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Category — Equal Opportunity

Frank McCourt – Great Teachers Find Classroom Lessons Everywhere

With the passing of Frank McCourt, remembrances are understandable. His brilliant Angela Ashes, of course, marks him as a literary giant, but to many kids he was far more important, he was their teacher.

WikipediaWhat a superb teacher he must have been. As with most of the great ones, he could create a lesson out of anything imaginable, including the art of forged notes and excuses for missing school or unfinished homework.

The true brilliance of course lay in his ability to first reach kids where they were at, then take them someplace they would never have gone on their own.

He doesn’t just get these kids to review the notes they forged, he takes them on a creative journey, having them write such notes for some of the world’s most famous historical figures.

A brilliant author.

An equally brilliant teacher.

July 23, 2009   No Comments

If Education Leads to Prosperity, Every Student Should Have the Opportunity for College

It seems that everywhere we turn these days, higher education statistics get a tad uglier. A recent article promoting online education had this sad introduction:

Alarming statistics have been put forward showing the increased rate of college dropouts. Back in the 1960s college dropout rates were as low as one (1) in every five (5) students, this shifted to one (1) in every three (3) in the 1990s. Figures from the Department of Education for 2000 through 2008 show that 30% of students enrolled in schools leave in their first year and a shocking 50% never graduate.

We have spent countless words noting that higher education, often held up as an example to the world, actually may be the weakest strand of the educational process, K-16. Everything from their poor graduation rates to their ability to be relevant to today’s tech savvy world raises questions about America’s system of higher education.

At the same time, we have never extolled the common mantra that college is right for every student. We tend to side with Charles Murray and have indicated our lack of support for the notion of college for everyone.

Key Discussion Point Currently

None of this relates to the current educational discussion point that has become a fundamental focus of the Obama administration. Their push is entirely on student access by finding ways to help students address the staggering costs associated with higher education.

It is interesting to see this idea against the view expressed by some older Americans. They hold fast to the notion that college, unlike K-12 public education, should not simply be made available to anyone who wants it. They see this as just one more government entitlement, akin to welfare.

However, to get another viewpoint, we turn to Tolu Olorundawith who offers some very interesting thoughts in “When your college education is a bridge to nowhere.” She first notes renowned educators Henry Giroux and Susan Giroux tackled the notion as to why not all Black and Brown students see college as a “good thing.”

“Since their appearance in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, American colleges followed the traditions established by Oxford, Cambridge, and the continental universities in the preparation of their overwhelmingly white male student body for law, ministry, medicine, and politics.” [Giroux, Henry; Giroux, Susan. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 (1st ed.), p. 144.]

Obama Is Right

Olorundawith moves on to then quote the work of Andy Kroll. His piece on Alternet, “A Crisis of Affordability: How Our Public Colleges Are Turning into Gated Communities for the Wealthy” directly tackles the Obama notion, the need for greater affordability.

In addressing the growing disparities in college affordability for Black and Brown students, Kroll contends that the recent spike in college costs nationally has been done precisely to ensure that the white male of affluence becomes the only group able to attend institutions of higher learning. Olorundawith summarizes Kroll thus:

Big businesses, Andy argues, have no problem aiding and abetting the rich in reaching their goals of transforming Colleges into educational “gated communities”–reserved only for the privileged, elite, and powerful.

In his piece, Kroll does offer some incredible statistics from “The Education Trust” related to college affordability for those most in need of support.

In the past several decades, the cost of higher education has climbed at an astounding pace — faster than the Consumer Price Index, faster even than the cost of medical care. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board has increased nearly 100%, from $7,857 in 1977-1978 to $15,665 in 2007-2008 (in constant 2006-2007 dollars). Median household income, on the other hand, has risen a mere 18% over that same period, from about $42,500 to just over $50,000. College costs, in other words, have gone up at more than five times the rate of incomes.

… state flagship universities and a group of other major research universities spent $257 million in 2003 on financial aid for students from families earning more than $100,000 a year. Those same universities spent only $171 million on aid to students from families who made less than $20,000 a year. Similarly, between 1995 and 2003, according to the report, grant aid from the same public universities to students from families making $80,000 or more increased 533%, while grant aid to families making less than $40,000 increased only 120%.

Simply to ensure that a child attends a four-year public university, a family in the country’s lowest-income bracket now has to pay, on average, 55% of total income (up from 39% in 2000); for a middle-income family, the average is 25% (up from 18% in 2000); and for an upper-income family, 9% (up from 7%), according to “Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education” by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Not a Ticket, Just a Chance

It is important to realize that a college education is not going to be the answer for everyone. Even Olorundawith notes that in tougher economic times, that degree may not mean a whole lot irrespective of color:

Of course, in any dialogue concerning the merits and benefits of a College degree, the impact of the current economic crisis must be addressed. With unemployment skyrocketing in communities of color, students with Bachelor’s can often be found working shifts at Burger King, with those earning their Master’s managing at McDonald’s, and even Ph.D.s confirming your Papa John’s Pineapple Pizza order.

