kitchen table math, the sequel: I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

Mary Damer on affluent suburban schools:
I agree about the combination of explicit instruction and high quality music lessons, field trips that don't eat into the already too short school time, and I would add foreign language or Latin instruction) enriching an explicit curriculum for students from poverty. With a higher proportion of effective explicit instruction in the early grades for children from poverty, the proportion of explicit instruction needed in higher grades would diminish after basic foundational skills were mastered.

As I read your comment, I have to chuckle, because I keep remembering an office mate of mine in an ed school who couldn't believe that I disagreed with his writing that poor children should have access to the same rich constructivist education that children had in the affluent suburb in which I was living. I tried to explain to him that affluent Midwestern districts had become so constructivist that at times more than a hundred parents were attending school board meetings because they wanted their children to learn "stuff" and stop wasting so much of their time in group-project oriented learning. The district’s experiential science and math, journaling, and silent reading had led to a dramatic decline in rigor and many parents were upset. Tutoring in the suburbs exploded exponentially as a more acceptable way to deal with what Milt Rosenberg in Chicago called the "dumbing down" of suburban education. It was incomprehensible to my office mate that I was sending my daughter to a blue-collar Catholic high school forty minutes away, given that I was a Unitarian, in order to get her a curriculum and teachers who expected grammatically correct writing, still assigned classic books, and had students still memorizing key information in content areas. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter went to Harvard and found that almost all of the Midwestern students were Asian and had parents who recognized the limitations of their American schools. Those parents described years of evenings teaching what hadn’t been taught during the day. I was disappointed to find out that my best attempts to get a “rich” education weren’t enough and that the science, math and classics that kids from prep schools and the best eastern schools had put them years ahead of her as a frosh at Harvard. In humanities, it’s much easier to catch up, but science and math – her science major entry switched quickly with that reality.

Once rigorous education diminished so dramatically during the surge of constructivism in the mid 80's in Midwestern suburbs, that when you discuss education for the "rich" you have to recognize you are talking almost exclusively about east coast education for the rich (and some west coast private schools). In the Midwest, as the exposure to great literature disappeared, it was replaced by making toothpick bridges, middle school popsicle stick castles, dropping eggs from spoons without breaking them, endless journal writing, and charting rollercoaster movement at amusement parks (after 2 kids and many neighbors having that experience anyone, anyone who thinks it's not a waste for anyone but the most scientifically minded students has their eyes closed to reality.) The bridges, castles, dropped eggs and roller coaster watching heralded the new creativity, rigor, and development of critical thinking skills. For the most part, what I observe in classrooms today reveals that affluent suburban education in 2009 remains essentially the same as that back then. The other day sitting in a typical affluent middle school, I observed a teacher reading to students, followed by students journaling, followed by cutting out and pasting faces on paper with students then finding synonyms in the books they were reading to write next to the pasted faces. Finally the two-hour language arts block was finished. I wouldn’t wish this “rich” schooling on any child from poverty.

When I volunteered for the Obama campaign, it was interesting to be around so many 20-year-olds and hear them discuss how “cheated” they felt about their education. Many of these kids went to fine universities and came from “affluent” backgrounds attending schools in affluent suburbs. But they knew that should they be cornered by the Leno show, all the core knowledge that they didn’t know would be exposed. A few were surprised that we “older folks” so readily could add two-digit numbers without a calculator and preferred to do that when there were only a few numbers. Others painfully discussed how their lack of phonics learning to read made law school almost impossible when the “big” words flooded so much of the text. An older volunteer who works at the local branch of a prestigious national firm confided to me that they assume that all of their new young hires need remedial writing classes and they provide them. As affluent suburbs (at least in the Midwest) attempted to design stimulating, creative, experiential classes focused on developing critical thinking, they left the road and many students in the dust.

ktm reactions are here


SteveH said...

"Those parents described years of evenings teaching what hadn’t been taught during the day."

I want a study that quantifies this effect. All of the best students have helicopter parents.

Jean said...

This describes why I homeschool my childre, and why I wish every American child could have the content-rich classical education I am trying to provide them--I think it's better preparation and produces better citizens.

