Thursday, January 31, 2008

Afghan Journalist Receives Death Sentence for Downloading Info on Women's Rights

23 year old Afghan journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh faces execution for downloading a report from a Farsi website that stated Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women misrepresent the views of the prophet Mohamed. Mr Kambaksh distributed the tract to fellow students and teachers at Balkh University with the aim, he said, of stimulating a debate on the matter.The upper house of the Afghan legislature issued a statement approving of Kambash's conviction on blasphemy charges and the death sentence.

Mr Kambaksh's brother Yacoub said that the journalist was very concerned about his future and said he had not had a fair trial or any lawyer to defend him.

This situation is absolutely outrageous! The Afghan constitution supposedly protects the freedom of expression. Article 34 states:

"Freedom of expression shall be inviolable. Every Afghan shall have the right to express thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations as well as other means in accordance with provisions of this constitution. Every Afghan shall have the right, according to provisions of law, to print and publish on subjects without prior submission to state authorities. "

How, then, can the authorities defend the persecution of Mr. Kambaksh?

The U.S., Britain, and other Western countries who are spending billions of dollars to prop up Afghanistan should put major pressure on Hamid Karzai to pardon Mr. Kambaksh and reign in the Islamofascist judiciary...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

New Poll Demonstrates Parents Want School Choice

Only 11% of Nevada residents would send their children to traditional government-run schools if they were able to choose any educational option according to a new survey done by the Nevada Public Research Institute and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Nearly half (48%) would choose a private school, 23% would choose a government charter school, 15% would choose independent homeschooling, and 3% would choose a cyberschool.

NPRI Communications Director Andy Matthews said the poll results demonstrate that the state's government-run schools are not meeting people's needs:

"It is clear that Nevadans are doubtful of the effectiveness of our monolithic public education system and want more choice when it comes to how their children are educated."

The most common reason given in the poll for preferring an alternative to a traditional government-run school was academic quality (33%), followed by school curriculum (25%), extracurricular activities (13%), and safety/discipline (11%).

These results show just how far apart parents' desired educational options and their actual ones are. According to data from the 2006 American Community Survey, only 5% of Nevada's K-12 students attend private schools and fewer than 1% are homeschooled. The Heritage Foundation put the percent of students attending charter schools in 2005 at roughly 1.2%. So while nearly 9 in 10 Nevada residents would want their children educated somewhere other than a traditional government-run school, only roughly 1 in 13 are able to do so at the current time.

It's time to end the near-monopoly traditional government-run schools have over K-12 education in this country and allow *ALL* parents (not just wealthy ones) to choose the option they feel is best for their children.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

109th Carnival of Homeschooling is Up!

Tiffany over at "Life on the Road" is hosting this week's 109th Carnival of Homeschooling: Leaving a Legacy Edition. Catch up with all the bloggers who are more organized than yours truly :-)

Pell Grants for Kids a Good Idea

As someone who strongly believes that *ALL* parents (not just wealthy ones) should have true school choice in this country, I'm glad to see President Bush call for the creation of a "Pell Grants for Kids" program in his final State of the Union address.

While the details of the president's plan remain to be seen, former Secretary of Education and current Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed a program with the same name a few years ago. It would provide $500/year to all K-12 students whose families earned below the median income for their state to attend any accredited government-run or private school. It could also be used for homeschooled children using an approved independent study program.

If a government-run school attracts a PGFK student, there is a net *INCREASE* in funding. While individually the amount is modest, it can add up quickly. A school enrolling 500 PGFK students would get an extra $250k, money that could be used for such things as smaller classes or art, music, & elementary foreign language programs.

In 1968 Ted Sizer, then at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, called for scholarships of $5000 per child (a whopping $29k in today's dollars!) for the poorest half of American schoolchildren, which could be used at any accredited school.

In 2000, Sen. John McCain called for shifting $5.4 billion in Federal spending from farm subsidies (which disproportionately aid wealthy agribusinesses) to vouchers for low-income kids.
The RAND corporation did a comparison of government-run and Catholic high schools in New York City serving a primarily poor, African-American and Latino student population. The results were striking:
  • 95% of the Catholic school students graduated vs. 50% of the govt. school students.
  • 66% of the Catholic school graduates received the rigorous Regents' diploma vs. a mere 5% of the govt. school graduates.
  • The average SAT combined score among Catholic school students was 160 points higher than the average for government school students, even though the test was taken by a much higher percentage of the class (85% vs. 33%).
A similar comparison was done by the NY State Department of Education comparing elementary schools with the highest minority enrollment. Of the schools with 81-100% minority student population, Catholic ones outscored government-run ones by 17% in reading and 10% in math in 3rd grade and 10% in reading and 11% in math in 6th grade. While critics claimed these results were due to "selection bias", the study found that Catholic and public schools had similar percentages of students from troubled families with low incomes.

