one more example of how the almost arbitrary changing of metrics creates huge differences in the lives of children.”
Here is why New Yorkers and are protesting the Common Core tests. To read the opinion at the NY Times Website, CLICK HERE. I recommend that you take a look at the article on the site just to see the reader comments.
We Need to Talk About the Test
A Problem With the Common Core
I’D like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can’t. Pearson’s $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we’re not allowed to point out what the problems were.
This lack of transparency was one of the driving forces that led the teachers at my school to call for a protest rally the day after the test, a rally that attracted hundreds of supporters. More than 30 other New York City schools have scheduled their own demonstrations.
I want to be clear: We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.
Teachers and administrators at my school have spoken out against the overemphasis on testing for years, but our stance is not one of “sour grapes.” Last year we were one of the 25 top-scoring schools in New York State. We have implemented the Common Core standards with enthusiasm, and we have always supported the idea that great teaching is the best test preparation. But this year’s English Language Arts exam has made a mockery of that position.
It is frightening to think what “teaching to the test” would mean, given the nature of the test. We won’t do it, but some schools will, or at least will try, despite a new state law that mandates that schools limit test prep to 2 percent of instructional time. How does one even begin to monitor or enforce such a mandate?
Over the past few years, as higher stakes have been attached to the tests, we have seen schools devote more time to test prep, leaving less time and fewer resources for instruction in music, the arts, social studies and physical education. This is especially true for schools with a high proportion of low-income students, who tend to do worse on the test, and whose teachers and principals have to worry more about the scores.
At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.
For two years, I have suggested that the commissioner of education and the members of the Board of Regents actually take the tests — I’d recommend Days 1 and 3 of the third-grade test for starters. Afterward, I would like to hear whether they still believed that these tests gave schools and parents valuable information about a child’s reading or writing ability.
We do not want to become cynics, but until these flawed exams are released to the public and there is true transparency, it will be difficult for teachers and principals to maintain the optimism that is such an essential element of educating children.
Elizabeth Phillips has been the principal of Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for 15 years.
This article makes a critical point about what it will take to make Common Core succeed in NY and, frankly, every state in this country. Teachers need to be trained. To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
The panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to review New York’s troubled rollout of the Common Core learning standards will present its recommendations this spring. Among its most important tasks is to offer ways to remedy the most serious weakness in the state’s Common Core effort — the shortage of high-quality programs that are supposed to train teachers to carry out new Common Core-based curriculums.
The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states, are new goals for what children should learn from one grade to the next. They are intended to move schools away from passive learning and fill-in-the-bubble tests and toward a writing-intensive curriculum that cultivates reasoning skills earlier than is now common. In practice, this means teaching fifth graders to write essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments, using specific facts and details.
New York, which adopted the standards in 2010, is one of the first states to create extensive Common Core-based curriculum materials and training kits. The problem is that many teachers in New York have not been given the time or the help they need to develop an understanding of the Common Core idea or to master the skills needed to teach it. This failure stems partly from the financial struggles of many districts. Some were actually cutting staff and reducing services to students as the Common Core was being rolled out; they had no money to devote to professional development. Even if the money had been available, professional development programs vary widely in quality from one district to another.
The goal should be to end old-fashioned training sessions where teachers attend conferences at which they listen to lectures for a few days a year and move toward continuous instruction by master educators who observe teachers at work, providing help and feedback.
The Common Core initiative cannot succeed unless these problems are solved. That point was hammered home at the panel’s first public hearing last week. An expert speaking at the hearing, Carmel Martin, a former assistant secretary of education in the Obama administration, noted that other states had invested heavily in teacher development as part of their preparation in rolling out the Common Core. These programs give teachers the time to learn new instructional techniques either during the summer, after school, or by reducing teachers’ course loads during the school year.
California allocated $1.25 billion in the current school year for carrying out the new standards. The Tennessee Department of Education trained more than 40,000 teachers — roughly two-thirds of the state teacher corps — during 2012 and 2013. The training sessions were led by top teachers who were selected through a competition. And Delaware has created a project called Common Ground for the Common Core that helps schools and districts bring the new standards into classrooms.
New York can help local districts by providing money and laying out rigorous guidelines for how it can be used. The state Board of Regents, which oversees education policy, clearly had that in mind when it advised the Legislature to increase school aid by $1.3 billion in the 2014-15 school year. About half of that — $719 million — would go toward helping districts that are still reeling from state funding cuts related to the recession and a state-imposed tax cap that limited their ability to raise money. And $125 million would go to an instructional development fund that would be available to districts that committed to extensive, high-quality professional development. The money would be allocated based on need.
The Legislature would do well to follow the Regents’ recommendations. If New York wants to install the Common Core and improve the quality of education it will need to put its money where its mouth is.
The second article below appeared on November 24, 2013 in NY Magazine. I meant to post it on my blog then, but forgot. Now I see that the top scoring district in NYC will be protesting the ELA Tests in NY this week, so that jogged my memory to put the second article up for you. Opting out of Common Core and protests over the test is not just a NY phenomenon. Parents all over the country are unhappy with the Common Core. We have added plenty of preparation for the Common Core on our www.TestingMom.com website and, in doing so, I can see how much harder this test is than previous achievement tests. Parents are right to be concerned. It will take years for teachers and students to be up to speed on how to do well on this test. From what principals are saying below, it may take years for the test developers to get the test right. The protesting parents in NYC feel the test is not well aligned with the standards and that teachers aren’t getting enough information about questions on past tests to use that information to help students prepare. The first article appears on Dianeravitch.net – CLICK HERE to read it at that website. The second article comes from NY Magazine.
Top-Scoring NYC District Will Protest ELA Tests This Friday
District 2 in New York City–one of the city’s highest scoring districts–plans protests this Friday against the poor quality of the ELA tests given last week. State officials tried to dismiss concerns from other districts, specifically from Liz Phillips, a respected Brooklyn principal who wrote a letter to all the parents in her school saying the tests were.”terrible.” More than 500 parents and teachers at her school joined to protest the ELA tests last Friday. The Néw York Times ignored Phillips’ informed judgment and accepted the assurances of state officials (and pupils–how large was their sample?) that the test was “easier” than last year.
District 2 principals agreed with Phillips.
Here is their statement:
Join Us in Speaking Out Regarding the NYS English Language Arts Exam
Friday, April 11th, at District 2 Schools
Dear District 2 Families,
Community School District 2 represents a richly diverse group of school communities and it is not often these days that we have an opportunity to join in a shared effort. Last week, and for several weeks prior, every one of our upper grade classrooms devoted hours of instructional time, vast human resources, and a tremendous amount of thoughtful effort to preparing students to do well on the NYS ELA exams and, ultimately, to administering them. Only a handful of District 2 families even considered opting out, and we are not advocating families do so, specifically because we believe our students are well prepared for the rigor and high expectations of the Common Core and our schools have worked hard for several years to adjust our curriculum and teaching to support students in meeting those expectations. We had high hopes for what this year’s tests would bring and assured families that they would reflect the feedback test makers and state officials had received from educators and families regarding the design of the test following last year’s administration. Our students worked extremely hard and did their very best. As school leaders, we supported teachers in ensuring that students and families kept the tests in perspective – they were important, but by no means the ultimate measure of who they are as readers, students, or human beings. We encouraged them to be optimistic, and did our best to do the same. Frankly, many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we’d taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing deep comprehension for something quite different.
Last Friday morning, Liz Phillips, the principal of PS321 in Brooklyn, led her staff and her parent community in a demonstration objecting, not to testing or accountability or high expectations for kids, but to these tests in particular and, importantly, to their high stakes nature for teachers and students, and the policy of refusing to release other than a small percentage of the questions. 500 staff and parents participated.
By Friday evening some officials were dismissing the importance of their statement, claiming that Liz and her community represented only a tiny percentage of those affected, implying that the rest of us were satisfied. Given the terribly high stakes of these tests, for schools, for teachers and for kids, and the enormous amount of human, intellectual and financial resources that have been devoted to them, test makers should be prepared to stand by them and to allow them to undergo close scrutiny.
Many District 2 schools will be holding demonstrations this week, making sure our thoughts on this are loud and clear and making it more difficult to dismiss the efforts of one school. On Friday morning, April 11th, at 8:00am, we invite our families and staff to join District 2 schools in speaking out, expressing our deep dissatisfaction with the 2014 NYS English Language Arts LA exams and the lack of transparency surrounding them. Among the concerns shared by many schools are the following: The tests seem not to be particularly well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; the tests themselves are embargoed and only a handful of select questions will be released next year; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; students and families receive little or no specific feedback; this year, there were product placements (i.e., Nike, Barbie) woven through some exams. We are inviting you and your family to join together as a school community in this action, helping to ensure that officials are not left to wonder whether our silence implied approval.
District 2 Principals
Adele Schroeter, PS59; Lisa Ripperger, PS234; Robert Bender, PS11; Tara Napoleoni, PS183; Jane Hsu, PS116; Sharon Hill, PS290; Amy Hom, PS1; Lauren Fontana, PS6; Jennifer Bonnet, PS150; Nicole Ziccardi Yerk, PS281; Susan Felder, PS40; Alice Hom, PS124; Nancy Harris, PS397; Kelly Shannon, PS41; Nancy Sing-Bok, PS51; Lisa Siegman, PS3; Irma Medina, PS111; Terry Ruyter, PS276; Medea McEvoy, PS267; Darryl Alhadeff, PS158; Samantha Kaplan, PS151; David Bowell, PS347; Lily Woo, PS130; Jacqui Getz, PS126; Kelly McGuire, Lower Manhattan Community MS
The Opt-Outers, by Robert Kolker
What happens if enough NY parents say they don’t want their kids to take the test?
More than a year before 7-year-old Oscar Mata was scheduled to take his first major standardized test, his parents received word from his school that he was failing. The Department of Education calls it a Promotion in Doubt letter—a well-intentioned, if blunt, method used to get families to take notice of gaps in a student’s skills.
The letter arrived in 2011, around the time of Oscar’s second-grade winter break. Before then, he had been happy at the Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership in West Harlem. His parents, Andrea and Juan, had been drawn to the dual-language school, where English and Spanish learners took field trips together for innovative social-studies projects. They say that Oscar is great at math and loved science, music, and art. He loved reading, too, until he started to get tested on it.
“There was this transformation of the whole culture—and curriculum,” Andrea says. “I could see it mostly through the homework. It really looked like test prep. There were even bubble sheets.” Oscar had more than a year before the third-grade test, when students start taking the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests—but the thinking goes that the sooner they learn how to take big standardized tests and the sooner any skill shortfalls can be dealt with, the better they’ll do in the long run. Oscar, however, had a paradoxical reaction. “His interest in school,” says Andrea, “took this immediate plummet.”
She felt as if her son had been caught in a vortex: The school starts teaching Oscar differently, he loses whatever spark of curiosity inspired him to want to learn, and the school punishes him for it. He made it to third grade, but by then, test prep had come to dominate his classroom. Grand plans for science experiments and hands-on interactive projects, Andrea says, “would just kind of fizzle out and disappear because there wasn’t time to do them.”
One underlying problem, she learned, was that his school had received a grade of C from the DOE’s school-evaluation system, and student test scores accounted for 85 percent of that grade. The principal was under extreme pressure to raise the school’s performance level, because a low grade could persuade families to pull students out of that school. By spring, with the third-grade state tests imminent, Andrea started to think seriously about having Oscar opt out of the ELA entirely. The potential ramifications were a mystery to her, but in a way, she thought, the worst had already happened. Her son just didn’t like school anymore.
We’re well into the second decade of the accountability era of public education, during which federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have prodded state school systems to raise standards. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has spent a dozen years bringing data analysis and standardization to what once was a decentralized system. Adding an extra layer of assessments to those mandated by No Child Left Behind, the system now tests kids year round instead of at the start and end of school years.
The new data introduced a degree of transparency and precision that never existed systemwide. For the first time, the DOE could make almost real-time comparisons among the skill levels of kids in different schools and neighborhoods and with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In theory, the tests ensure that kids are being taught to the same standard all over the city and keep low-performing students from falling through the cracks. The tests also offered Bloomberg a benchmark by which to justify the closing of several schools—he’s phased out or shuttered 164 in his nearly twelve years in office—with his letter-grade evaluation system.
But the shift to a data-centric system has led to an interesting new moment for everyone involved in the public schools. At the same time that the state and federal governments have embraced data as much as Bloomberg has, Bill de Blasio stands to inherit a system where a backlash has begun—and he, at least partly, was elected because he aligned himself with that backlash. “I would put the standardized-testing machine in reverse,” the mayor-to-be said during the campaign. “It is poisoning our system.”
From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, application-only middle schools use to screen kids.
