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  • August 1, 2014 01:00 PM Common Core Has a Messaging Problem. It Also Has a Real Problem.

    Recently Stephanie Simon over at Politico wrote that opposition to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a project to bring state curricula into alignment and improve the quality of American education by requiring common, high-level examinations, is escalating because Common Core advocates have been “fighting emotion with talking points.”

    But things might get better because advocates will now change their focus in order to

    …get Americans angry about the current state of public education.
    To that end, expect to start hearing from frustrated college students who ended up in remedial classes even though they passed all their state tests and earned good grades in high school. “These kids should be as mad as hell” that the system failed them, [Fordham Institute Executive Vice President Mike] Petrilli said.

    Neal McCkuskey, education expert over at the Cato Institute, objected to this characterization of the problem. No, he says, people do not object to Common Core because Common Core advocates have the wrong social media strategy:

    Reducing unpleasantness…is not what the Common Core debate should ultimately be about. It should be about the logic, evidence, and facts behind national standards. And neither the past work of Core proponents, nor their impending pivot, appears designed to meaningfully deal in those essential things.

    He’s got a point. As far as strategy goes, most of the discussion points are fairly stupid. But that doesn’t mean the opposition is without merit.

    CommonCore

    The first, from conservatives, is the idea that the initiative represents some intrusion of federal power into education.

    It does not. All federally backed education reform ideas, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, to Common Core, comes from the money provided by the federal government through Title I, which delivers free and reduced lunch to poor children. It’s a voluntary program. States are free to avoid any federal education mandates by not taking Title I money. (Common Core is a little more complicated since 45 states have already agreed to the standards, but constitutionally it’s the same.)

    The second, from liberals and teachers, is just that the reform will tie teacher evaluation closely to unreliable standardized tests and, in the words of Karen Wolfe over at LA Progressive, it is an,

    education reform agenda with its call to deregulate schools as a public good, and destabilize labor unions which have historically been huge supporters of the Democratic party.

    Well yes, but that’s a trend that’s far bigger than Common Core and, indeed, even education. Deregulation of public goods and the elimination of organized labor has been going on for decades.

    McCkuskey, however, raises a more fundamental objection: it’s just not going to work. As he writes:

    For the most part, [advocates] …simply assert that the Common Core represents high standards, and that’s what we need to vault near top place in the world educational and economic competition. This ignores the major empirical evidence I and many others have brought against the Core, and national standards generally, showing that standards - much less the Core itself - have demonstrated no such power.

    Holding all children to national standards is useful in that it would allow easy comparison between states, and provide a common idea of where students are falling short. That’s vaguely progressive in that it might allow schools to identify problems, but it won’t actually fix them.

    All of this worry about being too nice, and not selling the case is, in the long run, not all that important. While a few governors have issued official objections to the reform (Some have even announced they will not participate, before turning around and suggesting new standards that basically are Common Core, with a few word changes.), Common Core is basically a done deal.

    But after it happens nothing will change. We will still see that poor children have lower achievement. Poor children will continue to be less likely to go to college and more likely to drop out. We will continue to bemoan the way that American students as a whole won’t know enough about math, science, and history. The fact that every child will be held to “clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade” will be unlikely to have any impact on these long-term problems.

  • August 1, 2014 08:39 AM A Look at Mississippi’s Request to End Cheating, with Tests Included

    Last week, the Mississippi Department of Education requested $1 million from the state legislature to combat cheating on statewide examinations. The request comes on the heels of alleged cheating systems The Clarion-Ledger wrote about at Clarksdale’s Heidelberg Elementary School earlier this year. Thereafter the state’s education department spent $300,000 to hire Utah-based consultant Caveon Test Security to investigate the Heidelberg case.

    The case comes amid a spate of cheating incidents and follows the more high profile scandals in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta.

    Click to read more columns.

    Click to read more columns.

    Should the legislature give the department $1 million to hire a consultant to detect cheating? In order to pay Paul, the legislature will have to steal from Peter. Therefore, taxpayers of Mississippi should weigh in on the matter. Instead of a costly official referendum, the public can take this poll, also known as the Perry Cheater Achievement Test:

    *Allocating state resources for the purposes of identifying systemic cheating in public schools is like:

    1. A high interest savings account.
    2. Killing a pig for bacon.
    3. Throwing wood on a fire.
    4. Putting a bandage on a bullet wound.
    5. All of the above.

    If you answered A. a high interest savings account, then you believe the Mississippi legislature should give the Department of Education the resources because it would be a relatively safe and worthwhile investment. You generally believe that culprits should be disciplined to the full extent of the law, and the punishments of getting caught for cheating can be effective deterrents for leaders and teachers in other districts.

    You’re also strident in the belief that states should connect their testing programs for student academic performance to an accountability system. In other words, you argue that testing and accountability gives states the ability to detect cheating. You believe the reckless social promotion prior to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was just another form of school sanctioned cheating.

    If you answered B. killing a pig for bacon, then you see having cheater police as a necessary evil. You don’t believe that it will deter cheaters, but you do feel educational swindlers need to be found and punished. You feel that cheaters exist in a high stakes testing world as much as they do in one without rigid accountability systems. There’s simply no reliable test for character, so states’ need some form of monitoring. So you’re s not compelled by the notion that we can’t expect teachers to behave nobly when they’re faced with the possibility of job loss. Cheaters will cheat.

    Some of you answered C. throwing wood on a fire. If you use words or phrases like neoliberal, market driven or money is the root of all evil with some regularity, then C is your answer. You think consultants, testing companies and rigid accountability drive out educational leaders with a modicum of integrity. Since NCLB, you haven’t seen distinctions between those who rob school systems of valuable resources and those who are hustling at a classroom level. You see cheating, testing and profit as peas in a hyper-capitalistic pod. Many people win because of cheating - just not the students.

    You believe the testing industrial complex spurred opportunistic companies that have nothing to do with education except when it comes to taking money that could be used for authentic teaching and learning. The choice between job security and “cheating” on a spurious state exam is an easy one to make.

    People who answer D. putting a bandage on a bullet wound found C. compelling but overly simplistic or conspiratorial. You want to have accountability for cheaters, but you may find greater utility in testing than those who see its use only leading to the testing industrial complex and corruption. Therefore, you’re not opposed to hiring a consultant because schools won’t tell on themselves. However, you still think hiring a consultant and the consultant himself will miss the big picture.

    Folks who answer D. probably know the difficulty in pairing academic performance with accountability. However, to test your knowledge in this particular area, let’s take another question, aka the subtest:

    What do test scores measure after they have been connected to teachers’ pay or job status?

    1. Teacher quality
    2. School quality
    3. Students’ readiness for the next grade
    4. Teachers’ desire for survival (aka excellence)
    5. None of the above.

    If you’re having difficulty with this question, don’t worry; I’ll provide you with answers, aka testing prompts.

    Standardized tests are used well beyond what they were designed to do, which is measure a few areas of academic achievement. Achievement tests were not designed for the purposes of promoting or grading students, evaluating teachers, or evaluating schools. In fact, connecting these social and political functions to achievement test data corrupts what the tests are measuring. In statistics this is called Campbell’s Law. What we are experiencing in education is colloquially called teaching to the test, hiring to the test, and getting paid to the test.

    So if you answered D. putting a bandage on a bullet wound on the original question of the poll, you probably want to test for student achievement but only for diagnostic purposes. Consequently, you want a monitoring system but believe hiring consultants or even developing a monitoring system won’t address the root problem - rigid, unreliable accountability procedures.

