Remember when people debated the housing bubble? As a renter, it didn’t seem all that pertinent to me. Now we know that large-scale overvaluing, overconfidence, and under-evaluating touches us all. But when people (read: the media, 99% movement activists, and, famously, venture capitalist/entrepreneur Peter Thiel) talk about an education bubble, they’re comparing higher education to a free market system.
The concepts aren’t quite parallel in my mind, but a new infographic series by Education News makes a strong case for the analogy – and paints a scary picture of a system that’s out of control.
Do you see the parallel between high levels of mortgage borrowing to become homeowners and high levels of student borrowing to pay skyrocketing (up 439% in the past 30 years) college costs? And if so, do you think that it constitutes an education bubble that could pop? What might that mean: a significant drop in kids going to college, kids delaying college until they can pay cash rather than borrowing, a shortage of young qualified professionals, more trade schools?
With 20/20 hindsight, quite a few people probably wouldn’t have gone for the mortgages they did in ’05 - ’08. So if you’re a parent and you want your child to go to college, what, if anything, do you think we can or should do now (planning, saving, outsmarting the system, etc.) to best hedge our bets against an education bubble?
Positive news this week about incrementally higher graduation rates was put in harsh perspective yesterday when Condoleezza Rice named our failures in education as a threat to national security. Rice is part of a task force on education and national security that released a scary report about how ill-prepared our students are – and the threat it poses to our national standing.
Part of the problem is that we’re not producing high school grads who can fill crucial posts in our military. According to the task force’s report published this month, the Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of American youth are ineligible to serve in the military because they didn't graduate from high school, are obese, or have criminal records. And, of those who do graduate and might be eligible for the military, almost a third can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.
But the list goes on, and it’s not just that kids aren’t finishing school – it’s that they’re not learning enough even if they do:
Only about 25% of U.S. students test proficient or better in civics.
About eight out of ten Americans speak only English (and fewer and fewer schools teach foreign languages).
A recent report by ACT found that only 22 percent of our high school students are "college ready" in all core subjects.
And, in case you’re thinking ‘well, it’s not my kid – my kid’s going to college’:
Even among seniors headed to college, the College Board reported that only 43 percent meet college-ready standards.
No matter what your stance on the military and national defense, the uncomfortable reality is that this isn’t just about our armed forces, we need Americans to fill crucial roles in government, intelligence, and foreign service. To this end, former Secretary of State Rice told Charlie Rose yesterday, "national security is much broader than what you can do with your military forces - but of course, even there we are falling short." The report synopsis tidily touches on five areas where our education system is failing to prepare students in ways that affect national security, they are: economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, U.S. global awareness, and U.S. unity and cohesion.
Obviously, this is a national issue, and better education funding and prioritizing education as a cultural value would be crucial steps in the right direction. The task force supports expanding the Common Core Standards to encompass more subjects than just English and math as an effort to standardize what kids are learning (and raise the learning curve). But if and when such reforms will be adopted is up in the air (and it's hard to be optimistic that they'll happen any time soon, given the current budget-cutting climate).
But we don't have to wait around and hope for the best. If language programs at our schools have been cut, for example, we can work with other parents to push for their reinstatement, or, if that doesn't work, look for affordable programs outside of school. We can teach civic awareness at home around the dinner table. And we can take advantage of museums, libraries, and daily teaching moments to get kids used to learning outside the classroom, too. What else can parents do – right here, right now – to help their kids be educated, prepared, and competitive? What, if anything, are you doing?
Last Friday, we held our first-ever GreatSchools Investor and Partner Day in San Francisco. Thirty guests joined 10 of our staff members to explore ideas about how we can improve our services for parents. The conversation was wide-ranging and stimulating.
Some of the most interesting discussion focused on how we can better help parents and students explore school quality from different angles, including:
How much diversity does a given school have and how might families who attend that school benefit from that diversity?
What is the culture and climate of a given school? How do students and teachers treat each other?
How can we help families and schools find their proper match? Some schools are good for a certain type of child but not so good for other types. How can we help families understand these kinds of subtleties?
The guests shared their personal experiences and professional insights and challenged us to "raise the bar" and provide more and more value to parents.
Happily, with the support of the Walton Family Foundation, we are busy tackling these and other similar challenges. We took an important step this past week with the release of our Official School Profile, a new way for school principals to share in-depth information about the programs and culture at their school (see examples here and here). Stay tuned for many more announcements before the year is out.
