Can Prep School Fight the Class War?

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John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege. CreditBebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.

Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.

In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.

Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”

Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.

Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.

I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’

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Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus

The ability to focus is an important driver of excellence. Focused techniques such as to-do lists, timetables, and calendar reminders all help people to stay on task. Few would argue with that, and even if they did, there is evidence to support the idea that resisting distraction and staying present have benefits: practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, for example, can enhance leadership effectiveness by helping you become more able to regulate your emotions and make sense of past experiences. Yet as helpful as focus can be, there’s also a downside to focus as it is commonly viewed.

The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.

So what do we do then? Focus or unfocus?

In keeping with recent research, both focus and unfocus are vital. The brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus, allowing you to develop resilience, enhance creativity, and make better decisions too.

When you unfocus, you engage a brain circuit called the “default mode network.” Abbreviated as the DMN, we used to think of this circuit as the Do Mostly Nothing circuit because it only came on when you stopped focusing effortfully. Yet, when “at rest”, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy (compared to the comparatively small 5% that any effort will require).

The DMN needs this energy because it is doing anything but resting. Under the brain’s conscious radar, it activates old memoriesgoes back and forth between the past, present, and future, and recombines different ideas. Using this new and previously inaccessible data, you develop enhanced self-awareness and a sense of personal relevance. And you can imagine creative solutions or predict the future, thereby leading to better decision-making too. The DMN also helps you tune into other people’s thinking, thereby improving team understanding and cohesion.

There are many simple and effective ways to activate this circuit in the course of a day.

Using positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): PCD is a type of mind-wandering different from slipping into a daydream or guiltily rehashing worries. When you build it into your day deliberately, it can boost your creativity, strengthen your leadership ability, and also-re-energize the brain. To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind. But unlike slipping into a daydream or guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, you might first imagine something playful and wishful—like running through the woods, or lying on a yacht. Then you swivel your attention from the external world to the internal space of your mind with this image in mind while still doing the low-key activity.

Studied for decades by Jerome Singer, PCD activates the DMN and metaphorically changes the silverware that your brain uses to find information. While focused attention is like a fork—picking up obvious conscious thoughtsthat you have, PCD commissions a different set of silverware—a spoon for scooping up the delicious mélange of flavors of your identity (the scent of your grandmother, the feeling of satisfaction with the first bite of apple-pie on a crisp fall day), chopsticks for connecting ideas across your brain (to enhance innovation), and a marrow spoon for getting into the nooks and crannies of your brain to pick up long-lost memories that are a vital part of your identity. In this state, your sense of “self” is enhanced—which, according to Warren Bennis, is the essence of leadership. I call this the psychological center of gravity, a grounding mechanism (part of your mental “six-pack”) that helps you enhance your agility and manage change more effectively too.

Taking a nap: In addition to building in time for PCD, leaders can also consider authorized napping. Not all naps are the same. When your brain is in a slump, your clarity and creativity are compromised. After a 10-minute nap, studies show that you become much clearer and more alert. But if it’s a creative taskyou have in front of you, you will likely need a full 90 minutes for more complete brain refreshing. Your brain requires this longer time to make more associations, and dredge up ideas that are in the nooks and crannies of your memory network.

Pretending to be someone else: When you’re stuck in a creative process, unfocus may also come to the rescue when you embody and live out an entirely different personality. In 2016, educational psychologists, Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar found that people who try to solve creative problems are more successful if they behave like an eccentric poet than a rigid librarian. Given a test in which they have to come up with as many uses as possible for any object (e.g. a brick) those who behave like eccentric poets have superior creative performance. This finding holds even if the same person takes on a different identity.

When in a creative deadlock, try this exercise of embodying a different identity. It will likely get you out of your own head, and allow you to think from another person’s perspective. I call this psychological halloweenism.

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD, 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.


Srini Pillay, M.D. is an executive coach and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also a technology innovator and entrepreneur in the health and leadership development sectors, and an award-winning author. His latest book is Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. He is also a part-time Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education, and is on internationally recognized think tanks.