But if education is considered the great equalizer and a college degree is generally deemed a strong positive step towards a more viable job future, the opportunity should be available for every one who wants it and is willing to put in the time and effort.

While we are not so inclined to support the conspiracy theory postulated by Kroll, we do believe it is essential for America to begin reducing its incredible economic stratification. And one aspect towards shrinking the gap between the haves and the have nots is to ensure that college is not available solely to those of means.

June 18, 2009   1 Comment

Are We Truly Interested in Reducing America’s Troubling Drop-Out Rate

Current data indicates that one of every four high school students fails to graduate within the standard four-year secondary-school span.

Today there is great debate as to why the drop out rate is so significant. Many elementary folks insist that schools at the upper grade levels tend to put curriculum ahead of students. In contrast, folks at the secondary level insist that students all too often arrive at high school without the requisite skills needed to handle more challenging academic materials.

In a recent Associated Press piece that discussed this issue, Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., was quoted as offering one of the most troubling assessments imaginable. Strathman indicated that for many students the final year of school where a significant majority of students felt successful was in fourth grade.

Yes, fourth grade.

School Not the Solution

In fact, regardless of when students chose to drop out, the consensus is that the drop out group gave up on school long ago. Simply stated, for this segment of the population, school is the biggest problem they face in life.

Facing a number of potential issues, everything from learning disabilities to mental and physical health problems, the potential drop-out crowd soon learns that school has little to offer them. The suggestion that schools might not be responsive to students with learning disabilities certainly would rankle those who work in special education.

But the fact is that these children all too often grow frustrated when they cannot match the success level of their peers. Soon, as they begin to understand that their lower achievement level falls far short of their peers, these lower achievers begin to demonstrate behavioral issues.

It is easy to understand why. Rather than have people think of them as stupid or lazy or incapable, these children realize the only way to save face is to act out. They can then hide behind their behaviors, their actions more palatable to them then being seen as deeply academically-challenged.

Their inability to match the performance of their peers also soon leads to another major problem, truancy. Here again, the basic premise is the same. Who wants to spend time in a setting where they feel unsuccessful?

Meanwhile, the recent push to raise standards has only exacerbated the problem. Schools all across America have been identified as failing schools simply by virtue of the substandard performance of their special education students.

Add to the fact that those students who represent America’s ELL group, those for whom English is not their native language, and the percentage of drop outs from the group that struggles to learn is extremely alarming.

Not Just Ability

Though the vast majority of drop outs fit a “learning-challenged” label, according to the AP folks there is also a large segment of students from affluent, educated families that fall by the wayside. While the immediate response is to blame the student for lack of effort, it turns out that many of the drop outs from this group suffer from issues other than those related to academic ability.

Instead, they come from families where chaos is the norm and divorce common place. Often times, there are alcohol or drug related issues that begin within the family then travel on to the students themselves.

Ironically, for many of the more intellectual, the same school setting that is proving too taxing for one segment of learners is simply too easy for another group. Here boredom prevails and very quickly school becomes essentially irrelevant.

Need for Alternatives

We have noted many times that our current one-size-fits-all approach to education is detrimental to children as a whole. We have indicated the need for nonacademic paths for those who struggle with the traditional school approach that teaches primarily through reading and writing.

It also means providing students adequate mental health services. Often times, in tough budget cycles, this is the first level of support to be cut. And today we are facing some of our toughest budget cycles ever.

Ultimately, we can only hope the recent revelations that children start to see school as a problem as early as elementary school might lead to a reconsideration of our current approach to education. It is high time we took the drop out issue seriously enough to begin developing school programs that truly seek to address the needs of our kids.

June 12, 2009   No Comments

Intelligence and IQ – It Is More than Just the Genes

When it comes to intelligence, there has always been one fundamental question:

Is it a function of nature? Is it simply encoded in a child’s genes?

Or is it a function of nurture? Is it more about the environment that a child grows up in?

NisbettRichard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, addresses the topic in fundamental detail in his new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It.” And thank goodness for teachers, Nisbett insists that nurture is in fact paramount to intellectual development.

In fact, his message matches almost verbatim what we have discussed previously on our site:

  • Praise the effort, not the achievement
  • Teach the concept of delayed gratification
  • Limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.

The Nature versus Nurture Question

Nisbett takes exception to the notion that IQ is 75 to 85 percent inherited. Instead, he sees the gene implications at something less than 50 percent.

Nicholas D. Kristoff recently took a look at the nature versus nurture question and came away with enormous support of Nisbett’s book. The NY Times columnist notes the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia who has conducted research that indicates IQ is minimally the result of genetics.

