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Learning Curve (School Board member Rob Hardy)
The Education of a Northfield School Board Member
Updated: 26 min 33 sec ago
In an earlier post, I wrote about a study conducted by researchers Susan Neuman and Donna Celano, who spent a decade observing the differences between the activities at two public libraries in Philadelphia, one in affluent Chestnut Hill and one in the poverty-stricken Badlands. Despite a “level playing field” created by a foundation grant to fund technology access for both libraries, students in Chestnut Hill were far more likely to use the available resources for reading-related purposes. As a result of their study, Neuman and Celano reach several significant conclusions about how best to serve students in conditions of poverty:
- The playing field has to be “un-leveled,” and more resources—not just funding, but “targeted human resources” such as adult mentors—need to be provided to poor neighborhoods.
- Parents need to be trained to become more involved in their children’s education, and especially to read with their children.
- Both parents and children need extra training and assistance in the use of technology.
- Students need engaging educational activities, not just remedial activities to boost test performance.
- Schools need to be economically integrated. A study conducted between 2001 and 2007 in the Montgomery County, Maryland, school district showed that when schools are economically integrated—when poverty isn’t concentrated in certain schools, and children from different socioeconomic groups attend school together—low-income students perform better.
To address the achievement gap between different socioeconomic groups, it seems to be common sense to provide extra resources, in the form of “targeted services” for low socioeconomic groups with fewer resources of their own. The Northfield Public Schools currently provides targeted services, like SummerPLUS, for students who have been referred to the program based on need.
My concern is with the segregating effect of such targeted programs. While these programs deliver important benefits, they also set their participants apart and label them as “at-risk” or “in need” or “underachieving,” or with any of a number of labels that carry negative connotations. The participants in such targeted programs run the risk of being stigmatized by their participation.
Lisa Delpit, author of “Multiplication is for White People:” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, writes about observing this kind of stigmatization in a public school with a special “Read 180” program for students with low reading scores:
The only available room for the program was one that other students passed on their way to lunch. Students assigned to Read 180 felt stigmatized and either refused to come to class or refused to engage. Despite the school’s best intentions of providing assistance to those students who were deemed in need of help, it is unlikely that the students showed improvement in the stigmatizing setting (Delpit, 20).
Delpit argues that a better strategy than placing students in stigmatizing remedial programs is actually to place them in “carefully planned accelerated programs that not only ameliorate their lack of preparation but allow them to gain skills that surpass grade or class expectations” (emphasis added). Solutions to the achievement gap, she concludes, must “center around creating a sense of belonging for the students—a sense that they belong in the ‘club’ of scholars and achievers.”
Our schools should have high expectations for all students, regardless of their background or socioeconomic status. As we attempt to address the achievement gap, we need to be careful not to widen the social gap between different groups in our community. Our goal should be to create a more cohesive and inclusive community, remembering that “the mission of Northfield Public Schools is to deliver educational excellence that empowers all learners to participate in our dynamic world.”
Lisa Delpit. 2012. “Multiplication is for White People:” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. New York: The New Press.
Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano. 2012. Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital. New York: Teachers College Press.
My current reading is a recent book by Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano titled Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital (Teachers College Press 2012). Neuman is a professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan, and served as Assistant Secretary of Education for Elementary and Secondary Education from 2001 to 2003. Celano teaches Communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1998, the two researchers, with a team of graduate student research assistants, spent ten years observing patterns of reading among patrons of two public libraries in Philadelphia—one in affluent Chestnut Hill, the other in the high-poverty Badlands—to understand the knowledge gap that develops between high- and low-income students.
One of the powerful factors at work in shaping the reading skills of both groups is what is known as the “Matthew Effect”—the familiar principle that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In education, the Matthew Effect refers to the persistent gap that arises from an early reading deficit. Students who start school primed to read, with a rich ecxposure to words, achieve automaticity in reading with relative ease, and are soon “reading to learn” rather than learning to read. Students who start school with smaller vocabularies and less exposure to word-rich environments immediately fall behind their better-prepared peers. Students who fail to acquire automaticity (the ability to decode words automatically without a struggle) before third grade generally fail to catch up with their peers who decode automatically and can devote their cognitive resources to comprehension.