Before You Study, Ask For Help

The Wall Street Journal

That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year

ILLUSTRATION: HANNA BARCZYK

What’s the best way to study for a test?

Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?

Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.

Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.

Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.

FIVE WAYS TO HONE YOUR STUDY SKILLS

  • Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
  • Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
  • Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
  • Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
  • Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.

High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.

That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.

Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.

Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.

No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.

Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.

Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.

When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.

Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.

Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.

What Independent Schools Can Learn From New Educational Models

NAIS

Independent schools are trying to keep pace with rapid changes in the demographic, economic, and social composition of their student and parent populations. At the same time, new forms of competition have emerged, providing alternative school options for parents and their children. Despite this, most independent schools continue to provide the same type of education with little variation.

Many schools have made changes in the form of adding programs or services that are perceived as being valuable to parents as well as upgrading facilities, but these changes have contributed to the increasing cost of educating a child in independent schools. Tuition and cost of living increases have made most independent schools unaffordable for middle- and some high-income families. How can we continue providing a top-notch education while keeping our schools affordable?

To understand the forces at play and to help independent schools better compete, NAIS examined schools with different financial and educational models. Over the course of three months, we conducted a review of publicly available information, interviewed administrators at six U.S. schools, and created profiles that highlight some of the distinguishing attributes of each school. Three school profiles follow; all six profiles are available here.

Blyth-Templeton Academy

Blyth-Templeton Academy, a college-preparatory high school in Washington, DC, combines very small class sizes with city-wide learning opportunities. Blyth-Templeton opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and is scheduled to open a campus in New York City for the 2017–2018 school year.

Blyth-Templeton’s curriculum focuses on immersive, student-centered experiential learning, where teachers teach what the students want to learn. The experiential learning is not just an occasional field trip, but a daily and weekly part of the school’s curriculum. Blyth-Templeton’s academic year is divided into four terms, each term lasting about two months. During a term, students study only two subjects, allowing them to explore various subjects in greater depth than in a normal school schedule. Students follow a daily schedule consisting of three two-hour periods. During these three periods, students study an array of traditional academic subjects, such as math, science, or history that are combined with travel time around DC to make it experiential. The final two hours of a student’s day consists of an open period, where the student is free to write papers, work on projects, or study for tests. Teachers are available during this period to assist students with their work. In addition to traditional coursework, the students complete several courses that are more adaptive to their personal interests. These courses explore the students’ interests in a more personalized way, while simultaneously helping them to develop their critical and creative-thinking capacity.

Blyth-Templeton is part of the Blyth Education family, a private Toronto-based company founded in 1977, that offers secondary education and educational credit programs. Belonging to the Blyth Education network means that students at Blyth-Templeton can take Advanced Placement (AP) courses through Blyth-Templeton Academy Online, study overseas with the Blyth-Templeton Academy Global High School, or even do an academic quarter at a Blyth-Templeton Academy High School in Canada.

Fully funded by tuition, Blyth-Templeton has no fundraising events. In 2016–2017, the tuition was $14,850, compared to $37,030, the median day school tuition in DC. The school also offers financial support via financial aid or merit scholarships; about 20 percent of students receive financial support. One of the main reasons Blyth-Templeton is able to provide this type of education at such a lower cost is that instead of spending money on new facilities, labs, or athletic fields, the school uses existing community resources. Operating out of the Hill Center, a community center close to the U.S. Capitol, Blyth-Templeton rents classroom space in the center, paying only for the space while it is used. Instead of buses or vans, students navigate the city via public transportation and walking. School libraries and textbooks have been replaced by laptops and trips to a local public library. There are no athletic teams, but students who want to participate do so in clubs or leagues outside of school.

Rather than lecturing, Blyth-Templeton teachers facilitate academic discussion in the classroom. The
average class size is eight students. The school currently operates with seven faculty members and five school leadership positions. The school’s compensation is comparable to other schools; however, Blyth-Templeton offers part-time faculty positions for those interested in other pursuits. This flexibility helps attract talent and allows faculty to pursue outside endeavors such as graduate school or other work.