Kristof further cites studies that indicate that “when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their IQ’s rise by 12 points to 18 points.”

As for the importance of school, Kristof also notes that “children’s IQ’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).”

Professor NisbettIn Nisbett’s book, there is a strong push for early childhood education. Here again, Kristof offers support of Professor Nisbett by taking a look at the “Milwaukee Project.”

Assigning African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation randomly to two groups, the project offers enormous support for early childhood education. The mothers of the infants selected all had IQ’s below 80 and in many cases the fathers were absent.

The children were assigned either to a control group that received no additional support or to a group that enjoyed day care and educational programming from 6 months of age until the children were to enter first grade.

By the age of six the children experimental group had an IQ average of 120.7 as compared to the control group’s 87.2

Quality Pre-School for All

We previously noted the enormous educational success of Finland. Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, indicates that the majority of Finland’s educational success can be traced to major reforms implemented in the 1970s.

One of those reforms centered upon an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until at age seven, two years after most American children begin school.

However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. Interestingly, instead of focusing on getting a jump academically, Finland’s early-childhood program focuses on self-reflection and social behavior.

The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing a level of personal responsibility towards learning. It is a focus more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities.

Ultimately, Finland appears to focus on the nurturing process during the preschool years and that appears to be the first step to eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting within the country.

Presidential Support

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, the data clearly indicates that the latter is indeed more than 50% of the equation. That is good news for educators, but even better news for society as a whole.

Fortunately, President Obama has come out in strong support of early childhood education, particularly for those children most at risk of school failure. Investing in quality pre-school opportunities clearly helps give children from poverty-stricken areas the chance at a stronger start in school and in life.

If we are serious about helping our children succeed in school, if we are truly interested in “Leaving No Child Behind,” we will take a hard look at this compelling data and begin investing greater sums at the early childhood level.

April 23, 2009   2 Comments

School Size – If Smaller is Better, What Is Maine Doing?

Come November, Maine voters will have the opportunity to vote down the state’s repressive school consolidation law.

Up in the tiny state of Maine, a great deal of time and energy over the past two years has centered upon the issue of school consolidation.

Initiated and pressed through the legislature by Democratic Governor John Baldacci, the move has been rightfully met with stiff opposition in many sectors of the state, particularly the more rural and less affluent areas. Thanks to the hard work of Skip Greenlaw and his push to create a citizen’s referendum, the issue will return this fall to the place it rightfully belongs, to the hands of Maine voters.

Enacting School Consolidation

Most educators and a large number of community members still have not forgiven the Governor for his heavy-handed approach to the matter of reducing the number of school districts in Maine. While the general consensus had been that Maine could reduce the number of school districts, that consensus was immediately weakened by the methods the governor utilized to bring about the change.

First, there was the fact that the governor made no mention of his plan to reduce the number of school districts while on the campaign trail. Once re-elected, he shocked the educational community with a proposed plan to reduce Maine’s 290 school districts to 26.

Particularly appalling was the governor’s own words at the time. Bill Nemitz, writing for the Maine Sunday Telegram quoted the governor as follows: “I’m not running for anything anymore. And I think I should take advantage of that for the citizens’ sake.”

The idea that he would admit to acting one way while campaigning and yet another once elected had some expressing that he lacked the “courage to stand up for what he truly thinks is right while running for office.”

The Maine writer went on to refer to the governor in a number of unflattering terms, calling him Baldacci the Bulldozer and likening him to the fictional character, Rocky Balboa.

Unrealistic Timeline

Within the governor’s push to consolidate were a number of unrealistic proposals. First, there was the two year timeline proposed to bring about the change and the number of potential districts.

Though the number of districts was later modified to a more manageable number of 80, the two-year timeline essentially remained intact. That timeline can certainly be tested as the state approaches the end of the second year.

To date, Maine voters have already rejected 22 of 46 proposed regional school units involving their local districts. Most recently, 11 of the 18 proposed were rejected in late January.

So more than half of the towns attempting to create regional school units have seen their community reject consolidation measures. Given that the heavy-handed approach includes stiff financial penalties for not consolidating, these votes are extremely telling of the current view of Maine citizens.

Unrealistic Projected Savings

Then there was the preposterous suggestion that within the first three years the state could see as much as $250 million in savings. Those numbers were later significantly revised to a projected $30-40 million annually.

yomanimusThose dollars were to come from the reduction of central office staff. In his proposal the governor insisted that those savings would come from the reduction of “back room office personnel.” He also insisted that districts would not need to reduce the number of schools to obtain such savings.

To get a sense of the comparative real savings, though several districts have in fact been approved, the estimates outside the Governor’s office have the consolidation work thus far saving about $1.6 million.

