What’s a “Microcredential?” No one seems to know, but everybody wants them.

"Study" by Kevin McShane

We don’t teach teachers to teach in the manner that we know learners learn. It reads like a typo, but the problem is as simple as that.

Cognitive psychology is clear about the manner in which children and adults learn. Humans are not blank slates, as was once argued. Rather, we know that individuals reflect on confusing phenomena they observe. They gather data, form hypotheses and test those hypotheses. They discuss their observations and ideas with others to gain multiple perspectives. When a hypothesis checks out, they adopt it as a theory and begin to build schema and conceptual frames that explain how related phenomena function. As their expertise grows, they form linkages between those conceptual frames.

Yet, we still teach as though individuals learn by listening to lectures. We teach as though all students have experienced the same things at the same time, and in the same ways. We still teach as if all the learners in a classroom are there for the same reasons and need the same knowledge.

Learning is more effective and fruitful if we take the lessons of modern cognitive psychology, and teach students they way they naturally learn, customizing lessons to the needs and experiences of individual students.

The currently emerging online platforms are poised to enable a revolutionary change in the ways we implement teacher education. It is for the first time in my decade and a half as a classroom teacher, teacher educator, and education researcher, possible to optimize the learning experience to not just match what is possible in a conventional classroom, but actually surpass it. In my experience, when taught with these methods, students respond with engagement and curiosity, and learn more effectively.

Using these methods I have seen students take risks, and feel ownership for their learning in ways that are unparalleled in the traditional high school or college environment. My students have reported that they are intrinsically motivated to participate in online coursework. While they may not use terminology like “intrinsic motivation,” what they describe about their learning experience conveys precisely that. When reflecting on a well-designed hybrid online course, students describe their desire for knowledge; the clarity they gained about the applications of knowledge; their total loss of a sense of time while they followed a thread of thought around curated sources on the internet for hours on end.

My ambition is to extend these online learning techniques to current classroom teachers. It is a professional and personal goal of mine to prepare teachers to recognize the individuality of students in their classroom, and to aspire to be more than lecturers. Yet, the obstacles to achieving this goal are numerous and deeply entrenched.

In various roles in multiple organizations I have witnessed two different avenues of teachers’ professional learning, and I see a clear path for a third way. Here, I lay out the challenges in these two conventional avenues of professional learning and development, and describe how they will be eclipsed by a high-quality, online microcredentialing environment.

In my role as a faculty member at Saint Anselm College, where we prepare teachers for the classroom, I have used flipped classroom environments to train preservice teachers to design curriculum and assessments rooted in an inquiry approach to learning. Students understand that a foundational objective of the class is to design student-centered curriculum, in which teachers’ set goals and objectives for students that require individually tailored activities and assessments. This approach to curriculum design requires teachers to meet students where they are in the classroom, and to scaffold learning experiences that will allow students to realize his or her particular ambitions while simultaneously demonstrating mastery of clearly defined competencies.

When students leave the class, and the program for that matter, they are prepared to teach ambitiously and with individual students’ needs in mind. However, the dominant teaching culture – to which those novice teachers were exposed through their own P-12 experience, and into which they will return as practicing professionals – is saturated with a traditional, transmissionist pedagogy. Studies of the socialization process for novice teachers demonstrate time and again that the pressure to return to a transmissionist stance typically overwhelms even the most ambitious graduate.

To exacerbate the situation, the typical “in-service,” professional development model can replicate this transmissionist stance. Workshops follow a predictable approach: Teachers gather in the audience where they remain seated throughout the day to listen to presenters describe their experience in the classroom. While nearly 100% of teachers engage in up to 30 hours of professional development a year, only a small minority of those teachers report satisfaction with development workshops (Grunwald Associates, LLC & Digital Promise, 2015).

In this fully uninspiring environment of teacher socialization and professional development, it doesn’t take a leap in logic to understand why teaching practices have changed so little over the last 150 years.

In my role as an inaugural trustee for the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education and as the principal investigator for a community grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, I have had several opportunities to design and execute professional development experiences for local history, social studies and civics teachers. We have worked hard in planning sessions to create experiences that break that mold, and which allow teachers to engage with and explore new material. To assess the quality of the workshops, teachers are asked to design lesson plans, in which teachers illustrate how they will integrate these new activities in their practice. A simple guideline for the lesson is that it must include the content of the professional development, and it must include inquiry-based activities that students can engage in. (Read: NO lecture!) The ultimate performance assessment for teachers is to actually observe teachers applying new learning in practice. This assessment model does not reach that gold standard, but it does provide an example of a promising practice that comes close.

Still, even in light of our efforts to have teachers apply new learning in practice, we also know that in service days like ours have a short shelf life. This is due to the “drive by” nature of the workshop. In other words, teachers come and go from these “one-off” development workshops. Without networking the teachers, without creating a community of inquiry, without follow-on communications and designing subsequent development opportunities with feedback from prior participants in mind, the new strategies gained in the workshop quickly fade with time.

We cannot logically demand access for students to a tailored education that meets their authentic and individual needs without first revolutionizing how teachers are trained, and how they think about teaching.

Geographically independent, asynchronous online microcredentials offer a third avenue for professional development and will mitigate many of these problems by providing lasting, meaningful content. Critical to this effort will be engaging leading thinkers in education who can consolidate knowledge from the fields of cognitive psychology, curriculum design and assessment, and instructional technology including digital platforms. An effort like this must also harness the content knowledge and expertise of leading teacher educators in critical shortage fields as well as those dedicated to working with high need populations. A leader on this project must also possess a deep and integrated understanding of the structures higher education and professional development, and local, state and national policies that govern teacher learning and licensure. In my analysis of this fluid but rapidly expanding industry, I have not identified an existing model for online microcredentialing that meets this high bar or integrates knowledge from these divergent fields.

Certainly, we know of several interfaces that provide online learning opportunities at low or no cost including Kahn Academy, Udemy, Lynda.com, EdX and Coursera. A survey of the MOOC offerings through these well-known platforms will quickly generate the conclusion that these spaces aren’t designed for educators who wish to improve their pedagogical practice. Rather, these sites largely serve the scientific and technological industries. Digital Promise and similar organizations are building a comprehensive and diverse online platform, but the buy-in from teachers hasn’t been significant. Something is missing.

In a recent study of a representative sample of teachers, Grunwald Associates, LLC and Digital Promise found that early adapters of online microcredentialing are open to using this system as a way to improve their teaching. However, their findings also suggest that teachers question both the credibility of the staff that design the curriculum as well as those evaluating the teachers’ work. Participants in the study, though intrinsically motived by the desire for more knowledge and better teaching, wondered how “badges” and “microcredentials” displayed on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages would garner the recognition the teacher desires and deserves for their efforts. State credentialing agencies in New Hampshire and other New England states have yet to respond meaningfully to the call to formally recognize teachers’ work on microcredential programs. Digital Promise is on the leading edge of the work to consolidate learning tasks, but we can also learn from the challenges that this business has faced and seek innovative ways to address those challenges.

First, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to standardize the language of “microcredentialing.” In traditional teacher education programs, the coursework and clinical hours required to earn an endorsement for a teaching credential are relatively uniform. By referencing a “credential,” whether “micro” or otherwise, the online microcredentialing industry is promising something that it seems ill equipped to deliver. The online microcredentialing industry must network with state education agencies to determine what commitment and what display of competency should be required of teachers to earn a “microcredential,” and this “microcredential” must translate to something meaningful and more precise with the credentialing agency. For example, to earn a teaching credential, typical teachers must complete an accredited teacher education program, pass the requisite state sanctioned high-stakes exams, undergo a background check and complete an application with the state. The component that calls for a completion of an accredited teacher education program alone requires several semesters of coursework where one course typically implies 120 hours of student work. Meanwhile, the “microcredentials” offered on Digital Promise take fewer than two hours to complete. There seems to be a mismatch in work demand and measures of mastery.

