Are private schools better than public schools? New book says ‘no’, By Valerie Strauss


Here’s an interesting perspective on whether or not private schools are better than public schools.  This is from the Washington Post.

It is often assumed that private schools do a better job educating children than public schools, but a new book, “The Public School Advantage,” which is being published this week, shows this isn’t the case. Here’s a piece the authors, Christopher Lubienski, a professor in the Department of Educational Organization and Leadership at the College of Education at University of Illinois, and Sarah Theule Lubienski, professor of mathematics education in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. The Lubienskis looked at two huge datasets of student mathematics performance and found that public school students outperform private school ones, when adjusted for demographics.

By Christopher and Sarah Lubienski

Greater school choice for families and greater autonomy for schools leads to greater academic outcomes, right?  Maybe not.  Using two nationally representative datasets, we recently conducted one of the most comprehensive studies ever performed of school type and achievement in mathematics—a subject widely held to be the best measure of in-school learning.  We analyzed instruction and performance for over 300,000 elementary and middle school students in 15,108 public, charter, and private schools.  What we found surprised us.  Students in public schools actually outperform those in private schools.

Choice and autonomy are now touchstones of U.S. education reform.  Since over two decades ago, when John Chubb and Terry Moe famously argued that “choice is a panacea” and reported that more school autonomy led to better school outcomes, policymakers have been enamored with devolving authority away from school districts and creating options for families.

The number of charter schools in the United States is growing, with almost 6,000 such independent, largely autonomous schools of choice.  At the same time, the market share of private schools —non-government schools that, unlike charter schools, are “not supported primarily by public funds” — is declining, creating demands for subsidies on the grounds that the 30,861 private schools do a better job of educating children.

Since 2012, states have adopted or expanded 28 voucher, tax credit or similar programs to subsidize families choosing private schools, and the charter school movement is growing with bipartisan support. These efforts are based on the popular notion that autonomy from state regulation allows schools to respond to parents’ preferences for quality education options.  Autonomous schools have the freedom and incentive to adopt more effective practices in areas such as curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and management. Thus, the logic goes, they get better results.

However, our analysis of nationally representative samples of Catholic, Lutheran, conservative Christian, and other private schools — a total of 1,355 private schools — raises serious questions about that logic.  We found that once we account for the fact that private schools serve families with more advantages associated with academic success—things like money and highly-educated parents—we find that public elementary schools are, on average, simply more effective at teaching mathematics.  Indeed, demographic differences more than explain any apparent edge in the raw scores of private school students, and by the time they reach middle school, public school students score ahead of their demographically similar, private school peers, with differences ranging from a few weeks to a full grade level, depending on the type of private school.

Given public education’s considerable challenges, these findings are remarkable, and cut at the heart of the current reform movement.  Yet they are starting to be echoed by other researchers at the Educational Testing Service, Notre Dame and Stanford universities. How should we understand these patterns?

Current school reform efforts elevate the idea of autonomy, positioning parents as expert choosers and schools as autonomous competitors that embrace effective instructional methods to attract students.  This market model for education is neat, appealing, and quite possibly wrong.

Private schools have more operational autonomy, sure, but this autonomy is too often used to maintain outdated strategies that may align with parental preferences but are not particularly effective for educating students.

For example, private school students are more likely than their public school counterparts to sit in rows, complete math worksheets and believe that mathematics is “mostly memorizing facts”—a narrow view that captures neither the breadth of the discipline nor the reasoning that is central to it. In contrast, public schools have moved beyond traditional, repetitive exercises, and more often ask students to solve complex, real-world problems and to learn geometry, data analysis, and early algebra ideas, in addition to basic arithmetic.

This difference can partly be explained by the fact that public school teachers are more likely to be certified and to receive ongoing training in the field, keeping them current on research-based instructional standards and resources supported by professional entities such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Science Foundation. Private school teachers are rarely impelled to receive such training. And despite much criticism, teacher certification and up-to-date instructional practices are actually positive correlates of achievement, and the fact that these are more prevalent in public schools helps explain the public school advantage.

These patterns highlight some of the downsides of autonomy, especially in more competitive conditions where schools may try to play to popular demands instead of embracing professional expertise.  In fact, it is not at all clear that parents choose schools primarily on the basis of academic effectiveness.  School uniforms, the demographics of a school, and sports programs are easier to observe, and parents often consider these, along with religious values, to be more important than the quality of academic instruction, as consistently shown in studies of parents’ school-choice behaviors from places like the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University. As schools are cast as competing businesses in current reforms, families may be influenced by image over academic substance, just as fast food marketing successfully focuses on fun and not nutrition.  Professional models for education avoid this need to play to mass consumer demands, instead focusing on evidence and expertise.

It would be overly simplistic to say that parents are poor choosers when it comes to schools, since they work with the information, options, and priorities that they have.  Instead, it appears that more autonomous schools—the private and charter schools so often credited with innovation—are doing a poor job of choosing effective educational strategies, of working on behalf of students, rather than parents.  We agree that there are serious problems facing public education.  But private models for public education do not appear to be the answer.


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To find the best fit for private kindergarten, start early, By Melanie Fonder Kaye


This appeared in today’s Washington Post.  It’s a good article on what to think about when you are applying to private school for the first time!
 November 4 at 8:00 AM

It’s the season of wading through personal essays, lengthy applications, teacher recommendations, testing, education consultants, tours and in-person interviews — multiple components for each and every school applied to. Sounds like college, right? But we’re talking about kindergarten. Private kindergarten

“It’s an inherently stressful process,” said Robert Schlesinger, whose son Emmet, 6, is a first-grader at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria.

Schlesinger, who originally looked at private schools to make sure he was familiar with all the kindergarten options nearby, quickly gravitated to their small class sizes. And while he started the process in earnest the September before Emmet started kindergarten, he still felt as though he was off to a late start.

If you’re considering private school for your child, experts say you need to start early, get organized and narrow down your choices by researching schools online, talking to other parents and calculating the full financial impact.

Once you’ve developed a short list of possible schools, the number of required steps — tests, tours, interviews and play dates — with varying deadlines in a short time frame can quickly overwhelm even the most organized of parents.

That was the case for Siobhan Gorman Carpenter, the Silver Spring mom of 5-year-old Alexis, who has spent this fall touring schools, filling out applications and attending required meetings in preparation for sending her daughter to kindergarten next year.

“The biggest surprise for me were the number of visits . . . four in-person meetings per school — most of which need to happen during the workweek,” Carpenter said. “The time commitment has been pretty overwhelming. It’s pretty much a second job, or a third job if you count parenting.”

Carpenter, who began researching options earlier this summer, loved the personalized attention and level of interaction her family had with Alexis’s French-language immersion preschool. Carpenter said they are looking for an elementary school with a similar atmosphere, one that will encourage Alexis to “become herself” and has “an environment where she is encouraged to do things that are hard for her.”

That was the case for Siobhan Gorman Carpenter, the Silver Spring mom of 5-year-old Alexis, who has spent this fall touring schools, filling out applications and attending required meetings in preparation for sending her daughter to kindergarten next year.

In order to find that perfect fit, E.V. Downey, an educational consultant in the District,advises parents to start the process when a child is 3 years old.

