Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Gerrymander for the Cure

Gerrymander for the Cure

Presently one child in fifty-nine is diagnosed with autism. This an increase from only two years ago when one child in sixty-eight was identified as being on the spectrum.
Not to worry, the incidence of autism is going to go down dramatically. Don’t get confused.   The number of children exhibiting signs of autism may not change and, in fact, could go up, but the incidence will go down.
Thoroughly confused now?   Let me explain.  In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the latest version of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, affectionally known as DSM-5.   In this new version, Asperger’s Syndrom was no more. Childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and not otherwise specified also got the ax. All of these categories were bundled under a very broad autism spectrum disorder.  The new criteria were in some ways more restrictive than the former ones were.  HOWEVER, if you were considered one of the previous categories under the old DSM, you can keep your diagnosis even if you would not qualify under the current DSM 5.
These are the criteria that are used by mental health professionals, e.g. psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to determine a person's disability and, therefore, eligibility for many services.
But it is the Centers for Disease Control that issues the official definition that is used for tracking prevalence.  Change the definition and you change the number of kids who make the cut.
The Center for Disease Control has evaluated the new definition and it believes that if the Center should switch to the new definition the number of children with autism would drop by 18%!   How great is that!   Think of all those children who will be cured by the stroke of a pen.  Won’t  their parents be relieved.  Going forward, the CDC will be using the new definition for its next evaluation of prevalence.   They will release their results in about two years.
One CDC staff member opined the expectation that clinicians will adjust their evaluations of children to fit the new definitions so the new prevalence numbers might not be adjusted that much.
The Director for the Center for Autism and The Developing Brain at Cornell University said she expects the prevalence of autism to continue to rise even with the new definition.  
This whole situation reminds me of when I was the Director of Special Education at a local school system.  Our Board of Education was concerned that too many children were being diagnosed as having learning disabilities.  In those days, a child was considered to have a learning disability if there were particular discrepancy between achievement scores and ability test scores.  The Board increased the required discrepancy causing many children who had previously had a learning disability to be declared cured.   It fell to me to notify parents.   Parental reaction ranged by total relief that their child was now all better to comments such as, “how dumb do you think I am, my kid still can’t read.”
It is good to know that old habits die hard and we can still define our way out of an exploding increase in a disability.  
It will be a great fundraising slogan-“ let’s gerrymander our way to the cure.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rigor is better- or Not

We are all about making our schools more rigorous.  We keep increasing the number of math courses students need to take, lowering the grade in which algebra starts, and adding the number of credits required for a high school diploma.  We insist on a foreign language and want every student to be prepared with the necessary courses to go on to college.
I find these efforts counter-productive to what schooling is supposed to be about.  The original decision to spend tax-payer money to provide a free education for all children came right along with universal suffrage (OK, not universal for women and certain racial groups).  But the idea was that if everyone were going to vote they needed to be able to read, write and understand the issues of the election.   We have moved a long way from that point.
Increasingly there is a strong shift to earlier emphasis on academic instruction.   We are totally comfortable ignoring normal developmental milestones to push academic achievement into lower and lower grades.
Uniformly, algebra is introduced in the 8thgrade.  San Francisco found very high repeat rates for 8thgraders taking algebra.   But when they moved algebra to 9thgrade, those rates dropped dramatically.
New York City has some of the most premier selective high schools in the nation.  Entrance is not based on middle school grades; it is not based on teacher referrals; and it is not based on the scores of the state tests.  All children rise and fall based on one single test developed by the premier schools.  As a consequence, while the City is over 50% African-American and Latino, only four children from these groups are among the entering class for fall 2018.  The Mayor is upset about this and has suggested entrance to these schools should consider multiple factors.  Others insist he is trying to lower the rigor of these wonderful schools.
How about we think of rigor in schools as including the ability to problem solve, get along with people of differing cultures or opinions, develop social/emotionally strong students who can stand up to the social and political pressures of the world into which they will venture. Students who are sufficiently comfortable in their world that they do not act out aggressively toward their school.   College should NOT be an extension of secondary education.   We should not be preparing everyone for an academic career.  We know there are multiple kinds of intelligences, why don’t we act that way in developing our high school curricula.   In days of yore, high schools awarded multiple diplomas: academic, general, business and vocational.   Some things old should be good again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Different Way to Arm our Schools