Similar results have been found in other places. A study of LA schools done by the Pacific Research Institute found that Catholic schools serving low-income minority students have a much lower dropout rate and send a much greater proportion of their graduates on to college than government-run schools with similar demographics. University of Chicago Professor of Education Anthony Bryk and University of Michigan Professor of Education Valerie Lee found that between 10th & 12th grades, the average minority student at a Catholic high school gained 3.3 years in mathematics achievement vs. only 1.5 years at government-run schools.

Drs. Bryk and Lee attribute the success Catholic schools have in educating poor and minority students to the learning environment they create:

"Catholic schools foster an environment in which rigorous academic work is pursued by all students within a personally supportive and caring environment -- an environment that encourages a sustained commitment to learning among both students and teachers....Catholic schools' academic success [can be attributed] to four characteristics: a common core of academic work for all students; a supportive, communal style of organization; decentralized governance; and an inspirational ideology....An inspirational ideology promotes a vision of the school as a caring community committed to social justice. What Catholic high schools value is not limited to the knowledge students must acquire to succeed in life; the schools also seek to shape an ethical perspective toward personal responsibility and societal engagement. This mission stands in sharp contrast to contemporary public schooling, which is now driven by the rhetoric of the marketplace, a radical individualism and the competitive pursuit of economic rewards."

It's time to end the government near-monopoly on K-12 schooling for low-to-moderate income families. Let parents choose the educational option that is the best "fit" for their child- whether that's a government-run school, a Catholic or other religious school, a secular private school, an independent study program, or home education without government funding but also without government interference.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Don't Judge "Barbie" Before You Get to Know Her

Via Mama Squirrel over at "Dewey's Treehouse", I came across a very interesting post by Rachel over at "The Simple Family" entitled "Image is Everything". In it, Rachel laments how some fellow moms she encountered at the gym made her feel self-conscious about living frugally. While I can certainly relate to those types of feelings living near Silicon Valley, I was very disturbed by her harsh stereotyping of the other moms:

"I realized I was surrounded by Barbies. Walking, talking Barbies who all weighed 10 pounds, looked perfect and seemed totally carefree....I felt as if I had accidentally wandered into the lobby of the Ford Modeling Agency and me and my unbrushed hair children did not fit in."

I suspect that if Rachel had encountered me at the gym I belonged to back when we lived in Massachusetts, she would've assumed that I was one of those evil McMansion-living, "Lexus Mini-Van driving, Prada-wearing, perfect hair, big white teeth" Barbies.

Would she realize that the cute workout clothes I was wearing were bought on sale at discount stores such as TJ Maxx or Target? Would she know that my "immaculately dressed" kids are wearing gifts, hand-me-downs, or consignment shop finds? Would she know that our family shares 1 economy vehicle, has no cable/satellite or land line, vacations with relatives, and rents a modest condo?

My appearance may bear a resemblance to a certain doll but that's almost entirely due to genetics. My DNA has programmed me to be blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and to have an hourglass figure. That doesn't mean I'm automatically shallow, label-conscious, snobby, a spendthrift, and so on.

Would Rachel want me to judge her and her kids by their appearances alone without getting to know what they are really like? If the answer is no, then why would she judge my family simply by how we might look at first glance?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why Schools Need to Offer Gifted & Talented Education

Critics of Gifted and Talented Education programs in government-run schools such as the Washington Post's Jay Matthews often claim that gifted children simply ought to be accelerated to higher grades. While acceleration may be a good option for students who are moderately and globally gifted, it's not appropriate for many gifted children.

Dr. James T. Webb is the founder of the nonprofit organization SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of Gifted Children), past president of the American Association for Gifted Children, and the author of several books on giftedness including A Parent's Guide to Gifted Children and Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Teachers and Parents. There's a fantastic quote from him in a recent article in Forbes magazine on giftedness:

"Once you get up into the gifted range, particularly as you get into the upper reaches of the gifted range, you find an increasing span of abilities. You may have a child who is 8 years old, a second grader, who is reading at a seventh-grade level, does math at a fifth-grade level, has visual/motor skills at a third-grade level and decision/judgment skills at a second- or third-grade level."

This is exactly why acceleration doesn't work well for many gifted children. Into which grade exactly would Matthews et. al. place this student? All of the options (3rd, 5th, or 7th) would be inappropriate in one or more areas.

Of all the intellectually gifted individuals I know, only a handful were equally talented across all domains. Typically, they were way ahead either verbally or mathematically; slightly ahead or at grade-level in the other; and slightly ahead, grade-level, or even behind in their motor skills. Dysgraphia, for example, is a surprisingly common learning disability among intellectually gifted students (particularly boys). Simply throwing a 5 yr-old who is reading at the 4th grade level into a 4th grade English class wouldn't be appropriate, since it's likely that he or she would not be physically mature enough in his/her motor skills to handle all the writing required. There would need to be major modifications to the standard curriculum, the type of differentiation that many teachers are unable or unwilling to provide given the realities of a 20-30 student classroom in this era of No Child Left Behind.