“There’s just so many things in that fall period from after Labor Day to the first of February,” Downey said. “Everything has to be done in that period of time — all applications, essays, visits, testing.”

There is a lot for parents to consider, said Matthew Gould, the head of Norwood School, an independent K-8 institution in Bethesda. Gould said parents should start by making a list of what is most important to them — whether that’s a faith-based education, a single-sex environment, a more progressive approach to education or other factors.

“There’s a lot of good choices,” Gould said. “I think sometimes parents get overwhelmed by thinking there is absolutely only one choice out there. And the truth is, in the independent school market, in the religious school market, as well as the public school market, we are so lucky in this region to have such outstanding schools.”

Downey, who works with families one-on-one to help sift through those choices and pinpoint what each family needs, said she often has to help families visualize the actual day-to-day logistics of things such as transportation, as well as the stark financial realities.

“You want the best school you can have, but if it means that you’re not saving for retirement or [you are] really living beyond your means because you’re including tuition in here, then you really have to take a look at that as well,” she said, adding that cost goes far beyond tuition once parents factor in aftercare, day camp for when school is closed, summer camp, and transportation costs.

“The biggest surprise for me were the number of visits . . . four in-person meetings per school — most of which need to happen during the workweek,” Carpenter said. “The time commitment has been pretty overwhelming. It’s pretty much a second job, or a third job if you count parenting.”

Carpenter, who began researching options earlier this summer, loved the personalized attention and level of interaction her family had with Alexis’s French-language immersion preschool. Carpenter said they are looking for an elementary school with a similar atmosphere, one that will encourage Alexis to “become herself” and has “an environment where she is encouraged to do things that are hard for her.”

Whether private school is the best logistical, financial and overall fit for a family — beginning in kindergarten or at a later entry point — is something Downey walks each family through. Annual tuition for kindergarten at most D.C. area private schools is between $20,000 and $40,000.

“I talk to a lot of families about looking at the big, huge picture, all the way from little kids to when they get to college . . . where private school makes sense and where public school makes sense,” she said.

Ideally, parents should narrow the list down to a manageable number of potential schools the summer before the in-person visits begin. Carpenter plans to send applications to four schools; Schlesinger also applied to four, a number he said kept the family from being spread too thin.

“Look at as many schools as you can, but you need to find the balance between really figuring out which school or schools would be right for your kid and focusing on them,” he said, as opposed to applying to every school that meets your general criteria.

In addition to the required visits — which often include a tour, a play date and a parent interview — most independent schools in the D.C. area require scores from cognitive ability tests as part of the application (although some do not require it, and some have their own version of testing).

Maya Coleman, a D.C.-based clinical psychologist with a background in special education, said the tests give administrators and parents a snapshot of how a child is performing in a broad range of skills, including verbal comprehension, problem-solving, memory and how quickly they take in and use information.

“This is not like an entrance exam,” she said. It’s more of a tool to create an overall picture of how a child will function in school.

A clinical or school psychologist usually administers the tests, which typically involve activities that kids are used to doing: looking at pictures, working on puzzles, building with blocks. The test can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Coleman typically gives children a break during the test so they can tell their parents what they’re working on and have a snack.

To prepare, Coleman said it’s important to make sure the child is comfortable. Ensure she gets a good night’s rest, has eaten breakfast and has a general understanding of what is going to happen.

“Describe what the child is going to do not using the word ‘test,’ not using the word ‘doctor’: ‘You’re going to do all kinds of different activities with Ms. Maya and we’ll see how you learn so when you go to school your teachers can teach you the best way they can,’” she said.

Downey added that the parent the child separates most easily from should take him to the testing. And, if he is having an off day, parents should reschedule, Coleman said, because the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence-Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV) — the intelligence test for children ages 3 to 7 required by most pre-primary and kindergarten schools in the area — can be taken only once in a 12-month period.

Once all the visits, applications and testing are done, it’s usually about a month before families find out where they are accepted. And what are schools really looking for? Downey said they like to see that the philosophy and the mission of the school are a match for your child and family, a point echoed by Gould.

“The best school is not the one people are talking about, it’s the one that’s the best fit for your child,” Gould said.

Finding that right fit has paid off for Emmet, Schlesinger said, adding that while the process was time-consuming and stressful, the result was worth it.

“The teachers have been great in terms of, first and foremost, teaching and taking care of Emmet,” he said. “But also in terms of communication with home, when things have arisen — as they do — figuring out how to work together and figuring out the best way to be supportive of him. In our case, we couldn’t have been happier with the result.”


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Pediatricians Rethink Screen Time Policy for Children, by Sumathi Reddy


I was happy to see this article by my favorite parenting writer, Sumathi Reddy, in today’s Wall Street Journal.  To read the piece at the WSJ site (and see parent comments) CLICK HERE.  These guidelines were created before screen time became as ubiquitous as it has now become for all humans on the planet.  As the author says, “all screens are not created equal.”  As long as parents are monitoring how their kids are using electronics, and limiting screen time for our youngest children, a reasonable amount of interaction with electronics is most likely okay.  I’ll be anxious to see the new guidelines they come up with!

Pediatricians Rethink Screen Time Policy for Children

A medical group considers revising its recommendation of no screens under age 2 and no more than two hours a day for older children

All screens are not created equal.

In a nod to the changing nature of digital media and technology, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced this month that it is starting the process of revising its ironclad guidelines for children and screens.

For more than 15 years it has advised parents to avoid screen time completely for children under the age of 2, and to limit screen time to no more than two hours a day for children older than 2.

“In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the AAP’s media committee wrote in an article published this month in the publication AAP News, which circulates to the academy’s 64,000 members.

Ari Brown, lead author of the article and chair of the AAP committee that’s been investigating children’s media use, noted that the 2011 statement on media use for children under age 2 was being written and published at about the same time as the first generation iPad came out. “It literally felt outdated before we even released it,” Dr. Brown said. “Technology moves faster than science can study it, so we are perpetually behind in our advice and our recommendations.”

Experts are convening now and hope to be more expansive in their next set of guidelines, which they aim to have out in fall 2016. “All technology is not the same, all media is not the same,” said Dr. Brown. “There’s consumption, and there’s creation, and there’s communication. So if you’re looking at children under 2, there’s a big difference between endless hours of watching cartoons on YouTube and videochatting with Grandma.”

A 2013 survey by Common Sense Media, in San Francisco, found that 38% of children under the age of 2 had used a mobile device. (Count my 2-year-old among them. By 18-months her favorite pastime was talking to Siri on my iPhone.)

“Some of the traditional recommendations, like discouraging all screen time before age 2, just don’t fit with reality circa 2015-2016,” said James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, which rates all media content for parents.

In May, the AAP convened a symposium with top researchers and experts in the field of media use and children. Among the studies presented was research showing that when English-speaking 9-month-olds watched a Mandarin teacher on a television screen, there was no benefit, as measured by change in brain activity. When the teacher was in the room, there was a lot of change.

Other studies have highlighted the value of back-and-forth communication for children’s learning. Children between the ages of 24 months and 30 months learned as many new words from a teacher via videochat as they did with live presentation. “The more screen media mimics live interactions, the more educationally valuable it may be,” said Dr. Brown.

Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, has advocated for rethinking the AAP guidelines for more than a year.

