A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

A Pigeon Tale and a Growth Mindset

“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”

—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker

Your Environment Prevails

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In short, the researchers found that environment prevails. For children who were raised by their biological parents, the correlation between parents’ wealth and a child’s eventual wealth was strong—calculated to be 0.33. (A correlation of 0 would mean parents’ wealth has no bearing on children’s wealth, and a correlation of 1 would mean they are identical.) For children who were adopted, the correlations were much different: Between adopted children and their birth parents, it was weaker (only about 0.13), while between children and their adoptive parents, it was in the middle (about 0.23). These numbers suggest that children who are raised wealthy owe their future financial success more to the household they grew up in than any inherent ability they possess. [Bold added]

—Joe Pinsker, “Rich People Raise Rich Kids

Early Conflicts with Teachers Can Lead to Special Education

“The relationships preschoolers form with their teachers can predict their school performance in early-elementary school, concludes a new study.

Through statistical analyses of data on nearly 1,000 preschoolers, researchers from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education find that students who experienced conflict with their teachers in preschool were likelier to be referred for special education later on in elementary school—especially for boys whose language skills were low for their age.”

—Carmen Constantinescu, “Children’s Preschool Classroom Experiences and Associations With Early Elementary Special Education Referral” in EdWeek

Relationships Foster Resiliency

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Strikingly, even some children who had “gone off the rails” in their teenage years managed to turn things around and get their lives back on track by the time they were in their 30s and 40s, often without the help of mental health professionals.

Many of the factors involved in such turnarounds, and several of the factors associated with resilience throughout the children’s lives, involve relationships of some kind, whether within the context of a larger community – a school, a religion, the armed services – or in the context of one important person.

Our relationships really are key,” says McCubbin. “One person can make a big difference.

Wider research suggests that the more risk factors children face, the more protective factors they are likely to need to compensate. But as McCubbin says, “A lot of the research supports this idea of relationships, and the need to have a sense of someone that believes in you or someone that supports you – even in a chaotic environment, just having that one person.” . . . 

The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of “relational wellbeing” to try to capture this. “We think of relationship as with a person,” she says. “But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.” [Bold added]

—Lucy Maddox, “‘I saw things children shouldn’t see’ – surviving a troubled childhood” on Mosaic

Is It Our Society or Our Children That Have a Learning Disability?

Will asked some strong questions about the vague meaning of learning disabilities in his last post. The question he asked that most struck me is “why does a society that cares so little for disabled and disadvantaged adults cast such a wide net when classifying students as disabled?”

Because the reality is that such classification is incredibly subjective. A learning disability is defined as “a condition giving rise to difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age.”

One logical question that arises from this definition is “what causes such a condition?” And it is the various answers to this question that makes special education such a murky domain.

Early childhood experiences can have a tremendous impact. Children raised or continuing to live in environments with inattentive or abusive guardians end up with the traits of disability. But are such children truly “disabled” in the sense that their limitations are due to innate differences? Or does it even matter?

It does matter, because the difference is that in some cases, such as when a child has brain damage, it is clear that there is a disability attributable to that specific child (due to no one’s fault other than fate, nature, or god, depending on your perspective). But in cases where it is environmental, the disability is attributable to conditions created by a deficiency in something or someone else. In other words, it is not the child who is disabled, but that they live in a “disabling” environment.

Perhaps this is why we “cast such a wide net.” It may be that our society feels uncomfortable distinguishing clearly between such cases, because if we begin to acknowledge that children are being raised in disabling environments, then it would require us to take collective action. It is much easier, in some ways, to simply label a child with a disability, and place the burden on her.

Because a disabling environment can be fixed. A child with a real learning disability cannot.

A System of School Intensification

This recent article in The Guardian about a method of rice farming termed “System of Rice Intensification“(SRI) that can potentially increase yields dramatically without the use of chemicals immediately piqued my interest, firstly because I am strong believer in farming without pesticides and herbicides, and secondly because it holds implications for our ecological metaphor as it applies to schools.

A theme which I have been pursuing over some of my last few posts has been the idea that complex systems, given their proclivity for chaos and entropy, must be “intensively managed.” This idea can be witnessed in full in SRI, as the method requires the controlled transplanting of seedlings from a nursery into the area where the rice is to be grown, one by one.

“Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the technology to transplant single seedlings yet.”

