Archive for ‘K-12 education’

July 21, 2014

Trends in public school funding

by Grace

After decades of increased public school funding, 2010 saw the beginning of a slight downward trend in per-pupil spending.

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… Adjusting for inflation and growth in student enrollment, spending fell every year from 2010 to 2012, even as costs for health care, pension plans and special education programs continued to rise faster than inflation.1 Urban districts have been particularly hard-hit by the cuts in federal education spending: Nearly 90 percent of big-city school districts spent less per student in 2012 than when the recession ended in 2009.

The recent cuts represent a sharp reversal after decades of rising U.S. education spending. In 1950, American school districts spent, on average, roughly $1,800 per student. Spending has risen nearly every year since then; by 2006-07, the last full school year before the recession, per-student spending was nearly $11,000. (Both figures have been adjusted for inflation.) The long increase reflected a range of factors, among them higher teacher salaries, broader curricular and extracurricular offerings, and, especially in recent years, increased spending on students with disabilities. Another major factor: smaller class sizes. In the 1950s, there were roughly 25 students for every teacher; by 2007, the ratio had fallen to 15.5-to-one.

The latest numbers show that the average student-teacher ratio in public schools is 16-to-one.

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Sources of public education funding   —   State: 45%    Local: 45%    Federal: 10%

More details about trends in public school spending can be found in Public Education Finances: 2012, published earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Ben Casselman, “Public Schools Are Hurting More in the Recovery Than in the Recession”, FiveThirtyEight, June 10, 2014.

July 10, 2014

The rise and fall of sentence diagramming

by Grace

The sentence diagramming method once popular in American public schools was developed in the 1870s.

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For a long time, sentence diagramming flourished throughout the American school system, and, despite being condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Indeed, it spread well beyond the USA, and so a very similar system is taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the United Kingdom). For example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children’s analyses in a working tree-bank of analyzed sentences.

I learned sentence diagramming when I attended Catholic elementary school, but I doubt any local schools are using it today.

Besides teaching grammar in a fun way (at least for some), diagramming sentences may offer the benefit of teaching how to pull clarity from the chaos”.

What Diagramming Teaches Us

When Joseph R. Mallon Jr. bumps up against a complex problem, he thinks back to a lesson he learned in high school from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

The Philadelphia-area school’s Catholic nuns taught him the art of diagramming a sentence. Once all the parts of speech lined up, Mallon pulled clarity from the chaos. It’s a process he uses today to tackle tough issues as chief executive and chairman of Measurement Specialties Inc.

“Sit down quietly. Take (the issue) apart into its component parts. Make sure all the components fit together well. They’ve got to be well chosen, fit together and make sense. There are few (business) problems that can’t be solved that way, as dire as it might seem,” Mallon said. “Sentence diagramming is one of the best analytical techniques I ever learned.”

Investor’s Business Daily
17 October 2000

An online parser applied to one of my sentences generated this diagram:

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Even with my foggy understanding, I can see how diagramming helps in learning parts of speech and syntax.  The online tool is interactive, and provides parts of speech terminology for every word in the sentence.  It makes some mistakes, but it looks like a neat tool to use for reviewing sentence structure.  Unfortunately it does not accept pasted text.

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Richard Hudson, “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences”, Slate, January 2, 2014.

July 4, 2014

Executive function skills suffer when kids are over-scheduled

by Grace

The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

Unsupervised playtime may benefit the development of executive function.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

This may help explain the recent rise in diagnosed ADHD cases.  The structured lives of our children — including play dates, day care, and summer camp — is quite different from the mostly unscheduled days of youngsters growing up even 20 years ago.  Could it be that they’re missing out on an important developmental process?

Starting at about age seven or eight I spent lots of time unsupervised by adults, although there were usually older kids around.  During the summer I kept busy riding my bike, going to the library, playing with Barbie dolls, swimming at the neighborhood pool, hanging out with friends, watching TV, and doing other similar self-directed activities.

Ann Althouse had a similar childhood.

