Restorative Justice: Trying to Stop the Pipeline

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In our last blog entry, we touched on the issues facing schools over discipline. Strong, zero-tolerance policies may improve the school environment, but they appear to be putting many students at risk of joining the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

There is data to back up what activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline”: 20% of black boys and 12% of black girls are suspended from school each year in the United States, compared to 6% of white boys and 2% of white girls. 95% of those school suspensions are for non-violent offences like verbally disrupting class. Yet once suspended, students experience academic delays and become twice as likely to drop out, get involved in street violence, (and) then get sucked into the criminal justice system.

KIPP, a charter school program deployed across the country, holds to a ‘no excuses’ code of discipline. Jonathan Chait, in a recent article for The Guardian, maintains that their program is effective because it ‘teaches poor kids “middle class norms.” Sociologist Annette Lareau posits that middle-class and higher income families approach discipline in a very child-centric way. These parents allow their children to explain themselves and their side of the story. Punishment is a negotiation not a straight equation.

Negotiation is hardly the approach used within KIPP’s no excuses policy. Students march through the hallways in military silence. They are required to adapt specific postures during class and must maintain their gaze on the teacher. One school isolated children with behavior issues in a windowless closet that sports padded walls.

Syracuse City School District, looking at its own efforts with zero-tolerance policies that saw students moving to alternative programs in response to discipline issues, found this solution to be lacking. Despite their best efforts, the alternative programs were never as good at somehow keeping the students in their classes with their highly qualified teachers.

There are some innovations going on in other schools that may hold the key to a broader solution for all. One movement that holds promise is “restorative justice” an approach that works with students to get them to speak to each other as well as with trained professionals in order to address issues, like fear, anger, and anxiety, which are often the root causes of discipline issues.

Restorative justice teaches students how to resolve conflict and enforces critical problem-solving skills. These problem-solving skills are essential to functioning as an adult in the world at large, so students who face issues under this program actually receive more education rather than less.

Making Discipline Effective not Merely Punitive

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During the 2012-2013 school year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) expelled five of every 10,000 schools. Charter schools running in Chicago expelled 61 out of 10,000. Some saw this as proof that charter schools dump problem students, eliminating students that may contribute to less productive classrooms or lower the school’s performance metrics.

Noble Charter Schools, which runs 14 campuses in Chicago, has an extremely stringent code of behavior.

 At Noble, six detentions in a two-week period results in an out-of-school suspension. For every 13 detentions, students must also pay $140 to attend a discipline class.

For the most part, students at CPS-run schools can get expelled only for serious problems like drugs or gun possession. At Noble schools, students can also face expulsion if they rack up 36 detentions in a school year and repeatedly run afoul of the school’s disciplinary code.

The Federal Government is raising questions about the sort of policies that put that many students out of school. In fact there is an initiative going to address what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This theory posits that a punitive school system that deals with issues by removing students provides a path that take these out–of–school students directly into the justice system. Attorney General Holder and Secretary of Education Duncan are working to “ensure that our educational system is a doorway to opportunity,” and using the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to pave the way.

The goals of the program are very top level, working to build consensus on discipline issues with stakeholders and researching ways to keep students in school while also improving the climate for learning in school. The initiative stresses the need to find evidence-based policies and practices through research and data collection.

But what does such research tell us? In the example of Noble charter schools, what do students think of policies that are punitive for saying ‘bless you’ in response to a sneeze, clothing choices, or even student posture?

The article talks about two students who had the Nobel experience. The first is now a senior who has racked up 100 detentions and over $500 in fines. While he describes himself as a class clown who – given the evidence – had difficulty with rules like speaking respectfully and staying in his seat, he is glad that he dug in (and into his pocket) so that he could graduate from Noble this year.

The other student profiled – the one who got in trouble for saying ‘bless you’ – was pulled from the school by her parents, who disagreed with the zero tolerance policies. After one day in her new high school, the girl begged her parents to let her return to the Noble campus: the strict discipline made her feel much safer.