Second, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to diminish the variability in quality in the coursework offered. In my market research, I dug deeply into online offerings of various institutions and online companies that are gaining traction in my home state of New Hampshire. In my quest to determine who was designing and executing these online microcredential and professional development opportunities, I was surprised to discover that I could rarely determine who authored the content. In the instances where I could determine who authored the content, I was similarly surprised to find that it was not authored by teacher educators or education researchers. In other words, while the authors of this content may be highly regarded practitioners in classrooms, there was little to suggest that the pedagogical techniques they conveyed are evidenced-based. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire alone I could name highly regarded teacher educators who have been designing inquiry-based, evidence-driven coursework and training programs for teachers for decades. Why are these expert faculty members not solicited to generate content for online microcredentials?

Third, a robust online microcredentialing program must offer module templates that reflect what we know about how people learn. As detailed at the outset of this letter, cognitive psychologist and education researchers know quite a lot about how people learn – despite what we typically see in classrooms. We know that best teaching begins with the teacher identifying what his or her students already know, and then using students’ prior learning and experiences as a springboard to further learning. The teacher can curate sources of new information that provide scaffolds for students to acquire new knowledge and demonstrate new competencies. Students’ capacity to transfer and enact that new knowledge must be assessed by the teacher. My traditional and online course design has followed these guidelines for years. Yet in an examination of the assessments of current models of online microcredentialing, the assessment process appears quite uneven. While I commend current models that require participants in the module to demonstrate their knowledge on performance assessment, a lingering question for me is, “Who is determining what mastery looks like for this assessment?” To put the question in the language of a student, “Who is correcting my work, and how do I know they know what they’re doing?” This model goes beyond the transmissionist, one-way-street model of platforms like Lynda.com (which only provide the content to students) by trying to mimic the dialogical nature of the teacher student relationship. However, it stops short of more ambitious models in the sense that these offerings are unable or unwilling to guarantee the credibility of the assessor. Additionally, we know that when a teacher provides timely, direct and standards based feedback students have more opportunity to reach mastery. No models exist online where the back-and-forth conversation between student and teacher are present and sustainable.

Finally, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to leverage existing educator networks to identify common challenges with professional learning, and to develop innovative solutions which address those challenges and work to scale the service. Teachers want professional development that helps them answer the question, “What can I use in my classroom right now strengthen my content knowledge and enhance my pedagogical technique?” When teachers find professional development offerings that work for them, they naturally return to those sources for more, and the word spreads. Currently, New Hampshire finds itself in a position unlike any other state. All of the institutions of higher education that prepare teachers have voluntarily joined forces with the aim of improving teaching quality, and the equitable distribution of quality teachers in the state. During my time as the Secretary of the New Hampshire Institutes of Higher Education Network, it has become increasingly clear that this network needs an institution-independent platform to serve as a warehouse of content, training and resources for our region’s classroom teachers. Many of the teacher educators in this network have been training teachers for decades in the state. Their professional networks of practicing classroom teachers are experientially varied and geographically vast. Classroom teachers in New Hampshire are loyally connected to the programs that prepared them. Leveraging these existing networks through an online microcredentialing program is a first step to expanding these programs to scale.

It will take significant resources to realize these short and long term goals. A successful initiative must acknowledge the ongoing technological requirements for hosting a healthy online microcredentialing environment including costs to host the platform, the platform itself (e.g. Moodle or Coursera), the requisite storage for multiple media sources like video, infographics, sound and image files; and plugins to enhance user experiences and interactivity (e.g. Zoom, )

Though these technological costs are diverse and revolving, they are minimal compared to the investment an initiative like this requires in people power. Short-term goals like developing an interface with user experience design will require contracts with graphic designers and instructional technology experts. Developing a single module, stack and microcredential series requires contracts with experts in course management systems to ensure that course designers will be able to sequence their content and customize their modules with standard and emergent technologies contemporary students have come to expect.

Long-term goals including building and diversifying microcredential offerings require contracting with content area experts including course buy-outs or stipends for university faculty by module. Videographers will need to be hired and software procured (e.g. Camtasia or Canvas) to enable content authors to establish an online presence with their students. Administrative costs for this endeavor are extensive and include everything from pulling copyrights for supporting course texts to issuing acknowledgements that participants in the modules have demonstrate competencies. Leadership on this initiative will require at the very least summer salaries for professors, consulting costs to exchange ideas about design and development with intellectual property and contract lawyers (whose content is this?), business consultants (how do we market and scale our site), state education policy actors (how can we get teachers the recognition they deserve through the credentialing process).

Support from foundations to achieve these short and long term goals is crucial. In the absence of this support, individuals, agencies and businesses will continue to shape and define the nature of online professional learning opportunities for teachers. What is missing in this equation is the input, guidance and innovation of education researchers and teacher educators who have the content knowledge, the pedagogical expertise and the established networks to bring demands of high quality to this initiative. In the industries of higher education and online learning, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can continue to reproduce online faulty assumptions about how people learn and, it follows, how one should teach online. Or, we can recognize the convergence of research and capacity to scale online is presenting us with an opportunity to not just replicate what we have always done, but to surpass that work in a virtual environment. With help, we can work to teach teachers to teach in a way that reflects what we know about how learners learn.



The Best of the “Best Schools” Ratings

Juan Salmoral_Hogwarts

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer about what parents read it is that, most of the time, it has to do with the question starter “Where do I find the best…?”

Parents, I am right there with you. I love lists – the shorter the better – and ideally with pictures.

So, here’s a meta-exercise. Let’s rank school rankings.

Methodology? Ugh!

Parents are busy people who care about getting their children the “best.” We want to find out where the “best” is, how much the “best” will cost, and how can we can get the “best” at the best price. Parents want the data quickly, and they want the data in a pre-chewed fashion. These are just a few simple reasons why lists work.

But, not all school rankings are created equally. In fact, they’re extraordinarily unequal. As parents, we often put far too much faith in the idea that other people, or “experts,” know best about what’s best.

Here’s the thing: They don’t because they’re not usually experts.

The trouble is that in order to understand how these sources generate their lists, you need someone to give a darn about the study’s methodology. But, ugh…who wants to do that?

I am such a person.

It has forever bothered me that school rankings are based on one or two-dimensional statistics such as the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in the school like the Daily Beast’s list (pre-2014), or average scores on state-mandated tests like Great Schools, and School Diggeror combination of similar metrics like the US News and World Report Best High Schools list.

These rankings are seriously limited because the methodologies are seriously flawed.

Curious Measures of School Quality

First, who determined that those factors make a school “the best?” Basing school ratings on advanced placement classes matters very little and tells parents even less about the quality of a school when their child doesn’t qualify. Even when they do qualify to take the class, odds are against them that they will earn a high enough score on the AP test to “place out” of first-year college coursework anyway.

Only 20% high school graduates, or about 607,000 students, earned a “3” or higher on an AP exam in 2013. Remember, since America only graduates about 80% of students from high school, this means that only one-fifth of that 80% of high school students take and pass an AP exam.

This article in the Atlantic exposed the ratings machine as “meaningless,” and issued a full-out take down of AP as signifying anything but the antithesis of quality and rigor. The author notes these classes are typically about memorization and regurgitation rather than critical reading, reflection, analysis or synthesis – the high-leverage skills of a quality education. (For a counter-point on AP check out this article by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post.)

At the same time, the Atlantic article credited these organizations for making slight but important adjustments to their measurements:

To their credit, US News and Newsweek/Daily Beast, which also use AP and IB courses as a measure, have made their rankings more sophisticated and reasonable by also adding other measures of a school’s quality, such as graduation rates and college-acceptance rates, and performance on state accountability tests and the proficiency rates of a school’s least advantaged students on those tests.