One of the authors of the current guidelines, Dr. Christakis penned a controversial editorial in JAMA Pediatrics last March stating it was time to revise the current guidelines. His recommendation is that interactive media for children under 2 years is acceptable for 30 to 60 minutes a day.

“The reality is we have to explore how to judiciously use these newer interactive technologies which are clearly very different from traditional, passive media,” he said.

Is reading a book with a child on an iPad any different from reading a physical book, Dr. Christakis says. “The real value of reading to a child isn’t anything magical about the book…The book is providing a platform for a parent and child to interact. The real question is, Does the device promote that kind of back and forth or not? It certainly could. It’s all about how it’s used and how it’s structured.”

And then as a child develops and begins to engage in independent play, Dr. Christakis adds, is an iPad worse than other toys? The studies haven’t been done, he said, but he suspects it isn’t any worse.

Dr. Christakis’s research has found that children brought to the lab to play with blocks showed greater brain engagement, as measured by cortisol levels, than when watching Baby Einstein DVDs. Now he is conducting similar experiments with children from the ages of 18 months to 24 months that compares their experience with DVDs and with educational iPad apps.

Rachel Barr, an associate psychology professor at Georgetown University, has been studying how 2½- to 3-year-olds do puzzles, comparing regular magnet puzzles with puzzles on a computer touch screen.

She has found that children can learn in either format but there is a “transfer deficit,” meaning that they might excel in one context but when asked to switch to the other there is a lag in performance. “Applying things from one context to another is difficult,” she said.

She has also learned that if children don’t have someone showing them how to do the puzzle, such as how to drag the pieces on screen, their performance plummets.

One area of research involving media and screens that has recently become robust is the detrimental impact of background television, Dr. Barr said.

“Background TV actually disrupts the children’s activities—their play, the parent-child interactions, and it’s related to poorer executive functioning,” she said. “When it is on, play is not as complex, and that’s a really important part of how a child develops.”

Dr. Barr said parents need guidelines to be told what they can do, not just what they can’t do. “I don’t think there’s a bright line at age 2,” she said. “Development is a gradual process.”

Claire Lerner, senior parenting adviser for Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes healthy early development, is a co-author with Dr. Barr of research-based guidelines on screen time. The goal of the 2014 paper, she said, was to give parents some guidance on what they should think about when it comes to screen time. Parents need to be mindful that screen time is age- and content-appropriate.

A television show like “Arthur” is a great show, she said, but too complicated for a 2- or 3-year-old to understand. “It needs to be something that reflects their world, something that they’ve experienced,” she said.

Screen time can be enhanced by making it interactive, she said. Talk to your child about what they’re watching, expand on it by putting a physical object that they are viewing into their hands.

No matter how high the “quality” of screen time, it should be still be limited to 60 to 90 minutes a day, Ms. Lerner said.

She advises parents not to use screens as a way to calm a child—which she says she sees increasingly in her private practice as a clinical social worker.

Donald Shifrin, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, says it is common for parents to try to distract children with screens during doctor visits. He has seen parents give young children a smartphone after a vaccination, for example. “Often times I say something like, ‘I think a hug would be terrific right now,’ ” says Dr. Shifrin, who is also on the AAP committee reviewing children’s media use and was chairman of the May symposium.

He said parents have to be involved in the content their children are using online, and aware and vigilant about how much time the child is using it. The AAP recommends that parents enforce tech-free zones for the whole family, such as mealtimes and bedtimes. “We want to show toddlers to teens that we don’t have to be defaulting to our screens at every moment,” Dr. Shifrin said.

Write to Sumathi Reddy at



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We’re All Artists Now, by Laura M. Holson


You must read this article in Today’s NY Times. CLICK HERE to read it at the Times website. Be sure to click through and read it because there are some wonderful creativity exercises that you can download and do yourself, and have your kids do. The exercises remind me of the type of creativity challenges you will find on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking®, which we have practice questions for at The exercises in the Times are actually a lot more fun. I also loved the article. It’s a great reminder that you don’t have to give up everything in your life to live creatively. You can fold creativity into your everyday, boring existence, and make life better!

OUR best selves are merely one doodle away.

doodle 1

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Where once drawing and other painterly pursuits were the province of starving artists or simply child’s play, unlocking one’s creativity has become the latest mantra of personal growth and career success. We nurture our inner Helmut Newtons on Instagram. We explore storytelling with our iPhones like the director Sean Baker did with his movie “Tangerine.” Buy some crayons, we are told, and be more productive at work. Like mindfulness and meditation before it, creativity has become a mainstream commodity.

This newfound interest has led to a thriving trade among publishers and retailers seeking to capitalize on the allure of the artistic spirit. Zentangle, a form of meditative drawing using a pen and square paper tiles, is having something of a revival. More than 60 books about the practice will be published in 2015 alone, according to Amazon, an increase of about one-third from last year. Adult coloring is on the upswing, too. In April, the illustrator Johanna Basford had not one, but two Top 10 best sellers: “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” and “Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book.”

And for those who would rather not pick up a pencil, one can read about others who do. A number of books published recently suggest that creativity has the same holistic benefits as a weekend at Canyon Ranch Resort and Spa, boosting self-esteem and relieving stress. Zentangle, say practitioners, is helpful too as a dieting aid. Even the well-regarded Mayo Clinic recommends the benefits of painting and ceramics. In a recent four-year study, it reported that people who took up creative activities in middle age were less likely to suffer memory loss.

Of course some companies have embraced creativity as a marketing gimmick while others depend on services like WebChimpy. On a recent trip to Venice, Calif., I visited a pop-up shop — half workshop, half store — for a new lifestyle brand called “5 Points” that offered customers “ways to bring the benefits of creativity into the world.” The small space included a near-empty wall set up for would-be artists. But the store mostly was crowded with shoppers buying stuff other people made. As if to underscore creativity’s consumer appeal, a patio across the street next to a clothing boutique had a sign that beckoned, “Welcome to our creative oasis.”

The writer-turned-self-help-guru Elizabeth Gilbert, who ate pizza and meditated her way through her popular 2006 memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” is releasing a new book this month titled “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” In it she argues that creativity is not dropping everything to pursue a career as an opera singer or painter. (Unless you want to.) Instead, she writes, “I’m talking about a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” A case in point: Her father, a chemical engineer, also pursued his passion for beekeeping and raising goats. “He just folded his dream into his everyday life,” she writes.

Rebecca Saletan, editorial director of Riverhead Books, which is publishing Ms. Gilbert’s latest work, said the collision of reader interest in self-help and happiness is fueling interest in books like Ms. Gilbert’s. Despite the recovering economy, many people are still stuck in jobs they don’t love. As a result, she said, they are seeking fulfillment elsewhere. Other titles published recently include Elle Luna’s “The Crossroads of Should and Must” and “The Book of Doing and Being: Rediscovering Creativity in Life, Love and Work,” written by the producer Barnet Bain.

“We’ve been given license to pursue what people once called trivial pursuits,” said Ms. Saletan. “People want to keep some sense of themselves, their soulful spirit, alive.”

