As Prekindergarten Expands in New York City, Guiding Guided Play, by Gina Bellafante

CLICK HERE to check out this article by Gina Bellafante, in the NY Times about the curriculum to be followed in the new NYC pre-K classes. I’m a huge advocate of free play or guided play with young children. I was so happy to read that this is the direction they have taken in the new pre-school program.

On Thursday, more than 50,000 public school children in New York embarked on their formal education as the city officially began its expanded prekindergarten program, the marquee undertaking of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty. The days leading up to the start of the school year were as frantic as anyone might have predicted — staffing and supplying the program have been compressed into just a few months. Facing safety concerns and other issues, several centers were unable to open; others faced delays.

Logistics are not the true, ultimate measure of the program’s efficiency, obviously. The goal of the early-education initiative is to narrow the achievement gap between those growing up in the world of Central Brooklyn and those growing up in the world of West End Avenue. But implicit in the city’s approach is the determination to validate a particular ideology on a broad scale — the idea that progressive education has merits for children who haven’t been in the company of parents providing ceaseless background noise in the form of conversations about the mechanics of Congress or their favorite Jane Austen adaptations or the idiosyncrasies of Roman traffic or the history of bagels.

Under the stewardship of Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, who has spoken frequently about her commitment to joyful learning, more and more poor children will theoretically be taught as the city’s affluent children are, which is to say according to the principles of immersive, play-based, often self-directed and project-driven learning.

There is hardly an elite, private preschool in the city that doesn’t align itself with the philosophies of Reggio Emilia, an educational model that arose in Italy after World War II and gained prominence in the States in the 1990s with the notion that children must have some control over the course of their learning and must be given a means to express the various languages they possess. Art, music and imaginative play assume a significant role.

If there has been little or no discussion of what will actually be taught in the city’s prekindergarten classes, it is in some part because a specific curriculum will be selected by each individual principal or program administrator from an array of options. The overarching theory, though, is that children will acquire knowledge and social skills through interactive guided play.

Different corners of the classroom will be devoted to various kinds of play — blocks, for instance, or dramatic play. Certain subjects will be taught intensely for one to three weeks at a time. If a teacher is doing a segment on botany, a child may choose to open a flower shop in the area devoted to dramatic play, as Sophia Pappas, the city’s director of early education, explained to me. If a group of children spontaneously decide one day to open a restaurant, she said, a teacher might suggest to them that the way to remember what their friends have ordered is to write the orders down. The hope is that the child will then begin to try and sound out the spelling of a word like “pizza.”

Scholars who study early childhood education see the distinction between this looser, contextually based pedagogy and more straightforward, academic instruction as a false dichotomy. And they see little validity in the argument that a more progressive approach merely benefits those middle-class children who come to school with much bigger vocabularies and reserves of knowledge than poorer children.

A long-term study by the HighScope Foundation, an educational research group, compared the outcomes for at-risk, economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds randomly assigned to different preschool groups deploying different types of curriculum. By age 15, those who had more progressive preschool instruction reported half as much delinquency as those who had received more conventionally rigorous academic training. By 23, those who had been taught according to a more child-centric paradigm demonstrated fewer felony arrests, less emotional impairment and more aspiration to higher learning.

The study’s sample size of 68 children was small, however. And it is hard to imagine any piece of research countering the vast cultural anxiety we possess around early learning. Even though children are not subjected to standardized testing around the Common Core in the early grades, there are in fact still Common Core standards to be met in prekindergarten. There is the expectation that children will enter kindergarten with a certain “reading readiness,” as Chancellor Fariña put it. The emphasis on joyful, play-centered early learning exists in a society where, within less than a decade, the percentage of kindergarten teachers who said children should be taught to read before first grade more than doubled, to 65 percent.

How the city’s educators will cultivate an environment of thrilling, digressive learning while aiming to reduce the enormous word deficits many children come to school with and at the same time keep the tensions and pressures of high-stakes testing from filtering down to the world of tiny people with Pixar lunchboxes remains one of the most significant and least explored questions around the expansion of prekindergarten. How they will nurture the distinct kind of teaching skill required to execute play-based learning successfully is yet another.

More than 4,000 teachers have received city training for the new road ahead. But it lasted only three days. The Education Department stresses that further coaching and professional development as the year proceeds will be considerable.

Teachers in the kind of classrooms that the administration aspires to build need more than patience and certificates. They need worldliness and quick intellectual reflexes. And they need engagement from parents who may not have had the time to expose their children to as many new experiences as they had hoped. Ms. Fariña says that parents will be regularly invited into classrooms and that their involvement is highly sought after. She recently wrote new parents a letter, she told me. She asked them to have dinner with their children and to talk to them. Because that, in the end, is some of the most important training of all.

Earlier Help for Children at Risk for Autism, by Shirley S. Wang

This article appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal. It is very important for any parent concerned about their child’s propensity to develop autism. While it is important for all parents to optimize the social interactions they have with their baby, it is especially important for parents who have other children with autism or who suspect their child might be delayed. To read this article at the Wall Street Journal, CLICK HERE.

Earlier Help for Children at Risk for Autism
A Study Examines Six-Month-Old Babies Showing Early Signs of Developmental Delays

Parents concerned that their babies are showing signs of autism may be able to help them develop normally, according to a small but intriguing new published study.

Researchers analyzed seven babies at high risk for developing autism. Most of those whose parents received 12 weekly sessions on how to more effectively improve their babies’ social communication and play caught up developmentally to babies who were considered low-risk and displayed no symptoms.

By 3 years of age, five of the seven babies were considered to be developing normally and had no diagnosis of autism-spectrum disorder, or ASD. Four had older siblings diagnosed with the condition. Researchers believe repeated social stimulation and making engagement with other people more appealing helped the babies learn more about social information, which is critical to their learning about language and communication.