Despite these amendments, the measures are flawed for the simple reason that they don’t help parents make informed decisions about where to buy a home to start their family. Young families want to know where to find the best Kindergarten. These parents realize the first years in elementary school are crucial. High school is nearly a decade away.

Are We Just Looking at Rankings of the Richest Districts?

Second, these rankings identify “best” schools where very few middle class Americans can afford to buy a home.

If you’ve ever read any of my previous blog posts, or if you follow these rankings and school data at all, you know that school performance is typically in direct relationship to the wealth of the school district. Put another way, wealth and poverty matter.

Newsweek’s recently released high school rankings (again limited geographically to participating schools and limited to averages on standardized tests) have taken to creating two different school rankings. They clarify:

The question, “What are the best schools?” has two different answers depending on whether or not student poverty is taken into account. In an effort to address the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on education, Newsweek is publishing two lists: our “absolute” list and … our “relative” list, which ranks schools based on performance while also controlling for student poverty rates.

If you’re someone who prioritizes having your children attend a public school with other children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, or if you’re like a friend of mine who doesn’t want to “raise a child who is afraid of poor people,” you might want to know how a school performs regardless of what’s in the savings accounts of the parents who send their children to school there.

What are the “Best Metrics” for Measuring “Best Schools?”

Finally, these rankings are flawed because they mask so many indicators of quality that families and educators should prioritize.

There are many metrics that can tell you how well a school is performing just as well or better than standardized test scores. For example, many people might want to know how parents review the school, school safety in the district, the budgeting track record of administrators, the quality of the teaching force, or the size and diversity of the district.

So, drumroll please. Here is the shortlist of the best of the best school ratings that manages to do all that:

  1. Niche
  2. See above
  3. Sorry, that’s probably the only one, but I’m still looking.

Niche Rankings

Why Niche Wins

Niche has five winning features, and I can express them in a quick list too:

  1. They employ expert statisticians who
  2. draw from a fantastically rich dataset (NCES)
  3. to identify, cluster and weight important indicators
  4. with very little over-emphasis on any single indicator, and
  5. provide tools to parents on their website to dig and play in the data.

I’ll say more about each of these indicators and what they mean in a future blog post, and since you’re likely scurrying off to explore Niche’s ratings and rankings, I won’t say very much about Niche’s methodology either. Suffice it to say any group that references Bayesian probability and their subsequent weighting decisions in it’s How do we Compute our Rankings” section is an outlier among these groups in terms of their attention to detail.

I could deconstruct any list of “the best,” but if you’re looking for a fast source with interesting and accessible data, Niche is the best of the best.

When Teachers Strike

Photo by Ben Sutherland

I am torn on teachers’ unions.

As a first year teacher in Connecticut, I resented being compelled to pay over $700 in yearly union dues, but within two years I was the building representative for our districts’ teaching association. Even as a rep, I still felt torn on two union mainstays: teacher tenure and the threat of strikes.

On reflection, I realize my distrust of unions stems from two things. First, teachers unions do sometimes defend pretty lackluster teaching. Frankly, I find that deplorable. Second, my knee-jerk response is to buy the anti-union rhetoric. I suspect the standard anti-union zingers resonate with many other Americans as well.

Yet, as I watch a contract dispute unfold in my state’s biggest public school district, it is clear that, though intuitively easy to buy into, the anti-union rhetoric is based on some seriously misguided perceptions of teachers’ work.

These misperceptions must be considered before any parent or community member can meaningfully comment on union activity.

Misguided Perceptions of Teaching

It doesn’t take much to find examples of wrong-headed beliefs about teaching. If you follow any headline story about teachers’ union activity, a quick scroll through the “comments” sections will yield some pretty consistent messaging.

  • Teachers’ salaries are already bloated. How dare they negotiate for raises?
  • Our district just negotiated a new contract. Why are teachers asking for more?
  • Teachers should be there for our children, and not there to “line their pockets.”
  • Teachers should only get raises if their students perform well.
  • The teachers’ union is threatening to strike when our children need them most. Why did the teachers wait until the eleventh hour to make this an issue?

And the most seriously misguided sentiment:

  • Teachers get several vacations throughout the school year. They have a two-month break over the summer, and work six hours a day. Part-time pay for part-time work is fair.

On first blush, it would be easy to buy into all of these popular sentiments. Though, all of them are mostly wrong.

An 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock workday? Yes, I’ll have what they’re having.

My suspicion is that most of the American public bases their understanding of the work of teachers on their experiences with teachers when they were children in school. Beyond this first hand experience with teachers, many Americans don’t think very hard about the true work of teaching unless they live with a teacher or they are one.

For example, if my students’ perceptions about what I did during the school day were true, I would be sleeping on a cot in the broom closet in my classroom, and my life would be sustained through a steady diet of apples and chalk dust.

Okay, that’s overstating it, but students were always shocked when they saw me eating real food in the cafeteria, and let’s not even mention what happened when they saw me in public. All this is to say students give little thought to what goes into teaching, especially when they are not sitting in a classroom.

I liken assumptions about “knowing what it means to teach” to going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite dish and deciding – as you wait for then devour your meal – that you know what it means to be chef.

Clearly, when that dish is presented to you, you know very little about the ingredients, the preparation, the cook time, the training or the thought that went into that dish. The same can be said for students in a classroom. You are only consuming the finished product of teaching.

Teachers work much longer than six hours a day. Six hours a day is the amount of time teachers spend with your children. Six hours a day is the amount of time it takes for teachers to present their fully-cooked dishes to students.

The six-hours-a-day calculation leaves out the “cook time” that went into lesson planning, their assessment of students’ performance and feedback, the continuous training and professional development, the committee work and communication with parents. Let us also consider the constant preparation, clean-up and organization of materials that classroom teachers manage every day, all day. (Those lima beans didn’t count themselves into those twenty-five little plastic Dixie cups, kid!)

Teachers’ work day starts well before the school day begins (which is earlier and earlier every year). Teachers’ calendar year also starts well before the school year begins as teachers prepare the classroom for the school year, and they’re there well after the school year ends writing reports, debriefing and unpacking the school year, and making plans for the next one to come. That two-month summer vacation is something your children enjoy, not their teachers.

Work to Rule

Union activity doesn’t happen out of nowhere, either. There are many activities a union might engage in well before they resort to a strike. Before a teachers’ union strikes, they might call for a “work to rule.” In a nutshell, “work to rule” means that the teachers voice their grievances by refusing to work beyond the terms and conditions outlined by the previous contract.

This means teachers may be asked by the union not to return to the classroom earlier than they are required to set up for the school year. Teachers might be asked to be at the school and in the classroom the minimum required time of the school day. They will be asked to refrain from purchasing equipment for the classroom with their own money (about $500 per teacher amounting to billions of dollars a year across the nation). 

In other words, work to rule means the community gets what they’re paying for, which is far less than the bargain many communities usually get out of teachers.

For teachers who typically work far and above the terms of their contract, a work to rule order represents a significant change in their pre-school-year practice, and is emotionally difficult for many dedicated teachers. When you think of the things that these teachers are not doing to prepare for and serve their students, it is clear a work to rule order makes their workday much more difficult.

The truth is that it is hard to know how many teachers actually carry out the work to rule even if they say they will.

For example, that same school district that is now embroiled in the contract dispute I spoke of earlier has experienced work to rule orders before. During a work to rule order a few years back, the district changed busing companies to cut costs. As an outcome of serious mismanagement, the busing company failed to pickup children on time from school to be bussed home. Several teachers told me that they violated the work to rule order by waiting in their classroom with the children for the bus to come until after four o’clock pm.

