SLS 676

This essay by Deirdre McCloskey as she reflects on the last 20 years of life after she transitioned in early 50’s, is so beautiful and sad. How could her children walk away from her? Best thing I read today.

I just downloaded Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns. I’ll read it on Thursday during the flight to Chicago for my education conference.

Get ready to hear more and more about trade school. Why? Because a whole lotta students aren’t making it in college.

Post Malone is all over my running Spotify play list at the moment.

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Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.

The Algorithm of Popularity

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a superintendent of a local school out in the Southwest. As she told me her story, she was practically in tears. She felt helpless in the face of a crisis that was looming in her future. I asked her and others who were deeply involved in this issue if they had talked to someone from a national press about this issue. They said no.

So, I have been hammering away at this topic for weeks now. As a freelance writer, I can make a decent living, if I go from pitch to submited article in two weeks. There’s a formula to these pieces. Start with a compelling story. Explain how it involves X number of people or involves X number of dollars. Interview an academic expert, a think tank type person, refer to some studies, and then return back to the compelling story. 1,200 words and you’re good to go.

But I didn’t do that. I kept talking to people. And writing up their comments until I reached 2,500 words. Any self-respecting editor will cut that in half and slap it up on a website. This will certainly happen. But I kept going, because I think I have more than one article here. I think I have a book topic.

But before I get that far, I need to see if that one article will take off. I need to see if there are enough people interested in the topic, which will justify another few weeks of uncompensated time pulling together a book proposal. I’ve done them before and gotten nowhere, so I want to test the waters before I keep digging and writing.

Getting an article to go viral, meaning lots of regular people read the article and link to it on their Facebook page, is a very complicated matter.

Of course, a lot has to do with matters that are beyond the scope of a writer. An editor has to love the topic, write an excellent headline that either makes people curious or confirms a pre-existing belief or bias. An editor can effectively kill your article by publishing it on a Friday, rather than a Monday, or by not publicizing enough on the website’s social media.

I can’t emphasize how important those gatekeepers are to exposure to ideas. If they don’t like the topic (or the person) at the heart of a story, you can’t get past square one.

Another factor that determines popularity is the audience. If the audience is well organized, woke, and is organized by outside groups, then your article will do well.

For example, I write a lot about special education and autism issues. It’s always better to write my articles with the word autism in the title, rather than special education. Parents of autistic children are super well organized on their own with tons of groups on Facebook. A link by Autism Speaks on Facebook is automatic gold, since they have over a million followers. Special ed is too broad of a term and doesn’t have an organized constituency.

Popularity requires both grassroots and elite interest. An article that is retweeted dozens of times by education geeks on Twitter may not necessarily capture the interest of ordinary parents on Facebook. And links from Facebook brings in more readers than RTs on Twitter. But you also want the endorsement of your peers on Twitter, because that’s another kind of win.

Of course, having a compelling story that impacts a lot of people and is well written is an important element of popularity, but there are millions of story like that every day. There is so much great journalism out there that doesn’t get enough attention. To be read widely requires more than producing a quality piece. It requires strategy.

As a writer, popularity is important because it means that you can command higher salaries and editors return your emails. A good topic can lead to book deals, which leads to speaking engagements, which is where the real money is.

All of those selfish reasons for desiring popularity are important. This is a job, after all. But sometimes you want popularity because you feel very strongly that an issue deserves more attention. Sometimes as a writer, you just love your topic and want to champion the people who are being ignored. Sometimes, it’s a mission.

Revisiting the Gifted & Talented Debate

Mayor DeBlasio recently proposed getting rid of the special gifted and talented schools in New York City. There’s scrutiny on the IQ test given to 4-year olds. Those schools basically caused us to leave New York City, so I have written a lot about them in the past.

In a nutshell, I had my kid tested when he was FOUR YEARS OLD (ugh!) to see if he was gifted and talented, like all of my friends. Because nobody wanted to send their kid to the underfunded local school. He did well enough to get into the lower level gifted schools, but it would have involved lots of subway riding with Ian who was still a toddler who needed naps. I couldn’t figure out how to make it work, so we left.

In a rant on Twitter this morning, I listed my reasons for hating G & T programs:

  • There is no scientific way of sorting out a bunch of hyper 4 and 5 year olds into two camps of gifted and not gifted. None. Just looking at my son’s cohort at school, his kindergarten teacher sorted extremely badly. The kid who is on track to be an aerospace engineer at NASA? Dissed.
  • The process of sorting kids into two piles — gifted v. forgettable — is awful. Full stop.
  • Why should one group of kids get more challenging, fun instruction with higher paid teachers than another group? Equal education for all.
  • The literature on G & T verges on science fiction. Attributing supernatural powers of empathy and reason to mysterious kids. It’s laughable.
  • There’s a place for specialized programs in high school, where sorting is based on mature test taking ability and years of evidence of solid work. But earlier than that, it’s silly, unfair, and pointless.

