kitchen table math, the sequel: 8/10/08 - 8/17/08

Friday, August 15, 2008

Be afraid

I had lunch yesterday with an accountant who insisted on picking up the tab. When the waiter brought the check, the accountant pulled out his calculator.

To calculate the tip.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

for parents of new middle schoolers--

The single most useful piece of advice I've ever read as a parent of a middle school child:

Andromeda on organization and the middle school child.

Also, 3 years ago a lot of us wrote posts and comments about books and products that had helped our kids deal with middle school.

(fyi: the old site is broken. Can't be edited. That's why the links are slowly deteriorating with no one to fix them...I have no idea what to do about it other than get rich enough to hire someone to copy all the source code and then take the whole thing down.)

posts on middle school & organization:

my two favorite middle school books:

if you decide to go the expanding file route...

The Globe-Weis Fabric Poly Expanding File is amazingly sturdy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"The Mire" and the middle class squeeze

by Will Okun

Midway through another brilliant lesson on five-paragraph essays, chaos erupts in the back row among the students who do not care. My first-period English class crashes to a standstill as several failing students ignite a hysteria of insults. Other students stew in frustration as they wait for me to restore order and continue the lesson. Sitting in the front row, Kentrail is visibly exasperated that I cannot do my job. Shatara’s teeth and fists are clenched; she stares at me with accusatory anger. Finally, Ronetta screams, “Make them shut up!” Only after the temporary removal of the two instigators six minutes later does the class return to our discussion of thesis statements.

Class time not wasted on discipline is often squandered explaining make-up work to oft-absent students or reviewing remedial skills that should have been learned in early middle school. Intelligent, motivated students like Kentrail, Shatara and Ronetta suffer the most on such days when academic progress is glacial. Too often, their individual brightness is consumed in the mire of the whole. They should not be in this class; they should not be in this school.

“It’s frustrating because we go so slow. Teachers are distracted by students who are not really trying to do anything. They get more attention than the people who are trying to learn,” fumes Shatara. “It’s frustrating when you know that other schools are doing more and learning more.”

As I have described in previous blog posts, our school has too many students who are making no legitimate effort to learn or pass classes. These students attend periodically to socialize, to sell drugs or to alleviate boredom. Some are mandated to attend by the court of law or by a relative. Others are just too young to drop out. They do not carry book bags; they are not in possession of pen or paper. When the hallways and classrooms are in order, these students mourn, “It’s dead as hell in here.” The threat of F’s, parent conferences, detentions, and suspensions are pointless. Unfortunately, no one in the family seems to care. Only the threat of expulsion garners temporary compliance.

How can dedicated students like Shatara receive a proper education amid the havoc created by such a preponderance of “troublesome,” uncaring students?

I'd especially like to hear from teachers on this one.

My own take is that everything about this scene is wrong. Everything.

First of all, the disruptive kids are in trouble. At this point every one of them would likely "qualify" for special ed, which means the school is obligated under the Child Find provisions of IDEA to identify them, test them, and refer them for services. Which the school obviously has no intention of doing.

That would suit me fine if the school went straight to remediation. Pull the disruptive kids out of the class, hire a behavior analyst, and get a behavior management plan in place now with the people to staff it. Restart these students' educations at the spot where they fell, leaped, or were shoved off the track and go from there, using supervised homework sessions, daily assessments, and all the rest of the tools a precision teacher would bring to bear on the situation.

That's for the kids whose needs are manageable within a school serving the general population. The kids who are severely mentally ill and/or dangerous move to a therapeutic school. And, yes, these schools exist; our taxes pay for them.

Every student in this story is then educated in the "least restrictive environment" that meets his needs. For the severely oppositional kids, LRE is a therapeutic school; for the not-so-severely oppositional kids, LRE is a self-contained classroom with a low student-teacher ratio and one-to-one aides if necessary; for Kentrail and Shatara and Ronetta, the least restrictive environment is a classroom filled with other Kentrails and Shatars and Ronettas, and without a bunch of hooligans disrupting the proceedings.

None of that is going to happen, and few amongst us are going to know the reason why, that reason being the fact that schools are not legally obligated to educate the young people in their charge. A parent can sue a hospital that flubs his child's care; a parent may not sue a school that flubs his child's education. It's the child's fault if he didn't learn. Or the parents', or society's or what have you.

Not the school's.

So they do what they do. There's no reason not to.

the middle class, the schools, and the middle class squeeze

This situation has ramifications that go far beyond the damage being done to the individual students in this class.

The folks at Fordham may be cooing over the many "choices" available to the "middle class," but the reality is quite different, as I discovered when I dipped into The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi:
In just twenty years [1981-2001], the number of women filing petitions for bankruptcy had, in reality, increased by 662 percent. As I soon discovered, divorced and single women weren’t the only ones in trouble; several hundred thousand married women filed for bankruptcy along with their husbands.

Our research eventually unearthed one stunning fact. The families in the worst financial trouble are not the usual suspects. They are not the very young, tempted by the freedom of their first credit cards. They are not the elderly, trapped by failing bodies and declining savings accounts. And they are not a random assortment of Americans who lack the self-control to keep their spending in check. Rather, the people who consistently rank in the worst financial trouble are united by one surprising characteristic. They are parents with children at home. Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.


