The Ghosts of Reading First

This week, the Center for American Progress released a new report, “A Look at the Education Crisis: Tests, Standards, and the Future of of American Education.” In it, the researchers at CAP take a look at recent NAEP data to see if the state of public education is as bad as some say or on a rocketing upward trajectory as others say (guess it really depends on who your friends or online trolls are).

USA Today’s Greg Toppo has a great summary of the report here. We’ve all seen that high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. But it is hard to celebrate such a statistic when we still see that only one in five low-income fourth graders achieved reading proficiency on NAEP. Or that only 52 percent of “nonpoor” fourth graders were able to hit that proficient mark.

It doesn’t get better for eighth graders in reading. Only a third of them are proficient in cities like Charlotte, Austin, Miami, and San Diego. Boston comes it at only 28 percent proficient. NYC 27 percent. Chicago 24 percent. Philly 16 percent. Cleveland 11 percent. And Detroit at only 7 percent.

So why do these eighth grade numbers matter so much? Most of the students in the eighth grade NAEP sample never attended school when Reading First was law of the land. Sure, they may have benefited from textbooks that were developed to meet RF requirements years prior. And some of their teachers may have utilized the PD and supports they received during the height of RF. But each of these kids has now gone through eight or so years of public school where scientifically based reading instruction was not demanded nor expected.

These latest NAEP numbers, and the analysis from CAP make one thing very clear. We need scientifically based reading instruction in the classroom. Our teachers need to be prepared for it. Our elementary schools need to be based around it. Our students need to be instructed in it. And our families need to know it when they see it (and know when they aren’t seeing it in their community schools).

Yes, Reading First had implementation issues. Yes, at times it was more steel hammer than velvet glove. But can we really say we shouldn’t be using what is known to be effective in teaching kids to read? Can we really say, with all the data that we have, that early reading instruction based on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension isn’t the correct path? Can we really say a a philosophical approach to reading trumps and research-based instructional approach? And can we really say we should’t be using what is proven effective in the classroom?

For those who condemn the Common Core’s emphasis on non-fiction texts, it is ridiculous to assume that a low-income eighth grader can read the rich literature sought when only a third of them are reading proficient in the first place.

When scientifically based reading instruction became the law of the land in 2002, it was an approach that was embraced by all comers. The teachers unions. The principals groups. The superintendents. The teacher education community. The business community. All saw the value in using proven-effective approaches to instruction. All saw the need to do something to improve literacy, particularly with low-income learners. All embraced SBRR.

We need to find that solidarity again. The most recent eighth grade NAEP scores show us that taking a different path has failed too many kids … again. We need to remember that literacy is not, or at least shouldn’t be, a political issue. Whether we want all kids to pass a high-stakes, state-based, standards-aligned exam or we want all children to find a love for learning and literature, the ability to read is a non-negotiable.

While Reading First has now been relegated to the history books for the past decade, we cannot and should not ignore the hundreds of thousands of research studies that showed the effectiveness of scientifically based instruction. We cannot and should not ignore the reality that, when SBRR was in full effect in the early to mid 2000s, reading proficiency rates were on the rise, both with the low-income students the program targeted and other learners who benefited from the focus on SBRR-based instructional materials and PD. And we cannot and should not ignore that far too many kids — particularly those that are black, brown, or low-income — are struggling when it comes to reading … and we know just what should be done to help them.


Data Literacy and Teacher Ed

When one thinks about the pieces that go into effective teaching and effective teaching education, much comes to mind. Content knowledge. An understanding of effective teaching techniques. Classroom management skills. Teamwork. The ability to wear about a zillion different hats, depending on the situation, the student, and the desired outcome.

Yes, we expect classroom teachers today to be educators and guidance counselors. Nurses and social workers. Juvenile justice surrogates and substitute parents. And now, of course, with such an emphasis on student testing and the use of assessment data in the classroom, we now look to educators to also serve as psychometricians.

Unfortunately, too few teacher preparation programs really do an adequate job in preparing aspiring educators with the knowledge and abilities to both understand the data provided to them by the school district and then put it to use in their classrooms. And even when a teacher is data literate, too often they are given student achievement data too late in the term (or after the term is completed) for them to even attempt to tailor instruction to meet the needs of their particular classes or students.

