Turn on, Tune in, Don't Drop Out

02 July 2009

The other day, I was shopping for some garden needs at Home Depot. An enthusiastic young man helped me pile bag after bag of mulch onto a cart---and even loaded them into my car. I chatted with him, asking if he was done with school for the year. "I don't go to school anymore." Hmmm...I thought. He seemed high school age. He went on to explain that he had dropped out because his mother had become very ill and he needed to support her. He wants to get his GED someday and perhaps an AA from the local community college...but in the meantime, it seems rather sad that this boy didn't feel like he had any options when he had to make the choice of family vs. finishing high school.

Usually, dropping out of school is not a single event, as this young man described. Typically speaking, students who leave school before graduation disengage over a long period of time. Not showing up to school one day is just the final act. It is estimated that one in four students in Washington state doesn't reach the finish line---and I would expect our rates are fairly average. This creates quite a burden on the rest of us, whether or not we realize it. From my dissertation:
Students who drop out of school not only affect their own lives, but also have a societal impact. As a group, dropouts earn lower incomes and experience higher rates of unemployment (McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun, & Cochrane, 2008). For the more than 1.2 million students who did not graduate in 2008, this represents a loss of over $300 billion in lifetime earnings (Deyé, 2008). In addition, dropouts have a higher rate of substance abuse issues and health problems, costing Americans over $17 billion during their lifetimes. There is also a greater than average cost for crime prevention and prosecution in those geographic areas which have a concentrated population of dropouts (McIntosh, et al., 2008). In looking at the benefits to society by increasing graduation rates, it is estimated that more than $300 billion could be added to the American economy if by 2020 students of color graduated at the same rate as their white peers and there is a potential $8 billion reduction in crime spending if the percentage of males graduating high school increased by a mere five percent (Deyé, 2008). Finally, Murray and Naranjo (2008) point out that there are societal costs to the dropout issue which are difficult to quantify: “negative effects to the knowledge base, creative contributions, scientific progress, and democratic processes” (p. 146). Although educators tend to frame the dropout issue in terms of high school, these problems begin much earlier. The act of dropping out is a culmination of many factors and it is important to begin the examination of these issues, including student motivation, during early adolescence (McIntosh, et al., 2008). The ability of society to solve the issue of dropouts is critical to effecting change on many fronts.
I was thinking about this again after reading an article from a recent edition of Education Week (reg. req'd) on Preventing High School Dropouts Can Start in 4th Grade:

Risk factors for dropping out include low academic achievement, mental health problems, truancy, poverty and teen pregnancy.

But here's a shocker from Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., a small faith-based alternative program for dropouts.

Strathman says the one thing that she consistently finds is that "the last time these students felt successful was the fourth grade."

That's right: Fourth grade. Which means parents and teachers may be ignoring years of red flags.

Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:

  • Adult responsibilities, from work to child-rearing. Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 percent drop out of high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Udell said boys who become fathers are at higher risk too.
  • Truancy, learning disabilities and mental health problems. Strathman said kids who can't succeed academically often become truants because school is "so frustrating to them. They're labeled that they're lazy, but they don't know how to function in school because of a learning disability or a mental health issue." Low achievement leads to behavioral problems: "They felt like failures, and they made themselves get kicked out."John Stack, administrator of the Life Skills Center of Akron, Ohio, an alternative school for kids ages 16-22, said it's not unusual for dropouts to enroll in his school "at a fourth-grade reading level. We're trying to get people to understand that if these kids go from a fourth-grade level to a seventh-grade level, that's progress."Only 64 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.But kids from affluent, educated families drop out of school too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens may be academically capable, but often come from "a family where there's a lot of chaos, where parents may be divorcing, or where there may be alcoholism or mental illness. I don't suggest we have to tolerate or excuse the behavior. But it requires quick, constructive intervention and skilled professional help."
  • Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant.
  • Lack of extracurricular activities. Stacy Hansen, drama director of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, says kids who aren't engaged outside of class risk becoming "disconnected to the high school community." A club or activity "creates an immediate family, a place where they belong and they can just be safe, a place where they're known by their first name and they can connect, whether it's arts or athletics or mock trial or dance, or outside of school, a church group or tae kwon do," she said.