What Neuman and Celano found, not surprisingly, was the importance of what they call “parental scaffolding” in providing children with early literacy skills. In affluent Chestnut Hill, they found parents modelling literacy to their children, teaching and guiding them and exposing them to word-rich environments. In the Badlands, children were generally on their own, without parental guidance and supervision. In other words, they observed a difference between two parenting styles articulated by Annette Lareau in her book Unequal Childhoods (2003): “concerted cultivation,” in which parents actively structure and guide their children’s growth, and “natural growth,” in which children are raised in more unstructured environments with more free time and less parental supervision. Concerted cultivation is predominantly a middle-class parenting strategy, dependent upon the availability of time and resources. Poorer parents, lacking time and resources, are often forced by economic necessity to adopt a natural growth strategy.
Due to the timing of their study, Neuman and Celano were able to observe and record the amount of time spent on reading in the two libraries before (1998) and after (2002) the introduction of a large number of computers through a foundation-funded program designed to provide equal access to technology across the Philadelphia library system. Would equal access to resources shrink the reading gap between Chestnut Hill and the Badlands? The answer was no. Once again, the Matthew Effect magnified the disparities between the two communities. In Chestnut Hill, computers actually increased the amount of time spent in reading, as children were exposed to print on the computers through reading software under the guidance of their parents. In the Badlands, reading decreased as children, without adult supervision, gravitated toward non-educational games. This supports the conclusions reached by Vigdor and Ladd, discussed in an earlier post, that computer technology can actually widen the achievement gap.
To be continued.
Commencement season is upon us. St. Olaf sent off the Class of 2013 on Sunday; today, I had the privilege of attending the graduation ceremony for the Area Learning Center; on Sunday, the Northfield High School Class of 2013 will receive its diplomas; and sometime in the middle of June, Carleton will finally get around to having its annual Commencement.
If you’re like me, there is one graduation you will always remember. Not high school, not college, not graduate school. It’s the graduation of the Sunnydale High School Class of 1999. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sorry for you. Because it means you’ve never seen a tyrannical high school principal devoured by a giant demon snake, or the meanest popular girl in your class turned into a vampire. But even having missed those pleasures, you can still enjoy Joss Whedon’s commencement address to the Wesleyan College Class of 2013.
At last night’s meeting, the School Board “put to rest” the calendar discussion, voting unanimously to direct the district administration and the Meet and Confer committee to develop a “traditional” calendar, with a post-Labor Day start, for the 2014-2015 school year. In addition, the Board decided to make summer slide and the achievement gap, rather than the calendar, the focus of its July 8th work session.
See: “Northfield school board puts new calendar discussions to rest” (Northfield News, May 29, 2013)
I voiced some skepticism about the work session, although I do believe it’s important for the Board to understand the problem of summer slide and the achievement gap. I welcome a session that will provide more insight into the problem. At the same time, I think the achievement gap is not an issue that members of the School Board, or the schools in general, can address on their own. The achievement gap is caused in large part by factors outside of school, including poverty and access to resources. These are problems that the community as a whole needs to address. The schools need to be part of the solution, of course. But after the calendar discussion, I think it’s the wrong approach for the schools to develop some kind of “solution” in isolation and present it to the community and attempt to achieve public “buy-in.” I would rather see a more grassroots, community-wide effort to develop assets in the community that help address the achievement gap. I’ve already started talking to some people in the community, like the new director of the Northfield Public Library, about ways in which Northfield as a whole can approach the achievement gap.
If the Board’s July 8th work session is part of that effort, as I now think it will be, I’m excited for the opportunity it presents.
Yesterday on Slate, Matthew Yglesias reported on a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that examines the effects of home computer use and Internet access on student achievement. The title of Yglesias’s article neatly summarizes the contents of the working paper: “Giving Poor Kids Computers Does Nothing Whatsoever to Their Educational Outcomes.”