Step one in the process is understanding what it means to be “data literate.” What do we expect teachers to both know and be able to do with student assessment data? And how do we make sure that today’s classroom educators have the preservice and inservice supports to actually do what so many of us are asking of them?

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation recently released a series of case studies that look specifically at this topic. In partnership with WestEd, the Dell Foundation examined what teacher preparation programs like those at Western Oregon University, Relay Graduate School of Education, Boston Teacher Residency, and Urban Teachers are doing to key in on the data literacy need. (Full disclosure, Eduflack has worked with Urban Teachers in the past, and just thinks the world of the program they have built.)

Coming out of these case studies, Dell — along with WestEd and the Data Quality Campaign — offered a set of nine skills that 21st century educators must possess to be “data literate” in today’s classrooms. They must:

  1. Define “data” broadly to include standardized test data as well as broader academic, socioeconomic, situational, behavioral and environmental data that affect student performance.
  2. Understand how to identify and apply critical grade-level standards in the context of individual students’ needs.
  3. Prioritize and validate relevant student data as it relates to learning and standards mastery.
  4. Develop high-quality informal and formal assessments in order to collect usable data on students’ progress against those standards.
  5. Administer assessments on an ongoing basis to monitor student understanding.
  6. Develop responsive lesson plans and differentiate instruction based on assessment and other contextual data.
  7. Use data-informed insights to communicate student achievement and needs to students and their families.
  8. Use data appropriately, knowing what conclusions can be drawn from what types of assessments.
  9. Understand that, although data is important, data alone does not define a student. Empathy and relationships matter.

Without question, this is asking an awful lot from teachers, particularly from those who never signed up for such “data-literate” priorities when they themselves first went through their own ed school experiences. But it isn’t too much to ask when one thinks of the students in their classrooms, what we expect of them, and the aspirations they may have for their own futures.

One can question the Common Core and its assessments and still believe in the need for data literacy. One can support the opt-out movement and still believe in data literacy. And one can demand the most stringent of student data safeguards and protections and still believe in data literacy for teachers.

At its core, data literacy is about improved teaching and improved learning. It is about further empowering teachers to do all they can to connect with that student or students who are struggling. It is about getting the most out of the classroom setting, and being able to demonstrate that the most has been achieved.

Testing has always been and will always be a key component of the K-12 learning experience. Regardless of what happens to a particular assessment instrument, assessments in the general sense will always be part of the learning process. It is the responsible thing to do to make sure those assessments are put to good use.

No, we don’t test kids for testing’s sake. We assess so we can improve the instructional process for a given class or child. And we can’t do that — or at least can’t do it well — if educators are not data literate.

In Search of That School Choice Unicorn

As most realize, this week is National School Choice Week. By organizers’ count, there will be more than 16,000 events this week across the country, with more than 230 local or state officials recognizing the event and wearing the trademark yellow scarves all in the name of choice.

Dear ol’ Eduflack was over on KNX 1070 NewsRadio in Los Angeles to discuss what school choice really meant. There, producers wanted to dig a little deeper than the traditional talking points, and try to learn what school choice really means for California families.

Surprisingly, California already seems to be close to an ideal when it comes to choice. Nearly one in four school-aged children is already enjoying school choice, with 9 percent going to private schools, 8 percent attending public charters, 5 percent going to magnets, and almost three percent choosing the homeschool option. It’s a relative cornucopia of K-12 school pathways. It’s a quarter of students (and their families) opting out of the traditional public school pathways and choosing another route seen as best for them and their young learners.

But questions from the show’s hosts demonstrate how school choice has become a quest for that edu-unicorn. That parents are choosing charter schools because it guarantees a better education, a better chance at graduation, and a better chance of getting into a good college. That families are choosing private schools because the teachers are just plain better there. That homeschooling ensures the most successful path of them all.

