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Did Early Presidents Really Home School Their Kids?

One of the promises made by GOP candidate Rick Santorum is that if elected he would home school his kids at the White House, claiming that most presidents did that very thing during the first 150 years of this country.  

Well, according to blogger Andy Horowitz (Salon), it turns out that in fact very few presidents in those early years even had school-aged kids.  Those who did, like Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and even Grant sent their kids to school.  Washington hired a tutor for his wife’s child so that the boy could later enroll in King’s College, now known as Columbia.  Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, an accomplishment he insisted be listed first on his tombstone at Monticello, wrote that without public schools, participation in the fledgling democracy by anyone other than the rich would be sorely limited.  The poor, he wrote, “should be educated at the common expence of all.”  So I guess we could say that if elected, Santorum could choose to home school, but he won’t be carrying on a presidential tradition.

Home schooling is part of the candidate’s belief that education is the responsibility of a child’s parents rather than the state or federal government.  I think it’s safe to say that most of us here in this country don’t really believe that, but there are countries that do.  Afghanistan, for example.

The candidate also has opinions about college.  He believes that our current president is a “snob” for wanting all Americans to have the opportunity for higher education. 

My parents would have been astonished that anyone wanting a college education for their kids, let alone everybody, would fall into the “snob” category, especially since neither of them graduated high school.  My father went into the steel mill at 16, and he was determined that his kids would have more opportunities than he did.  All three of us did go to college thanks to our parents’ expectations.  What snobs they were.

Pants-on-fire2In some ways the candidate’s name calling (he should have learned about that kind of thing in first grade) is just plain weird coming from a person with a Bachelor’s degree from Penn State, an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, and a law degree from Dickenson.  College was a good choice for him, I guess, just not for everyone.  Pressed by David Gregory on NBC last Sunday about his views on education, the candidate backpedaled a bit, pretending that there was a difference between college and higher ed.  Higher ed is fine, it turns out, after Gregory pointed out that during the current recession the unemployment rate for college graduates is 4% as opposed to over 8% for everyone else. 

It remains to be seen if any of the candidate’s kids will go to college, but I’m guessing it’s very possible.  And maybe it’s true, that if elected, the candidate actually would home school his children, given his belief in the inadequacy of our public schools.  Well, probably he personally  wouldn’t be home schooling his kids.  And his spouse, as First Lady, probably wouldn’t have time to do it either.  So maybe they’d have to hire a tutor like George Washington did.  Of course, they’d probably want to hire someone with a college education.



Does Publishing Test Scores Matter?

Tingley-021 colorWhen the New York State Department of Education started issuing school report cards over ten years ago, Richard Mills, Commissioner of Education at the time, said that people all over the state would be talking about them – at the dinner table, on buses, at work, at the grocery store.  The report cards would change the face of education by making everything transparent.  Now with the click of a mouse anyone could see student demographics, passing rates on regents exams, and school finances.  Anyone could see how his or her school ranked in comparison with so-called “similar” schools, although many educators questioned how the schools spread out across the state could be considered similar.  Still, the department of education insisted that with transparency would come real accountability and consequently school improvement.  The new report cards would change the face of education in the state.

The school report cards did generate interest, even consternation among school people.  Among the general public, not so much.   For one thing, there weren’t a lot of surprises in the data.  The results for most of the schools in any area were generally similar.  Predictably, smaller schools fared better than larger schools.  Wealthy districts fared better than poor districts. In some schools, it wasn’t hard to match up test scores with individual teachers.  In my own experience, the most useful data for budget hearings was the cost to the district for special education services, information that the general public found inordinately surprising.

But did school report cards change the face of education in New York State?  Did everyone suddenly become more accountable?  Did education drastically improve?  Well, if that had been the case, perhaps New York wouldn’t have recently jumped on the bandwagon of standardizing teacher evaluations and including teachers’ test scores.  And maybe the NY Times wouldn’t have felt it necessary to publish the test scores of 18,000 city teachers.