“They went from a period of being behind to catching up or accelerating” in their development, says Sally J. Rogers, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis and one of the authors on the study, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Carmen Aguilar’s then-6-month-old son Emilio was identified as having developmental delays and enrolled in the study. She learned that she could optimize each opportunity for interacting with her son in a way she hadn’t fully realized before, such as during diaper changes. The Sacramento, Calif., mother, now 32, had already incorporated talking, singing and nurturing touches into her routine, but now she did more.

It’s long been known that early intervention benefits children with autism and related disorders characterized by social and communication deficits. But this study is thought to focus on intervention with the youngest children to date.

Autism can be diagnosed reliably around 2 years old. Preschool-age children who receive intensive therapy tend to do better than those with pronounced symptoms who are identified after that age. Despite experts’ push for early intervention, the average age of diagnosis for autism is around 4 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of children identified with autism has risen sharply since 2002, and the latest figures from a 2014 CDC report estimate 1 in 68 U.S. children are affected by autism or a related disorder. That climb could result from a combination of more children affected with the condition, plus greater awareness of it, experts say.

Some parents are more aware of the risk of autism and are tuning into their children’s social development earlier. “Parents would call us and say they were concerned,” Dr. Rogers says. “We would see the babies and be concerned, too.”

Dr. Rogers and her colleagues at UC Davis’s MIND Institute were already evaluating the babies regularly as part of a study of siblings of children previously diagnosed with autism. If the babies’ performance had been found to be below normal after tests several weeks apart, they were recommended for the intervention.

Such concerns included unusual behaviors with objects, such as fixating on them much longer than average babies their age. Parents often described these babies as neutral, undemanding, quiet and hard to read, Dr. Rogers says.

The intervention employed well-known principles used in treatment of older children with autism to increase the frequency of social interactions and maximize babies’ engagement.

Tuesday’s findings are a good first step in studying the intervention, but the tiny study can’t prove that the intervention was responsible for the children’s improvement. The babies could have simply caught up on their own.

It’s also impossible to know whether the children would have developed autism without intervention, says Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, who wasn’t involved in the current study but studies early intervention efforts for young children at risk for autism.

The symptoms the babies showed in the study clearly indicated the babies’ development was off and of concern, she says. And the results were encouraging because the high-risk babies didn’t get worse between 15 and 36 months. Dr. Landa calls this a “treacherous period” in development, when children with autism tend to show slowing development and an increase in symptoms.

The study was so small because it was a pilot to see if the researchers could identify babies at risk and teach parents in a limited amount of time techniques to carry out at home. The researchers would like to try a larger, randomized trial in the future.

Ms. Aguilar and her husband were shocked when doctors told them Emilio was showing “delays across the board” at 6 months of age. Since they have another son, Diego, now 9, with an ASD diagnosis, they were highly attuned to Emilio’s development, but they didn’t notice his developmental delays.

When told about the study of the new, untested intervention, they didn’t hesitate to participate. Diego benefited greatly from every intervention, which at times totaled 45 hours of therapy a week, Ms. Aguilar says.

The Aguilars learned exercises to optimize their interactions with Emilio, encouraging interactive play and sounds. For instance, if he made a sound, they aimed to mimic it to encourage Emilio to participate. “There are times you feel a little bit silly, but you have to get past that,” Ms. Aguilar said.

Over time, Emilio would then say it back, realizing he was playing a game that could go back and forth.

Though the intervention was meant to be brief at 12 sessions with parents and children, the goal was to see if parents could continue the techniques at home. The babies were assessed until they were 36 months old.

Ms. Aguilar says clinicians have told her Emilio, now 4, isn’t on the autism spectrum.

Even if the intervention itself isn’t the cause of the improvement, enhanced engagement with parents would likely help all babies, regardless of whether they have autism, Dr. Rogers says.

She is careful to point out that parents aren’t to blame for their children’s delays. “The parents were not doing anything wrong or anything that wasn’t helpful or sensitive to their babies,” she says. “They parent like any other parent. The difference is in the infants.”

Betty Goldberg was concerned about her son Sammy. He didn’t seem to say as many words as other children. Well-meaning friends and acquaintances told her not to worry, that boys spoke later than girls.

But clinicians at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, who were monitoring him because he has a sister with ASD, detected around 18 months that his development lagged behind that of other children.

The Goldbergs, who live in Baltimore, began working with clinicians in January to play more effectively with him. They talked in more basic terms with him, focusing on nouns and verbs instead of words suggesting more abstract concepts like time, to improve his communication.

Sammy, now 2, is doing well and has learned an “explosion of words,” Ms. Goldberg says.

Write to Shirley S. Wang at

Exercise Helps Children with ADHD in Study

Once again, I am sharing an article by one of my favorite Wall Street Journal writers, Sumathi Reddy. CLICK HERE to read that piece in the Journal today. An article on the same study appeared a few days ago in the NY Times. CLICK HERE to read that piece at the Times website. Bottom line – if you have a child who has trouble paying attention in class, or who has been diagnosed with ADHD, find a way to build more exercise or “brain breaks” into his or her day!

Exercise Helps Children with ADHD in Study, by Sumathi Reddy

Researchers Hope Physical Activity Can Stem Growing Use of Medications; ‘Brain Breaks’ in the Classroom

Researchers seeking alternatives to the use of drugs to treat ADHD in children are taking a closer look at exercise as a prescription.

A recent study found regular, half-hour sessions of aerobic activity before school helped young children with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder become more attentive and less moody. Other research found a single bout of exercise improved students’ attention and academic skills.

It isn’t clear whether physical exercise offers particular benefits to children with symptoms of ADHD, since students with typical development also showed improvements after the sessions. Children with the condition have greater-than-normal difficulty paying attention and may exhibit impulsive behavior, among other symptoms.