The harshest critics of testing have argued that students learn best from a well-rounded curriculum, and that the pressure to get the correct answer on a high-stakes test leads to cheating and alienation. Every year brings new examples as proof: This fall, kindergartners at some city schools were taught to bubble in answers; in Montclair, New Jersey, new tests were canceled after the answers were posted online. “If you have a child with high anxiety, you’re just adding to their stress level,” says Kate O’Hagan, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 97 in Brooklyn, who argues that the specter of low test scores on a student’s permanent record leads to more pressure at home as well as at school. “Teachers aren’t initiating the conversation about testing. Parents are.”
No real anti-testing resistance movement ever gained traction until last spring, when the state introduced revamped ELA and math tests that were so much harder than what came before that a vast majority of students failed. The tests were meant to align with a new national set of standards called the Common Core, which until recently has been celebrated by both political parties as a way of bringing critical thinking and academic rigor into schools across the country. The problem was that the state changed the test without changing the curriculum first. And the results reflected that: Fewer than one third of all third- through eighth-graders across the state passed. According to the DOE, about one out of every twenty kids citywide wasn’t able to finish day two of the tests.
“There were a lot of tears,” says John O’Reilly, principal of the Academy of Arts & Letters, a K-8 school in Brooklyn. “People have already talked about how they upped the text level, and there were multiple answers to some questions. But the tests were also really long, and kids didn’t finish. And I wondered if this is what we are deciding academic rigor is.”
As anxiety about the new tests mounted, the city’s school chancellor, Dennis Walcott, tried tough love, saying, “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be challenging.” State officials did the same. “The world has changed, the economy has changed, and what our students need to know has changed,” said Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents. “It’s better to have our students challenged now—when teachers and parents are there to help—than frustrated later when they start college or try to find a job and discover they are unprepared.”
The test triggered the most widespread criticism of high-stakes testing in more than a decade. At the front lines of the movement are children like Oscar Mata, who, last spring, chose not to take the ELA at all.
Andrea Mata had been so worried about the testing issue that in August 2011, she started showing up at a monthly meeting at the CUNY Graduate Center that called itself the Grassroots Education Movement—a support group made up of public-school teachers and some parents reaching out to talk about policy problems that seemed too big to handle on their own. Mata was there to join a subcommittee focused on testing called Change the Stakes. Later on, she met a mother with a similar story, Diana Zavala, whose son Jackson also went to a Harlem elementary school. “We were always told he could express himself well, but in third grade he suddenly hated school,” Zavala says.
Other groups around the country like FairTest and United Opt Out National had been encouraging boycotts over the years, and, locally, Time Out From Testing had scored some small but significant victories. But as of spring 2012—still a full year before the state would revise the ELA and math tests—no local group was boycotting those exams. “We didn’t feel there was a handle for parents to understand why they were boycotting,” says Jane Hirschmann, a leader of Time Out From Testing.
Mata, Zavala, and several other parents, however, did feel that way. By early 2012, the Change the Stakes subcommittee shook off the larger entity and became its own group. But even up until March, it wasn’t clear that its members would opt out at all. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, Maybe we shouldn’t take the test,” says Mata. “But it wouldn’t make sense if I was just by myself.” She and other parents made some calls to see what would happen if they did in fact have their children opt out. “We all heard different things,” she says, which made the parents feel as if the test had become so powerful that no one had ever considered accommodating anyone with a legitimate complaint against them. “That just fueled us more.”
In the spring of 2012, 113 students in New York City, including Oscar, opted out of one or both of the state tests. What most parents didn’t know is that the DOE did have a process in place for kids who failed the tests—and this same process became the recourse for kids who refused to take the test. Any child who scored a one on the state ELA or math test (as well as all opt-outers) could submit to an alternative evaluation system called a “portfolio assessment,” which includes the score of another test called a “Blackline master,” or BLM, that takes a little less time than the state tests (the portfolio may also include examples of the student’s classwork, though that’s not required). The overall portfolio is reviewed by the teacher and the principal, then by the superintendent, who determines whether the student moves to the next grade. It wasn’t a perfect solution—students were opting out of a test by taking a different one—but it at least meant the students could avoid the big standardized tests and the parents, as a group, could lodge a protest they hoped would register down the line.
The principal at Oscar’s school, Evelyn Linares, as Mata recalls, had never heard of a student opting out. “She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” (The DOE would not make Linares available to comment for this story.) Other principals did their best to dissuade parents from opting out and went out of their way not to help those who did. Last year, Peter Nuñez—father to Pharez, an 8-year-old third-grader at P.S. 173, populated largely by children learning English as a second language—says his son’s school made the appeals process as difficult for him as possible.
Pharez had been earning threes, making him an average student. Then, as April approached, he started crying each morning, sometimes for twenty minutes or more. He wouldn’t say why. Nuñez has taught in the city schools for more than fifteen years. When he visited P.S. 173, he learned that it had surrendered its schedule solely to test prep; teachers spent the entire day teaching almost nothing but material related to the ELA and math exams.
By then, Pharez was having trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. “He was complaining about pains in his back and his head. If it was happening to a college student, I might accept this. But for a child, it was not acceptable, not at all. And so I opted him out.”
Nuñez wrote a letter and had it notarized and brought it to the principal, Dawn Boursiquot (who also did not comment). That’s when the administration reacted, he says. Nuñez got phone calls at home from the principal’s secretary, the PTA president, and the assistant principal, all asking him why Pharez opted out and trying to persuade him to change his mind. “After a few calls, I said, ‘You know, I think you ought to respect our decision.’ ”
From April through June, Nuñez says he asked repeatedly to help the school prepare a portfolio for Pharez, only to be ignored. In June, three days before school ended, he was called in for a meeting with Boursiquot. “We got there, and she told us they [gave Pharez the BLM] that same day during the school day,” Nuñez says. “And she informed us that he had failed.”
In his last face-to-face meeting with Boursiquot, Nuñez recalls, the principal told him in front of everyone in the office, “You know what? You decided this for your son.”
The Common Core standards that triggered last spring’s change in the state tests are the Obama administration’s way of sealing in the quality-control demands of No Child Left Behind, which rewarded high test scores without ever really saying what should be on those tests. One of the Common Core’s chief authors, David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”
With reading and writing, the Common Core digs deeper. Where a lot of class time in the early grades has, until now, been spent encouraging students to express themselves and use their interests as a starting point for learning new skills, the Common Core is designed to have students think critically, gathering evidence to make arguments, skills they’ll eventually need in college. (The standards, for example, push nonfiction texts over fiction, reasoning that there isn’t nearly enough nonfiction reading in the lower grades to prepare students for college-level work.)
“It can change the quality of teaching,” says Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, who has marshaled the curriculum’s transition. He argues that if implemented correctly, the Common Core will eventually help student scores on standardized tests improve without the need to overload class time with test prep. “Here’s a chance to actually push how rigorous the assignments are that we’re giving kids every single day. How much are kids actually thinking? How much are we seeing kids defend their ideas? What kinds of teacher behaviors do you have to create so the planning goes into a lesson?”
The early challenge of any new curriculum, however, is how it’s absorbed by the people who have to teach it and the kids who have to learn it. Changing standards takes time, and in the schools, that process can take years. Massachusetts went through a similar transition a generation ago, flushing additional money into the system in exchange for higher testing standards. It took several years, and there was a lot of pushback at first, but now around 90 percent of Massachusetts students meet those standards—and the state’s students rank at the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the commonly recognized yardstick all school systems use to compare themselves to one another.
After the shock of last spring’s new state tests, the Common Core was formally rolled out in New York State classrooms this fall. There were the expected bureaucratic snafus: new textbooks arriving late to classrooms and teachers not getting enough training. Then came complaints that the curriculum is developmentally inappropriate. Carol Burris, a high-school principal in Rockville Centre, has noted how it expects first-graders to know the meaning of words beyond their reading level, like cuneiform, sarcophagus, and ziggurat. Standards like that, critics say, will lead to the exact drill-and-kill problem the Common Core is trying to avoid.
Established educators complained that the standards weren’t created with enough of their input—not one of the 135 people on the Common Core panels was a K-3 classroom teacher or early-childhood professional. The unions turned on it, too: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently quipped, “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
At forums across the state, parents and teachers have blasted Andrew Cuomo’s education commissioner, John King, about the Common Core. One teacher even claimed that children are being “diagnosed by psychologists with a syndrome directly related to work that they do in the classroom. If that is not child abuse, I don’t know what is.”
In response to the growing criticism, Arne Duncan, the White House’s Education secretary, this month said it was “fascinating” that some of the Common Core’s detractors are “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” There was an uproar among parents and administrators. “Did he really say that?” wrote Long Island superintendent Joseph Rella in an open letter. Duncan later “regretted” his phrasing, but what was most telling about his comment was that it seemed to acknowledge that support for the Common Core is being derailed in part by how it plays into the culture of anxiety often associated with high-stakes testing.
Oscar’s parents held tight as they waited for the superintendent to review his BLM and make a final determination. It took until late August—just days before the start of the new school year—for Oscar to be promoted to the fourth grade. But the process proved illuminating: Oscar’s mother realized that, aside from the wait, there were no immediate consequences to Oscar’s opting out. So last spring, when it came time to take the ELA again in the fourth grade, Andrea and Oscar decided he would opt out for a second time. And he had more company.
According to the DOE, New York City had 320 opt-outers in 2013, nearly triple the number of the previous year—and all because of the city’s decision to roll out a test that was way too hard for most students. Locally, Time Out From Testing and Change the Stakes worked together to show families how to opt out. Across the state, the movement was even bigger. Buffalo, Rochester, and Long Island all boasted support for their opt-out movements. Jeanette Deutermann, alarmed by her child’s panicked reaction to the tests, started a Facebook page called Long Island Opt-Out Info that now has nearly 13,000 members. “People got onboard so quickly,” Deutermann says. “Even if their kid got fours”—the highest scores—“every parent had a story about how the test had negatively affected them.” One mother in Levittown told the group that she and others were making shirts for their kids to wear: On the front, I AM NOT JUST A TEST SCORE; on the back, NO MORE COMMON CORE.
A group of principals from prominent middle and high schools wrote a letter pledging they “will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students.” The City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the use of certain “field tests” to try out sample exams on kids already inundated by test prep. This fall, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights canceled new standardized multiple-choice tests when more than 80 percent of parents had pulled their children from testing. “My feeling about testing kids as young as 4 is it’s inhumane,” PTA co-chairwoman Dao Tran told a reporter. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has called New York City “the test-prep capital of the United States” and started a petition to ban the use of standardized tests for pre-K through the second grade.
The De Blasio era may seem promising to the resistance, but it’s unclear how much he can do in the short term. For the moment, he’s promised to scrap the A-through-F grading system for schools, putting less weight on test scores and more on “curriculum, quality neighborhood schools, arts, and physical education.” While he hasn’t said as much, he could also detach those tests from promotion, meaning no one would flunk a grade because of poor performance on the tests, but even that won’t mean the end of the tests themselves, or of the Common Core.
If anything, test pressure stands to increase this year before De Blasio has the chance to make his mark. A newly negotiated rule in the teachers’ contract in New York means that for the first time in the city’s history, all teacher evaluations are tied to students’ performance on these tests. Quite suddenly, teachers have been asked to instruct to a specific set of standards or watch their own ratings fall. “They’ve set up a situation where people are terrified to do anything but teach to the test,” says Jane Maisel, a City College instructor and former teacher in the city schools who is also a member of Change the Stakes. “And then they say that teachers shouldn’t just teach to the test!”
“They’ve provided it to us on the fly and said ‘Make it work,’ ” says Kate O’Hagan of P.S. 97. “I’m being handed a curriculum ten minutes before I teach it, and so I’m expected to adapt it. And then later on at my teacher training—and I’m glad I’m at least getting training—they tell me it’ll be better next year. But it’s just truly not ready. What do I say to my students who I have for the next ten months?”
Should the movement continue to grow, there are a number of tangible (and chaotic) repercussions that De Blasio would have to face. A growing opt-out movement could hurt teachers, if refusals to take the tests bring down the overall average of the scores being used in teacher evaluations. A critical mass of opt-outers could even arguably work toward disqualifying a school from receiving federal funding (the money from No Child Left Behind is contingent upon 95 percent of a school’s students taking the annual standardized tests). And while super-selective schools like Stuyvesant have their own entrance exams, there’s no guarantee that students won’t be penalized down the line, should they find themselves applying to a middle or high school that wants to see those scores.
“If a parent’s concern is that they don’t want their child’s education to swirl around a standardized-testing moment, we agree a hundred percent,” says Ken Wagner, the New York State deputy education commissioner who is supervising the rollout of the Common Core. “But we’d also caution parents that if they remove their child from the assessment program, there’s an impact. We really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable. A parent who opts out of that is giving up the opportunity to get a critical piece of information.” Others, like Bloomberg, have argued that the sooner kids get used to taking the tests, the better prepared they’ll be for later challenges—like the SAT or ACT, which few choose not to take.