I went through high school at the end of the 80's, and it wasn't a very good school. I was unprepared for the expectations of the eminent public university I went to, and I was surrounded by students who were, at least, somewhat better off (educationally speaking, as far as money goes few of us were well-off). AFAICT that was the tail end of public school students getting solid educations--my classmates were the last trickle. Now I'm trying to give my children what I didn't have. I believe it will better prepare them for those "21st century jobs."

I guess I could use my husband as an example--he grew up quite poor. His parents encouraged him somewhat, but certainly there was no help of any kind. But he went to a solid high school that taught well, and he and two of his brothers went to the best public university in the state, with expenses paid. (A few years later, the school went downhill and is no longer the same.) I wonder if a young man in his situation--poor, but scientifically talented and ambitious--would be so fortunate today.

Allison said...

As with the rest of the social norms that make a society function, our elites decided they didn't want to participate in those social contracts anymore, so they created theories and rationalizations to show why abandoning traditional behaviors was good.

But their rationalizations only worked because they could afford for someone else to do the hard work they were maligning.

Stay married? Pshaw, we can afford divorce. Spending less than we earn? Pshaw, we can leverage against future asset values. Fulfilling a contract you signed? Pshaw, we can hire a lawyer to abrogate it. Go to church every Sunday, practice humility, accept something bigger than a human defines what's moral, what's right? Pshaw, we can be our own moral arbiters, and we'll define what's right.

And the same in schools. Demanding decorum from students? Pshaw, they should see teachers as pals. Boring drills to learn the multiplication tables? Pshaw, our children should have creative, expressive classes. Hours of home work? Pshaw, our kids should have more fun, spend more time playing with friends.

But the elites didn't keep their ideas to themselves. No, they passed them on to the rest of society, which can't afford them at all. The lower class becomes the underclass. The middle class is quickly moving in that direction.

We are doomed.

Jean said...

Have you been reading Theodore Dalrymple, Allison? :)

Yes, I agree. The upper classes can afford this stuff, because they don't actually live through the consequences. They're cushioned. Meanwhile, poorer folks adopt the ideas and the result is a trapped, permanent underclass.

Allison said...

I have not read him in years. But his books, Our Culture, What's Left of It, and The View from the Bottom, are on my mind a lot of late.

I knew he was right about why society produces its under classes for a long time now, but only a few weeks ago did I realize it was the direct source of the problems in education, too.

I was asked twice in the last couple weeks "in one sentence, why is it that American schools are so terrible, even the elite ones? Why do those who have enough money to do anything, agree to this nonsense?"

SteveH said...

"The upper classes can afford this stuff, because they don't actually live through the consequences."

The affluent vote with their feet. Should we force them to remain in public schools (I kind of like that idea), or should we allow the rest to vote with their feet (probably a better idea)? We are surely spending enough on education to afford it. Our public schools cost more per student than the private K-8 school my son used to go to.

Anonymous said...

My two youngest spent a couple of years in a highly-ranked Midwestern high school in a very affluent suburb. Even there, many of their classmates were being tutored (parent, private,Kumon etc) and I am talking about kids taking all honors/AP/college classes. I was told that it was even more widespread among the top Es-MS kids. Those kids whose parents know what the kids need and have the resources to provide it outside of school do fine; it allows the schools to pat themselves on the back.

cranberry said...

Some private schools are very constructivist. The schools can also select those children likely to do well in that model of teaching.

I seem to remember that Kay Hymowitz pointed out in "Marriage and Caste in America" that, in point of fact, middle and upper class families were more likely than the average to remain married. The problem is, the middle and upper classes have given up the right to judge others' behaviors. Rather than set a good example, and urge others to emulate it, the moderns value being "non-judgemental."

Jean said...

Steve, having voted with my feet myself--not that I'm affluent, ha!--I don't wish to deny the same avenue to anyone else. But I am certainly all for anything that lets everyone else vote with their feet too. Do the affluent have more influence than the rest of us when they walk?