Some doctors who specialize in treating children diagnosed with ADHD say they often incorporate exercise in the therapy. And some teachers have begun getting students up from their desks for short bursts of physical activity, finding it helps them pay attention to their studies.

“It benefits all the kids, but I definitely see where it helps the kids with ADHD a lot,” said Jill Fritz, a fourth-grade teacher at Rutledge Pearson Elementary school in Jacksonville, Fla. “It really helps them get back on track and get focused.”

Growing numbers of children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with ADHD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated 11% of children had an ADHD diagnosis in 2011, the latest data available. That was up from 7.8% in 2003. Among all children in the U.S., 6.1% in 2011 were taking an ADHD medication, such as Adderall and Ritalin, up from 4.8% in 2007.

In a study published online Tuesday in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, students in kindergarten through second grade did 31 minutes of aerobic physical activity before the start of school for 12 weeks. Another group of students engaged in a sedentary, classroom-based activity. The study, conducted at schools in Vermont and Indiana, involved 202 students.

The participants included children with typical development and others who were classified as at-risk for developing ADHD because of elevated symptoms of the disorder based on parent and teacher assessments.

The study found children in the exercise groups showed greater improvements in areas such as attention and mood than did those in the sedentary groups. The benefits of the exercise applied similarly to typically developing children as well as children with ADHD symptoms.

“This is the first large-scale demonstration of improvements in ADHD symptoms from aerobic physical activity using a randomized controlled trial methodology,” said Betsy Hoza, lead author of the study and a professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont. “This shows promise as a new avenue of treatment for ADHD but more work needs to be done before we know for sure if it really is,” she said.

Dr. Hoza described the benefits as “moderate” but said the results were comparable with what would be expected from an ADHD behavioral intervention with a trained professional.

Many schools have cut back on the amount of time devoted to recess and physical education because of increasing curriculum demands. Instead, some schools have implemented programs to encourage exercise among students either before or after school, or in shorts periods of activity throughout the day.

Ms. Fritz, the fourth-grade teacher, uses an online program called GoNoodle that leads students in what it calls “brain breaks.” She said she puts it on three or four times a day between study periods. A two-minute program might lead the children in forming letters with their bodies, and a 10-minute session might run through a Zumba dance routine.

GoNoodle, a Nashville, Tenn., startup, launched the program last year. It says the product, offered in both free and premium versions, is currently being used by 130,000 elementary schoolteachers.

Another classroom program, ABC for Fitness, helps teachers use short bursts of activity of three to 10 minutes to accumulate 30 minutes a day. Activities include jumping in place and doing squats. The program was developed by David Katz, co-founder of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, and is offered free to school districts through Dr. Katz’s nonprofit, the Turn the Tide Foundation.

ABC for Fitness was evaluated in a 2010 report published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. The study, which took place in Missouri, compared three elementary schools using the program with two other schools not using it. Among the findings: Schools that adopted the exercise program for most of the academic year had a 33% decline in ADHD medications used by its students. That compared with a smaller, 7% decline in medication use in the schools not using the program.

A similar study done with a larger sample size is currently under review, said Dr. Katz, who headed up the research teams on both studies.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined the effects on attention and cognition from a single bout of activity. Forty children, age 8 to 10 years, spent 20 minutes either reading or exercising on a treadmill. After the tasks, the researchers measured the children’s attention and reading and math skills using computerized tests. They also measured electrical activity in the children’s brains.

After the tasks, test scores improved more for children who exercised than for those who were reading. Within the exercise group, children with ADHD symptoms scored better than the other children on one particular test that measured self-correction.

“Just 20 minutes of exercise of moderate intensity improved these core abilities to allocate attention and improved scholastic performance,” said Matthew Pontifex, lead author of the study and now an assistant professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University. The study was published in 2013 in the Journal of Pediatrics.

John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of several books on ADHD, says he generally includes exercise in treatment plans. He recommends morning exercise for children, even something as little as running around or jumping rope. He said exercise can help reduce the medication dosage a patient is taking, or perhaps replace it altogether.

Dr. Ratey is a consultant to Reebok’s BOKS program, which leads 45-minute vigorous-exercise sessions three to five times a week at about 1,000 elementary schools across the country. “It’s for kids in general but it has a big effect for kids with ADHD,” he said.

Put the Physical in Education, by Gretchen Reynolds

When confronted with an overly active child, many exasperated teachers and parents respond the same way: “Sit still!” It might be more effective, though, to encourage the child to run. Recent research suggests that even small amounts of exercise enable children to improve their focus and academic performance.

By now it’s well known that diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are increasingly widespread among American children: The label has been applied to about 11 percent of those between the ages of 4 and 17, according to the latest federal statistics. Interestingly, past studies have shown a strong correlation between greater aerobic fitness and attentiveness. But these studies did not answer the question of which comes first, the fitness or the attentional control.

Addressing that mystery was a goal of a study published last year in The Journal of Pediatrics. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited 40 8-to-10-year-old boys and girls, half of whom had A.D.H.D. They all took a series of computerized academic and attentional tests. Later, on one occasion they sat and read quietly for 20 minutes; on another, they walked briskly or jogged for 20 minutes on treadmills. After each task, the children wore caps containing electrodes that recorded electrical activity in the brain as they repeated the original tests.

The results should make administrators question the wisdom of cutting P.E. classes. While there were few measurable differences in any of the children’s scores after quiet reading, they all showed marked improvements in their math and reading comprehension scores after the exercise. More striking, the children with A.D.H.D. significantly increased their scores on a complicated test, one in which they had to focus on a single cartoon fish on-screen while other cartoon fish flashed on-screen to distract them. Brain-wave readings showed that after exercise, the children with A.D.H.D. were better able to regulate their behavior, which helped them pay attention. They responded more nimbly to mistakes like incorrect keystrokes. In short, the children with A.D.H.D. were better students academically after exercise. So were the students without A.D.H.D.