I’ll admit, charter schools are not at the top of the list of edu-topics Eduflack likes to talk about. In the current rhetorical frame, we forget that charters were originally intended as incubators to help improve the traditional public schools (and thus education for all students, and not just the select number who get into charters). We forget that parents originally chose charters because they were the “safer” option, and keeping kids safe was the top priority. We overlook that for every terrific charter school – like those in Democracy Prep – we also have a number of lousy charters. And we can’t miss that many charters promised to build a better mousetrap under the available frames, only to come back and tell voters that the only way they get those results is through a major influx of new tax dollars (despite never saying they needed to match traditional publics dollar for dollar to deliver the promised results).

So I took my time on KNX to correct a few things:

  • The research is mixed on the academic differences between charter schools and traditional publics. There are some studies that show a real difference, some that don’t. The ultimate answer lies in the specific charter school and its specific successes, not in it simply being a charter school.
  • Yes, charters do a good job graduating kids and moving them on to college. This is particularly true when one compares inner-city charters with the public high schools we used to call “drop-out factories.”
  • Private schools are indeed an option. But few families can afford to send their kids to the top private schools, even when vouchers were in place (and they never were in Cali). Even with vouchers, choice usually resulted in attendance at Catholic schools, not the top-tier privates attended by the children of presidents, governors, and senators. And those Catholic schools can also be hit or miss.
  • Before choosing a private school, parents need to realize that they are already paying for the traditional public schools and the charter schools already in their communities. Without vouchers, they get none of those tax dollars back, and then have to pay for private schools out of pocket, meaning they are paying twice for the same K-12 education.
  • Homeschooling is indeed a viable choice, but families must be realistic about what it entails. Homeschoolers will still be competing with other students when it comes to college admission. They largely still have to take the same standardized tests to get there. So it falls to parents to both develop and administer a high-quality instructional program that moves students successfully down those paths.

I don’t offer these points to discourage anyone. Eduflack did so to make sure that we see the whole picture when discussing our kids’ education and the options available to them. A great education can be had from even the most struggling of traditional public schools. A great charter school doesn’t necessarily work for every child. And writing a check to a private school doesn’t guarantee a good education at all.

Parents need to be educated consumers when it comes to their children’s education. They need to understand data about enrollment and student retention and student performance. They need to understand what is expected from educators in the school and how they are supported. They need to know what tests are taken AND how assessment data is used as part of the teaching process. And they need to determine what is most important to them – the general safety of their child, increased odds of getting into college, a diverse curriculum filled with art and non-core subjects, a disciplinarian approach that emphasizes respect, or something completely different.

We can’t find all of these items in one school. As parents, all we can do is search for the best learning options for our own kids. And we must recognize that the edu-unicorn — that one school that offers everything we every dreamed of and more — likely isn’t out there. School choice is about prioritization. Of all the factors, which is most important to the family? If we can’t have everything, what is the non-negotiable?

School Choice Week is ultimately about learning. It is about understanding the options and really knowing what each of those options mean when it comes to our kids and to our families. It doesn’t mean we need to make a new choice or choose a new path. It means we need to be vigilant about knowing what is available to our kids and what is best for their behaviors, learning styles, and long-term goals.



Do We Care About Education in the Prez Race?

A few weeks ago, Eduflack penned a piece for Education Post on how the presidential candidates from both parties are not talking about education issues (beyond some of the red meat on Common Core and college affordability), but probably should. Specifically, I urged a deeper discussion on issues like accountability, teacher education, and the federal/state role in education.

Earlier this week, ASCD released its weekly EdPulse poll, this time focused on what edu-issues ASCD readers wanted to see presidential candidates focus on. No surprise, college affordability came in first place with 26 percent. Student testing was a close second at 24 percent, and the new ESEA was at 23 percent (particularly interesting because we still don’t quite know what is in the new law). Following up the rear were teacher evaluations (7 percent), Common Core (4 percent), and charter schools (3 percent).

We can talk about the need for presidential candidates to talk about education, but the simple fact is the American voter doesn’t vote based on education issues. For decades, education has been an “also ran” when it comes to campaign policy issues. And nowhere is this clearer than in the most recent piece from the incomparable Rick Hess.

Over at Ed Week, Hess takes an interesting look at how public concern for education issues stacked up in presidential years 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. In looking at the numbers, we see that education was the strongest issue in 2000. It should be of no surprise, then, that we elected (or the Supreme Court selected, based on your perspective) a president who honestly and enthusiastically focused on education issues.