Even if gifted children do receive appropriate modifications in an accelerated class, they are not with their true peers. A kindergartener with an IQ of 150 is not the same as a third grader with an average IQ even if he/she has the same cognitive ability. As the Forbes article notes, gifted children typically have:

"superior memories, a knack for creating original skits, the ability to concentrate intensely for long periods of time."

Dr. Webb points out some of the other characteristics that often set gifted children apart from average ones:

"[A gifted child] is very curious, talks early and asks a lot of questions .... If they're into chess, that's all they want to do. If they have a tantrum, it's over-the-top. If they have an imaginary friend, they don't just have one or two. They have 10 or 11, and each has imaginary pets."

Kazimierz Dabrowski calls these tendancies "overexcitabilities". Teachers and administrators who are unfamiliar with the literature on giftedness often misdiagnose such children as having ADHD and push medication.

Schools ought to provide gifted children the chance to learn with their intellectual peers in a class taught by someone who has completed training in how to meet their special educational needs. The teacher must be sensitive to uneven abilities across domains and must adapt the curriculum for the many gifted students whose cognitive skills are far ahead of their motor skills.

Advocates of acceleration often like to tout that it doesn't cost the school anything extra to provide it. The same argument could be made for districts with a sufficiently large student population to set aside one school for GATE. My local district covers an area with a population of roughly 125,000. There are 10,000 students enrolled K-8 plus however many private school and homeschool students (countywide, 18.7% of K-8 students attend private schools including private homeschools). Given the proximity to Silicon Valley and the fact that nearly 1/4 of the residents hold a graduate or professional degree, I suspect that a significant portion of the students living in the district are gifted. I also suspect that many of these families would prefer to send their children to a public GATE school if one were available. Similar GATE schools in other places such as Hunter in NYC and Balboa in LA receive dozens of applications for each slot.

There is a private GATE school nearby that charges a whopping $23k/yr per child for elementary school. Why should only gifted children from affluent families receive an appropriate education?

British Govt. Agency: "3 Little Pigs" Offends Muslims

While the Malaysian government is busy censoring Christian kids' books, the British government has excluded a digital version of "The 3 Little Pigs" from its educational technology awards for "concerns about the Asian community and the use of pigs [raising] cultural issues." The feedback from the judges explaining why they had rejected the CD-ROM highlighted that they "could not recommend this product to the Muslim community".

The book's creative director, Anne Curtis, dismisses the government's criticism that
the idea that including pigs in a story could be interpreted as racism. In a statement, she said her company is committed to an ethical approach to business and its products promote a message of mutual respect. Banning such traditional stories, she asserts, will "close minds rather than open them".

I have numerous Jewish friends who, like Muslims, do not eat pork products. I have never once heard any of them complain about "The Three Little Pigs" being offensive to them. I have Hindu friends as well, and haven't heard them complaining about children's stories featuring cows. I'm virtually certain that my Jewish and Hindu friends would find the suggestion that they would take offense at animal stories to be as ludicrous as I do. They know what is a legitimate cultural insensitivity and what is political correctness taken to a ridiculous extreme.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger

Yet another talented young entertainer lost to a drug overdose :-( Whether it turns out to be an accident or suicide, it's a shame that he couldn't work through whatever personal problems he was facing. My heart is breaking for his little girl :-(

May God have mercy on his soul and bring comfort to those who mourn him...

Malaysia Censors Christian Kids' Books

Officials of the Publications and Al-Quran Texts Control Department, part of Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry, raided bookstores in mid-December and confiscated English-language Christian children's books. The authorities claimed that the illustrations of Biblical prophets such as Moses and Abraham violate Islamic Shariah law.

In a January 17th statement, the head of the Council of Churches-Malaysia, Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, questioned how the books could be offensive to Muslims when they were not meant for them. In the strongly worded statement about the seizures, Rev. Shastri said government officials “have no right and have overstepped their bounds by confiscating Christian literature.”

Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution 11 protects the right to religious freedom. However, the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, is an Islamic scholar who promotes the concept of "Islam Hadhari" or "Islamic Civilization."

Rev. Shastri accused the government of persecuting Christians and of ceding jurisdiction over civil matters to Shariah courts.

This type of censorship is absolutely outrageous! The Islamofascist thought police have no right to impose their rules on non-Muslims. Moses, Abraham, and the other prophets were part of the Bible thousands of years before Muhammad founded Islam. Christians have every right to portray these figures in books aimed at educating their own children about their own faith.

108th Carnival of Homeschooling is Up!

Alasandra is hosting this week's 108th Carnival of Homeschooling: American Literature Edition. Happy reading!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Defaulting on the Promissory Note

Today we set aside regular lessons in our homeschool for a discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights in this country. As I read Rev. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech to my five year old and explained its meaning to her, it occurred to me that many of those who attended schools named in his honor might not be able to do the same.

Jonathan Kozol gave statistics in his 2005 book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America about just how segregated schools named for Rev. King or other civil rights heroes such as Thurgood Marshall & Rosa Parks are- typically 96-99% of students are African-American or Latino and most live in poverty. A shamefully large percentage of the students drop out, and many of those who do earn enough credits to graduate struggle to pass exit exams testing 10th grade English and 8th grade math skills. Kozol describes these schools as "tense, disorderly, socially unhappy, and often violent."