BASIS Independent Schools

BASIS Independent Schools, a network of pre-K–12 private schools, combines a STEM-focused education with an emphasis on foreign language skills to provide students with a practical education for the 21st century. BASIS places heavy emphasis on science and mathematics in the classroom. Students begin studying chemistry, biology, and physics in sixth grade, and begin high school math during middle school. Upon graduation, all BASIS students will have taken all three sciences at the honors level, one AP science course, and one AP math course. Foreign languages are also a critical component of the curriculum. All students begin studying Mandarin as early as pre-kindergarten and are given the option to continue Mandarin or learn a new language in middle school. Many high school students elect to take AP courses in their respective languages, often studying Mandarin, Latin, French, or Spanish at the college level.

During senior year, all BASIS students take capstone courses, studying advanced subjects ranging from quantum mechanics to game theory and political philosophy. Students spend their last trimester completing a senior project, which allows them to apply their knowledge to an area of their choosing. Senior projects are guided by a staff mentor, and can take the form of internships, university-level research, field work domestically or abroad, and other options depending on a student’s individual interests.

The BASIS promise includes that not only will students graduate with a deep understanding of academic disciplines and a mastery of traditional skills, but also that they will learn to innovate and think across disciplinary silos and become 21st century knowledge workers. While most schools have similar goals, BASIS prides itself as having a proven track record of great student outcomes as measured by both national and international ranking—like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools—and college acceptance rates. The OECD Test for Schools is based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and provides information on students’ performance in math, reading, and science compared to other students at schools in the United States and the world.

Class sizes at BASIS Independent Schools vary between 20 and 25 students. The elementary classes have a unique teaching approach: Each first- to fourth-grade class is staffed by two joint teachers. The first teacher is a subject expert, who has a degree in whatever subject they are teaching. The second teacher is a learning expert, whose job is to help facilitate the holistic development of students, focusing on their emotional and social development. The joint teacher model ensures that students will learn from teachers who are experts in their
field, while developing more general emotional/interpersonal habits simultaneously. Teachers also have two hours of “student time” set aside to support students individually and in small groups.

Funded by a tuition rate that varies from $22,900–$29,500 depending on the grade and location, there is no fundraising or state/federal money. This is possible in part because BASIS Independent Schools are managed by BASIS Education, a company that started with operating charter schools. When BASIS Education expanded into opening private schools, the company drew on 15 years of experience with fiscal control and responsibility. Teachers are paid competitively, but BASIS schools aim to restrict facilities spending to only what is necessary to deliver a competitive educational program.

BASIS Education currently operates 28 schools across the United States and the world, including charter schools and independent schools in Silicon Valley, California (5–12); Brooklyn, New York (pre–K10); McLean, Virginia (preschool-11); Fremont, California (K–8); and the BASIS International School in Shenzhen, China (preschool–12). BASIS plans to expand its current U.S. locations and open private schools in other cities around the country; another New York campus (K–8) is set to open in Manhattan in 2017. Internationally, BASIS plans to open a second school in China by September 2017 and is opening its first European location in Prague in 2020.

Acton Academy

Student agency—the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation—is at the heart of the Acton Academy model. Acton is a learner-driven community that strongly believes children can plan their school day and manage their time. It’s modeled on a one-room schoolhouse, enrolling 36 students in the elementary studio, 36 in the middle school studio, and between 36 and 48 students in the high school studio. The school year consists of trimesters spread out over 11 months, during which students engage in real-world projects, apprenticeships, state-of-the-art educational gaming or “quests,” and Socratic discussions in a multiage classroom.

The educational approach is based on a concept Acton refers to as the “Hero’s Journey,” which seeks to help students discover how they can live a life of meaning and purpose and develop hands-on skills that will allow them to do something that will change the world. No homework is assigned at Acton; however, students are able to access multiple learning programs like ST Math, Khan Academy, and Dreambox at home. Instead, “young heroes” celebrate the mastery of tools, skills, and character by earning badges, assembling portfolios, and taking part in public exhibitions. Parents use these badges to track academic progress in core skills, like reading, writing, math, and spelling, and character development. Electronic and hard copy portfolios capture rough drafts, photos, video, and other creative work. Public exhibitions at the end of most quests allow young heroes to present work to experts, customers, or the public for a real-world test.

