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ADHD Primarily a Diagnosis for White Students

Tingley-021 color webOver the nearly four years I’ve written this blog, I’ve covered lots of topics.  One that has been of recurring interest to me is the burgeoning numbers of kids diagnosed with ADHD over the last 15 years. 

Today Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is the most common mental health condition, occurring much more often in boys than girls.  But now a new study published in the journal Pediatrics finds that beginning in kindergarten, white students are far more likely to be diagnosed and treated for ADHD than are African-Americans, Hispanics, or other races or ethnicities.

Besides being male, other factors that increase a child’s incidence of ADHD diagnosis, according to the study, are being raised by an older mother, being raised in an English-speaking household, and presenting problems behaviors.  Factors that decrease a child’s risk include attentive behavior at school, greater academic achievement, and not having health insurance.

The lead author of the study, quoted in USA Today, says, “There’s no reason to think that minority children are less likely to have ADHD than white children.”  Morgan, an associate professor of education at Penn State University, believes that children of color are under-diagnosed.  The study found that compared with white children, the odds of an ADHD diagnosis were 69% lower for black children, 50% lower for Hispanic children, and 40% lower for children of other races or ethnicities.

Actually, I’d have to differ with Professor Morgan:  There may very well be reason to think that minority children are less likely to have ADHD and some of them may be cultural.  On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that non-white students are under-diagnosed.  Maybe it’s the other way ADHD-4 around – that white children are over-diagnosed.  In point of fact, the study concludes that perhaps more research is needed to explain the differences in the apparent occurrence of ADHD in various populations.

There still remains a great deal that we don’t know and can’t explain about ADHD.  Given the rapidly increasing number of kids diagnosed with the condition, let’s hope we see more studies and assessments of current practices.

As I noted at the beginning, I’ve been writing “Practical Leadership” for almost four years.  I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about education and kids and exploring topics that matter to the people who do the job on a daily basis. This is my last posting, and I want to thank Scholastic for hosting the blog during this time.

Time to Reflect

Tingley-021 colorUnlike most professions, education is composed of discrete units.  Every year begins anew in late August or September.  The middle comes sometime in January.  The end arrives in June.   And the summer months?  Time to reflect, correct, plan, and renew.

As a principal and later as a superintendent, I was always a little nonplussed when people asked, “So, where are you going this summer?”  As if right after the kids left, we locked the doors and came back just before school opened again to unlock them.  People were often surprised when I told them I worked during the summer.

Few if any other professions have the advantage we have to step away from the daily business and take 10 weeks to prepare for the next round.  What went right?  How can we avoid making the mistakes we made last year?  With limited resources, how can we get the best bang for our buck?  What kinds of training do our teachers and principals need?  How can we better keep parents informed?  How can we work better with our board?

Clearly, school administrators don’t wait until summer to start thinking about all of this.  Items on the summer agenda are already identified.  Meetings are already set, and summer school is in full swing.  Custodians are busy cleaning rooms, repairing desks, and painting halls.  End-of-the-year reports need to be submitted.  Schedules need to be developed; classes need to be assigned.  New staff needs to be hired. 

But summer does provide a certain distance that allows us to think more clearly about chronic problems or possible opportunities.  The relative quiet allows us to have conversations with teachers, principals, parents, and others without the pressure of finding an immediate solution.  We can read some of those books, peruse some of those websites, talk with some of our colleagues, and reflect on our own professional progress as a school administrator.

Educational battles will rage on over the summer – Common Core and Bill Gates, teacher evaluation, truancy, funding, charter schools, test scores, etc.  Tune it all out, or at least turn down the volume.  Those issues will still be there in the fall.  Instead, think about teaching and learning.  Think about kids.  Think about how you can make your school or your district, the best it can be with the human resources you have.  As Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to stop and reflect.”



The Diploma Gap

New York State released its graduation rates and found that despite more rigorous state requirements, about the same percentage (74%) of kids graduated.   Good news, right?  Well, it depends on who you are and where you go to school.

The graduation rate for kids in poor districts is 65% compared with 94% in wealthy districts.  The graduation rate for white kids is 28% higher than that for black and Hispanic kids.  So I guess we could say that the higher standards weren’t really a big problem if you happened to be a white kid in a wealthy district. 

