Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Outrage at banning spelling tests

Lazy teachers don't want to teach

The documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is yet another call for K-12 school reform aimed at closing the gap between academic achievers and non-achievers and promoting what an assistant superintendent in my school district once oxymoronically labeled “mass excellence.”

The problem is that school reformers are not really serious about raising the bar. After all, they continue to dumb-down education – adopting the slogan from the Chris Farley movie Tommy Boy, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Lower the Standard” – while claiming to be smarting up. How one can do higher-order thinking in math, social studies, or any other discipline while clueless about lower-order knowledge and skills remains a mystery to those of us who are not in tune with the latest best practices in K-12.

The latest example of dumbing-down while pretending to be smarting up is the trend toward eliminating spelling tests. The evidence I report here comes from a couple local school districts in the St. Louis area. (Stay tuned for this development in your own district if it has not already occurred.) In a September 18 St Louis Post-Dispatch article by Aisha Sultan, “Coming to the Defense of Spelling Tests,” the writer notes that two of the largest, best school districts in Missouri – Parkway and Rockwood – “have completely phased out spelling tests from their elementary school language arts curricula.”

Asked by astounded parents how this could be so, the Parkway coordinator for elementary communication arts replied that “we were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers.” Likewise, the Rockwood coordinator said “we’re really trying to work on self-regulation,” that is, getting children to develop their own strategies for becoming good spellers.

The districts say they will continue to teach lessons about spelling and may even hold students accountable for spelling certain words correctly, but spelling is a skill that will be embedded in student writing routines. The bottom line is that educators say spelling tests are not authentic assessments.

On the surface this sounds reasonable, but let’s understand what is actually going on:

1. Many kids cannot spell (due to dyslexia, or laziness because they do not read, or because they are just plain stupid, or whatever), and it is true that no amount of spelling tests are going to get them to spell. But many kids can spell or at least could spell, and spelling tests undoubtedly work to help many of the latter through the important function they perform in terms of drill, reinforcement, and motivation to learn to spell.

It certainly worked for me in my own schooling! Am I alone? Any number of experts have pointed out the utility of drill and practice as a pedagogical method, most recently those cited in the September 19th New York Times Sunday Magazine article “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

However, given the reigning orthodoxy in K-12, since some kids cannot do well on spelling tests, then no kids should be allowed to take spelling tests. It is about self-esteem, avoiding failure, some learning styles (e.g., inability to memorize) not being served by such tests, etc., but is rationalized as “inauthentic assessment” in the pretentious jargon of the profession.

I do not give a darn about authentic/schmentic assessment. Use whatever assessments you want, but at the end of the day I want to see progress. Show me that “authentic” assessments do anything to improve spelling. You can bet that the educators behind this fad will not be able to demonstrate such. I spoke to a Parkway high school English teacher who shared my skepticism. So the question remains, what harm do spelling tests do that they need to be banned?

This is just another case of K-12 progressive educators devaluing the basics, putting down spelling tests (because in truth they don’t care if kids can spell) just as they put down computation skills (because they don’t care if kids have automaticity with math facts), rationalizing all the while that schools should focus on developing (sniff, sniff) “higher order skills.”

Part of this is ego on the part of K-8 educators – they now consider it beneath them as “professionals” to get their hands dirty administering spelling tests (and multiplication table exercises) – but mostly it is something more damning: it is not so much that the reformers don’t care about these skills but rather they do not have enough faith in kids to succeed at mastering them. The dark secret the reformers will not admit is that the basics are hard and they have thrown in the towel on things like spelling.

This is what is going on in Parkway and Rockwood, and throughout much of the country. The banning of spelling tests is a metaphor for a much larger phenomenon. The bottom – the lowest achievers – are now setting the standard and defining school routines.

At the same time, the reformers claim every kid is a potential genius – Superman – even if they cannot spell “its” vs. “it’s,” “their” vs. “there,” or “Superman” vs. “Souperman.” In our pursuit of mass excellence, we continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning traditional if imperfect practices in favor of new unproven ones. Meanwhile, it takes a layperson to point out what PLCs (“professional learning communities”) seem unable to grasp – in the words of the Post-Dispatch writer and parent, “killing the weekly spelling test is more likely to worsen the problem than improve it.”


Most British parents find school admissions stressful

Getting your kid into a safe school can be a nightmare in Britain

Parents believe England's school admissions system is an unfair and confusing process, with many admitting they will go to any lengths to secure a favoured place for their child, a poll suggests today.

Six in 10 parents (60 per cent) say they found it, or are finding it stressful not knowing if their youngster will get a place at their preferred school. And nearly one in four (24 per cent) admit they feel the whole application procedure is confusing and overwhelming.