“In terms of a nonpharmacological means of dealing with attentional-control problems in children, exercise looks as if it could be quite beneficial,” says Charles Hillman, the professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois who oversaw the study. “Especially since it seems to also improve the academic performance of children who don’t have attentional-control problems.”

What’s more, adds Matthew Pontifex, now an assistant professor at Michigan State University and the study’s lead author, “You don’t need treadmills.” Just get restless children to march or hop or in some fashion be physically active for a few minutes. Coax their peers to join in.

Of course, even as it reinforces the accumulating evidence that exercise is good for brains, this short-term study leaves many questions unanswered: How much and what kind of physical activity is optimal? Does it permanently lessen attentional problems? Does exercise directly affect attention at all? In their study, the researchers speculate that exercise might sharpen mental focus in part by increasing brain activity in the frontal lobe. But understanding its mechanisms may not be needed for teachers and parents to consider deploying movement to counter wandering attentions.

The Movement Against High-Stakes Testing in School

Here is an excellent article by Robert Kolker, published last year in NY Magazine. It talks about the pressure put on children and families when their child must take and pass the harder high-stakes state tests that schools require today. To read this piece at the NY Magazine website, CLICK HERE.

The Opt-Outers
What happens if enough New York parents say they don’t want their kids to take tests?

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.”

The Power of the Earliest Memories, by Sue Shellenbarger

Sue Shellenbarger is one of my favorite writers. I love her articles on early childhood development. Here is one from the Wall Street Journal on how to help your child hold on to his or her earliest memories. You can read it at the Wall Street Journal website by CLICKING HERE. At the website, there is a podcast of Sue Shellenbarger talking about how children’s memories play a big role in helping to develop a sense of identity.

The Power of the Earliest Memories
Sorry, Facebook: Parents, Not Snapshots, Are the Way for Kids to Capture and Benefit From Memories

What you can remember from age 3 may help improve aspects of your life far into adulthood.

Children who have the ability to recall and make sense of memories from daily life—the first day of preschool, the time the cat died—can use them to better develop a sense of identity, form relationships and make sound choices in adolescence and adulthood, new research shows.

While the lives of many youngsters today are heavily documented in photos and video on social media and stored in families’ digital archives, studies suggest photos and videos have little impact. Parents play a bigger role in helping determine not just how many early memories children can recall, but how children interpret and learn from the events of their earliest experiences.

“Our personal memories define who we are. They bond us together,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta and an author of dozens of studies on the topic. Children whose parents encourage reminiscing and storytelling about daily events show better coping and problem-solving skills by their preteens, and fewer symptoms of depression, research shows.

The findings come from research on the mysteries of “childhood amnesia”—the fact that most people’s earliest memories fade by ages 6 to 8 as the brain hasn’t yet developed the capacity to retain them.

In the past two years, new research techniques—including improved data-modeling methods and growth in studies that track children’s memories over several years—have identified specific behaviors that help kids as old as 9 retain more vivid, detailed early memories.

Few childhood memory studies have included fathers. Ones with fathers show mothers are more likely to use a conversation style that helps children retain early memories.

Some memories help build a sense of self-continuity, or personal identity, says a 2011 study. People recall these memories when they “want to feel that I am the same person that I was before,” or “when I want to understand how I have changed from who I was before.” A hurricane survivor, for example, might recall the memory as proof that she can survive tough experiences and grow stronger as a result.

Other memories serve a directive function, and guide behavior. People recall these when making decisions or to avoid repeating past mistakes. A person whose dog was killed by a car is likely to call on that memory when deciding to keep pets on a leash.

A third type, social-bonding memories, involve relationships with others. People recall these when they want to strengthen relationships or form new ties, the study says. A college student who participated in a different study cited bedtime-reading sessions with his father, who read him the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as a motivator to build and maintain strong family ties in his adult life.

The ability to draw on all three types of memories predicts higher psychological well-being, a greater sense of purpose and more positive relationships, according to a study of 103 college students published last year in the journal Memory. The students were asked to recall four life events and cite reasons they regarded them as significant. Then they filled out assessments gauging their life satisfaction, self-esteem and psychological well-being.

Also, kids who can recall more specific memories are able to come up with more potential solutions to social problems, according to a 2011 University of New Hampshire study of 83 children ages 10 to 15.

Widaad Zaman, a co-author of studies on memory, says early memories help her 4-year-old daughter Haneefah build a sense of identity. She used to love petting dogs being walked by their neighbors, Dr. Zaman says. When a stray dog ran up to her in the family’s garage in Orlando, Fla., barking and sniffing at her, however, “she was screaming, and very scared,” Dr. Zaman says. The memory has made Haneefah cautious around dogs that aren’t on a leash. She sometimes tells her mother, “I used to be a person who liked dogs, but now I’m a person that doesn’t like dogs.”

The incident helped Haneefah learn to talk about her emotions—an ability linked in research to coping skills. Dr. Zaman encouraged her to describe her feelings and gave them a name—fear. “Were there other times when you were scared or you felt very frightened?” she asked. Haneefah has since learned to start conversations about her emotions, telling her mother, “I had a bad dream and I was scared,” Dr. Zaman says.

Few adults remember much before they were 3.5 years old, on average. Some people have credible memories from as early as 18 months of age, however, while others can’t recall much before the age of 8, says Patricia Bauer, a psychologist and a senior associate dean for research at Emory.

Early memories have a higher likelihood of surviving when children are encouraged to talk about them soon after the event. Adults can guide them to tell “a good story, that has a beginning, middle and an end,” and help them talk about what it means, says Dr. Bauer, a leading researcher on the topic. The key behavior by mothers is “deflecting” conversation back to the child—that is, tossing the ball back to the child repeatedly by asking, say, “We really had fun, didn’t we?” or, “Tell me more,” she says, based on findings published last year.