Then we see the nosedive. A huge drop off in 2004, when NCLB rules the roost and people understood what presidential interest in education looked like at a policy level. Four years later didn’t fare much better, despite the efforts of Ed in ’08. And not much change in 2012 either.

Even in today in 2016, with all of the worries about Common Core and testing and college costs and federal oversteps and all of the things that go bump in the edu-night, education interest in the presidential campaigns is shaping up to be only about a third the priority it was in 2000.

It’s a sad fact … and sadly predictable. We will rally around a candidate who wants to build a giant wall around the country or some other ridiculous idea, but we won’t give a second thought to a candidate who makes public education a cornerstone of a campaign.

If the voters don’t prioritize education at the ballot boxes, we can’t expect candidates to give a damn.


Moldy Classrooms and Charter Hatred

Today, Eduflack is going back to the very roots of this blog, when we first wrote on the intersection of education and communications. Where we looked at how effective (or ineffective) we were in talking about and advocating for real school improvement.

In recent weeks, Eduflack has been absolutely sickened to see the articles about the facilities atrocities at the Detroit Public Schools. One can see a Detroit educator offer a guided tour of the problems here.  One can read more about it here in a great Medium piece.

No educator should have to teach in conditions like this. No students can be expected to learn in conditions like this. And in a city that has some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation, it is just unconscionable that this is considered by some as an acceptable 21st century teaching and learning environment.

So it is understandable when we hear of massive teacher “sick outs” in Detroit, where schools are forced to close because not enough teachers come in and subs either can’t be found or can’t be paid. It is even more understandable when one learns that teaching in modern-day Detroit can mean missed paychecks and no job security (despite a collectively bargained contract). The only way many educators can ensure their voices are heard with regard to teaching conditions is by exercising their First Amendment rights – speaking out and then assembling anywhere but their place of employment.

But those well-meaning educators and the demands to fix some deplorable learning conditions are done a grave disservice when the protests are lumped into the white noise of the current education debates.

Yesterday, as 85 Detroit schools were closed by sick-out at a time when President Barack Obama was visiting the Motor City, a teacher and teacher activist was asked about the educator protests. Instead of talking about crumbling buildings or overstaffed classrooms, issues that any parent would immediately embrace, he had to make it political. Instead, of facilities, this was about taking on the Governor and trying to block charter schools.

Or more specifically, ““We have got to stop this whole business by [Governor] Snyder, which is an attempt just further the charters and further, really, the destruction of education in the city.”

And with that, it becomes just another day in edu-politics. Instead of maintaining the moral high ground, of protesting moldy classrooms, unsafe buildings, and killer drinking water, this becomes just another attempt to stick a thumb in the eye of charter schools and those families that have found a better path through school choice.

That’s a cryin’ shame. In 2012, we saw the Chicago public stand with Chicago teachers in what was an ugly city-wide strike. There, the teachers held the high ground and had public sympathy with them. And they received many of the concessions they were looking for.

For a moment, Detroit was on a similar path. What parent wants to send a child to a school where you can see more mold than drywall? Who wants their kids learning in a building where vermin race through the halls? Even parents frustrated with schools being closed at a late date and having to scramble for childcare could sympathize with those teachers because of those conditions.

Then some activist teachers had to get greedy. They had to play the charter schools card. And it a city where public school enrollment had dramatically shrunk over the past decade, and where charter enrollments have increased, that was the wrong card to play. As empathetic parents were horrified by school conditions, those same parents were then again told they were wrong for seeking a better path for their kids and hoping they get of the charter wait lists.

Another example of losing the rhetorical high ground in an attempt to score a cheap political hit that only muddied the debate you were already winning.



Doing What “Works” In the Classroom

Last week, educators across Florida went to the state capitol in what has become a common refrain. Florida teachers demanded more respect for their profession. They asked for a reduction in testing and its emphasis. They took on the perceived “profiteering” in public education, whether it be seen in charter school operators or textbook publishers.