As you recall, the same scenario played out last year when the LA Times did basically the same thing while the unions wailed and gnashed their teeth.  On both coasts teachers objected to the inaccuracies of the reports.  The unions tried to stop publication of test scores on the grounds that it violated teachers’ privacy rights, considered by the judge (and by many others) a specious argument. Test pattern

But in the end, did publishing teachers’ scores in LA have any effect on education there?  Were teachers with poor scores fired or shamed into improving?  Were teachers with high scores promoted or rewarded?  Did parents insist that their students have only teachers with solid test scores?  Did some teachers resign in mortification? No, no, no, and no.  I expect the same results in NY.  Like school report cards, the published data is more interesting to the school people than to the general public.

We waste a lot of time on political posturing and needless provocation that breeds righteousness on one side and resentment and anger on the other. I fail to see how this nonsense improves the educational lives of children.

A quote generally attributed to Columbia professor Wallace Sayre goes something like this:  “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.  That is why academic politics are so bitter.”   We need to focus on improving schools, not on test score wars.  


Teaching and Performance

Over ten years ago I saw “Wit” at the Union Square Theater in New York.  Deeply moving, it kept the audience engrossed in the story of a smart, funny, cynical professor battling ovarian cancer.  I remember stopping in the women’s room afterwards where it was completely silent; we all felt exhausted by the intensity of what we had seen.

WitPlaying Vivian Bearing, the lead, was Judith Light, whom I had only seen on “Who’s the Boss,” and then only when I was trapped watching reruns on the television above the treadmill I ran on at the Y after school.  Light was wonderful in “Wit,” and I was astounded that she had wasted her talent on a stupid sitcom where she wore tacky sweaters and took Tony Danza seriously.  In “Wit” she made us all believe that she was a professor of literature who would never watch “Who’s the Boss” and wouldn’t speak to people who did.

The play, of course, won a Pulitzer Prize and has currently been revised on Broadway starring Cynthia Nixon.  It was the first and only attempt at playwriting by author Margaret Edson.

What does Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edson do now?  She teaches social studies to sixth graders in Atlanta. For ten years prior to that she taught kindergarten.  She has worked as a teacher for the last 12 years.

In an interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS shortly after she won the Pulitzer, Lehrer asked her to describe a typical day in her kindergarten class.  “Well,” Edson said, “today we had a great time counting by twos to the tune of ‘I Feel Good,’ a James Brown song.  Then I’ve been receiving several bouquets of flowers, and we’re studying about insects; we’re doing a big project on insects called Six Legs over Georgia.”

Lehrer asked, “Do your students know you won the Pulitzer Prize?”  Yes, said Edson.

Lehrer asked, “Do they care?”

“Well,” said the playwright/teacher, “we talk a lot about manners and feelings and courtesy and thoughtful gestures.  So, they all came up to me and said congratulations.  And I said thank you.  They said you’re welcome.”

Today she adds, “ … The contribution I want to make now I want to make in the classroom.  The difference between teaching and playwriting is not incomprehensible to me; they’re not so different.  They both create a public event that leads to understanding.”

During what I consider my “golden age of teaching” with a team of middle school teachers, we often would say as we left the hall to enter our classrooms, “Showtime!” We meant it.  No Pulitzers for us, but it’s gratifying that a prizewinner joined the ranks and sees the connection.




School Reform Is a Long Slog

Tingley-021 colorRobert Slavin is one person in education whose work I have admired for years.  His approach is child-centered, reasonable, and workable.  As a practitioner for many years, I’ve always appreciated Slavin’s clear-minded ideas regarding what will actually work in schools as opposed to what’s politically exciting at the moment.

Years ago Slavin influenced mightily my view of remediation.  Instead of slowing down and dumbing down the curriculum for less able students, Slavin recommended pre-teaching the information to students who typically might have difficulty the first time around.  Instead of remediation, kids got a first crack at new information and skills.  When the information was introduced to the whole class, for the pre-taught kids it was actually the second time around.  Not only did they catch on quicker, they were able to participate in class discussion. 

I introduced this idea to my faculty and, as expected, met with the usual resistance from some of them.  Resource room teachers, however, saw possibilities in the idea, and sought cooperation from their students’ classroom teachers.  Resource room teachers liked the idea of pre-teaching the lesson instead of remediating afterwards.  It didn’t work every time, but kids liked the idea of actually learning Slog2 something before their classmates did.  It was a step in the right direction, and the right direction for me at the time was to eliminate the lowest track in my school that reminded kids daily that they couldn’t learn what they needed to.  Like a lot of sound education ideas, this one didn’t cost anything; it was about changing the way teachers perceived their assignments.  It didn’t take a national movement to improve instruction; it took inspiring a small group of teachers.

