[Image: Randy Snyder/AP Photo]
When I asked my middle-school students what an AK-47 is, they flung their arms up so quickly that I thought someone might dislocate a shoulder.
A rousing (and mostly accurate) description followed. Then, I asked my favorite question:
"How do you know that?"
As the cacophony of “It’s an assault rifle!” and “It’s the most popular gun!” gave way to debating the merits of various Grand Theft Auto sequels, I silently thanked the violent video-game gods.
Middle schoolers love to talk about things they know, and they love to talk about things they do. Put these two together, and we could very well have an enlightening discussion about gun control.
It was a fitting moment to segue:
"So, what do you know about the gun fired at the LAX airport shooting?"
It may seem unusual to talk to young students about such an unsettling topic, but it’s business as usual for me, as I teach current events to 6th, 7th and 8th graders at an after-school academy in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles.
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The U.S. education system is mediocre compared to the rest of the world, according to an international ranking of OECD countries.
More than half a million 15-year-olds around the world took the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2012. The test, which is administered every three years and focuses largely on math, but includes minor sections in science and reading, is often used as a snapshot of the global state of education. The results, published today, show the U.S. trailing behind educational powerhouses like Korea and Finland.
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When it comes to tackling the problem of chronic absenteeism, students who already already have a track record of skipping class can be a particularly tough crowd to sway. But a new report out of New York City—where one out of every five students missed a month or more of school last year — suggests an intensive community-wide initiative is gaining ground.First, some background: chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of the instructional days over the course of an academic year, which amounts to about 18 days in the average district. The national advocacy group
Attendance Works considers chronic absenteeism as an early warning system that too many schools, parents and students are failing to heed.
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Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
A decade later, Sturt has written about the experience in her provocative memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag. I spoke with her about how her time in the classroom affected her views on education today.
Read more. [Image: Jim Young/Reuters]
Just seven years ago, the Texas Legislature mandated that all high schoolers pass two algebra courses and geometry to graduate. This summer, the state reversed course, easing its strict math, science, and social-studies requirements to free up class time for job training.
Texas legislators want to create a more flexible system that helps students who aren’t headed to four-year colleges enter the workforce. And it’s not just Texas. State legislatures nationwide are enacting laws to promote career and technical education and workforce training in high school.
But that approach carries risks. While it’s true that not all students will go on to college, pulling back on college preparatory coursework has to be handled carefully in a state like Texas, with its hundreds of thousands of low-income and minority students. They’re the students who would benefit from college the most—and who need the most help getting there.
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"No Child Left Behind." "Race to the Top." The names suggest mobility, progress, moving on up and not falling back. The goal of education, according to these national education initiatives with their standards and testing, is forward motion and competitive advantage, progress and success, both in an unabashedly economic context. President Obama talks about how we need to “invest in our young people” in order to compete in a global marketplace. Bill Gates, too, argues we need standards in order to become “more competitive as a country.”
In this, as in so many other things, Japan preceded us. In her new book, Precarious Japan, anthropologist Anne Allison returns to the Japanese education system that she discussed in some detail in her 1995 monograph Permitted and Prohibited Desires. As Allison says in both volumes, the Japanese education system after World War II was built around highly competitive and rigorous high-school testing, which required enormous discipline and study. The goal was to prepare students for equally arduous employment in Japan’s industrial capitalist economy, where men worked basically all the time. (In Precarious Japan, Allison relates one anecdote of a man sleeping at his desk for no extra pay.) Good scores on tests ensured good jobs in Japan’s corporate economy. For their part, Allison writes, Japanese women were expected to stay home and focus all their time and energy on preparing children for their exams. In Allison’s words, they “worked hard at love.” Family, school, and work thus fit into a single seamless system of economic striving that “catapulted Japan to the heights of global prestige as an industrial power.”
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Students in a lecture class can give the impression of lethargy: Maybe a student sleeps in the back of the classroom, maybe others fidget and doodle. The students who are paying attention may be too focused on their notebooks to flash a look of understanding and inspiration.
Perhaps because of this negative initial impression, lectures are under attack these days. The Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction. The term “lecture” is entirely out of fashion, as is the unqualified word “lesson.” On recent planning templates released by New York’s Department of Education, only the term “mini-lesson” is used. The term gets its diminutive status because of the fact that only 10 to 15 minutes on the hour are allotted for teacher-disseminated information, while the rest of the class period is focused on student-centered practice in groups or project based learning. But the mini lesson is not even accepted as the most progressive way of teaching. Champions of the “flipped classroom” relegate lectures to YouTube channels. In a recent interview here at The Atlantic, futurist David Thornburg declared that lectures created a depressing experience for him in school.
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Every year in late August, an envelope arrived from school with a document that would determine my fate for the next nine months: my schedule. I’d scan the page to see if I’d gotten any especially hard or mean teachers. I’d check out when my free periods were. And then I’d dash to the phone to call my friends to find out what their schedules looked like.
I wanted friends in my classes for a whole variety of reasons. I wanted people to share notes and study with; people to poke me when I started to drift off during an especially dry lecture; people to gossip with about the cute guys in the row ahead of us. I also knew that the more classes I had with my friends, the more likely we were to stay friends. You don’t have much control over your own time when you’re in high school, so if you’re not in class with your friends, it’s becomes easy to go days without really seeing them.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology shows that my friends and I were right to obsess over our schedules. Researchers Kenneth A. Frank, Chandra Muller, and Anna S. Mueller found that classes have a tremendous impact on high-school students’ social lives—for better and for worse.
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When it comes to student success, “smaller is better” has been the conventional wisdom on class size, despite a less-than-persuasive body of research. But what if that concept were turned on its head, with more students per classroom – provided they’re being taught by the most effective teachers?
That’s the question a new study out today from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute set out to answer, using data on teachers and students in North Carolina in grades 4 through 8 over four academic years. While the results are based on a theoretical simulation rather than actually reconfiguring classroom assignments in order to measure the academic outcomes, the findings are worth considering.
The research on class size is mixed, and modest efforts–taking one or two students out of a room with more than 20 kids, for example–haven’t been found to yield much benefit on average. The enormous expense of paring classes down to the point where research has suggested there’s a measurable benefit for some students is simply beyond the fiscal means of most districts. As a result, everyone from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to philanthropist Bill Gates has urged districts to consider waiving class size policies in favor of giving more students a chance at being taught by a highly effective teacher.
Read more. [Image: Mari Darr-Welch/AP Photo]