My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Meanwhile, Back At The School House. . .

Two different takes on the same report out of the Chicago Public Schools.

First, from the Rocky Mountain News' Linda Seebach in Saturday's paper:

(Ed. note: just to get a glimpse of the prioritization of ideas, both excerpts presented will be the 3rd through the 6th paragraphs of the pieces)

Controversy or no, Chicago adopted a retention policy in 1997, under the leadership of Mayor Richard Daley, who had taken over the Chicago Public Schools in 1995. Two articles in the Winter 2005 issue of the journal Education Next examine what has happened since.

As author Alexander Russo explains, the new policy required children in the third, sixth and eighth grades who scored below cutoff scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to attend summer school, or to repeat a grade, more than once if necessary. Retention rates rose from almost nothing to from 7 percent to 20 percent, depending on the year and grade.

"Test scores among Chicago's lowest-performing students rose, particularly in the upper grades," Russo says, "while the proportion of schools with extremely low performance fell."

Russo also cites a study by Brian Jacob of Harvard and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young, which compared students who fell just below the cutoff (and thus faced retention and had to attend summer school) with those who fell just above it. Those who faced retention improved substantially more.

Or this, from the New York Times' education writer Monica Davey:

''They were like little bitty ants,'' Paige recalls of the classmates she did not really consider friends. ''I was bigger than all of them.'' This past fall, though, Paige was moved to a class with others her own age and size. Testers concluded last spring that she needed to be in a special education class. But Paige, whose birthday willcome in a few weeks, says she has not made friends among these seventh and eighth graders, either. And little of use goes on in class as far as she is concerned. ''Everyone just plays around too much in there,'' Paige says.

Paige's arduous journey through school is a growing mystery to her. By now, the notion of report cards, of tests, of reading aloud in front of others turns an already shy girl deeper inside herself. Asked her own understanding of why she was held back, again and again, Paige grows quiet, then says, ''I guess the teachers didn't like me.''

EIGHT years ago, as Paige Bonds was starting school in a struggling neighborhood called Englewood, the city's leaders were embarking on a controversial campaign that would change the public school system. In an effort to end the practice known as social promotion, Chicago officials announced what amounted to a get-tough revolution: third, sixth and eighth graders who failed to achieve minimum scores on standardized tests would be required to repeat a grade.

The wisdom of retention, the policy of holding a child back to repeat the same grade, has long been debated. The battle -- between those who believe retention is damaging to children's psyches, social lives and attitudes about school, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and those who believe it is the best way to improve skills over the long haul -- has played out in waves over decades past. Periods in which retention grew popular are followed by times when it is not.

The point of the above exercise was to show how two different people look at a story different ways. My view of this: conservatives (and I don't think Linda Seebach is a conservative on everything, or maybe even most things--just this one) tend to look at the facts first, and evaluate based on the question "does it work?"; liberals tend to look at things through the question "how do you feel?"

Granted, the New York Times devoted six pages (online) to their article on this subject, and the vast majority of it is the story of Paige. Somewhere, buried on page three, is this remarkable admission by Paige's mother:

Many days, Ms. Bonds blames poor teaching and a failed school system for her daughter's struggles. At other moments, she wonders what she should have done differently, much earlier.

Ms. Bonds, now 31, had Paige when she was 19. She depended on her own mother for help with Paige. During many of those years, she worked full time. ''I was just young and I didn't always have enough time for Paige,'' she says.

Today, Ms. Bonds lives with her two girls and longtime boyfriend in a cluttered three-bedroom apartment where the front door knob sometimes falls off. She works odd hours now -- early mornings and evenings -- as a barista at Starbucks. Money is tight, but she has more time at home now with Amanda than she ever did with Paige.

''I'm teaching Amanda her ABC's and her 123's,'' Ms. Bonds says. ''I do wish I would have been here more for Paige, that I would have read to her more.

As a married father of two, I sympathize with Ms.Bonds--even with a spouse around it's difficult to make all the time for children that you want to. But had I had children when I was nineteen, there's no way I would have prioritized my time properly. What Ms Bonds was doing having a child by herself when she was nineteen is beyond me, but it was clearly a mistake they are both paying for.

And, NO, lefties, that doesn't mean I think she should have had an abortion--there were many "choices" she could have made better before the "choice" of killing her baby became an issue. But I digress. . .

At any rate, I think this is one of the critical issues facing schools today: what do you do with a child who is not ready? And you can see this as early as Kindergarten: some kids come in knowing all their ABC's, able to count to ten, and knowing all their colors and shapes; some kids come in knowing how to work the remote control and which Pokemon card beats which other one. Do you start retention at age five? Or wait until age eight, after they've had three years to stay behind? Or wait until . . .

The point is that the education system in America is predicated on the idea that age is a contributing factor to learning and performance, when the reality is that this is rarely true. So many factors go in to a students' ability to learn in school that are completely beyond the school's control, yet we expect schools to turn out eight- and thirteen- and sixteen-year olds who can all do the same things. It's a recipe for frustration.

So, how about a radical proposal: de-couple grade levels from age. Make promotion to second grade based solely on the ability to perform first-grade skills, and etc. . . As it is now, the state (through taxes) will pay for education, but it will only pay for twelve years' worth for every student. If in those twelve years a student only reaches an eighth grade level, so be it; on the other hand, if a student manages to complete a college degree in twelve years, then so be it.

Mike Coffman said to a group of us last fall that the time may be here for us to radically re-think how we fund education; why not extend that to how we provide education.

As Linda Seebach pointed out

The retention policy affects more students than just the ones who do repeat a grade, however. It motivates some students to work harder so they won't be held back. Russo quotes G. Alfred Hess of Northwestern University, who says that the effect of the threat of retention on all students and their families is also part of the justification for retaining students. "This dual intent for ending the social promotion policy is frequently ignored by its opponents and is rarely considered in evaluating the effectiveness of the policy," Hess wrote.

Perhaps a full-fledged approach to sutdent/family accountability is in order, as well.

By the way, this isn't meant to let the schools off the hook; they too, should be evaluated on this new criteria. But more on that another time.

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