Rev. King's speech is filled with complex vocabulary and literary and historical allusions. For example, standing near the Lincoln Memorial he said:

"Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice."

To understand this passage, one needs to be familiar with Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the terrible conditions existing under slavery. One must also know the definitions of "momentous", "decree", "beacon", "seared", "withering", etc. Without the relevant background knowledge, the passage is not going to make much sense.

For somebody like me who attended one of the best public schools in the state where I grew up, it is easy to grasp. But too many students of color in the U.S. are not receiving the type of education that would permit them to comprehend Rev. King's poetic and inspiring speech. De jure segregation has been replaced by de facto segregation.

It is shameful that over four decades have passed since Rev. King's speech and there still exists in this country such inequality of educational opportunity.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Education is Not Like Making Ice Cream

I'm currently reading a very interesting but highly depressing book called Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by journalist Linda Perlstein. Tested follows the struggles of the 3rd grade teachers at a government-run elementary school over the course of a school year to improve the test scores of its poor, primarily African-American and Latino students (scores are up but basically the entire year until March is spent doing little aside from reading & math test prep).

Anyways, while reading Tested, I came across a fabulous quote that just sums up the problems facing government-run schools. It's from a former corporate CEO named Jamie Robert Vollmer. He was giving a speech to government schoolteachers about how schools should be run more like businesses when a veteran English teacher asked what happened if his ice cream business received a subpar shipment of raw ingredients. He admitted that he would send it back:

"And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night."

You can read the full Education Week article from which the quote was taken here.

This quote just goes to demonstrate why homeschooling is able to provide a superior education to children. While parents do not have control over the innate intellectual potential of their children (that's up to God or Nature, depending on one's beliefs), they do at least have control over the environmental influences. Unlike government schoolteachers, home educators can ensure their students get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, do not watch excessive television, have regular medical & dental checkups, etc. They can consistently provide loving but firm discipline. While there still can be occasional family crises such as illness, death, job loss, or divorce (though I suspect that the divorce rate among homeschoolers is significantly lower than the general population much as it is among users of Natural Family Planning), at least homeschooled children won't have their education disrupted by classmates acting out in response to crises within their own families.

Should a homeschool budget need to be scaled back during an economic downturn, parents have control over where those cuts will be made and can minimize the negative effects on their children. Class sizes & guidance counseling loads won't suddenly go up. Electives won't disappear such often happens with art, music, PE, foreign language, etc. in government-run schools.

Those "howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night" as Mr. Vollmer puts it? In homeschooling, there really aren't too many of them. There is obviously no conflict between teachers & administrators, teachers & parents, or administrators & parents. Politicians and corporate interests have little power to meddle. No special interest groups complain about what is included in or excluded by the curriculum. The ACLU and NAACP don't stand watch threatening lawsuits. There is no controversy over military recruiters visiting the school (if one does, it's by invitation). All the political and ideological battles that distract government-run schools from their missions are virtually eliminated in homeschooling.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

Britain to Ban Teachers from Promoting Academics to Pupils

Despite criticism that Britain's new "National Vocational Qualifications" have "absolutely no significant economic value to their holders", the government is proposing to ban teachers from promoting the traditional academic qualifications known as A-levels. Under the proposal, schools will be legally required to provide "impartial advice" and "must not promote any particular options." Even if one option is clearly superior to the others, teachers would need to pretend that they're all equally valid.

While this type of relativism is sadly nothing new for schools in terms of the way they treat cultural values, I find it extremely disturbing to see it extended to the realm of academics. Britain's children deserve better, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These children are significantly less likely than wealthier ones to have informed and involved parents encouraging them to strive for A-levels. Teachers have a responsibility to their students to help them achieve their potential as best the teachers can. The government has no business interfering with that duty!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

High vs. Unrealistic Expectations

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post has long been a big fan of "open enrollment" policies for Advanced Placement courses. He has written that AP courses are "engaging and exciting academic experiences that can enliven high school for nearly all students." While AP courses are certainly engaging, exciting, and enlivening for those with the ability and proper preparation, they are not appropriate for many students.

Let's use exercise as an analogy. Let's imagine that I am a couch potato who wants to get in shape. Should I immediately throw myself into a hardcore marathon training program despite the very slim odds that I would be able to successfully complete one? Or should I aim for a more realistic goal such as a 10k? While a 10k is a less challenging race than a marathon, being able to complete a 10k would leave me significantly better off than I am now. Plus I'm much less likely to become discouraged by the rigor of the 10k training program than I would by the marathon one. After I can successfully run the 10k, then I'll be in a position to start training for a longer race.

It's the same with academics. Let's get high school students working at grade-level before we worry about getting them to complete a college-level AP course. Here in California, low-income students are twice as likely to be below grade-level in English than wealthier students and three times as likely to be below grade-level in math. By middle school, poor students are an astonishing four years behind in English. Simply getting these students to perform at grade-level would be a significant accomplishment and put them in a much better position to successfully attend college.