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In the “Crazy, Complicated” World of Special Education, Parents Turn to One Another for Help — On the Internet

In this article, I look at online groups that special ed parents form to help each with the crazy, complicated world of special education.

When Stasi Webber decided it was time to uproot her family from their Michigan home to find a better school for her 11-year-old son with autism, she turned to the internet for answers.

The public schools in her state don’t provide the specialized behavioral and life skills training, known as ABA therapy, that her son needs; he skips school every Tuesday and Thursday to receive these essential services. But recently, Webber learned from parents on social media that her son could get both academics and ABA training in schools in New Jersey, where she grew up.

With a tentative plan of returning to her childhood home in Mahwah, she found three or four local social media sites run by special education parents and asked about ABA services at the local district, its willingness to send students to specialized schools and comparisons with nearby towns. She put her house on the market.

“I knew I had to reach out to the internet, because moms are willing to help other moms,” Webber said. “You find out the most information that way.”

More here.

When Suburbanites Start Questioning College

I live in one of those high-achieving school districts that is well known to every selective-college admissions director in the country. With average SAT scores above 1250, a 98 percent graduation rate and 95 percent of graduates attending four-year colleges, my northern New Jersey district boasts excellence.

Parents boast, too. College stickers on the back windshields of BMWs are brag sheets for winning families. Everybody seems to have a kid on the fast track to success, with internships, semesters abroad and academic honors. My husband likes to say that we live in “Magic Town,” because every kid seems perfect.

But on a recent evening in the aging administrative building, the guidance counselors and administrators leading a presentation on “Alternatives to College” took one look at the parents packing the room and ran out to make extra copies of their handouts.

More here.

School-Whipped

Schools dominate my life.

It’s been decades since I’ve been in a classroom as a student and many years since I’ve been in the classroom as a teacher. But I have never been able to detach from education institutions, because of my kids. Classrooms, homework, grades, the school calendar command my time and brain space. Writing about schools is an effortless task, because they are on my mind all day long.

Ian’s school turned Memorial Day into a five day holiday. Which is fine. But it meant that I couldn’t quite get into the writing zone and get my crap done. I got some minor e-mail tasks done yesterday, but after three hours of him playing Plants v. Zombies, I felt guilty and took him to the mall. My work day was finished. On Monday, he had to be at the school at 8:00am to perform with the school marching band in the town parade.

Other chores for Ian today include a phone call to his case manager to discuss how we would go about bumping him a year ahead for math. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with him for a two week gap between camps in August. Is there enough money in the Ian slush fund for extra tutoring in the summer?

Even though Jonah is a college kid, he’s not quite baked. His sloppy work habits and poor “soft skills” came back to bite him in the ass last semester. Distracted by the demands of pledging for a frat, he did stupid things like not making sure that his assignments in an online class were properly submitted and was generally disorganized. So, I’m making him take classes on organization at his college over the summer. We’re talking through various lifestyle changes and basically scaring the shit out of him.

I don’t think there’s another government institution that has a bigger impact on me on a daily basis. There’s definitely more brain space in my personal life for non-school stuff that there used to be. I joined a running group this spring and ran a 5K on Monday. I have a couple of harmless hobbies. I read a lot and see friends on the weekends. But school issues, which are so integral to my kids’ lives, still dominate.

Other parents are even more driven by schools. Ian doesn’t spend over twenty hours per week doing a varsity sport, like Jonah did. He’s not in honors classes, so he comes home with no homework. And Jonah’s missteps only become known when the semester ends, so we can spend months in la-la land thinking that he’s taking care of his shit.

Last week, a neighbor told me about her weekend schedule driving her two young boys around the state for various sporting activities. One kid had to be an hour away for a full day Lacrosse tournament. The next day, the other kid had a full day of swim meets. Between reading tutors and school dances, her schedule was packed. She couldn’t grasp what we did with our lives without a kid in sports. Because I couldn’t gossip with her about teachers for next year or the school play, we quickly ran out of conversation topics.

Walking through Storm King with the family

Ian’s life is a lot more simple, so we drag him around to do our various interests, rather than living our lives on the soccer sidelines. We took the boys to an art park over the weekend. It feels somewhat rebellious to craft our own schedule, rather than have one dominated by sporting activities and schools. We could be even more whipped by schools than we are.

Being whipped by schools is both a privilege and a burden. Parents in towns like ours demand these services and are able to pay for it with high taxes. Three quarters of our local property taxes go to schools. The superintendent is more powerful than the mayor.

But it also means that schools oversee our lives. They control our children’s destiny. They structure our social lives. The school panopticon’s oversight is totalitarian in communities like ours. While schools are broken elsewhere, the system is still rigid in its own ways making it difficult for individuals to take alternative paths.

I think when my kids move onto the work-world and schools are a thing of the past, I’m going to stop writing about education. I fantasize about reinventing myself as a travel writer. Maybe I might write about my weird hobby of selling used books. Who knows? But I would love to break the school chains someday.