    Finally, if you answered E. None of the above, then you see an element of truth to all the other responses. You’re probably a nitpicky academic or a fence rider.

    Nevertheless, Mississippi needs your voice. There are some answers that only public discourse can find.

    Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

    *Tweet your responses to the Perry Cheater Achievement Test to: @andreperryedu @hechingerreport #cheatersneverwin?

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • August 1, 2014 08:26 AM Surrounded by Messy School Reform and “Drama” on the Streets, a Newark Girl Tries to Land on Her Feet

    NEWARK, N.J. — Nydresha is a small girl with big dreams about Hawaii.

    In her dreams, the 12-year-old and her mother live in a beach house. There is peace, and there is quiet. There is no drama, no abandoned houses and no cursing — not even by Nydresha herself. She curses sometimes in real life but always feels badly about it afterwards.

    Nydresha’s mother, known on the streets as Lil’ Bit for the tiny stature she passed on to her only child, likes how the girl thinks. She’d be up for moving to Hawaii, too, she says, if not for one problem: “I ain’t got no money.”

    To land on her feet in cheerleading stunts, Nydresha must work hard while relying on her teammates. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    To land on her feet in cheerleading stunts, Nydresha must work hard while relying on her teammates. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    And so Nydresha is staying put in her hometown, where she finished sixth grade last month at Quitman Street Renew School. Serving 600 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Quitman is part of a reform effort in a school district where petty, energy-draining bickering — the “drama” of Nydresha’s world — recently has extended to high-ranking officials. Newark’s embattled superintendent, Cami Anderson, stopped attending school board meetings this year because the acrimony has gotten so out of control. Some regarded a nationally watched mayoral election in May as a referendum on her leadership, even though the state runs Newark’s schools. The new mayor would like to see Anderson ousted and charter school expansion halted, but those aren’t his decisions.

    Quitman Principal Erskine Glover believes none of the political noise will make a difference for his school. A hotly contested plan to let families select where in the city their children go to school will merely result in a small enrollment increase. While some policies do bear weight, like whether Glover will be forced to hire tenured teachers other schools did not want to fill vacancies for next academic year, he says what matters most is what he can control the least: his students’ lives beyond the academic day. What kind of homes do they return to each night, and how much time do they spend studying? Are their parents involved in their education? How well are they eating and sleeping? Are they involved in extracurricular activities that motivate them to strive? Do they get a reaction from the adults around them when they do something well, or only when they mess up?

    Click to read the entire series

    How to turn around failing public schools is one of the most vexing and pressing questions in American society today, and two years ago, Anderson tapped Quitman to take part in Newark’s attempt at solving the problem. The idea was to lift the school and others from the ranks of New Jersey’s lowest performers by giving exceptional principals the power to hire great teachers as well as extra technology and other resources. And while that strategy might still bear fruit, the reality at Quitman has proven to be messy and complex, as public policies intersect with private lives.

    Today, the school’s fate is still up in the air. A weary Glover and his staff are waiting to see the impact of their toils — in terms of test scores and, more importantly, life prospects of their students, who are predominantly African-American and living in poverty.

    Nydresha, whose last name is being withheld for her protection, is at a delicate turning point, too. She has reached a paradoxical age where she still looks like a child — she has yet to reach 5 feet tall and thinks she weighs somewhere between 60 and 70 pounds — but her decisions carry increasingly grown-up consequences.

    She wants to succeed and, for a time this past year, stayed after school for tutoring, but her grades are all over the map and she sometimes gets lured into chatting with friends in class when she should be working. She will enter seventh grade in September reading and doing math at a fifth-grade level, but she won one of the six “Most Improved” awards that her math teacher distributed at a year-end assembly, having raised her grade from an F to a C-plus.

    Last winter, Nydresha wanted to be a lawyer because she liked the idea of defending the innocent, but then she decided, based on courtroom TV, that people who do wrong should fend for themselves. Her aspirations in the past six months have included fashion designer, mystery writer, video editor, “someone who works with animals” and, most recently, radio talk show host.

    She fiercely loves her mother, who has Nydresha’s name and a heart tattooed on her neck, yet longs for more attention from her dad, who is busy with two younger daughters from another relationship but still sees her frequently. She talks simultaneously of her desire to move, if not to Hawaii, “somewhere far, far away” and of having at Quitman “the most coolest, supportive friends ever,” as she described classmates Aliyah, Sarah, Keysha, Ashanti, Princess, Nyasia and Gloria in an English essay.

    Nydresha’s career aspirations in recent months have included lawyer, fashion designer, mystery writer, video editor, “someone who works with animals” and radio talk show host. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha’s career aspirations in recent months have included lawyer, fashion designer, mystery writer, video editor, “someone who works with animals” and radio talk show host. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Deeply impressionable, self-conscious, loving and social, Nydresha is a child whose future is as unpredictable as her school’s, and the principal wants badly to steer her toward a positive course. Engagement in constructive extracurricular activities often helps guide young adolescents toward good choices, and through the years Nydresha has dabbled in many of Quitman’s after-school offerings. The one that stuck was cheerleading.

    This year, the Quitman cheerleading team had a winning record to uphold, and heading toward an annual citywide tournament in June, Nydresha found herself with a major responsibility. For her light weight and advanced abilities, she was selected to be hoisted above the heads of her classmates to perform not one or two but seven stunts in a routine lasting two and a half minutes. She was their “fly girl,” as one coach called her, the team’s very own “boomerang.”

    “We need someone strong to be the peak,” said Stephanie Ruff, one of Quitman’s two cheerleading coaches and the school’s parent liaison. “Nydresha is the star. We have to put the star on display.”

    The most difficult of the stunts, called the yo-yo, involved three other girls throwing Nydresha up to dive face first toward the floor into a somersault. None of the other 18 teams performing in the tournament would dare to even attempt it.

    For Quitman to win, Nydresha would have to land on her feet, over and over again. But whether or not that happened wasn’t entirely up to her. The coordination of each of the other girls played a part.

    In the early days of the season, Nydresha’s mother was furious when she fell on the hard floor and hurt her back, informing the coaches that Nydresha would quit if they couldn’t provide a mat for her to practice on. The week before the June 7 tournament, Nydresha was thrown so high she whacked her right elbow into the ceiling of the Quitman music room.

    Her situation was, in many ways, emblematic of her school itself. Quitman’s teachers and administrators are responsible for student performance that is a result of both their instruction and leadership and a million other factors beyond their control, like whether someone’s father went to jail or there was enough food on the dinner table. However the pieces fall, they, and she, put themselves on the line.

    Nydresha’s cheerleading teammates hoist her into the air for one of the seven stunts they would perform in a routine for a citywide tournament. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha’s cheerleading teammates hoist her into the air for one of the seven stunts they would perform in a routine for a citywide tournament. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    The 14-Hour Problem

    Erskine Glover will remember the 2013-2014 academic year as “the year of FMLA.” The acronym stands for Family and Medical Leave Act, the federal law that entitles employees to a job-protected leave to take care of serious medical conditions, newborn children and ailing relatives. More times than Glover cares to recall in the past year, he signed the FMLA paperwork for a staff member to take time off.

    The fourth-grade math and science teacher was out the last three months of the year after falling and tearing a ligament in her knee, making her unable to climb the stairs to her third-floor classroom. The vice principal left a month early for surgery to reconstruct her foot and ankle. The social worker had a baby. A prekindergarten teacher’s husband died. Nydresha’s English teacher missed much of the year due to hypertension and surgery to remove what turned out to be a benign tumor.