I often read Slavin’s thoughtful blog, and last week he talked about school reform, not where it is on the political spectrum, but how it could actually be accomplished.  “…Teachers should have an opportunity to collectively learn about a variety of proven programs appropriate to their school and then vote to adopt one or more of them, or none at all,” he wrote.  “This way … teachers would feel committed to whatever they had chosen and implement it with spirit and care.”

Not long ago I was invited to help design a school improvement model for a very large city school district – dozens of high schools and over a hundred elementary schools.  We were allotted five days in the summer for staff development before school opened, and then as consultants we would work with the schools throughout the years.  The money was good, as the school had Race to the Top funds.  But I knew that the possibility of real systemic change for all those schools (and therefore any of them) was near zero.  Reform isn’t something you do to people, and none of the rank and file had any choice in the matter.

Noting that in this country there are 100,000 schools and 40 million kids, Slavin asks,  “Can we really reform it all one school at a time?”   He believes we can.  I believe it’s the only way.  People have to believe in what they do.  I’ve seen real change happen – real reform – when people want to improve and believe it’s possible.

I don’t think the school reform bubble has burst.  I never thought of it as a bubble.  People who spend their careers working in schools know that reform is a perpetual slog.  The focus may change (this time it’s teachers and unions), but reform is an unending continuum, not an historic event. Improvement will be incremental rather than systemic.

I agree with Slavin:  One school at a time. Strong leadership, committed teachers, manageable size.  


Rethinking Elementary School Size

Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers were recently accused of lewd behavior with their students, is one of the largest elementary schools in the nation with 1500 students and 150 teachers.  In the wake of the charges, the LA school superintendent replaced all teachers in the school, assigning them with pay to report to Augustus Hawkins High School where they will be interviewed by authorities.  The high school is still under construction.  Miramonte will be staffed by teachers called back from lay-offs.

MiramonteThe Los Angeles teachers’ union threatened last week to file a grievance on behalf of all the displaced teachers to protect their rights and reputations; parents and critics worried that by losing their teachers, all the children at the school were being punished for events that had nothing to do with them.  The superintendent later allayed the union’s concerns, temporarily at least, by indicating that the transferred teachers would have the opportunity to return to Miramonte.  In the meantime, instruction continues at Miramonte while parents, teachers, union leaders, administration, and others try to figure out how this situation could have happened and how to prevent it in the future.

The largest elementary school that I ever managed as principal had an enrollment of about 750 students, half the size of Miramonte.  I was there for three years, and for one of those years I was without an assistant.  Even with an assistant, getting into every classroom every day required making classroom visitations a priority.  Still, we (or I) managed a random drop-in visit just about every single day.  Visibility is important for a principal, and being readily available to the staff allowed me to gather a great deal of essential information quickly and efficiently.  Teachers were never sure when my assistant or I might drop in, but they were sure that we would make an appearance at some time each day.

My point is that in a school half the size of Miramonte, it wasn’t easy to see all staff members every day.  We had to work at it, and we had to make it a priority.  Still, once we made the commitment, the benefits of knowing what was going on, heading off problems, and gathering information made it all worthwhile and saved us time and trouble in the end.

I’m not saying that Miramonte’s principal didn’t monitor the classrooms.  I’m not saying that even good MBWA would have prevented what allegedly happened.  What I am saying, though, is that with 1500 students K-5, it’s easier for people to hide.  Also it’s less likely that kids in general will know their administrators and feel comfortable talking to them. And I have to add that if the alleged actions on the part of the accused teachers actually happened, one has to wonder how it was that a teacher felt confident that no administrator would drop in while these actions were taking place and that he could do what he wanted in his classroom with impunity.  

Perhaps there were many teachers at Miramonte who were caring, nurturing, and strong instructors.  Perhaps they closed their doors and did their jobs well.  But I support the district’s decision to sweep clean and start fresh.  Still, in a school with 1500 kids, unless it’s divided into two or three “schools within a school,” it won’t be easy to establish a different culture.  Working effectively with smaller numbers isn't a high concept idea for reform; it's a simple idea, cost effective, proven, and workable.