You ask, “Yes, but what cruel and heartless teacher could leave a group of scared and abandoned 8-year-olds in the classroom unattended to comply with a work to rule order?”

The answer is very few if any of them.

So, a work to rule order in a district that is regularly mismanaging funds and contracting mediocre services for children isn’t a very effective tactic.

The Long and Winding Path of a Failed Teaching Contract

Teaches strike out of desperation when all other avenues have failed, but even then their efforts are often in vain. This is because teachers can’t win the media war when they’re out of their classrooms and picketing in the streets. When there is even the threat of such an activity, the anti-union rhetoric and false assumptions quickly kick in.

The irony as I see it is that the media glare focuses only on the teachers’ actions and spares not even a second to consider the role played by community leaders, like mayors, who may share responsibility for failed union contracts.

So, I’ll offer a bit here on the anatomy of contract negotiations, but with the caveat that my experience is limited.

Teachers typically negotiate a “master contract” with the municipality or the district every few years. This is known as collective bargaining and it happens again and again because, written in the terms of the contract is the contract’s own expiration date.

There are many people involved in contract negotiations including the mayor, the board of education, aldermen or local representatives as well as the teachers. The contract involves much more than annual salary. Rather, negotiations often focus on things like health insurance, retirement and minimum work safety standards.

These contract negotiations typically happen in the springtime for the upcoming fiscal year, and are usually settled in time for districts to predict staffing needs, post advertisements, and fill open positions by the late spring.

Contracts often reach a stalemate when any of these moving pieces or players gets hung up. Often it has nothing to do with teachers’ salary. Sometimes contract negotiations fail because of complex municipal spending and investment guidelines, like determining what percentage of healthcare costs the teachers will cover and what the municipality will cover.

Sometimes, a contract fails because teachers don’t want riders in their contracts that allow municipal governments to divest earnings from teachers’ pension plans to offset other costs in the district with a promise to replenish the pension funds at a later, indeterminate date (go figure).

To be honest, these are the types of nuts and bolts of contract negotiation that make my eyes glaze over, but it can never be said that these are trifling details.

In the largest district in New Hampshire, the contract dispute is a perfect storm involving an impoverished district, an impatient electorate and the reelection aspirations of the city’s mayor.

First, their budget timeline and decision making seems to happen three months later than other districts in New Hampshire. This results in critical contract questions being made late in the summer months. One summer, the last-minute budget shortfall led to the district firing 137 teachers (about a sixth of the teaching force) two weeks before the school year began. The results were chaotic, with children looking forward to meeting their assigned classroom teacher (who had been fired) and classrooms of over 30 children assigned to one teacher.

In the current contract dispute, 7 out of 10 members of the Board of Alderman and all elected Board of School Committee members supported the contract. Regardless, at the eleventh hour and with little warning the mayor vetoed the contract.

In a complete denial of his role in the contract negotiation breakdown and his role as leader of the city and the Board of School Committeethe Mayor called on the teachersto iron out” the details of a new contract. Meanwhile, it should be noted the mayor is up for reelection on September 15th, and many citizens turn the other cheek while the mayor distances himself from the contract negotiation failure and focus instead on his claims of fiscal responsibility.

Questions to Ask when Teachers Strike

While I’m still torn about unions, including some of their goals and their tactics, and while the research on unions is far from a consensus, it’s clear to me that these contests raise more questions than community members and parents are often willing to ask.

As with everything in education politics the story is much more complex than the headline.

Work strikes seem to me like an outdated tactic that yields only negative and unintended consequences. Meanwhile, teachers themselves have difficulty following through with a work to rule. Teachers don’t seem to have a winning strategy or tactics. This is especially true when teachers are hung out to dry for political gain. In this case teachers are being blamed for mismanaging city revenue and being asked to find a solution on their own.

Who wants to be a teacher, kids?! Can I get a show of hands?

When teachers threaten to engage in union activity, rather than spinning out the same wrongheaded one-liners, community members and parents might question where their city leadership went wrong.

  • How long have negotiations been going on?
  • Where are the sticking points in the negotiation?
  • What does the school board say?
  • What does the superintendent of schools in the district say?
  • How are teachers being treated in my community’s schools?

Most importantly, they might ask what role their community’s elected officials have played in the stalemate, and what those same political leaders stand to gain from selling the teachers in their district down the river.

The Shocking Truth about American Schools

Rafiq Sarlie "Shocked That I am Quitting Facebook"

We are bombarded by constant messages about the many failures of our nation’s schools, and how poorly America is doing in comparison to other nations.

I am not impervious to the allure of an outrageous headline. Sometimes I resist. Generally, I am a sucker for click-bait.

It’s old hat that people are instinctually drawn to these stories. There are few things more human than our desire to rubber-neck at the scene of an accident or obsess over people’s unchecked base instincts gone awry.

In studying these stories of the human condition, we tell ourselves we are learning what not to do and behaviors, people and scenarios to avoid.

We are also learning to be afraid … very, very afraid.

And so it goes with American public schools. Our nation appears to love stories about the failure of schools to the point where no other narrative can take hold.

I get lulled into the abyss of mediocrity and filth just as much as the next person by following headlines about teachers who show up drunk and pantless to the first day of school. I’m simultaneously repulsed by – and engrossed in – the endless deluge of stories about teachers who have abused their power and authority with children.

The shocking truth is that most American schools in most American states are actually doing very well. Even though it’s true, this message consistently falls on deaf ears. Decent and even exceptional performance in American schools simply doesn’t make for a good headline.

Headline News: American Public Schools do Shockingly Well

Your gut response to this headline might be skepticism or, even worse, boredom.

Let’s examine the evidence. Take a hard look at the information conveyed by this image:

b0f123c41This image is just a sliver of data consolidated by the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES). For more detailed information on international performance on math and science, check out the TIMSS data here. For more details on international tests of reading, take a look at PIRLS results here.

In a nutshell, international tests of eighth-graders’ math skills on the TIMSS test reveal:

  • American students in 34 states outperform students in Australia.
  • American students in 27 states outperform students in England.
  • American students in 25 states outperform students in Hong Kong.
  • American students in six states outperform students in Finland (the holy grail of school reform).
  • American students in two states (Massachusetts and Vermont) outperform students in Korea and Japan.

Here’s a question, why don’t the headlines read, “8th graders in Massachusetts and Vermont top all but two countries in the world at math?” or better yet “Six of Top-Ten Performing Education Systems in the World are in the U.S.?”

The news is even better for American students’ performance in reading on the PIRLS test. American students typically do better on reading assessments than they do on math assessments, and the stark differences between states and socioeconomic classes that appear in the TIMSS dataset are slightly less pronounced with reading.

Other good news is that our nation’s performance on reading assessments is on an upward trajectory, and the enormous achievement gaps revealed forty years ago are slowly shrinking.

Meanwhile, we’re all still drinking the “sucky schools Kool-aid.”

Parents in Poorly-Performing Schools Can Improve Children’s Outcomes in School

One thing that these results highlight is the stark inequality between states. This vast inequality is unappealing for many Americans. While we’re okay with unequal wealth, we are most certainly not okay with unequal opportunities to get wealth(y). So how can parents help level the playing field for their kids?

In an earlier post I mentioned that, knowing schools generally aren’t equal, many parents shop around for school districts that perform well. Parents who are able to shop around might also consider moving to a state that performs well by using this tool.

Even when a parent is not in the market for a new home, and even when a parent is living in state that is performing below the United States average (e.g. Mississippi or Alabama – sorry folks), parents should know that most of the inequality between schools is driven by poverty.

PIRLS results show that some strategies parents engage in to improve students’ scores are related to income. For example, children do better in reading when their parents read to and in front of their children. Meanwhile, we know that families living in poverty are disproportionately illiterate.