    Then there was Glover himself, missing days to care for his wife when she fell ill and had debilitating sciatica. This summer, he had resurfacing surgery on his right hip, less than a year after another operation to have his left hip replaced.

    FMLA is necessary, Glover knows, but the absences frustrated him as they interrupted classroom progress.

    Two school years ago, growth was stunted by five teachers quitting midyear, primarily due to job-related stresses. For the most part this past year, the coming and going wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just was what it was — with a few unfortunate exceptions.

    In May, Glover and a new seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher mutually agreed for the teacher to leave because he couldn’t control his classroom. In early June, Nydresha’s homeroom and social studies teacher was placed on paid leave pending the investigation of a misconduct allegation. According to Nydresha, not much learning occurred after that in social studies, which had been one of her two favorite subjects, along with English. On the third-to-last day of school, with many of her classmates absent, she and six other kids sat watching skydiving on television, followed by a show on Guinness World Records for things like the longest wedding dress train (4,468 feet at the time of the filming). Earlier in the year, she had enjoyed learning about ancient Greece and Egypt.

    Nydresha with her sixth-grade science teacher, Henie Parillon. Science is one of her most difficult subjects. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha with her sixth-grade science teacher, Henie Parillon. Science is one of her most difficult subjects. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Despite the disruptions, Quitman’s climate is generally one of people working incredibly hard. Beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m., the academic day is a full hour longer than in most U.S. schools. Many students come early for breakfast, and through early June, about 80 of 100 students targeted for tutoring would stay at school until 5 p.m. The school offers activities including track, basketball, art club, music club, technology club and archery club.

    But even with all that, Glover still has what he refers to as his “5 p.m. to 7 a.m. problem.” During that 14-hour span, he has students facing every societal challenge imaginable, detracting from their ability to learn. One morning when a child had an emotional meltdown so severe he had to be taken from Quitman in an ambulance, the saddest part to Glover was that it was just another day. The staff isn’t immune, either. A teacher’s aide from the neighborhood moved away midyear after being shot in the hand and leg last fall while out with her brother, who was caught up in a dispute.

    Nydresha, who lives on the top floor of a three-story house with her mother, enjoys hanging out with friends, and her mom encourages her to turn off the television and her Xbox and go out. Yet outside is also where the drama she loathes is prone to occur, spilling over into school the next day. Most of it is over little stuff, she explained: “‘Who did what with who?’ and ‘you owe me money’ and ‘where’s my stuff at?’ and anytime people get drunk.” Nydresha doesn’t feel particularly safe in her neighborhood as a result. After a big fight, which occurs once every few months, she said matter-of-factly, she’ll stay inside for approximately two days to be sure no one will “bust out a gun.”

    “Sometimes, when it’s nice and quiet outside, I feel it’s gonna be a great day,” she said. “But at night, when it sunsets, there is all this drama.”

    That’s why Nydresha would like to move to Hawaii, though she worries about the possibility of a tsunami there.

    Student safety in Newark is far from assured, but when Glover stays up nights worrying, he doesn’t let himself dwell there simply because he can’t do anything about it. Besides, most kids have someone at home who loves them and is looking out for their well-being, he said. But when it comes to sharpening students’ minds during their 14 hours away from school, the principal could use some reinforcement. Are the children spending their time hanging out, playing video games, on social media and watching television, or are they doing homework and engaging in activities that will brighten their future prospects? That is the question that eats at him, and the answer is one he believes holds Quitman back.

    Diverging Aspirations

    In school, one of the girls on Nydresha’s “most coolest, supportive friends” list is a cheerleading teammate named Sarah. Although Sarah is still 11, one of the youngest kids in their grade, she is a full head taller than Nydresha and appears even more so with her trademark high ponytail.

    Sarah doesn’t have time for hanging out like Nydresha and most of the other kids in their grade. In addition to being a Quitman cheerleader, she is a member of a traveling All Star cheerleading team based in Waldwick, a suburb 25 miles north of Newark. She is also on a tumbling team and has in the past done a Double Dutch team; whether or not she continues with Double Dutch in the coming season will depend on the practice schedule, as she has not yet been able to figure out how to be in two places at once. She had to drop a second competitive cheerleading team this summer because of a scheduling conflict.

    Nydresha (left) with her friend and teammate Sarah. The two girls excel at cheerleading, but their aspirations are different. Sarah has a singular focus, while Nydresha wants to explore new things. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha (left) with her friend and teammate Sarah. The two girls excel at cheerleading, but their aspirations are different. Sarah has a singular focus, while Nydresha wants to explore new things. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    For the All Star cheerleading and tumbling, Sarah is coached by Rayshine Harris, a Newark native who went on to become a 12-time tumbling world champion. She dreams of being like him, and most nights the past school year, she had All Star practice until 9 p.m., getting home around 10. Tumbling practice was on Saturdays and All Star cheerleading was Sundays. The summer brings more All Star practice, and Sarah plans to fit in a separate cheer camp and Double Dutch camp, as she has in years past.

    All of this is made possible by Sarah’s sleep-deprived mother, Andrea, who works an overnight shift as a parking lot attendant at Newark Liberty International Airport. (Parents in this story are also being referred to by their first names to protect their children’s identities.) Andrea goes to work at 10:30 p.m., leaving Sarah and her 7-year-old sister alone while they sleep, with neighbors to call on if they need anything. She heads home at 6:30 a.m. to get them to school.

    The tradeoff is that Andrea is available to drive her daughters to sports practices. Her little one has taken to cheerleading and tumbling, too, and last year was the only second grader on the Quitman team, which otherwise consists of girls in third grade through eighth. The mother rests in the morning but often returns to Quitman to bring her daughters lunch. She also helps to fundraise for the All Star team’s travel expenses.

    Andrea, 43, said she enjoys living vicariously through her daughters. She wishes she could have done competitive cheerleading and tumbling herself as a girl, but her parents, immigrants from the West Indies, weren’t open to it, and besides, she didn’t know what was available. “I’m happy they’re able to do something I would have loved to have done at their age,” she said. Whenever an opportunity comes along for them to join one team or another, she can’t say no.

    The mother hopes the effort — hers and her daughters’ — will one day pay off in the form of college scholarships from cheerleading or gymnastics teams. In sixth grade, though, harder classwork combined with long practice hours took a toll on Sarah’s grades, which fell to B’s and C’s after years on Quitman’s honor roll.

    Sarah said she sees peers getting in trouble because they don’t have enough to do outside of school. “I feel so bad,” she said. “Sometimes I just stare at them. I look, and I’m like, ‘You guys should cheer. It’s so much better than being on Facebook and on the streets outside.’” At the same time, she recognizes that not everyone has a mother as involved as hers. Without her mom, Sarah wrote in a memory book for English class, “my life would be nothing at all.”

    In sixth grade, Sarah juggled harder class work with long practice hours for cheerleading and tumbling. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    In sixth grade, Sarah juggled harder class work with long practice hours for cheerleading and tumbling. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Sarah’s dedication and singular focus may be rare at Quitman, but her desire to make something of herself through athletics more than academics is not. Glover would never discourage athletic pursuits; he was a basketball player himself, and his own son hopes to play soccer in college. In himself and his son, though, he has demanded academic excellence as well. He tries to demand it of his students, too, and to get them to understand that success in school is a surefire route out of poverty, while success in sports is not. But he is up against powerful cultural forces, and every year, members of the team backing him up — the teachers and staff he counts on — are rotating in and out.

    While Nydresha and Sarah both excel in cheerleading, Nydresha does not share Sarah’s aspirations. “Tumbling / cheering IS LIFE,” Sarah wrote on the back of the memory book.