When I was a kid, virtually all time not spent in school or sleeping and eating was free play time. Nobody ever spoke of “executive function” or projected developmental improvements of any kind….

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Jessica Lahey, “Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School”, The Atlantic, June 20, 2014.

July 2, 2014

Never mind selective colleges, the US military may not accept you either

by Grace

Do you think enrolling in the military after high school might be a viable option instead of college?  Think again.

More than two-thirds of America’s youth would fail to qualify for military service because of physical, behavioral or educational shortcomings, posing challenges to building the next generation of soldiers even as the U.S. draws down troops from conflict zones.

Obesity is the biggest reason, but rejection can take many other forms.

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This is worrisome, but not completely surprising:

About a quarter of high-school graduates also can’t pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures math and reading skills, Gen. Youngman said. “They aren’t educationally qualified to join the military in any capacity, not just the high-tech jobs,” he said.

Tattoos have become so common that I would not be surprised to see that rule change soon.

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Miriam Jordan, “Recruits’ Ineligibility Tests the Military”, Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2014.

June 27, 2014

Even in affluent areas, many high school graduates are not ready for college

by Grace

Even in one of the most prosperous and highly educated counties in the United States, less than half of high school graduates are ready for college.

Only 48% of Westchester County high school graduates are prepared to do college-level work.  This measure is based on students scoring “at least 75 on their English Regents exam and at least 80 on a math Regents exam”.

For my local high school, located in Westchester County, 64% of graduates are considered college ready.  This is a school district that spends about $25,000 per student each year and enjoys a student/teacher ratio of 14:1.

Using AP participation figures, US News determined that my local high school has a College Readiness Index of 44.5

On a national basis “SAT scores indicate ‘most freshmen aren’t academically prepared for college’”, so it appears this problem is not limited to high schools near me.

Are these college readiness numbers surprising?  Should they be higher, given the resources being devoted to education?  Or is it unrealistic to expect higher percentages of college-ready high school graduates, even in some of the most affluent areas of the country?

Some possible reasons for the low number of high school graduates who are prepared to do college-level work:

  1. The measures are flawed and do not give an accurate representation.
  2. Teaching and/or curriculum is mediocre, or worse.
  3. Schools do no place sufficient focus on academic goals, specifically on preparing students for college.
  4. We’re not spending enough on education.
  5. The money we spend on education is used inefficiently.
  6. No matter the demographics and despite how much a school tries, a certain percentage of high school graduates will never be ready for college work.
  7. “Kids these days.”
  8. Parents are not doing enough to support their children’s education.

I dismiss the first reason listed, having some familiarity with the New York State tests used to measure college readiness.  A high school student on the college-prep track should definitely be able to meet the scores required.  These tests are notoriously easy and/or graded on a very forgiving curve.

Achievement levels do not correlate closely with money spent on education, so I cannot see #4 being an important reason.

The rest of the listed reasons probably play some role in creating the disappointingly low college-readiness figures.  In theory, schools have the most control over remedying reasons 2, 3, and 5.  In practice, most experiments innovations that schools implement only seem to make things worse.

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Gary Stern and Dwight Worley, “Local high school grads not up to more ambitious state goals”, The Journal News, June 23, 2014.

Graduation Rate Data – June 23, 2014, New York State Education Department

June 26, 2014

More students are receiving special accommodations for SAT and ACT tests

by Grace

Some recent numbers show the increase in students receiving special accommodations for SAT and ACT testing.

During the 2010-11 school year, 5 percent of all test takers were provided with some feature that was intended to adapt the test to their needs, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said, compared with 3.5 percent of test takers in the 2007-08 school year.

The numbers of requests have been rising among SAT takers, too, along with an increase in test takers overall. Once students are approved for an accommodation, they don’t have to reapply. Of new requests—almost 80,000 during the 2010-11 school year, compared with 10,000 fewer five years earlier—about 85 percent are approved, said Kathleen Steinberg, the spokeswoman for the College Board. The ACT said roughly 90 percent of requests made are granted.

Rich kids are more likely to receive accommodations.