The poll, conducted by the parenting website Netmums, comes as parents across England submit their secondary school application forms. The deadline for many areas was yesterday.

The findings show that parents are concerned about the choice of school in their area, with over half (53 per cent) saying there is a big difference between their preferred school and the others in their area - enough for them to feel it really mattered, or matters which one they get a place at.

A breakdown reveals this is true of parents of children of all ages, with 56 per cent of parents with children of secondary school saying there was a difference, along with 57 per cent of those with pre-schoolers and 54 per cent of those with primary age youngsters.

More than four in 10 (44 per cent) of all the parents questioned said their child was worried they would be split up from their friends, while a similar proportion (39 per cent) found it difficult to understand why they might not get a place in the school they wanted to go to.

Nearly one in four parents (24 per cent) did not think their local admissions system was fair, with one in six (15 per cent) saying all areas should be moved to a "lottery system". Under this process children's names are effectively picked out of a hat and allocated schools.

Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums, said: "Applying for a secondary school is both terrifying and stressful - as a parent you know that this decision will impact on not only your child's education but also on their friendship circle, social life, extra curricular activities and sense of self."

The poll found that the distance from school process is still most commonly used to allocate places, but not everyone is in favour of it. More than one in four (26 per cent) of the parents polled said they felt this method is unfair because it can cause house prices to rise in the area, which would leave only better-off families able to afford it.

But the process of selecting pupils based on ability, used by many grammar schools, is also unpopular, with a third (34 per cent) saying it is wrong that some state schools use entrance exams, because children that are privately tutored have a better chance.

The survey also asked parents the lengths they are willing to go to in order to obtain a place at a good school. Nearly six in 10 (57 per cent) said they would be willing to move house, while nearly half (43 per cent) simply said they would do "whatever it takes".

Just under one in 10 (9 per cent) said they would lie about where they live, over one in five (22 per cent) said they would go to church just to get their child into a good school, and over one in 10 (11 per cent) said they would give a cash donation to their preferred school to increase the chance of their child being accepted.

Parents of younger children are more likely to go to any lengths with 43 per cent of those with pre-schoolers and 44 per cent of those with primary age children saying they will do whatever it takes, compared to 39 per cent of those with secondary age youngsters.

If their child does not get a preferred place, more than one in four parents (27 per cent) said they would fight the decision "all the way", while almost seven in 10 (68 per cent) said they would appeal. Just one in five (21 per cent) said they would accept the decision.

Ms Freegard added: "It is possible to affect the outcome of the often-convoluted admissions process by moving house and/or by paying for home tutors to school your child through exams. Unfortunately this means the system often favours middle class parents, leaving others without those means at their disposal feeling powerless and sidelined."

The poll questioned 1,565 parents in October.


Britain: School bullying coverup now before a tribunal

Carol Hill, 61, who dragged four boys away from Chloe David, seven, after discovering they had tied her to a chain-link fence and whipped her with a skipping rope was sacked after disclosing the event to the girl's mother.

Deborah Crabb, headmistress at Great Tey Primary School, Colchester, Essex, wrote to Claire and Scott David claiming their daughter had been 'hurt in a skipping rope incident'.

Carol, who was suspended for breaching pupil confidentiality after she told Claire how the injuries occurred, claims she was made a 'scapegoat' and sacked as part of a 'cover up'.

She appeared at an employment tribunal in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, today where she alleged unfair dismissal against the school. Before the hearing Carol said: 'I just want my job back because I haven’t done anything wrong. I love the job and I love the school.'

Headmistress Mrs Crabb sent a letter to Chloe’s parents Claire, 29, and Scott, 33, a steel worker, from Chappell, Essex, explaining she had been hurt in an ‘incident’. But Carol told Claire the details of the bullying and abuse later the same day at Beaver Scouts where they volunteered together.

Carol, who earned £6.20-an-hour as a dinner lady, was called into Mrs Crabb’s office a week after the incident and suspended for breaching confidentiality.

She was dismissed from her post for gross misconduct in September 2009 after she appeared before a disciplinary hearing chaired by a panel of three governors. An internal appeal against the dismissal was thrown out in November 2009 despite former education minister Ed Balls writing a letter demanding an investigation.

Carol has lost over a stone in weight since her dismissal and is suffering from stress induced high blood pressure.

She claims unfair dismissal because her rights have been infringed under article 10 of the European Convention, the right to freedom of expression. Carol also claims she wasn’t given sufficient notice before her dismissal.

Mrs Crabb told the tribunal that the school has received 80 hate mail letters, 150 emails and 'numerous' phone calls following the incident. She said: 'I remember seeing the school secretary literally shaking when one email was received from an unknown sender.'


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