    Stephanie Ruff, the Quitman parent liaison and cheerleading coach, said if Nydresha wants to, she could have an “excellent career” cheering in high school. “Hopefully she don’t let the little boys distract her,” Ruff said.

    But Nydresha isn’t sure how long she wants to stick with the sport. Although cheerleading has been her life’s most successful pursuit so far, she is too curious about the world to commit for the long term. “I don’t want to do cheerleading for the rest of my life,” she said in July after a recreational game of volleyball at Quitman’s summer school. “I think I might like volleyball.”

    Nydresha was recommended for summer school after ending the year with D’s in English and science. She said her focus in class suffered in sixth grade because of a bullying situation, the bully being a boy who had an unreciprocated crush on her — until she cursed him out.

    ‘She Could Go Anywhere’

    Nydresha was born at 12:25 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2002. At 7 pounds 15 ounces, she was an average-sized newborn, but she has been a “little doll baby” ever since, according to Lil’ Bit, whose real name is also Andrea and who goes by Drea with family and friends.

    Drea, 43, said she didn’t know she was pregnant until she was four and a half months along. Her twin brother’s name is Andre, or Dre, and so her daughter would be Nydresha, Dresha for short.

    Drea once attended Quitman herself, and she dropped out of nearby Central High School in 12th grade. Until Nydresha was born, she said, she was “working, hanging out, enjoying myself.” Through the years she has worked as a barmaid, an airport maintenance worker and a deli cashier. She’s packed boxes in a warehouse and taken care of horses and goats at the Turtle Back Zoo, Nydresha’s favorite of her mom’s jobs.

    Now a school bus aide to disabled children, Drea leaves for work early during the academic year, Nydresha said, and calls to make sure Nydresha is awake at 6:30 a.m. An uncle who lives downstairs checks in on the girl as she’s getting ready. At 7:24 a.m. this past year, Nydresha would catch the No. 5 public bus to Quitman, arriving approximately 10 minutes later. At the end of the day, her mom would be there to watch her at cheerleading practice, and they would take the bus home together.

    Other than that, Drea said she doesn’t know how else she would be involved at Quitman, given that she works during school hours. And she thinks cheerleading provides ample extracurricular activity. “I gotta let my baby breathe,” she said. In addition to cheering for Quitman, Nydresha participates on a citywide team called the Brick City Lions that begins its annual season in July and last winter afforded her the opportunity to travel to a national cheerleading tournament at Disney World in Florida. (The team placed sixth in the age-based “Midgets” division.)

    Nydresha, performing a science experiment with her sixth-grade classmates, wants to do well in school but sometimes gets lured into chatting with friends during class time. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha, performing a science experiment with her sixth-grade classmates, wants to do well in school but sometimes gets lured into chatting with friends during class time. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha’s math teacher, Edwina Mitchell, demanded that her parents send her to after-school math tutoring after Nydresha missed more than a week of school for the Florida trip. She did not do her work while away and was failing math upon her return. Mitchell said she initially had trouble reaching Nydresha’s parents, but eventually they came around.

    “I felt like Nydresha didn’t take school seriously because the adults around her didn’t take school seriously,” said Mitchell, who also needs foot surgery but has been delaying it, not wanting to miss time with her students.

    The teacher said that if Nydresha got the kind of encouragement in academics as she does in cheerleading, “she could go anywhere.” She wishes there were more academically-inclined extracurricular activities in the neighborhood. She once coached debate at another school and could see Nydresha being a natural at it, if she had the chance. At the same time, she said, cheerleading and other sports teams can provide students with a vital sense of belonging. “It models the family unit,” she said.

    Drea, who wears long braids beneath a headscarf, said she did support her daughter going to tutoring and catching up in math. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done,” she said. She is satisfied with the opportunities provided to Nydresha at Quitman, and she hopes her daughter’s experience there will lead to a bright future. “I hope she get out of school, find a good job,” she said. “Hoping she follow the right track and don’t fall off, that’s all I’m praying for.”

    Nydresha’s dad, Darin, said he would like her to go to college, ideally as a cheerleader. For that to happen, he said, he needs to “stay on her to do her best… to keep her in her books.”

    “If you don’t stay on her, she gets kind of lazy,” said Darin, 48, a baggage crew chief for American Airlines.

    Someone else rooting for Nydresha is Wydeyah Hay, a 22-year-old Virginia State University student who comes home to Newark each May and volunteers to help the Quitman cheerleaders prepare for their annual tournament. (She is a childhood friend of the daughter of one of the Quitman coaches.) Hay also coaches the Brick City Lions. Working with Nydresha on that team, Hay saw what she was capable of. Back at Quitman, she tapped her to take on more stunts, more responsibility. That increased further when three girls who were among Quitman’s top performers were kicked off the school team for getting into a fight.

    Nydresha was ready to step up.

    Bracing for Competition

    In academics, in athletics, in life, competition motivates. Standardized tests aren’t competition per se, but everyone always looks to see how schools compare. And while Principal Glover wants student learning, not test scores, to drive what happens in his classrooms, he also hates being labeled a loser. Last year Quitman scored in the bottom 2 percent of schools in New Jersey on the state’s standardized exams. This year’s results are expected back in August. Internal assessments project that the school will make strong gains in reading and more modest growth in math.

    Nydresha was among the 100 students targeted for after-school tutoring the past year because their 2013 performance suggested that with the right intervention, they could get up to grade level and pass this time around. But Nydresha’s focus was on cheerleading practice. The state exams don’t carry personal consequences for students, but the Newark Public Schools’ annual elementary cheerleading tournament does.

    Nydresha and Sarah have been on the Quitman cheerleading team since third grade. Each year, they and their teammates begin practice in October and perform during the boys’ and girls’ basketball season. Then in early May, they stop attending games and train intensely for the annual citywide competition, not unlike the last-minute test-prep seen at many underperforming schools nationally. Hay joins the two cheerleading coaches each spring when she gets home from college. Her job is to choreograph a routine to win.

    “You have squads that practice from September to May, and I only have four weeks,” said Hay, who became a cheerleading coach at age 16 after her own coach on a citywide team was murdered, along with three of her teammates. “I’ve gotta make it happen within those four weeks.”

    In addition to being a Quitman cheerleader, Nydresha is on a competitive citywide team that afforded her the opportunity to travel last year to Disney World. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    In addition to being a Quitman cheerleader, Nydresha is on a competitive citywide team that afforded her the opportunity to travel last year to Disney World. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Last year, the Quitman girls won second place in the upper division cheer and dance category. The school also scored four individual first-place awards, one of them for Sarah, who won the title Miss Yell.

    This year, more teams would be participating, and Quitman was bracing for stiff competition from Alexander Street School, which is being converted to a charter school this summer because of failing academic performance. Hay decided to include more and harder stunts than in years past. To pull them off, she would rely on Nydresha, the smallest of the middle school girls on the team. And she would require everyone to practice five days a week for two hours or more, a commitment that only 14 girls were able to keep, down from about 35 who started the season. The school also mandates that cheerleaders keep a minimum 2.0 GPA and good behavior. Nydresha at one point contemplated quitting to join the technology club, which produces the yearbook, but the technology teacher wouldn’t allow it. She told her she had to finish what she started.

    Nydresha’s seven stunts were spread throughout a tournament routine that included a 40-second performance to a music mix Hay made, a 50-second cheer and then another minute performing to the music, which included bits by Whitney Houston, Icona Pop, Rhianna and Beyoncé.