Controversy has swirled for years about which students deserve special help. A 2000 California audit concluded that those getting college entrance testing accommodations “were disproportionately white, or were more likely to come from an affluent family or to attend a private school.”

More than a decade later, the Tribune’s review of data obtained under open records laws indicates that’s true in Illinois, where the percentage of test takers with accommodations doubled the national average.

Schools in wealthy enclaves with predominantly white students were at the top of the list when it comes to students getting ACT testing accommodations in Illinois, the 2011 data show.

A recent report from the General Accountability Office found that testing for qualifying disabilities “can cost from $500 to $9,000″.  Wealthy families can afford to pay these costs when the schools will not.  They also tend to have the expertise and money to force schools to pay for legally required testing.

One local affluent school district recently had a long list of applications for accommodations that was waiting to be submitted, probably typical for high-income locales.

The most commonly requested accommodation is extended time, but some others include “a quiet testing room, a reader or a scribe, enlarged print test booklets and/or answer keys, the use of a computer, additional or extended breaks, and multiple-day testing on the ACT”

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Nirvi Shah, “More Students Receiving Accommodations During ACT, SAT”, Education Week, May 14, 2012.

 Diane Rado, “Many Illinois high school students get special testing accommodations for ACT”, Chicago Tribune,  April 29, 2012.

Jed Applerouth, “SAT and ACT Accommodations”, Independent Educational Consultants Association, April 9, 2014.

June 12, 2014

Hochman Method prepares students for college by teaching how ‘to think and write clearly’

by Grace

Want Students to Succeed in College? Teach Them to Write in K-12

A new nonprofit has the potential to profoundly improve educational outcomes —including college completion— for low-income students. Called The Writing Revolution, the organization exists for one simple and powerful purpose: to teach K-12 children to think and write clearly.

Teaching kids to write seems like a universal goal of our educational system. Yet it is not being met. Millions of students are graduating from high school lacking this fundamental skill.

In fact, 3 out of 4 U.S. high school seniors cannot write coherent sentences or paragraphs, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). More specifically, NAEP results show that only 24 percent of 12th graders demonstrate “the ability to accomplish the communicative purpose of their writing.”

The fact that 76 percent of our high school seniors cannot effectively communicate in writing is inextricably linked to our nation’s abysmally low college readiness and completion rates.

The Writing Revolution is based on a method of writing instruction developed for learning-disabled students by Judith Hochman.

A “consistent and structured” approach

Hochman had a strong hunch that the same things that made her method so effective for learning-disabled students could also help students from lower-income families. Both groups often lack the rich linguistic skills needed to inform their written expression. As such, both groups can benefit immensely from consistent and structured exposure to the building blocks of language use.

Sentence composition is at the core of the Hochman Method of writing instruction.

… students learn that what words they use matter, and so does the order in which they use them.  With enough practice, virtually every student who uses Hochman’s method gets better at turning words into meaningful sentences. Students then learn to use conjunctions and clauses to expand those sentences and make them more information-rich.

Over time students learn to combine these information-rich sentences into paragraphs, and their paragraphs into essays.  In that process, students learn to recognize what information is most salient to an argument, to take effective notes on what they hear and read, and to create complex outlines of their ideas.  The Hochman Method enables students to constantly hone skills that are extremely relevant to academic success in K-12 and in college classrooms.

The program is being piloted in four Washington DC public schools, with initial reports calling it a transformative process.

I believe most students from all levels of income and ability could benefit from a  “consistent and structured” approach like the Hochman Method, particularly after having observed “so many approaches used and so much time wasted in our public schools’ writing curriculum”,

Related:

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Jennifer Wheary, “Want Students to Succeed in College? Teach Them to Write in K-12″, SparkAction, June 2, 2014.

May 30, 2014

Public schools administrative bloat

by Grace

Over the last 40 years, K-12 administrative staff has grown at more than twice the rate of teaching staff and over fifteen times the rate of student enrollment.

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So far, we have not seen a cause-and-effect relationship between increased spending on administrators and higher test scores.