Matthews' current column is entitled "High Schools that Break the Mold." He lauds what he terms "Surprise Schools":

"These are public high schools that have very large numbers of low-income students and that are doing as well as many affluent public schools in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test participation, and even more surprisingly, in the scores their students are getting on these college-level tests."

One of these "Surprise Schools" is Bell Multicultural in Washington, D.C. Matthews is impressed by the school's high number of AP tests given, but few of the students passed any of the exams aside from Spanish (the school is 65% Latino). Of the 226 AP English exams, there were zero students scoring 4 or 5 (the scores typically required for credit at top colleges), and three students who scored a 3 (the minimum to pass). That's correct, 98.7% of the students at Bell failed the AP English exam even though they all completed an AP English course. Of those who failed, 86% got the lowest possible score of 1. This is success to Matthews?

Even Matthews admits there is (emphasis added):

"a growing body of evidence that, while mastering the material taught in AP classes and performing well on the AP exams is correlated with later success in college, mere enrollment in AP classes is not."

So there seems little benefit to enrolling kids who are highly unlikely to pass the AP exams in AP courses. Certainly every school ought to offer AP or equivalent courses for its brightest students. But when the overwhelming majority of students who successfully complete an AP course go on to fail the exam, that's a sign that they never ought to be have been in the class to begin with.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Homeschooling Not to Blame for DC Tragedy

Four girls are dead in Washington, D.C., apparently murdered by their mother, and the district Superintendent of Schools Deborah Gist blames homeschooling:

"The tragic event highlights the failure of not having home school policies."

Without question, the deaths of 5-year-old Aja Fogle, 6-year-old N'Kiah Fogle, 11-year-old Britney Jacks, and 17-year-old Tatianna Jacks are certainly tragic. But let's examine what we know about the case:

  • The mother, Banita Jacks, had 4 children by 3 different men, the first when she was only 16 years old.
  • She had past run-ins with the law.
  • She, the children, and the father of the youngest 2 girls, Nathanial Fogle, spent 4 months in a city-run homeless shelter in the winter of 2006.
  • In the summer of 2006, a nurse treating Mr. Fogle for leukemia called the city's Child and Family Services to report that both parents had substance abuse problems and the family was living in a van. The CFS worker failed to open a case because the family lacked a fixed address.
  • After Mr. Fogle died in February 2007, Ms. Jacks and the children did not attend the funeral. A relative of Mr. Fogle's said that when he last saw the children in May, they were unaware of their father's death.
  • In March 2007, Ms. Jacks withdrew the three younger children from school, claiming that she was going to homeschool them. The withdrawal was processed by a relative or close friend of Ms. Jacks with no questions asked.
  • At the end of April, a social worker at the oldest daughter's school became concerned with the girl's truancy and went to the home twice. After Ms. Jacks denied her entry, the social worker became concerned about her mental state and called CFS.
  • In May, CFS attempted to visit the Jacks home but no one answered the door. On May 16, CFS apparently concluded that Ms. Jacks had moved to her mother's home in Maryland, without contacting Ms. Jacks' mom to see if this really was the case. CFS contacted its counterparts in Maryland and closed their file.
  • In mid-June, Maryland informed DC CFS that it had been unable to locate Ms. Jacks and the children at the mom's home. CFS failed to re-open its file.
Clearly, this tragedy isn't about homeschool regulations- it's about a deeply troubled family who managed to fall through the cracks in our child welfare system. Red flags were raised about Ms. Jacks well prior to her removal of the children from the government-run school system. Why did she not receive the help she needed for her substance abuse and mental health problems? Why did CFS fail to act on the nurse's report in summer 2006? Why did it close its file in May without ascertaining whether the family had indeed moved out of its jurisdiction? Why did it not re-open it upon hearing from Maryland in June?

Let's stop pointing fingers at homeschooling and reform the child welfare system so that no more kids wind up victims of homicidal child abuse and/or neglect.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bread and Circuses

"Public schools perform many valuable services. These include getting offspring out of the house when they are at their most difficult; transporting them to distant locations free of charge; providing free, or at least very cheap, lunches and sometimes breakfasts too; introducing them to the opposite sex in a controlled environment; providing some physical activity, thus preventing them from being couch potatoes; providing spectator sports to entertain them on weekends; instilling some basic literacy and the ability to read clocks and timetables; and, at the end of the process, bestowing a diploma entitling the recipient to further subsidized education. The benefits of the system are obvious..."