More than a year ago, I indulged my own “trivial pursuits” during a yearlong fellowship where I studied digital storytelling and creativity. The idea was to bring new skills back to the office. I learned video and was the director of cinematography of a student horror film. I took voice acting classes. My artistic enthusiasm was boundless. Guests wouldn’t leave my house after a dinner party one night, so I offered them blank postcards and colored pencils and asked them to draw. When I got back to New York last summer, I wrote a proposal for a creativity festival I wanted to produce. I, too, started a creativity club with friends. We talk almost every Sunday via telephone and explore ways to rouse our imaginations.

Last year, Kathryn Hilton, a club member who lives in San Diego, took painting classes and began to swim, something she hadn’t done in more than two decades. Another friend made glass beads and studied ceramics. And we started Instagram accounts to document our creative zeal. I explore composition and color; Ms. Hilton’s muses are her pugs. Sure, posting dog photos may seem on the margins of creativity, but Ms. Hilton loves it, as do others who have posted more than 26 million photos with the hashtag #dogsofinstagram. “I’ve made a more conscious decision to do things I enjoy,” she said.

Of course, seeking a more creative life is hardly a new idea. Robert Henri, the famous teacher at the Art Students League of New York, counseled painters and sculptors in the 1920s that artful living was as much attitude as practice. His notes were published in the book “The Art Spirit.” And Julia Cameron has schooled two generations of aspiring artists in “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” which was first published in 1992. If there is any doubt about its relevance today among baby boomers, consider this: Ms. Cameron is publishing “It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Creativity in the Golden Years” next year.

Choosing to be more creatively focused, though, can be disturbing at first. Ms. Cameron argues in “The Artist’s Way” that it can upend the delicate balance of relationships. “Many of us find that we have squandered our own creative energies by investing disproportionately in the lives, hopes, dreams and plans of others,” she writes. Others perceive a creative life as a quit-your-job-or-nothing proposition. They “like to think they are looking at changing their whole lives in one fell swoop,” Ms. Cameron writes, adding that, in “fantasizing about pursuing our art full time, we fail to pursue it part time — or at all.”

doodle 3

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Indeed, many people aren’t interested in a wholesale career switch. Instead they are simply seeking a respite from a harried work and home life. It is one reason adult coloring books are popular, and Ms. Basford’s intricately designed pages are a favorite in bookshops and craft stores like Papyrus and Paper Source, a mecca for middle-aged do-it-yourselfers and journal keepers.

“It speaks to what we loved to do as kids,” said Meg Leder, executive editor of Penguin Books, which is publishing Ms. Basford’s next title. She gets as many as eight pitches a day for new coloring books, up from one a month a year ago. “There are a number of coloring books that are meant to be calming. People are promoting it as mindfulness meets crafting,” Ms. Leder said, explaining that she dabbles in the occasional coloring break herself.

Beyond grown-up coloring books, the possibility for creative self-exploration is everywhere — especially in our phones. It is easy now to record and edit images, audio and video on our cellphones, making the commoditization of creativity even more pronounced. “We’ve become fascinated with innovation as a culture,” said Aaron Rasmussen, a founder of MasterClass, a new online education company that features writers, actors and sports figures teaching classes about the creative process. “People used to look at a movie and say, ‘I could do better than that,’ but they had no vehicle.” Now anyone can watch instructional videos on YouTube or observe experienced photographers on Instagram.

CREATIVITY is marketed as a model for self-fulfillment and a way to get ahead. But the communal aspect is appealing, too. On Saturday nights, adults often gather at the Make Meaning studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to paint ceramic mugs and listen to music while sipping beer and wine. “People want to walk away with something, the idea that, ‘I made this,’ ” said Amy Kotulski, the chief operating officer of Make Meaning. Since her company’s opening in 2010, Ms. Kotulski said, at least 20 percent of its planned events have been for adults, a surprising turn.

Make Meaning recently hosted an event for a public relations firm that was rebranding Lean Cuisine’s spa food. Participants were asked to take a quiz and create a colorful painting based on a chakra symbol. The goal, Ms. Kotulski said, was to connect employees to one another and motivate new thinking about selling frozen food. “People are walking a line between inspiration and aspiration,” she said. “It is O.K. to be creative and not be a child.”

She has a point. In the 1950s and 1960s, a chimpanzee smearing paint on a canvas with a stick was considered by many a spoof on Abstract Expressionism. Today, a monkey can take a pretty good selfie.

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How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First. By Jane E. Brody


Regulating your child’s screen time is an issue all parents must contend with today. Jane Brody writes an excellent article in the NY Times on the many challenges surrounding this issue. If you are struggling with how much screen time to allow your child, you might want to take a look at your own screen habits first. To read this article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.

Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media, playing video games or sending texts many hours a day instead of interacting with the real world and the people in it. And as discussed in last week’s column, digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth.

This sad conclusion of many experts in child development has prompted them to suggest ways parents can prevent or rectify the problem before undue damage occurs.

“There’s nothing about this that can’t be fixed,” said Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist. “And the sooner, the better.”

As Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist, put it in The Huffington Post, today’s parents are unprepared “to deal with the intense pull and highly addictive nature of what the online world has to offer. As parents, we have an opportunity to guide our kids so that they can learn habits that help them make use of the digital world, without being swallowed whole by it.”

Two experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, Steven Gortmaker and Kaley Skapinsky, offer a free guide, “Outsmarting the Smart Screens: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools That Are Here to Help,” as well as healthy activities to pursue to counter the weight gain that can accompany excessive screen time. Young children should not have their own cellphones or televisions in their bedrooms, they say, adding that even with teenagers it is not too late to set reasonable limits on screen time.

Dr. Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” cited two common parental behaviors that can strongly influence a child’s tendency to abuse electronic media. Some parents are perpetually tuned into their own devices, responding to every ping of their cellphones and tablets, receiving and sending messages at times that would enrage Miss Manners. Other parents fail to establish and enforce appropriate rules for media engagement by their children.

Young children learn by example, often copying the behavior of adults. I often see youngsters in strollers or on foot with a parent or caretaker who is chatting or texting on a cellphone instead of conversing with the children in their charge. Dr. Steiner-Adair said parents should think twice before using a mobile device when with their children. She suggests parents check email before the children get up, while they are in school, or after they go to bed.

One girl among the 1,000 children she interviewed in preparing her book said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on the ski lift.” A 4-year-old called her father’s smartphone a “stupid phone.”

Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who with two colleagues observed 55 groups of parents and children at fast-food restaurants, noted that 40 of the adults immediately took out mobile devices and used them throughout most of the meal. Often more attention was paid to the devices than to the children.

The researchers also found that when parents were absorbed in their own devices, the children were more likely to act out, apparently in an attempt to get their parents’ attention.

Dr. Steiner-Adair is especially concerned about parental failure to pay full attention to their children “at critical times of the day, like when taking children to and from school. This should be a cell-free zone for everyone — no Bluetooth for parents or devices for the kids. The pickup from school is a very important transitional time for kids, a time for them to download their day. Parents shouldn’t be saying, ‘Wait a minute, I have to finish this call.’  ”

Likewise, she said, when parents come home from work, “they should walk in the door unplugged and use the first hour they’re home as time to reconnect with the family. Kids hate the phrase ‘just checking’ that parents frequently use to justify a very rude, infuriating behavior.”

Nor should parents or children be using devices when the family dines out, the psychologist said. “The art of dining and the connection between delicious food and nourishing conversation is being lost, not just in restaurants but at home as well,” she said.