Children with mothers who have a “highly elaborative style” of reminiscing with their kids, asking open-ended who, what, where and when questions, are able at ages 4 and 5 to recall earlier, more detailed memories than other children, research shows. Parents with a more “repetitive” style of reminiscing, who ask questions with one-word answers and simply repeat them if the child can’t respond, have children with fewer and less vivid recollections.

The elaborative method proved to be easy to learn says Catherine Haden, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, a co-author of a 2003 study of parents of 39 preschoolers. Researchers gave parents a pamphlet to read, then showed them a video describing the elaborative style of conversing with children. Mothers who had the training readily adopted the elaborative style during a staged camping activity, and their kids recalled more details when questioned about the trip later.

Dr. Zaman says she sometimes has to make a conscious effort when she’s tired or busy to keep tossing the conversational ball back in Haneefah’s court. After a boat ride last weekend, Dr. Zaman encouraged Haneefah to describe the splashing of the waves and her favorite part, watching the driver bring the boat to shore. She wants to show Haneefah “her version of the story matters,” she says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades, By MARIA KONNIKOVA

This article appeared in the NY Times earlier this summer. I am a person who must write things down in order to retain the information. So this piece really resonated with me. If you would like to read it at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE. There are some great illustrations and an interesting podcast on the subject.

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

Does handwriting matter?

Not very much, according to many educators. The Common Core standards, which have been adopted in most states, call for teaching legible writing, but only in kindergarten and first grade. After that, the emphasis quickly shifts to proficiency on the keyboard.

But psychologists and neuroscientists say it is far too soon to declare handwriting a relic of the past. New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.

The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.

Dr. James attributes the differences to the messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: Not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable.

That variability may itself be a learning tool. “When a kid produces a messy letter,” Dr. James said, “that might help him learn it.”

Our brain must understand that each possible iteration of, say, an “a” is the same, no matter how we see it written. Being able to decipher the messiness of each “a” may be more helpful in establishing that eventual representation than seeing the same result repeatedly.

“This is one of the first demonstrations of the brain being changed because of that practice,” Dr. James said.

In another study, Dr. James is comparing children who physically form letters with those who only watch others doing it. Her observations suggest that it is only the actual effort that engages the brain’s motor pathways and delivers the learning benefits of handwriting.

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

It now appears that there may even be a difference between printing and cursive writing — a distinction of particular importance as the teaching of cursive disappears in curriculum after curriculum. In dysgraphia, a condition where the ability to write is impaired, sometimes after brain injury, the deficit can take on a curious form: In some people, cursive writing remains relatively unimpaired, while in others, printing does.

In alexia, or impaired reading ability, some individuals who are unable to process print can still read cursive, and vice versa — suggesting that the two writing modes activate separate brain networks and engage more cognitive resources than would be the case with a single approach.

Dr. Berninger goes so far as to suggest that cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia. A 2012 review suggests that cursive may be particularly effective for individuals with developmental dysgraphia — motor-control difficulties in forming letters — and that it may aid in preventing the reversal and inversion of letters.

Cursive or not, the benefits of writing by hand extend beyond childhood. For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information. Not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.

Two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.

Not every expert is persuaded that the long-term benefits of handwriting are as significant as all that. Still, one such skeptic, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, says the new research is, at the very least, thought-provoking.

“With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important,” he said. He added, after pausing to consider, “Maybe it helps you think better.”

Maria Konnikova is a contributing writer for The New Yorker online and the author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”

Mayor Offers Parents Easier Access to Special Education Funding

I was heartened to read this article in the NY Times about NYC’s mayor making it easier for families to collect reimbursement when their children need to go to private school due to learning or developmental delays. When my daughter, Schuyler, was in middle school, we needed a special school for several years due to learning disabilities she had. It took us years and much effort to get the city to pay us back for the programs we had to put her in so that she could get the education she needed. I’m happy to see that other NYC parents won’t have to go through the same thing in years to come. CLICK HERE to read the article at the NY Times website.

De Blasio Offers Easier Access to City Money for Special Education
By AL BAKER JUNE 24, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a series of changes on Tuesday to make it easier for special-needs students in New York to receive private schooling at public expense, a practice that has led to frequent litigation as the city has tried to keep such spending under control.

His plans, announced at a news conference at City Hall, forestalled a bill in Albany that would have forced the city to make changes to the process. The bill, passed by the State Senate, was halted in the State Assembly last week after Mr. de Blasio promised to make the changes on his own.

At the news conference, the mayor revealed how he would streamline the process for thousands of parents each year who ask the city to pay for private schooling because they believe that public schools do not meet the needs of their children, a right established by court rulings.

If the city proposes a public school placement and the parent decides to move the child to a private school that serves special-needs children, the mayor said, the city will seek to resolve the case within 15 days “where settlement is appropriate,” a change that could speed up the often monthslong process of litigating the case.

Mr. de Blasio emphasized that the city would “reserve the right” to deny a claim if the city felt it did not make sense.

“But that will be the exception, not the norm,” said Mr. de Blasio, flanked by Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, and Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the Assembly. “We believe in a parent-friendly, family-friendly approach, that we’re going to be able to come to resolution quickly in the vast majority of cases and help parents get what they need.”

The city will require parents receiving tuition payments to fill out paperwork every three years, rather than every year.

In cases where a family has won a claim, but the city is appealing, the city will pay the tuition while the appeal is pending. And the city will stop making parents reapply for tuition payments every year as long as the student’s specialized education plan remains the same.

“This is a good initial step towards reducing the unnecessary frustration that parents of students with special needs face as they struggle to find an appropriate education for their children,” Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, said in a statement. “Now we have to make sure they follow through.”

Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, had adopted a more adversarial posture toward such cases after a consultant said the city could save money by challenging requests more often.