There is no question that the education profession has been under attack for many years, and there is similarly no question that educators deserve greater respect than they largely get. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. We look to teachers to be everything from guidance counselors to social workers to parole officers, and then we expect them to get every child under their care into Harvard. (sure, a little hyperbole, but what would an education debate be without it?)

Eduflack was struck, though, by a comment made by a Florida school district’s head of employee relations. Obviously responding to a question about why 3,000 teachers descended on Tallahassee to speak their minds, this school official said, teachers “want to get back to doing things in the classroom that they know work.”

This is a common refrain in the post-NCLB world. But what does it really mean? Does it mean we want to empower teachers to do what is most effective in teaching the kids in their care? Or does it mean to let teachers do what they want, when levels of accountability were low?

“Doing the things that they know works” would seem a tip of the hat to research-based instruction, where we have qualitative data showing the instruction boosts student learning. It speaks to longitudinal studies that seek to pinpoint what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to instructional practice. And it is almost lifted directly from the NCLB law itself, particularly as we talked about scientifically based reading when it came to Reading First and the creation of the What Works Clearinghouse over at IES.

If that’s what going back to doing what teachers know works, then sign me up now. Give me a placard and a megaphone and let me shout loud and proud for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom.

But please don’t tell me it is code for letting us go back to the way things used to be in the 1990s, when it was the Wild West when it came to both instructional practice, student expectations, and accountability. Please don’t suggest we go back to the good ol’ days when inputs ruled the day and outcomes were horrible things that were just whispered about.

When a third of fourth graders are unable to read at grade level, we don’t know what works (and if we do, we certainly aren’t using it). When that same percentage of fourth graders are unable to earn a college diploma eight years later, we sure don’t know what works.

Yes, we need to empower teachers. They need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, and pedagogy to succeed in the classroom. They need to be supported – by financial and human resource – to lead their classrooms and reach their students. They need to be give real-time student data (and know what to do with it) so they can adjust and tailor instruction to meet the needs of this year’s class of students.

Yes, all educators should be using what works in their classrooms. Alas, we still have a long way to go before we can agree on what those research-effective practices are, and where evidence trumps philosophy.


A Surprising Backer of “Fair Share”

As just about everyone engaged in education policy knows, today the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing Friedrichs v California Teachers Association. For those who need the Cliffnotes, the case is about whether a public union (California’s NEA affiliate) can require those who choose not to be union members to still pay agency fees for the collective bargaining benefits they receive.

Or even more simply, if you are a school teacher who chooses not be part of the teachers union, should you have to help pay some of the costs for all of the work that goes into negotiating your salary and benefits and that provides you the job guarantees you expect, whether you hold a union card or not?

Longtime readers of Eduflack would probably assume that I come down on the side of Friedrichs, joining with many other reformers in a supposed effort to stand up to the unions. But you’d be wrong.

I believe in the “fair share” arguments that the CTA and their supporters are making. I believe in the editorial stance that the Los Angeles Times took this morning. I believe that since Friedrichs benefits, she should pay her fair share for the collective bargaining rights she enjoys. She doesn’t have to pay the full freight of being a union member if she doesn’t want to, but we have to acknowledge that fair is fair.

My reasoning for such is simple, and quite personal. Twenty five years or so ago, I watched as my mother, and NEA member and high school teacher in West Virginia, walked the picket lines for better pay and better rights for teachers. Most of her fellow educators walked with her, as did most of the educators across the entire state. They did so against great threat. Striking teachers were told they would not be paid. They were told they would be punished for their actions. They were sued in court.

In my mother’s school, there were two or three teachers who chose not to strike, as is their right. They went into school each day during the strike, sitting in empty classrooms and drinking coffee. These teachers would be paid. And then they would receive the pay increases, improved benefits, and greater protections that the striking teachers fought so hard for.

None of the risk, all of the reward. Those teachers who chose to cross the picket lines of their fellow teachers were in a win-win. They didn’t jeopardize their careers, nor did they have to wonder how they were going to pay their rent that month. And then they received all of the benefits that they themselves refused to ask for. They got it because the teachers union negotiated it. Everyone benefits or no one does. That’s what a union and collective bargaining is all about.