Dr. Steiner-Adair attributes a recent 20 percent increase in accidental injuries seen in pediatric emergency rooms to caretakers’ failure to pay full attention to those they are supposed to be watching, like infants and toddlers in the bathtub or children on the jungle gym. “Your reaction time and attention is not the same when you’re texting or talking on a cellphone,” she said.

Ms. Stiffelman, author of “Parenting With Presence,” realizes that attempts to change digital behavior can meet with resistance. But, she said, it is important to be fearless and decisive, and to avoid negotiations.

“Acknowledge your kid’s upset without delivering long lectures about why they can’t have what they want,” she said. “Children grow into resilient adults by living through disappointment. It’s O.K. for your kids to be mad, bored or anxious about missing out on what their friends are up to online.”

She and other experts urge parents to establish device-free times of day, like the first hour after school and the hour before bed. Cellphones and tablets should not be allowed at the dinner table.

Ms. Stiffelman suggests parents “make time for real-life activities with your kids that let them know that they’re worth your time and undivided attention. Do things together that nourish your relationship.”

As for controlling the time children spend on digital media, the Harvard guide states emphatically that it is the parents’ responsibility: “Since the devices can be turned on anytime, you as a parent need to monitor their use, keep track of time, and then make sure the agreed upon rules are followed.”

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Bedtime Stories for Young Brains, by Perri Klass, M.D.


I want to recommend this article by Dr. Perri Klass to all parents. You may want to read it at the NY Times website – CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE AT THE NY TIMES WEBSITE. There are wonderful comments from parents who support what Dr. Klass says in so many different words. I’ve always been a huge proponent of reading to children. The more you read to them, the better their language skills, knowledge of the world, early reading abilities, visual spatial abilities, and more. This article talks about the value that reading to children has on your child’s brain. Enjoy!

A little more than a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying that all pediatric primary care should include literacy promotion, starting at birth.

That means pediatricians taking care of infants and toddlers should routinely be advising parents about how important it is to read to even very young children. The policy statement, which I wrote with Dr. Pamela C. High, included a review of the extensive research on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success.

But while we know that reading to a young child is associated with good outcomes, there is only limited understanding of what the mechanism might be. Two new studies examine the unexpectedly complex interactions that happen when you put a small child on your lap and open a picture book.

This month, the journal Pediatrics published a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in 3-to 5-year-old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories. The researchers found differences in brain activation according to how much the children had been read to at home.

Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. This brain area is “a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation,” said the lead author, Dr. John S. Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

This region of the brain is known to be very active when older children read to themselves, but Dr. Hutton notes that it also lights up when younger children are hearing stories. What was especially novel was that children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures.

“When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story,” said Dr. Hutton. “For example, ‘The frog jumped over the log.’ I’ve seen a frog before, I’ve seen a log before, what does that look like?”

The different levels of brain activation, he said, suggest that children who have more practice in developing those visual images, as they look at picture books and listen to stories, may develop skills that will help them make images and stories out of words later on.

“It helps them understand what things look like, and may help them transition to books without pictures,” he said. “It will help them later be better readers because they’ve developed that part of the brain that helps them see what is going on in the story.”

Dr. Hutton speculated that the book may also be stimulating creativity in a way that cartoons and other screen-related entertainments may not.

“When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little?” he asked. “Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.”

We know that it is important that young children hear language, and that they need to hear it from people, not from screens. Unfortunately, there are serious disparities in how much language children hear — most famously demonstrated in a Kansas study that found poor children heard millions fewer words by age 3.

But it turns out that reading to — and with — young children may amplify the language they hear more than just talking. In August, Psychological Science reported on researchers who studied the language content of picture books. They put together a selection from teacher recommendations, Amazon best sellers, and other books that parents are likely to be reading at bedtime.

In comparing the language in books to the language used by parents talking to their children, the researchers found that the picture books contained more “unique word types.”

“Books contain a more diverse set of words than child-directed speech,” said the lead author, Jessica Montag, an assistant research psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. “This would suggest that children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to are probably not hearing.”

So reading picture books with young children may mean that they hear more words, while at the same time, their brains practice creating the images associated with those words — and with the more complex sentences and rhymes that make up even simple stories.

I have spent a great deal of my career working with Reach Out and Read, which works through medical providers to encourage parents to enjoy books with their infants, toddlers and preschoolers. This year, our 5,600 program sites will give away 6.8 million books (including many to children in poverty), along with guidance to more than 4.5 million children and their parents. (The group also provided some support to Dr. Hutton’s research.)

Studies of Reach Out and Read show that participating parents read more and children’s preschool vocabularies improve when parents read more. But even as someone who is already one of the choir, I am fascinated by the ways that new research is teasing out the complexity and the underlying mechanisms of something which can seem easy, natural and, well, simple. When we bring books and reading into checkups, we help parents interact with their children and help children learn.

“I think that we’ve learned that early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids,” Dr. Hutton said. “It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

And as every parent who has read a bedtime story knows, this is all happening in the context of face-time, of skin-to-skin contact, of the hard-to-quantify but essential mix of security and comfort and ritual. It’s what makes toddlers demand the same story over and over again, and it’s the reason parents tear up (especially those of us with adult children) when we occasionally happen across a long-ago bedtime book.

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The Hidden Depths of Simple Games, by Christopher Chabris


I am intrigued by this article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Christopher Chabris. CLICK HERE to read the article on the WSJ site. It is about a simple game named “Hex,” which I have never played. However, reading about it, it sounds like a wonderful game for children – very simple, yet deeply complex at the same time. Currently, I’m working on updating my IQ Fun Park game. It is now a board game on one side, with an activity board on the other (where a child can play 20+ games), and a board for a kid’s trivia game on the back of the box. The instructions go on forever, although I’m trying to figure out how I can simplify them. Each game is really very easy to play, but when you try to explain them all, well, long instructions ensue. Meanwhile, I was fascinated about this article about Hex. It looks like a game worth playing with kids. It will definitely build thinking and planning skills for anyone who plays. If people are playing online games, it is important for them to check warzone hacks if they need the best gaming experience.


Today’s most popular designer board games can be staggeringly complex. Rule books for games like Twilight Struggle or Lords of Waterdeep can run to dozens of pages, and boxes can contain hundreds of cards, tokens and other equipment. But a game doesn’t have to be complex in its parts to be pleasurable or strategically deep. In fact, some of the deepest games have the simplest rules.

One such game is Hex, which is played on a diamond-shaped, 11-by-11 grid of hexagons. On each turn, a player puts one of his disc-shaped pieces on any empty hexagon. The game ends when one player has built a connected path of his own pieces from one side of the diamond to the opposite side. Draws are impossible.

That’s all there is to Hex. In its minimalism, it rivals Connect Four and tic-tac-toe. Even checkers has different kinds of moves (ordinary moves and jumps), and two kinds of pieces (ordinary checkers and kings). Hex is akin to the Asian game of Go, which is played on a square grid with just one type of piece per player, but in Go pieces can be captured, whereas in Hex, each piece stays where it was placed until the end.

Also unlike Go and checkers, which have ancient roots, Hex was created at a known place and time. Actually, it was invented twice, on opposite sides of the Atlantic: first by the Danish mathematician Piet Hein in 1942 and second, separately, by the American mathematician John Nash in 1947.