The Education Department spends about $45,000 per year to educate each full-time special education student inside the public school system, according to a de Blasio administration official. By contrast, the average cost to educate a student in a private school is around $65,000, the official said. The city is projected to spend more than $200 million on such cases this year, up from $144 million in 2009.

“This is going to open the floodgates for parents who use this mechanism to get their fancy private schools paid for on the public dime,” said Elizabeth Lynam, the vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a budget watchdog group. “Instead of lowering the barrier to private school reimbursement, the department should do a better job of developing more appropriate public school services.”

Pressure was mounting in the state capital for the changes, particularly from a vocal body of Orthodox Jewish parents seeking to place their special-needs students in religious schools. The bill that nearly passed this month would have made it easier for all New York City parents seeking private school tuition, not just religious ones.

For one parent, Donna Lewis, 60, her battle has been emotionally and financially taxing. Each year, since her daughter Nabila received a diagnosis of an intellectual disability in the eighth grade, the city agreed to pay her tuition. But last year, just as Nabila, now 20, was switching into a post-high school program, the city took her case to a court hearing, forcing Ms. Lewis to fight for her daughter — and lose. She now owes $50,000 in tuition.

The battle itself was nasty, said Ms. Lewis, of East New York, Brooklyn, and had “an air of condescension, like maybe my daughter doesn’t deserve this.”

Now, she said, she hopes the de Blasio administration’s new strategy will help.

“I don’t want to be in a collection agency all my life,” she said.

Parents Struggle with Common Core Math

This interesting article appeared in the NY Times on June 29. It discusses the difficulties parents (and teachers and students) are having adapting to the new way of thinking required for Common Core math. To read the article at the NY Times website, CLICK HERE. If your child is going to be learning Common Core math and ELA this year, be sure to check out all the lessons and practice we have for both at

Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling

GREENWELL SPRINGS, La. — Rebekah and Kevin Nelams moved to their modest brick home in this suburb of Baton Rouge seven years ago because it has one of the top-performing public school districts in the state. But starting this fall, Ms. Nelams plans to home-school the couple’s four elementary-age children.

The main reason: the methods that are being used for teaching math under the Common Core, a set of academic standards adopted by more than 40 states.

Ms. Nelams said she did not recognize the approaches her children, ages 7 to 10, were being asked to use on math work sheets. They were frustrated by the pictures, dots and sheer number of steps needed to solve some problems. Her husband, who is a pipe designer for petroleum products at an engineering firm, once had to watch a YouTube video before he could help their fifth-grade son with his division homework.

“They say this is rigorous because it teaches them higher thinking,” Ms. Nelams said. “But it just looks tedious.”

Chrispin Alcindor at P.S. 397 in Brooklyn. Once a model student, he is near the bottom of his class under new standards.Common Core, in 9-Year-Old EyesJUNE 14, 2014
Across the country, parents who once conceded that their homework expertise petered out by high school trigonometry are now feeling helpless when confronted with first-grade work sheets. Stoked by viral postings online that ridicule math homework in which students are asked to critique a phantom child’s thinking or engage in numerous steps, along with mockery from comedians including Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert, these parents are adding to an increasingly fierce political debate about whether the Common Core is another way in which Washington is taking over people’s lives.

In Louisiana, the dispute intensified this month when Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wanted to withdraw the state from the Common Core, although others questioned his authority to do so. Already, the legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have repealed the Common Core standards, and for many candidates running for political office, their views on the standards have become crucial election issues.

The new instructional approach in math seeks to help children understand and use it as a problem-solving tool instead of teaching them merely to repeat formulas over and over. They are also being asked to apply concepts to real-life situations and explain their reasoning.

This is partly because employers are increasingly asking for workers who can think critically and partly because traditional ways of teaching math have yielded lackluster results. In global tests, American students lag behind children in several Asian countries and some European nations, and the proportion of students achieving advanced levels is low. Common Core slims down curriculums so that students can spend more time grasping specific mathematical concepts.

The guidelines are based on research that shows that students taught conceptually retain the math they learn. And many longtime math teachers, including those in organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, have championed the standards.

“I taught math very much like the Common Core for many years,” said Linda M. Gojak, the former president of the National Council of Teachers of Math. “When parents would question it, my response was ‘Just hang in there with me,’ and at the end of the year they would come and say this was the best year their kids had in math.”

But for parents, the transition has been hard. Moreover, textbooks and other materials have not yet caught up with the new standards, and educators unaccustomed to learning or teaching more conceptually are sometimes getting tongue-tied when explaining new methodologies.

“It is incredibly easy for these new instructional approaches to look good on paper or to work well in pilot classrooms in the hands of highly skilled experts,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, “and then to turn into mushy, lazy confusing goop as it spreads out to classrooms and textbooks.”

Even supporters of the Common Core say changes are being pushed too quickly. Rushing to institute a new math curriculum does not make sense if you are “planning to get the job done in a rational way,” said Phil Daro, one of three principal writers of the Common Core math standards.

Tensions over the Common Core have been heightened because the standards are tied to new standardized tests being introduced in many states. Teachers are fretting that their performance ratings will increasingly depend on how their students perform on these tests.

While several states have postponed the consequences of test results on teacher evaluations, many educators feel the pressure.

“Imagine, if you will, if the state government came down to Detroit and said in six weeks you have to be 100 percent metric,” said Jonathan Marceau, a fourth-grade teacher in Shelby Township, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit, who is worried that some algebraic and geometric concepts are now being introduced too early for children to absorb.

“Detroit says, ‘Great, we can do that, but we have to retool, retrain and make sure people have gone through the growth curve on this thing, and it will probably take more than six weeks,’ ” he said. “The government says, ‘Tough, we’re not going to give you any manual or tools for this transition, but if anybody makes a car with a defect, they are going to get fired.’ ”

Some educators said that with the Common Core’s focus on questioning lines of reasoning and explaining answers, the new methods were particularly challenging for students with learning disabilities, or those who struggle orally or with writing.