What do you think are the top school information opportunities and challenges GreatSchools should work on? How would you like to see our school profiles improve? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
"We each have a role in our family," my dad told me repeatedly growing up. Mine was to do well in school. It was my "job" to listen, respect the teacher, ask questions, and do all of the work assigned. So when I read that same attitude quoted by a 15-year-old sophomore in yesterday’s Mind Shift article "At Flex Academy, high school mimics the workplace," it didn’t seem strange. The rest of the school’s setup, however, is a bit of a shock.
All 165 students experience this new hybrid high school the way many adults experience a 9 to 5 job: they sit in cubicles, use email to schedule time with the teacher, and log in each day to see what their meeting schedules look like. Each semester, kids take four core classes (math, English, science, and history) and one elective – and they take all of these courses online via K12, a for-profit education company. Their school is in an old building just off Union Square in downtown San Francisco. People work here; streets are uber-busy and lined with honking cabs (not trees) and panhandlers work the sidewalk. It’s the concrete jungle, not exactly a kid-friendly environment. Many an urban school faces similar challenges on the outside, of course. But what of the work environment inside?
There’s no grade segregation, so many students say they don’t know what grade their peers are in. If they have a question, kids are likely to stroll over to a peer’s cube to ask a question. The teacher tracks progress using on online system that’s like a master schedule, and is there all day, every day to help students with their work in a way that seems like a work supervisor. There are no extracurricular activities like teams or clubs, nor are there hands-on learning projects. Kids arrive, log in to learn, and finish their day of classes by 3:15 pm.
The English teacher quoted says teaching at Flex Academy isn’t all that different from the public school she taught at before, but I have trouble picturing that. And for all that I find shocking, the school’s workaday structure is all by design. As the school’s founder and CEO Mark Kushner told MindShift:
"'What do you do when you have a problem with a project at work? You seek out your colleagues or your boss and you work through it,' he said. 'That’s what these students do here.'"
What’s more, they’re growing: they just opened a new school in Silicon Valley.
Despite my being told that school was my job, it was still school – with brightly colored displays in classrooms, teachers who lectured and gave assignments, and lots of social time with friends and classmates not only to collaborate on school work, but also to socialize in different environments (like clubs, sports, and in the quad). But what happens when we strip out the extras – the physicality, the social interactions, the extracurriculars – and leave only the work? It hardly seems like school any more.
Jokes aside, gifted and talented education is important – and schools need resources and curricula to meet the needs of all kids, whether they’re ahead or behind. So I applaud the move, reported in the Washington Post Localthis week, by the Maryland State Board of Education to push local schools to identify gifted children and design programs to meet their needs. Even in districts where it’s nothing but cuts, cuts, and more cuts, differentiated learning should be prioritized to keep kids challenged and engaged in learning. And who better to lead the way than the award-winning Maryland Dept. of Education, which has been named #1 in public education for four years straight by Education Week and College Board?
But that’s not where the real controversy lies: under this proposal, kids may start to be identified as “gifted” as early as age 3.
In fairness, advocates say kids this young won’t be tracked or labeled, merely observed. Jeanne Paynter, a specialist for gifted education for Maryland’s education department, was quoted as saying: “This is the process of observing students, just like we do for students with disabilities. We’re asking systems to consider students’ abilities.”
The new policy sounds fair enough, but the counter-argument, voiced by a Montgomery County group, is that it risks exacerbating the achievement gap – that is, that young kids not identified as gifted will be black, Hispanic, and English language learners.
Sadly, that possibility rings all too true.
It's especially scary since such a label may cause a great divide between students when no actual divide exists. In the 2009 hit Nurture Shock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman came out strongly against testing the preK set for giftedness. Their catchy claim: preK test results for aptitude and giftedness are wrong “73% of the time.” Why? Because young minds are still growing and not fully formed – and the tests at this early age don’t reliably measure squat. Bronson and Merryman quote Dr. Donald Rock, a research scientist for the Educational Testing Service, who says testing even in second grade is questionable. Third grade, he says, is when test results become meaningful. “Testing younger than that, you’re getting kids with good backgrounds, essentially,” Rock said.
So perhaps Maryland could lead the nation by refraining from testing, labeling, or even observing signs of giftedness until third grade. It seems like the right thing to do.
Any hour now the New York Times is supposed to publish the "value-added" data on 12,000 New York City public school teachers following a court ruling yesterday ordering the Department of Education to release the scores.
In the world of education politics, there's not much everyone agrees on. The teacher's union goes to the ends of the earth to protect teachers (even bad ones sometimes), while the scorched earth reformers like Michelle Rhee have made it their stock in trade to blame incompetent, negligent teachers for ruining our schools and damaging the lives of our school children one ill-planned lesson at a time.