For the resistance, of course, all these arguments miss the mark. It’s not just about these tests; it’s about test culture’s dominance in the school system. “The majority of the people opting out—not everyone but the majority—are asserting their political will,” says Maisel. “We wanted to emphasize that the system is broken.”
Last summer, for the second year in a row, Oscar Mata was administered the BLM in June as part of his portfolio assessment. The school said he met the standard, but the superintendent disagreed. So he was not promoted in June. Andrea again decided to just let the process unfold, refusing to go along with anything that smacked of a test or evaluation. “We didn’t go to summer school when the summer-school-recommendation letter came in June. We didn’t retest in August, which is what most people do after going to summer school. And then the same portfolio was submitted in August.”
On August 26, Oscar was promoted. Andrea celebrated, then decided to part ways with the school. While he’ll finish out the fifth grade there, she’ll move Oscar’s little sister somewhere new—a school that she believes has built up a stronger resistance to test-prep culture.
The Nuñez family had gone directly to Polakow-Suransky of the DOE to override the principal’s decision to fail Pharez. Like the Matas, they waited all summer for word; Peter was ready to uproot the whole family and move to the Dominican Republic for a year if Pharez was held back, but they heard he would be promoted the same week as Oscar, with just days before the start of the school year. And like Oscar’s family, they decided to move Pharez and both his sisters to a new school. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he won’t run into the same pressure he encountered last year. “I’m going to be contacting the principal and seeing how they roll out test prep and looking at the environment,” Peter says. “I don’t think it’s going to be a symbolic act.”
He’s joined Change the Stakes, too. He thinks what happened last year to his son can’t be allowed to happen again. “They rushed into a lot of the things, and they weren’t well prepared. There was no system of support. And a lot of the kids failed.”
This article appeared in the NY Times Magazine on March 9, 2014. If you want to know where the SAT is headed, read on. To read this article (and reader comments) at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE. What strikes me is that the SAT is beginning to look like a continuation of the Common Core tests that David Coleman also oversaw. Students in public school who learn to do well on Common Core will have a distinct advantage over private school students who don’t follow Common Core standards and testing when it comes to taking the SAT in the future! That’s a first.
In July 2012, a few months before he was to officially take over as president of the College Board, David Coleman invited Les Perelman, then a director of writing at M.I.T., to come meet with him in Lower Manhattan. Of the many things the College Board does — take part in research, develop education policy, create curriculums — it is perhaps most recognized as the organization that administers the SAT, and Perelman was one of the exam’s harshest and most relentless critics. Since 2005, when the College Board added an essay to the SAT (raising the total possible score from 1,600 to 2,400), Perelman had been conducting research that highlighted what he believed were the inherent absurdities in how the essay questions were formulated and scored. His earliest findings showed that length, more than any other factor, correlated with a high score on the essay. More recently, Perelman coached 16 students who were retaking the test after having received mediocre scores on the essay section. He told them that details mattered but factual accuracy didn’t. “You can tell them the War of 1812 began in 1945,” he said. He encouraged them to sprinkle in little-used but fancy words like “plethora” or “myriad” and to use two or three preselected quotes from prominent figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regardless of whether they were relevant to the question asked. Fifteen of his pupils scored higher than the 90th percentile on the essay when they retook the exam, he said.
Right around the time Coleman was appointed as the board’s next president, he read an article about Perelman’s research in The New York Times and decided to reach out to him. “Somebody takes a whack at the SAT, so what?” Coleman said when I met him in his office at the College Board headquarters near Lincoln Center last month. “They get some media coverage, it’s not that interesting. But this was a guy who devoted his lifetime to work you care about” — teaching students how to write — “and then looks at an instrument meant to celebrate writing and — ” Coleman’s words trailed off. “I wanted to go beyond the news presentation of his claim,” he finally added, “to the depth of his claim.”
Over the course of their two-hour conversation, Perelman told Coleman that he wasn’t opposed to an essay portion of the test, per se; he thought it was a good idea, if done well. But “when is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” he asked. “I’ve never gotten an email from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes?’ But that’s what the SAT does.” Perelman said that tutors commonly taught their students to create and memorize an all-purpose essay that contained the necessary elements for a top score — “a personal anecdote, a few historical references; Florence Nightingale seems a strangely popular reference.” When test day comes, they regurgitate what they’ve committed to memory, slightly reshaping depending on the question asked. But no one is actually learning anything about writing.
Perelman was surprised, he told me, by the productive nature of their conversation, but ultimately he couldn’t imagine that much would come of it. The College Board was a huge nonprofit organization, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue (in part from the nearly three million SAT tests it administers to high-school students each year), and despite intense criticism in the past, it had done little, in Perelman’s estimation, to bring about meaningful change. “His heart is in the right place,” Perelman recalled thinking at the time. “David Coleman actually believes in education.” But trying to change the way the College Board does business, Perelman said, is “like trying to turn around the Titanic.” There was no way an institution as notoriously slow and defensive as Coleman’s was going to do that, no matter who was at the helm.
By the time he took over in October 2012, Coleman was well versed not just in Perelman’s critiques but also in a much wider array of complaints coming from all of the College Board’s constituencies: Teachers, students, parents, university presidents, college-admissions officers, high-school counselors. They all were unhappy with the test, and they all had valid reasons.
Students despised the SAT not just because of the intense anxiety it caused — it was one of the biggest barriers to entry to the colleges they dreamed of attending — but also because they didn’t know what to expect from the exam and felt that it played clever tricks, asking the kinds of questions they rarely encountered in their high-school courses. Students were docked one-quarter point for every multiple-choice question they got wrong, requiring a time-consuming risk analysis to determine which questions to answer and which to leave blank. Teachers, too, felt the test wasn’t based on what they were doing in class, and yet the mean SAT scores of many high schools were published by state education departments, which meant that blame for poor performances was often directed at them.
An even more serious charge leveled at the test was that it put students whose families had money at a distinct advantage, because their parents could afford expensive test-prep classes and tutors. Several years ago, an exasperated Mitch Kapor, a founder of Lotus Software, co-wrote an op-ed in The San Francisco Chronicle suggesting colleges should require mandatory disclosure by students and parents of “each and every form of purchased help,” as a way to level the playing field.
When the Scholastic Aptitude Test was created in 1926, it was promoted as a tool to create a classless, Jeffersonian-style meritocracy. The exam, which purported to measure innate intelligence, was originally adapted from the World War I Army I.Q. test and served as a scholarship screening device for about a dozen selective colleges throughout the 1930s. It was assumed that there was no way to effectively prep for a test geared to inborn intelligence, but as early as 1938, Stanley Kaplan began offering classes that promised higher scores. Today the company Kaplan founded and its main competitor, the Princeton Review, are joined by innumerable boutique firms (not to mention high-priced private tutors), all part of a $4.5-billion-a-year industry that caters largely to the worried wealthy in America who feel that the test can be gamed and that their children need to pay to learn the strategies.
Coleman conducted a “listening thing” with his organization’s various frustrated constituencies. For the College Board to be a great institution, he thought at the time, it had to own up to its vulnerabilities. “Unequal test-prep access is a problem,” he said. “It is a problem that it’s opaque to students what’s on the exam. It is a problem that the scoring is too complex. I knew some of the science behind the SAT and actually admired a lot of it. On the other hand, I felt that something really had to happen, because what had grown up around it” — the way in which the test evolved from a vehicle to encourage meritocracy to a reinforcement of privilege in American education — “threatened everything.”
It was clear, Coleman said, that no parents, whatever their socioeconomic status, were satisfied. The achievements of children from affluent families were tainted because they “bought” a score; those in the middle class cried foul because they couldn’t get the “good stuff” or were overextended trying to; and the poor, often minority students, were shut out completely. A paper prepared in 2009 by Derek Briggs, the chairman of the Research and Evaluation Methodology program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, emphasized another cost to test prep beyond the $1,000-plus classes and the personal tutors: He called it an opportunity cost, meaning that time spent in the narrow pursuit of beating the test meant time away from schoolwork and extracurricular activities that are actually designed to prepare students to succeed in college.
In addition to these educational (and moral) quandaries, Coleman had to grapple with what it meant for the College Board as a business to have the credibility of the SAT called into question. A growing number of colleges and universities, frustrated by the minimal change to the SAT when it was revised in 2005 and motivated by a report issued in 2008 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (Nacac), began to eliminate the SAT and its competitor, the A.C.T., as admission requirements, following the lead of several small, liberal-arts colleges that did so years before. The authors of the Nacac report cited a University of California study, which characterized the SAT as a “relatively poor predictor of student performance” and questioned the tendency of colleges to rely on the SAT as “one of the most important admission tools.” (Many of the schools that dropped test requirements saw spikes in their applications, at least in the first year.)
Around the time the report came out — and following the publication of “The Power of Privilege,” by the Wake Forest University sociology professor Joseph A. Soares, an account of the way standardized tests contributed to discriminatory admissions policies at Yale — Wake Forest became the first Top 30 national university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to announce a test-optional admissions policy. Follow-up studies at Wake Forest showed that the average high-school G.P.A. of incoming freshmen increased after the school stopped using standardized-test scores as a factor. Seventy-nine percent of its 2012 incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes. Before going test-optional, that figure was in the low 60s. In addition, the school became less homogeneous. “The test highly correlates with family income,” says Soares, who also edited a book that, in part, examines the weak predictive validity of the SAT at the University of Georgia, Johns Hopkins University and Wake Forest. “High-school grades do not.” He continued, “We have a lot more social, racial and lifestyle diversity. You see it on campus. Wake Forest was a little too much like a J. Crew catalog before we went test-optional.”
A report released last month by William C. Hiss, a former dean of admissions at Bates College, and Valerie W. Franks, a former Bates assistant dean of admissions, supports Wake Forest’s experience. They reviewed 33 colleges and universities that did not require SAT or A.C.T. scores and found no significant difference in college G.P.A. or graduation rates between those who had submitted tests and those who had not. Specifically, they saw that students with good high-school grades did well in college, even if they had weak SAT scores. But students with weaker high-school grades — even with strong SATs — did less well in college. Those who didn’t submit SATs were more likely to be minority students, women, Pell grant recipients or the first in their families to go to college.
While more colleges are choosing to opt out of standardized testing, an estimated 80 percent of four-year colleges still require either SAT or A.C.T. scores, according to David Hawkins at Nacac, and admissions officers report feeling bound to the tests as a way to filter the overwhelming numbers of applicants. Robert Sternberg, a celebrated author and Cornell professor, told “Frontline” that when he was at Yale and reviewed admissions applications, the scores were hard to ignore. “I know that when I’m reading applications and as the night goes on and I’m reading more and more, it gets more and more tempting to count the SATs,” he said. “It’s easier than reading these long essays and teacher recommendations. It’s human nature.” On top of the pressures to winnow the applicants, the Nacac report cited the problems resulting from the use of SAT and A.C.T. scores by U.S. News & World Report to create its rankings, stating that the scores “were not a valid measure of institutional quality.” In addition, it criticized the use of the SAT and A.C.T. by bond-rating companies to help assess the financial health of a school as creating “undue pressure on admission offices to pursue increasingly high test scores.”
Coleman said that many of the admissions officers he spoke with made it clear that they were uncomfortable being beholden to the test, at least to this test, but there was no consensus about what an exam that was fair and acceptable to all would look like.
Hard questions have always interested Coleman. In 1994, after earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Yale, a bachelor’s in English literature at Oxford (where he was a Rhodes scholar) and a master’s in ancient philosophy at Cambridge (“three degrees that entitled you to zero jobs”), Coleman intended to come home to New York City and work as a public-school teacher. But when he realized he wouldn’t find a job teaching high-school English, he ended up instead as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where for five years he became increasingly obsessed with evidence-based solutions. During that time, he did pro bono work for school districts trying to improve performance, and in 1999, he left McKinsey and helped create a company called the Grow Network, which focused on assisting students and parents, including non-English-speaking families, in navigating an educational system that was increasingly dictated by standardized tests. His immersion in the world of standardized testing — talking to educators as well as students — convinced him that the standards those tests were supposedly measuring had to change. They were too vast and vague, and they produced textbooks that suffered from the same lack of purpose.
“When you cover too many topics,” Coleman said, “the assessments designed to measure those standards are inevitably superficial.” He pointed to research showing that more students entering college weren’t prepared and were forced into “remediation programs from which they never escape.” In math, for example, if you examined data from top-performing countries, you found an approach that emphasized “far fewer topics, far deeper,” the opposite of the curriculums he found in the United States, which he described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
In 2008, Coleman helped start a nonprofit organization called Student Achievement Partners, which was dedicated to “acting on evidence” when making decisions about education policy. While at Partners, Coleman was integral in helping shape the Common Core, a set of academic standards that has subsequently been implemented in more than 40 states. While not without its critics — many parents and educators believe it deeply roots schools and teachers in a problematic “teach to the test” mind-set — Coleman talks about it not just as a bulwark against the declining standards of American public education but as a rare bipartisan success. At the Strategic Data Project conference last May in Boston, he challenged those in the audience to cite a “significant domestic policy area where Republicans and Democrats have gotten together and gotten something done.” The Common Core, he said, was a galvanizing idea that “swept the country during a period when all ideas seemed to stop.”