At the same time, many communities are finding that consolidation positively impacts one town in a proposed regional school unit but does so at the expense of another town in the RSU. At the same time there are a number of unresolved issues related to federal grant eligibility. At first glance, some new units now believe that creating a larger district may have negatively impacted their access to federal grant funds.

Unrealistic Implications

In addition to the unrealistic timeline and savings projections, the governor and his aides also insisted that consolidation was the path to improving the educational offerings for Maine students. That amazing claim continues to be part of the consolidation push but those who have done any research on the matter understand full well that there is no data to support this improvement assertion.

While no hard agreement exists on optimal school size, the research generally suggests a maximum of 300-400 students for elementary schools and 400-800 for secondary schools. In addition, many studies that seek to focus on the social and emotional aspects of student success conclude that no school should be larger than 500. Only in more affluent communities can test data support larger schools and in general, the poorer the school, the smaller it should be.

In addition, there is also clear research that there is no ideal size for school districts though generally smaller districts have better achievement, affective and social outcomes. More importantly, the larger a district becomes, the greater the district resources devoted to secondary and/or non-essential activities. And as with school size, there is a negative correlation between district size and student achievement when the student population is primarily low-income.

Ultimately, a review of the data indicates that the elimination of school districts will neither improve education nor enhance cost-effectiveness.

Will of the People

lachanceLast week, the Maine legislature elected to put aside several school consolidation amendment bills and wait to see what voters have to say come November. The willingness to defer to the will of people on this matter represented a refreshing change from the legislature’s willingness to tinker with the law previously.

It also contrasted with the governor who has continued his heavy-handed approach by pledging to actively work towards defeating the pending citizen’s referendum proposal.

So finally, this fall Maine voters will have the chance to speak collectively regarding the issue. The loss of local control and the clear data that larger schools are not equated with higher educational performance will certainly bring a number of votes to repeal the law. Those will likely be offset by voters who are of the fiscal mindset that school costs must be reduced.

For both of those groups as well as those yet undecided, the February 2009 edition of Rural Policy Matters explains why all citizens should cast the repressive consolidation law aside.
“Maine consolidation has become what state mandated consolidation usually becomes — something the rich force on the poor for the sake of cutting their state aid.” 
Flickr photos courtesy of SarekofVulcan, yomanimus and lachance.

April 8, 2009   1 Comment

Poverty and Education – The Challenge of Improving Schools

There is growing consensus that the educational system in America is falling short when it comes to preparing our children for the future. As to the method for improving our current system today, the general focus centers upon increased accountability and a need for higher academic standards.

While there is little doubt that we have many schools in need of improvement, the idea that all of our educational woes are a result of under-performing schools and inadequate instruction is a gross over-simplification. As but one example that demonstrates the enormous complexity facing public schools in our country, we note this story of homeless children which aired Tuesday, March 31st, on PBS.

The story of Tiberius is one every public school critic should hear. Able to articulate his feelings of inadequacy, yet more withdrawn and carrying a burden that no one so young should ever have to shoulder, Tiberius’ educational progress this school year could never be adequately measured by a standardized test score.

Nor should the performance of his teacher be downgraded should Tiberius be unable to demonstrate the skills necessary for promotion. It is preposterous to think that the math or writing skills of a child in need of food and clothing are not affected by the student’s predicament.

As Ms. Hoople notes so well, sometimes “their emotions get in the way.”

And in these time of severe budget cuts, is it not increasingly clear why so many inner city schools cry out when social workers become the first of educational employees to fall victim to the budget knife?

But going back to those test scores and higher standards, the words of Mr. Hannemann certainly offer a different perspective:

“You do the best that you can with the time that you have; and you just keep moving forward.”

America may, in places, have issues with school quality. But watching this PBS story it is easy to see why so many people insist that school improvement measures cannot be handled in isolation, not until we as a country begin to deal with the other crisis affecting our kids: the growing number of them living in poverty.

April 1, 2009   21 Comments

Is Becoming an American a Developmental Risk? The Immigrant Paradox

The data recorded by Natalia Palacios regarding immigrant children’s early learning could have major ramifications for educators seeking answers to America’s high drop out rates.

Her findings in fact have caused some to ask, “Is the process of becoming an American a developmental risk for future generations?”

Palacios Work
The recent work of Palacios is actually consistent with other studies done on immigrant adolescents. Palacios’ longitudinal study of 17,000 children from kindergarten through third grade examined the reading achievement levels of first-, second- and third-generation immigrant children.

DiegoThose unfamiliar with what has been dubbed the “Immigrant Paradox” will no doubt be startled by the researchers findings. Once she had controlled for English language proficiency, she found that first-generation children demonstrated higher performance reading levels than their second- or third-generation peers when measured at the end of kindergarten. Perhaps even more importantly, the gap grew even larger by third grade.