Acton Academy opened its first location in 2009 in Austin, Texas, and has since opened another 25 U.S. and international campuses. Schools (as well as parent groups and entrepreneurs) can apply to become part of the Acton network. Most of the schools in the Acton network are nonprofits, and tuitions depend on each school location and offerings. In 2016­–2017, tuition ranged between $500 and $1,000 per month. Acton Academy in Austin reports an annual cost-per-student at $4,300. This low cost may be a direct consequence of the teaching model: Students are supervised by adult “guides” who are more of a support resource than a traditional teacher. The school is run with fewer adults than what you typically find in other schools, which in turn, saves money in overhead.

Acton plans to continue opening additional campuses in 2017 across the United States and in various countries around the world, with the goal of opening 50 to 100 schools a year. There seems to be growing interest in the Acton model: The school has received 2,500 applications from parents who want to start their own school, representing about 100 applications a week. This doesn’t mean that Acton runs these schools; it provides them with kits and resources to use as guidelines for creating an Acton-inspired learning experience.

Modeling These Models

The approach that these schools are taking—combining a teaching model that is more student-centered with a business model that focuses on what is core to providing an excellent education—might not be a good match for the mission of some independent schools, but the inherent practices offer a lot to consider and explore.

  • Balancing low-cost and quality education. A brick-and-mortar type of school, while offering the latest and greatest in facilities, programs, and services, comes with a high price tag. Many for-profit schools prioritize their investments in teaching core academic programs, while outsourcing extracurricular activities. What are the programs and services that your school could outsource? Are there opportunities at your school to take a more minimal approach to facilities and lower operating costs?
  • Understanding your niche market. Many schools offer a wide selection of programs and services trying to please as many parents as possible. However, by being the school for everyone, you’re risking not being the right school for anyone. It’s important to clearly differentiate your school’s offerings from your competition and communicate these differences to prospective families. What type of parents are the best match for your school’s mission? (See sidebar below, “Parent Profiles”) What are the types of messages that resonate best with them?
  • Delivering on the promises of personalized learning. Many independent schools say they offer personalized learning, but to what extent are you offering students the opportunity to decide what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it? Consider what programs or services your school offers to guide students in pursuing a career. Are there additional opportunities to help students explore their interests or to connect them with professionals in relevant fields?

Sidebar: Parent Profiles

What type of parents does your school attract—or want to attract? NAIS’s Parent Motivations Study can help you learn more about the parents in your school community.

The 2011 study sought to understand high-income parents’ attitudes and motivations about independent schools and examined how parents learn about various school options, what they value in an education, and what persuades them to select independent schools. The study identified five parent personas: Challenge Seekers, Success-Driven Parents, Right Fit Parents, Character-Building Parents, and Public School Proponents.

Members can download the full study, which includes an in-depth look at each persona as well as messages that resonate with each segment and tips to help you reach out to parents more effectively, here.

Teachers Brace for Tough Discussions After Charlottesville Violence

Educators in the recently rocked Virginia city are pondering how to broach racially charged topics with their students.

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter Aug. 18, 2017

 

Hundreds of people march peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville, V.A., in the wake of violence in the city and against torch-lit white nationalist parade the same campus last Friday night. Students and residents gathered at the university's Rotunda in Charlottesville to sing together for an evening vigil that stood in stark contrast to last weeks torch-lit march of white supremacists.

Hundreds of people march peacefully with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va. (SALWAN GEORGES/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES)

If you prompt Nikki Franklin’s former students with the words “the time is,” they’ll reply in unison: “always right to do right.”  That’s the advice Martin Luther King Jr. gave students during a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, and it’s the same mantra Franklin tries to instill in her students each year.