That said, the initiative to keep students in schools despite discipline issues continues to roll. Schools in Kennewick, WA, are instituting a policy that provides more flexibility in response, allowing schools to punish students who instigate issues differently from the students who are merely trying to defend themselves. Madison, WI, is moving toward discipline policies that try to modify behavior rather than use expulsion and suspension. A fear that minority students are most often those who are dealt discipline that pulls them out of school has lead to the more lenient policy.

In our next blog, we’ll look at what modes of discipline show promise that keeps kids in school and also keeps them safe.

Leadership: Is it on Your Application?

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A New York high school senior has had some exciting trips to the mailbox recently. Kwasi Enin was accepted by each of the eight Ivy League schools to which he had applied.

What were his qualifications? He scored in the 98th percentile on the SAT (2250 of 2400 total points) and he’s ranked 11th in his class. Beyond that, his curriculum vita is full of extra curricular activities. He participates in chamber orchestra, playing three instruments. He sings with an a cappella group. He has had leads in school plays since 9th grade. He is part of the track and field team, throwing shot put and discus. On top of all of that, he participates in student government.

Rachel Rubin, the founder of Spark Admissions in Massachusetts, who also previously served on admissions committees at selective universities, commented, “Standardized test scores and good grades will get a student in the door to have their application read but, it’s their extracurricular activities, leadership experience, exceptional talents, recommendation letters and personal essays that will move a student from a pile of ‘maybes’ to a pile of ‘accepted.’”

I was struck by the ‘leadership experience’ that Rubin focused on. Leadership appears consistently as a talent that colleges both want to see included in applications and see as a talent they expect to foster.

In an Atlantic article looking at the concept of leadership, Emmi Haward, a director of college counseling, shared her perspective on leadership. “Not only does leadership distinguish a student in a competitive applicant pool from other students ([compare] a student body president to someone who has spent four years just going home and doing their homework) but also serves to foreshadow the impact the student could make on the college/university campus, and the potential impact they could make once they graduate.” 

The Atlantic article ties college’s quest to recruit and train leaders to a financial issue. The author, Tara Burton, points out the benefits of matriculating leaders. Leaders, those with impressive titles, long contact lists, and commensurate salaries, can be very beneficial alumni. Not only can leaders assist their alma mater financially, but they can also be assets in marketing the school.

This focus on leadership, Burton posits, is uniquely American. She is an alumni of Oxford, where the ability to work independently is prioritized over the ability to provide leadership. For Oxford, and many non-American institutes of higher learning, Enin is unlikely to have also needed his stint in student government to secure admission.

I feel for college admissions staff. Applications roll in and are a combination of raw numbers and impassioned words, for those colleges still requiring essays as part of the application process. When Ivy Leagues have acceptance rates of 5%, that’s lots of applications that don’t quite make the cut: admissions must be delighted when they find a box that can’t be checked and helps move an application to the ‘no thanks’ pile. That said, I question the value put on leadership. Are those who can successfully collaborate of any less value? 

In Finland, Equality Equals Success

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We’ve already shared several articles about Finland’s successful educational program through our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. What Finland has done is pretty extraordinary: they decided their education system was broken and they fixed it. While the results speak for themselves, I believe the more we can learn about what they’ve done and how they continue to do it, the better off we all are.

Christine Gross-Loh of The Atlantic interviewed Krista Kiuru, the country’s minister of education. The full article can be read on The Atlantic’s site, and I recommend you take a few minutes and read it. If you are pressed for time, here are the major points that jumped off the page for me.

With students starting school at age 7, attending 300 fewer hours per year during elementary school, and with those same children enjoying more recess and a lighter homework load than United States’ children, expectations may be that these students would have been less successful. That expectation would be wrong.

If you think that the success is based on generations of educational reform that dates back to the middle ages, you’d be wrong. In the 1960’s, Finland’s results were so-so, and today’s successful system has been created from scratch since then.