Perhaps the author is being sardonic here, but that's not the impression I got from reading the rest of the op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

This type of attitude is sadly too prevalent in this country. One of the city council members of a town in my area went on record opposing a science- & technology- focused charter school because it wouldn't have full athletic facilities. This despite the fact that there are numerous traditional high schools in the district offering students who wanted to play varsity sports the chance to do so. What does this say about the councilwoman's priorities? It's like she believes that the main purpose of a high school is fielding a championship football team!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

TT: 13 Warm & Sunny Places I Have Been


Given that it's been rainy and cold here for almost a week, I decided on a mental vacation for this week's TT. Here are thirteen warm & sunny places I have been:

1. Tuscany, Italy
2. Provence, France
3. Cancun, Mexico
4. The Bahamas
5. Bermuda
6. Kauai, Hawaii
7. Orlando, Florida
8. Vero Beach, Florida
9. Clearwater, Florida
10. San Diego, California
11. Las Vegas, Nevada
12. Los Angeles, California
13. The Mojave Desert, California (not very nice but definitely warm & sunny!)

Links to other TT's: (please note that I take no responsibility for the content of linked blogs):

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others' comments. It’s easy, and fun! Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Monday, January 7, 2008

When School "Choice" Offers No Good Choices

Browsing the archives over at "The Quick and the Ed", I came across a link to an interesting NPR story on the school choice program in Mapleton, CO. About half of Mapleton's students are from low-income families, and nearly 2/3 are Hispanic. Faced with a high drop-out rate and low standardized test scores, Mapleton embarked on an ambitious overhaul plan. The district created 17 very different school programs, from International Baccalaureate to a high-tech project-based program to a progressive arts one. The school district adopted as its motto:

"Give parents the maximum choice, and let them choose the style that's best for their kids."

Sounds wonderful in theory, but the problem is that the schools still stink. Despite all the promising rhetoric and the $2.6 million donation made by the Gates Foundation, student achievement has not made any significant improvement.

This reminds me of one of the districts in my area. They offer 8 magnet elementary schools and 3 magnet middle schools. These run the gamut from Montessori to IB to project-based to visual & performing arts. Sounds promising until one starts to look at the academic achievement level of their students. 7 out of the 8 schools have below-average test scores when compared to schools across the state with similar demographic profiles. 4 of those are in the bottom 20% compared to similar schools. The one school that did about average compared to similar schools got fewer than half its students to the "proficient" or "advanced" levels on the English and math tests.

As a parent, I want to be able to choose the type of program that best suits my child's individual needs. I strongly believe that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to education. However, school choice doesn't amount to diddley squat if there are no good options from which to choose!

Affluent parents have real school choice in this country. If they want a Montessori or a progressive school for their child, they don't have to settle for a government-run one with a lousy track record. They also have options not available in the government system such as religious schools.

It's high time that poor and middle-class families were allowed the same freedom to choose the right school for their children as the wealthy. The current system is contributing to the "two Americas" that John Edwards is always talking about. The "haves" can afford to opt-out of the failing government-run school system while the "have nots" are trapped.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Arnie's Billion Dollar Plan for More of the Same in Education

If something isn't working, does it make sense to dramatically expand it without first doing a complete overhaul? Any CEO who championed such a plan would almost certainly get shown the door, yet that's exactly what California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing for the state's government-run school system.

Despite the failure of California's government-run schools to provide a proper education to its K-12 students, Arnie is pushing a $1.1 billion/year plan for universal preschool. In the United States, preschool attendance has soared from 16% to 70% without any major increase in student achievement. Here in California, 66% of the state's 4 year olds currently attend a pre-k program. Given that the majority of California's kids already go to preschool, how can it be the solution to the state's education woes?

A 2005 analysis by the RAND corporation found that 92% of the costs associated with a universal preschool program would be the result of children transferring from their existing preschools into a new state-run pre-k program. Only 11% of 4 year olds from low-income families in California are not currently attending preschool due to financial hardship. Instead of spending massive amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize medium-to-high income families' preschool costs, why not offer vouchers to those low-income families so that they can attend the preschool program of their choice?

There is little evidence that existing government-run preschools offer any lasting benefits. Most of the rosy claims proponents of universal preschool make are extrapolations from small-scale studies of disadvantaged children in programs that would be difficult to replicate on a large scale. For example, the Chicago Child-Parent Center offered not just preschool but also assistance to the parents in finishing high school, home visitations by nurses, speech therapy, and tutoring for the children up through 3rd grade. It is difficult to know how much of the benefits of that program can be attributed to the family support services as opposed to the preschool part. Even if the preschool portion did benefit the children in the Chicago study, the results may not generalize to a wider population.

A 2005 study done by researchers at Stanford and the University of California found that middle class children who attended preschool centers for as few as 15 hours/week displayed more negative behaviors than similar children who stayed at home.

California voters rejected universal preschool in 2006 by a margin of 61% to 39%. That should be a message to the governor that he ought to fix California's government-run schools, not waste billions in expanding a broken system.

Friday, January 4, 2008

What Does it Mean for a School to be "Effective"?

What makes an effective school? The answers given to this question reveal much about the priorities of the responder.

There's an interesting article over at today entitled "How do effective schools drive student performance?" It discusses a recently released report on Tennessee government-run schools by a group called the Education Consumers Foundation. The ECS was founded in 2005 by Dr. John E. Stone, professor of education at East Tennessee State University. Its stated aim is to be the Consumer Reports of education policy and practice.