When Coleman attended Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, he was a member of the championship debate team, and the urge to overpower with evidence — and his unwillingness to suffer fools — is right there on the surface when you talk with him. (Debate, he said, is one of the few activities in which you can be “needlessly argumentative and it advances you.”) He offended an audience of teachers and administrators while promoting the Common Core at a conference organized by the New York State Education Department in April 2011: Bemoaning the emphasis on personal-narrative writing in high school, he said about the reality of adulthood, “People really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” After the video of that moment went viral, he apologized and explained that he was trying to advocate on behalf of analytical, evidence-based writing, an indisputably useful skill in college and career. His words, though, cemented his reputation among some as both insensitive and radical, the sort of self-righteous know-it-all who claimed to see something no one else did.
Coleman obliquely referenced the episode — and his habit for candor and colorful language — at the annual meeting of the College Board in October 2012 in Miami, joking that there were people in the crowd from the board who “are terrified.”
The lessons he brought with him from thinking about the Common Core were evident — that American education needed to be more focused and less superficial, and that it should be possible to test the success of the newly defined standards through an exam that reflected the material being taught in the classroom. This was exactly how the College Board’s Advanced Placement program worked (80 percent of teachers surveyed in a study by the Fordham Institute said that the A.P. exam was a good indication of their and their students’ work). It was also one of the main suggestions in Nacac’s 2008 report, that a college admission exam should be redesigned as an achievement-style test — like the A.P. exams — that would send a “message to students that studying their course material in high school, not taking extracurricular test-prep courses that tend to focus on test-taking skills, is the way to do well on admission tests and succeed in a rigorous college curriculum.”
The question for Coleman was how to create an exam that served as an accurate measure of student achievement and college preparedness and that moved in the direction of the meritocratic goals it was originally intended to accomplish, rather than thwarting them.
More than a year ago, Coleman and a team of College Board staff members and consultants began to try to do just that. Cyndie Schmeiser, the board’s chief of assessments, told me that their first order of business was to determine what the test should measure. Starting in late 2012 and continuing through the spring of 2013, she and her team had extensive conversations with students, teachers, parents, counselors, admissions officers and college instructors, asking each group to tell them in detail what they wanted from the test. What they arrived at above all was that a test should reflect the most important skills that were imparted by the best teachers. Schmeiser explained that, for example, a good instructor would teach Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by encouraging a conversation that involved analyzing the text and identifying the evidence, both factual and rhetorical, that makes it persuasive. “The opposite of what we’d want is a classroom where a teacher might ask only: ‘What was the year the speech was given? Where was it given?’ ”
The team then set about trying to create test questions that lent themselves to this more meaningful engagement. Schmeiser said that in the past, assembling the SAT focused on making sure the questions performed on technical grounds, meaning: Were they appropriately easy or difficult among a wide range of students, and were they free of bias when tested across ethnic, racial and religious subgroups? The goal was “maximizing differentiation” among kids, which meant finding items that were answered correctly by those students who were expected to get them right and incorrectly by the weaker students. A simple way of achieving this, Coleman said, was to test the kind of obscure vocabulary words for which the SAT was famous (or infamous). The answer pattern was statistically strong, he said — a small percentage of the kids knew them, most did not — but it didn’t adequately reflect the educational values Coleman believed in. In redesigning the test, the College Board shifted its emphasis. It prioritized content, measuring each question against a set of specifications that reflect the kind of reading and math that students would encounter in college and their work lives. Schmeiser and others then spent much of early last year watching students as they answered a set of 20 or so problems, discussing the questions with the students afterward. “The predictive validity is going to come out the same,” she said of the redesigned test. “But in the new test, we have much more control over the content and skills that are being measured.”
When I met with Coleman in his office last month to talk about the remaking of the SAT, he periodically leapt from his chair when he became excited about an idea. At one point he jumped up and drew a dividing line down the middle of his whiteboard (he’s a very enthusiastic user of the whiteboard), then scrawled, “Evidence-based reading and writing” on one side and “Math” on the other. He was unveiling, at least in broad strokes, the results of those many months of rethinking and testing.
Starting in spring 2016, students will take a new SAT — a three-hour exam scored on the old 1,600-point system, with an optional essay scored separately. Evidence-based reading and writing, he said, will replace the current sections on reading and writing. It will use as its source materials pieces of writing — from science articles to historical documents to literature excerpts — which research suggests are important for educated Americans to know and understand deeply. “The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers,” Coleman said, “have managed to inspire an enduring great conversation about freedom, justice, human dignity in this country and the world” — therefore every SAT will contain a passage from either a founding document or from a text (like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) that is part of the “great global conversation” the founding documents inspired.
Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. The idea is that the test will emphasize words students should be encountering, like “synthesis,” which can have several meanings depending on their context. Instead of encouraging students to memorize flashcards, the test should promote the idea that they must read widely throughout their high-school years.
The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer. (By 2016, there will be a computerized version of the SAT, and students may someday search the text and highlight the lines on the screen.) Students will also be asked to examine both text and data, including identifying and correcting inconsistencies between the two.
“Whenever a question really matters in college or career, it is not enough just to give an answer,” Coleman said. “The crucial next step is to support your answer with evidence,” which allows insight into what the student actually knows. “And this change means a lot for the work students do to prepare for the exam. No longer will it be good enough to focus on tricks and trying to eliminate answer choices. We are not interested in students just picking an answer, but justifying their answers.”
To that end, the question for the essay portion of the test will also be reformulated so that it will always be the same, some version of: “As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples; reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence; and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.” The passage will change from test to test, but the analytical and evidentiary skills tested will always be the same. “Students will be asked to do something we do in work and in college every day,” Coleman said, “analyze source materials and understand the claims and supporting evidence.”
The math section, too, will be predicated on research that shows that there are “a few areas of math that are a prerequisite for a wide range of college courses” and careers. Coleman conceded that some might treat the news that they were shifting away from more obscure math problems to these fewer fundamental skills as a dumbing-down the test, but he was adamant that this was not the case. He explained that there will be three areas of focus: problem solving and data analysis, which will include ratios and percentages and other mathematical reasoning used to solve problems in the real world; the “heart of algebra,” which will test how well students can work with linear equations (“a powerful set of tools that echo throughout many fields of study”); and what will be called the “passport to advanced math,” which will focus on the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.
Last June, Coleman spoke at the Harvard Summer Institute’s multiday seminar for college-admissions and counseling professionals. Before the talk, he met with William Fitzsimmons, the longtime dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard and the primary author of the 2008 Nacac commission report. Coleman brought along an outline of the SAT redesign to get Fitzsimmons’s impressions.
Fitzsimmons told me he was stunned by what he saw, the ways in which the exam read like a direct response to his commission’s most serious recommendations. “Like any other truly significant change, there will be debate,” he added. But then he went on: “Sometimes in the past, there’s been a feeling that tests were measuring some sort of ineffable entity such as intelligence, whatever that might mean. Or ability, whatever that might mean. What this is is a clear message that good hard work is going to pay off and achievement is going to pay off. This is one of the most significant developments that I have seen in the 40-plus years that I’ve been working in admissions in higher education.”
But changing the test didn’t solve all the problems that preoccupied Coleman. He was still troubled by the inequalities in education opportunity and believed that the College Board should play a role in ameliorating them. For some time, the College Board had been aware of the work of Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Stanford, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who had been studying what is sometimes called undermatching — the tendency of poor students to pick a school that is closer to home and less rigorous, in spite of evidence that they could succeed elsewhere. Hoxby first became aware of the problem in 2004, when she was on the faculty at Harvard and the university announced to great fanfare that it would recruit top-performing, financially challenged kids by offering free tuition if their parents made less than $40,000. Yet despite the offer, enrollment numbers for those students remained stubbornly low. When Hoxby began to research the issue, she hypothesized that there was a large population of high-achieving, low-income students yet to be identified. She and Avery began working with the College Board and the A.C.T. to develop new techniques to find out how many students were in this low-income, top-performing pool and where they lived. By piecing together data from census reports, I.R.S. income data broken down by ZIP code, real estate valuations and other sources, they pinpointed some 35,000 students whose grades were in the top-10 percent nationally and whose family income was in the bottom quarter of families with a 12th-grader.
When they tracked where those kids applied to school, they found a number that would later shock Coleman. Fifty-six percent didn’t apply to a single selective college or university.
The researchers surmised this was a problem of communication, more than anything else; the information wasn’t reaching the students and families it needed to reach, and in the cases when it did, it wasn’t as clear and useful as it could be. Hoxby and Sarah Turner, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, tested whether they could change enrollment patterns. From 2010 to 2012, Hoxby’s team sent out personalized, detailed packets encouraging the high-achieving, low-income students to apply to several schools and providing application-fee waivers and financial-aid information about scholarships. In many cases these students would be able to see that they could get a better deal financially at more highly selective schools that wanted to attract them. The intervention resulted in those students’ applying to more colleges and closing “part of the college behavior ‘gap’ between low-income and high-income students with the same level of achievement,” Hoxby and Turner wrote.
When Coleman became College Board president, he was briefed on the supporting role the board had played to date. He agreed with those who saw an opportunity and decided, he says, to “take it from a small experiment to implement it nationwide.” He called for additional research to find low-income students whom the board refers to as “college-ready,” meaning they scored 1,550 or above on the SAT (the top 43 percent of U.S. test-takers). Ultimately the board mailed out nearly 100,000 packets to top-performing and college-ready students. The packets included four or more application waivers to allow students to apply immediately to any of the more than 2,000 schools that agreed to participate in the program. One requirement of those colleges, Coleman said, was that they agreed to rely on the financial determination made by the College Board and didn’t make the students requalify for aid or special tuition dispensation. Instead, the waiver was designed to look like a ticket — “Here’s your ticket, go!” Coleman said — simplifying the process and encouraging the students to jump at the opportunity. Research on the initial effects of the program won’t be released until next month, but the speed with which the deployment happened fulfilled Coleman’s promise to accelerate the agenda.
In January 2013, at a College Board-sponsored conference in Florida, Coleman met Daniel Porterfield, the president of Franklin & Marshall College, whose surprisingly effective work in bringing high-achieving, low-income students to his small liberal-arts school in Lancaster, Pa., gained national attention. Porterfield agreed with Hoxby’s team’s conclusions that the problem wasn’t that the students weren’t out there; the problem was that colleges weren’t looking hard enough to find them, and that this commitment was a big part of Franklin & Marshall’s success. Porterfield, who is now a board member of the College Board, told me he saw Coleman as uniquely “using the College Board to serve society as opposed to the College Board serving its own position.” He also said that when the two of them first talked, Coleman promised that the College Board could help F&M find talented, high-striving, high-achieving students and that he has “exactly delivered on that promise.”
What Coleman found exciting about the intervention was its use of the standardized tests as a way to reach students who would otherwise not apply to the kinds of colleges that they might assume were out of reach. It transformed an exam that most thought of as a burden — and many low-income students opted not to take at all — into an opportunity. Coleman explained that the moment when students get their test results is a rare instance in which you have their full attention — that’s the moment you have to seize on, connecting the score they’re holding in their hand to the future that they could possibly attain. “When have you ever gotten anything for taking the SAT?” he said, imagining the reaction of students opening up their test results and holding the application waivers in their hands.
For all the good intentions and all the evidence-based ideas brought to bear by Coleman and his colleagues over the past year and a half, there is still a chasm between the educational experiences of children at good schools in wealthier districts and those in lower-income areas. The fact that you could never fully level the playing field — that good, focused instruction and meaningful preparation would still be unavailable to the students they were most focused on lifting up — nagged at Coleman and his staff as they continued redesigning the test.
They began to consider how they might provide teachers in sixth through 12th grade, particularly in low-performing schools, with broader access to content and resources to help prepare students for the test. Then last July, on a bus to dinner at a staff retreat in upstate New York, two of Coleman’s senior team members, Cyndie Schmeiser and Jeff Olson, threw out an idea: What if the College Board worked with Khan Academy, the free online tutoring service, visited by 10 million students each month, to offer SAT prep classes to anyone who wanted them? At Khan Academy, students logged on to the site and then worked over weeks or months at their own pace answering questions in different subject areas and following their progress. If they needed help, they could watch one of the thousands of casual but engaging videos created by the founder, Sal Khan. Khan holds multiple degrees from Harvard and M.I.T. and serves as the site’s ubiquitous guide, his voice explaining how to do various problems while text and numbers appeared on a digital chalkboard.
Khan started the site in modest fashion, tutoring his young niece over the Internet. When her relatives and friends wanted to be taught by him, too, he began posting videos to YouTube. As the site grew, he worked through all sorts of problems, including some that he took from past SAT exams, which he says now he probably didn’t have permission to use.
