Archive for November, 2015

Legal Drugs in School: Medication Trumps Meditation When Time is Constant

November 26, 2015 Comments off

The Guardian published an article earlier this week profiling the long term effects of taking behavior modifying prescription drugs over time, using profiles of six US students as exemplars. Writers Sarah Bosely and Baptiste Lingel offer a statistical overview contrasting American children to their British counterparts at the beginning of their article, “Generation Meds: The us Children Who Grow up on Prescriptoin Drugs”:

According to America’s Centers for Disease Control, 11% of four- to 17-year-olds in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, a label for those who are disruptive in class and unable to concentrate; just over 6% are taking medication…

In the UK, meanwhile, about 3% of children are diagnosed with ADHD; just 1% are on medication. American children can go through six or seven different drugs quite early in their lives; in the UK, children are usually sent for cognitive behaviour therapy first, in line with guidance from the National Institute forHealth and Care Excellence.

But as the authors note, in the US the use of these drugs is most prevalent among middle-class east coast children:

But the official figure hides huge variation across regions and class. Numbers are very high in the white, middle-class east coast population, says Ilina Singh, professor of neuroscience and society at Oxford University, while there is under-diagnosis in poor white populations and among ethnic minorities.

“In the middle-class, educated group in New York, you probably are seeing kids who are just under more academic pressure,” she says. “Parents will begin to look at psychiatric diagnosis and treatment with drugs as one option for making children perform better. You have parents saying, ‘My child must be on Ritalin because all the other children in the class are.’”

As one of the students profiled noted with a degree of irony, sales and exchanges of pills which have a profound impact on he well being of children are not punished by the law but the use of marijuana and alcohol was monitored closely and resulted in arrests.

The reliance on drug therapy and psychiatry— the medicalization of social adjustment problems that are a natural part of growing up— reinforces the notion that there is a “silver bullet” cure for everything. It also reinforces the notion that a child who matures intellectually at a slower rate than an age peer is somehow deficient. Both of these ideas are wrongheaded.

Mindfulness meditation is a proven means of developing self-awareness that could ultimately lead to impulse control. Unlike Ritalin, however, it requires no purchase of drugs and does not offer immediate change to ones behavior. It does, however, help a child develop self-control and self-awareness, two skills that will benefit them throughout their life. If schools prescribed meditation practices for students who are challenged by having short attention spans and a lack of impulse control it might preclude their lifetime need for prescription drugs.

Our grouping of children by age and the invidious comparisons that are part of our factor school model also contribute to a child’s sense of inadequacy and their parent’s sense of urgency to do everything possible to ensure that their child is “keeping up” with his or her classmates. Abandoning our factory model where time is a constant an learning is variable would go a long way toward reducing the stress to “keep up” with everyone else.

Both of these alternatives to medication require a shift in thinking… and that, alas, is a daunting challenge. But as Bernie Sanders notes frequently in his speeches, we DID elect an African American president and we HAVE accepted gay marriage as a legal right… we CAN change the thinking of people over time if we persist in showing what is fair and just and sensible. We may yet have a time when meditation is offered instead of medication… and learning is the constant and time is the variable.

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NCLB… RTTT… and now ESSA: The Factory School Prevails

November 25, 2015 Comments off

Let me begin this post by sharing an essay I wrote in 2002, lamenting the passage of NCLB:

The Bush bill to improve public schools is deeply flawed for the following reasons:

  • NCLB perpetuates the school factory: Grade levels, seat time, and sorting of students and schools based on standardized test results— key elements of the factory school— are incorporated in the legislation.

  • NCLB relies on tests that measure what’s easy to test instead of what’s important to test: The time line for implementation of the NCLB testing effectively requires the use of existing off-the-shelf pencil and paper tests.

  • NCLB will channel limited resources to underachieving students: The ranking of schools based on average yearly progress will compel school boards, administrators, and teachers to work on improving the performance of low achieving students to the detriment of average and above average students.

  • NCLB assumes that the private sector can accomplish better results than the public sector with the same amount of money: The ultimate “school choice” is not between public schools and sectarian schools, it is between public schools and for-profit schools. The for-profit schools and for-profit tutoring services are eagerly awaiting the lists of failing schools to target their services. We will learn soon that the problem with low achieving public school students has less to do with the instruction that occurs six hours per day than with the environment students live in 18 hours per day. In order to leave no child behind, we will need to coordinate student resources the same way we are now coordinating our law enforcement resources.

That was written shortly after NCLB was passed, and I’m sad to say the predictions in that essay were 100% accurate… and even worse, it exacerbated the divide between affluent school districts and those with limited resources. Following the passage of NCLB I had the good fortune to work from 2003-2011 in one of the highest performing school districts in the nation and NCLB had no impact whatsoever on our day-to-day instruction in the classroom. With the exception of two years where students in the special education cohort fell short, the schools in the district all exceeded the minimum test scores required without any modifications to our curriculum or instruction. Upon my retirement when I consulted in less affluent districts I saw a completely different and unsurprising world: a world where test results dominated the instructional practices. It was unsettling to realize that the children in these districts received a completely different (and much more dispiriting) education than the children in the affluent district I led.