Nash, the Nobel Prize-winner made famous by the film “A Beautiful Mind,” died this May in a car accident. He was recognized for his pioneering work in the field of game theory, which creates mathematical models of how people and institutions interact when making strategic decisions. But the depth of Hex has little to do with game theory.

Since the objective of Hex is to make a connection between two sides of the board, it is one of the larger family of “connection games.” Over 200 of these games have been studied systematically, notably by the Australian computer scientist Cameron Browne.

It turns out that trying to race across the board isn’t a good strategy in Hex. Instead, players must think about how their opponents may try to block their paths, and try to counter those plans before they can materialize. There are simple tactics like double-attacks—threatening to make a connection in two ways, when the opponent can only block one—and a host of more subtle, long-range patterns, which Mr. Browne described in his definitive 2000 textbook on the game. Often the best move is surprising: to place a piece far away from where the action seems to be happening.

When contrasted with the rococo style of modern games, minimalist games like Hex can feel dry or even off-putting. But like chess, they reward repeated play and study, which reveal layer after layer of hidden depth and aesthetic geometry.

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The Great Gift of Reading Aloud, by Meghan Cox Gurdon


I love this article by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who writes about children’s books for the Wall Street Journal. You can read this piece at the WSJ website by CLICKING HERE. My children are all grown up now, but if I could do the magic “Bewitched” eye blink and go back to an earlier time, I would go right back to my big king sized bed where both my children were lying next to me and I was reading them a Harry Potter or Fudge book. My kids used to love that and so did I. There are so many benefits to reading to your kids. It teaches them how to listen – such an important skill. It teaches them vocabulary, sentence structure, story structure, about the world they live in, and so much more. This is a wonderful article. If you are lucky enough to have a young child at home, I hope you are reading to them every single day!

To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical entry point to the larger world of literature.

The first time I read aloud to one of my children, the experience ended in tears. It was a sweltering July afternoon 21 years ago, and my husband and I had, incredibly, just been permitted to leave a Tokyo hospital with our firstborn, a daughter.

Immediately upon entering our apartment, feeling foggy about all but one thing, I carried the infant to the little room we had prepared for her, sat down in the rocking chair that I had painted before her arrival, and began to read aloud from a book of fairy tales.

“Long ago there lived a widower who had one daughter,” I informed the pudding in my arms. “For his second wife, he chose a widow who had two daughters. All three had very jealous natures . . .”

The hot summer sun slanted through the windows. My voice sounded querulous and strange. The child lay oblivious. Was she even listening? Was I supposed to show her the illustrations? With a sudden sense of personal absurdity, I started to bawl. Things quickly improved, but honestly, what kind of a maniac reads “Cinderella” to a newborn?

Reading aloud was probably always going to be important in our family life, but it might never have acquired its tinge of benign extremism without the influence of my friend Lisa Wolfinger, who had started having babies a few years before I did.

It was she who first modeled for me the joyful primacy that reading aloud could command, even in a busy household. She read to her four boys every night, at length and almost without fail. I remember being at a dinner party at her house in Maine when her sons were quite small. During cocktails, she excused herself and disappeared upstairs. She was gone so long that eventually someone asked her husband if anything was amiss. “Oh, no,” he said. “She’s just reading to the boys.” Any chagrin that we might have felt at being stranded by our hostess was replaced by amazed admiration—and for me a determination to do the same for my own children, if I ever had them.

Well, I did, five of them, and since that first hysterical episode in Japan I’ve read aloud to all or some of them virtually every day. It has been one of the great joys of our family life. It is also increasingly a torment—a torment because as children get older the schedule gets busier; because it’s ever harder to get literary classics into children’s minds before they see the Hollywood variants; because childhood itself is fast disappearing into the bewitching embrace of technology.

“I do think that people, in the rush and clamor and get-things-done-ness of daily life, need to be reminded about what reading aloud can do,” says author Kate DiCamillo, a Newbery Medalist and evangelist on the subject.

To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling, shared in-jokes and a common cultural understanding. Harvard professor Maria Tatar has written of its origins in medieval fireside storytelling, “before print and electronic media supplied nighttime entertainments.”

Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.

“We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story,” Ms. DiCamillo says. “We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light.”

She’s right, of course. When you read “Goodnight Moon” with a toddler who sits trustingly on your lap, gazing at the page with rapt absorption; when you ask her to “find the mouse” and she pokes out a finger and earnestly touches the page, you are in that patch of warmth, the both of you. When you read “The Story of Ping” to a slightly older child and notice him wince at the moment when Ping gets smacked on the bottom after spending all night out on the Yangtze River; or when you get to the scene in “The Wind in the Willows” when Mr. Toad sees his first automobile and the children laugh out loud at his rapturous cries (“O poop-poop! O my!”), you are in that patch of light.

The evident pleasure of hearing a story read aloud is not confined to the young. Even teenagers (and husbands) will listen if the writing is good. So it seems a shame that, in many households, parents read to children only until the children are old enough to read by themselves. In the golden, misty days of yore—a decade ago, say—that could safely establish a pattern for life. Reading aloud was a kind of grand gateway, beautiful in itself but also an entry point to the larger world of literature. It was understood that a child who learned to love stories by hearing them would be a child who would willingly graduate to more sophisticated literature for his own reading.

Alas, this assumption is no longer so easy to make. In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won’t bother going through the gateway at all. I know a voracious young reader who stopped consuming novels for pleasure for almost four years after she gained access to a laptop. In our family, the attempted usurpation by electronic entertainment has struck each child progressively at an earlier age—not because I’m a feckless mother, I hope, but because that is the way the culture is going. If the drift to YouTube and Instagram and Hulu has happened in our household, a book-obsessed place that is stuffed with gloriously varied volumes thanks to my day job as this paper’s children’s book critic, how must it be elsewhere?

Technology has “deformed the childhood of my sons,” a friend says bleakly. Like mine, her children span the time before and after the mass use of computerized devices, before and after the deluge of online-ism—a coinage dangerously close to onanism and perhaps not far off the mark—and she notes a distressing difference between even the media saturation of her 17-year-old and his 13-year-old brother. The younger boy had less time to grow up without pixels, and it shows.

For many kids, if the choice is between a book and the Internet, the Internet wins. Studies of media consumption bear this out. But if the choice is between scrolling around through prefabricated worlds online and receiving the attention of a devoted adult, surely human storytelling can prevail. Brittany Baldwin, a speechwriter in Washington, remembers long sessions of her father reading “The Yearling” and “The Hobbit” to her and her three siblings at their home in Houston. “There was something about listening that not only helped us be attentive but also let [our] minds be swept up in the story until it became a dream,” she says of those pre-Internet days. Hearing stories unfurl calmly, she adds, “gave me an outlook on things beyond what is seen.”

My shining role model Lisa, the vanishing hostess—and, as it happens, a film producer and thus no reflexive enemy of the screen—notes: “Creating that world in your head is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Kids now are being spoon-fed the visual storytelling, so there’s no reason for them to close their eyes and imagine a world, imagine what these people would look like, the clothes and smells and landscape.”

It was for that reason that I tried furiously, when my children were small, to stay ahead of Disney and other well-meaning cinematic manglers of classic children’s literature. Not that movie adaptations are necessarily bad, but they do tend to colonize the mind. I wanted my children to conjure sublimely odd, fabulously idiosyncratic stories such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and “Winnie-the-Pooh” in their own heads, for themselves, before they internalized the animated renditions.