At the time, my mother explained to my younger sisters the importance of unions and of collective bargaining. Her father was a lifelong member of the Teamsters. After dropping out of high school, he joined the Army. The Army taught him to drive a truck. And the Teamsters turned that skill into a profession. Because of his union, he was able to provide for his family of seven. When he cast a vote as a Teamster, it was always what was best for the group, not what may be best for him personally. They were a brotherhood, believing a rising tide lifted all boats.

I realize that many believe the Court will side with Friedrichs and determine that “fair share” is unfair for those not wanting to be in the union. I hope that isn’t the case. Yes, it is the right of every worker to determine whether they want to be full members of a public union or not. Yes, it is the right of a teacher to not want to pay for lobbying or political activities if they choose so. But it is also the obligation of that teacher, if he or she benefits from collective bargaining, to pay their fair share of the costs of said bargaining.


Can We Have a Little Prez Dialogue on Education Issues?

While it may be fun to some to watch the current cross between kabuki theater and Keeping Up With the Kardashians (otherwise known as the presidential campaigns), it is an understatement to say that the current crew of candidates seem to be a little light on policies and big issue discussions (unless you count walls and guns).

Over at Education Post, I make my plea for the candidates to get serious about a little education policy speak. In fact, I urge them to move beyond the low-hanging fruit of being anti-Common Core and pro-free college and instead offer a little insight into some deeper edu-issues that demonstrate what they really think of the role of instruction and learning in our society and our democracy.

After highlighting topics (and offering some specific questions) on topics such as the federal/state role in education, competency-based education, the true meaning of accountability, and the future of educator preparation, I conclude:

It is not enough to simply seek to “disrupt” current systems or to shift authority from one entity to another. Instead, the nation needs a clear vision of accountability, teacher preparation, modes of learning and expectations for all.

Collectively, we must work to identify those areas of significant agreement, while highlighting those topics that may require additional discussion and exploration. This work is not limited to local communities or states or Congress. It requires leadership at all levels, particularly from those seeking the presidency.

For more than a decade, we’ve seen the power of presidents who offer those strong visions. Whether through the bully pulpit or legislative action, whether we agree or disagree, presidents can impact policy at both the highest and most grassroots of levels. With public education affecting everything from home prices to tax coffers to social program costs, don’t voters deserve more than just knowing if a candidate is against common standards and for college education?

Give the whole piece a read. What am I missing? What edu-discussions will help us look beyond the talking point and more toward the true thinking (and priorities) of the future leader of the free world?


“Compete Against Yourself”

Over the weekend, the edu-wife and I had the good fortune of seeing Kristen Chenoweth perform with the Philadelphia Symphony. If you don’t know who Chenoweth is, you might as well stop reading now … or start listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Wicked. Your choice.

At any rate, Chenoweth paused from her incredible performance to talk about her experiences, both as an artist and as a pageant performer. She spoke of how competing for both the Miss Oklahoma and Miss Pennsylvania crowns helped her develop her life motto.

When the four-foot-11-inch vocalist and actress realized was that she couldn’t compete — at least on the pageant circuit — against the six-foot statues she was standing next to. So she decided there was only one solution. She needed to focus on competing against herself.

Chenoweth offered that life lesson to a number of young women in the audience in Philadelphia that night, women who aspired to be like Chenoweth and wanted to pursue their passions in singing and performance. But it is a lesson that can and should apply to all students. And it is a lesson that isn’t all that foreign in our education debates.

For all the criticism of HOW it was measured, at the heart of adequate yearly progress (or AYP) was schools competing against themselves. Could they do better this year than they did in the previous? Could they build on previous years’ gains and continue to show improvement?

In the coming months, we will again hear a great deal about state tests and opting out and the proper role of state benchmarks in the learning process. Maybe we can take Kristen Chenoweth’s life motto and apply it to student assessment. Maybe, just maybe, we can use annual state assessments to help young learners see the progress over the course of the last year. Maybe we can use tests as the benchmarks they are supposed to be, helping students see all that time and hard work has paid off, and there is quantitative proof they know more this year than they did the previous.