This year was the first year that kids could no longer earn a local diploma.  Instead, they had to score a 65% or better on five regents exams to earn a diploma at all.  Said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, “Tens of thousands of students are still leaving high school with no diploma and fewer options for Diploma the future. “  Tisch supports the higher standards, apparently unaware of their effect on those “tens of thousands.”

But even more troubling than the gap in graduation rates is this statistic:  75% of prisoners in New York State do not have a high school diploma.  And New York’s not alone.  The Ohio Department of Corrections reported in 2011 that about 80% of those entering the prison system did not have a high school diploma.  Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts that number at about 70%. 

Research shows that “failing in school” is a major reason that kids drop out.  Many see no relationship between their classes and real life.  Other factors include being retained at some point as well as poor attendance.  Frankly, higher standards mean nothing to kids who aren’t there.  

While it’s good news that some states are initiating new efforts of keep kids in school or help them return when they’ve dropped out, we have to develop programs that are meaningful to kids.  We have to give kids various paths to success.  We have to show them that yes, what they do in school does have practical application.

There was a time when kids had options not only “for the future,” but also for their high school careers.  They had numerous programs from which to choose, some purely academic college prep, some vocational, some a combination of both.  We need to make it possible again for all kids to qualify for some kind of diploma.  For many, it’s their ticket to a better life.

What Influences School Culture

Tingley-021 colorWhen I was a fairly new principal, a high school teacher in my building helped students cheat on their state tests. This was before students had to pass these tests to be able to graduate (a student could still graduate if she passed the course).  Still, cheating on a state test was serious business that had consequences for both teachers and students.

I was completely unaware that students were getting help on the exam.  After all, at the end of each exam, all of the proctors (including the teacher as lead proctor) had to sign a statement attesting to the fact that no help had been given.  Everyone signed.

This particular year, however, one student told a respected coach that he had received help on the exam.  The coach brought the boy to me, and the student admitted to me as well that his teacher had given him answers.

During the ensuing investigation I discovered that all of the other proctors were well aware that the teacher helped students – it was that obvious.  “Then why on earth did you sign the statement saying the students had received no help?” I asked one of them.  I never forgot the reply:  “We figured you knew.  It’s been going on for years.”

I was dumbfounded.  They thought I knew and ignored it?  What followed were pain, heartache, and the teacher’s eventual resignation.  All of this resulted in a profound change in attitude towards the test-taking environment in our school.

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, tells the story of how New York City eradicated the once abundant graffiti from the subways by cleaning it off daily before it became an accepted fact of life.   Adam Alter, in his New York Times article, “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” cites similar studies of how the environment shapes the individual’s response to a situation.  Studies of broken windows or litter, for Iceberg_School-Culture example, reveal that the more there is, the more likely individuals are to contribute to the problem.

“These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing, about what makes us who we are,” writes Alter.  “Though we are all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual clues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are – or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance.”

What the school administrator allows, ignores, or commends affects the school environment not only for the students, but for the faculty and staff as well.  High standards can’t be imposed on a school from outside.  Local leadership makes the difference whether it’s littering, cheating, attendance, or achievement.

Women Are Teachers. Men Are Leaders. Problem Here?

In 1961 after graduating from Brandeis, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard University’s Department of City and Regional Planning.  Shortly afterwards she received a response from Professor William A. Doebele, Jr.

The letter was brief.  Doebele said that based on her academic performance and her recommendations, Richman would probably be admitted to the program.  However, he wrote, “Married women find it difficult to carry out worthwhile careers in planning, and hence tend to have some feeling of waste about the time and effort spent in professional education.”  So before they could make a final decision, Doebele requested that she furnish the department a written explanation of how she planned to combine a career in city planning “with your responsibilities to your husband and a possible future family.”

Richman did not attend Harvard.  Instead, she worked for the Planning Commission in Philadelphia and at the same time free-lanced magazine articles.  Eventually she became the food critic for the Washington Post, a job she worked at for 23 years.  She did marry and she did have a family as well. 

In last Sunday’s paper, a lifetime later, Richmond responded to Professor Doebele. After describing her long and successful careers, Richmond concluded, “The choice of how to balance family and graduate school should have been mine.”