“To make a student feel like they’re not good at math because they can’t explain something that to them seems incredibly obvious clearly isn’t good for the student,” said W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Some parents of children who have typically excelled at math find the curriculum laboriously slow.

In Slidell, an affluent suburb of New Orleans, Jane Stenstrom is concerned that her daughter, who was assigned to a class for gifted students as a third grader last year, did not progress quickly enough. “For the advanced classes, it’s restricting them from being able to move forward,” Ms. Stenstrom said one recent afternoon.

Her daughter, Anna Grace, 9, said she grew frustrated “having to draw all those little tiny dots.”

“Sometimes I had to draw 42 or 32 little dots, sometimes more,” she said, adding that being asked to provide multiple solutions to a problem could be confusing. “I wanted to know which way was right and which way was wrong.”

Math experts say learning different approaches helps students develop problem-solving skills beyond math. Employers “want a generation of people who can think and reason and can construct an argument,” said Steven Leinwand, a researcher for the American Institutes of Research.

In Louisiana, John White, state superintendent of education, said that politics aside, applying the Common Core math standards would take time.

“This is a shift for an entire society,” he said. “No one should be under any illusion that it’s going to take just a year or two to rethink the way that we teach mathematics, because it is really challenging.” The State Education Department has said it will not use scores from Common Core tests in teacher evaluations for the next two years.

Laci Maniscalco, a third-grade teacher in Lafayette, La., who said that sometimes her students cried during the past year when working on problems under the new curriculum, said she had seen genuine progress in their understanding — and in her own, as well.

“I have told my students countless times that I wish I had been taught the way you are having the opportunity to learn,” she said.

Correction: July 1, 2014
An article on Monday about the struggle to teach math under the Common Core academic standards referred incorrectly to Linda M. Gojak’s association with the National Council of Teachers of Math. She is a former president, not the organization’s current one.

A Summer of Extra Reading and Hope for Fourth Grade

Here is an excellent article about the importance of mastering reading by the third grade. If your child is approaching third grade and is struggling with reading, you must do whatever you can to get him or her up to speed. I highly recommend that you work with the Reading Kingdom program that is part of your membership at To read this article on the NY Times website, CLICK HERE.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Educators like to say that third grade is the year when students go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Yet one afternoon last month, there was Anthony, a 10-year-old whose small frame was highlighted by baggy black cargo shorts, struggling with “Tiny the Snow Dog,” a picture book with only a handful of words per page. “This is Tiny,” he read to his teacher, Holly Bryant. “He is my dog.”

Anthony is one of about 1,900 children from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District who failed the standardized reading test given to all North Carolina third graders in the spring. Under a recent law similar to those in more than a dozen states, such students in North Carolina may be required to repeat the grade. The law, being applied this year to third graders for the first time, poses a set of thorny educational challenges.

About 1,500 students — or one of every eight who completed third grade in Charlotte in June — ended up enrolling in literacy school, along with Anthony, who has been attending four days a week for the past six weeks.

Fourteen states in 2012 enacted policies either mandating or strongly recommending that schools hold back students who could not read properly by third grade. Districts in Arizona and Colorado also offered summer school for struggling third-grade readers for the first time this year, then will consider whether to hold back some of them before the new school year begins.

While the summer courses are likely to make some difference, teachers here and around the country say the third-grade laws are another example of lofty educational goals paired with insufficient resources. A six-week course, they say, cannot possibly make up for what Anthony and the others need: the extra help and focus should start in preschool.

“It’s like, O.K., we’re going to do this, and if kids don’t read at third-grade level, they’re going to be held back,” said Bill Anderson, a former principal and executive director of MeckEd, an education advocacy group in Mecklenberg County. “And, oh, by the way, there’s not going to be any money for this. School districts just have to figure this out.”

In North Carolina, the state provided some funding, but districts also relied on nonprofit foundations to supplement the costs of the summer reading academies. State budget reductions in recent years have led to larger class sizes and a reduction in teaching assistants, even in the youngest elementary classes. Fewer than a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Although many of the new state laws do include provisions requiring schools to identify and support students who show signs of reading difficulties as early as kindergarten, the biggest focus does not come until third grade, along with the consequences for schools and students.

“The emphasis is in the wrong place, and it ought to be much earlier,” said Barbara O’Brien, policy director of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a nonprofit advocacy group, and a former lieutenant governor of Colorado. “I think it’s bittersweet that we have this almost national focus and agreement on what’s important, and it’s at a time when no one wants to spend money to do things the right way.”

Educators also say that many out-of-school factors contribute to a child’s reading ability. Research suggests and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a policy recommending that parents read to their babies from birth.

The policies follow the pattern of many other educational reform efforts that impose consequences for failure to meet certain goals. “It’s sort of the hammer falls under certain conditions,” said Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. In the absence of a strong reading curriculum and teacher training between pre-K and third grade, he said, holding students back a grade seems “in some sense unfair to kids.”

In Florida, one of the pioneers in holding back third graders because of inadequate reading skills, all teachers are required to assess children’s reading levels starting in kindergarten and to offer extra support for children who have trouble learning to read.

“Principals did start looking at this as, ‘We’ve got four years to make sure this happens,’ ” said Mary Laura Bragg, vice president of advocacy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, “not just, ‘Oh, we’ve got to start looking at this in third grade.’ ” Ms. Bragg served as head of reading initiatives with the Florida Department of Education under Mr. Bush, who backed the state’s policy on holding back struggling third-grade readers when he was governor.

Florida introduced its policy in 2002, and between that year and 2013, the percentage of fourth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose to 39 percent from 27 percent, one of the largest improvements in the country. Research using Florida’s test results has also shown that, on average, students who repeated third grade performed better on standardized reading tests through middle school than peers who had scored just a few points above the cutoff for moving up to fourth grade.

