Saturday, July 30, 2016

And what power do parents have over today's schools?

Earlier, I wrote about how schools weaken parental prerogatives at home. To what degree can parents, conversely, influence what happens in schools?

This, too, is an area in which the past favored parents. In my parent’s generation, organizations like the PTA had at least some control over the school curriculum. At the very least, it wasn’t out of bounds for parents to explore ways in which particular courses might change for the better. My mother, for example, served on a curriculum committee that advocated, among other things, that teachers assign and grade more essays.

Now, with the growing forces of centralization channeling through district-level administration and state-level high stakes testing, academics are increasingly out of our hands. While PTAs and HSOs still exist, their main function, so far as I can tell, is fundraising and volunteer activities that merely enable current practices. The officers of these organizations, our fellow parents, have often become yes-men for the principals, and the free and open discussions that PTA/HSO meetings are supposed to welcome are often hijacked by those “facilitating” them. At a meeting at our neighborhood school that was billed as a discussion of the school’s math curriculum, for example, we were told to write down our questions ahead of time on index cards, with our names included. Then, when the “math expert”’s presentation went on “longer than expected” and there was “unfortunately” no time for any questions, those index cards were simply collected. Not that they were ignored and tossed out; rather, they were used against us. That is, certain of us parents were publically criticized by our yes-men peers for being overly critical of the math program. In other words, as with all that excess homework I wrote about earlier, a certain cohort of powerful parents are effectively working against the rest of us.

What precisely, is going on here? What’s preventing us from unifying into a gigantic squeaky wheel? One is that schools can safely ignore us. Growing centralization means (1) that some schoolboards are no longer elected, and (2) that, regardless, these boards increasingly deflect all curriculum decisions to superintendents and their administrative underlings: people who are appointed rather than elected. But not all the power over us is centralized. For the balance, we need look no further than our friendly neighborhood elementary schools.

It’s during the elementary school years ;when parental power should be at its greatest. It’s at this point when there’s the most opportunity for parents to come together and bond—in the school yard of what is typically a local, neighborhood school where we drop off and pick up our kids; during after-school play dates; during neighborhood soccer practice and other neighborhood-based extracurricular activities. Later, when our kids are in high school, there’s a lot less opportunity for spontaneously bonding: school is often out of the neighborhood; different local kids may be spread across different schools, and our kids’ social lives and extracurriculars are increasingly independent of us parents.

So why do elementary schools, in particular, have such power over us? The answer is our kids’ futures: specifically, what comes after elementary school. In many large districts, we find an increasing scarcity of decent middle schools and high schools; a growing disparity between good magnet schools and terrible local schools. Maximizing our kids’ chances of getting into one of the former is, increasingly as the application deadlines approach, first and foremost on our minds. And this means ensuring that our children get good grades and recommendation letters. Since, as I’ve argued elsewhere, grades (especially in elementary school) are increasingly subjective (with perceived effort and attitude—or “grit” and “growth mindsets”--figuring as never before), there’s plenty of latitude for students of “problem parents” to get problematic grades, not to mention problematic recommendation letters. Maybe this rarely happens, but perception is all that matters, and perception is what ultimately drives the yes-men parents and the silent, compliant majority of the rest of us.

Of course, grades and recommendation letters also matter in high school, but here, again, parents have fewer opportunities to come together and organize. Even more forbidding is college, where parents are more separated from one another than ever, and privacy laws allow college students to hide their progress, or lack thereof, from parents. Of course, most parents don’t even consider trying to influence academics at their children’s colleges; but parents of students with special needs may occasionally feel the urge. However, even if, say, the parents of students on the autistic spectrum at a particular college or university wanted to get together and advocate, say, for a change in the college English requirements, privacy laws—designed, of course, to protect our children with disabilities--ensure that we won’t even find out who we are, let alone unite and try to help our kids.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core inspired explained answers

From the 8th grade Pennsylvania Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics Item and Scoring Sampler for Grade 7:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Parents vs. schools: who's in charge of kids

One of the things I’m going to have to do prepare my daughter for regular school next year is get her her own private laptop. While it’s understandable why schools—at least high schools--require this, it also represents one of many ways in which school policies end up weakening parenting prerogatives. Once your child’s face has a screen up in front of it, it becomes a lot harder to observe whether she’s focusing on what she should be—short of sitting down next to her and breathing down her neck. Computer use in the classroom is even worse: you’re not there, and the teacher can’t monitor everyone at once.

But required computer use is only one example of how today’s schools weaken parenting. There’s also:

--The vastly increased homework, including summer reading, writing and math; large amounts of busywork; and big projects that end up requiring heavy parental involvement (trips to art supply stores; organizational help; nagging). All this subtracts substantially from the time the child spends with family in family-chosen activities.

--All those “Dear Parent or Guardian” letters--a staple of Reform Math--that tell us how to, and how not to, teach our kids math. They sometimes require us to get actively involved in our child’s homework, but only on their own terms. They warn us not to teach our children how to “stack” numbers and use traditional algorithms. They sometimes ask us to teach our children their multiplication tables—claiming that there isn’t enough time to at school.

--All the time we’re expected to volunteer in classrooms and attend in-class events: expectations that, while exceeding those of a generation ago (my parents were never invited into any of my classrooms), assume a 1950s style household in which at least one parent is free of pressing professional responsibilities. The time we take off from work is time many of us must make up after hours when our kids are home.

--All the hours we must take out of quality family time to teach our kids things they’re no longer learning in school: not just the multiplication tables, but phonics, penmanship, and those traditional algorithms—which, for all the naysaying, are essential for more advanced math classes.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the Scoring Sampler for the 6th grade PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessments):

Extra Credit:

Is knowing the meaning of "quartile value" an indicator of college and career readiness?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Autism as anything but social

According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, social deficits remain core to autistic spectrum disorders. But that hasn't stopped several distinct parties from acting otherwise.