Coleman and his team were aware of what was happening at Khan Academy and were intrigued by the idea of a partnership, but they were also wary. “You kind of say, ‘O.K.,’ ” Coleman said. “ ‘But is it good enough?’ ” This kind of partnership had never been done by the College Board and he worried about what it might mean for the brand.
Throughout last fall his staff spent many hours on the Khan Academy website. The idea of creating a transparent test and then providing a free website that any student could use — not to learn gimmicks but to get a better grounding and additional practice in the core knowledge that would be tested — was appealing to Coleman.
He thought about athletics as the corollary for what they were trying to do. In sports, you practiced all the time to prepare for games. But while the stakes were high on game days, they didn’t result in the “suffering” and counterproductive anxiety that was a common reaction to the SAT. The difference, he said, was that in sports there was no mystery as to what would be required of you in a game. The rules were clear and didn’t change. On the SAT, the rules were unclear. “Half the anxiety is about what’s going to happen on ‘game day,’ ” Coleman said. “It’s not really fair. High stakes should not be placed on something that didn’t matter before that suddenly matters now. The stakes should emerge because the work is important and your demonstration of that is significant.”
The long, deliberate practice required for that type of performance was consistent with the Khan Academy method. In theory, anyway, the partnership made perfect sense.
In January, Coleman met with Wade Henderson, the president and C.E.O. of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who spoke with him about the ill will that had been built up in the minority community over the SAT, how the test has long been viewed not as a launching pad to something better but as an obstacle to hard-working, conscientious students who couldn’t prepare for it in the way more affluent students could. Coleman acknowledged “the extent to which the exam recapitulates income inequality.” Henderson also expressed concern, Coleman said, that poor SAT scores could block access to jobs. After the hourlong conversation, which Coleman characterized as deeply moving, he decided to add one more element to the redesign. Test information sent to an institution would include a “safe use” warning in red ink: “This data should only be used in combination with other relevant information to make responsible decisions about students.”
A couple of weeks after his talk with Henderson, Coleman flew to Silicon Valley to discuss a partnership with Sal Khan. There was no discussion of financial terms, just an agreement in principle that they would join forces. (The College Board won’t pay Khan Academy.) They talked about a hypothetical test-prep experience in which students would log on to a personal dashboard, indicate that they wanted to prepare for the SAT and then work through a series of preliminary questions to demonstrate their initial skill level and identify the gaps in their knowledge. Khan said he could foresee a way to estimate the amount of time it would take to achieve certain benchmarks. “It might go something like, ‘O.K., we think you’ll be able to get to this level within the next month and this level within the next two months if you put in 30 minutes a day,’ ” he said. And he saw no reason the site couldn’t predict for anyone, anywhere the score he or she might hope to achieve with a commitment to a prescribed amount of work.
Coleman told Khan that the College Board would invest in an outreach campaign through organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters groups to reach as many students as possible, especially low-income students who aren’t the website’s primary users now. He also gave Khan access to actual test questions, and Khan is in the process of creating material for students who will be taking the old exam. (He says that it will be available early this month.) Coleman told me that his confidence in the partnership crystallized when Khan told him they were constantly revising their material based on what was most effectively helping students on the site. Coleman was particularly inspired by Khan’s belief that it was possible for any student to achieve better skills with the proper instruction. Khan asked if Coleman was aware that five centuries ago, there was an analogous misperception. Coleman explained, “He said, ‘David, do you realize it used to be believed that most human beings couldn’t read?’ ”
At various times in our discussions, Coleman referred to some test-prep providers as predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit. (Though there’s a debate about how helpful test prep is, much research shows increases of an average of only 30 points.) “This is a bad day for them,” he said about the new test and his Khan Academy partnership.
Still, Coleman concedes that the redesigned SAT won’t quiet everyone’s complaints, and he doesn’t expect there to be a universal celebration of what they’ve done. You can imagine there will be substantial questions, for instance, about whether any standardized test can be fair across all groups, and whether the College Board is not ultimately creating a new test that somehow, some way, will be gamed as much as the old one.
Coleman’s response to those concerns is to say that the new, more transparent test will be tied to what’s being taught in high school and will be evidence-based. But his previous work on the Common Core has raised some educators’ concerns. “Dave Coleman is not an educator by training,” says Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an author of “Pathways to the Common Core.” Calkins has been a strong defender of the Common Core but thinks Coleman has been too insistent on his own particular method for implementing its standards. She cites a video that Coleman helped create of a “model lesson” for teaching the Gettysburg Address, where he would have students spending several classes “parsing the meaning of each word in each paragraph,” she said. She doesn’t feel there’s evidence that this method works.
With a redesigned SAT, Calkins thinks that too much of the nation’s education curriculum and assessment may rest in one person’s hands. “The issue is: Are we in a place to let Dave Coleman control the entire K-to-12 curriculum?”
William Fitzsimmons, the Nacac chairman and head of admissions at Harvard, for his part, was impressed with the quickness with which Coleman has been able to make these changes. “In the world of education,” Fitzsimmons told me, “this is lightninglike speed.” And Coleman rejects the worries that he might be making changes that are too radical without waiting to see what works. He says that he believes that if you’ve been diligent in gathering the supporting facts, which he has been, then that is your defense against hubris and wrong thinking. In reality, he said, the decisions he has made aren’t all that bold, because they’re all completely supported by research. This is where he and critics like Lucy Calkins disagree, of course, but like any good debater, Coleman seems to know when to marshal hard evidence and when to wrap it in persuasive rhetoric. And what’s at stake, he often makes clear, is not just the fairness and usefulness of an exam but our nation’s ability to deliver opportunity for all, which, really, is about the soul of the country. The rest of us will have to wait for the proof that he has found the answer.
Correction: March 30, 2014
An article on March 9 about changes in the SAT referred incorrectly to two universities’ policies on the SAT. The test is not optional at the University of Georgia or at Johns Hopkins. The same article erroneously attributed a distinction to Wake Forest University. It was the first Top 30 national university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings to announce a test-optional admissions policy; it was not the first educational institution to do so. (Several institutions adopted a test-optional policy before Wake Forest.)
Todd Balf is the author of several books, including “Major,” an account of Marshall Taylor, one of the first African-American athletes to become an international superstar.
Editor: Ilena Silverman
Here’s what we know so far about the scores on the G&T test in NYC for 2013-2104. Scores did go down in general because the NYC DOE added more weight to the OLSAT verbal test, which puts kids who speak multiple languages at a disadvantage. We are currently surveying www.Testingmom.com members and results so far tell us that our members did significantly better than students who didn’t use our preparation materials. After more responses come in, details will follow. Note: click on the images and they’ll get bigger.
TestingMom.com is holding a tele seminar tomorrow night, Sunday, April 6, 2014 at 9 p.m. EST to talk about NYC results and next steps for parents whose kids qualified for G&T and parents whose kids did not qualify for G&T. Feel free to enroll by CLICKING HERE.
I’ve always said that talking to your child about anything and everything is the most important thing you can do. Here’s a new program that works to bring more language into the homes of disadvantaged children. No matter what your income level or advantages or disadvantages in life, talk to your child – not at your child, but TO your child. Notice what your child notices and comment on that. I spend a whole chapter on the best way to talk with a young child in “Testing For Kindergarten” – that’s how vital this is to the cognitive health of your child. To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Amid a political push for government-funded preschool for 4-year-olds, a growing number of experts fear that such programs actually start too late for the children most at risk. That is why Deisy Ixcuna-González, the 16-month-old daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, is wearing a tiny recorder that captures every word she hears and utters inside her family’s cramped apartment one day a week.
Recent research shows that brain development is buoyed by continuous interaction with parents and caregivers from birth, and that even before age 2, the children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor. So the recorder acts as a tool for instructing Deisy’s parents on how to turn even a visit to the kitchen into a language lesson. It is part of an ambitious campaign, known as Providence Talks, that is aimed at the city’s poorest residents and intended to reduce the knowledge gap long before school starts. It is among a number of such efforts being undertaken throughout the country.
“When she grabs your hand and brings you to the refrigerator and points to the cabinet, that is an opportunity for you to say, ‘Deisy, are you hungry? You want cereal? Let’s go look for the cereal,’ ” Stephanie Taveras, a Providence Talks home visitor who also works with Early Head Start, told Deisy’s mother in Spanish. “You do the responding for her now until she has the vocabulary, and she will be hearing you.”
Educators say that many parents, especially among the poor and immigrants, do not know that talking, as well as reading, singing and playing with their young children, is important. “I’ve had young moms say, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to my baby until they could say words and talk to me,’ ” said Susan Landry, director of the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas in Houston, which has developed a home visiting program similar to the one here in Providence.
Close to a quarter of all American children now live in poverty. More than half of all children age 2 and under are cared for during the day by a parent or relative, according to a McCormick Foundation analysis of census data.
To reach those children, educators say they need to focus their efforts on the home.
“In the same way that we say you should feed your child, brush their teeth, you should be stimulating their brain by talking, singing and reading to them,” said Ann O’Leary, the director of Too Small to Fail, an initiative aimed at closing the word gap across the country. “We want to move the needle from this being an optional activity to a must-do activity.”
Too Small to Fail, a joint effort of the nonprofit Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, chose Latino children as its initial focus because more of them live in poverty than do children of any other racial or ethnic group. They are also more likely to be cared for at home by a relative during the day than are either white or African-American children. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the co-founder of Too Small to Fail, which has raised $10 million so far.
Last month, Too Small To Fail started an advertising campaign in conjunction with Univision, the Spanish-language television network, featuring Bárbara Bermudo, the host of a popular afternoon program. In one ad, Ms. Bermudo appears with her young daughters in a pink-infused playroom, baking in the kitchen and then reading them a book.
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“Taking fifteen minutes a day to communicate with them while you’re preparing dinner or reading to them at bedtime are the most valuable minutes for developing their vocabulary skills and creating a strong foundation for their academic success,” Ms. Bermudo tells viewers.
Ms. O’Leary said Too Small to Fail would experiment with a variety of media messages in different cities. Starting later this spring, slogans like “Words bring your child’s mind to life,” “Talking is teaching” and “Feed me words” will appear on billboards, grocery carts and buses in low-income neighborhoods in Tulsa, Okla. The goal, Ms. O’Leary said, is to emulate the success of other public information campaigns such as those intended to reduce crib deaths by persuading parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs.
As in Providence, several groups around the country — some of longstanding tenure — are building home visiting programs and workshops to help parents learn not only that they should talk, but how to do so.
“Every parent can talk,” said Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which oversees home visiting programs and public information campaigns.
“It’s the most empowering thing,” said Dr. Suskind, who is securing funding for a randomized trial of a home-based curriculum intended to teach parents how they should talk with their children and why.
Advocates for the poor say that improving the long-term academic prospects of disadvantaged children, much less their chance of escaping poverty, is a much more complicated proposition than some of these programs might suggest.
“When Hillary Clinton runs around trying to close the word gap, it’s like fine, vocabulary is good,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “But there is a deeper commitment to literacy and conversation around the dinner table and talking to kids about ideas and political controversies that is the more colorful fabric of literacy and conversation.”
Here in Providence, where more than 85 percent of public school students are eligible for federally subsidized lunches and two-thirds of public school kindergartners are behind in recognizing basic language sounds or identifying letters in print, officials see Providence Talks as just one part of a larger educational strategy. It is being funded by a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and officials hope that they can eventually secure some public funding.
“The more effective we can show that it is, the higher the possibility that you can get government funding for it,” said Angel Taveras, Providence’s first Latino mayor and a graduate of Head Start.
On a chilly afternoon this month, Ms. Taveras (who is not related to the mayor) sat down with Deisy’s parents. María González, who has a third-grade education and spoke her native K’iche’ when she emigrated from Guatemala seven years ago, reviewed a bar chart that showed how many words she and her husband, Rafael Ixcuna, who packs fruit at a factory in the city, had spoken to Deisy on a day the previous week.
To help give parents feedback and provide data for researchers, the home visitors give each family — all of whom volunteered to participate — a tiny recording device, known as a Lena, that can be inserted into a vest worn by the child. The recorders distinguish between words overheard from television or other electronics and live human conversations. Computer software then analyzes the numbers of words spoken.
Privacy advocates and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about the recordings. In response, Providence officials disabled playback functions on the devices and promised that home visitors and others would never be able to listen to the actual conversations. The recordings are immediately erased once they are uploaded for word-count analysis.
Researchers say such recordings will help them track results. In the short term, scholars will evaluate whether the home visits prompt parents to talk more. In the longer term, they will be looking for improvements in future academic performance.
Child advocates say programs need to convey the subtlety of communication as well as simply trying to bolster word counts. “It’s not just saying, ‘You need to say this amount of words to your kids every day and then they’re going to be smart and successful,’ ” said Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit group that promotes healthy development in the early years.