“It usually takes me the whole year to emphasize that and teach them that,” says Franklin, who grew up in northern Virginia and has been an elementary school teacher in the Charlottesville City Schools system since she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2004.

 

“The younger grades really do revolve around building the skills that will allow students to identify what is respect, how do you show respect and love,” she says. “In general, we focus on the broader skills that will create good citizens.  “Ever since this weekend, I’m thinking about how that needs to be emphasized more.”

When students in Charlottesville return to the classroom from summer break on Tuesday, a little more than a week will have passed since white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The gathering turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring dozens.

 

“I don’t know what students saw, what kind of conversations they’ve had,” Franklin says. “I don’t know exactly what situations will come up. I realize that this year is going to be different. I can’t tell you exactly how.”

 

For teachers in Charlottesville and across the country, the violent rally put an indelible blot on the start of the school year, leaving many unsure of the type of support their students may need upon returning, and uncertain how they should talk about and teach what happened in their classrooms.

Among the repercussions of the events in Charlottesville has been a heightened re-examination of Confederate memorials, as well as buildings named for those who supported the Confederacy. According to a 2016 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 public schools were still named for Confederate icons, about 25 percent of which had a student body that was majority black.

 

But the incident also has reignited a conversation among educators about the responsibility to teach U.S. history without sanitizing the country’s ugly moments – as shameful as they may be.

 

“I think teachers do have a responsibility to bring quality historical perspective to bear on historical issues that’s evidence-based,” says Zach Bullock, chairman of the history and social sciences department at Charlottesville High School, where he’s been teaching for seven years. “That’s more important now than ever before maybe.”

 

Those sentiments are bolstered by revelations in recent years about the content of some textbooks, such as a high school geography book in Texas that portrayed African slaves as an immigrant group and “workers.” A Connecticut school district, meanwhile, last year said it would pull a textbook after a parent complained about a passage that said slave owners “often cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.”

“I think what we have to do is help [students] come to good conclusions using good information, good news and certainly bringing a historical perspective to bear on it as well,” Bullock says. “Helping them wade through all of the things they hear and see.”

To that end, numerous organizations have resources posted online for teachers that are specifically geared toward helping them teach about race, diversity and empathy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has an empathy lesson plan. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently released a list of books for grade levels that have strong social justice themes, to help teachers create equitable learning environments. And educational development organization Facing History and Ourselves has resources to help teachers “foster humanity” in their classrooms in the wake of tragedies like Charlottesville.

 

“Educators will need to be even more reflective and teach the subject matter around race, character and civics in an intentionally deeper way,” Franklin says. “Every educator can revisit their own practice and find areas of improvement.”

 

On Twitter, the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, started by an education writer for The Atlantic, prompted teacher and education organizations to highlight and share useful resources.

 

Many of the guides available stress the importance of case studies and field trips, followed up by conversations that can help students understand how historical events relate to modern ones.

 

In Charlottesville, students visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, where slaves were used to cultivate tobacco and other crops, as early as second grade.

 

“For a lot of kids, that’s the first time they have a school experience with race in a sticky kind of way,” Franklin says, adding that she’s never had the same conversation twice when talking to students about race, diversity and the country’s history of slavery.

“I really let the students, their knowledge, their comfort lead those kinds of conversations, always with me in the background knowing I need to reinforce the parts of the conversation that get us to my students leaving our classroom knowing that love is important, that being a kind person is important,” she says.

Franklin hasn’t yet settled on a lesson plan for how she’ll approach the recent events that put her city and that of her students in the national spotlight.

 

“We have this hard work to do, but we’re going to do it,” she says. “We’re going to lean on each other.”

A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry

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Students at Flushing International High School in Queens working on projects during a summer program. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.

“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”

Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.

For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.

Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.

More than 40 schools in New York City  home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students — have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.

New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.

This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.

Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

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Joy Nolan, left, and Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, right, co-founders of the Mastery Collaborative, with Lara Evangelista, the school’s principal. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.

Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.

Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.

Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.

“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.

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A learning outcomes chart. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.

“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.

In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.

At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.