In the largest field study of its kind, researchers Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson of UC Santa Cruz randomly selected children in grades 6-10 in fifteen different schools in California and provided them with free home computers. These were children in families without previous access to home computers. The researchers then studied the effect of computer use on student achievement and concluded that, although “computer ownership and use increased substantially, [there were] no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions.”
In another NBER working paper published in 2010, Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University also studied the impact of home computer access on academic achievement and the achievement gap. Their study focused on students in grades 5-8 in North Carolina public schools. Their study revealed “modest but statistically significant negative impacts on student math and reading scores,” and suggested that “providing universal access to home computers and high-speed internet access would broaden, rather than narrow, math and reading achievement gaps.”
Vigdor and Ladd concluded that Internet access and technology in general “is put to more productive use in households with more effective parental monitoring of child behavior.” These tend to be middle-class households with more highly-educated parents. If middle-class households get more benefits from home Internet access and computer technology, universal access will tend to widen the achievement gap.
These two studies reach different conclusions: Vigdor and Ladd find a negative impact of home computers and Internet access on student achievement, while Fairlie and Robinson find no impact at all. What is clear from both studies, however, is that there is no positive impact of home computer use on student achievement, at least when measured in terms of achievement scores in math and reading.
Vigdor and Ladd conclude: “For school administrators interested in maximizing achievement test scores, or reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in test scores, all evidence suggests that a program of broadening home computer access would be counterproductive. Of course, administrators may have other goals aside from improving math and reading test scores. Computer literate students may enjoy improved job opportunities later in life, or may be poised to take better advantage of online resources once their internal mechanisms for behavioral regulation have fully developed… It is not clear, however, whether computer literacy actually leads to better employment outcomes…”
Robert W. Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson. “Experimental Evidence on the Effects of Home Computers on Academic Achievement Among Schoolchildren.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 19060. May 2013.
Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd. “Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 16078. June 2010.
Unfortunately, these working papers are behind a paywall, but are available to those with access to databases and other library resources at Carleton and St. Olaf.
Longfellow Choice Elementary in Rochester, MN, has been on the 45-15 calendar since the 1995-1996 school year. In late 2011, when the LaCrosse, WI, schools began considering year-round school, WKBT-TV in LaCrosse sent a reporter to see how the 45-15 calendar is working at Longfellow. The report focuses on Longfellow’s success in addressing summer slide and the academic achievement gap. Here’s the full story:
In 2013-2014, Hamilton Early Learning Center, an elementary school in LaCrosse, will move to a 45-15 calendar. According to the LaCrosse superintendent, the change was a “grassroots, staff-led initiative,” and had significant support from parents concerned about summer slide.
Both Longfellow and Hamilton are individual elementary schools that have adopted the 45-15 calendar, and provide a choice program within districts which otherwise follow traditional calendars. At the May 13 School Board meeting, Board member Kari Nelson suggested that the 45-15 calendar might be adopted in Northfield as a choice program at one of the elementary schools. Such a move, however, would have an impact on transportation, and would require the staff at the choice school to agree to work on a year-round schedule.
In any case, the 45-15 calendar has been working for nearly twenty years at Longfellow in Rochester. On the other hand, what works in another community won’t necessarily work in Northfield. The feedback the Board has received on the school calendar issue—the straw polls, the public meetings, the emails, the Change.org petition—has been overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the traditional calendar. The Board ought to respect that.
At the same time, the achievement gap—and summer slide as a significant contributing factor—are real problems that our schools need to address. It might be time to move on from the discussion of calendar change to a discussion of other things (such as expanded summer enrichment opportunites) the school district and the community can do to address the achievement gap.
Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda S. Olson, “Schools, Achievement, and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 23.2 (Summer 2001), 171-191.
Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle, and Linda S. Olson, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review 72 (April 2007), 167-180.
Richard L. Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen, “The Impact of Summer Setback on the Reading Achievement Gap,” The Phi Delta Kappan 85.1 (September 2003), 68-75.
Jennifer Sloan McCombs, et al. Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning. The Rand Corporation, 2011.
National Summer Learning Association. “How to Make Summer Reading Effective.”