Bankruptcy has become deeply entrenched in American life. This year, more people will end up bankrupt than will suffer a heart attack. More adults will file for bankruptcy than will be diagnosed with cancer. … And, in an era when traditionalists decry the demise of the institution of marriage, Americans will file more petitions for bankruptcy than for divorce…


The rise in housing costs has become a family problem. Home prices have grown across the board (particularly in larger urban areas), but the brunt of the price increases have fallen on families with children. Our analysis shows that the median home value for the average childless couple increased by 26 percent between 19874 and 2001—an impressive rise in less than twenty years. (Again, these and all other figures are adjusted for inflation.) For married couples with children, however, housing prices shot up 78 percent during this period—three times faster. To put this in dollar terms, in 1984 the average married couple with young children owned a house worth $72,000. Less than twenty years later, a similar family bought a house worth $128,000—an increase of more than $50,000. The growing costs made a big dent in the family budget, as monthly mortgage costs made a similar jump, despite falling interest rates….

Why would the average parent spent so much money on a home?


For many parents, the answer came down to two words so powerful that families would pursue them to the brink of bankruptcy: safety and education. Families put Mom to work, used up the family’s economic reserves, and took on crushing debt loads in sacrifice to these twin gods, all in the hope of offering their children the best possible start in life.

The best possible start begins with good schools, but parents are scrambling to find those schools.


Everyone has heard the all-too-familiar news stories about kids who can’t read, gang violence in the schools, classrooms without textbooks, and drug dealers at the school doors.


So what does all this have to do with educating middle-class children, most of whom have been lucky enough to avoid the worst failings of the public school system? The answer is simple—money. Failing schools impose an enormous cost on those children who are forced to attend them, but they also inflict an enormous cost on those who don’t.


For most middle-class parents, ensuring that their children get a decent education translates into one thing: snatching up a home in the small subset of school districts that have managed to hold on to a reputation of high quality and parent confidence.


A study conducted in Fresno (a midsized California metropolis with 400,000 residents) found that, for similar homes, school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices—more important than radial composition of the neighborhood, commute distance, crime rate, or proximity to a hazardous waste site.


By way of example, consider University City, the West Philadelphia neighborhood surrounding the University of Pennsylvania. In an effort to improve the area, the university committed funds for a new elementary school.

The results? At the time of the announcement, the median home value in the area was less than $60,000. Five years later, “homes within the boundaries go for about $200,000, even if they need to be totally renovated.” The neighborhood is otherwise pretty much the same: the same commute to work, the sam distance from the freeways, the same old houses. And yet, in five years families are willing to pay more than triple the price for a home.

the cost to families of declining confidence in the schools
In the early 1970s, not only did most Americans believe that the public schools were functioning reasonably well, a sizable majority of adults thought that public education had actually improved since they were kids. Today, only a small minority of Americans share this optimistic view. Instead, the majority now believes that schools have gotten significantly worse. Fully half of all Americans are dissatisfied with America’s public education system, a deep concern shared by black and white parents alike.
That was in 2003.

Things are worse today.

once more, with feeling

In order to free families from the trap, it is necessary to go to the heart of the problem: public education. Bad schools impose indirect—but huge—costs on millions of middle-class families. In their desperate rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy. The only way to take the pressure off these families is to change the schools.

The concept of public schools is deeply American. It is perhaps the most tangible symbol of opportunity for social and economic mobility for all children, embodying the notion that merit rather than money determines a child’s future. … As parents increasingly believe that the differences among schools will translate into differences in lifetime chances, they are doing everything they can to buy their way into the best public schools. Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled “public,” but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.

It is time to sound the alarm that the crisis in education is not only a crisis of reading and arithmetic; it is also a crisis in middle-class family economics. At the core of the problem is the time-honored rule that where you live dictates where you go to school. Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.

A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly. A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children. With fully funded vouchers, parents of all income levels could send their children—and the accompanying financial support—to the schools of their choice. Middle-class parents who used state funds to send their kids to school would be able to live in the neighborhood of their choice—or the neighborhood of their pocketbook. Fully funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.

We recognize that the term “voucher” has become a dirty word in many educational circles. The reason is straightforward: The current debate over vouchers is framed as a public-versus-private rift, with vouchers denounced for draining off much-needed funds from public schools. The fear is that partial-subsidy vouchers provide a boost so that better-off parents can opt out of a failing public school system, while the other children are left behind.

But the public-versus-private competition misses the central point. The problem is not vouchers; the problem is parental choice. Under current voucher schemes, children who do not use the vouchers are still assigned to public schools based on their zip codes. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases, a bureaucrat picks the child’s school, not a parent. The only way for parents to exercise any choice is to buy a different home—which is exactly how the bidding wars started.