Parents are also encouraged to send well-rested children to schools, yet we know that in many cases, children living in poverty are housing-insecure or reside in multi-family households where it’s harder, for obvious reasons, to get good sleep. Two other income-dependent, parenting practices are:

  • sending children to schools that have safe and orderly environments
  • sending children who are well-fed to school

On the other hand, we also know that parents, regardless of income-level, can exercise a lot of influence. Variables deflating math and reading scores can be offset by proactive, income-independent parenting strategies. When the data is distilled down to just a handful of critical parenting practices, it turns out that all parents, regardless of income, can engage in these two high-leverage, research-proven strategies:

  • engender in their children a positive attitude toward reading.
  • stock the home with high quality books (borrowed or bought).

Confounding the Trend

American parents are largely distrustful of American public schools. In fact, in a recent poll 84% of parents gave American public schools the grade of “C” or worse. One thing is for sure, the media knows that distrust exists, and they play into it. The public eats it right up because it confirms our suspicions and fears. It’s a vicious cycle.

Would it be interesting to know the drunk and pantless “teacher” in that national story was a last-second hire, and was actually a substitute teacher not a full-time classroom teacher? Should we be appalled by her behavior? Yes. Does she exemplify the 3.5 million teachers who are generally well-qualified and who always remember to wear their pants when they go to work? Definitely not.

Professor Emeritus David Berliner of Arizona State University regularly argues that the “bad schools” narrative is manufactured crisis. Others, like Valerie Strauss from the Answer Sheet, and Diane Ravitch claim the “bad schools” message is strategically encouraged by wealthy, small-government political activists with the aim of encouraging Americans to divest from government-run public schools and invest in for-profit charter schools, private schools and vouchers programs to save our supposedly “failing system.”

To digest this data, and to understand that things are going pretty well in schools requires an understanding of the nuance behind the headline. Nuance doesn’t play well at the water cooler or in a 140-character Tweet.

The next time someone quips, “Gosh, our nation’s schools suck.” Your informed response could include that nuance. Just in case, here are some new soundbites for your witty retort.

  • Many American students are still outperforming their international peers.
  • American schools are educating a more diverse and global population than the “good ole days.”
  • 3,499,999 out of 3,500,000 teachers show up to school fully-dressed.
  • American schools are building a largely-literate nation through a publicly-funded initiative.

Scholars would call this “interrupting the narrative.” I might just call it “conveying truth.”

My only hope in countering this message is that parents begin to understand how much power they have in improving their children’s education. And, you don’t have to live in the wealthiest, highest-performing district in a top-performing state to support you children’s education either.


**I am inclined to advocate for BOTH structural adjustments our nation can make to offset the effects of poverty in schools AND local or individual adjustments we can make to offset those effects.

Focusing on the “Opt” in the “Opt-Out Movement”

Ryan McGilchrist

Like most others, I have had the good fortune to be alive and paying attention enough over the last ten years to bear witness to at least two major revolutions.

I never thought I would see the day when people could actually talk to other people with their wrist watch, and just last month the Supreme Court reaffirmed its’ commitment to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by safeguarding equal access to the institution of marriage. These are major changes – both of which were propelled by and, in turn, will have major implications for democracy.

Though not as long-in-the-making nor as groundbreaking, I’ve been watching the growing “Opt-Out” movement with a muted – but similar – enjoyment.

Is the Opt-Out Movement Truly a Movement?

The “Opt-Out” movement, where parents block schools from testing their children with high stakes standardized measures, is pretty fascinating. In a sense this small movement is akin to seeing hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation turn to each other with expressions of utter disbelief saying, “Wait … we can do that?”

For so long, parents have sent their children to school without asking many critical questions about what their children experience during the school day, including the decisions that administrators make about curriculum, or how data about their children’s performance on standardized tests are collected and used.

Parental disgruntlement has usually centered around their child’s new teacher, and concerns about particular “trouble-makers” in their child’s class. Research has shown over and over that some parents feel entitled to follow these conflicts through, while others feel disempowered or reluctant depending on their cultural or economic background. (See the book “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam or “Class in Schools” by Richard Rothstein for full descriptions of how this plays out.)

Regardless, disgruntlement is minor and scattered. Parents experience and deal with these conflicts in vacuum, and the conflicts experienced by many individuals separated by space and time could never be regarded as a movement. 

So, the recent uproar about the over use of standardized tests, and calls for opting children out of said tests, in contrast, seems to be something of a revolution in the way that parents understand their role in their children’s education.

Why We are Suddenly Concerned about Over-Testing

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) stipulated in 2002 that all children grades 3-8 & 10th or 11th be tested using a state-administered standardized test. The intent then was to reach “universal proficiency” on those standardized tests by 2014. So, all students in every state had to “pass” these standardized tests by 2014. This was an extraordinary lofty (read: unrealistic), but worthwhile goal.

Most states contracted to private companies to develop standardized tests, and the students’ tests were scored with the designation “Failing,” “Basic,” “Proficient” or “Advanced.” Students’ performances on those standardized tests were spread across the four designations. However, districts with pockets of poverty were more likely to have concentrations in the “Failing” and “Basic” categories, and districts with concentrated wealth and college-educated parents were more likely to be labeled “Proficient” and “Advanced.”

This gap in performance was predictable. Students have performed similarly on standardized tests since the national government started administering National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP – sounds like “nape”) in the 1960s. This gap in performance is the well-documented “achievement gap.”

Getting to “universal proficiency” by 2014, therefore, conveyed the expectation that states could close the achievement gap in 12 years. All schools had to show “adequate yearly progress” or “AYP” toward this goal of universal proficiency. If they didn’t, all sorts of penalties ensued. NCLB required standardized tests as the preferred way to track changes in student performance.

Testing Mania

As lofty as this goal was, when the data from these tests were crunched it became clear that NCLB and standardized tests weren’t closing the achievement gap.

Many very smart people decided that the tests were probably not very good measures of what we want students to learn. (Others decided it was probably the teachers’ fault, but let us leave that for another post.)

So, since the tests were to blame, a few powerful organizations set new guidelines about what American kids should be learning, resulting in the Common Core State Standards or CCSS. With little time to vet the standards, states adopted CCSS and implemented them in their schools.

Then, some very lucky private companies were contracted and got a whole lot of money to design new tests to measure whether students were mastering CCSS. Two tests, the PARCC test and the Smarter-Balanced or “SBAC” test were adopted by most states.

This year, our nation’s schoolchildren in grades 3-8 and 10th or 11th had the sad misfortune of “piloting” these new PARCC or SBAC tests while simultaneously phasing out their state’s old standardized tests. The result was dozens of school days (out of a 180-day school year) spent penciling in bubbles on Scantron sheets and/or clicking through items on the computer.

Add together the state standardized tests; the new, and considerably more challenging, SBAC or PARCC test; for most 10th or 11th grade students their AP test and PSAT or SAT test; and, perhaps their ACT or other college-entrance tests and it’s pretty clear that this year we tested the hell out of American schoolchildren.

Opting Out

This year, the number of parents who said “Thanks, but no thanks” (or more accurately, “Take your test and shove it!”)  to standardized tests exploded155,000 kids opted out of tests in New York alone.

As an education researcher, I lament the lost data. As a parent, I totally get it.

On the one hand, I know our nation’s children are over-tested. According to education expert, Linda Darling Hammond, we as a nation focus more on testing than any other country in the world. We have too many standardized assessments. Some of them generate meaningful data, but others not so much.

On the other hand, I know standardized tests are a source of information about student academic performance. Schools can use this data, but it’s typically used most by education researchers and the national government to help track (some would say exacerbate) the gap in performance between different segments of the American population.

This summer is really the first time that I have thought about it on a personal level, because this school year my oldest daughter is entering third-grade. That is to say, this school year marks the first time NCLB and yearly testing is a reality for me as a parent.