At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.

To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.

In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.

Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.

Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.

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A student at Flushing International High School in Queens working at her own pace to master a required skill. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

“We were not reaching all of these kids,” Ms. Genduso said.

In late 2012, educators at the school were trying to think big. Housed on the second floor of a sprawling brick building on Hoyt Street, M.S. 442 was 14 years old and struggling with low test scores and declining enrollment. It had done a poor job of attracting families from the neighboring brownstones, and many of the teachers were dispirited. The school shed its name, New Horizons Middle School, and introduced computers. Some teachers began using computers for in-class lessons. Another group thought it would complement the student advising system. The changes led to conversations about what had been happening inside classrooms and whether a new approach was needed.

Eventually, the school decided to switch to mastery-based education. Still, the move was slow. First, the school offered more hands-on group activities. For a seventh-grade math unit on ratios and proportion, for example, the class opened a pretend catering company. Students practiced their math skills as they figured out pricing and discounts for their menus.

The next year, the school transformed its mentoring program. Students set behavioral goals and logged online. They could determine to be on time more often, do their homework more regularly or talk less in science class. Their mentors noted their goals and the progress made. The platform was a hit with students and with teachers, who believed it empowered children to think about their growth in new ways.

In the 2013-14 school year, educators at the school came up with a list of desired academic outcomes. If students could be motivated by an online log to stop talking in class, perhaps a log would motivate them to learn to write an introductory paragraph or add fractions.

Engaged by the project, Jared Sutton, a 27-year-old algebra teacher, helped develop a software program for grading called the Hive. It’s the program that Moheeb uses, via his iPhone or a classroom computer, when he wants to check his progress, which he does multiple times a day.

Parents, however, remained skeptical. While students received end-of-year report cards with their mastery points translated into percentage grades (necessary when applying to high school), many parents were confused by the frequent progress reports detailing dozens of outcomes for each subject. Some simply wanted to know whether their children were passing.

“There can be a real concern that they don’t understand,” said Noreen Mills, principal of M.S. 442. “But once they understand, they get on board.”

On a sunny morning last spring, the new approach was visible in a sixth-grade math class. Signs around the room reinforced the school’s philosophy: “Failing proves that you are trying,” one read; another, “Being wrong is the key to being successful.”

Students in T-shirts and hoodies organized into four groups. At one table, they worked on a conversion problem, trying to determine when a dog owner would need to buy more dog food. The dog owner had 45 pounds of kibbles, and the dog ate 10 ounces a day. The problem tested a math skill they would need to master by the end of sixth grade: “I can convert from one unit of measurement to another.”

“He’s confused,” one boy said of his seatmate, who had circled the correct answer but was puzzled by the procedure. “But at least he got the right answer.”

“I don’t think we should leave it at that,” said Priyanka Katumuluwa, their teacher, who leaned over their desks as she pointed to the problem. Both boys looked up at her, then down again at the page. They were listening intently.

How a School Ditched Awards and Assemblies to Refocus on Kids and Learning

When Paula Gosal took over as principal of the Chilliwack Middle School, she walked smack into the middle of a long-standing debate among the staff over awards. It wasn’t exactly a rumble that Gosal was tossed into so abruptly in the fall of 2016. Most of the teachers at this school for seventh- through ninth-graders in British Columbia had read the literature on awards, and were looking for feedback and support from their new principal. The majority wanted to do away with the school’s awards and awards assemblies, and needed the backing of their principal to make it happen.

“I did not have to be persuaded,” Gosal said. She called for a vote, and the staff unanimously decided to stop handing out awards.

Though data on the extent of school award-giving is scarce, the practice of delivering them is so customary that the Common Application to U.S. colleges includes spaces to report honors and other forms of recognition. Alongside their ubiquity, however, is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science—and also one of the most ignored,” wrote Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pursuit of the trinket or prize extinguishes what might have been a flicker of internal interest in a subject, suffocating the genuine sources of motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this,’ ” said Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Awards are that much worse than rewards, Kohn added, because they are simply prizes made artificially limited.