While I admit that this list is fairly reductionist, I have to think that the things listed here are a good start and do not represent insurmountable issues by schools. At the very least, the costs to implement them have to be far less than what taxpayers spend to deal with dropouts later.

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Left Out in the Cold

09 June 2008

News media in the area are running a story about a mother who may be charged with neglect after she locked her son out of the house for four hours. The boy had snuck out. She suspects he steals things from her and smokes pot. She called the police and asked that they take him to juvy because he wouldn't follow her rules. The police declined, but did take him into protective custody because he wasn't appropriately dressed to be outside for an extended time.

The comments people are leaving about this story are tragic. A sample is below (including misspellings or other errors):
  • Let us hope the community rallies around the mother if the facts of this story are true. It's time for parents to tell the police, the state, the ACLU to keep out of the discipling of our children so that parents can teach them a lesson. If the kids don't like it, don't disrespect nor ignore the rules in which your parents lay out for you. I hope the kid goes to juvinile detention.
  • They better leave her alone. If a 15 year old disobeys his mom, he deserves to be locked out! Let the little brat learn a lesson. Do the coppers want to coddle delinquents now? The mother needs support from the law!
  • I just tell my "kids" who are having a hard time with the rules that if they leave the house without permission I call the cops and say they are runaways. If they do not want to live in the house and follow the rules find someplace that will put up with their nonsense. Most decide to stay because they know what it is like out there. The other part to this is we have to find a way to communicate. I also will take them for a drug test if I suspect they are doing drugs. That is the real wake up call for some. It is not easy but if we don't teach our kids that we are the ones in control they walk all over us. I was once told by a social worker that it was ok to lock a kid out of my house when I was going to be gone. So what are parents to do?
  • KUDOS to you mom...and keep it up! Next step...file an At Risk Youth Petition!!! All of us mothers and fathers of these out of control kids need to take back our rights!Unfortunately the "system" here tends to side with the kids...while we as parents are financially and legally responsible for the little buggers actions! The county doesn't care that the kid may have smoked dope! We hauled our kid in while in possession of dope and what happens? Sherriffs office tells us that technically it is US who is in possession at that moment and that they should be arresting US, and to take our kid home!! BTW, you can now buy at home drug tests with immediate results at Walgreens. And when you do call them in as a runaway to 911, make sure Cencon doesn't "lose" the call! Thinking I might need to start a support group for parents of cr@ppy teens....hmm.
  • I, myself would sign a petition to get the parents' rights back! SPOILED, rotten teens and children are now taking things WAY too far these days, and are allowed to get away with FAR too much! And what is there for punishment? Take away their TV? So they run away....and then blame US for not letting them back IN!? Punish US for putting our foot down on the bad behavior!? The kid was by NO means freezing to death! Uncomfortable? I don't DOUBT it! Hypothermic? No. The little S**T decided to strut his big, bad self around town with his pals in DEFIANCE of the mother and was JUSTLY punished for it! What's left to do but lock the little brats out?! We can't SPANK any longer! God FORBID we even THINK of it! CPS would be called IMMEDIATELY, whether we did or NOT! Simply for the THREAT of it! And WHO would be in trouble with the law for even the THREAT!? The PARENT! Because little Suzy or Timmy didn't like the THOUGHT of not getting their way and the decided to cry "wolf" or lie through their teeth saying they WERE spanked! I say KUDOS to the mamma for teaching this little brat a lesson! SHAME on the state for attempting to prosecute! SHAME on you! It's you and your child-lenient laws that are allowing society go down the shi**er!
  • Have the kid emancipated & give him sui juris rights. Then the mother can move on with her life & not have to worry about the brat living in her house or being responsible for him anymore.
  • By the looks of this story, if it correct; Dad is MIA. Even IF he is in the home, he is obviously ABSENT. The lefty liberals say "It takes a village to raise a child", but this is the fallacy. The lefty liberal villagers are really a pack of rabid, ravenous wolves dressed and police officers, school teachers / couselors, child protective service workers, newspaper writers, procecutors, lawyers, and judges salivating for the opportunity to tear down, apart and to peices a single mom, struggling to raise an adopted, fatherless, outta control young man. Tear apart the very last remaining remnant of faimily, as surely and skillfully as the hands of the abortionist. Instead to helping, protecting, serving the community, repairing, and reconciling they lay in wait then viscously attack us, the hands that feeds them.
  • This woman should be made an example of. She adopted the kid and acts as though he is disposable. Cute little foster kids turn into teenagers eventually! Lock her up and let this kid go back to his real family.
  • Some liberal hack of a teacher/counselor probably filled the kid's head with all kinds of crap regarding his "rights" so he pulls this BS on his mom. Kudos to mom for putting her foot down and showing the future miscreant who lays down the law in the home. The prosecutors had better have more important things to do with their time than harass this mother, she has enough problems as it is.
  • Sounds to me the kid needs a good spank. Of course that would be child abuse.
Now, I understand that people who choose to comment on news stories do not represent the full spectrum of population any more than people who comment on blogs. That being said, the "liberal hack of a teacher" in me finds this whole situation sad. There is so much more to the story than can be covered in the news. Whatever is happening in that house isn't good for mom or kid, and I don't think a knee-jerk reaction on either part is going to make a difference. It's hard to tell based on the comments for the story, but I'm hoping that I'm not in the minority.