In Praise of Small Schools

Tingley-021 colorTen years ago WestEd published a policy brief called, “Are Small Schools Better?”  based on studies of outcomes from small schools during the 1990s.  Noting that the national trend had been towards larger and larger schools, the brief noted that over the years “policymakers paid scant attention to red flags raised by school size research” like incidents of violence and lack of student achievement.  A similar analysis in 1996 of 103 research documents found that achievement in small schools was at least equal and often superior to that in large schools – especially for poor and minority students.  No study found that students in large schools had higher achievement.

The policy brief cited the advantages that small schools offered their students, especially noting that in small schools students and teachers know one another, students feel more engaged and committed, and an “internal community of accountability” develops among teachers, students and parents.  Still, even ten years ago, lawmakers continued to push for what were purported to be economies of scale in large schools even though academic success was questionable and the cost of poorly educated kids came later. 

Now a new study shows that New York City students attending small public high schools are more likely to graduate than students in larger schools.  In addition, students in small schools received more regents diplomas (41.5% to 34.9%) and performed better on the English Regents. 

The study tracked the academic performance of more than 21,000 students who applied for admission to 105 small high schools from 2005-2008.  Students were selected by lottery.  The study indicates that advances were made across the board regardless of race, gender,family income, or scores on the eighth grade math and reading tests.

Small schoolThe small high school initiative has been an effort of the Bloomberg administration, which shut down 30 large schools and created 300 small schools, about 100 of which were the focus of the study.  The small high schools are limited to 100 students per class; some of the large high schools that were closed enrolled 3000 or more students.  Of course, enrollment and attendance are not the same thing.  The fact that the population of the small schools was newly constituted by lottery rather than just sectioned off from the old large school allowed the small schools to begin fresh and establish a new culture. 

Having spent a good part of my professional life in small schools, I am not surprised that the new report shows that kids do better.  It’s hard to get lost in a small school; it’s hard to fall between the cracks.  People notice if a student doesn’t show up.  Teachers know parents; administrators know teachers.  Students know administrators.  Students know one another.  It’s not rocket science.  If you know kids, you know that they actually do not long for anonymity.

Let’s hope that the small schools initiative continues in big city districts that are currently failing at educating their students.  Let’s hope that officials who make the decisions this time pay attention to the research. I should add that Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, questioned the results of the survey, calling it "disingenuous."  Perhaps he is without experience in small schools. 





New Positive Report on Kids and Drugs

 Despite daily reports in the media that schools and the country in general are going to hell in a handbasket, new reports show that kids today are partaking a lot less in sex, drugs, and rock and roll than their parents did.  OK, maybe not rock and roll, but definitely sex, drugs, and alcohol.

The study comes from Monitoring the Future, an initiative funded by the National Institute of Health and conducted through the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.  The study has been ongoing since 1975, and each year about 50,000 eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders are surveyed.  In addition, annual follow-up questionnaires are sent to a sample of each graduating class a few years after graduation.

Marijuana use among teens has seen a recent increase, but teens are smoking less pot than their parents did at the same age.  In 1980, about 60% of high school seniors reported they had tried marijuana and 9% were daily smokers.  Today’s seniors report that 45.5% have smoked pot and 6.6% are regular smokers.  In addition, in 1980, about a third of seniors reported smoking regular cigarettes within the past month; today that number has dropped to about one-fifth.

Alcohol consumption within the last month was reported by about 40% of seniors in the 2011 survey.  In 1980, 72% of seniors reported drinking alcohol during the last month.  In a related statistic, in 1988, 50% of boys age 15-17 reported having had sex.  In the latest survey that percentage dropped to 28%.  The percentage of teenage girls having sex dropped from 37.2% to 27%.

An increasing problem, however, according to Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is greater use among teens of over the counter or prescription drugs.  These fall into three categories:  painkillers (like Vicodin), stimulants (like Ritalin) and sedative hypnotics (sleep inducers). 

Kids are always going to experiment; it’s the nature of young people.  Still, these latest statistics are good to hear.  For more analysis, here is an interview with Dr. Volkow conducted by high school senior Lillian Rosen.



