Thursday, October 21, 2004

Susan Ohanian

Here's an unbelievable opinion piece from one of the most eloquent critics of standardized testing on the planet, Susan Ohanion:

Money quote:

The political mania for inflicting high-stakes tests on students has reached such insanity that a couple of years ago when a teacher revealed that Harcourt, publisher of the widely used Stanford 9 test, sends out instructions on what a teacher should do when nervous children vomit on the tests (soiled tests cannot be discarded but must be returned to Harcourt), it wasn't even a three-day wonder. No group stepped forward and demanded that schools discontinue practices that make kids vomit.

A few more highlights:

In Indianapolis, students were required to continue state testing on September 11 and September 12, 2001. Officials reasoned that students should be able to compartmentalize their emotions; children were asked to shove aside the emotions engulfing everyone else in the country and concentrate on doing work required by the state.

In Tennessee a first grade teacher received an official letter of reprimand—for comforting a sobbing child during the high-stakes state test. Now, teachers aren’t allowed to talk to children during test time in Tennessee.

The article is full of similar stories--stories that will make you sick. We've got to put an end to this insanity.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Small Schools

Our high schools are too big. Some of them have several thousand students and consequently, many students slip through the cracks. Too many of them are anonymous because teachers, counselors, and administrators are spread too thin. It's impossible for them to form meaningful relationships with more than a fraction of the students. Estimates for dropout rates nationwide range from 30% and 50% depending on the source.

The L.A. Unified School District is taking a major step towards rectifying this. They will carve all of their high schools into smaller "learning communities," each with between 300-500 students.

For more info:

While few would claim that small schools are a panacea, they do allow teachers the chance to know their students better. And sometimes the personal connection in education can make the difference between a student dropping out or staying in school.

Kudos to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for helping with the funding for the project. Here's their reasoning for small schools:

The Small Schools Solution: Combining Rigor and Relationships

  1. Small high schools (ideally 400 students or fewer) can provide a personalized learning environment where every student has an adult advocate.
  2. Students in small schools feel less alienated and tend to be more actively engaged in school activities.
  3. Students in small schools are far less likely to experience physical danger, loss of property and the demoralizing effects of vandalism.
  4. Students in small schools in New York had higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates than their peers in larger schools. Students in small schools in Chicago had dropout rates one-third lower than students attending big schools.
    Small schools show the most promise for raising achievement levels of disadvantaged students and students of color.
  5. Small schools create professional learning communities where teachers have the opportunity to work collectively to improve their skills and curriculum.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Abstinence only?

The Heritage Foundation has published a thoughtful article by Melissa Pardue about the textbook controversy in Texas. I generally don't agree with the "abstinence only" proponents, but like any reasonable person, I like to read the other side's point of view. And frankly, she makes a lot of good points. Abstinence should be taught first. But it can't be the only part of any sensible sex ed program.

As Pardue points out, the new textbooks which would be revised to more fully reflect the abstinence only viewpoint, don't fully exclude discussions of contraception and safe sex. But the following statement shows where conservatives go wrong on this issue:

[The critics] also claim the new textbooks wouldn’t contain any information on contraception. But that’s misleading. Such information would be included in the teacher’s manuals and in separate student supplements, so teachers would have the flexibility to raise sensitive topics such as contraception at the appropriate time.

"At the appropriate time"? When's that? Could a health teacher actually decide that there is no appropriate time? Teaching safe sex cannot be optional. Abstinence should be taught first and should be the most prominent component of any sex ed program, but that does not mean that contraception and safe sex can be pushed totally to the margins.

No matter how much conservatives wish it were, we must face the fact that abstinence is not the only option open to teenagers. Sure, we hope they choose that option and we should encourage them to do so, but should they make different choices, they must have the knowledge necessary to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

The appropriate time is right after the discussion on abstinence. To delay endangers students, their families, and the public health.

Pardue's article:
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