The ECS did a study of 6 TN schools whose students made the greatest annual gains on achievement as determined by the state's "value-added accountability system." I'm unfamiliar with the details of the TN system, but from the ECS press release, it appears to be heavily weighted on standardized reading and math tests. ECS wanted to know what made these schools so "effective" and discovered:

"while these schools were geographically and socio-economically diverse, they shared a set of common practices – practices that created an environment where students could excel, and which could be adopted by any school interested in excellence."

As someone who is very interested in education, I was curious to see the report's conclusions. Here they are, with my comments in bold:

1. The top-performing schools use progress tests that assess the same skills that are tested on the state’s Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) examinations. In other words, teaching to the test.
2. The top-performing schools require students to meet higher-than-minimum mastery criteria on student progress tests. Okay, but the focus should be on actually mastering the subject material, not just being able to pick the correct answer on some multiple-choice test.
3. The top-performing schools employ practice-intensive learning activities that target the types of skills required by the examination. Drill-and-kill test prep again.
4. In the top-performing schools, the principal receives frequent reports of individual student progress with respect to attainment of Tennessee’s curriculum standards. Keeping on top of student progress is certainly important, but again the focus is on passing the test rather than real learning.
5. In the top-performing schools, teachers receive frequent reports on the progress of each of their students. Ditto #4.
6. In the top-performing schools, teaching practices are adjusted when a student makes insufficient progress towards a curricular objective. Students simply are not permitted to quietly fail. Absolutely.
7. In top-performing schools, student progress data is used to assess each teacher’s classroom effectiveness. Teaching performance is tracked continuously by the principal or by colleagues who are assigned to monitor teacher and student progress. Okay, but student progress should be measured in multiple ways, not just via standardized testing.
8. In top-performing schools, the principal and other teachers routinely work with struggling colleagues to improve their teaching skills. Okay to a certain extent, but if a lousy teacher does not improve within a reasonable time frame, then administrators should be able to fire him/her. This would require a significant revamping of the tenure system.
9. In top-performing schools, principals obtain supplemental budgetary support for the training and materials required to improve teacher performance. I don't think that simply throwing more money into the current system is going to improve schools. There needs to be a top-to-bottom overhaul to eliminate waste and get more bang for the taxpayer's buck.
10. Top-performing schools regularly inform parents about their child’s performance and seek to work with parents whenever children are progressing insufficiently. Parental involvement is key. Schools need to work with parents, not undermine them as happens so often in today's government-run schools.
11. Top-performing schools survey parents at least annually to assess satisfaction with the school’s services. Surveys aren't enough since they can be easily ignored by educrats. Parents need greater input in how their children's schools are actually run.
12. Top-performing schools have school-wide programs that reward positive social and academic student behavior. Principals monitor the success of these programs, collecting data on the number and type of student referrals for problem behavior. Bribery undermines intrinsic motivation. Certainly, schools ought to recognize hard work and student achievement through things such as the honor roll. But the expectation should be on valuing learning for its own sake, not for some external reward like cash for good grades.

So what are some of the things I personally would look for as evidence of an effective school? Here are 12 suggestions:
  • Students demonstrate mastery of subject material in multiple ways, not just on standardized multiple choice tests.
  • A safe learning environment free from violence, drugs, and other discipline problems.
  • A focus on academics. It's not the school's job to take care of students' every need. A teacher should instruct, not act as therapist, social worker, foster parent, etc.
  • High standards for all students. No more patronizing attitude that girls and minorities need a dumbed-down curriculum in order to "feel good about themselves." Frankly, it's insulting!
  • The school fosters a true love of learning, so that students will continue to seek out new intellectual challenges and avenues for growth long after graduation.
  • The school encourages creativity, thinking "outside the box", and approaching problem-solving in novel ways. If the U.S. wants to compete in the global postindustrial economy, we've got to be the innovators.
  • Less reliance on textbooks and worksheets and a greater emphasis on experiential learning. Field trips shouldn't be limited to once or twice per year but rather frequent excursions. Learning doesn't just happen within the confines of the classroom.
  • A rigorous curriculum that is tailored to the needs of the individual children, not a "one size fits all" cookie-cutter one mandated by some committee of educrats hundreds of miles away in the state capitol or thousands of miles away in D.C.
  • The school recognizes that intellectually gifted children have special educational needs and provides them with opportunities for acceleration, curriculum compacting, enrichment, and so on. It's not "elitist" to have GATE, it's a matter of providing the gifted with an appropriate education the way we do children on the other end of the IQ spectrum.
  • Bright, hardworking teachers who have completed academically rigorous teacher preparation programs that focus on subject material and proven pedagogical techniques rather than anti-intellectual, politically correct edubabble.
  • Hiring, pay, and dismissal of teachers based on performance (multiple measures not just standardized test scores) rather than seniority.
  • The school recognizes parents as the primary educators, and works with them rather than undermining them.
Hmm, now that I reflect on what I've written, it basically boils down to saying that traditional schooling should be more like homeschooling!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Top Universities Recruiting Wealthy Foreigners While Denying American Applicants

Last year, Harvard University received approximately $514 million in Federal research grant money. It receives tens of millions more annually in Federal financial aid for its students.