But the plan to release the names of thousands of New York City's teachers - and how much they did or did not raise student test scores - has created some odd moments of assonance. Yesterday Bill Gates, who has spent millions of dollars to investigate teacher effectiveness and improve the teacher evaluation process, wrote an editorial in the New York Times arguing that shaming teachers would do more harm than good. GothamSchools explained why they would not be publishing teacher data with names attached: the statistics don't stand up to scrutiny - with margins of error that you could drive a truck through. Ed reform blogger Alexander Russo quotes Teach for America's Wendy Kopp and a spokesperson from Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst speaking out against publishing teacher's names attached to their data.
It's not the first time teachers have been forced to wear the scarlet number of value-added scores. In 2010 the Los Angeles Times published similar data for all public school teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District. Soon after that public shaming, one teacher who had been among those who felt demoralized by the airing of his low scores committed suicide.
Ostensibly publishing these scores should serve the public: people whose children attend our public schools. Do you want access to such information about your child's teacher? Even if it might be wildly inaccurate? And if you object to the publishing of such information, would you refrain from using it to get insights about your child's teacher?
Therein lies the rub. No matter how misleading I'm told the data is, I can imagine circumstances in which I'd take a peek. In fact, my kids have had teacher where I definitely would've looked. In those cases, I would've been too curious to keep from probing further than I really think is fair or right. In this era where data transparency is extolled as the highest virtue, it's worth remembering that sometimes it only exposes the worst in us.
How are charter schools different, you ask? They are public schools that get district money on a per-pupil basis but operate outside of district oversight. That means charter schools can design school policies that are distinctly different from traditional public schools. But what does that really mean?
It means punishments can be eye-popping, over-the-top – and even downright bizarre. Case in point: Noble charter schools in Chicago, where students are fined for behavioral infractions. At Noble schools, for instance, a high schooler who brings chips to school could be fined $5, as could a student who fails to make eye contact with a teacher. More examples: not tying shoes and running a pencil along the side of a desk. Students with multiple infractions are required to take – and pay for – a $140 summertime class to learn how to improve their behavior.
Reports this week as a result of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests by outraged student, parent, and community groups reveal that during the 2010-2011 school year, Noble’s 10 high schools earned a tidy $188,647 in fines from students. And since the 2008-2009 school year, they’ve collected almost $400,000.
From students. In fines.
Charter schools are known for strict policies. Many schools have uniforms – many others enforce dress codes. Some charter school, like the KIPP Charter Management Organization (CMO), are big on citizenship, with New York City schools issuing character report cards for traits like self-control, gratitude, and social intelligence. So against that backdrop, perhaps the Chicago CMO’s decision to fine students isn’t so surprising.
For all the outrage and the snickering that a fine for potato chips can (and does) elicit, there might be something to this. The article quotes Noble’s CEO, Michael Milkie, who confirmed the sums and said these large fees cover only part of the cost of detention. That argument I find not just weak, but lame. After all, student discipline has always been part of education – and making a buck here and there from student offenders just seems lazy – and greedy.
But Milkie had another, more interesting justification for the fines: “Many well-behaved students do not have a good learning environment in their high schools as their education is compromised by disruptive students. … In addition, their education dollars are diverted to addressing the improper behavior of those disruptive students. Noble has changed that inequity by asking misbehaving students to share in the cost of addressing their behavior.”
Now that’s an interesting way to look at it. It’s different, it’s unorthodox, but hey – isn’t that what charter schools are all about – improving education using new and untraditional methods?
On the heels of this report, the AP released a story (embedded below) about a charter school in Cincinnati that teamed up with Easter Seals and private donors to pay students to attend school regularly. This charter is a “drop-out recovery” school, and even though the payouts are small – $25 for a senior who attends school on time all week, and $10 for underclassmen who do the same – the principal says the brand-new program is already working. Watch here:
What do you think of these charter schools’ discipline and incentive methods – shocking or smart?
Can a six-year-old be suspended for sexual assault? In Hercules, CA, the answer is yes. The question, however, is whether it’s sane.
Schools need to be safe – there’s no question about that. To see cases of kids bullying other kids, you only have to open your eyes (or read here, or watch here). But in searching for a way to deal with bullying, some educators are going too far. Zero-tolerance policies, for instance, can be used to punish the victim who finally fights back, or cause principals to seriously overreact. I’m no fan of ‘kids will be kids’ as an answer to bullying behavior – but it seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.
