There is a debate raging in Texas this year because the State Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller is ready to give local school boards the decision on whether or not they can use deep fat fryers in their schools. Ten years ago, in an effort to stem obesity among children and teens in the state, Miller’s predecessor, Susan Combs, issued a regulation banning deep fat fryers in the state along with sugary snacks, sodas, and (gasp) cupcakes. Some school districts evidently saw this kind of regulation as overreach and when he was running for office Mr. Miller told voters he would repeal those regulations and give local school boards the freedom to choose the kinds of foods they want to serve their children. This has set off a debate between those, like Combs, who are concerned with children’s health and those like Miller who seek to make this a local issue. The argument for sustaining the policies is framed well by the Partnership for a Healthy Texas, a statewide coalition of more than 50 organizations working to prevent obesity, who filed an open letter in opposition to the proposed changes which read
“Schools are one of the key environments where our state can work to defeat child obesity,” the organization wrote. “Fit, nourished children perform better, miss less school, have fewer behavioral challenges, and are more likely to grow up to be healthy, working adults.”
Miller’s argument is all about freedom and liberty and aligning Texas with the rest of the country, which has no regulations on deep fat fryers:
(Miller) believes that repealing these parts of the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy will simplify things, pulling the state into line with less-strict national standards. Currently, there are no federal restrictions on deep fat frying as a preparation method.
“It’s simple. If a school district doesn’t agree with any of these changes, then they don’t have to implement them,” Miller wrote in a statement, referring to the policy changes. “That’s the beauty here.”
The article didn’t say so, but the opponents to the regulation are likely concerned with how the regulation affects fund-raising efforts of athletic teams, clubs and parent organizations who often rely on revenues from vending machines and /or bake sales and how the regulation affects school lunch programs, many of whom rely on a al carte sales of french fries and “foods” like chicken fingers to maintain a health fund balance. My hunch is that money is a far greater factor than “local control” or “liberty”… and that hunch leads me to fear what will happen when the Federal government is no longer setting national education standards for schools. It’s easy to see how a Commissioner of Education who is beholden to a pro-privatization Governor and legislature might make a similar argument about requiring the hiring of certified teachers, or requiring a core curriculum, or offering music and the arts. They could argue: “I’m just putting the state into line with less-strict national standards. Currently, there are no federal restrictions on certification or curriculum content. It’s simple. If a school district doesn’t agree with any of these changes, then they don’t have to implement them.” Worse yet, states could let curriculum decisions on the teaching of climate change, evolution, and health topics become a matter of local control, politicizing the curriculum debates at the local level even more than they are today.
Given Texas’ reputation for libertarian thinking, I was surprised to read that the state had adopted this regulation, which is one the Federal government should adopt given that the obesity rates among children have jumped from 7% in 1980 to 18% today. But I don’t expect to see that change occurring in the near future given the public’s apparent distaste for government regulations, Big Agriculture’s lobbyists and money for PACs, and our country’s desire to save tax dollars at all costs…. even if the cost is the health and well being of ALL children.
I hate to sound like a broken record when it comes to calling out the NYTimes… but I intend to take every chance I get to make the point that VAM is flawed and the Times is complicit in the public’s misunderstanding of that mathematical and statistical fact. Sunday’s column by Nick Kristof, “Are You Smarter than an Eighth Grader” gives me such a chance. The column offers three questions from a recent international test of eighth graders and used them as examples of how poorly our students fared as compared to students in other countries. This led me to offer the following comment:
This paper contributes to the public’s misunderstanding of mathematics and statistics by supporting flawed ideas like “value added” measures as a basis for measuring individual teacher performance despite the rebuke of the methodology by the American Statistical Association and by publishing test data on individual schools without explaining their statistical significance.
I could have made the response more political by noting that the Times reports clearly incorrect and/or incomplete mathematical information when it comes to budget proposals, giving column inches to budget balancing ideas that lack specifics or, in some cases, don’t add up at all. When the “newspaper of record” supports statistical measures that are rebuked by professionals in the field and fails to provide its readers with mathematically accurate facts it is failing the public far more than its schools who need to defend themselves against baseless and inaccurate charges of “failure”.
And then this morning I read a letter to the editor to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal from George McFarland, a local superintendent, pointing out how their media have jumped onto the “failing schools” meme without looking at the facts, which are:
For example, news media like to grab onto quotes that public schools are clearly failing because there are 146,000 students trapped in almost 300 failing public schools. However, considering that 146,000 students is 2.8 percent of the 5,151,925 Texas students, simple math can identify more than 97 percent of Texas public school students are not enrolled in “failing” schools.
Likewise, 300 schools represent 3.5 percent of the 8,574 public school campuses in Texas, meaning 96.5 percent of campuses are not “failing.” These numbers might suggest there are areas where public education can improve but certainly don’t necessitate the need to completely trash an entire system which is serving so many successfully.