“We don’t want parents talking at babies,” Ms. Lerner said. “We want parents talking with babies.”
In addition to tracking word counts, the Lena device can detect when parents and caregivers wait for — and respond to — the verbal utterances of their children.
On the visit last week, Ms. Taveras showed Ms. González how much she and Mr. Ixcuna had increased such “conversational turns” with Deisy.
Ms. González nodded, determined. “The next one will be even higher,” she said.
If you know me, you know that I say this all the time! You cannot talk to your little one enough. Please, surround your child with language by talking to him all the time about anything and everything! Make sure the conversation is 2-way. Even if your baby can’t speak yet, pay attention to what he notices and comment on that. As this article from the Washington Post, by Lauran Neergaard, says: “The sooner you start explaining the world to your baby, the better.”
New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies and toddlers help to tune the youngsters’ brains in ways that build crucial language and vocabulary skills.
WASHINGTON — The sooner you start explaining the world to your baby, the better.
That doesn’t mean flash cards for tots, or merely pointing out objects: “Here’s an orange. That’s a bowl.”
New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies and toddlers help to tune the youngsters’ brains in ways that build crucial language and vocabulary skills — a key to fighting the infamous word gap that puts poor children at a disadvantage at an even younger age than once thought.
The idea is to connect words and meaning, so the brain becomes primed to learn through context: “Let’s put the orange in this bowl with the banana and the apple and the grapes.”
“You’re building intelligence through language,” is how Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald explains it. “It’s making nets of meaning that then will help the child learn new words.”
And forget dumbed-down baby talk: Longer, more complex sentences are better.
“The advice I give mothers is to have conversations with your babies,” said Erika Hoff, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Children can hear lots of talk that goes over their head in terms of the meaning, and they still benefit from it.”
The research, presented Thursday and Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, comes amid a growing push for universal preschool, to help disadvantaged youngsters catch up.
But it also begs the question of whether children from low-income, less educated families need earlier intervention, such as preschool that starts at age 3 instead of 4, or higher quality day care or even some sort of “Let’s talk” campaign aimed at new parents to stress talking, singing and reading with tots even before they can respond. That can be difficult for parents working multiple jobs, or who may not read well or who simply don’t know why it’s important.
Scientists have long known that before they start kindergarten, children from middle-class or affluent families have heard millions more words than youngsters from low-income families, leaving the poorer children with smaller vocabularies and less ready to succeed academically. Fernald said by some measures, 5-year-olds from low-income families can lag two years behind their peers in tests of language development, an achievement gap that’s difficult to overcome.
Brain scans support the link, said Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University Medical Center. Early experiences shape the connections that children’s brains form, and kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds devote more “neural real estate” to brain regions involved in language development, she found.
How early does the word gap appear? Around age 18 months, Stanford’s Fernald discovered when she compared how children mentally process the language they hear. Lower-income kids in her study achieved at age 2 the level of proficiency that more affluent kids had reached six months earlier.
To understand why language processing is so important, consider this sentence: “The kitty’s on the bench.” If the youngster knows the word “kitty,” and his brain recognizes it quickly enough, then he has can figure out “bench” means by the context. But if he’s slow to recognize “kitty,” then “bench” flies by before he has a chance to learn it.
Next, Fernald tucked recorders into T-shirts of low-income toddlers in Spanish-speaking households to determine what they heard all day — and found remarkable differences in what’s called child-directed speech. That’s when children are spoken to directly, in contrast to television or conversations they overhear.
One child heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech in a day, while another heard a mere 670 words, she found. The youngsters who received more child-directed speech processed language more efficiently and learned words more quickly, she reported.
But it’s not just quantity of speech that matters — it’s quality, Hoff cautioned. She studied bilingual families and found that whatever the language, children fare better when they learn it from a native speaker. In other words, if mom and dad speak Spanish but aren’t fluent in English, it’s better for the child to have a solid grounding in Spanish at home and then learn English later in school.
Next, scientists are testing whether programs that teach parents better ways to talk to tots really do any good. Fernald said preliminary results from one of the first — a program called Habla Conmigo, Spanish for Talk With Me, that enrolls low-income, Spanish-speaking mothers in San Jose, Calif. — are promising.
Fernald analyzed the first 32 families of the 120 the program will enroll. Mothers who underwent the eight-week training are talking more with their toddlers, using higher-quality language, than a control group of parents — and by their second birthday, the children have bigger vocabularies and process language faster, she said Thursday.
Would you rather have an attractive or a smart child? Does it matter if that child is a boy or a girl?
I love today’s piece in the NY Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. It’s titled: Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius? If you’d like to read this piece in the Times, CLICK HERE. Read this piece and then ask yourself if you carry any of these biases about your own kids.
MORE than a decade into the 21st century, we would like to think that American parents have similar standards and similar dreams for their sons and daughters. But my study of anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches suggests that contemporary American parents are far more likely to want their boys smart and their girls skinny.
It’s not that parents don’t want their daughters to be bright or their sons to be in shape, but they are much more focused on the braininess of their sons and the waistlines of their daughters.
Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?”
Are parents picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys? Perhaps young boys are more likely than young girls to use big words or otherwise show objective signs of giftedness? Nope. If anything, it’s the opposite. At young ages, when parents most often search about possible giftedness, girls have consistently been shown to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11 percent more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Despite all this, parents looking around the dinner table appear to see more gifted boys than girls.
Parents were more likely to ask about sons rather than daughters on every matter that I tested related to intelligence, including its absence. There are more searches for “is my son behind” or “stupid” than comparable searches for daughters. Searches with negative words like “stupid” and “behind,” however, are less skewed toward sons than searches with positive words.
What concerns do parents disproportionately have for their daughters? Primarily, anything related to appearance. Consider questions about a child’s weight. Parents Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as frequently as they Google “Is my son overweight?” Just as with giftedness, this gender bias is not grounded in reality. About 30 percent of girls are overweight, while 33 percent of boys are. Even though scales measure more overweight boys than girls, parents see — or worry about — overweight girls much more often than overweight boys.
Parents are about twice as likely to ask how to get their daughters to lose weight as they are to ask how to get their sons to do the same. Google search data also tell us that mothers and fathers are more likely to wonder whether their daughter is “beautiful” or “ugly.”
Parents are one and a half times more likely to ask whether their daughter is beautiful than whether their son is, but they are nearly three times more likely to ask whether their daughter is ugly than whether their son is ugly. How Google is expected to know whether a child is beautiful or ugly is hard to say.
In general, parents seem more likely to use positive words in questions about sons. There is a larger bias toward asking whether sons are “tall” than “short.” Parents are more likely to ask whether a son is “happy” and slightly more likely to ask whether a daughter is “depressed.”
Liberal readers may imagine that these biases are more common in conservative parts of the country. Not so. I did not find a significant relationship between any of the biases mentioned and the political or cultural makeup of a state. These biases appear to cut across ideological divisions. In fact, I was unable to find any demographics that significantly reduced the biases. Nor is there evidence that these biases have decreased since 2004, the year for which Google search data is first available.
This methodology can also be used to study gender preference before birth. Every year, Americans make hundreds of thousands of searches asking how to conceive a child of a particular sex. In searches with the words “how to conceive,” Americans are slightly more likely to include the word “boy” than “girl.” Among the subset of Americans Googling for specific gender conception strategies, there is about a 10 percent preference for boys compared with girls.
This boy preference is surprising for two reasons. First, the top websites returned for these queries are overwhelmingly geared toward women, suggesting that women are most often making gender conception searches. Yet in surveys, women express a slight preference for having girls, not boys; men say they prefer sons. Second, many Americans are willing to admit a gender preference to even out a family. About 5 percent more boys are born than girls in the United States, so evening out a family would more often require having a girl, not a boy. Are men searching for conception advice in large numbers? Are women searching on their husbands’ behalf? Or do some American women have a son preference that they are not comfortable admitting to surveys?
Other countries exhibit very large preferences in favor of boys. In India, for each search asking how to conceive a girl, there are three-and-a-half asking how to conceive a boy. With such an overwhelming preference for boys, it is not surprising that there are millions fewer women in India than population scientists would predict.
Clearly there is more to learn. Because this data make it easy to compare different countries over time, for example, we might examine whether these gender preferences change after a woman is elected to run a country.
The disturbing results outlined here leave us with many open questions, but the most poignant may be this one: How would American girls’ lives be different if parents were half as concerned with their bodies and twice as intrigued by their minds?
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a contributing opinion writer who recently received a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard.
I know that most of you have very young kids right now and the teenage years are far into the future, but don’t they say,”forewarned is forearmed?” This is an excerpt from a new book called “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” by Jennifer Senior. It can be read in NY Magazine by CLICKING HERE. I have already ordered the book, which comes out January 28. The thesis of this article is that adolescence has a stronger impact on parents than it does on kids. I cannot tell you just how strongly this piece spoke to me. Without boring you with my own gory details (because I want you to read the article), I have believed this for many years, but I felt very alone in my thinking. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve yet fully recovered from my son’s teenage years (and he is 21 now). I love him dearly, but he was a handful, and I used to joke (kinda) that I was suffering from PTSD when the boy we knew and loved finally “came back” to us. Depending on how your kids deal with the transition of going from childhood to teenage years to adulthood, these can be the toughest years of parenting you’ll ever face. I think it’s good to know what is ahead so that you can be mentally prepared. Personally, I look forward to reading the book to learn what Ms. Senior has to say about other phases of parenthood. If this piece is indicative of the rest of the book, it is going to be a provocative read.
The Collateral Damage of a Teenager
What adolescence does to adolescents is nowhere near as brutal as what it does to their parents.
By Jennifer Senior
It’s a warm evening in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, and six mothers, all connected through the usual ties (work, kids, community groups), are clustered around a kitchen table, discussing their adolescents. Beth, a public-school teacher and the youngest of the lot, mentions that her 15-year-old, Carl, has lately “been using his intelligence for evil.”
The women all stop talking and look at her.
“Instead of getting good grades, he figures out how to get around the administrator,” she says, referring to the software she’d installed to regulate his computer use. “And then I see, like, three inputs for ‘Russian whore.’ ”
Or so I thought she said when I first transcribed the tape. When I followed up with Beth sometime later, she informed me that I’d misheard: It was “three-input Russian whore.”
At any rate, Samantha, who also teaches at a public school, dives in at this moment with the force of a cannonball. “Take the freaking computer, Beth!” she cries. “Take it!”
“He has to use it. They turn things in online.”
“Put a desktop in the kitchen,” suggests Deirdre, the hostess of the evening.
“That’s what we did,” says Beth. “We put it in the living room.”
“But if he flunks out of school, Beth,” says Samantha, “what’s going to happen?”
“He’s not going to flunk out.” Then she pauses and considers. “Though when I called his therapist and said, ‘I found hours’ worth of porn on his computer,’ the therapist had no idea.”
“Yeah, but I’ve had that too,” says Gayle, a substitute teacher, quite suddenly. She has, until now, said little. All heads swing her way. “Mae”—her daughter and the best friend of Samantha’s oldest, Calliope—“was in therapy and spent a year’s worth of my money not talking to the therapist about the real issue, which is that she was cutting herself.”
Samantha finally gives in. She puts her elbows on the table, bows her head, and rests her brow in her hands. “Everyone’s in the same club,” she says. “Everyone has the same stories.” She looks up at the group. “I mean, please. I have police stories.”
Police stories? All along, as Samantha’s friends had been speaking, I’d been under the impression that she’d been spared these misadventures and was even a tad scandalized by them. Yet it turned out to be the opposite. She’d been identifying from the start.
When prospective mothers and fathers imagine the joys of parenthood, they seldom imagine the adolescent years, which Nora Ephron famously opined could only be survived by acquiring a dog (“so that someone in the house is happy to see you”). Gone are the first smiles and cheerful games of catch. They’ve been replaced by 5 a.m. hockey practices, renewed adventures in trigonometry (secant, cosecant, what the—?), and middle-of-the-night requests for rides home. And these are the hardships generated by the good adolescents.
But here’s the truth of the matter. The children of these women at Deirdre’s table? Also the good adolescents. Almost all attend either fine universities or competitive public high schools; all have well-developed interests and talents. All, in person, come across as self-confident and considerate. These aren’t the kids who flunk out, run away, or get expelled.
Yet their parents are still going half-mad. Which raises a question: Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult—and sometimes a crisis—not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them? That adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?
Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University and one of the country’s foremost authorities on puberty, thinks there’s a strong case to be made for this idea. “It doesn’t seem to me like adolescence is a difficult time for the kids,” he says. “Most adolescents seem to be going through life in a very pleasant haze.” Which isn’t to say that most adolescents don’t suffer occasionally, or that some don’t struggle terribly. They do. But they also go through other intense experiences: crushes, flirtations with risk, experiments with personal identity. It’s the parents who are left to absorb these changes and to adjust as their children pull away from them. “It’s when I talk to the parents that I notice something,” says Steinberg. “If you look at the narrative, it’s ‘My teenager who’s driving me crazy.’ ”
In the 2014 edition of his best-known textbook, Adolescence, Steinberg debunks the myth of the querulous teen with even more vigor. “The hormonal changes of puberty,” he writes, “have only a modest direct effect on adolescent behavior; rebellion during adolescence is atypical, not normal.”
