Posts Tagged ‘Parent engagement’

“Problem Children” Biggest Problem is Lack of Self-Awareness

October 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Last Tuesday’s NYTimes column in the “Fixes” section by Suzanne Bouffard described two successful approaches to student discipline that emerged independently from the same source source. Called the Collaborative Problem Solving (C.P.S.), Ms. Bouffard reported that this seemingly permissive approach was developed in the late 1990s by Dr. Ross Greene, now the director of a nonprofit called Lives in the Balance, and later expanded upon by Stuart Ablon, a psychologist who runs the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital. It works like this:

An adult and child collaborate to understand why the child is struggling and what to do about it, using a strategy called “Plan B.” Plan B starts with the child stating a concern. Next the adult does the same. They then brainstorm realistic solutions that address both parties’ concerns. That method diverges from more typical responses, like when an adult tries to exert her will by applying consequences (“Plan A”) or lets go of the expectation for a specific behavior (“Plan C”).

As a Buddhist practitioner for the past 12 years, I see this approach as being similar to an approach in reconciliation advocated by zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh called called Beginning Anew, an approach designed to have both parties develop mutual self awareness about how their behaviors affect each other. But, as Ms. Bouffard notes, the notion of developing self-awareness as a means of changing behavior flies in the face of conventional wisdom and conventional thinking by adults:

Approaching misbehavior this way runs counter to many educators’ instincts. Deciding to share power rather than impose it requires a mind-set shift. One might see that as “giving in to the child.” But what would be the point of punishing a child who literally could not sit still? The C.P.S. conversation taught Jayden that his perspective mattered and that using calm problem solving pays off. It also kept him and his classmates learning.

As a high school disciplinarian for six years, I quickly learned that in the minds of many teachers anything that failed to punish the child explicitly was viewed as “giving in”: that every time a child was sent to the office and there were no “automatic consequences” they felt betrayed by the administration. In the minds of some teachers, sending a child to the office was a power play and if I failed to use my power to assign a detention or take some kind of punitive action I was failing to support them. In the minds of other teachers, a trip to the office was intended to provide a place for the student to collect their thoughts and for me to arrange a conference with both parties. As a disciplinarian, I had to learn the expectations of the teacher and adjust accordingly. But is struck me that the same was true of the students: they, too, had to gain an understanding of what each teacher expected.

Ms. Bouffard’s article was triggered by the fact that preschools are suspending children at an alarming rate and, as a result, legislators are looking for changes in approach. She writes:

Early childhood education can be an invaluable opportunity for learning social and emotional skills. But when teachers repeatedly punish young children, their efforts can cause lifelong harm… Nearly 1 in 10 preschoolers is suspended or expelled for behavior problems. Their infractions — generally hitting, throwing things or swearing — need to be addressed, but educators are recognizing that removing 3- and 4-year-olds from classrooms is not the answer. It doesn’t teach children how to behave differently, and it often makes matters worse.

Young children who are suspended are often the ones who need the most social and academic support — and they end up missing opportunities to get it. Early suspension predicts disengagement from school and dropping-out. And the fact that African-American preschoolers are far more likely than white children to be suspended raises serious issues of equity and access to educational opportunity. As states like Illinois and Connecticut pass legislation prohibiting or restricting expulsion from state-funded preschools, teachers desperately need better options for handling misbehavior.

I am appalled at the consequences of imposing the will of adults on children who are misbehaving, an approach that is often used in so-called “no excuses” schools. I am especially appalled when the adult’s will is based on unquestioning adherence to rules that cannot be readily followed by children who have special needs or who come from homes where they have experienced childhood trauma. Here’s hoping that the legislation adopted in states seeking to reduce preschool suspensions leads to the development of self-awareness on the part of students at an early age and mutual respect between teachers and parents at all grade levels.


While China’s Leaders Want Tests De-Emphasized, NYC Chinese Immigrants See Testing as the Way Up in the US

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

In contrast to an article in the NYTimes a few days ago described the Chinese government’s efforts to abandon the test-centric curriculum that drives instruction but stifles creativity, an article by Alice Yin in Sunday’s NYTimes describes the Chinese immigrants continuing efforts to use NYC’s— and the Ivy League’s— test-centric admissions policies as a means of providing their children with an opportunity to climb the economic ladder in our country. And as the title of the article indicates, these Asian test prep centers offer parents what they want: results. 