I’ve read several analyses of the recently passed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a.k.a. the “Every Student Succeeds Act” or ESSA and I’m afraid we are not only stuck in the factory school rut for the coming decade but also likely to see a marked decline in the support for public schools as a result. The “victories” won by the Democrats, as described by Casey Quinlan in Think Progress, were basically stopping the Republicans from short-changing the bill or reallocating funds in a fashion that defeated ESEA’s original purpose, which was to direct supplemental funds to poverty stricken districts. Their losses, on the other hand, were substantive, including guarantees for assistance for students with disabilities, students of color, and English language learners who fall short of the standards set by States and universal pre-K.

The losses for those of us who seek an end to the factory school model and seek social justice in public education are significant. According to Politico reporter Caitlin Emma the Fordham Institute’s President Michael Petrilli was “especially glad” to see an adaptive testing provision included in ESSA because:

…it “should open the door to true adaptive tests, which will lead to lots more accuracy for kids way above or below grade level (and thus more accuracy in their growth scores — important for schools and teachers)”

The bill’s continuation of testing that facilitates VAM is ironic because ESSA also includes language requiring Title I schools to adhere to “evidence based” instructional practices while effectively encouraging teacher evaluation practices that are NOT based on any evidence whatsoever.

Both articles noted that ESSA shifts responsibilities “back to the States”, which is an enormous step backward when the majority of states are under the control of Republican legislatures who favor the model of “running schools like a business” and privatization as the ultimate solution when schools are found to be “failing”. Astonishingly, I found myself concurring with Margaret Spelling’s assessment of the consequences of giving States and local school boards more autonomy in setting minimum standards:

“This is the era of local control where we lack state and federal frameworks that can keep school districts and superintendents and all of us on track and honest with ourselves about where we’re headed,” Spellings said. “With all these school out of the net, underperformance will reign.”

Without national standards states like TX and school districts like Jefferson County CO can adopt curricula that re-write history and ignore science…. and other southern states can crow about high performance on State tests while downplaying low scores on NAEP… and we will restore the separate but equal school systems that existed following Plessy v. Ferguson in the late 1800s.


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Do We Need Police for Safe Schools? I Think Not!

November 24, 2015 Comments off

Over the past two decades, the presence of police has increased in schools to the extent that students are arguably learning to live in a police state. Two recent articles underscore this trend and led me to the question that is the title of this post.

In a Truthout article last week, GS Potter describes “How Police Became Part of the Public School System and How to Get Them Out.” In the post, Potter uses the recent incident in South Carolina as an example of how police in schools are needlessly using force and goes on to describe the expansion of Student Resource Officers (SROs) from their inception in 1958 and their limited impact until the 1990s. Initially funded solely through small grants and local funds, SROs became a federal initiative beginning in the Clinton administration and expanding dramatically thereafter: :

 In the 1990s, though, police presence in public schools nationwide grew exponentially. During this decade, both the National Association for School Resource Officers was formed, and the US Justice Department developed their COPS in Schools grant program. This federal support dramatically increased the number of law enforcement officers in classrooms across the country. For example, according to a report published in Justice Quarterly, “As of July 2005, COPS has awarded in excess of $753 million to more than 3,000 grantees to hire more than 6,500 SROs through the CIS program and more than $10 million to hire approximately 100 SROs through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.”

This huge outlay of federal funds continues, with the Obama administration seeking an additional $150,000,000 for the coming year to bring the total number of federally funded SROs to 17,000. The roots of the problem with this program are in the fact that there is no clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement officials and school officials and the fact that most SROs lack the ability to work with emotionally handicapped and diverse populations. Evidence of this inability emerge when one examines the statistics on those arrested by officers for misconduct in schools. Potter writes:

…according to a joint letter written by the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice, “certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers.” Similarly, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that Black students are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students, and that Indigenous students are also punished disproportionately. The report also states that students with disabilities “represent 12% of the student populations, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75% of those physically restrained at school…. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities … but 36% of these students who are restrained at school …”

The unfair treatment received by disadvantaged students in the classroom has only been reinforced by law enforcement agencies that also have records of unfairly targeting members of disadvantaged populations in their communities.

Potter describes the impact of SROs on minority and disabled students in detail, but overlooks the subtle impact the poise presence has on the entire student body. The presence of SROs disempowers the administration in the school since their power to punish is small in comparison to that of the police. The presence of SROs also undercuts the Principal’s ability to create a culture of caring, a climate that could mitigate the need for any forceful discipline. Finally, the presence of SROs sends a message to students that the only means of having a safe environment is to have visible police presence everywhere.

After reading Potter’s blog post in Truthout, I found an article by Mak Ojutku in yesterday’s Jersey Post especially chilling. The report describes a partnership between the Jersey City School Board and the Jersey City Police “to create a new way for students, faculty, and parents to report inappropriate activity in and around city schools.” WeTip, a 24/7 hotline to the police department, will make it possible for students to report:

“…anything from school bullying to major crimes. Depending on the information provided, the tip will be forwarded to the district’s security office or the police department.

The article doesn’t explain who will make the determination as to whether an incident warrants intervention by the police… and as a high school disciplinarian for six years I can assure you that the police and schools have different standards when it comes to defining misconduct.

The article concludes with the numbers one should call to make a report:

The hotline can be reached at the following designated numbers: 1-800-78-CRIME, 1-855-86-BULLY, 1-800-47-DRUGS, and 1-800-HIT-N-RUN.

I think it’s time to call 1-800-PEACENOW, reduce the number of SROs and use the funds to bring in guidance counselors and social workers for students.