For the majority of students who don’t receive public honors, awards ceremonies spur boredom, anger or resentment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.

“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers,” Kohn said.

Understanding the intellectual rationale for doing away with awards, as Gosal and her staff did, made their decision a lot easier. But there were other reasons. Teachers at Chilliwack bad been bothered by the exclusionary nature of the awards ceremonies; they noticed the same students and families being recognized year after year. As well, Gosal had been troubled in the past by the ugly encounters she’d witnessed among teachers who had argued for or against a particular student receiving an award. “My experience of watching teachers debate over children was unsettling,” Gosal said.

She and her staff also sought to change what motivated kids to work, so that they’d learn for the sake of it rather than for a prize. And they all had begun to realize that student life outside the classroom was just as rich as it was inside, and that those endeavors were just as worthy of notice.

Instead of being selected by the school for achievements in pre-determined categories, students were able to recognize their own achievements. (Courtesy of Paula Gosal) (Courtesy of Paula Gosal)

In May of 2017, Gosal told parents in her weekly newsletter that the June awards ceremony was off. Instead, the school would be hosting a success showcase for all students. “I wanted to marry the two worlds, who you are inside of school and who you are outside,” Gosal explained. The showcase would be more than a talent show, she added. It’s “this is who I am,” she said.

About 200 parents and children walked through the school halls on the night of the showcase. Everywhere, the students displayed their unique skills and interests: some danced, played a jazz set or sang. Others dribbled and scored on the basketball court, or demonstrated knot-tying, or dueled one another at a gaming station they had set up especially for the showcase. One child with training in professional dog handling showed her prowess to the crowd, and scores of others displayed their art, poetry and other creative work in the school gallery. Plastered throughout the school were one-page statements every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of ___.”

Chris Wejr, the principal of James Hill Elementary School in British Columbia, eliminated awards and the ceremonies that go with them after talking with teachers and parents about the school’s practices and mission. He had wondered if the regular “student-of-the-month” assembly violated the everyday message of community they were attempting to build; the award seemed to be suggesting that “we’re one community—but you’re a little bit better,” he said. This approach also seemed to contradict the strengths-based model of education they sought to instill, which emphasized each student’s abilities and aptitudes.

“Every single person in school has strengths, skills and talents, and it’s our job to bring them out more,” Wejr said.

Courtesy of Paula Gosal

Together with the staff, they decided that handing out awards neither aligned with their beliefs nor brought out the best in their students—even for the sliver of kids who received awards. “Winners” got the message that product rather than process is what matters in education, Wejr said. “Learning should be the reward,” he added. And the far more plentiful “losers” heard that they weren’t good enough to be spotlighted on stage, or that their unique combination of attributes didn’t truly count.

Wejr replaced the ceremony that called out one student with a series of assemblies that highlighted chunks of fifth-graders, so that by the end of the year every graduating child was honored. Students said they learned more about their peers in the ceremony, Wejr said. And some appreciative parents approached him afterward to say that their child had never been recognized this way before. “If we believe all students can achieve, our practices have to align with that,” he said.

Neither Wejr nor Gosal heard much in the way of criticism from parents or students after they eliminated their school awards. From a population of 575 students, just two parents at Chilliwack Middle School sent emails questioning the decision, and social media channels were quiet. “The ease of the change has been surprising,” Gosal said. Though Wejr heard some grumbling outside the school about the educational system drifting toward mediocrity, he was quick to point out that marks of achievement at James Hill Elementary School have gone up since they eliminated awards.

“It’s not an award at the end of the year that drives achievement,” Wejr said. Excellence comes from a school culture that fosters collaboration and provides opportunities for students to lead, especially in those areas where children have special talents and skills, he added.

When people challenge him about the wisdom of removing school prizes, Wejr asks, “When was the last time you handed out family awards?” If school is an actual community, separating out individuals for special notice makes no sense. School leaders ought to be looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop. He added, “We hope that they continue to develop their best selves for their own benefit—not because someone tells them to or because there’s an award at the end of the year.”