In addition to the reduced levels of academic success reported by Palacios, other studies have noted that the physical health and the ability to stay out of trouble also decline from first- to third-generation immigrant children. Once we control for socioeconomic status, the health of children from most immigrant groups worsens from the first to the third generations, the number of teenagers reporting substance abuse rises between generations and the levels of violent behavior increases.

What makes the data so difficult to understand is that new immigrants do extremely well in America particularly given the initial challenges they face. Despite limited language skills and little money, many first generation immigrants find success.

Of course, what makes the data interesting to educators is the fact that so many native-born American students are doing poorly in our schools. Moreover, it appears that the paradox does not exist in many other countries. In most other countries, the first generation does worse than the second and third generations – the exceptions being the US, New Zealand and Australia.

One Plausible Explanation
BritneyBushOne simple explanation for the issue occurring here is that America is the land of immigrants. Therefore, there are potential networks in place for new immigrants to access and to help them make that initial transition. Such networks do not appear to be as well-established in other countries.

A second thought, one postulated by researchers, is that immigrants often come with a strong educational background. That background is likely more important than the socioeconomic status of those seeking entry into America.

Unfortunately, as the future generations become more acculturated and more language proficient, they seem to do worse in school. Researchers surmise that these individuals may begin to buy in to the stereotypical notion regarding minorities in the United States, the belief that even if one works hard, discrimination will prevail.

Ultimately, the result is that foreign-born students outperform their American-born counterparts. Foreign-born students test higher, have higher school attendance rates and lower rates of participation in special education programs. They also graduate from high school at higher rates than the native-born.

One Not So Positive Possibility

In a recent article for EdWeek, Scholars Mull the ‘Paradox’ of Immigrants, Mary Ann Zehr first reports on a perplexed parent from Providence. In trying to put his arms around the issue, Tony Mendez spoke of the cultural differences he currently sees.

Mendez, who came to the United States when he was 12, noted he was puzzled by the differences of family members still living in the Dominican Republic. There, youngsters “take it as a given that they will finish high school and go to college.” Yet here in America, Dominican parents “find it hard to persuade their children to stay in high school.”

In essence, Mendez offers that the lack of success in school is perhaps due to the fact that second and third generations may suffer from a diminished sense of urgency regarding trying to make a better life. It may be as simple as, dare we say it, that the acculturated students begin to do less homework.

Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor, has a very different perspective. In her eyes, these U.S.-born children are unlike their parents. They are not likely to simply take any job they can get.

Instead, they begin to have expectations, and when those expectations are not met, they respond negatively. In other words, these second and third generation immigrants become a victim of our stratified society of the haves and the have nots.

Critical Issue for America

Monroe's DragonFlyThe current student drop out rate in America represents one of the most significant issues facing our schools and our country. But we also fall significantly short when measured against other nations when it comes to child welfare.

Nine million children without health insurance and more than 13 million living in poverty are numbers that are as striking as the fact that every 26 seconds another American drops out of high school.

Add to that fact the deteriorating results of second- and third-generation immigrants and one has to begin to wonder about the current fabric of our society. Certainly, with such data it is easy to see why some people are asking that incredibly poignant question:

Does becoming an American represent a developmental risk?

Flickr photos courtesy of Diego, Brittney Bush and Monroe’s DragonFly.

March 22, 2009   No Comments

Raising Smart and Socially Well-Adjusted Children

The ongoing data is becoming exceedingly clear. If you want to see normal social, emotional and cognitive development in your children, then you must allow them the opportunity for free and imaginative play.

In her article published in the Scientific American, The Serious Need for Play, Melinda Wenner sums up the data this way: “imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development” and such play as a youngster “makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.”

When it comes to play, the emphasis is on the word free. Wenner stresses the latter word stating, “Imaginative and rambunctious free play, as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.”

And while the impact of free play is most critical to social and emotional development, the overall impact on cognition is considered very significant as well, particularly when children involve the world of make believe.

The Research
Wenner notes the research of several people. She begins with psychiatrist Stuart Brown of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who spent some time working with Charles Whitman, the man who climbed to the top of a University of Texas Tower in 1966 and shot 46 people.

Later in a small pilot study, Brown also took a look at another 25 convicted murderers. The professor found that the majority of the killers, including Whitman, “shared two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids.”

In the 42 years since that initial study, Brown has gone on to interview some 6,000 additional people. His findings suggest “that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.”

According to Wenner, “a handful of studies support Brown’s conviction that a play-deprived childhood disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development in humans.”