Today, fifty years later, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, is taking that message to high school and college girls.  Sandburg, married with two children, says, “I see too many people holding themselves back because they feel intimidated.” 

Sandberg focuses on the financial disparity between men and women.  Women make up 51% of the population and 47% of the work force.  But only 4% of CEOs are female, and 17% of board members are female, according go market researcher Catalyst.  Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

I’ve had a bit of experience with gender bias myself.  Early in my career a college professor discouraged me from getting a Ph.D. because “It’s harder for a woman.” Later, when I was appointed academic dean in Gender-pay-gapa private school, I was the first woman to hold that position in 140 years.  Later as a superintendent, I was one of only two women leaders in my region.

So how are women in education faring in leadership positions today? In statistics provided by the NYS Department of Education, nearly 80% of New York State superintendents are men. Men constitute almost 75% of high school principals and 65% of middle school/junior high principals.  Forty percent of elementary principals are men,less than half -- but over 90% of elementary teachers are women.  At the secondary level, women greatly outnumber men in every subject except social studies, where 56% are male.

So in New York State, anyway, teachers are mainly women and leaders are mainly men.  We’re sending a strong message to our students, aren’t we?


Yet Another Look at Common Core

Tingley-021 colorThe juxtaposition of two thought-provoking articles in Sunday’s New York Times was serendipitous for those of us who have been pondering the conflicted and complicated responses to Common Core.  In the lead article Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus of political science at Queens College and Claudia Dreifus, adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs ask the question, “Who’s Minding the Schools?”  Subsequently, Claire Needell Hollander, an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan, reminds us that there is “No Learning Without Feeling.”

Hacker and Dreifus succinctly review how Common Core almost surreptitiously became adopted by 45 states.   They point out that a “radical” curriculum affecting more than 50 million children was introduced and accepted with little public comment.  The disparity between educational results by state prompted the nation’s governors to embrace the idea of a common curriculum with common tests.  While the feds weren’t involved in its creation, Common Core soon became a box that needed to be checked in a state’s application for Race to the Top Funds.

Of course, now that the first wave of students has performed poorly (as expected) on the first round of tests, we are just beginning to look at the collateral damage that the new program produces.  Hacker and Dreifus believe that eventually kids who have always done well, namely affluent kids, will do well with Common Core.  Kids for whom school is a challenge will continue to do poorly, and the gap between rich and poor kids will continue to grow.  With the goal to produce kids who are “college and career ready,” vocational programs are no longer as important as they once were. “In sum,” say Hacker and Dreifus, “ Common-core-logo Common Core takes as its model schools from which most students go on to selective colleges.”  They note, however, that today about a quarter of students don’t even finish high school; in South Carolina nearly a third don’t finish, and in Nevada close to half.  So how will toughening school standards help these kids?

For her part, English teacher Claire Needell Hollander takes on the Common Core’s intricately detailed standards that reduce literature to a series of analytical skills.  In order for testing to be unbiased, Common Core suggests “agnostic texts,” books that can be included in the classroom curriculum without regard to student interest.  That way, tests on these books can be free of outside variables like familiar contexts or emotion.  Hollander says there is a lot of discussion among teachers about choosing texts that align to the standards, but little discussion about what students would want to read.  “In a sense the students, with their curiosity, sadness, confusion, and knowledge deficits, are left out of the equation,” she writes.  “They are on the receiving end of lessons planned for a language-skills learning abstraction.”

Having taught middle school for many years, I know that Needell is right about kids needing to connect to their reading.  And Hacker and Dreifus raise important issues about educating all of our kids – questions that should have been raised before 45 states adopted Common Core. The real problem, I think, boils down to a distrust of teachers being able to do their jobs.  Testing isn’t the answer to improved education; neither are minutely detailed standards.  Nothing takes the place of the connection between teachers and students.  As usual, the big money has been dumped into a place it will do the least good – testing.  In the end, Hacker and Dreifus conclude,  “It’s is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.”  Then maybe, just maybe, things would improve.



How Not to Motivate Kids to Read

A Chicago public school principal camped out on the roof of his school last week.  Nate Pietrini had promised his students that if they did a certain amount of reading during “author week,” he would reward them by sleeping on the roof of Hawthorne Elementary Scholastic Academy.  He set up a webcam and read students bedtime stories from the roof.