If you think the guiding principal of their new educational philosophy was success, achievement, or academics, again, you’d be wrong. The basis for the reform is and has been equity. As Gross-Loh aptly puts it “The Finnish paradox is that by being focused on the bigger picture for all, Finland has succeeded at fostering the individual potential of most every child.”

The Finnish school system was built to develop everyone’s potential because in Finland, a country that is not rich in oil, minerals, or other natural resources, they realized that human capital can be a very valuable resource.  To cultivate these resources, students are not confronted with math 8 hours a day, but are instead given a very broad education, which includes far more vocational classes than can be found here in the United States. Academics, the Finns believe, are not all that children need. Schools should be a place where students learn “the meaning of life.”

Teachers in Finland are highly qualified (masters degrees are required) and highly autonomous. New teachers are supported in the classroom. The article discusses a new teacher who has seven other adults in the class with her, who can later discuss the lesson and presentation, providing the observation and constructive discussion that helps mold a new teacher into a master teacher in a most expeditious manner.

Since making the decision that equity would guide education in Finland, testing of adults who participated in this new approach to education placed at or near the top in all measured skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) as compared to adults from 24 other countries. The turnaround to success is possible and starts with a new way of looking at students. 

To Take or Not To Take: Standardized Tests

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In Illinois, students take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). The test “measures the achievement of students in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight and science in grade four and seven.” The test is a multiday exam and is given to measure progress against the No Child Left Behind benchmarks. This year the state decided to use an additional test to evaluate student promotions and eligibilities.

Some parents have decided to boycott the ISAT, for while the results of the test may be important to for schools’ need to show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), it means nothing to the students on an individual level.

Parents in the city of Chicago have organized, and so far more than 70 parents have tried to give their children permission to opt out of the test, but notes from home aren’t working. Schools say they need to test all children present and are putting the tests in front of all students, no matter what parents have said. This effectively sticks children in the rather uncomfortable middle.

Even if a child is allowed to sit out the test, it isn’t as if he or she will be receiving instruction during test days. Instead of filling the day filling test sheets, the student is likely to have a study hall or library time.

With all the focus on extended school days and providing more time for instruction, it does seem ludicrous to have days used up for a test with such limited application. Certainly there could be a single standardized test that would answer the needs of assessing AYP as well as providing necessary information about individual student performance.

Both the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are supporting a ban of the ISAT. The president of AFT Randi Weingarten, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, as saying “The test is being administered only to fulfill a No Child Left Behind requirement, while more than half of the states have sought waivers from such requirements. The test won’t inform instruction or assess student or teacher performance. It is not relevant to the current curriculum. It’s a meaningless hoop to jump through that benefits no one. So, why subject kids to it?”

Parents in the suburbs have not yet mobilized on this issue, but given the rumblings about common core testing, you can be sure this won’t be the last objection to standardized testing heard in Illinois or elsewhere in the nation.

On a side note, Chicago Public School (CPS) children’s literacy caused Chicago mayor Emanuel to take a dive. CPS students increased their total books read year over year and the increase won the students a bet that saw the loser, Emanuel, paying off by taking the Polar Plunge into a mostly frozen Lake Michigan the last weekend in February.  Seriously, they had to scoop ice out of the plunge area so people could get into the water. Water temperature was 32 degrees and the air temperature was much lower.  The reason for the Plunge is much warmer: it is a fundraiser for Special Olympics. 

Beyond Helicopter

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We’ve got lots of categories for identifying the deeply involved parent. Helicopters, umbilicals, and tigers, oh my. At the helm of the latest manifestation of this trend – as yet unnamed, though I’d suggest co-pilot parenting – is a mom with a new book who took a unique approach to her child’s approaching SAT.