Ms. Yin describes the reasons for the success of these centers, which are the results student’s desire to succeed, which in turn stems from Chinese culture, parental drive and commitment, and US immigration policy. Ms. Yin profiles several students in her article, whose commitment is captured in a question Join Wang, one of a group of Chinese students attending NYC’s most prestigious HS, Stuyvesant, posed:

‘What are you going to do in the summer?’ ‘Go to prep,’” Wang says. “We all go to prep.”

While many competitive US parents enroll their children in internships or volunteer trips to round out their resumes for college, or sending them to camps to hone their athletic skills, Wang’s HS friends are all enrolled in test-prep schools in NYC. Ms. Yin attributes the industriousness of these Chinese students to culture:

This rigor is seen as necessary to keep up with national test-based systems like China’s, where a single exam determines university placement. “It’s Confucian to emphasize your children’s education,” (Pyong Gap) Min (a sociology professor at Queens College in the City University of New York) says. “You go to China, Korea and Taiwan, there’s after-school programs that they transplanted here.”

She also attributes it to the dedication of parents, who are willing to limit spending on everything else in order to reside in communities served by excellent schools or, if they reside in NYC, to spend thousands each year on “cram schools”. Finally, she cites a wrinkle in the US immigration policy that contributes to the recent emergence of the academic prowess of Chinese students:

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, …argues in “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” her 2015 book with Min Zhou, that much of Asian-Americans’ educational attainment actually stems from a hyperselective immigration policy: A 2015 census report found that a majority of Chinese immigrants have college degrees, a distinction matched by fewer than one-third of Americans as a whole and only 16 percent of the population in China itself.

This imbalance of Asians in the group of students who score well on tests and therefore are admitted in disproportionate numbers to selective high schools and colleges contributes to the call for the abandonment of tests as the primary metric for admissions, a call that the Chinese and other Asians resist since the test-centric selection methods have thus far worked to their benefit.

In the end, this combination of culture, parent commitment, and the inherent rewards of doing well on tests results in many Chinese students feeling a deep appreciation for the sacrifice their parents made on their behalf. Ms. Yin concludes her article with this anecdote about a Stuyvesant student Join Wang, which illustrates this mindset:

There’s also the concept (Professor) Lee calls “parental bragging rights.” When immigrants move to the United States, she points out, they often experience a drop in status — socially, professionally and legally. Some will never regain that stature, settling over the long term for more menial jobs. But they may attempt to recoup some standing through their children’s success. Chris Kwok, a 1992 Stuyvesant graduate… grew up in a working-class family in Flushing; in China, his father had been an engineer, but in Queens, he worked as a blue-collar city contractor, and Kwok’s mother was employed in a garment factory. For his first summer prep class, Kwok recalls: “I made no decision. It was just, ‘This is what you’re doing.’”

The programs he attended in the late 1980s, he remembers, were “terrible,” but at least half his classmates got into either Stuyvesant or Bronx Science, in part because the classes forced a certain kind of discipline. “My parents spent money that they earned,” he says. “The message is that you’re supposed to be paying attention to studying. If you didn’t, you know, you just felt guilty.”

Now that Wang is halfway through high school, he wonders at times where he will go from there. He admits that he would like to leave New York and try being independent for a while. But, he says, “my No. 1 priority is making my parents happy, because they have done so much for me. After that is what I like.”

On a recent Saturday, Wang was logging in to check his SAT results at a Thai cafe near his house, tapping at the screen as if playing some mobile game. “Oh!” he exclaimed, breaking into a sly smile at the score that emerged. “Checking my answers was so worth it.”

Was he going to celebrate? Wang wasn’t sure; it might be premature. His parents had already started him on private college counseling. He would have plenty of time to relax and pursue hobbies later, he said — once he had a solid job. I was reminded of a phrase he had recited earlier, one that almost every Chinese child has heard, including me: “Xiān kǔ hòu tián.” First bitter, then sweet.

The story told above is an echo of many immigrant stories beginning with the Pilgrims who valued family, emphasized hard work, and encouraged deferred gratification. The shame is that all of these values are being reinforced through a desire to score well on a single test.

West Virginia Teacher Praises the Virtues of Engaged Parents, a Virtue Overlooked by “Reformers”

October 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Pocahontas County (WV) teacher Erica Marks’ op ed column in the Charleston Gazette Mail describes a step by step method public school parents can follow to make their child’s school “…as good as a private school“. Drawing her prior experience as a private school teacher, Ms. Marks notes the similarities between the schools and flags on major difference: the presence of the “High-Expectation Parent”.