I also live in New Hampshire where our state’s new parent trigger law allows parents to opt-out of any public school curriculum they deem inappropriate. Though our governor vetoed a bill that would allow parents to opt-out of standardized tests specifically, many of our state’s districts are allowing it. It’s probably only a matter of time before NH’s House and Senate override her veto, so I expect the Opt-Out debate to surface again in NH by winter.

My husband and I take parenting decisions on a case-by-case basis. If I had a child who experienced tremendous anxiety over tests no matter how valiant our efforts were to calm her, I would probably pull her out. In that case, the tests would do more harm than good. I defend parents’ rights to protect their children in these cases.

I also happen to think there is a massive level of hysteria around parents opting their children out of testing right now. I don’t judge them, they have their reasons.Their children might react more strongly to taking a test too, where my child doesn’t seem to register a difference between taking a standardized test and taking the teacher’s weekly spelling challenge. Yet, the hysteria overshadows the advantage of standardized testing, which is their power as a source of information and a diagnostic tool about how their child is learning. 

Finally, I hope that the parent veto rights bill isn’t overused in New Hampshire. I have many misgivings about parents telling schools regularly what should be in the curriculum. Parent vetoes convey a certain level of distrust in our teachers and schools and they are often used to prevent teachers from teaching things that are widely accepted by scientists to be true (e.g. evolution and climate change). 

For all of those reasons, we will have both of our children follow the standardized testing schedule in our district for now.

Opting-in: With Reservations & Just for Now

Even having thought through all of this and made a decision (for this year at least), I will do several things to parent my kids through standardized tests.

First, and most importantly, I will make sure my daughter understand these tests are not high stakes for her and don’t measure her intelligence. Standardized tests are not tests of intelligence, and just to be clear, intelligence tests (IQ) aren’t even tests of fixed intelligence

Any standardized test should be treated as a diagnostic tool at most, which can help us identify areas where we can support children’s learning more, and areas where they are already demonstrating mastery of skills and content. So, I’ll try not incite further hysteria in my child when I talk to her about the tests. I hope her teachers and building principals do the same – as far as I can tell they do.

I will definitely be examining the testing results when they are returned, and in this manner the personal and the professional overlap for me since I have the training to make sense of test reports (which don’t make sense to many parents). This information can be useful to parents, teachers and schools, but test makers need to do more in the way of making test results meaningful for all.

I also plan to be very active in the school district to make sure that the standardized testing results are NOT used in a high stakes or inappropriate manner. Standardized test results have been used inappropriately in New Hampshire’s recent past as a result of NCLB, and continue to be used inappropriately in other states now (e.g. as a punitive measure for districts failing to meet AYP or as a measure of teaching quality – both so wrong). NH has a waiver from NCLB so these misuses are unacceptable. 

In short, my children will take the tests for now, because standardized tests are a useful tool when used appropriately, they are no-stakes for my children in New Hampshire, and I can parent my kids through the experience.

Focusing on the “OPT”

But, I have the option to change my mind and opt-out, and therein lies the sentiment that makes me a true geek for democracy and overjoys the social studies teacher still very much alive inside of me.

The Opt-Out movement is a movement, and as such has the power to get more parents involved in very important day-to-day educational decisions. It also has the added benefit of bringing the “public” back into “public education,” because people more so than ever before in recent history, seem to be paying attention to what’s going on in our nation’s schools.

So when the frenzy kicks back in again in the upcoming school year and people are debating who is opting in, who is opting out and who doesn’t really care one way or another… know there is at least one person in the nation who’s happy simply that people are recognizing there’s an “opt” in the discussion.

The children are watching and learning that civic participation in our nation’s schools is a democratic and meaningful act.

Improving your child’s academic performance – a question a day

parents_Jim Larisson

In a recent post, “Where are the good schools?” I joked that you can tell a lot about the quality of a school by noting “parent lingering” at pick up and drop-off, but did you know that schools often gather data on the amount of parent volunteerism in their district?

This is for the simple reason that parent engagement is linked to student achievement. So, the number of hours logged by parent volunteers can quickly become a bragging right.

Parent Engagement Boosts Student Achievement

Consider these findings about parent engagement highlighted by the NEA:

Regardless of family income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted to the next grade, pass their classes, and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education

These findings are hard to dismiss, and many state governments, national agencies and foundations are working to improve parent engagement in schools.

Meanwhile, studies exploring the relationship between parent engagement and student achievement are gaining prominence. Take, for example, this study that points to specific behaviors of parents (“monitoring, warmth, and autonomy support”) as assets in preparing adolescents for career and college.

Parent Involvement Doesn’t Take Much More Time

Being an “involved” parent can mean many different things, and I know what you’re probably thinking: How can I find any more time to do that? You might also worry that you don’t have much to offer a classroom full of ten-year-olds.

Trust me, volunteering in schools doesn’t have to be an on-going major commitment to reap the benefits. In fact, things you’re probably already doing – like staying on top of all of the paperwork that comes home from your children’s teachers, or consistently monitoring your child’s homework habits – both constitute very important types of parental engagement.

In other words, simply showing an interest in what they do during the school day, from kindergarten through high school, leads to gains in achievement. Knowing details about what goes on during your child’s school day, and learning some of the “language of the school” leads to higher quality questions and conversations during the school year.

With a quick skim of a teacher’s communications home, you can replace your standard questioning attempt, “How was your day?” with a better developed question that will lead to more information from your child like, “I read that you’re learning about compound words. I thought of one… ICE-CREAM! Is that a compound word?” Better yet, provide an incorrect example and see if your child can correct you and explain why you’re wrong – that will really get the gears going!

Similar to giving your children good, high quality feedback on what they do well and what they need work on – as I addressed in this post knowing details about what your kids are doing in school lead to higher quality conversation and point to clear avenues for you to engage in your children’s education. You’re creating a situation where you’re helping your kids practice their skills, you’re showing them your intellectual curiosity, and you’re subtly letting them know that you actually communicate with your kid’s teacher! It’s clear how all of this effort leads to the type of academic improvement we typically see with the children of engaged parents.

So perhaps you don’t want to download and read EduTopia’s full guide for parents on engaging in schools, and maybe you don’t want to sign up with the PTA or PTG for something that requires your attention once a week for the whole school year. Rest assured knowing if this type of thing is the best you can do then you’re already doing pretty well.

More Ways to Connect and Engage

If you’re at a loss for how you can contribute to your children’s school as a volunteer, Larry Ferrlazzo posts bi-monthly or more frequent updates that consolidate information on boosting parent engagement in school here. Many of these posts center on what groups of dedicated parents are doing together to create change in high need districts, as is the case in Baltimore, Maryland. If you’re not on board with the group effort, the National Department of Education released a “Parent Checklist” outlining questions and resources that parents can use as their children head back into the classrooms in August. Some questions parents might ask their children’s teachers include:

Quality: Is my child getting a great education?

  • How will you keep me informed about how my child is doing on a regular basis? How can we work together if my child falls behind?
  • Is my child on grade level, and on track to be ready for college and a career? How do I know?

Ready for Success: Will my child be prepared to succeed in whatever comes next?

  • How will you measure my child’s progress and ability in subjects including reading, math, science, the arts, social and emotional development, and other activities?
  • How much time will my child spend preparing for and taking state and district tests? How will my child’s teacher and I know how to use the results to help my child make progress?
  • Are the meals and snacks provided healthy? How much time is there for recess and/or exercise?

Great Teachers: Is my child engaged and learning every day?

  • How do I know my child’s teachers are effective?
  • How much time do teachers get to collaborate with one another?
  • What kind of professional development is available to teachers here?

Equity and Fairness: Does my child, and every child at my child’s school or program, have the opportunity to succeed and be treated fairly?