One of the more interesting developments Wenner refers to is a 1997 study of children living in poverty and at high risk of school failure, published by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

whatnotThe data reveals that those kids that were enrolled in a play-oriented preschool were more socially adjusted later in life than the kids who attended a play-free preschool. Therefore, pre-schools that focus entirely on instruction by teachers are missing a golden opportunity to help children become more socially well-adjusted.

In the area of stress relief, it is believed that free play helps kids work through anxiety and stress. Wenner discusses a study from Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry where three- and four-year-old children on their first day of preschool were split into two groups after being assessed for anxiety.

Those labeled anxious were further divided into two groups while those labeled not anxious were similarly divided. One group of anxious and one group of non-anxious students were combined and given the opportunity to play alone or with their peers for a period of 15 minutes. The remaining students were paired and assigned to sit at a small table and listen to a teacher for the same period of time.

Those allowed to play but deemed anxious at the outset had a twofold decrease in anxiousness as compared to those who had to listen to the story. However, one rather interesting development was the fact that those who played alone were calmer than those who played with peers.

Current Trends
Today there is growing data that free play is no longer something most children engage in. A paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine indicates free-play time for children fell 25% between 1981 and 1997.

The belief is that the parents of today are forgoing free playtime and replacing it with more structured activities. These structured games with rules can be great sources of fun and they do provide learning opportunities for children. They no doubt offer some assistance towards improving social skills of youngsters.

Billie/PartsnPiecesBut free play results in games without rules, so kids actively use their imagination to try out new activities and game variations while moving in and out of different roles. The lack of rules allows children to be more creative, a step that challenges their developing brain more than following a set of predetermined rules.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is that the free-play activity “should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.”

One of the critical skills children learn relates to social interaction. They very quickly learn that they will have no one else to play with if they are not fair with others or let their peers take a turn at a specific role. Simply stated, free play helps children learn negotiating skills.

The Effect on Cognition

While the impact on social and emotional development seems quite intuitive, the research also points towards play actually helping make kids smarter. Wenner quotes one study that clearly suggests play fosters creative thinking in youngsters.

Even play fighting, a staple of young boys, appears to have a positive intellectual impact. Phineas HIn yet another study, Wenner notes that “the more elementary school boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.”

In addition, free play with peers fosters communication skills in a youngster. That communication translates to help with language development, a critical component for academic success in the classroom.

Wenner concludes by pointing to Tufts University child development expert David Elkind. Play is “a way in which children learn,” Elkind says, “and in the absence of play, children miss learning experiences. Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles: if you don’t use them, you lose them.”

The bottom line is actually quite simple:

“Parents should let children be children,” asserts Wenner, referring to Elkind as she writes. “Not just because it should be fun to be a child but because denying youth’s unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into inquisitive, creative creatures.”

Flickr photos courtesy of Radioflyer007, Billie/PartsnPieces, whatnot and Phineas H.

March 4, 2009   2 Comments

Higher Education – State Universities Rival Ivy League?

When it comes to higher education, it appears it might well be time for students to give greater consideration to public colleges and universities. Three recent articles offer support for state schools, each wondering aloud if an education obtained at one of the elite private colleges is really worth the money?

Carol Hymowitz, writing for the Wall Street Journal, insists that when it comes to earning a degree ‘Any College Will Do.‘ Hymowitz notes the words of some of the nation’s top executives who insist that the “path to the corner office usually starts at state university.”

Leadership Ability
In her piece, Hymowitz notes several very successful individuals who did not even obtain a college diploma. She notes the leaders of several high-tech companies who never completed college: joiBill Gates who quit Harvard to start Microsoft, Michael Dell who quit the University of Texas-Austin to start Dell Computer and Steve Jobs who quit Reed College in Portland, Ore., to work at Atari before founding Apple Computer. None of these individuals ever returned to college to complete a formal degree.

Though those stories are compelling, the general consensus is that such a path is rare. To get to the top, a degree is clearly critical. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the CEOs of the top 500 companies have either an M.B.A., law, or other advanced degree.

But overall, roughly 90% of the CEOs of the top 500 companies received undergraduate degrees from a university other than one of the Ivy League colleges. In a great plug for the University of Wisconsin, more CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from that state college (10 current CEOs) than from Harvard, the Ivy League’s top contributor (nine current CEOs).

A partial list of CEOs and their respective schools:

  • Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway – University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • H. Lee Scott , Wal-Mart Stores CEO – Pittsburg State University in Kansas.
  • Paul Otellini, Intel CEO – University of San Francisco.
  • James Sinegal, Costco Wholesale CEO – San Diego City College.
  • Bill Green, CEO of Accenture – Dean College and Babson.
  • Michael Critelli, CEO of Pitney Bowes, University of Wisconsin.

David MakesAdding to the notion that any college will do, these executives, in the position to set the tone for hires, insist they don’t favor job candidates with certain degrees. Having demonstrated themselves that leadership talent and a drive for success is far more important, these CEOs are not looking for potential employees based on securing an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university.