If academic achievement on the NAEP is any measure, the policies of the past half century just aren’t working.

… The new NAEP scores confirm the outcomes found on the NAEP long-term-trend assessment, which has assessed reading achievement since 1971 and math achievement since 1973. Twelfth graders today perform no better in reading than high school seniors of the early 1970s.

Related:  “Public school administration staff surges in growth while test scores plunge” (Cost of College)

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Lindsey Burke, “Education Spending Is Up, Test Scores Aren’t. Who’s to Blame?”, The Foundry, May 18, 2014.

May 28, 2014

American teens are not interested in summer jobs

by Grace

Fewer teens are working.

… In 1978, nearly three in four teenagers (71.8%) ages 16 to 19 held a summer job, but as of last year, only about four in 10 teens did, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the month of July analyzed by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas . It’s been a steady decline, seen even during good times: During the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, when national unemployment was only about 4%, roughly six in 10 teens held summer jobs….

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And they are not very interested in getting jobs. Only 8.3% of teens who were not working last summer said they even wanted a job.

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This doesn’t mean that teens are simply tanning by the pool or binge-watching Bravo (though some certainly are). Challenger says that many teens are in summer school (rates of summer school attendance are at one of the highest levels ever, he says), volunteering, doing extracurricular activities to pad their college applications and trying out unpaid internships. And all of these are worthwhile endeavors (well, minus the tanning and Bravo), especially as it becomes more competitive to get into many elite colleges.

Lack of work experience can be a disadvantage.

That said, experts say that paid work has value for a number of reasons — and that teens (even those who plan to go to college) who don’t do it may be at a disadvantage. “It’s critical for teenagers to work, to begin to understand the working world, the value of a paycheck” says Gene Natali, co-author of “The Missing Semester” and a senior vice president at Pittsburgh investment firm C.S. McKee. “Choosing not to work a paid job has consequences.”

The good old days?

One of my older relatives had a job in high school delivering both the morning and afternoon newspapers.  He and a friend would rise early each day to roll up and deliver papers before their first class, and then repeat the routine after school.  He was also in the school band, played varsity tennis, and maintained good grades, clearly demonstrating he was able to manage his time effectively.  A generation or two later, it’s hard to imagine many kids successfully maintaining a similar schedule of activities. Many of them need reminders to take their Adderal in the morning, and think they are too busy for a part-time job.  Maybe my relative was a remarkable young man, but many of his peers also worked during high school.

Times have changed.  Expectations have changed.  Kids have changed.

Related:  “Teens are too busy preparing for college instead of working” (Cost of College)

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Catey Hill, “American teens don’t want to work”, MarketWatch, May 3, 2014.

‘Teen Summer Job Outlook Teen Employment Culd Remain Flat as More Say “Nah” to Summer Jobs’,  Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., April 28, 2014.

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May 22, 2014

‘we do not know how to teach character’

by Grace

We don’t know how to teach character, and we should be wary of grading students on their character.

Teaching students “grit” and other character traits seems to be all the rage in K-12 education.  New York and other states actually mandate character education in public schools, with sometimes clumsy attempts to weave this instruction into academic content courses.  Education professor Jeffrey Aaron Snyder sees problems with these efforts, a primary one being that “we do not know how to teach character”

There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character. “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.” We may discover that the most “desirable” character traits are largely inherited; stubbornly resistant to educational interventions; or both. We already know that grit is strongly correlated with “conscientiousness,” one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists view as stable and hereditary. A recent report emphasizes that simply “knowing that noncognitive factors matter is not the same as knowing how to develop them in students.” The report concludes that “clear, actionable strategies for classroom practice” are few and far between. Consider the fact that the world’s “grittiest” students, including Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.

How do you grade a student’s character?

Character education becomes an even more problematic issue when a significant component of grading is based on character.  It’s bad enough that there’s “no science of teaching character”, but it gets worse when teachers are giving grades on a such traits as a student’s effort, enthusiasm, curiosity, or gratitude.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Please stick to academic outputs when grading my child in school.

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