    The cheer, written by Hay, went like this:

    Guess whos back/

    And better than before?/

    Quitman Street Peacocks/

    Here to rock this floor/

    Simply the greatest/

    The best you can define/

    Champions, you know it/

    This years our time/

    Talented, elite/

    Number one by far/

    Watch us as/

    We reach the stars/

    Our fame continues/

    Its all in the name/

    Quitman Street Peacocks/

    Will put them to shame/

    So, yeah, thats right/

    This is our year/

    Twenty-fourteen/

    The team/

    To/

    Fear/

    One Thursday in late May, at the 11th-to-last practice before the tournament, the pressure was palpable. Over and over, Hay made the girls repeat their routine until Nydresha, in turquoise shorts, could perfect the count to swing her leg around in a stunt called the pendulum. It involved doing a single-legged backbend while hoisted in the air and then whipping the lifted leg from behind her body to the front. She kept coming around on five-six and needed to wait for seven-eight.

    “You know if you bend your leg, you’re going straight to the floor,” Hay said.

    Nydresha begins a stunt called the yo-yo, requiring her to somersault in midair. It is so difficult that none of the other 18 teams competing in Newark’s elementary cheerleading tournament would even attempt it. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Nydresha begins a stunt called the yo-yo, requiring her to somersault in midair. It is so difficult that none of the other 18 teams competing in Newark’s elementary cheerleading tournament would even attempt it. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    Then practicing the yo-yo, Nydresha fell, and in pain and frustration, cursed at another girl for dropping her.

    Her mother, watching in the Quitman basement next to Sarah’s mom, giggled. “I should’ve videotaped that,” she said. She took out her phone to be ready next time.

    During a break, Nydresha found herself torn between her coaches, who told the girls not to eat anything until practice was over so they wouldn’t get sick, and her mother, who brought chicken wings and instructed Nydresha to eat them. She did, even though she said the meat tasted funny.

    “My mom likes to get me in trouble,” Nydresha told me meekly, also apologizing for her cursing.

    “I don’t care,” Drea replied. “You gotta eat… It ain’t gonna kill you.” To which she added, within earshot of the coaches: “I’m trying to get her fat. She’s small like her mother.” She said later that she would have pulled Nydresha out of practice if the coaches pressed the issue further. “Don’t play around with my baby,” she said. “This is not your baby. This is mine. I feed my baby.”

    As the practice wore on, Hay was tough on all the girls. She told them they looked “brand new” that day, that “if you all want to act like you don’t know what you’re doing, I could leave.”

    “Everybody gets hit,” she said. “Everybody falls. You have to get up. You have to keep going.”

    Nydresha did keep going, and by the end of practice, she was getting through the routine without mistakes. Hay hugged her as they walked out.

    Wherever Life Takes Her

    As the sun beat down in Newark on the morning of Saturday, June 7, hundreds of people congregated outside the locked doors of the Weequahic High School gymnasium, a gleaming three-year-old facility tucked behind a 1930s-era school building. Waiting to get inside were parents, relatives, teachers and other school staff, all there to support the 19 teams from all over Newark. When the doors finally opened at 12:15 p.m., it took more than an hour for everyone to pass through a metal detector and take a seat in the bleachers.

    Nydresha’s mother sat on the floor in front of the first row, at the feet of Nydresha’s father, who was there with her 2-year-old half-sister and her paternal uncle, who is Quitman’s head custodian. For Nydresha’s big day, her parents sat together like the family they once were. Nydresha adores her current stepmother and her “fairy godmother,” as she calls the mother of her two older half-siblings, but still sometimes wishes her parents were a couple again.

    The cheerleaders had been at Quitman late the night before getting their hair done by Sarah’s mom and one of the coaches. All but Nydresha had braided ponytails hanging down their backs. Her hair was tucked in a tight bun so it wouldn’t be in the way during the stunts.

    At 7 a.m., less than 12 hours after they had gone home, they were back to catch a bus to the tournament site, where they ate breakfast and did a trial run. Nydresha led the team in prayer that morning. In addition to asking God for victory, she said, she asked for all the girls to be kept safe, and for them not to fall on their hair.

    The teams sat in bleachers across from the audience in alphabetical order by school, which made Quitman 14th. The girls waited through three categories of cheers in the lower division, whose teams are comprised entirely of elementary school students, and through the A- to P-named schools in the upper division, where teams have girls of elementary and middle school age.

    Despite the modern building, the air conditioning was no match for this crowd, particularly up in the high rows of bleachers where they sat. And while about half the teams wore short-sleeve uniforms, the Quitman girls had royal blue and white dresses with mock turtlenecks and long sleeves. One year, the judges deducted points because they weren’t in proper attire, and although other teams risked that happening to be more comfortable, they would not take the chance.

    As the hours wore on, Nydresha’s mother brought her cookies and Gatorade from the concession stand.

    Finally, it was time. At 3:54 p.m., nearly 11 hours after Nydresha woke up to shower, they were on.

    Video courtesy: RLS Media

    Standing in line preparing to run out, she was shaking badly. “Focus,” she told herself. “You can do it.”

    The Quitman team had one of the largest fan sections in the crowd, just behind the panel of 10 judges. In addition to friends and relatives, staff members who came to show their support included Quitman’s testing coordinator and Nydresha’s English teacher, whose granddaughter is also on the cheerleading team. They stood up, shrieked and cried, “Let’s go, ladies!” Nydresha beamed.

    And then there she was, up in the air. High school cheerleaders stood ready as spotters should she go flying out of control. First came the basket toss, then cartwheels and backflips across the floor, then the spin, the pendulum, the liberty, the quarter-up, another basket toss and, at last, the yo-yo. She tucked her chin, somersaulted midair and landed on her feet. She had nailed them all.

    The team would have to wait another two hours and 20 minutes for the results, during which time Sarah competed in the upper division’s individual Miss Yell category, trying to defend her title.

    “I finally got it over with, and I think I’m finally over my fears,” Nydresha said in the hall outside the gym with Sarah as they waited. Win or lose, “I’ll just take it,” she said. On second thought, she added, “If we don’t place, then I’ll kind of feel bad because of all the hard work.”

    “But we’re going to place,” Sarah said, audibly tired.

    Quitman Street Renew School

    In 2012, Newark education officials set out to reform their city’s lowest-performing schools. The Hechinger Report was granted extraordinary access to one of them, Quitman Street Renew School, to chronicle its successes and setbacks. Our ongoing series, which has won numerous journalism awards, goes behind the scenes as Principal Erskine Glover and his staff take on one of the hardest — and most important — jobs in the nation.

    Read the whole series or here are some of the latest installments:

    Sarah ended up coming in second for Miss Yell. A Quitman fourth grader took fourth place in the lower division Miss Jump contest and second place in the lower division Miss Yell. A Quitman sixth grader tied with a girl from Wilson Avenue School for second place in the upper division Miss Jump.

    The upper division team results were the last ones announced, at 6:15 p.m. It was the moment everyone was waiting for — those who were still waiting, at least. About half the crowd had already left, including Nydresha’s dad, who had to pick up another of his daughters but would watch the announcement later on television. Third place went to Camden Street School. When Alexander Street — Quitman’s main rival — got second, everyone knew who was first. The Quitman cheerleaders and their supporters were already hugging, jumping and screaming when they were called as winners.

    “Girls, stop crying,” the tournament’s mistress of ceremonies said as the 14 of them in blue and white and their coaches ran down from the bleachers and gathered for the cameras. A few days later, each of them would receive a trophy at an awards banquet, but for now, for the photos, there was only one. It went to Nydresha, positioned front and center.