No magic indeed. It is rather a set of good local management practices that requires an initial upfront investment in order to lay the painstaking foundation for a strong and resilient crop. As a farmer who practices SRI put it:

“When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is more labour intensive,” says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of rice and vegetables in Nalanda. “Then it gets easier and new innovations are taking place now.”

What is fascinating is that this method has been around since the 1980s, and yet scientists continue to direct their attention to silver bullets, such as technology and genetic modification. Why is this?

SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.” 

For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: “It’s been genes, genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations say ‘we will breed you a better plant’ and breeders work hard to get 5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots.” (Bold added)

Better local management, unfortunately, is not as sexy, nor profitable, as technological fixes. Plus, it’s just so messy.

Bihar, from being India’s poorest state, is now at the centre of what is being called a “new green grassroots revolution” with farming villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: “The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid,” he says. “The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers. 

“If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat.” (Bold added)

I am aware that this is only one article and that I should hesitate to draw larger inferences from it. But given that the research that has been done on SRI seems promising, I think I may be excused in drawing some connections between SRI and its implications for public education.

If we imagine a school district, a community, as a plot of arable land, we might perceive that our approach to its cultivation is all too often to become reliant on external supports and inputs, rather than to train community leaders and professionals to utilize practices and methods that are ultimately self-sustaining.

We can also perhaps draw some inferences from the idea of carefully transplanting seedlings from nurseries into the soil, as opposed to the traditional method of haphazardly dispersing clumps of seeds. It is no secret that there are toxic environments that all too many of our nation’s children are being raised in. Without a strong foundation in early childhood, academic education for many children is an increasingly uphill battle.

From these thoughts on SRI I draw two main implications for education policy:

1) Universal access to pre-K services is essential. All children must be given the opportunity to have access to as many “nutrients” as early as possible

2) Transplant students raised in toxic environments into schools offering positive, diverse learning environments

What do you think? Am I grasping at straws, or does SRI represent the next “green revolution”?

Achievement vs Equity: A False Dichotomy

Note: This was originally posted on my personal blog on March 5, 2011
In education today, the term that best defines our focus as a nation is the word “achievement.” It’s where we focus our attention as educators, as administrators, as parents, and as policymakers. What’s nice about this word is that when students are not achieving, we can then talk about the “achievement gap.” It sounds clinical, something on a case specific level that could plausibly be addressed through concerted effort and applied resources. But whatever happened to the term “equity”? With the addition of that single word into the conversation, suddenly things get just a bit more complex. When we discuss equity, we are more explicitly acknowledging larger and deeper societal issues.
Like so much of the debate in education today, having to choose sides in such a matter of semantics is a false dichotomy. We can talk about achievement—and we should—because it enables us to discuss how every child is capable of achieving (though even here we must be careful: we must acknowledge that there are many different potential avenues of success). But we also have a critical need to talk about equity, for it allows us to acknowledge that not every child comes into a classroom with the cognitive and social skill-sets that will prepare them for success in that setting.
I think it would make all of our lives so much easier if we could just pretend that on the day a child enters a kindergarten classroom, they are a tabula rasa. From thereon, it would only be the simple matter of achievement—a perfect meritocracy, if you will. Alas, as we know quite firmly from research on early childhood development that this is most definitively not the case. Children are entering classrooms with quite wildly divergent capabilities in language, socialization, and cognitive skill-sets. Some children are positioned with the skills to succeed in an academic setting. Others are not. Hence the “achievement gap.”
The research is quite clear on the importance of early childhood development. The period of time before a child enters a kindergarten classroom is when they develop the foundations of language, socialization, and other cognitive skill-sets that can better allow for academic development. Students who are raised in high poverty homes typically are deficient in these skill-sets. They have not been exposed to a wide range of vocabulary nor experiences that will position them to easily adapt to the classroom setting.
Here it becomes easy to target parents, and many people often do. We descry parental lack of values and concern for the welfare of their children. But I see this is as akin to blaming Chernobyl victims for living near a nuclear factory. If there are chronic problems in our society that center around issues of high poverty, we have to look at these problems as problems of society, not simply as problems of individuals. In other words, we have to examine—dispassionately–the root causes of parental negligence, and seek to create structures and nurture conditions that will alleviate these causes.
In seeking to create structures of redress to these social issues of poverty, community environment, and parenting, we need to talk about both achievement and equity. We can’t pretend that the playing field is equal, but we can’t pretend that students in poverty can’t succeed, either. Both of these realities must be recognized alongside of each other.