Cranberry, Dalrymple's thesis is that the upper classes have advocated all sorts of changes that contribute to the breakdown of society for the poor--easy divorce, children don't need fathers, education should be fun--but would mostly never dream of actually engaging in the behaviors themselves. It's not the affluent folks who suffer the consequences of the ideas they propagate. "Life at the bottom" lays it all out in the first chapter, so if you read that I'll go get Hymowitz and we can trade. :)

Dang, my library doesn't have it. I'll have to wait to get it.

Independent George said...

I love the fact that apparently, we've all been reading City Journal independently for years without ever explicitly mentioning it on this blog (not that I can recall, anyway).

Cranberry said...

palisadesk said...

We have mentioned City Journal quite a few times. I remember referencing Shep Barbash's article on effective preschools, Theodore Dalrymple, and Sol Stern on Reading First, and I think Catherine and others have also posted links to it..

It's a must-read journal for a number of topics.

Jean said...

Thank you Cranberry, that's an excellent essay. I think the two writers are on the same page there. I will ILL her book ASAP. :)

SteveH said...

"Do the affluent have more influence than the rest of us when they walk?"

In some ways, they have less. In our town, they can be more easily dismissed as elitist. This is hard to do because these are your friends and neighbors. If you take out the money factor, parents tend to look at the choice as one based on the particular needs of the individual student. One of those needs is higher expectations. The catch-all answer for all problems in public schools seems to be that the schools have to teach ALL kids.

The exodus does put some pressure on our public schools. They claim that differentiated instruction works, but they know that the top end students are not given what they need. They try to do some things, but without tracks and acceleration, it's quite limited. When we brought our son back to the public schools, they tried to meet his needs. They even offered to let him skip a grade. That was not what we really wanted.

However, how many more kids would be gone if everyone had a choice? It's hard to say. Our schools have a home court advantage. Who really wants to send their kids out of town for an education? This takes time and the kids feel less like they are part of their own community. Their friends all live far away and everything becomes a big production in time and coordination. In the end, our son didn't like the hour+++ travel time each day and the feeling like every minute of his day was programmed from morning until night. Now, his school is a 5 minute walk away.

I think that there are many parents who are not happy with our K-8 schools, but keep quiet because they don't want to cause trouble for their kids. On the larger scale of fixing differentiated instruction, they know that this is a given and they don't even begin to tackle the issue. They just help their kids at home and wait until they can get them to high school. Fortunately, our high school is good. Otherwise, our choices would be quite limited. Our son would have to spend 2+ hours a day on travel time. Many kids do this in our town.

If the rules for charter schools in our state were opened up much more, then it might be possible to set up another K-8 school in our town that could specialize in something like a Core Knowledge curriculum. Many kids would suddenly come back from out-of-town private schools and many more would apply for the charter school's lottery. It wouldn't look good for the public schools.

All out war. It could even devolve into a class war.

At least the discussion would be in the open and not swept under the rug. You can ignore the private school kids as elitist or claim that, individually, they would do better in a private school, but with a free charter school in town, everything changes.

I think it would more clearly define the problem as low versus high expectations. When we moved our son to a private school in second grade, one teacher made a crack to us that she hoped he had time to play. I felt like telling her that now he will do something other than just play.

It's one thing if kids go away, but quite another if they are in another school in the same small town. I don't like this model either. I want one school that tries to provide all kids (and parents) with what they need. Is this possible, especially with the prevailing ed school thought? They don't even seem to know or understand what many parents want.

I like the idea of a full-inclusion environment where the core classes are separated by ability. If done properly, there could be only one track, but kids would progress at their own speed. Unfortunately, the track could still be Everyday Math, creative writing, and young adult navel-gazing novels.

Anonymous said...

When you get down in the weeds and actually try to develop a sanely structured program that places kids according to their academic needs there are severe logistical challenges. This is especially true in smaller schools. They just don't have the critical mass to provide for sufficient scheduling flexibility to pull it off.

My city has 4 K-8 schools which are actually hybrids with K-5 and 6-8 separation. My school has around 180 kids in the 'middle' school. Lunch is a 2 1/2 hour deal for the building. Kindergartners start at 11:00, my kids don't eat until 1:00 PM. You must schedule around this and the availability of shared 'specials' teachers and two rounds of bus transportation.

I and my 8th grade counterpart have identified 6 distinct groupings that require different curriculum across 7th and 8th grade math. To do it right you would have to go out and develop 6 different curricula for math.