    In the weeks that followed, she would get distracted and fail to complete her final English project and have her hopes dashed of taking a summer vacation with her mom to see relatives in Georgia, a prospect she held onto after it became clear that they were not moving to Hawaii or anywhere else. (“I could fit in people’s luggage,” she offered.) She would toy with the ideas of spending more days of the week with her dad and of transferring to a charter school, and ultimately nothing would change and she would settle into the routine of summer school and cheerleading practice, with the hopes of another trip to Florida come winter.

    But for now, if just for a moment, the spotlight was hers. And wherever life takes her, she will remember how it feels to work hard and come out on top.

    "We need someone strong to be the peak,” Quitman cheerleading coach Stephanie Ruff says. “Nydresha is the star. We have to put the star on display.” (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    “We need someone strong to be the peak,” Quitman cheerleading coach Stephanie Ruff says. “Nydresha is the star. We have to put the star on display.” (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

    [Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

  • July 31, 2014 11:00 PM More Education for Women No Longer Means More Divorce

    For decades one of the awkward things about education achievement is that, while we all kind of thought education was a good thing, there were unintended consequences.

    Some of the outcomes for educated people turned out not be so great for society itself. In particular, women who were better educated than their husband were more likely to get divorced.

    It’s not true anymore. According to a study published recently in the American Sociological Review:

    The reversal of the gender gap in education has potentially far-reaching consequences for marriage markets, family formation, and relationship outcomes. One possible consequence is the growing number of marriages in which wives have more education than their husbands. Past research shows that this type of union is at higher risk of dissolution. Using data on marriages formed between 1950 and 2004 in the United States, we evaluate whether this association has persisted as the prevalence of this relationship type has increased.
    Our results show a large shift in the association between spouses’ relative education and marital dissolution. Specifically, marriages in which wives have the educational advantage were once more likely to dissolve, but this association has disappeared in more recent marriage cohorts. Another key finding is that the relative stability of marriages between educational equals has increased. These results are consistent with a shift away from rigid gender specialization toward more flexible, egalitarian partnerships, and they provide an important counterpoint to claims that progress toward gender equality in heterosexual relationships has stalled.

    Earlier studies generally indicated that marriages in which women were more educated than their husbands were 27 to 38 percent more likely to end in divorce.

    Well I guess that’s progress.

    Marriage

    While women still earn less than men, face discrimination both personally and professionally, and can’t have it all, in one way there’s been a lot of progress as far as women and education go.

    As lead author Christine R. Schwartz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it:

    We also found that couples in which both individuals have equal levels of education are now less likely to divorce than those in which husbands have more education than their wives. These trends are consistent with a shift away from a breadwinner-homemaker model of marriage toward a more egalitarian model of marriage in which women’s status is less threatening to men’s gender identity.

    Well that’s one way to see it. Another important point here, however, is that people are also simply less likely to get married at all.

    In 2011, just over half of all American adults were married. More than a quarter adults, 28 percent, had never had been married. In 1960 the rates were 72 and 15, respectively. It’s true that unequal marriages don’t lead to divorce the way they used to, but a huge portion of Americans aren’t even trying anymore.

    What’s more, even among people who do get married, the unequal education attainment partnership (people with partners with less education) is just not that common.

    As Matthew Yglesias put it earlier this year: “The prosperous man of the early 21st century much more likely to be married to a women who also earns a substantial income than was his predecessor of 50 years ago….”

    That probably has an awful lot to do with the college attainment of women. It’s nice that the educated woman isn’t necessarily going to get divorced from her less educated husband, but the more important trend is probably just that people of unequal education backgrounds are unlikely to marry each other at all.

  • July 31, 2014 12:55 PM Financial Aid as Deception

    What’s wrong with financial aid in America?

    A lot, for sure, but one of the common responses when critics complain about the high cost of college in America is that colleges also offer quite generous financial aid packages to students. We discount everything in America when we sell it. Why should college be any different?

    But that’s a problem, argues Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As she puts it:

    …Comparing discounting in higher education to discounting at…a clothing store… is both inaccurate and tone-deaf. The cost of the “mirage” — posting one price and offering another- is not very high in a clothing store (e.g. poor people don’t suffer from not wearing [nice] …clothes) but the cost of this complex discounting scheme in higher education is that it scares off prospective students. The impacts of sticker price are difficult to estimate because they affect people far distant from the actual college application decision- it affects their very thinking about whether college is possible at all.

    It’s not just that it scares students off; it also just confuses them, by leading them to think particular colleges are a good deal when the reality is such schools could put them in debt forever. Financial aid makes it easy to lie to students about college cost.

    LIES

    Goldrick-Rab goes on to suggest that some of this might be deliberate. Reacting to a New York Times piece arguing that we are exaggerating the price of college attendance, she writes:

    The real function… is to support an industry of expensive colleges and universities that want to continue to profit from a culture in which families conflate cost and quality, and treat a college education as a consumption good.

    I’m not sure if this is entirely appropriate. We’ve been doing financial aid based tuition discounting for decades now and it’s just sort of standard operating procedure at this point. No one’s trying to deceive students. Colleges just don’t care much if students are confused about pricing; they’ll keep paying anyway.

    The problem with education “pricing” is that obscures the real cost. And if one goes with this “parents and students as consumers” theory, obscuring the price deceives the consumer, and makes it hard for him to make rational, responsible decisions.

    What’s more, this pricing confusion takes place at colleges that receive extensive public funding. It’s a government-subsidized service. Shouldn’t it have a relatively straightforward pricing structure?

  • July 31, 2014 09:48 AM Huge Confusion in Mississippi Over Common Core

    It’s been called a federal curriculum, the end of literature lessons, and even, here in Mississippi, a “Muslim takeover of schools.” The Common Core, a set of math and English language arts standards that spells out what skills students are expected to master in kindergarten through twelfth grade, will be rolled out in every Mississippi school this year.

    The new standards are not a curriculum; instead they set benchmarks for math and English achievement in each grade. In 2010, 45 states and Washington, D.C., adopted the standards, hoping they will increase rigor in earlier grades and then build a strong foundation for higher-level English and math courses. Since then, a handful of states have dropped them.

    The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers jointly created the standards, which were written by experts across the country and released in 2010.

    Student work in the hallway of a Mississippi elementary school shows the “partial product” method of solving a multiplication problem. The new Common Core standards emphasize multiple ways of solving problems. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

    Student work in the hallway of a Mississippi elementary school shows the “partial product” method of solving a multiplication problem. The new Common Core standards emphasize multiple ways of solving problems. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

    Even so, there is huge confusion in Mississippi and nationwide about what the standards are, who created them, and how they are changing instruction. In June, Governor Phil Bryant called the Common Core “a failed program,” months before all school districts have fully transitioned to the standards.

    For years Mississippi has posted some of the lowest scores on national standardized tests. In 2010, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., that supports the Common Core, scrutinized how old state standards compared to it. While about 15 states had English standards that were the same as or better than the Common Core’s, Fordham concluded that Mississippi’s were far weaker. The report described the state’s English standards as “mysterious,” and among “the worst in the country.”  It concluded that the Common Core standards are “significantly superior to what the Magnolia State has in place today.”

    Every few years, Mississippi revamps and updates its academic standards. In 2010, the state adopted the Common Core, which “saved the state time, money, and effort associated with creating our own standards that would not have been as rigorous,” according to Mississippi’s former interim superintendent of education, Lynn House. At the time, the state was using math standards from 2007, and English language arts standards from 2006.