It was hard, and it’s getting harder. A second-grader too young to tackle the Harry Potter books almost cannot help seeing them onscreen, or bits of them, and thus will envision Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall before he opens the first volume in the series. That Hollywood has been interpreting children’s literature since its earliest days—think of Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess” (1939)—is a reminder that the race against the machine predates the invention of the iPad.

Wait, I hear an irritated chorus say, what’s so bad about the iPad? What about all those zippy interactive storybooks that tiny kids can “read” to themselves? And what about audio books—are they bad, too? IPads and audio books have their virtues, but they don’t have warm arms, they can’t share a joke, and they haven’t any knowledge of, or interest in, a particular child. In the case of recorded stories, they can’t answer questions or observe a child’s puzzlement and know to pause and explain what, say, a “charabanc” is. They most certainly won’t re-read Mr. Toad’s brilliant insults for a listener who wants to memorize them. (One of my happiest moments as a mother was overhearing one daughter cheerily denounce another as a “common, low, fat barge-woman,” a triumphant vindication of reading Kenneth Grahame to them.)

Both grown-ups and children are missing something when there is no reading aloud. The children’s loss is hateful to contemplate: the fabulous illustrations they will not see, the esoteric vocabulary they may never hear, the thrilling epics they will never embark upon. But grown-ups lose too: They forgo a precious point of sustained connection and a lot of goofy fun (one friend’s father used to read “The Happy Lion” in a John Wayne drawl), as well as the opportunity to pass on literary favorites. Harvard professor Maria Tatar evokes William Wordsworth in the context of handing down cherished stories: “What we have loved / Others will love, and we will teach them how.”

What’s more, reading to children provides a return ticket back through the gateway—to stories that adults may otherwise seldom revisit: fairy tales and Norse mythology, the heroic sagas of Odysseus and Beowulf, even the unexpectedly disconcerting adventures of the children who found themselves with Mary Poppins as a nanny. (Walt Disney left a lot out of the movie.)

For 45 minutes or an hour adults can give children—and themselves—an irreplaceable gift, a cultural grounding, a zest for language, a stake in the rich history of storytelling. That’s not so long, surely? There will be plenty of time afterward for everyone to go back online.

—Mrs. Gurdon writes about children’s books for the Weekend Journal.

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Grading the Common Core: No Teaching Experience Required, By MOTOKO RICH


Here’s a really interesting article in today’s paper about how the Common Core PARCC test is being scored – and it’s not by teachers. CLICK HERE to read the article in the NY Times. This may be the only way the test publisher can be sure that each child is getting a fair shot at earning a good score. Standardized tests – standardized scoring!

SAN ANTONIO — The new academic standards known as the Common Core emphasize critical thinking, complex problem-solving and writing skills, and put less stock in rote learning and memorization. So the standardized tests given in most states this year required fewer multiple choice questions and far more writing on topics like this one posed to elementary school students: Read a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.

But the results are not necessarily judged by teachers.

On Friday, in an unobtrusive office park northeast of downtown here, about 100 temporary employees of the testing giant Pearson worked in diligent silence scoring thousands of short essays written by third- and fifth-grade students from across the country.

There was a onetime wedding planner, a retired medical technologist and a former Pearson saleswoman with a master’s degree in marital counseling. To get the job, like other scorers nationwide, they needed a four-year college degree with relevant coursework, but no teaching experience. They earned $12 to $14 an hour, with the possibility of small bonuses if they hit daily quality and volume targets.

Officials from Pearson and Parcc, a nonprofit consortium that has coordinated development of new Common Core tests, say strict training and scoring protocols are intended to ensure consistency, no matter who is marking the tests.

At times, the scoring process can evoke the way a restaurant chain monitors the work of its employees and the quality of its products.

“From the standpoint of comparing us to a Starbucks or McDonald’s, where you go into those places you know exactly what you’re going to get,” said Bob Sanders, vice president of content and scoring management at Pearson North America, when asked whether such an analogy was apt.

“McDonald’s has a process in place to make sure they put two patties on that Big Mac,” he continued. “We do that exact same thing. We have processes to oversee our processes, and to make sure they are being followed.”

Still, educators like Lindsey Siemens, a special-education teacher at Edgebrook Elementary School in Chicago, see a problem if the tests are not primarily scored by teachers.

“Even as teachers, we’re still learning what the Common Core state standards are asking,” Ms. Siemens said. “So to take somebody who is not in the field and ask them to assess student progress or success seems a little iffy.”

About 12 million students nationwide from third grade through high school took the new tests this year. Parcc, formally known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, another test development group, along with contractors like Pearson, worked with current classroom teachers and state education officials to develop the questions and set detailed criteria for grading student responses. Some states, including New York, separately developed Common Core tests without either consortium’s involvement.

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Pearson, which operates 21 scoring centers around the country, hired 14,500 temporary scorers throughout the scoring season, which began in April and will continue through July. About three-quarters of the scorers work from home. Pearson recruited them through its own website, personal referrals, job fairs, Internet job search engines, local newspaper classified ads and even Craigslist and Facebook. About half of those who go through training do not ultimately get the job.

Parcc said that more than three-quarters of the scorers have at least one year of teaching experience, but that it does not have data on how many are currently working as classroom teachers. Some are retired teachers with extensive classroom experience, but one scorer in San Antonio, for example, had one year of teaching experience, 45 years ago.

For exams like the Advanced Placement tests given by the College Board, scorers must be current college professors or high school teachers who have at least three years of experience teaching the subject they are scoring.

“Having classroom teachers engaged in scoring is a tremendous opportunity,” said Tony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced. “But we don’t want to do it at the expense of their real work, which is teaching kids.”

The most important factor in scoring, testing experts say, is to set guidelines that are clear enough so that two different scorers consistently arrive at the same score.

During training sessions of two to five days for the Parcc tests, prospective scorers study examples of student essays that have been graded by teachers and professors as well as the scoring criteria.

To monitor workers as they score, Pearson regularly slips previously scored responses into the computer queues of scorers to see if their numbers match those already given by senior supervisors. Scorers who repeatedly fail to match these so-called validity papers are let go.

At the San Antonio center on Friday, the scorers worked on the Parcc test, which was given in 11 states and Washington. As Valerie Gomm read several paragraphs from a fifth-grade essay on a laptop screen, she consulted a heavily highlighted sheaf of papers that prescribed the criteria for evaluating reading comprehension, written expression and conventions like spelling and punctuation. For each of those traits, she clicked on a numeric score from 0 to 3.

“The first thing we do is just holistically read it,” explained Ms. Gomm, who immigrated from France with her American husband five years ago and previously managed a wedding business. “Then you get a feel for what they did, and you go into analyzing every trait, and then you really go deep and you can see if either your first feeling is right or wrong.”

She acknowledged that scoring was challenging. “Only after all these weeks being here,” Ms. Gomm said, “I am finally getting it.”

Some teachers question whether scorers can grade fairly without knowing whether a student has struggled with learning difficulties or speaks English as a second language. Pearson said some math tests are graded in Spanish. Scorers do not see any identifying characteristics of the students.