Case in point: the six-year-old who was suspended for “sexual assault” (that phrase was written in his record by the principal). An article by Scott James tells the story well, but essentially it goes like this: two boys were playing tag at recess, and one boy’s hand touched or grazed the other’s upper thigh (or maybe the groin – it’s unclear). That boy was suspended. The official write-up: “Committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault or sexual battery.”
The suspended child’s mom was confused, so she turned to her local online parenting group, which is known for its active community and abundance of advice. Her child, she says, was playing tag. “He doesn’t know what he did wrong,” she says. She worried that this language in her son’s permanent record would follow him for life. After getting supportive responses about the principal being out of line and hearing similar stories of suspensions for hugging, she hired a lawyer. Now, her child’s record has been expunged and he’s been transferred to a new school.
A couple of interesting facts that play into this: 1) In California, kids need to be in at least fourth grade for the “intent” for such an act. 2) As one of James’ sources, a child psychologist, noted, it’s quite normal and common for kids to touch each other on the genitals out of curiosity. He stressed that it’s a cause for concern if the behavior continues after he’s told it’s inappropriate. But it doesn’t sound like anyone (principal or parent) had this conversation with the boy. (His own mom says he doesn’t know why he’s been punished.)
In the worst case scenario, this child did inappropriately and purposefully touch the other child in a bullying or victimizing capacity. But even in this case, the "perpetrator" is six. SIX! More likely, though, this child was inordinately punished by an overreacting principal. Either way: did anyone learn anything here? After all, this did happen at school.
I played violin as a kid. And I was fantastic – at least, I thought I was. My clear memory is of childhood greatness, the next Hilary Hahn. My mom begs to differ, however. "No," she told me recently at a family event. "You really weren’t very good, it was just a really positive, experimental type of class." Huh. It’s hard to reconcile her version with my memory. Probably because the teacher kept telling me how great I was.
For decades, schools have been all about building self-esteem and handing out "empty praise." 'You’re so smart,' was the ultimate accolade, while 'A for effort' was like second prize in a beauty contest. But a growing body of research is making clear that adults' good intentions to bolster kids' self-esteem is resulting in a generation of kids who are "praise junkies," afraid to try new challenges that could jeopardize their head-of-the-class reps. It’s the unspecific, over-the-top ("You’re so smart!" "You’re the best!") praise that can hinder kids' education, while specific praise for taking risks and tackling difficult tasks ("You worked so hard on that!") helps kids enjoy challenges and be more successful.
"Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.
Brain imaging shows how this is true, how connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills."
As the Washington Post reports, based on this research educators at a handful of schools across the country are experimenting with new forms of praise that encourages risk-taking and learning from failure. Teachers at a Virginia middle school gave their students a primer on brain development to help the kids understand that they learn better by making new connections and solving problems on their own. Teachers went on to modify their instruction methods, including how and what they praised – curbing their enthusiasm and replacing it with patience while kids work out things on their own. Teachers also were sure to give specific approbation for hard work and effort.
Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee cites another drawback to general/over-praising: self-assessments that are way off (like mine, with my now questionable violin skills). The Washington Post article includes an anecdote Rhee shares about her kids: "[Rhee] often recounts a story about how her daughters’ many soccer trophies are warping their sense of their athletic abilities. Her daughters 'suck at soccer,' she said in a radio interview last January. 'We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,' Rhee said."
Do you think your kids are victims of empty praise at home or school?
In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting in 1999, school officials mandated clear backpacks as a safety precaution. Schools in a handful of districts around the country followed suit. In the wake of tragedy, schools panic and do their best to redouble their efforts to ensure kids’ safety. It’s hard to blame them. But do these knee-jerk safety rules provide much (or any) security?
And again, school officials are instituting rules that students must bring only clear backpacks to school. After yesterday’s shooting at North Forest High School, the Superintendent is calling for clear backpacks for all students. That high school, however, already has metal detectors. The metal detectors are reportedly easy to avoid either by coming when they’re not turned on or using a side entrance, rendering them ineffective. But will clear backpacks succeed where metal detectors (or other measures) fail? But what if a weapon were simply hidden in a pencil case/binder/extra sweatshirt inside the clear backpack?
Clear backpacks aren’t alone in the arena of well-intentioned but questionable safety rules. At a middle school in Houston, TX, students are permitted to bring only factory-sealed water bottles to school. The intent is to keep kids from bringing alcohol (disguised as water or other drinks) to school. A worthy goal, of course, but I’ve already thought of three ways to evade this rule. (Plus, such an environmentally unfriendly rule seems particularly inappropriate in an educational setting.)
Rules such as this seem well-intentioned but not well thought out. What do you think?