  • How does the school make sure that all students are treated fairly? (For example, are there any differences in suspension/expulsion rates by race or gender?)
  • Does the school offer all students access to the classes they need to prepare them for success, including English language learners and students with special needs (for example, Algebra I and II, gifted and talented classes, science labs, AP or IB classes, art, music)?

One thing that I would add to this list for parents of adolescents is to acknowledge your “trouble threshold” grade. Many students, when asked, can probably point to a specific grade (for my parents it seemed to be around a B) anything below which triggers parent involvement… you know, the troubling kind (according to your kid). Studies have found that parents’ “trouble threshold grades” become their children’s threshold grade, and that “threshold grades” differ among families based on cultural and ethnic traditions.

So while a parent must strike a balance between becoming that helicopter parent, by over-protecting and over-directing their children through school, there are plenty of good conversations to have with your child’s teacher this year and plenty of ways to be involved. You’ll note that most good conversations begin with a question.

Posts in the cooker… Bringing research to the foreground

I have scores of ideas of things I’d like to blog about, but here’s the shortlist. If you’re interested in knowing the history behind features of schools, or what the “research says” about schools, please comment with your suggestions!

Cheers – Dianna

  1. What does it mean to “Opt-Out” of a standardized test, and should I do it?
  2. How do schools in different states stack up?
  3. Louis C.K. broke my heart when he called out the Common Core
  4. Is homework for kids or their parents?
  5. LGBTQ kids ARE our kids
  6. What’s the deal with 7 AM start times?
  7. Is there really a teacher shortage?
  8. My child’s report card makes no sense to me (& competency based grading)
  9. What’s the point of “group work?”
  10. Why is the site called “Our Kids?”
  11. Calling a truce in the mommy wars.
  12. Talking about American race relations with kids – a white momma’s work.
  13. The manner in which teachers are portrayed in the media is killing the profession.
  14. My friend says her kids are “totally average,” and I admire that attitude.
  15. The shocking reality about how few kids finish college.
  16. College shouldn’t be “four years at Hogwarts” (truthfully put by Martin O’Malley)
  17. The U.S. is actually not doing badly in international ratings – it just depends on how you slice the data.
  18. Should we lengthen the school year?
  19. Reforms that might work in our schools.
  20. How parents can support schools.
  21. Things *not* to say at the parent-teacher conference & questions to ask.
  22. Decoding the standardized test report
  23. The obesity epidemic and school lunch programs.
  24. The anti-Vax movement and CA’s new mandate for measles vaccine.

Why do schools start at dark-o’clock in the morning?

Gary Lerude_WaitingfortheSchoolBus

Our children’s sleep habits change almost immediately after school lets out for the summer.

It doesn’t matter how much sleep they’ve gotten or when they went to bed. One or both of them can saw logs through 7:30 am – no problem. This is, of course, in stark contrast to a typical school morning when we have to drag them both out of bed about an hour and a half earlier.

During the school year, I find myself missing the toddler days when they would bound out of bed at 5:45 am (and that moment at 5:46 am, when you realize you’re not going back to sleep, is hard to miss).

I’m not too different from my children. To be honest, one of the reasons I left high school teaching was because I found it emotionally draining to get up early enough to be prepared, functional and verbal at 7:25 am. This was the time that the “warning bell” rang at the high school and class began.

So let’s back this up: To be in my classroom at 7:25 am, I had to be at the copy machine at 6:55, at the computer making printouts at 6:45, in the parking lot at 6:30 (it was a big campus), leaving my house at about 5:30 (no later than 5:45).

To be in the classroom at the ready at 7:25, I regularly set my alarm for 4:45 am, and that’s assuming I knew exactly what I would be teaching the next morning before I went to bed.

Even after all that effort, it’s worth mentioning that if there’s one way to kill a love of learning in our nation’s adolescents, it’s talking to them about Jacksonian Democracy at 7:30 am on a Monday in February. Relatedly, if there’s one way to kill a love of teaching in an adult, it’s asking them to ignite in their students a love of learning at this obscenely early hour. 

Why do schools start so early?

In any effort to reform our nation’s schools – even something as simple as start times – we need to first uncover why it it is the way it is. Many folks know that the academic year was initially built around a farming schedule and leaves a wide berth during the long summer months for children to help their parents on the farm. I know how much you all rely on your children to bring in the harvest, so I’ll leave that one alone for now. Anyway, none of that history really explains the typical start time for a school day, and that’s because early start times are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Most studies attribute early start times to the increasing role that extra-curricular activities (e.g. sports and clubs) play in the lives of the American adolescent. Add to that the need to coordinate game schedules with other districts, busing schedules for all of the district’s children, complex teaching schedules that often have multiple teachers sharing expensive resources, and managing specialists’ schedules (i.e. art, music, phys ed.), and it becomes pretty clear why the easiest solution seems to be to start the school day earlier.  One look at a building principal’s “master schedule” might elicit some sympathy in even the staunchest opponents of early start times.

Despite the rationale behind the shift in school start times, there is overwhelming medical consensus about what it does to adolescents. Research has demonstrated time and time again how backward these start times are, and the toll it takes on adolescents’ physical safety, emotional well-being, and academic success.

The negative consequences of early start times

Many studies published in medical journals acknowledge how early start times work in cross-purposes to the naturally late “sleepy time” for adolescents. Several studies note that adolescents don’t produce enough melatonin to feel sleepy until about 11 pm. So, it follows that waking up an adolescent at 7 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 4 am.” I would add that most kids need to be in school at 7 am, not just waking up, so I would correct their statement to read, “waking an adolescent at 6 am is the equivalent of waking up an adult at 3 am.”

Either way you slice it, it is as unappealing to me as it probably is to you.

It’s not simply a matter of interrupting adolescent sleep cycles. One study found that sleep deprivation from early start times played a role in growing obesity rates and risk behavior in adolescents. This makes plenty of good sense to me, since I regularly see the link between exhaustion and risk behaviors in my own child. The clearest indication that our five-year-old is overtired is the rapid increase in her total defiance of our basic and most commonplace rules.

Early start times aren’t just inconvenient or annoying or impossible to get your body used to (owing, again, to the fact these are physiologically appropriate cycles). Early start times increase daytime sleepiness, depression and caffeine use in adolescents. At the end of the day adolescents are children – just older – and children + caffeine = negative health consequences.

Let us try to forget for a moment that later start times result in adolescents who are better rested, less moody and depressed, less stimulant-addicted and less likely to crash their cars. Let’s just push that aside and consider this: Later start times have the impact that decades of school reform have struggled to produce – they actually improve student academic achievement.

Everyone say it with me… “DUH!”

Later start times improve academic achievement

I think what I am saying here is that it’s a little easier for an adolescent to understand Jacksonian Democracy at 10:30 am than it is at 7:30 am. Most of this has to do with the very simple idea that it’s much easier to learn when you’re conscious. Another very simple thing is that kids who are well rested register fewer absences during the school year, and they even come to school on time. It doesn’t boggle the mind to understand how both of those behaviors lead to significant increases in academic performance. It’s not rocket science (though it is neuroscience).

So, the research on adolescents is incontrovertible. What about younger children? While very few studies exist on the impact of earlier start times for elementary-aged students, one of those few studies suggests that younger children don’t experience a significant impact in their total sleep time as a result of earlier start times. (Remember your toddler waking you up at 5:45 am on Saturday?)

Let’s also acknowledge the fact that younger children require less prep-time to get ready for school. There is very little social stigma for a child under a certain age – I imagine the cut off to be about eight – to literally roll out of bed, eat breakfast and go to school. Beyond that age, the time it takes to get ready in the morning grows longer and longer. We should be delaying start times for adolescents just to give them en0ugh time to perfect their emo makeup and manage their Bieber swoosh.