For parents, however, the picture is a good deal more complicated. In 1994, Steinberg published Crossing Paths, one of the few extensive accounts of how parents weather the transition of their firstborns into puberty, based on a longitudinal study he conducted of more than 200 families. Forty percent of his sample suffered a decline in mental health once their first child entered adolescence. Respondents reported feelings of rejection and low self-worth; a decline in their sex lives; increases in physical symptoms of distress. It may be tempting to dismiss these findings as by-products of midlife rather than the presence of teenagers in the house. But Steinberg’s results don’t seem to suggest it. “We were much better able to predict what an adult was going through psychologically,” he writes, “by looking at his or her child’s development than by knowing the adult’s age.”
A parent’s experience of his or her children’s adolescence can be exacerbated by any number of factors. One is being divorced. (Married parents have a much easier time as their kids enter puberty.) Another is having a child of the same sex. (The conflicts between mothers and daughters are especially intense.) Steinberg has also found that adolescence is especially rough on parents who don’t have an outside interest, whether it’s a job they love or a hobby, to absorb their attention. It’s as if the child, by leaving center stage, redirects the spotlight onto the parent’s own life, exposing what’s fulfilling about it and what is not.
All children, of course, have the potential to unmask problems parents hadn’t recognized or consciously acknowledged for years. Yet adolescent children seem to have this effect on their mothers and fathers far more than, say, children of 6. So one has to ask: Why?
There are many explanations, obviously. But perhaps the most basic, and ultimately gratifying, is historical: Adolescence is a modern idea. Yes, it’s a physiologically distinct phenomenon, too, accompanied by discernible biological changes. But it was “discovered” in the middle of the Progressive Era (in 1904, specifically, by the educator Stanley Hall), which happened to be the same moment the nation was passing myriad laws to protect its young. For the first time, parents were obliged to shelter and support older children, rather than rely on them as wage earners. And what they concluded, after observing these kids for extended periods of time at close range, is that their teenagers were going through a terrible period of “storm and stress.” How else could parents explain all the chaos and restlessness they were witnessing?
But it could simply be that the advent of the modern childhood, a fully protected childhood, is especially problematic for parents as their children get older. Keeping teenagers sheltered and regimented while they’re biologically evolving into adults and pining for autonomy can have exhausting consequences. The contemporary home becomes a place of perpetual liminal tension, with everyone trying to work out whether adolescents are grown-ups or kids. Sometimes the father thinks the answer is one thing while the mother thinks the answer is another; sometimes the parents agree but the child does not. Whatever the answer—and it is usually not obvious—the question generates stress, and it’s often the parents, rather than the children, who suffer most.
Though she is wearing her workout clothes, you can still make out the hippie that Samantha once was—she’s got a gorgeous gray mane of hair, which she has just let loose from her ponytail following her run. We are sitting in her kitchen in Ditmas Park. Samantha and her husband, who also teaches in the city public schools, had had the good sense to buy a place here nineteen years ago, when the getting was still cheap by city standards ($234,500) and the neighborhood more diverse. Samantha is African-American. Bruce is “the whitest guy ever,” according to Calliope, their daughter. Calliope is a fierce beauty, now 20 years old and home from college for the summer. She joins us at the kitchen table.
“Which bagel?” asks Samantha.
Calliope looks at her with a combination of irritation and affection. “Um, do you know me?” (As in: How many times have I eaten bagels with you?)
Samantha rolls her eyes, grabs one, begins to slice.
Calliope’s family started calling her “Alpha,” as in “Alpha girl,” when she was still in high school and was, to put it mildly, very certain about what she wanted. Perhaps because they both have forceful personalities, Samantha and her daughter clashed a lot while Calliope was still living at home. At Deirdre’s house, Samantha had recounted one particularly harrowing fight between the two of them, though she never mentioned what started it. Today I ask. Samantha isn’t even certain she remembers. But Wesley, her 16-year-old son, does—he’s joined us at the table—and leaps right in.
“Well, Calliope had a high-school essay due the next day, and a college essay due in a month. So you”—he looks at his mother—“wanted her to work on the college essay, but you”—now he looks at his sister—“wanted to work on the essay due the next day. So you basically said, ‘Mom, back off, I need to do this essay tonight.’ ” He tells this story with admirable evenhandedness. “And you”—Wesley looks at his mother again—“were trying to emphasize your point that the college essay needed to be done.”
Samantha waits. But that’s it, apparently.
“You just went back and forth like that for a long time,” says Wesley. “And then Dad stepped in.”
Samantha looks puzzled. “That’s so stupid. Why would I not want her to do her essay for the next day?”
Wesley again responds with tact. “Well,” he says, “in hindsight, you can understand her perspective. But at the time, you wanted to be heard.”
This argument, like so many arguments, wasn’t about much. It was what roiled beneath the surface that had clearly upset Samantha. She had ideas about her daughter’s priorities, but her daughter had different ideas, and Samantha could feel her authority slipping away. She could also detect a hint of mockery in Calliope’s replies. Samantha hates being mocked.
“The cursing doesn’t bother me,” she says. “It’s the tone.”
“Or when we say ‘relax,’ ” says Calliope. “Or ‘chill.’ ”
Samantha springs up from her chair. “Yes! Oh my God.” She starts pacing. “It’s so minimizing. Like, ‘You’re not important.’ ”
The conventional wisdom about parenting adolescents is that it’s a repeat of the toddler years, dominated by a cranky, hungry, rapidly growing child who’s precocious and selfish by turns. But in many ways the struggles that mothers and fathers face when their children hit puberty are the opposite. When children are small, all parents crave is a little time and space for themselves; now they find themselves wishing their children liked their company more and would at least treat them with respect, if adoration is too much to ask.
What makes this transition even harder is how starkly it contrasts with the reasonably tranquil period that preceded it. The Blackwell Handbook of Adolescence goes so far as to say that adolescence “is second only to infancy” in terms of the upheaval it generates, destabilizing dynamics, rituals, and a well-maintained hierarchy that’d been in place throughout most of elementary school. After years of feeling needed by their children—and experiencing their children’s love as almost inseparable from that need—mothers and fathers now find it impossible to get their kids’ attention.
I ran across a remarkably meticulous study from 1996 that managed to quantify the decline in time adolescents spend with their families. It followed 220 working- and middle-class children from the Chicago suburbs, once when they were in grades five through eight, and again when they were in grades nine through twelve. At each interval, the researchers spent a week paging these kids at random, asking them to identify what they were doing. What they found, 16,477 beeps later, was that between fifth and twelfth grades, the proportion of waking hours that children spent with their families dropped from 35 to 14 percent.
It takes a lot of ego strength for a parent to withstand this separation. It means ceding some power to your children, for one thing—decisions that were once under your purview move to theirs—and it means receding somewhat, accepting that they’ve recast their lives without you, or your goals, at the center. “The adolescent,” writes Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, “is somebody who is trying to get himself kidnapped from a cult.” Parents go from their kids’ protectors to their jailers, and they are then told repeatedly what a drag this is.
Indeed, one of the most striking measures of how critical kids are of their parents at this stage can be found in Ellen Galinsky’s Ask the Children, an inspired survey of over 1,000 kids in grades three through twelve. At one point, Galinsky asked her interviewees to grade their parents. In almost every category, seventh- to twelfth-graders rated their parents considerably less favorably than did younger children.
Ingratitude is already one of the biggest heartaches of child-rearing. (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Right?) While not all researchers agree that adolescents fight more than younger children, almost all concur that they fight with more vehemence and skill, arguing most intensely with their parents between eighth and tenth grades.
Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychologist, offers a nuanced analysis of what, precisely, makes the adolescent struggle for autonomy so contentious. Most kids, she notes, have no objections when their parents try to enforce moral standards or societal conventions. Don’t hit, be kind, clean up, ask to be excused—all this is considered fair game. The same goes for issues of safety: Kids don’t consider it a boundary violation if they’re told to wear seat belts. What children object to are attempts to regulate more personal preferences, matters of taste: the music they listen to, the entertainments they pursue, the company they keep. When children are young, these personal preferences don’t tend to cause parents too much anxiety because they’re mostly benign. Barney? Annoying, but unobjectionable. That little boy across the way? A little rowdy, but a decent kid.
The problem, says Darling, is that during adolescence questions of preference start to bleed into questions of morality and safety, and it often becomes impossible to discern where the line is: That kid you’re hanging out with? I don’t like how he drives or the stuff he’s introducing you to. Those games you’re playing? I don’t like all the violence and disgusting messages they’re sending about women. Maybe more poignantly, being your teenager’s protector has the convenient advantage of keeping your child close, just as he or she is trying to pull away.
As Wesley was assessing the conflicts between his sister and his mother, I thought I could discern his self-appointed role within the family. He was the peacemaker and the diplomat, the kid who made a scrupulous point of not making waves.
Yet it was Wesley, sensitive Wesley, so tactful and talented in ways that would make any parent flush with pride (he plays drums and piano and guitar, all with equal dexterity), who got dragged home by the police at 4 a.m. He and his friend had been out “egging”—tossing eggs at windows of homes in the neighborhood.
At first, he’d merely wait until his parents were sleeping and the fans were running loudly. After a while, though, his methods became more sophisticated. “I started to hop off the roof,” he explains with serene matter-of-factness. “And then it was impossible for you to track me.”
“Wait.” Samantha does a classic double take. “What roof?”
“The roof. I would climb out my window and hop off the roof. And then climb back up when I got home.”
Samantha stares at him, saying nothing.
Teenagers may strike us as precocious grown-ups one minute, but only one minute later we realize that they are not. Their forays into independence can tip easily into baffling excess.
This conduct has distinct neuronal underpinnings. In the last twenty years, researchers have discovered that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs so much of our higher executive function—including the ability to reason and control our impulses—is still undergoing structural changes during adolescence. Complicating matters, dopamine, the hormone that signals pleasure, is never so explosively active in human beings as it is during puberty, which means teenagers assign a greater value to the reward they get from taking risks than adults do.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that adolescents might be more disposed toward risk. Human beings need incentives to leave the family nest. Leaving home is dangerous. But here’s a historical point to consider: Maybe adolescents would be less inclined to jump off roofs and other manners of silliness if they had more positive and interesting ways to express their risk-taking selves. That was the argument the anthropologist Margaret Mead made in the sixties: The sheltered lives of modern adolescents were robbing them of an improvisational “as-if” period during which they could safely experiment with who they’d ultimately become. (Without romanticizing life in the past, the historian Steven Mintz notes that Eli Whitney opened his own nail factory before going to Yale at 16, and Herman Melville dropped out of school at 12 to work “in his uncle’s bank, as a clerk in a hat store, as a teacher, a farm laborer, and a cabin boy on a whaling ship—all before the age of 20.”)
Today’s middle-class teenagers have little need to face dangerous situations. So instead they create them—all while living with their parents. Unfortunately, this often means using whatever tools they can find in the family garage, a number of which aren’t always forgiving: cars, motorcycles, high-performance snowboards. Jay Giedd, who researches the teen brain at the National Institute of Mental Health, once put it very well: “These Stone Age tendencies are now interacting with modern marvels, [which] can sometimes not just be amusing anecdotes, but can really lead to more lasting effects.”
More often than not, of course, they remain anecdotes. Most parents intuit this, remembering their own reckless high jinks as teenagers (and their own parents’ worry and disapproval). Still, it is extremely difficult for parents to observe this behavior at close proximity and not try to do something about it. Steinberg likens adolescents to cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes. “And then parents are going to get into tussles with their teenagers,” says Steinberg, “because they’re going to try to be the brakes.” It’s dicey business, being someone’s prefrontal cortex by proxy. Yet modern culture tells us that that’s one of the primary responsibilities of being a parent of a teen.
“There was a recent issue where we strongly disagreed,” Kate is saying, “and I was right.”
Her husband, Lee, a man in his mid-fifties with longish gray hair, gives her a baffled look. “I don’t even know what issue you’re referring to.”
“The party at Paul’s.”
Lee sucks in his breath. “But that’s where—”
“Let me talk, okay? I feel strongly about this.”
Lee stifles his frustration and yields the floor.
It’s a tense moment. Kate and Lee have been together for 22 years, and their marriage is solid. But when their son and daughter entered adolescence, Kate noticed a certain transformation in their marital dynamics. “There’s a lot more discord between us,” she had said at Deirdre’s table, “having teenagers around.”
This morning, Kate and Lee are talking about that discord, or at least trying. It’s hard.