Yes, the adults in the room often put too much weight into the “competitive” aspects of education. Let there be no mistake. Competition is OK. It’s not the end all/be all of life. But it is good to set a goal and achieve it. It is good to show growth and accomplishment. And is certainly is good to compete against yourself. It’s true for artists and performers, and it is certainly true for most children.

Growth is a good thing. Progress is a good thing. And competition, in the right frame, is a good thing. We should all be competing against ourselves,  whether as children or as adults.

Thank you, Kristen Chenoweth, for reminding me this. And it doesn’t matter if such competition makes one Popular or not.

“Easing Student Pressure” Starts With Letting Educators Lead

Over the holiday break, Kyle Spencer of The New York Times reported on how testing and a school district’s effort to ease student pressures has led to an “ethnic divide” in the community. It is an interesting read, a read that taps into many of the issues and concerns that have been rippling through public education in recent years.

But Spencer’s piece only tells a part of the story. How does Eduflack know? Because the edu-kids are students in the New Jersey district profiled by the Times. Currently, I have a fourth grader in an upper elementary school and a third grader in a lower elementary school. I wish it were as simple as the Times tried to make it seem.

For instance:

  • Spencer reports on how a gifted and talented math program has been moved from a fourth grade start to a sixth grade start. But there is no mention of parents lobbying hard to get their kids in that fourth grade program. Or of families that put their third graders through hours and hours and months and months of test prep so they would do well enough on the program entry exam to be accepted into the fourth grade class.
  • Spencer cites a researcher on how hard it is for Chinese and Indian immigrant young people to boost their way into the middle class. But there is no mention that the vast majority of these parents pushing for more are already 1-percenters (median family income in the district tops $150k), immigrants with advanced degrees, working on Wall Street or for one of New Jersey’s many pharmaceutical companies. In many of these families, middle class is far back in the rear-view mirror.
  • The article makes passing mention to “homework free” nights, but should include that there are four of those a year. And as a reference point, last year my then-second grader was doing nearly two hours of homework a night.
  • In drawing the fault lines between white parents and Asian parents in the district, the Times completely overlooks the local elections that were held this past November, where the candidate (a graduating high school student, actually) who was demanding higher standards and higher quality lost to the candidate urging a more holistic approach (exactly what the superintendent is now enacting).
  • And it certainly doesn’t mention the experience the edu-family had last year at back to school night, where a sea of parents surrounded the special education teacher, not because their children were special education, but because if it was a service the district offered, an offshoot of G&T they thought, then they were going to make sure their child got full access to it. The sea only parted when the sped teacher had the courage to point to a parent across the room and inform the throng that “there is a parent that I actually need to talk to about her child.”

In criticizing the district superintendent’s efforts to address the “whole child,” one parent is quoted by the Times as saying, “if children are to learn and grow, they need experiences.”

She is absolutely right. But those experiences require more than six hours in a classroom and three hours a homework a day, coupled with test prep and some time for extra-curricular foreign language classes and an instrument. (and for those who think I am exaggerating, let me introduce you to a girl who was in my daughter’s second grade last year). They need experiences that address both academic development and social-emotional learning. They need experiences that allow them to be kids, before they have to get into the cut-throat world of adulthood so many of their parents are pushing them into.

Since The New York Times article has come out, there has been a lot of criticism of Superintendent Aderhold and his focus on the “whole child.” Some have attacked him for dumbing down the district and denying students an opportunity to succeed. Others are appalled that he would impose his own vision for the district over the will of the parents. But maybe, just maybe, the supe is doing exactly what he should be doing, and exactly what we need from those leading our schools.

Dr. Aderhold is putting the needs of the children first. He is ensuring that educators have a voice, a real voice, in the direction of the public schools. He is showing there is more to student development and growth that reading, writing, and arithmetic. And he is working to demonstrate that the quality of a public education is about more than how many AP classes one takes, now many community college courses a high schooler enrolls in over the summers, and how many extra hours of math a fourth grader “earns” by getting a slot in a prized G&T program.

In the process, he might just be ensuring that elementary school kids get a little more time to ride their bikes and play a video game or two. He might just help a few more kids find the time to play baseball or take gymnastics.  And he may even help more families spend evening time together around a dinner table, talking and exploring, rather than just working through the hours of homework expected of a middle schooler these days.