August 23, 2013

When James was born, we were, frankly, kind of amazed. here was a child who slept when he should sleep. Correspondingly, he was rarely cranky. Simone, who we love dearly, had been difficult when she was small. She still has sleep issues from time to time, and when she was smaller, she nearly killed us with them. I lost count of the nights when I was in the car driving her around at 2 am. It was rough.

This, time we thought we’d hit the jack pot. It’s difficult to explain how charming James was for his first year plus of life. Others marveled at how little he cried. It’s enough to almost make me understand parents who look down on you when your child cries in a store.

Well guess what? It isn’t always a rose garden.

Now, he climbs on everything. We have to lay our kitchen chairs on their backs to keep him off the dinner table. And lately, he’s taken to staying up until eleven o’clock or so every night. And for much of it, he’s whiny as hell. It sucks. It really does. I can’t remember the last time I had a non-exhausted moment alone with Cate.

He’ll come through it, of course. But the point, if there is one, is that the longer you parent a new child, the more apparent it is that each kid is different. This is probably self-evident, but experience really brings it home. It’s also good for us because it stops us form thinking about Simone as “the difficult one.” That’s not a thought you want to have about one of your kids, but being human is what it is.

And lately, Simone has pretty much been an angel. Cate is teaching her to read because Simone is too excited about it to hold back and she’s started to learn to write a bit, too. We aren’t pushing her. It’s all at her own pace, but it is good for us, I think, to have that role reversal. Kids will surprise you, I guess.

Some Facts and an Opinion

August 16, 2013

I know I just did the education thing last time, but then I ran across more cranky-making articles and I felt the need to post about it again. This is more about how we handle teachers.

Some Facts:

1. There is broad agreement among various studies showing that 60-70% of variation in student performance is the result of socioeconomic factors.

2. These same studies show that the remaining 30-40% is equally attributable to teachers and administration. That is, 15-20% of performance is teachers and 15-20% of performance is administrators.

3. Standardized test scores do not correlate especially well with either success in college or success int he workforce. They do correlate very well with other standardized test scores.

4. There is some evidence to suggest that less testing is good for students. As is less grading in general.

5. If one looks at the most educationally successful states in the US and nations in the worlds, one will find a lot of teacher unions. (I’m not claiming unions as the solution, btw. I’m just noting the lack of evidence that they are the problem.)


There is constant talk about teacher accountability and how unions are standing in the way and how we just need to fire the bad teachers and hire the good ones. People will advocate for all kinds of crazy things: firing 20% of the work force after 3 years. Firing teachers who’s students don’t improve on a test over the course of the year. There are shouts of rigorous assessment and evaluation of teachers from every rafter.

Now, let me ask you a question: If your goal is to hire good teachers, don’t you want to make teaching an attractive option? Perhaps, then, policy makers should use the facts above to redesign how things are done. Perhaps we should start making things like professional autonomy and respect a big part of teaching’s appeal. It doesn’t have to be all about money, but a little more money never hurt either (maybe we can take it from all the money we’re wasting on testing kids).

And maybe, just maybe, we should stop listening to the for-profit “education” companies that are the root of most of the ridiculous stuff going on right now. Maybe we should start shaping our policy based on what we know to be true and stop shaping it based on what we want to be true.

Tear Down the System

August 9, 2013

I haven’t written about education or education policy for a while. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. Rather, I’ve been mulling.

I have seen an uptick recently in education stories talking about accountability, and I want to explain why accountability will never work.

Level One: All teachers. Indeed all people who are willing to pay attention at all are told that the primary goal is make students Life Long Learners. People who will continue to seek out knowledge and improve themselves free of outside motivators. Everyone agrees this is what education should be all about because people learn best when they are self-motivated.

Level Two: It is agreed upon that there are certain things kids should know and we should make sure to squeeze these in. As with level one, there tends to be general agreement here. It’s why pretty much the whole country has adopted the same set of standards.

Level Three: Someone up high notices that not all kids know the stuff they are supposed to know and goes looking for a solution. The solution is tests. This is where the word “accountability” usually shows up for the first time.

Level Four: Schools, realizing that much of their funding is tied to performance on these tests start paying a whole lot of attention to the stuff kids are supposed to know AND to how that’s going to be presented on the test. Suddenly, assessment is REALLY important.

Now, let me ask you a question: When has being told that there is going to be a test ever made you excited to learn about anything? If there is enough riding on it, it might make you scared. But excited? No. When that test is over you are out of there. Then imagine that was the only experience you ever had with learning. It was always about the test. Always about the assessment. Never a free leash. Never exploration.

Education has become divorced from everything that makes learning enjoyable. Too many places in our society have forgotten all about level one and how valuable it is. They’ve forgotten, that when we are at our best, teachers are little more than guides helping kids find their way as they explore. Keeping them from getting stuck for too long. Instead, we are supposed to ensure that they perform to a certain level on the state mandated tests which are also mandate by the federal government and tied to federal funds.

So what you end up with is a perfect correlation wherein the schools with the most privileged populations do the best and those with the least privileged do the worst. Learning isn’t fun at school, so unless someone else teaches you about it, you’ll never know it can be fun. And what kid wants to do things that aren’t fun.

Finnish children are not assessed or given homework until they are 13.  They are never given course grades like we do here. Imagine that. Doesn’t it sound like more fun? Go to school, try to figure something out. Don’t worry about your grade. Just worry about learning.

Many places in America have totally forgotten the point of education. It’s not about standards or memorization. It’s about learning to think for yourself. Sometimes, I want to take down individual policies or particular strategies, but this is really all it comes down to. We took all the joy out of learning. We made it a chore. No kid has ever wanted to do chores. Adults don’t want to either. Talk about teaching responsibility and whatnot all you want, but it needs to be fun and it needs to not be about the tests. They’re just kids.

The Hazards of Parenting

August 2, 2013

The universe has been dealing us numerous blows lately. The car broke down (on my birthday!), several out-of-the-ordinary expenses have come round. It hasn’t been a great time lately. But the worst, by far, has been when James swallowed a battery.


Children are terrifying. I was out working on the aforementioned broken car with my dad when Cate waved me in. She had seen it happen. It was a little battery for a toy clock of Simone’s. Maybe two seconds passed between it going into his mouth and Cate getting to him, but it was too late.

We went to the emergency room and were transferred to the local children’s hospital. They were slow. Painfully slow. And by the time they got the scope down his throat, the batter was in his intestine. It never got stuck, which was what would have been a potentially serious problem and eventually it passed out the other end. But still, it was terrifying. When you take your child to the ER and they are taking him back for an x-ray before you’ve finished registering, it is serious and scary.

But the night we spent in the children’s hospital was worse. They try really hard there. It is colorful. There are games and movies and all manner of things there just to make kids smile. I had been in this hospital when I was little to visit my cousin who had kidney disease. I didn’t really get it then. I do now. This is one of the saddest places around. If you look closely, everywhere, there is something placed in memory of a kid. Usually accompanied by a smiling picture.

We were never there. We had moments of worrying about potential surgeries if the battery became lodged in him and burned his esophagus or stomach. That was scary, but his life was never endanger. We never had to face that. There were some parents there that night who were, though. I suppose it’s technically cliche, but I don’t know if it can really be come cliche. The idea of out living your child. I will almost certainly not have to face it and I don’t want to. But for a night, I thought about it.

That’s not something I’ll forget.