“If the kids go to a party at somebody’s house,” Kate resumes, “I want to know that there’s going to be a parent present. And this time I let it slip a little bit. And the kid lied—he told his parents he’d be sleeping at somebody’s house, but instead he invited everybody over in his grade, and the police showed up.”
So what, I ask, was Kate and Lee’s argument about?
“Whether he should have been allowed to go,” says Kate. “Lee didn’t think it was as big a deal.”
“Which remains my view,” Lee says.
“It shouldn’t,” Kate replies. “If we left the house, and there was a party, and the police came, and our house was trashed, that would have been a nightmare. I don’t want my kid to be party to that.”
If adolescents are more combative, less amenable to direction, and underwhelmed by adult company, it stands to reason that the tension from these new developments would spill over into their parents’ marriages. This strife is by no means preordained (indeed, if your marriage has survived into your first child’s adolescence, it’s more durable than most). But overall, researchers have concluded that marital-satisfaction levels do drop once a couple’s firstborn child enters puberty. A 2007 survey published in the Journal of Marriage and Family went so far as to track the “growth spurt[s], growth of body hair, and skin changes” of the children of its 188 participating families—as well as the voice changes in boys and the first menses in girls—in order to see if marital love and satisfaction levels dropped even more precipitously as these changes occurred. They did.
Andrew Christensen, a UCLA professor who both does research on couples therapy and has a clinical practice, gives a perfect example of the kind of more subtle conflict he sees among parents of adolescents: “Inevitably we see ourselves in our kids. And then we see our partner acting toward our child the way our partner acts toward us.”
Projection is now possible. Identification is now possible. Which means that competitiveness, envy, disgust—all can rear their heads. These aren’t feelings evoked by younger children. They’re brought on by other adults.
Mistaking teenagers for adults can be especially problematic in high-conflict relationships. As children develop the capacity to reason and empathize, it’s increasingly tempting for their parents to recruit them in their arguments, which only aggravates the situation: Now you’re dragging Charlie into this? In one intriguing study, teenage girls felt more pressure to side with their mothers if their parents were still married, while teenage boys felt more pressure to do so if their parents were divorced—suggesting, perhaps, that teenage sons feel compelled to step in as their mothers’ protectors if their fathers are no longer at home. In another, fathers experienced a significant dip in marital satisfaction once their teenagers began to date, especially if those teenagers were sons, suggesting they were jealous, or at least nostalgic for a time of open-ended possibilities.
As children become adolescents, their parents’ arguments also increasingly revolve around who the child is, or is becoming. These arguments can be especially tense if the child screws up. “One parent is the softie, and the other’s the disciplinarian,” says Christensen. “That comes up a lot, and it’s a very big challenge. Dad sharing his recollections with drugs and alcohol, but Mom remembering something bad happening. And then they divide over it.”
This is the kind of argument that Kate and Lee seem to have a good deal. She said as much at Deirdre’s kitchen table, in fact: “I’m really strict with the kids, so he’s totally not. We just had a fight about it today.”
This gender divide is suggested by data too. In a recent sample of nearly 3,200 parents of 10-to-18-year-olds, a disproportionate share of mothers said that the task of discipline fell to them alone (31 percent, versus 9 percent of fathers). Mothers also reported setting more limits for their adolescents: They were 10 percent more likely to restrict video-game use and 11 percent more likely to restrict what types of activities their kids did online.
For the last decade or so, says Darling, research has also shown that adolescent girls and boys direct more verbal abuse at their mothers than at their fathers, and mothers are more likely to quarrel with their adolescent children.
These fraught dynamics may explain why mothers, contrary to conventional wisdom, tend to suffer less than fathers once their children have left the home. Kate readily admits her relationship with her daughter improved once she went off to college. As Steinberg puts it: “Women’s personal crises at midlife do not come from launching their adolescents but from living with them.”
Here’s what may be most powerful about adolescence, from a parent’s perspective: It forces them to contemplate themselves as much as they contemplate their own children. Toddlers and elementary-school children may cause us to take stock of our choices, too, of course. But it’s adolescents, usually, who stir up our most self-critical feelings. It’s adolescents who make us wonder who we’ll be and what we’ll do with ourselves once they don’t need us. It’s adolescents who reflect back at us, in proto-adult form, the sum total of our parenting decisions and make us wonder whether we’ve done things right.
As part of his study of the parents of adolescents, Steinberg asked his participants to fill out a “midlife rumination scale,” which included this item: “I find myself wishing I had the opportunity to start afresh and do things over, knowing what I do now.” Nearly two thirds of the women reported frequently feeling this way. So did more than half the men.
When he wrote up the results for Crossing Paths, Steinberg made a crucial distinction about this question. He noted that the survey item didn’t ask participants whether they wanted to be teenagers again. That’s the clichéd wisdom—that what adults truly crave in midlife is the raucousness and freedom of their youth. What Steinberg realized, in follow-up interviews with his subjects, was that they didn’t want a second adolescence at all. “What they want,” Steinberg writes, “is a second adulthood.” Their children’s adolescence, he found, was often cause for extensive inventory taking, which can lead to feelings of pride and accomplishment, but also feelings of doubt and regret.
Erik Erikson, one of the most innovative psychoanalysts of the twentieth century, wrote about these moments of existential review in his work on the human life cycle. He famously argued that all of us go through eight stages of development, each marked by a specific conflict. In early adulthood, for instance, he argues that we must learn how to love rather than vanish in a mist of narcissism and self-protection. In mid-adulthood, he says, we must figure out how to lead productive lives and leave something for future generations rather than succumb to inertia (“generativity versus stagnation,” he calls it). And following that, the challenge becomes learning how to make peace with the experiences we’ve had and the various choices we’ve made rather than capitulate to bitterness (“integrity versus despair and disgust”).
Some modern researchers believe that these adult stages are overstated, even fanciful inventions. But the parents of adolescents often circle back to strikingly similar themes—especially “integrity versus despair and disgust.” They talk about looking backward and integrating the choices they’ve made into a narrative they can live with. In Erikson’s words: “It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle and of the people who have become significant to it as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions.”
Women may be especially susceptible to these moments of self-reckoning. According to the 2010 Current Population Survey, 22 percent of all parents of 12-to-17-year-olds are now 50 or over, and 46 percent of them are 45 and over. What this means, biologically speaking, is that a substantial number of today’s mothers of adolescents are either in perimenopause or in menopause itself. Many women pass through this stage with little turmoil, just as many adolescents pass through puberty with little ado. But others struggle with melancholy and irritability, seeing in their condition the mirror opposite of their teenagers’, whose fertile years are just beginning. (One well-designed recent study found that the risk of depression during perimenopause doubles; another found it quadruples.)
But regret is hardly confined to women, and it shows up in all kinds of strange dress. Michael, Beth’s ex-husband and the father of Carl, tells me that when his kids are giving him grief, his mind loops back to the days when he and his ex-wife were hammering out the terms of their divorce and he failed to press her for joint custody. He now feels he’s paid a price for it, especially with his older daughter, Sarah. “My relationship with her has always been fractured,” he says. “We’ve never been totally comfortable together.” And when his son, Carl, is feeling cruel, or angry, or even merely defensive, “he’ll say, ‘Sarah doesn’t want to see you; she doesn’t like you,’ ” says Michael. “It’s like having an argument with one of your friends who’s being vicious. He’s made me cry before.”
For Gayle, it’s having chosen to suspend her career for as long as she did. When she first made that decision, it made perfect emotional sense. But recently, she’s had to reckon with its financial consequences. She recalls one of the road trips she took with Mae in her junior year, touring some of the schools in New York State’s university system. They quarreled bitterly. Mae thought the quality of some of them was so low that it was a waste of time to apply. “And I was saying, you’d better,” Gayle tells me. Those colleges were what she and her husband, who owns a small mail-order business, could realistically afford. “You raise children to think the world of possibilities is theirs,” Gayle says. “And we somehow think, Oh, we’ll make enough money. And then, all of a sudden, they’re 18, and it’s like, Oh, no, you can’t go to college there.”
On that road trip, Mae called her mother’s bluff. She assessed with a gimlet eye the limitations of the world around her and declared she didn’t like them. That was when Gayle realized that this story she’d so lovingly told was as much for her own benefit as it was for Mae’s. “We,” she tells me, “had been living in that dream world too.”
Gayle’s middle and youngest daughters, 14 and 17, are easygoing and placid. They may have their moments of testiness, but they usually speak with affection when they’re around their mother. And then there’s Mae, a lovely, long-stem rose like her sisters, but the air around her vibrates, as if she already has intimations about the difficulties of adult life.
“Am I peeling?” she asks one morning in her family kitchen. She’s wearing a tank top; she also sports a discreet stud in her nose. She shows her mom her back.
Her mother answers that she isn’t.
Mae was always different. Gayle could see she was an anxious kid, even at 5. In fifth grade, Mae was having trouble with her best friend, Calliope, and there was little that Gayle could do to ease her anguish. “Mae would have this thing where Calliope was mad at her; she didn’t know why,” recalls Gayle. “So she’d follow her around and say, ‘What did I do?’ And I’d have to say, ‘Do not do that.’ ” Just the memory of it makes her cringe.
Then, in eighth grade, Mae started cutting herself. Gayle didn’t know anyone else whose child struggled with the same problem, though she’d heard and read plenty about it. So she did what she could: She found her daughter a therapist; she learned to listen and, when appropriate, offer advice. And her daughter got better. Looking at Mae now, you see a pretty, thoughtful kid who’s gotten herself almost a full ride through a great university.
But looking at Mae, one also sees what Adam Phillips means when he writes that happiness is an unfair thing to ask of a child. The expectation casts children “as antidepressants,” he notes, and renders parents “more dependent on their children than their children are on them.”
Just as important, Mae is a good example of why producing happy children may not be fair to ask of parents. It’s a beautiful goal—one I’ll readily admit to having myself—but no less than Benjamin Spock, the cuddly pediatrician who dominated the child-rearing-advice market after World War II, pointed out that raising happy children is an elusive aim compared to the more concrete aims of parenting in the past: creating children competent in certain kinds of work; creating morally responsible citizens who will fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations.
Those bygone goals are probably more constructive, not to mention more achievable. Not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents’ most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way. There are crude limits to how much parents can do to shield their children from the sharper and less forgiving parts of life—which, as adolescents, they stumble on far more regularly. “Sane parenting,” Phillips writes, “always involves a growing sense of how little, as well as how much, one can protect one’s child from; of just how little a life can be programmed.”
To this day, Mae feels things more deeply than her peers. And Gayle does not blame herself for this as much as another parent might. “It’s not that I feel inadequate as a mother,” she says. “I feel the inadequacy as a human to solve any other human’s problems.” But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When I ask if she’s learned how to better cope with having an anxious child over the years, she answers immediately: “No.”
And yet how proud Gayle is of Mae! How amazed, how full of admiration! As we are chatting in her kitchen, I mention Erik Erikson to Gayle, wondering if she’s ever heard of him. She says the name sounds familiar, but no, not really. Mae, who’s been silently lingering at the counter, leaves the room, goes upstairs, and retrieves a copy of a book by Erikson, which she’s been reading for psych class. She plunks it down in front of her mother. Then she quietly leaves the room again.
Gayle smiles at me.
“That’s the kind of thing you live for,” she says. “You want them to be better than you. You want them to be smarter and do more things and know more things.” She picks up the book and scans both its front and back cover. She’s already mentioned to me that she loves Mae’s writing, loves her mind. “Gosh. I didn’t read this when I was 20.”
And that’s just it. In spite of our mistakes, here they are, thoughtful and accomplished human beings, gesticulating with our mannerisms and standing at our height.
Back at Samantha’s house a few days earlier, there came a moment when she wondered aloud whether she hadn’t focused enough on Wesley when he was small. “I just remember when Calliope was little,” she said. “Wesley was always being awakened from a nap and scooped up in a car seat and put some place. His standards were so much lower, in terms of his demands. And I thought, I wonder if I’ve done this to him. I don’t know how you feel, Wesley …”
She then looked directly at her son—so talented, so perceptive, and Lord, such a pain in the ass sometimes. Yet it wasn’t a look of desperation to validate her choices. She seemed genuinely to want to know.
He looked back at her, then uncertainly into the middle distance. Several seconds ticked by, then several more.
“Start speaking when you’re ready,” said Samantha. But it wasn’t Wesley who needed the extra time. It was she. “I just feel like having kids is the greatest thing I ever did, and I …” Her voice caught, and she started to cry. “I’m so proud of them. I love them so much. Last night, I was remembering when Calliope was a baby and being like, Oh my God, that’s so gone.” Her kids, startled by this frank display of emotion, looked at one another and themselves started to well up. “And then I thought, Well, someday maybe she’ll have a baby too …” Samantha wiped her nose.
Wesley still said nothing. Calliope, almost never at a loss for words, said nothing either. She put one hand over her mouth. With the other, she laced her mother’s fingers in her own.