Be Careful What You Wish For

Tingley-021 colorAbout a month ago I posted a blog encouraging school leaders to speak up about school reform and take an active rather than passive stance as players in the reform movement.  I urged leaders to focus on the several aspects of change.  Accountability, for example, is important, but it needs to have a reasonable and specific measure.  Districts need time to effect systemic change, I said; real improvement doesn’t happen overnight.  In addition, I wanted leaders to set the tone of civil, informed dialogue rather than the political posturing we’ve been subjected to regarding school reform. Finally, I urged leaders to refute some of education’s more vociferous critics who paint everybody with a broad, hairy brush.  

Well, it turns out that there is a group of eleven superintendents and state education leaders working
together to influence state and federal education reform.  Chiefs for Change (membership by invitation only) touts a “bold, visionary” agenda, which they claim is nonpartisan.  However, two of the chiefs were Children-hands-2 elected to their positions as Republicans, and eight were appointed in states led by Republican governors.  Only one, Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist, works for Governor Lincoln Chafee, an Independent who formerly served in the Senate as a Republican. The group is affiliated with The Foundation for Excellence in Education, headed by Jeb Bush.  The Chiefs “bold, visionary” agenda includes greater school choice, vouchers, and tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

It isn’t exactly what I was hoping for.

Instead, I long for chief education officers to look at where we’ve been and build on our successes.  Remember the Coalition of Essential Schools?  Still alive and well with over 600 member schools, schools that believe, for example, that no two schools are alike.  The CES Common Principles include the following:

            Less is more; depth over coverage.

            Goals apply to all students.


            Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach

            Demonstration of mastery.

            A tone of decency and trust.

Chiefs for Change “Guiding Principals” are the following:

            Achievement-focused teacher and school leadership effectiveness.

            Rewarding excellence and replacing failure with success.

            High academic standards.

            Transparent and rigorous accountability.

            Viable options for all students.

See any difference?  Here’s my take:  the Coalition focuses on how kids learn best.  The Chiefs focus on how to regulate adults in schools. Still waiting for Chiefs for Kids.



What Do We Know About ADD/ADHD?

L. Alan Sroufe’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “Ritalin Gone Wrong,” certainly will raise controversy.

Sroufe is a psychologist who has worked with children for 40 years.  He notes that in the the use of drugs to address attention deficit disorder is now 20 times what it was 30 years ago.  He believes that drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are effective over the short term, but over longer periods improve neither behavior nor academic problems.  ADD, he says, citing various studies over the years, is not an anomaly present from birth, but likely caused by childhood experiences and environment.  He concludes that there isn’t one simple solution for children with learning and behavior problems, and that medicating millions of children feeds into the idea that everything can be solved with a pill.  Children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, he says, also may have anxiety or depression or other related issues.  “We need to treat them as individuals, “ he writes. Boys-study-globe-I167-07-304

Over 3 million children take drugs to help them with problems of focusing in class, and Sroufe’s piece will probably provoke ripples of support and blowback.  Parents, teachers, and others will provide reams of anecdotal evidence and contradictory studies showing how a child profited from being on ADD drugs.

The Attention Deficit Disorder Association insists that ADD or ADHD is not caused by “poor parenting, poor teachers or schools, too much TV, food allergies, or excess sugar.” Instead, ADDA says that the condition “is very likely caused by biological factors which influence neurotransmitter activity in certain parts of the brain, and which have a strong genetic basis.”  Treatment, according to the association, can be a combination of therapy, counseling, and medication.  Ritalin and Adderall are listed among the drugs the association says have been “found to be effective.”

It is not uncommon for teachers of children who are impulsive, disruptive, and inattentive to encourage parents to try Ritalin or other drugs for the child.  As an administrator I routinely pointed out to teachers that they were not physicians and were not licensed to prescribe.  Instead, teachers should refer a child having difficulty to the appropriate child study team and should work with parents to find strategies to help the child learn.  This is not to say that the child would not end up taking one of the hyperactivity drugs, but if the child did, it was for the child’s benefit, not the teacher’s.  The standing joke among administrators after listening to a teacher complain about a child’s behavior was that someone needed to be on Ritalin, but maybe it wasn’t the child.

ADHD is, of course, recognized as a disability under federal law.  It is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder of childhood, affecting about 3-5% of school aged children.  It is diagnosed much more often in boys than girls.  Still, it appears we don’t have a clear picture of what the best treatment is for kids or even what causes it. Just one more useful thing we could have been spending our money on. 







Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.