One Interesting Story in the Mix
Bill Green, the CEO of Accenture, represents a very interesting tale. First, the son of a plumber had no intentions to go to college; he simply didn’t think he had the ability to pursue further education. He would ultimately change his mind after visiting friends at Dean College, a two-year community school near Boston.

Green cited a very appealing atmosphere at Dean, one that worked for him.

“… he got help from faculty members who devoted themselves to their students, not ‘doing research and writing books like professors at four-year schools,’ he says. Rather than post student-meeting times on their office doors, they posted their class schedules. ‘All the other time, they were available to any student who needed help,’ says Mr. Green, who worked part-time to pay for part of his tuition.”

The school inspired Green to pursue further study in economics. He went on to Babson College where he would earn his bachelor’s and M.B.A. degrees. But Green insists that Dean was the catalyst, teaching “him to think analytically, to gain confidence in his abilities and to learn to work with people.”

Such a response is contrary to the typical public view, one that sees the education provided by community colleges as somehow of lower quality.

Public Colleges Lead the Way in Payback Ratio
In what is likely a restatement of Hymowitz’s work is the recent Smart Money magazine article ranking the “best colleges for making money.” The magazine utilizes a ratio it calls payback.

The simple calculation compares the average salary earned by a graduate to the actual cost of attending a school. The magazine’s top five are not those one normally sees on top of the US News and World Report’s school rankings.

hykuPublic colleges led the way with the University of Georgia having an average payback of 338%; Texas A&M (315%); University of Texas, Austin (306%); Georgia Tech (263%); and University of Washington (225%). In contrast, a review of the best Ivies yielded Princeton (132%), Dartmouth (131%), Yale (127%), Harvard (124%), and University of Pennsylvania (124%).

Those numbers led Smart Money to add a real jab at the liberal elite colleges, asking readers:

“Is an Ivy League education worth the money?”

Affordability vs. Quality
Smart Money rightfully acknowledges that its rankings do not address the quality of the education received – only the earning power as compared to investment. Hymowitz likewise does not ever insist that those attending state universities are earning a better education.

But Kiplinger’s offers its list of best buys, the traditional Consumer Reports style rating system that examines quality of educational programming as compared to the costs. In other words, getting what you pay for is an important criteria.

Using this basis, state universities represent some of the best educational bargains available. Leading the way are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Florida, the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia and the College of William and Mary. Moving further down the list, the next nine listed schools are state universities, with the University of Wisconsin Madison coming in at number 14.

This gets to the heart of affordability. Private college costs today average $33,000 per school year with several topping $40,000 annually and a few exceeding $50,000 a year. In contrast, the University of Florida costs in-state students less than $12,000 a year.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school heading the Kiplinger top 100 best buys, has a sticker price of a shade under $14,000. With average after-aid costs totaling less than $5,000 per year, students at UNC can truly attend four years, earn a bachelors and still have the possibility of being able to attend graduate school financially.

Choice of College
With business leaders insisting that by the time someone has worked a few years it is their employment record that counts the most, not where that individual attended school, parents and students should give careful thought to the choice of college. The idea that any school will do is definitely too simplistic – in fact the story of Bill Green speaks to the opposite, the choice is truly important.

If one can truly afford the higher costs, it is hard to argue against the elite private schools. But with college costs rising beyond the means of the average American family, parents and students should take note: there are numerous quality options available at far more affordable costs.

More importantly, these schools are producing many successful graduates.

Flickr photos courtesy of Joi, David Makes and hyku.

December 28, 2008   3 Comments

Education – The Importance of Questioning the System

Ben Grey at The Edge of Tomorrow represents yet another of those educators rightfully questioning the system at hand. Offering some very interesting and heartfelt dialogue, Grey’s work immediately struck a cord with this writer.

Ben Grey Blog

Skill Limitations
A piece that essentially addresses the insidiousness of NCLB, “The Ability Paradigm,” resonated beginning with the very first sentence.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher more than anything in the world.”

Let me start by saying simply, “Me too.” One day I wanted to be the next Mickey Mantle. Another day, it was Willie Mays. But the desire to be a great baseball player and compete at the pro level was a constant for many years.

There was little league, Babe Ruth, middle school and high school. But unlike Ben, my career would come to an end at the high school level.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. And it wasn’t because of poor coaching.

It was because I had physical limitations. Occasionally it would all come together – like during an at bat when I would put a good swing on the ball and crank one into the alley for extra bases – or a time in the field when I would get a great jump on a line drive to left center, reel it in with an out-stretched glove, then turn and make an accurate throw to the cutoff man.