First there are autism parents. While many of us freely acknowledge our children's social limitations, many find these limitations hard to accept. "What a horrible thing to say about a child," I once heard a parent say during a radio interview, "that he or she lacks empathy." There must be something else at fault: sensory overload; anxiety; faulty but fixable wiring. In other words, there must be a normal child in there somewhere.

Which brings us to the next party: the popular media. Its infatuation with autism miracle cure tales is unrelenting: here, some sort of magic bullet (most recently, Pok√©mon Go) unlocks the normal child inside the child who "has autism." Or, if not the normal child inside, then the child who, once liberated and/or truly appreciated for what he or she is, turns out to be "very social," or, as a movie critic recently wrote of the protagonist of the documentary Life, Animated, a "born leader."

While most contemporary autism research finds social deficits to be central to autism, some try to argue that these deficits are merely byproducts of other, more fixable issues. This paper, for example, claims that abnormalities in eye contact and gestures are the result of motor difficulties, and that poor performance on perspective-taking tests are the result of language delays. But even when you disentangle motor tasks and linguistic tasks from social tasks, children on the autistic spectrum do poorly on tests of social reciprocity and perspective taking.

Moving from psychology and neurology to philosophy and disability studies, one does find the occasional attempt to argue against core Theory of Mind deficits in autism. Here the argument involves claiming that the whole notion of a normal or defective Theory of Mind assumes a certain faulty, out-of-date "Cartesian dualism"--i.e., the existence of a mind that is separate from the body/brain. In fact, neither the various Theory of Mind experiments, nor their various conclusions, depend on any such assumption.

But the most bizarre embodiment of the notion that social skills aren't a core deficit of autism, in my experience, is the occasional person who claims to be autistic because they have sensory issues. These are people who show typical levels of social reciprocity and social sensitivity in their conversational interactions (for example during their interview on Fresh Air), but who say they probably have (or could be diagnosed as having) an autistic spectrum disorder because of those sensory issues.

Now, I'm someone who regularly removes labels from my shirts, and who regularly covers her ears when ambulances go by, and who can't stand bananas because the texture is so tremendously disturbing--but I'd hesitate to diagnose myself as being anywhere on the autistic spectrum. At least for those particular reasons.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turning in assignments in the 21st century: a 21st century skill?

Turning in homework used to be child’s play. In the early grades, before most kids had developed all the necessary organizational skills, teachers would simply walk around and collect it. There was no question of stuff getting lost. Of course, there was also less homework back then—in the early grades. It wasn’t until the later grades—high school, college—that it was up to kids to turn things in themselves.

Nowadays it’s all so much more complicated. In the early grades, the fact that some kids have the necessary organizational skills to turn things in (and complete large, open-ended projects, and design their own science experiments, and give multi-media presentations in front of the class) has caused teachers to expect everyone to do so. It’s the 21st century, after all, and kids need to learn to take responsibility.

In the upper grades, meanwhile, homework is increasingly supposed to be turned in online. In principle, this ought to make things more convenient. But in practice, the e-turn-in procedures are often non-transparent or susceptible to technological mishaps. You think you’ve turned something in, and then it turns out later—typically after it’s too late—that you haven’t. There was some additional button you were supposed to click on.

Both trends—the lower grade “take responsibility” and the upper grade high tech turn in protocols--have dogged J as he’s moved through the system. As with so many kids on the spectrum, his ability to keep track of things is, if not lacking, then lagging. Countless man hours have gone into IEP meetings, and follow-up meetings, and follow-up follow-up meetings, in which different “stakeholders” have proposed various elaborate strategies to address the lost homework/failure to turn it in problem: all sorts of checklists and reward systems and back-and-forth communication systems. Why can’t teachers simply collect assignments (at least J’s) as they did back in the dark ages, I’d ask repeatedly. Teachers don’t have time for that, someone explained at one point. But what about all the time everyone is therefore spending in meetings coming up with alternative strategies and afterwards attempting to implement them?

If you look through Listservs for autism parents, concerns about points off for homework that was completed but not turned in on time are ubiquitous. Serious problems that lack obvious solutions are a staple of autism; lost homework shouldn’t be one of them.

No sooner had J became organized enough to turn things in on his own—this milestone occurred sometime between the end of high school and his freshman year in college—than the rules of the game up and changed. Suddenly, for his computer science classes, it turned out (a) that he was supposed to be turning things in using a program called Bitbucket, and (b) that he was getting zeroes because he hadn’t paid attention to this requirement, let alone to the logistics of Bitbucket. Of course, now that he’s in college, it’s too late for IEPs, so all I can do is bug him at the start of each next class about keeping an eye on the latest turn-in protocol and emailing his professor if anything’s unclear.

Further complicating matters, the rules for contacting professors are also changing. Some don’t want to be contacted at all via regular email, but only via Blackboard or Canvas.

Then there’s the issue of acquiring new assignments and getting back old ones—in a timely fashion, with perspicuous feedback. Theoretically, programs like Blackboard or Canvas make this easier. In practice, as with so much else on the web, the logistics are often byzantine: multiple pages to navigate among; multiple sequences of non-obvious, hard-to-find tabs to click on. You think the new assignment hasn’t been posted yet, only to discover that it was posted several days ago. You see the score on your last assignment; you might even see statistics on how the class did overall (complete with median, mode, and range); but you don’t necessarily get that crucial, qualitative feedback that one used to get back in the dark ages: personalized feedback about where one might have gone wrong and what one needs to work on in the future.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired explained answers

More from Maryland:

Extra Credit

Might there be a bias towards verbosity and against poor penmanship and spelling?