Debbie Stier, said mom and author of “The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT” was concerned about her son. Her son was a ‘B’ student, as she had been, but she felt that the world he was growing up in provided less opportunity for middle of the road students than the career options that were available to her.

His better than average academic record, coupled with little by way of extracurricular activities to tout, would not get him into a college that would hand him a key to his future.  Nor was it likely to get him into one of those schools while also receiving sufficient financial support. At least that was her concern. 

Seeking a solution, she decided that if he got a really amazing score on the SAT, it would offset his academic record enough that good schools with tuition packages would come calling. The problem with this idea was that her son had little interest in studying for the SAT, so she decided she would study to take it again herself, modeling the behavior she wanted him to demonstrate.

From this initial premise, this plan became a personal challenge for Stier to study herself with the expectation of a perfect score on the SAT. In this effort, she took the test seven times. Her media attention has sent other adults back to school, at least to those schools that help prep for the SAT. The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Kolbert’s adventures, advised by Stier, can be read here.

Stier’s efforts, both with her own test prep and with her son’s, resulted in no small amount of family tension. The aftermath of a family session of math tutoring resulted in both children moving in with their father for a time. Stier’s seven attempts at the SAT saw her scoring peak in the middle of her testing efforts: she wasn’t able to reach a perfect score, nor was she able to maintain her highest score in subsequent testing.

Reading about Stier, it appears that her plan for her son became much more about herself.  She wasn’t helicoptering around him, she was sitting next to him in the helicopter, trying to drive it (and him).  I commend her efforts to support her son, but think that the term ‘overboard’ doesn’t really express her actions. While I don’t know how things worked out for her son, or if these expansive efforts to prep for the SAT resulted in a free ride to Miracles R Us University, there is the hope that Stier’s book and media attention will provide a financial cushion for the whole family.

The Learning Disabilities Report

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2.4 million students, or 5% of the United States’ school aged students, have been formally identified has having learning disabilities. A recent report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) estimates that there are another 15% of students who are not officially classified, but are also dealing with learning and attention issues.  In fact, the report puts the total of those whose prospects are limited by non-diagnosis at nearly 60 million.

The report includes the following information:

  • Up to 1/3 of people inaccurately attribute LD to excessive time watching TV, poor diet or childhood vaccinations; 1/2 of people surveyed think it’s just laziness
  • 7 out of 10 people surveyed mistakenly link LD with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders
  • 1 in 3 parents report deep feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, guilt and pessimism regarding their child’s learning and attention issues

From pushing for a diagnosis to advocating on their child’s behalf, parents have a huge role in shaping the world a child will experience. Parents of learning disabled children need to be that much louder and need to do it for very much longer.

In an article discussing work prospects for Learning Disabled students, one of the special education teachers shared his thoughts.

 Clint Cummings, a special education teacher at Agoura High, said the transition program helps students identify and develop skills—and it shows them how to use those skills to keep a job.

“We really work on getting to know the student . . . how a student learns, what his or her passions are, goals and what they struggle with. With that, the students also get to know a little more about themselves,” Cummings said.

He also said that students really just need one bit of success and then they are ‘golden,’ just like all students, no matter how they have been diagnosed or classified.

The “Testing Effect”

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There has been a bit of an uprising against testing in schools. Parents have looked at the amount of time spent on testing students and have decided that enough is enough; however, there are upsides to testing.

Testing allows a teacher to ‘see’ how lessons are being received and if information shared is information learned.  Testing is used to sort students for small groups, classes, or types of classes. Testing ties to funding. Building and/or district cumulative tests need to show positive trends for a school to continue without state or federal intervention.

Those are all givens, but I think parents should be asking a different question. I think the question is, ‘What, if any, are the advantages of testing as it ties to learning?’

An established bit of research indicates that students who are tested on materials retain the information better than untested students. They even do better than students who restudy the materials. In fact, testing gets consistently better results than restudying, even if the results of the test are never revisited and the materials never reviewed.