According to the Huffington Post, Pietrini believes that camping on the roof really motivated kids to read.  “I had several parents look at me and say, ‘I used to have trouble getting my kids to read but now they’ve been doing it … this may have turned a leaf for them.’”

Over the years I’ve seen principals perform other reading-unrelated stunts to encourage kids to read.  One principal I knew promised to kiss a pig, which she did in the school gym during a whole school assembly.  Principal duct taped 2-L Another principal allowed kids to duct tape him to a wall as a reward for their making their reading goals.

Next year, says Pietrini, he’d be happy to sleep on the roof again or “maybe do something even a little more risqué or dangerous.  I may put something out there for our student council to make that decision.”

What is wrong with these people?

At the risk of sounding either cranky or sane, depending on your point of view, I’m hard put to figure out how allowing kids to dictate what the principal has to endure improves reading. Oh, sure, it’s fun and all, but does this kind of silliness actually encourage kids to read over the long haul?  Whatever happened to
great instruction and terrific books? 

I also worry that this kind of “motivation” encourages some kids’ belief that they need to be rewarded in some way for doing what they’re supposed to do.  Reading, after all, is not only a necessary life skill, but it also has intrinsic value.  How does camping on the roof or kissing a pig enhance the idea that reading is a reward in itself?

Lastly, have some self-respect, people.  The principal who kissed a pig?  Years later, that’s how she was remembered.  Not for her good leadership, not for her kindness to kids – but for kissing a pig.  I know, the media love this kind of thing.  Kids love it and parents maybe do too.  And Pietrini put himself out for what he believes is a good cause.  I just think there are better ways to motivate kids over the long haul that humiliating yourself.

Keeping a (Camera) Eye on Our Kids

Tingley-021 colorI was not ambivalent about putting cameras on our school buses.  Bus drivers cannot drive the bus and simultaneously supervise students on board, and there was no money to add bus monitors to the budget. 

Before bus cameras, for the most part kids were well behaved and we had few real problems.  But when problems did arise, it wasn’t always easy to tell who started it or what exactly happened.  The driver had her eyes on the road, and it was difficult and unsafe to keep glancing in the rearview mirror to see what all the hubbub was about.  In addition, drivers were at a disadvantage as disciplinarians because kids knew drivers could only yell at them from the driver’s seat instead of getting up and coming back.  The seats themselves are high, of course, so the driver really can’t see what’s going on anyway.

So when a fight or an argument broke out, it was often the driver’s word against the student’s.  Parents were often unwilling to accept the driver’s word, especially when disciplinary action included the student losing bus privileges for an extended period of time.  Usually this decision was a penalty for the parent, who then had to find a way to transport the child to school.

But once we put cameras on buses, the arguments were over and the driver could drive. Even antagonistic parents had to back off when they saw their child, on tape, punching another student or pounding on another kid’s head with his notebook.  For the most part, case closed.

So given the improvement in bus safety, why am I now ambivalent about surveillance cameras in schools?  According to Alyssa Morones in Edweek’s “Spotlight,” schools have ramped up security measures since the shootings at Sandy Hook.  Nearly 400 bills related to school security have been introduced by state Survillance-security-camera1 legislators since last December, many of them focused on security upgrades, which can include surveillance cameras.  Companies that provide cameras and other security measures for institutions report a substantial increase in demand for their products. 

Proponents of surveillance cameras in school point to the advantages of being able to monitor children and adults at all times.  Some think that the mere presence of cameras can deter untoward behavior.

Critics, however, point out that constant surveillance is insidious, and will make kids more acceptant of a Big Brother government.  Rather than seeing cameras as an invasion of their privacy, kids may come to see surveillance as a way of life, a protection against bad things that could happen to them.

Perhaps I worry about the willingness to give up privacy for protection.  I recall clearly how some people were eager to give up basic civil rights after 9/11 if it meant they could be safer.  But we know from history that trading rights for safety turns out badly in the long run for a democratic society.

So maybe we have to think about the impact of this reaction to Sandy Hook.  Maybe installing cameras is the right thing to do, maybe not.  It’s the classic conundrum democracy faces.




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