The teachers here are just as skilled and caring as the ones at the fancy schools. The students have similar aptitudes and similar capacities for being goofballs. Class sizes are comparable. The buildings aren’t remarkably different either, believe it or not.

The main difference I found at a private school is the pervasiveness of the High-Expectation Parent. The High-Expectation Parent is a force like no other. He or she feels entitled to know what is going on with his or her child socially, emotionally and academically while at school. The HEP probably has the teachers, principal and superintendent on speed-dial. The HEP expects to be welcomed into the school.

The HEP expects frequent, prompt and detailed communication between the school and the family. He or she expects that his or her child will be known and educated as a unique and special individual. Beyond getting good test scores, the HEP expects children to be prepared to compete with students from around the globe.

Ms. Marks notes that from a teacher’s perspective, these HEPs can be intimidating. But she also notes that without these HEPs a school will wither. She also came to the realization when she became a parent that the HEPs are advocating for their children, and that advocacy makes a huge difference in the life of the child. And she imagines what it would be like to have the same kind of parent engagement in public schools that she experienced in private schools:

Imagine the advantage that children who go to these expensive schools get with advocates like that! Our kids — all kids — deserve the very same kind of advocacy, the very same respect, the very same level of involvement. A good K-12 education is our best shot at prosperity.

Fellow parents, the Pocahontas County school system is our private school. And all our kids got full scholarships to attend. We get to be HEPs without footing a hefty tuition bill! We can have a real impact on the culture of the school, on the way our children are learning, and on how much they can achieve.

Let me be clear. There are some amazingly involved public school parents. There are some deadbeat private school parents. I admit that I am making this unfair generalization to illustrate a point — which is, I think, that when parents pay for education (beyond their taxes), many get an amped-up sense of entitlement to an opinion about that education.

But I want us all to feel the pervasive sense of ownership of our schools that I witnessed as a private school employee. Our public schools are ours. We are entitled to help create them to be the schools of our dreams. (Do other people dream about schools or is it just me?)

No Ms. Marks, you are not the only one who dreams about schools. Many of us who worked in public education long for the kind of engagement you talk about and many of us share your ambivalence about the generalization you made regarding the extent to which parent engagement makes a difference. Complaining about parent apathy can sound a lot like whining or making excuses… but parent apathy and taxpayers’ unwillingness to raise funds for their schools often go hand in hand. And here’s the real issue from a policy perspective: when parents are given a choice about which schools to attend, those parents who take the time to do so are necessarily HEPs and the schools they choose are like the public schools Ms. Marks dreams about. Engaging parents is an important and overlooked issue in public education. Instead of expending energy trying to figure out how to make public schools operate in a “marketplace” policy-makers and politicians should spend more of their time and energy figuring out how to engage apathetic parents. If they did so they might find that decent paying jobs, predictable housing, and affordable healthy food might make a difference. As a generalization HEPs seldom worry about these issues. “Apathetic” parents’ time is consumed with worries about them.


Montgomery County (MD) Decision to Return to Traditional Letter Grades is Evidence of Where Change is Most Resistant

September 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Conservative columnists complain that teachers unions are the biggest block to making changes in public education. Liberal columnists contend change is thwarted by a lack of funding. Progressives look with dismay at the standardized testing that drives decision making and reinforces the status quo and see that as an impediment to change.

But a recent decision by the Montgomery County (MD) School Board illustrates the biggest obstacle to change: parents who want to retain the system as it is. Five years ago, the Montgomery County School Board made a decision to institute a new system of reporting student progress to students. As reported by Washington Post writer Linh Bui at that time, the system would replace the traditional A-F grades on elementary report cards with ones indicating how each student was progressing.

The Montgomery County public school system is joining other districts across the country in abandoning traditional letter grades for some students and instead matching student evaluations with specific curriculum standards.

Instead of seeing A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s on report cards this November, for the first time, parents of Montgomery students in third grade will see ES, P, I or N. Those new letters will also apply to students in first through second grade, who used to get O’s, S’s or N’s.

Teachers also will mark students separately on learning skills such as “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality” with separate codes of DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident).

This kind of grading system is the natural outgrowth of switching to a standards-based curriculum whereby all students are expected to master a series of standards no matter how much time takes for the each student to do so. It is an important and necessary step for any teacher, school, or district attempting to move toward a mastery learning model based on the assumption that time is a variable and learning is constant instead of the other way around.