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Experienced teachers also say that some students express themselves in ways that might be difficult for noneducators to decipher.

“Sometimes students say things as a student that as a teacher you have to interpret what they are actually saying,” said Meghann Seril, a third-grade teacher at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Calif., whose students took the Smarter Balanced test this year. “That’s a skill that a teacher needs to develop over time, and as a grader, I think you need to have that as well.”

But testing experts say standardized tests are designed to evaluate student work by adults who do not know the child.

“They don’t know how your kid behaved in class yesterday,” said Catherine McClellan, a former research director at the Educational Testing Service and now an independent consultant to school districts, state education agencies and foundations. “And that is in fact a good thing because they will make a neutral, impartial judgment” based on scoring guidelines and training.

Still, the new tests are much more complicated and nuanced than previous exams and require more from the scorers, said James W. Pellegrino, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago who serves on advisory boards for Parcc and Smarter Balanced.

“You’re asking people still, even with the best of rubrics and evidence and training, to make judgments about complex forms of cognition,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “The more we go towards the kinds of interesting thinking and problems and situations that tend to be more about open-ended answers, the harder it is to get objective agreement in scoring.”

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The Benefits of Fidgeting for Students With ADHD, by Sumathi Reddy


This was published in today’s Wall Street Journal. You can read the article at the WSJ – just CLICK HERE. This article makes so much sense. Teachers need to find ways to let students move around if that is what they need to concentrate. If you have an ADHD child, be sure to share this information with his or her teacher!

The Benefits of Fidgeting for Students With ADHD
The children perform better on cognitive tasks when allowed to move freely

School children with ADHD should be encouraged to fidget in class, two new studies suggest.

The research showed that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder perform better on cognitive tasks when allowed to fidget or move more freely than is typically allowed in many classrooms. The theory: Moving increases their alertness.

“Parents and teachers need to stop telling children [with ADHD] to sit still,” said Julie Schweitzer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, who was senior author of one of the studies. “We know that some activity can be disruptive to others, but we need to find ways to make it less conspicuous and to integrate socially appropriate ways of moving.”

Interestingly, one of the studies found that fidgeting, while boosting performance in ADHD children, resulted in a performance decline in children with typical behaviors.

Dr. Schweitzer and some other experts say more research is needed to determine if classroom accommodations that encourage helpful movement could allow children with ADHD to reduce their medication or in mild cases discontinue it altogether. Other children, whose parents don’t want them taking medications, might benefit from such adjustments, which might also be used in conjunction with other behavioral therapies.

Other experts doubt movement therapies will ever displace drugs. “It’s not going to be an alternative to medical treatment,” said Russell A. Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina, in Charleston. “But as a coping device and as something that teachers might wish to consider in the classroom it’s very consistent with an emerging body of work showing that physical exercise in general is beneficial.”

Schools across the country are experimenting with incorporating more movement in the classroom, be it through standing desks, sitting on exercise stability balls or reading while riding a stationary bike. Other tactics are as subtle as allowing gum chewing.

Many schools make such options available for all students, figuring that movement benefits everyone. But experts suggest targeted interventions should generally be for students with ADHD or similar disorders.

ADHD is among the most the common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders. Rates of children diagnosed with ADHD have been growing about 3% a year in recent years. Approximately 11% of children in the U.S. have been diagnosed, according to the most recent national statistics.

At the Quaker School at Horsham, in a suburb of Philadelphia, about 30% of the students have ADHD. The 60-student school is designed for children with various learning disabilities. “We accommodate kids pretty much in whatever way they need as long as it doesn’t provide distraction to other kids,” said Ruth Joray, head of the school.

Classrooms at the Quaker School at Horsham, near Philadelphia, have boxes filled with fidget tools such as putty and Koosh balls for students to use whenever they want. School officials say it helps students get the sensory input that helps many children with ADHD and other disorders.

That includes being allowed to stand while others are seated, sitting in seats that allow for generous motion and playing with fidget tools. Some students use stability ball seats, others use Howda chairs, which rest on the floor and allow children to rock. Resistance bands are wrapped around the bottom of some chairs to allow children to move their feet without making noise.

The classrooms also have boxes of fidget tools with objects like squishy balls or putty that can be rolled or squeezed or stretched, said Ms. Joray.

Jennifer Keller, a guidance counselor at the Quaker School, said such accommodations have benefited her 12-year-old son Jake, who is diagnosed with ADHD and a student there.

“In a typical classroom he would be squirming around in his seat, falling out of it, needing to jump up and down and walk around the classroom,” said Ms. Keller. Now he’s able to get the sensory input he needs, she said. “If they move their bodies while they’re working it doesn’t disturb anybody but it fills their own neurological need for motion and activity,” she said.

In addition to Howda chairs, made by Howda Designz, products targeting children with ADHD include the Hokki Stool, which spins, and Bouncy Bands, a rubber bungee cord that fits around the bottom of a desk or chair for leg bouncing.

Scott Ertl said he came up with the idea of Bouncy Bands after watching ADHD students struggle in classrooms when he was an elementary school counselor in Winston-Salem, N.C. In March he quit his job to run his business full time.

In a study published in April in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, children with ADHD who performed a working-memory task while seated in a chair that could swivel performed better on average the more they moved. The opposite was true for a control group of typically developing children, who fared worse the more they moved. There were 29 children diagnosed with ADHD and 23 controls.

The children—boys between the ages of 8 and 12—completed working-memory tasks in which they had to repeat back and manipulate a series of jumbled numbers and a letter. The activity, which had four difficulty levels, was repeated 24 times.

Researchers used high-speed video recording to measure how often children were getting out of their seats, spinning, fidgeting or making other movements while completing the tasks. “We didn’t put any constraints or constrictions on them,” said Dustin Sarver, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Mississippi Medical Center and first author of the study.

“We think a lot of this movement has to do with kids’ arousal levels in their brain,” Dr. Sarver said. Certain regions of ADHD children’s brains are less active than those of typically developing children, he said. Physical movement is believed to increase that activity, helping to boost cognitive performance. But allowing typical children to fidget may push their arousal levels outside of an optimal range, he said.

For another study, published in the journal Child Neuropsychology earlier in June, researchers measured the intensity and frequency of students’ movements while they completed a computerized test. Again, students diagnosed with ADHD performed significantly better when making intense movements. The study included 26 children with ADHD and 18 typically developing children.

The children, between 10 and 17 years old, performed a 20-minute computerized test called the flanker test, which measures attention, inhibition and ability to filter out distraction. The number of right versus wrong answers was compared in 204 four-second presentations. While taking the test, an actigraph was strapped to the children’s ankles to measure the intensity and frequency of their movements.

“What we found was that when the children with ADHD had intense movement—the kind of movement a teacher or another child would notice in the classroom—they did better on the task,” said Dr. Schweitzer, of the MIND Institute. Movement had no effect on the typically developing group. The analysis controlled for IQ and gender.

People with ADHD have increased activity in motor regions of the brain such as the cerebellum and the basal ganglia, Dr. Schweitzer said. But other areas such as the prefrontal cortex—a higher order part of the brain that is associated with decision-making and regulating control—don’t work as effectively. “We suspect that if higher order regions are not working as well as they should be, then other areas are compensating,” she said.

Write to Sumathi Reddy at

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