But lasting results are harder to document. The percentage of Florida eighth graders reaching proficiency in reading on national tests rose from 29 percent in 2002 to just 33 percent in 2013, similar to increases elsewhere in the country. Other studies show that students who must repeat a grade drop out of high school at higher rates than their peers.

In North Carolina, the law originally mandated a repeated grade and summer school for any third grader who could not demonstrate proficiency at reading either on the end-of-year standardized test or other measures, including portfolios amassed by teachers. The policy offered exemptions for students with learning disabilities or those who had been learning English for two years or less. After pressure from parents, teachers and advocacy groups, the Legislature modified the law to offer school districts and principals more flexibility in assessing students’ reading abilities and in placing them after third grade. Also, while districts had to offer the summer reading classes, struggling students were not required to attend.

With states starting to align standardized tests with the Common Core, new academic standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states, more students have fallen short of proficiency guidelines than in the past. That could mean many more third graders subject to the new policies about repeating the year.

The challenges for teachers were evident in Charlotte on a recent morning. In one classroom, Emily Hill, who teaches kindergarten during the school year, was instructing two 9-year-olds on how to pronounce vowel combinations like “ai,” “ie” and “ee.”

In another class, full of students who had tested at around a second-grade reading level at the end of third grade, Ullanda Tyler, a teacher with 11 years of experience, had moved beyond basic phonics to work on vocabulary and skills like inference.

Yet students still had trouble explaining definitions she had recently taught.

All students who attended the summer classes took a test at the end to measure their progress. Later this month, principals in Charlotte will decide which of the students must repeat third grade.

Reading experts said children should not be in such a position this late in elementary school.

“If I were a parent and I had a struggling third grader, I would get whatever help I could to help get them up to speed,” said Deborah J. Stipek, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. “But if I were a state policymaker or superintendent, I would say, ‘What can we offer these kids in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade so they aren’t behind when they get to third grade?’ ”

Tests Lock in Learning – The Research is in!

This is a wonderful article that appeared in Today’s NY Times. CLICK HERE to read it at the Times website. It talks about the fact that frequent, short quizzes after material is learned helps to lock in that learning in ways that reviewing the material does not. Teachers should integrate frequent, low-stakes quizzing to help people retain more of what they learn.

How Tests Make Us Smarter, by Henry L. Roediger III

TESTS have a bad reputation in education circles these days: They take time, the critics say, put students under pressure and, in the case of standardized testing, crowd out other educational priorities. But the truth is that, used properly, testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it.

In one study I published with Jeffrey D. Karpicke, a psychologist at Purdue, we assessed how well students remembered material they had read. After an initial reading, students were tested on some passages by being given a blank sheet of paper and asked to recall as much as possible. They recalled about 70 percent of the ideas.

Other passages were not tested but were reread, and thus 100 percent of the ideas were re-exposed. In final tests given either two days or a week later, the passages that had been tested just after reading were remembered much better than those that had been reread.

What’s at work here? When students are tested, they are required to retrieve knowledge from memory. Much educational activity, such as lectures and textbook readings, is aimed at helping students acquire and store knowledge. Various kinds of testing, though, when used appropriately, encourage students to practice the valuable skill of retrieving and using knowledge. The fact of improved retention after a quiz — called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect — makes the learning stronger and embeds it more securely in memory.

This is vital, because many studies reveal that much of what we learn is quickly forgotten. Thus a central challenge to learning is finding a way to stem forgetting.

The question is how to structure and use tests effectively. One insight that we and other researchers have uncovered is that tests serve students best when they’re integrated into the regular business of learning and the stakes are not make-or-break, as in standardized testing. That means, among other things, testing new learning within the context of regular classes and study routines.

Students in classes with a regimen of regular low- or no-stakes quizzing carry their learning forward through the term, like compounded interest, and they come to embrace the regimen, even if they are skeptical at first. A little studying suffices at exam time — no cramming required.

Moreover, retrieving knowledge from memory is more beneficial when practice sessions are spaced out so that some forgetting occurs before you try to retrieve again. The added effort required to recall the information makes learning stronger. It also helps when retrieval practice is mixed up — whether you’re practicing hitting different kinds of baseball pitches or solving different solid geometry problems in a random sequence, you are better able later to discriminate what kind of pitch or geometry problem you’re facing and find the correct solution.

Surprisingly, researchers have also found that the most common study strategies — like underlining, highlighting and rereading — create illusions of mastery but are largely wasted effort, because they do not involve practice in accessing or applying what the students know.

When my colleagues and I took our research out of the lab and into a Columbia, Ill., middle school class, we found that students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once and subsequently quizzed three times, compared with a C+ on material that had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.

Notably, Mary Pat Wenderoth, a biology professor at the University of Washington, has found that this benefit holds for women and underrepresented minorities, two groups that sometimes experience a high washout rate in fields like the sciences.

This isn’t just a matter of teaching students to be better test takers. As learners encounter increasingly complex ideas, a regimen of retrieval practice helps them to form more sophisticated mental structures that can be applied later in different circumstances. Think of the jet pilot in the flight simulator, training to handle midair emergencies. Just as it is with the multiplication tables, so it is with complex concepts and skills: effortful, varied practice builds mastery.

We need to change the way we think about testing. It shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work, but the means by which students progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way and redirecting their effort to areas of weakness where more work is needed to achieve proficiency.

Standardized testing is in some respects a quest for more rigor in public education. We can achieve rigor in a different way. We can instruct teachers on the use of low-stakes quizzing in class. We can teach students the benefits of retrieval practice and how to use it in their studying outside class. These steps cost little and cultivate habits of successful learning that will serve students throughout their lives.

Henry L. Roediger III is a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author of “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.”

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