In well funded and equitable Montgomery County the teachers and the teachers union supported the change. From all appearances, a sea change was underway… but from the outset one set of parents never understood what was going on and another set of parents and the conservative media rejected the move to “standards-based” grades because the new grades were based on (gasp) the Common Core. As Ms. Bai reported five years ago, the A-F paradigm seemed to be unshakeable to parents… as did the inherent competitiveness and false sense of exactness and certitude built into the A-F system. Some parents made fallacious crosswalks between the new grading system and the old one, some saw the system as “squishy” since it didn’t have numbers associated with it, and some never saw the link between the curriculum standards and the progress reports.

The terminology itself is crucial: the quarterly issuance of letter grades is called a “Report Card”. The terminology used when districts move toward a standards-based grading is a “Progress Report”. They convey a different intent and a different purpose.

As one who sees technology as potentially assisting in the shift away from the competitive bell curve mentality inherent in standardized test driven grading, I know is now possible to completely eliminate report cards altogether. With parent portals into the student information systems used in virtually every school in the nation it is no longer necessary to issue periodic “Report Cards” or “Progress Reports”. Instead, parents can periodically check on their child’s progress through the outcomes defined for each course and schools can monitor the parent’s assiduousness in doing to to make certain it is appropriate for the age of the child. Technology makes such a change possible… and, as we witnessed in Montgomery County, it is supported by teachers, affordable, and equitably applied. The problem with instituting this necessary change? Parents who want schools to stay just the way they were when they attended.

NYC Free Lunch Frees Up Family Funds for More and Better Food, Helps End Food Insecurity

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

A short post in Wear Your Voice provided an insight I had missed when I first read about NYC’s decision to provide two free meals a day to ALL NYC students:

This program will directly benefit an additional 200,000 students who weren’t eligible for free lunch before the announcement and will save families around $300 per year.

The $300/year is, in all probability, a low ball figure in direct savings… the hassle working parents face in preparing meals, planning for them, and making certain their children remember to take their lunches each and every day can take a toll when both parents work.

And the 200,000 figure is probably a low ball figure in terms of students who benefit because in some cases parents are reluctant to admit that their children qualify for the free lunch and so do not complete the necessary paperwork.

And here’s one other fact that has been underreported: by avoiding the paperwork at the Central Office level the NYC school district should be able to save in administrative costs at the district and school building levels.



The Latest (and Completely Unrealistic) Silver Bullet for High Schools: Starting Later

September 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The NYTimes “Upshot” writer Aaron E. Carroll breathlessly reports on the recent Rand study that claims that starting high school later would result in greater student achievement and, consequently, any additional costs incurred by starting school early would be offset. As a retired Superintendent who worked in five different school districts in four different states over a 29 year time span I can assure readers that anyone who thinks this idea will come to fruition is completely untethered from reality. Here are four reasons:

  1. Extraordinary front-end costs: Both the Rand Corporation and writers who cover this issue acknowledge that the up front costs are daunting. But neither the Rand Corporation nor the education reporters offer any rational explanation on where the funds to acquire new buses will come from. The states? Not with 35 statehouses under GOP control. Local budgets? Not with school spending at a lower level than a decade ago.
  2. Politically untenable implementation impacts of cost avoidance strategies: Assuming a windfall of state or local funds is impossible, there are two ways front-end costs could be diminished: by flipping bus routes, having elementary students start early and high schools start late; or, by combining bus routes so that K-12 children all ride the same bus. Speaking from experience, both of these ideas will result in push-back. When I was superintendent in rural Western ME we DID get K-12 routes put in place, but did so to save money and fuel. We moved the start times to a time somewhere between the high school and elementary school start time. Why? Because we didn’t want to move the end of the high school day too far back because of high school athletic practices… and we didn’t want to move elementary start times too far back because working parents could not find child care coverage.
  3. Unwillingness of politicians and voters to act on “empirical evidence”: The notion that politicians would take action based on “empirical data” is zero given the political response to the clear and unequivocal empirical data on climate change. Moreover, there is no “empirical evidence” that politicians and voters are willing to spend money now to achieve future gains.
  4. Unwillingness to invest in the future: If we wanted to invest in the future we wouldn’t be spending less now on K-12 education than we were spending in 2008-09… and we wouldn’t be spending more three times more on prisons than we are spending on schools.