In the 2006-2007 admissions cycle, Harvard admitted a mere 9% of its applicants. While numbers are not in yet for this year, some of its peers have reported a significant increase in both the quality and quantity of applications. Newsweek has an article this week about how competitive college admissions have become in recent years.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read the following:

"The most selective institutions have begun to aggressively recruit applicants from China, Korea, India and South America."

There aren't enough qualified Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, etc. from which to select? I find that hard to believe given all the controversy surrounding alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans in college admissions. My youngest brother has a good friend who is Chinese-American and who got rejected from Harvard despite a stellar application.

I've heard of so many similar stories, including the case of Jian Li who filed a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against Princeton University in 2006. Li scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT and 2390 out of a possible 2400 on the achievement tests in calculus, chemistry, and physics. He also had a near-perfect GPA including numerous Advanced Placement classes, and was president of his school's American Field Service chapter, served as a delegate at Boys' State, and completed a community service project in Costa Rica. In addition to his rejection by Princeton, he was also turned down by Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Penn. How many other Asian-Americans are similarly shut out while these schools are admitting foreign nationals (many of whom will leave the U.S. upon graduation)?

Shouldn't universities heavily subsidized by the U.S. taxpayers give preference to U.S. citizens and legal residents in admissions? Why are they aggressively recruiting foreigners while at the same time rejecting so many hardworking American kids?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Is Fox Scared of Ron Paul?

Dr. Ron Paul told James Pindell of the Boston Globe that Fox News' decision to exclude him from its forum on Sunday is proof that the network is scared of him.

"They are scared of me and don't want my message to get out, but it will. They are propagandists for this war and I challenge them on the notion that they are conservative. They will not win this skirmish."
Dr. Paul's spokesman, Jesse Benton, accused Fox of bias against his candidate in the International Herald Tribune:

"Ron brings up some topics that aren't very popular with Fox News, as in fiscal responsibility and withdrawing from the war in Iraq."

Dr. Paul is currently polling ahead of Fred Thompson in New Hampshire. Some believe that he may well come in 3rd in NH, ahead of Giuliani. From The Wall Street Journal:

"Many Republican operatives in New Hampshire, even those affiliated with other campaigns, think Mr. Paul is headed for an impressive, double-digit performance. That he has been polling in the high single digits for months is discounted, because the polls may be missing the depth of his support.

Why? For starters, he appears to be drawing new voters. Polls that screen for 'likely' voters might screen out many Paul supporters who haven't voted often, or at all, before. Many of Mr. Paul's supporters appear to be first-time voters. They will be able to cast their ballots because New Hampshire allows them to register and vote on the day of an election....

There is another reason to discount the polls on Mr. Paul. The one thing that unites his supporters is a desire to be left alone, not only by government, but by irritating marketers and meddling pollsters, too. Mr. Paul's supporters might well be screening their calls and not-so-inadvertently screening out pollsters."

The NH GOP chairman, Fergus Cullen, is also unhappy with Fox News' decision and told the Manchester Union-Leader that:

"Limiting the number of candidates who are invited to participate in debates is not consistent with the tradition of the first-in-the-nation primary. The level playing field requires that all serious candidates be given an equal opportunity to participate -- not just a selected few determined by the media prior to any votes being cast. The state party has notified FOX News of our position and we are in ongoing discussions with FOX News about having as many candidates as possible participate in the forum scheduled for January 6."

I haven't decided yet who I'm going to vote for in the primary, but the way Dr. Paul is being railroaded is making me very angry and more inclined to join the " rEVOLution".

Fox News Gives Ron Paul the Shaft

Question #1- How many of you know a single Fred Thompson supporter? Yeah, me neither.

Question #2- How many of you know multiple Ron Paul supporters? Yeah, me too.

Actually, the only people I know who are really jazzed about their candidate are the Paul fans. Everyone else I know (Republican, Democrat, or independent) are all lukewarm. They may support Romney/Giuliani/Huckabee/McCain/Hillary/Obama/Edwards/etc. but it's with reservations.

I was very disappointed to learn that Fox News has excluded Dr. Paul from its upcoming forum in New Hampshire. It just baffles me why the mainstream media has decided to ignore Dr. Paul when he's got a ton of grassroots support. He raised $19.5 million in the last 3 months of 2007, nearly as much as Hillary Clinton did during the same time frame. He's all over the 'net and I've seen more signs for him around than for any other Republican (granted I live in the Bay Area).

What I really don't get is Fox's decision to include Fred Thompson. Here's a guy who reportedly told voters at a campaign event in Iowa last weekend that he's "not particularly interested in running for president." For all that the Associated Press claims that Thompson has the support of 11% of likely GOP voters as opposed to Paul's alleged 3%, those numbers just don't gibe with my personal observations.