Thankfully the newspaper published the article… but if they were doing their job every time a politician said schools were failing they would note that 96.5% are NOT failing… but that FACT undercuts the narrative that is stuck in the minds of readers and voters.
Dave Shiflett’s Wall Street Journal Saturday essay titled “In Praise of the Teen Summer Job” nostalgically recounts his many and varied experiences in the summer workplace as a teenager. Among the jobs he held were delivering newspapers, working as a farm hand, working in a warehouse, and doing construction and his description of those experiences captured the camaraderie of the workplace, the rewards of doing hard work, and the physical and emotional scars that he received doing the various jobs.
Like Shiflett, I treasure the summer jobs I had. I, too, delivered newspapers, worked for a moving and warehouse company, mowed lawns, and did landscaping. I also worked on an assembly line, painted in a local hospital, and shoveled snow. But there are several changes that took place since I worked those jobs in the summer.
First, my earnings from those jobs paid my tuition for the first year of college and enabled me to buy record albums, a guitar and amplifier, and have enough spending money to enjoy myself on weekends. There is no way an enterprising teenager could make that statement today unless they are attending a community college.
Secondly, the summer jobs I held in the early 1960s are now work that is done by adults or work that is done overseas… and it is done at lower wages than I received when it is adjusted for inflation. Landscape businesses dominate the suburban landscaping marketplace where I earned most of my money. I delivered afternoon newspapers, which are no longer in existence in the Philadelphia region where adults rise at 3:30 and drive to deliver papers to plastic sleeves at the end of the driveway which enables them to have larger routes… and their cost/newspaper delivered is less than what I earned, making it a de facto requirement for them to have a larger route. The assembly line work that was available locally in the mid 1960s is now in Mexico or China. I MIGHT be able to land some ad hoc warehouse and furniture moving work, but the kind of full-time assignment I had for the summer is no longer available.
Thirdly, businesses, recognizing the shortage of summer work, offer “internship opportunities” that either under compensate students or expect them to work for free to “build their resume”.
Finally, the employers for typical summer jobs for teenagers are insisting that teens working in fast food joints, resorts, and retail adhere to the just-in-time scheduling that ensures that no one gets a full schedule and every employee is exclusively committed to them. When I worked on the assembly line, I was able to tell my employer that I would be going on a family vacation for a week and not be afraid that I would lose my job. Or I could work out a flexible schedule so I could catch up on my lawn mowing job if we suffered a rainy week. Having time to spend with my family or having the flexibility to work more than one job is no longer possible.
All of these changes result in a sense of despair for teenagers who are seeking work. There are fewer jobs available, the wages for those jobs are lower, and the working conditions for those jobs are often unfavorable. And the situation is even worse for a child raised in poverty. In the community I grew up in, opportunities abounded, I could ride my bike to work or– when I got older– borrow one of the family cars, and employers were eager for additional help. A child in an impoverished urban neighborhood or a child in a rural outpost has neither the opportunities or the wherewithal to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, as intimated above, a child in the suburbs or in a small community today has far fewer opportunities for summer and/or part-time work than I experienced…. and today’s teenagers know this. In some cases, teenagers with perseverance or connections can find work. But instead of acknowledging that the opportunities for part-time work have shriveled, pundits too often blame teens for their “lack of ambition”.
I don’t think ambition has diminished… but I DO think there are fewer opportunities for teenagers to channel their ambitions into part-time or summer work and, as a result, their ambitions either atrophy or become misdirected.
What can be done? After spending nearly a month camping in the Southwest, it is evident that our country responded to the problem of joblessness among young adults at one time. Thanks to the CCC there are countless trails, shelters, picnic areas, and roads in parklands across the country— roads built mostly by young adults supervised by slightly older adults who were out of work or underemployed. If the private sector cannot modify their practices to accommodate teenage workers and/or invest their profits into more jobs, maybe the government needs to create work. Here’s hoping the 2016 campaign will result in a dialogue on this concept.
Matt Richtel’s essay on the Palo Alto suicides (see my post on April 12) for the Sunday NYTimes was published on line today and is inching it’s way up the “most e-mailed” list. Unlike Frank Bruni’s earlier column on this topic which prompted my earlier post, Richtel has a nuanced perspective on this issue and delves more deeply into the systemic issues that contribute to the stress high achieving students feel. One of his observations, which he called “a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators” was particularly insightful:
In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.
“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”
Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”
When each of my daughters received their first “B” in high school I told them I was relieved because it meant they no longer had to worry about being valedictorian. But while I would like to think I was looking out for their well being, Madeline Levine’s observation about the first question parents ask rang very true… because while I sincerely did NOT want my daughters worrying about being #1 in their class I DID want them to get into a college they wanted to attend and, therefore, wanted them to do well in school and have the kind of activities that might make the difference if they sought to attend a “top tier” college.