I wish that we lived in a world where empirical data mattered… but we don’t. We live in a world where we are seeking fast, cheap and easy solutions. Moving school start times is none of the above in the start run and only theoretically beneficial in the long run. Rand Corporation’s spreadsheet mentality, like that of “reformers” who see test scores as a fast, cheap and easy means of “measuring” school performance.


Back to School Means Teachers, Parents Dig Deeper Into Their Pockets… Taxpayers? Not So Much

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Philadelphia public school teacher Jan Cohan’s op ed article in described HER back to school shopping list includes basic school supplies and asks parents to accept the reality that THEIR back to school shopping list should include supplies for their children. It wasn’t always so.

When I began teaching in Philadelphia in 1970 the junior high where I worked was on a double shift due to overcrowding, which posed logistical challenges for administrators and teachers alike. As a math teachers I had access to the department’s supply of chalk, paper, its mimeograph machine, textbooks that were appropriate for the grade levels I taught, and the AV equipment needed to teach mathematics: an overhead projector and a box of acetates to use on the projector. That was not all, though. Each teacher on the staff received a stipend they could use to acquire school supplies or instructional support materials of their choice as long as the department head approved. I forget the size of the stipend, but it was sufficiently large that I was able to use it to buy enough paper to put together my own “textbook” that included exercises for my students that matched their abilities, which, sadly, were well below the 8th grade level they were assigned to based on their age.

Throughout my career as a Superintendent, which ended in 2011, the districts I led ensured that teachers had sufficient supplies, though I would not be surprised if some teachers bought supplementary materials out of their own pockets the same way some parents who could afford to bought fancier calculators and tutorial texts for their children. From 1997 on I worked in a relatively affluent districts, which meant that there was no expectation that parents would need to provide basic materials like toilet paper for the bathrooms, tissues for the classroom, or blank paper for the teacher to use to photocopy assignments.

But from 2000 onward, I began to hear anecdotes from my colleagues about shortfalls that resulted in them cutting essentials from their budgets, essentials that led to districts serving children in poverty essentially requiring teaches to dig into their pockets and asking parents to do the same. And since 2008 I am confident the situation has gotten even worse, as inflation adjusted spending for public schools has declined since the so-called Great Recession. Contrast my recollections as a teacher in Philadelphia with this description provided by Ms. Cohan:

In order to adequately educate kids, we have to pick up the slack, spending on average $500 on our classrooms annually.

And first-year teachers spend significantly more. I easily spent a thousand dollars in my first year on basics like pencils and paper and markers, of course, but also on dictionaries, binders, a hole punch, a pencil sharpener, classroom posters (and absurdly expensive lamination), bulletin board borders, crates and bins, and a projector so my students could see all the lessons I prepared.

Because of the limited resources in many schools, it’s common for teachers to ask parents to provide supplies not just for their own children, but supplies like tissues to be shared with the entire class. It’s helpful to the teacher, who otherwise will be spending even more  out of pocket, but community supplies also reinforce sharing and cooperation and give students ownership of their classroom.

Most parents support their children’s teachers and graciously provide these community supplies, but I have to roll my eyes at the parents I’ve seen posting about greedy overpaid teachers having the nerve to ask for some glue sticks and pencils…

My colleagues and I have relied on crowdfunding to make ends meet. Our engineering teacher raised money on DonorsChoose last year to buy a robot kit and enter our students in a robotics competition. We crowdfund to defray the cost of field trips so our kids can experience the world outside the classroom. English teachers raise the money to buy class sets of novels for their students. Science teachers raise money for labs and experiments.

Ms. Cohan has been teaching for six years, which means she has only experienced budgets that shortchange teachers on supplies, fail to provide needed equipment for activities like a robotics, fail to provide “frills” like field trips, and fail to provide essentials like novels for literature classes and materials to perform experiments in science class. Consequently she sees the lack of supplies as an opportunity for students learning the value of “sharing and cooperation” and giving them “ownership of their classroom”. And she also turns to online sources that effectively equate public schools to charities.

I find this acceptance of deficient budgets distressing. Taxpayers of all ages should dig a little deeper in their pockets to “crowd fund” schools so that teachers can focus their time and energy on preparing for classes. If they did so in a spirit of sharing their resources with children in the community they might regain the sense of ownership in their schools that my community experienced when I attended schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s and in the districts I served during my career.