The human brain is wired to hold materials that it has been actively engaged with (the same sort of engagement that happens during a test) better than it will hold materials it has passively engaged with (the same sort or engagement that happens while studying).  Testing on materials covered in class helps the information to become part of the student’s own knowledge, creating an engagement that passively studying simply does not create.

That said, the benefits of testing do not apply to standardized tests, which are created to paint a picture of a student’s knowledge at a given point, not to understand if a particular piece of information has been incorporated. The potpourri of materials covered on standardized tests is summative and not involved in instruction. The teacher has no input into the test and the test results have little affect on actual classroom instruction.

When taking issue with testing in schools, it is important to pick your battles. Testing as part of the curriculum is good; testing in the name of reporting is another story.

Charters and Choice

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Many hold up charter schools as the great hope in education. As choice becomes more available allowing the possibility of school selection, the push is on for viable options to the local public school.

In some areas of the country, parents are given not only a choice, they are also given a voice. In California, there is a Parent Empowerment Act that allows parents to force an overhaul of low-performing schools if enough parents will sign a petition. In early use of the law, charter schools have been brought in to replace and restructure the failing school. Other states, at least seven, have enacted similar laws.

Is replacement by charter school really the answer? New Orleans is an interesting place to look for a test case. New Orleans is home to several high-performing charter schools. These schools have taken struggling students and brought them and overall school achievement up to grade level and beyond. You’d think it would be safe to call it a success, but it seems that results aren’t the whole story.

Some of the successful charter schools have a very narrow definition of correct student behavior. This includes having lines taped down the hallways that indicate where students can walk or stand, a policy that doesn’t end in elementary school, but extends up through high school.

I recommend the article for more details on the policies and procedures that the students are rebelling against, but it seems that all academics and no art, music, or fun makes for very unhappy students who are not interested in attending school. Some students are so unhappy that they have staged walkouts and protests in an effort to be heard.

The author of the article is a teacher at another charter school that is a little more lax in discipline and a little more in tune with student needs, and also – perhaps – a little less successful. She believes the more rigid charter schools are ignoring that which is quintessential New Orleans when approaching their students. Somehow, parents, educators, and politicians must balance needs, wants, and local color to come up with a solution that works for all students.

Material for the blog entry comes from two Atlantic articles:

Food and Schools

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A recent Reuter’s article pointed out a fact that you may have noticed during a recent visit to any school in the country.

In exchange for selling or advertising their products in schools, corporations will often give school districts a certain percentage of their sales or donate much-needed supplies. Companies benefit by increasing brand recognition and brand loyalty among young customers.

What do schools get? Funding. The companies pay for placement or provide a percentage of sales back to the schools, which can be used for any number of things. Given increased expectations matched with decreased budgets, I can understand the appeal.

Given the finances of schools, one would expect this trend to grow year over year, but actually these partnerships have decreased since 2007. While schools need cash, there is a heightened awareness of the schools role and responsibility in steering students toward good nutrition, something seldom found in vending machines.

The presence of food marketing may be obvious – said vending machines – or the partnerships may be a little more subtle. Often schools will be provided with coupons for foods that can be used as incentives and rewards. According to the article “In 2012, 64 percent of all public elementary school students went to schools that gave away coupons for food and drink products.”

Even with cutbacks and an intensified spotlight on these practices, “roughly 70 percent of elementary and middle school students and 90 percent of high school students were exposed to some type of food commercialism in school.” 

JAMA Pediatrics recommends that parents start talking to their school district. Find out if the district has a policy in place for dealing with relationships with food corporations. If there isn’t an established policy, this may be an opportunity to help create one. And parents should talk to their children about making good food choices from among the options available not only in the school cafeteria but also at home or eating out.

Despite the statistics, there is progress, at least regarding soda in schools. Policy changes have already reduced the amount of soda available in schools: “published studies showed that 90 percent fewer beverage calories were shipped to schools between 2004-2005 and 2009-10.”