Short of buying a new home, parents currently have only one way to escape a failing public school: Send the kids to private school. But there is another alternative, one that would keep much-needed tax dollars inside the public school system while still reaping the advantages offered by a voucher program. Local governments could enact meaningful reform by enabling parents to choose from among all the public schools in a locale, with no presumptive assignment based on neighborhood. Under a public school voucher program, parents, not bureaucrats, would have the power to pick schools for their children—and to choose which schools would get their children’s vouchers. Students would be admitted to a particular public school on the basis of their talents, their interests, or even their lottery numbers; their zip codes would be irrelevant. Tax dollars would follow the children, not the parents’ home addresses, and children who live in an $50,000 house would have the same educational opportunities as those who live in a $250,000 house.

Unfortunately, the flaw in this logic is that many children living in $250,000 houses are in trouble, too.

Still, I'd take it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

power to the people

I am seriously tired of our policy elites. (Scroll down for observation re: "[constructivism] works well enough with middle- and upper-middle-class kids who get plenty of structure in the rest of their lives.")

Do policy elites have any idea what is actually going on inside public schools?

At all?

Or do they just sit around swapping clich├ęs?

"Middle- and upper-middle class kids who get plenty of structure in the rest of their lives:"
these are not real people. Yes, I do know a number of moms who are capable of putting dinner on the table at the same time every night, and whose kids have a regular bedtime: feats the one low-income mom I know also managed to pull off when her son was a boy. One of my pals here is so on top of things I have occasionally threatened to ship C. off to her house for a week or two or possibly three. "That will straighten you out," I say.

That mom spent this year teaching her kids math.

A child can have dinner with the family at 5; he can have bedtime at 8; he still needs explicit instruction in arithmetic.

So here's my question.

Why is it that policy elites, unions, and ed schools all have say and we don't?

I'd put money on it that if you scrolled back through the years and compared parent decisions about where and how their kids should be educated* to the corresponding decisions made for parents by policy elites, union leaders, ed schools and all the rest of the stakeholders in the system,** you would find that parents have consistently made the better choices.

Here's Joe Williams:
One of the most overlooked tools of modern school reform is the concept of power--who has it, who wants it, and who needs it. One reason so little changes in education is because the people who hold the cards are always the same, no matter what the popular reforms of the day involve. We have tried centralization of decision-making power and decentralization of decision-making power. We've raised standards and enacted zero-tolerance policies. We've beaten into the ground such catch phrases as "lifelong learners" and "capacity building." Yet, in all these reform efforts, parents have never really been allowed to be the ones who get to make the ultimate decision: choosing their child's school. Bureaucrats and politicians always seem to get the last word, even though parents have the best odds of making decisions that put their kids first.

Cheating Our Kids
by Joe Williams
p. 214-215

I've decided to start a collection of what do parents want stories.

This one's my favorite:
One of the most interesting aspects of FT that is rarely discussed in the technical reports is the way schools selected the models they would implement. The model a school adopted was not selected by teachers, administrators, or central office educrats. Parents selected the model. Large assemblies were held where the sponsors of the various models pitched their model to groups of parents comprising a Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) for the school. Administrators were usually present at these meetings and tried to influence parents' decisions. Using this selection process, the Direct Instruction model was the most popular model among schools; DI was implemented in more sites during FT than any other model. Yet among educrats, DI was the dark horse. Most educrats' bets would undoubtedly have been placed on any of the models but the Direct Instruction model. The model developed by the Illinois preschool teacher who didn't even have a teaching credential, much less a Ph.D. in education, was not expected by many educrats to amount to much, especially since it seemed largely to contradict most of the current thinking.

The Story Behind Project Follow Through
by Bonnie Grossen

*on those few occasions when parents were allowed to make a decision, that is
**note: I exclude students and parents from that category

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Grade compression at colleges and universities, II

It's inevitable that, the more students catch on that B's are the new low, the more fervently they want A's.

As the dual forces of student evaluations and cynical burnout continue to exert upwards pressure on faculty grading practices, wants becomes expects becomes deserves.

Only those few who believe that grades should still mean something, and that they should somehow reward those whose work is truly distinguished, get to see the somersaults that the mediocre majority will turn to argue for A's.

From two of my B+ students (all identifing details removed):

I am writing to you with concern regarding my grade... I was just wondering what areas you felt I needed to improve on to earn an A because I completed all of my work, papers and participated in class as best as I could have. Is there anything I can do to have my grade reconsidered?
I just checked my final grade online and saw that I got a B+. Can you tell me the breakdown of my grades? Most of my problem sets were V+ [no, they weren't] and I attended every class and tried to participate in lectures. The only reason why I am asking is because I felt confident that I would receive an A in the course.

What surprised me about these two students in particular was that each seemed to be putting in so little effort (as evinced, for example, by their papers--thickets of typos in what looked like stream-of-consciousness keyboarding, printed out and never actually read) that I'd assumed they were at peace with B grades. It never dawned on me that they might be expecting A's.

At least as disturbing is the most likely explanation for this expectation: presumably, all their other professors are giving them A's--along with every other student who shows up and turns things in.

All the worse for those who actually deserve top grades--particularly the left-brained crowd whose greatest strengths are typically more in academics than in extracurriculars and other varieties of resume-stuffing, not to mention career networking, schmoozing, and grade grubbing.

(Cross-posted at Out In Left Field)