A different way to arm our schools

We have this whole situation of school invasions bass ackwards.  Nearly every school invader has been a current or former student.  They know the layout of the school.  They know where people hang out.  They know there are 2000 or more students in that building.
So, our foolish way to deal with the issue is to have MORE guns in the schools.  We will hire MORE SRO’s or school resource officers, our euphemistic name for in-school armed security.  We will get more metal detectors.  How many security people can we put in one building.   Will high schools with thousands of kids and hundreds of staff have five officers, maybe six, how many would be enough? How will they be in the right spot at the right time?  We can “harden” our schools as has been suggested.  Think about it, prisons are pretty hardened places and even they have riots!  Do we want our schools to resemble prisons? That is where we are heading with all of these security guards, metal detectors and lock down drills.  It has been suggested that retired police officers and retired military make the best SRO's.  Do these people know how to work with kids?
Money is finite.  We have so much and that is it.  Doesn’t matter if the finite amount is five billion or 5 dollars.  It is finite.  The money being spent to harden our schools is not going to do the job.  If anything it will create more reasons for kids to grab a gun and invade the building.  The students who are shooting up our schools already feel disconnected.  Adding more guns will only make them feel more so.
In fact, what we need to do is soften our schools.   Use that money for SRO’s to hire more teachers.  Let’s put an SRT- school resource TEACHER in every classroom.  Let’s encourage teachers to KNOW their students and to interact with them on a personal level.  Let’s tell teachers that in addition to getting students to pass a test they need to find out how the kid is.  How is your mother?  Is she feeling better from the flu?   Did your dad get that job he was going after?  Did you make the team?  How is your school year going?   Kids who feel cared about and connected do not shoot up a school.  We need to arm our teachers and staff with caring not with weapons.
And while I am at it, bigger is not better when it comes to schools. There is a reason private schools are not invaded and it has nothing to do with the funding source.  Private schools are by their nature smaller.  You don’t need to walk  miles to get to the next classroom.  Teachers and staff know you by name.  They ask how are you? And they really want to know and really want an answer.  It isn’t perfunctory.  
We can never hire enough school security to cover every place in a comprehensive public school.  We can never harden our schools to look like prisons or airport security.   Why would we want to?
We can allow our teachers the time and the energy to care about their students.  We can free counselors up to counsel. Now there’s an interesting idea.  If they were not chasing tests and test scores they might have time for what brought them to the profession.
How about we arm our schools with people who have the time to care.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We have a math problem

WE Have a math problem

We have a math problem in this country and it isn’t just about the younger students.  Every year tens of thousands of young people fail to graduate because they cannot earn enough credits in math to complete degree requirements.    Maryland requires all teachers to be able to pass a basic skills test in reading, writing and math.   It is the math portion of the test that consistently trips people up.  Even when they finally pass the test, it would be hard to call it a high skill area for them.  Yet they will go on to teach children math, an area in which they are barely proficient.  
Two-thirds of students entering a community college and 40% of those attending a 4-year school are enrolled in zero credit remedial math classes.  Presently we teach math before college as a funnel leading to advanced algebra, precalculus and calculus.   What is particularly interesting is that, with the exception of some STEM careers, our economy needs more math skills in using data for physics, finance, politics and education.  Math skills are critical to decipher misleading news reports.   What we need are more people with good quantitative reasoning skills so that they can function as both citizens and career builders. What we need are statistics and data literacy.  But we still resolutely teach algebra 2, precalculus and calculus.   Never mind their usefulness.  
These remedial math courses which are expensive, even though they do not yield credit, act as a gatekeeper to higher level math classes.   If the content were modified, they could become a gateway to math literacy which would not only help the college student but could increase math literacy.
A new math curriculum developed by the Carnegie Foundation is called Quantway 1 and Quantway 2.  The curriculum compresses remedial and college level content into one year.  BUT the approach is totally different.   It uses real-world scenarios to engage students, asking them to apply math formulas to calculating the dosage of a baby’s medication, or analyzing the racial disparities in prison populations.  The students are required to work in groups to eliminate the feeling of isolation for students who see themselves as poor in math.  Think of it as a whole course in word problems instead of the typical approach of one separate unit.   The second year of the curriculum is called Statway. The emphasis there is on using statistics.   Student pass rates are 3-4 times higher than in standard remedial courses. In the 2016-17 school year 69 institutions of higher learning have adopted the program.  Hardly a drop in the ocean of higher ed programs but it is a start.
We are like mice running on a wheel.  Elementary students are taught by teachers who can barely do the math themselves.  Secondary education students are taught math that is a funnel to a higher level of math that is not meaningful to them and they have little to no use for in their lives.  These students move on to post-secondary ed to discover they are not prepared and must be remediated.   They lose out and our economy loses out because they are not getting the math understanding and literacy that they need.  Stop the world, we need to get off.  We have a math problem and it keeps getting worse.