Then you have to accommodate the reality that ELA dispersion is something that also requires as many curricula. Ideally you need enough teachers to allow every cohort to attend an appropriate ELA class and an appropriate Math class, keeping in mind that a high ELA child might need a low Math class. You need something like 3 or 4 times as many teachers and class rooms as are actually available. I don't hold to the belief that you can successfully differentiate in one class room. Maybe this would work in the 21st century school with scrubbed, smiling faces and supportive parents. In my school it would be suicidal. It would amount to a full time game of 'wack a mole' if I had to split my attention.

In a middle school of 700-800 kids you would have the critical mass. I don't know of any middle schools this big and I would venture a guess that it would be a mad house nobody would want to teach in.

Don't get me wrong. I'm highly sympathetic to the goal but I'm also a realist. The practicality of doing correct placement is simply not simple and it shouldn't be assumed that its absence has some dark, nefarious underpinnings. The devil's in the details.

You have to go to war with the army you've got.

SteveH said...

" it shouldn't be assumed that its absence has some dark, nefarious underpinnings."

I don't assume any such thing. What I see is a school system that doesn't like any sort of separation of students by ability until 7th grade at the earliest. They want it both ways, but it can't happen. They can't define a system that's impossible and then claim that it's just to difficult to fix.

Anonymous said...

"In a middle school of 700-800 kids you would have the critical mass. I don't know of any middle schools this big and I would venture a guess that it would be a mad house nobody would want to teach in."

Paul B, could you elaborate? Critical mass to do what? I am working on scheduling for a large middle school (900 students.) It's not chaos; people like to work there. Still, there is always room for improvement.

SteveH said...

"To do it right you would have to go out and develop 6 different curricula for math."

Our K-6 classes use Everyday Math which really screws up a lot of kids. It puts them in all sorts of developmental buckets. There is no need to do this. They then give a test in 6th grade and filter them into three different math tracks. With all of the other specials kids have (band, chorus, robotics, etc.) this makes scheduling difficult. Add this on top of the other special needs some kids have and it becomes worse. We use a six day rotation for the academic courses, but a five day rotation for the specials. Nobody knows what day number it is.

This is self-imposed condition. The limit as the number of ZPD zones go to infinity is total independent study, with the teacher as an ineffective guide on the side. This is not my vision of a good education. I will gladly trade proximity for a bucket with a teacher who actually has something to teach my son.

ChemProf said...

"To do it right you would have to go out and develop 6 different curricula for math."

Isn't Engleman's point that you don't need to do this? That a well-designed curriculum can both meet students where they are and let them move as fast as they can, because every step seems easy? In other words, good curriculum adjusts to student ZPD, and then teaches the students how to learn as well as the material?

I keep coming back to his story of teaching borrowing to the middle group in a rural, black, southern school. By the end, the top group was demanding a shot at the material, but so was the bottom group.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't clear when I talked about 6 different curricula. My point of reference was what to do in a middle school when faced with the need to remediate a class with a 9 year spread in skills. It wouldn't be six different curricula. It would be 6 different remediation strategies, each with a 'curriculum' of sorts of its own but it wouldn't be curricula in the sense of a math program like Everyday Math of CMP.

If you were doing Englemen type DI you wouldn't have the dispersion to begin with so I guess the whole discussion point is then moot.

As to the 900 student middle school, I'm extrapolating from my experience in a city with a neighborhood school concept with lots of smallish schools. We have big behavioral issues, high transience, high ELL and SPED rates and I (from my experience at least) don't see how making things bigger would reduce the stress on the system. Perhaps there are environments where big is better but in my world, bigger would be worse. It would be like throwing more fuel on a fire.

lgm said...


Beacon City School District has issues similar to yours, with a pop. of app. 750 in m.s. Like many districts, they decided to provide mandated tutoring to those who scored a '1' or a '2' on the state math test by placing those students in an extra period of math. They've found some success with going to a computer program that individualizes for the student (something like ALEX) rather than attempting whole class. You might give them a call - they were publicizing their success in the newspaper a few years ago so they should be have long term results to share now.