But in the final analysis, I remain convinced that so long as we measure student success and school success based on test scores we will impose stress on students. How can we claim to value the well-being of each child when we promote a competitive grading system that sorts and selects based on comparisons with age cohorts within a school. We have the ability to provide self-paced individualized learning to each student yet we insist on continuing the practice of grouping children in age cohorts and ranking them based on how quickly they learn as compared to their peer group. Our outmoded method of schooling and measurement is creating the pressure that is neither productive for our economy or healthy for our children.
Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NYTimes describes several “zombie policies” that the Republican presidential candidates are recycling endlessly, ideas that are either demonstrably false or demonstrably bad. An economist, Krugman focussed primarily on the fallacious idea of “fixing” social security by increasing the age when people collect and the trickle-down theory that began during the Reagan administration and refuses to die despite the fact that it has never worked. After reading the column, I added one of my favorites: privatization!
Here’s another zombie idea: privatization of public services will lead to competition which, in turn, will lower costs and improve quality! One problem with this zombie idea: BOTH political parties are buying into it! That’s why we have the ACA instead of single payer; it’s why we have for-profit charter schools instead of equalized funding for public schools; it’s why we have Blackwater fighting our wars; it’s why we want to close our post offices; and ultimately its why so many lobbyists are spending so much money.
Alas, as noted in earlier posts, the American public has unquestioningly accepted the notion that markets are better than government and we are literally and figuratively paying the price. Here’s hoping someone will be able to persuade the voters in 2016 that the private sector is not necessarily more efficient or effective than the government.
EducationNext, whose writers and editors are decidedly “pro-privatization”, featured an insightful and informative “debate” between two technology advocates, Benjamin Riley and Ale Hernandez, on the question “Should Personalization Be the Future of Learning?”. Given the venue for the “debate” (which is actually an adaptation of blog posts from each of the authors from 2014), there is not a substantial difference of opinion.
Riley focuses on two assumptions and hypotheses regarding personalized learning:
1) students will learn more if they have more power over what they learn (“the path argument”), and
2) students will learn more if they have more power over when and how quickly they learn (“the pace argument”)
Riley asserts that students will not learn everything that is important if left to their own devices and they will invariably go as slow as possible unless they are overseen by an adult. Therefore a teacher must closely monitor the work that is being done and, since that is the case, “personalization” can be achieved with the traditional teacher-centered classroom model if the teacher can effectively differentiate the instruction to match the students skill set.
Hernandez has a slightly different set of hypotheses regarding personalization:
Personalized learning theory is built on the twin pillars of 1) differentiated learning pathways for students and 2) feedback that enables students to make informed judgments about what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it, and what to learn next.
Hernandez is more sanguine about children’s ability to motivate themselves and views the teacher as a bottleneck in the current paradigm, especially when it comes to offering timely and well crafted feedback. He believes the pacing issues raised by Riley can be overcome by setting some kind of minimum rate of speed to proceed through a predetermined set of learning objectives, acknowledging that he is “…unapologetically pro-standards” and fully supports the Common Core since it can serve as a means of measuring individual progress.
I have a slightly different slant on the value of personalization as opposed to the current benchmarking model. We currently assume that all students progress through learning sequences in different content areas at a constant rate. While I concur with Hernandez’ support for standards, I fear that his embrace of the Common Core reinforces the “…arbitrary, age-based academic standards and fixed pacing guides (that) exacerbate… most teachers’ ability to manage multiple learning paths in multiple subjects.” I DO believe the Common Core provides a valuable baseline document for professional organizations like the NCTM or ASCD and cognitive scientists to use as a template to develop learning sequences in content areas. Having a politically acceptable and scientifically supported learning sequence is an essential first step to personalizing learning. Secondly, I am not convinced that all students can progress through the entire sequence of “college-ready” objectives nor should they do so. Our economy does not require that everyone go to college. Moreover there are many service economy jobs that pay well and do not require college as much as they require self-direction, ambition, and hard work. These qualities should be by-products of a personalized learning environment. Finally, if we do “personalization” the right way we will create an environment of self-actualized learners. Both Riley and Hernandez agree that teachers are needed at the outset of a child’s schooling, but Hernandez seems more comfortable with the notion that ultimately the student owns the learning. If K-8 schooling can develop this kind of self-sufficient learning, secondary education could change dramatically making it possible for students to move into community based apprenticeships and/or preparation for post-secondary learning.
One thing is clear: the current lockstep method of instruction is undercutting the self-direction, ambition, and work ethic needed for success in the work place.