    Individual districts have always chosen their own curricula to meet whatever standards were set, and that will still be the case with the Common Core.

    Alarmingly poor results by American students on international exams helped prompt the development of the Common Core standards. A decade ago, 44 percent of Singapore’s students scored “advanced” on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), while only 7 percent of American students did. American students had made progress since the 1990s, but the gains weren’t enough for them to catch up to many of their peers in countries like Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea.

    “We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010, when scores for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released and U.S. students once again fared poorly.

    Common Core is meant to correlate with the standards in high-performing countries like Singapore and Japan. A 2012 study by William H. Schmidt and Richard T. Houang, education researchers at Michigan State University, found that Common Core’s math standards seem to stack up. They include fewer topics for students to master each year, and the grade-levels for given topics also tended to match, according to the analysis.

    Common Core in the classroom

    In Mississippi, many districts transitioned their youngest students several years ago to allow teachers and students to grapple with the more challenging standards without the pressure of standardized testing. Under the Common Core standards, students are learning more challenging content earlier. For example, Mississippi’s kindergarteners were expected to count to 20 under the old standards. Under Common Core, they must count to 100.

    The English standards emphasize reading non-fiction, and writing responses to questions using evidence from the text. In an interview last year, Vincent Segalini, director of English language arts for the Mississippi Department of Education, said that the state is “moving away from those worksheets into more critical thinking.”

    The math standards emphasize learning multiple methods of solving the same problem, and students are expected to explain the steps in a problem through writing. Students may spend more time learning multiplication, but may learn five ways to solve a multiplication problem, rather than memorizing times table or learning just one way.

    Some states, like New York, provided Common Core-aligned lesson plans to teachers, but Mississippi has largely left the transition to Common Core up to individual districts. Many of the state’s teachers have started from scratch, or used resources from other states.

    The tests

    Starting in 2015, students will take new, computerized exams that are aligned to the Common Core. Like the standards themselves, the tests are intended to demand more of students than the traditional paper and pencil tests. Instead of filling in bubbles on answer sheets, students will perform a variety of tasks, like dragging and dropping fractions on a number line and filling in graphs. They will also answer multiple-choice questions, and will have to type out their thinking in written responses, even on math exams.

    In the past few years, Mississippi’s districts have scrambled to ramp up technology and bandwidth for the new exams, in the midst of budget cuts and severe underfunding. The exams themselves are costly. According to projections provided by the state Office of Student Assessment last year, in 2015, Mississippi will spend about $2.7 million more on the new exams for grades three through eight than the state spent in 2012 to provide those grades with the old exams.

    The debate

    Although the majority of states adopted the standards four years ago, the Common Core has recently sparked extensive controversy. Opposition has arisen both from some conservative and Tea Party groups who fear a federal intrusion on education, and from some liberals critical of standardized testing. (It was a Tea Party member who derided the standards as “a Muslim takeover” of Mississippi schools.)

    In Mississippi last year, the state’s Senate Conservative Coalition sent a letter to the former state superintendent, Lynn J. House, questioning the rigor of the standards. Common Core does not include a full course of Algebra I until high school, for example; some critics say Algebra I is necessary earlier, to prepare students for more advanced classes before and during college.

    The Coalition also questioned the involvement of the federal government in their adoption. The U.S. Department of Education did not mandate adopting the standards, but did award more points to states in applications for Race to the Top money if they adopted “college and career ready standards.” Many states, like Mississippi chose to adopt Common Core as those standards instead of developing their own.

    In June, Gov. Bryant said that Common Core would be a topic of the next legislative session, which led many to question whether he would follow in Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s footsteps and withdraw from the standards. In the wake of Bryant’s comments, Mississippi’s current state superintendent of education, Carey Wright, said in a statement: “It is a gross mischaracterization to call the standards a ‘failed program’ when Mississippi and other states have yet to give the first test aligned to the standards. The state is still in the implementation phase, and to remove the standards now would be disheartening to the district and school leaders and teachers who have invested time and resources in this effort.”

    [Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

  • July 30, 2014 04:10 PM New Research on the Efficacy of Providing School Breakfast

    When I was a kid, I got weirdly obsessed with eating breakfast. As I remember it, this was almost entirely a result of this cereal commercial:

    It wasn’t just the commercial, of course. I have three younger brothers; ours was a raucous house where I did, indeed, have “a lot to do before lunch.” Every. Single. Day. If I missed breakfast, those guys would eat me alive on the field, on the court, or at the card table.

    Most of us take it as a given that breakfast is a critical foundation for young students’ success at school. It’s distracting to be hungry, and distracted students aren’t likely to learn as much as focused ones, right? This reasoning has led policymakers to seek ways to provide students with breakfast.

    Yet a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Expanding the School Breakfast Program: Impacts on Children’s Consumption, Nutrition, and Health,” digs into that line of thinking and finds that the relationship between breakfast and student success isn’t quite that simple.

    Authors Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Mary Zaki examined U.S. Department of Agriculture data to: 1) gauge whether recent reforms to expand student breakfast access are working and 2) check whether these reforms influence student achievement.

    Researchers have suggested that school breakfast programs targeted exclusively at low-income students often suffer from limited participation because of the stigma attached: Students who eat them are forced to essentially admit their families’ limited resources. In some places, this has been addressed by making subsidized meals universally available.

    However, further research suggests that making breakfast programs universal still leaves out students who aren’t able to arrive at school early. Some policymakers have tried to address this by moving universal school breakfast out of the cafeteria—and into students’ classrooms. That way, students can eat during their first few minutes of the school day, rather than coming in before school starts.

    So—does either of these changes work? Schanzenbach and Zaki found a mixed bag. Providing breakfast free in classrooms increased student consumption of a “nutritionally substantive breakfast” by 10 percentage points (from a starting baseline of 59 percent). The effects from providing universal breakfast in the cafeteria before school were less dramatic. The authors write that the in-classroom program “substantially increases both participation and the likelihood that a student actually eats breakfast, while a universal cafeteria-based program increases participation in the program but primarily alters where—and not whether—students eat breakfast.”

    But, callous as it might sound, this is the simple part of the equation. We don’t provide public funds for school breakfast programs simply so that students will eat breakfast. We fund these programs because we believe that they support better child health and—perhaps—stronger academic outcomes.

    Simply put, Schanzenbach and Maki found that the first year of in-class breakfasts had no statistically significant effects on students’: math and reading scores, health, or behavior. There was little change in ensuing years—the program simply doesn’t seem to be doing much to change students’ trajectories.

    Are our intuitions about breakfast’s effects wrong? Not necessarily. When the authors broke out their data by subgroup, they found that in “high-poverty, urban schools, [in-class breakfast] increases participation by 138 percent, and increases breakfast eating by over 27 percent.” While they still found no improvements in student test scores or attendance, they saw some positive effects on minority students’ behavior. Finally, they also found that in-class breakfast improved student health and reduced obesity for some students.

    Is that good enough to warrant public money? Your mileage may vary, depending on your ideological commitments. But it’s important to note, as Schanzenbach and Maki do in their report, that their analysis does not measure the effects of school breakfast in general. They were simply examining whether reforms that expand participation in school breakfast might expand existing effects. That is, while increasing school breakfast participation by 10 percentage points might not significantly improve academic outcomes, that says nothing about the potential effects of eliminating school breakfast for those who were already receiving it.