Some alternative models to the “dark-o’clock” start

So, why not just reverse the schedules so younger children are headed to school first and older children catch the bus after them? Some would voice concern here over their five year old standing in the dark at the bus stop. I would be among them, because we can’t settle for a model that endangers younger children.

But let’s be clear, if we can create a whole system of time zones so people on trains can remain diurnal, and if nearly our whole nation can change their clocks in unison twice a year, surely we don’t need to have our adolescents bearing the brunt in this totally wrong model. We are pretty smart people, there has to be a way to adjust that master schedule.

Aside from reversing the busing schedule and school start times between elementary and high schools, we might also consider a full-switch to athletic training in the morning. I would prefer to run two miles in the morning in September versus the mid-afternoon (the hottest hours of the day). These are only a few ideas.

Take it up with your PTA

An organization called StartSchoolLater.net chronicles the success stories that many districts have experienced in establishing later school start times, and every effort takes a slightly different angle to achieve success. You’d be surprised how many districts have explicitly adjusted their schedules in response to the overwhelming empirical evidence about adolescent sleep deprivation.

Parents can be pretty powerful in this regard if we stop aiming our outrage and exhaustion toward our parenting partners and start directing it in a focused way toward the people who can impact some real change. This would be an appropriate initiative for a well-organized PTA/PTG to appeal to local school boards.

Figure out what it would take. While you’re fighting the fight, just keep in mind the people that have to deal with that crazy master schedule. They’re not ignoring research out of malice, they’re dealing with the tough reality of managing multiple and often conflicting schedules. We’re all maniacs during the school year, and a special kind of maniac in the morning. This change is long overdue and research has shown it is worth the effort.

Do Tiger Moms Hibernate over Summer Break?


I visited a friend who has a friend who has a house on Martha’s Vineyard for a work retreat, and I couldn’t stop myself from sneering a little at the mommas getting on the boat for summer vacation. You know, like, the whole summer vacation?

(Let’s be honest, I should have tried a little harder to stop myself.)

You ask, am I jealous? YES. Totally. 100%. No denying.

For the most part, though, these aren’t the “Tiger Moms” we’ve been hearing about through the years. These are moms who are looking forward to relaxing time at their island home. And though I know very little about what happens in the lives of children who spend the summer months at their other house (yes, still jealous), it’s likely that their time is spent in very different ways than the children of Tiger Moms.

Tiger Moms, grrrrrrrrr. These are women who are dedicated at extraordinary levels to enriching the lives of their children through consistent exposure to intellectual activity; encouraging them to practice Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in d minor until their fingers are swollen; traveling hours, with free library passes in hand, to the Bodies exhibit at the Museum of Science; first in line in January to sign up for the summer institute for the gifted and talented

While they do have critics, and boy do they have their criticseverywhere…, Tiger Moms are kicking my ass at parenting. And “NO!” they do not hibernate during summer months. That’s when they kick it into high gear like a Kentucky Derby race horse on the inside track. (I can picture them peeling away from me as I wave the cloud of dust from my eyes.)

Learning from the Tiger Momma – without the “hysteria”

You can learn something from everyone, and I think Tiger Moms have something going here. We know through decades of research that a very real phenomenon called summer learning loss plagues classroom teachers at the opening of every academic year.

This isn’t a hard concept to grasp as most of us vividly recall those early weeks of the school year walking through the school hallways in a haze, desperately trying to reset our circadian rhythms to the obscene hours that schools typically start, and feeling like we wanted to pound our heads against the wall because we know we knew that last year, but now – for the life of us – that learning seems to have disappeared.

Summer learning loss a real thing, and Tiger Cubs probably don’t deal with this phenomenon as acutely, so that’s a plus-one for the Tiger Mom. My own children, however, seem to be just fine and happy resting on their laurels through another episode of WildKratts (thank you very much). Yet, I know it’s worth taking a page from the Tiger Mom’s book.  What do I mean here?

Kids add important skills in the summer too

A lot of very important learning happens during the summer months. I stalwartly defend the summer vacation that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years – and not because I like my ten-month academic calendar (though it is nice to be a SAHM for two months). It is because we know through decades of research that critical to a child’s academic success is developing strong social and emotional skills (think grit, perseverance, patience, humility, tenacity to name only a few).

Summertime, as it turns out, is the perfect time for parents to work with their children to develop, strengthen and hone those crucial soft skills.

There are many ways that you can work with your kids on these skills. Step one would be to improve your feedback to your children. We are a nation obsessed with telling our kids they’ve done a “good job,” though it tells a child nothing about what was “good” about the “job” they did. Ergo, they may not realize when they’re repeating it or should repeat it.

Changing meaningless praise to meaningful feedback

An alternative is to name the behavior and and commend them on it. For example, imagine your child is having a difficult time piecing together the three dimensional homage to Mickey Mouse they’re creating from felt, tape and glue. (This scenario did just happen this morning. My daughter’s art unfolds on many planes.) You see them quelling their rage with the Elmers. After over an hour they create their…er…masterpiece. Instead of saying, “Good Job!,” you might say,” That was really frustrating, but you really stuck with it.” Or, “You had something in mind the whole time and you made it!”

If there’s one thing we know about offering praise to a child, there’s a way that leads to entitlement, and there’s a way that leads to motivation. These commendations acknowledge the child’s perseverance, not their “talents.”

I’m slowly learning the art of higher-quality feedback under the tutelage of our family’s favorite Kindergarten teacher – a women who’s been working with five-year-olds for over forty years. She would point you toward a great book by Adele Faber that helps you fill in the spaces when you don’t know how to respond to your child’s meltdown.

Getting gritty with it

Another soft skill worth developing is your child’s grit, which sounds peculiar and slightly machiavellian, but many athletic families parent this disposition to a science. Parenting your child’s ability to lose with grace is something that is often overlooked, and there are very real academic benefits when kids have a gritty outlook.

Finally, help your child learn some good old-fashioned self-restraint. This one is particularly difficult for me because short term allowances for indulgence tend to lead to more quiet-time in the house. Long-term, however, I know what happens when you over-indulge a child.

My seven year old was fascinated by this famous study that found that children who could put off eating a marshmallow with the promise of two marshmallows in the future were found to finish college at higher rates and were generally more successful in life. Viewing the video together also provided a good opportunity to introduce the notion of self-restraint.

Teachers need parents’ help with soft skills

Social and emotional skills are where kids (and teachers) need the most help from parents, because with an average student teacher ratio of 21:1 for elementary schools and 26:1 for secondary schools, your child’s teacher cannot patiently peel your kid off the ceiling – as the other kids watch – after she couldn’t calculate the correct least common denominator. (Don’t worry kid, I can’t remember how to do that either.)

These soft skills lead to clear academic bennies. And, anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to raise children who don’t kick, scream and stage a (usually public) hissy fit after losing a soccer match or game of “Go Fish?”

So while I won’t be making my children practice their (imaginary) cello, or complete pages of the district-endorsed workbooks to keep their academic skills sharp over the summer, I will be embracing my inner-fledgling-tiger-momma by working with my kids this summer on social grace and emotional intelligence. Let’s wish us all good luck on that!

Why Douglas County, Colorado, Vouchers Were Ruled Unconstitutional

Diane Ravitch adds to the conversation on Colorado Supreme Court’s recent decision by grabbing the language from the state Constitution! It pays to follow the blog of an educational historian at dianeravitch.net The whole deal seems pretty cut and dry. Nevada next?

Diane Ravitch's blog

A few days ago, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the voucher plan adopted by the school board in Douglas County was unconstitutional. It was a split decision. It is puzzling that it was a split decision, because the Colorado state constitution explicitly prohibits any public funding of religious institutions.
Text of Section 7:
Aid to Private Schools, Churches, Sectarian Purpose, Forbidden.

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money or other personal property, ever be made by the…

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