Billie / PartsnPiecesBut more often than not, the at bats would end in Ks and the drives to the outer-reaches of the outfield would fall beyond my grasp. And though I possessed a reasonably accurate arm, the subsequent throw to the cut off man, well let’s say he would have to give up his infield position if the ball were to reach him on the fly.

However, I must state that my lack of success on the athletic field did not go for naught – it taught me that with hard work I could in fact improve my skills. In fact, I learned quickly how hard I had to work to accomplish things with a ball and bat. And it also taught me humility – that is one benefit of learning one’s limitations.

In a positive twist for me, the opposite was true in the classroom. There I found that if I put my mind to things I could truly excel. But there in lies the real rub, at the time I could have cared less about academic excellence. I wanted to be an athlete.

Yet I know now, that my physical limitations helped me to become a much better teacher. I understood that one could try really hard and still not master something. I also understood that could very well happen even if a person was motivated to master a specific task.

At the risk of upsetting a few folks, I have learned there are some students in classrooms with intellectual limitations. That is not to say they cannot learn, they can – but it does mean there are limitations to what they can ultimately accomplish.

I have learned that no matter how hard they try, they may still not be able to handle every test question that comes their way. I also recognized how important motivation is in the equation. Without it, those intellectual challenges become even more of an issue.

So I too rail against NCLB and the notion of “Proficiency for All.” And I turn back to Ben, who writes:

“I believe we need to be very wary of setting up expectations that all students should be expected to perform and strive for the same goals. If we do, too many students will think themselves complete failures, and they will grow to resent learning.”

As to Grey’s ongoing look at education, we turn to a recent post, What If.

Ben Grey
“What if we stopped for just a moment, took a step back, and asked why?” asks Grey. “Why are we engaging in education the way we are right now? Why is it that the modern construct of education not only looks the way that it does, but why are we using it?

“Maybe a better way to frame this would be, if we were to stop and start over entirely, what would that look like?”

Coming on the heels of our recent interview with Ira David Socol we would answer: it would look nothing like what it does right now. The idea of assigning a student to a grade would hopefully end as would the simplistic notion that every child would progress equally over the course of a school year.

The concept of subjects would also get tossed, because in creating our subjects, we wrongfully insinuate that life can be broken into categories easily. Real learning is messy with topics overlapping one another.

And then there is this thing called technology. As Socol states, “Technology liberates, it breaks boundaries. You have a non-reader? They can still grab the world of literature, and do it independently.”

Technology would become our common thread – the machines helping students overcome limitations in one arena while allowing them to utilize strengths in another.

But as both Socol and Grey offer, we are stuck in our old paradigm of what education looked like in the past and continue to seek ways to mold our new orders into the structures we have held onto over the years.

BisonBlogPerhaps nothing speaks to this issue more than another Grey post, one on “Backchannels.”

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Grey offers this:

“A backchannel is ‘the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.’ In practice, it is simply a chat room established to carry on conversation during a presentation.”

A conversation during a presentation?

In the teacher training models of yesteryear we had a different name for this – off-task behavior. The view at the time is that students should sit quietly with unaltered focus so as to absorb all that was being offered.

Yet today everything points to the notion of collaboration – in fact, put adults in the same setting and they will often interact in some manner as they react to and raise questions about the material being presented.

Grey immediately acknowledges inherent risks in allowing students to use backchannels without providing some structure to the process.

“The concept of a backchannel has an inherent dual-edge sword nature to it. There is a distinct danger to utilizing a backchannel – if not executed in the right fashion, the distraction and bifurcation of attention can potentially lead to a complete dismissal of the content being presented at a given venue.”

In other words, the process can lead to what we were taught, off-task behavior.

Yet, there is also a different possibility.

“Allowing people to interact with each other and the information in a focused way affords participants the opportunity to learn more and focus more on the content,” states Grey. “Instead of sitting passively, succumbing to the temptation to take mental meanders, participating in a backchannel brings a collaborative element that actually increases mental attentiveness.”

Yet we think this is a possibility most educators are not yet ready to accept.

Rethinking Education
Wesley FryerReal structural changes in education, ones that will truly jump start teaching and learning will not be obtained by tinkering around the edges. And real, deep improvements in the system certainly won’t be accomplished by silly slogans like No Child Left Behind, sound-bites masquerading as educational reform.

But true education reform could come about if people begin paying attention to educators like Grey and Socol, educators who understand the power of technology to enhance learning for students. Educators who dare to dream of what is possible yet understand that flexibility and student-centered learning is the real way to move to forward.

Ben insists, he is “one of the many. The many who are looking for change. The many who are engaging in dynamic discussions. The many who think there could be more to the way we engage education.”

On behalf of the students of tomorrow, we truly hope Ben is not alone.

Flickr photos courtesy of Billie / PartsnPieces, Bisonblog, and Wesley Fryer.

December 14, 2008   1 Comment