    If nothing else, though, the report suggests that efforts to expand access to school breakfast shouldn’t necessarily be a top priority for policymakers. No matter how much students have to do before lunch.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

  • July 29, 2014 01:21 PM Why a New Jersey School District Decided Giving Laptops to Students is a Terrible Idea

    Inside Hoboken’s combined junior-senior high school is a storage closet. Behind the locked door, mothballed laptop computers are strewn among brown cardboard boxes. Others are stacked one atop another amid other computer detritus. Dozens more are stored on mobile computer carts, many of them on their last legs.

    That’s all that remains from a failed experiment to assign every student a laptop in this northern New Jersey suburb of New York City. It began five years ago with an unexpected windfall of stimulus money from Washington, D.C., and good intentions to help the districts’ students, the majority of whom are under or near the poverty line, keep up with their wealthier peers. But Hoboken faced problem after problem and is abandoning the laptops entirely this summer.

    “We had the money to buy them, but maybe not the best implementation,” said Mark Toback, the current superintendent of Hoboken School District. “It became unsustainable.”

    Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

    Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

    None of the school administrators who initiated Hoboken’s one-to-one laptop program still work there, but Toback agreed to share Hoboken’s experiences so that other schools can learn from it.

    Despite tight budgets, superintendents and principals around the country are cobbling together whatever dollars they can to buy more computers for their classrooms. This year alone, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on education technology, a $240-million increase from 2013, according to the Center for Digital Education. Educational technology holds the promise of individualizing instruction, and some school systems, like Mooresville, North Carolina, and Cullman, Alabama, have shown impressive student learning gains. But districts like Los Angeles and Fort Bend, Texas, who jumped on the tech trend without careful planning, have had problems with their programs to distribute a laptop or a tablet to every student, and are scrapping them, too.

    By the time Jerry Crocamo, a computer network engineer, arrived in Hoboken’s school system in 2011, every seventh, eighth and ninth grader had a laptop. Each year a new crop of seventh graders were outfitted. Crocamo’s small tech staff was quickly overwhelmed with repairs.

    We had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it,’ ” said Crocamo.

    Screens cracked. Batteries died. Keys popped off. Viruses attacked. Crocamo found that teenagers with laptops are still… teenagers.

    “We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Crocamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”

    Crocamo’s time was also eaten up with theft. Despite the anti-theft tracking software he installed, some laptops were never found. Crocamo had to file police reports and even testify in court.

    Hoboken school officials were also worried they couldn’t control which websites students would visit. Crocamo installed software called Net Nanny to block pornography, gaming sites and Facebook. He disabled the built-in web cameras. He even installed software to block students from undoing these controls. But Crocamo says students found forums on the Internet that showed them how to access everything.

    “There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,” said Crocamo.

    All this security software also bogged down the computers. Teachers complained it took 20 minutes for them to boot up, only to crash afterwards. Often, there was too little memory left on the small netbooks to run the educational software.

    Hoboken math coach Howard McKenzie says he also had problems with the software itself.

    “We wanted to run a program for graphing calculators, but it didn’t work very well; it was very sticky,” said McKenzie “We kind of scrapped it.”

    Ultimately, the math teacher just showed it to the class on a Smart Board, an interactive whiteboard.

    Superintendent Toback admits that teachers weren’t given enough training on how to use the computers for instruction. Teachers complained that their teenage students were too distracted by their computer screens to pay attention to the lesson in the classroom.

    Michael Ranieri, a junior at Hoboken’s high school, aspires to be an electrical engineer. He said when he did use the computers for schoolwork, it was mostly for word processing and Internet browsing. He would write an essay on the laptop for English class, for example, or research information using Google.

    “We didn’t really do much on the computer,” said Ranieri. “So we kind of just did games to mess around when we had free time. I remember really big was Crazy Taxis that we used play. If we found solitaire on line, we used to play it.”

    Ranieri said he was relieved to be free of the stress of keeping track of his laptop. Families had to sign papers agreeing to be financially responsible if the computers were lost. Every week Ranieri roamed his classrooms looking for his.

    “It was usually under my desk in English class,” he said.

    Superintendent Toback inherited the laptop program when he arrived in 2011. At first, he tried to keep it going.

    But he faced skyrocketing costs, which hadn’t been budgeted for. The $500 laptops lasted only two years and then needed to be replaced. Toback said new laptops with more capacity for running educational software would cost $1,000 each. Licenses for the security software alone were running more than $100,000 and needed to be renewed every two years.

    And the final kicker: the whole town was jamming the high school’s wireless network.

    “A lot of people knew the username and password,” Toback said. “So a lot of people were able to walk by the building and they would get wireless access. Over a period of years, you had thousands of people. It bogged it down, it made it unusable.”

    Allison Powell says Hoboken’s headaches are not unusual. Powell is a vice president for state and district services at iNacol, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, where she works with school leaders on how to use computers to personalize instruction by delivering different lessons to each child.

    But Powell says many schools are continuing to make Hoboken’s mistake of shopping for technology without a plan to make teaching in the classroom more effective.

    “Probably in the last few months I’ve had quite a few principals and superintendents call and say, ‘I bought these 500 iPads or 1000 laptops because the district next to us just bought them,’ and they’re like, now what do we do?” Powell said.

    Back in Hoboken, the school staff will spend the summer going through the laptops one by one, writing down the serial numbers and drafting a resolution for the school board to approve their destruction.

    Then they’ll seek bids from recycling companies to figure out how much it will cost Hoboken to throw them away.

    Read more about how schools are bringing technology into the classroom.

    [Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

  • July 29, 2014 09:40 AM Report: 31 Million Americans Have College Credits, But No Degree

    At a time when policymakers are struggling to increase the proportion of Americans with college and university degrees, more than 31 million people have already accumulated credits but quit without graduating, a new report shows.

    And while a third of those left after as little as a single term, about 21 million spent more than a term on campus before giving up on their higher educations, according to the research, from the National Student Clearinghouse. More than four million have at least two years of college under their belts, which they earned 10 years ago or less.

    That means they’re close to getting at least associate’s degrees or certificates.

    The figures show the huge number of Americans who start college but never finish, though the report does not include the reasons this is happening. Other research cites the high cost of tuition, lack of support services, and students’ competing obligations, such as families and jobs, among other obstacles.

    “These students represent a vast resource of untapped educational capital.” Joni Finney, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

    About a third started and ended their higher educations within the same year, but another third remained enrolled for two to three years before dropping out and yet another third spent as much as four to six years in college without ever getting a degree.

    They represent a potential reservoir of degree-holders to universities and colleges that reach out to them, accept their credits, and help them finish, the report said.

    “These students represent a vast resource of untapped educational capital that the country can ill afford to overlook,” said Joni Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “Ensuring that students who begin college complete their certificate and degree coursework must be a national priority.”

    Colleges and universities in some states are already starting to go after this market.

    In Florida, for instance, 11 public and private higher-education institutions this fall will offer more than 50 online programs leading to degrees and certificates for that state’s estimated 2.2 million residents who have started but never finished college.

    The program, called Complete Florida, will make teams of advisors available to help these students stay on track this time. It will also let people transform their relevant work experience into academic credit.

    [Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

  • July 28, 2014 05:22 PM Special Education Law in Need of an Overhaul

    New America’s Clare McCann writes on The Hill that lawmakers have constructed a formula that creates significant disparities in federal special education funding to school districts. She writes,

    The fact that states are receiving such inequitable IDEA allocations to afford education for one of the country’s most vulnerable populations should serve as evidence that lawmakers need to take action to update and revise the formula and rid it of those disparities. States and local school districts are on the hook for the remainder of the costs… So far, members of Congress have only had one thing to say in response to demands for a revamped IDEA, though: Get in line.

    Read the full article here.

    [Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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