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Overscheduled, Indeed

07 June 2008

School is still in session in this part of the world and end of year duties are keeping me hopping. There are panicked parents of seniors (who are not worried at all that they might not earn enough credits to graduate...but should be). There are crabby students, stressed with the thought of finals and that this cold and ugly weather might last all summer (It won't.). Familiarity is breeding contempt. This is also true for the elementary school. The fever pitch which comes with the end of the year is doing its best to drag us under.

An article in Teacher Magazine about the (ab)use of energy drinks by overscheduled teens caught my eye this week. I have several students in my first period class which are happy addicts. "Monster" is their drug of choice. While I don't like that they have the need to get themselves hopped up on sugar and caffeine, I also can't argue much when I see plenty of others with their lattes or Mountain Dew. I have always assumed that energy drinks are worse in terms of the amounts of caffeine provided, but perhaps those concerns are unfounded: "Some of the drinks contain less caffeine than some brands of coffee. Red Bull and Monster — two of the most popular energy drinks on the market — each have about 80 mg per 8 ounces. A 32-ounce Big Gulp of Mountain Dew contains about 146 mg — comparable to a 16-ounce can of Monster."

As you might imagine, there are still people out there who want to ban the sale of energy drinks to teens; but how does one define the difference between an energy drink and pop/coke/soda? What is it that is actually bad about these? My hunch is that the sugar may be more of an issue than the caffeine, but I'm not sure. I do know that while the sales of juice, milk, or diet soda are okay in schools here before noon, regular soda is not. However, the amounts of sugar in some juices (or fat in whole milk...or sugar in chocolate milk) could be listed as an issue. How do we determine the characteristics of a "healthy" beverage?

What I also didn't realize was that many college age students are combining energy drinks with booze so that "they can drink longer without feeling drunk and drink more without feeling drunk." A true recipe for disaster via alcohol poisoning...and perhaps more accidents on the roads.

I suppose I need to do more to educate myself about the effects of caffeine on teens. I really don't know if there are any worthwhile studies out there. And I don't feel comfortable railing at kids about putting down the coffee, energy drinks, or Mountain Dew without trying to help them see effects other than addiction.

As for me, I'm definitely overscheduled at the moment. And listless. But I'm not willing to go the energy drink route (I rarely do the caffeine thing). It would seem that the better solution is to decrease the number of responsibilities---not amp up the brain to deal with everything in a harried way.

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15 May 2008

I share a classroom with other teachers. Today, one of these teachers accused one of my classes of stealing/damaging some of his lab equipment.


The class under scrutiny is my absolute best group of kids. That's not to say that each and every one is an angel, but the simple truth is that I don't start from that assumption that they're all devils. It seems fair to give them the benefit that they act with good intentions. Out of all of the supplies and lab equipment I have placed in their way this year, nary a single item has been abused or gone missing.

This other teacher, however, sees only sophomores, something slightly below slime mold on his version of the evolutionary scale. The senior AP students who use the room during a different class period (and hold court at two of the lab tables) couldn't possibly have anything to do with his issue.


He suggested I mention things to my students today---and I said I would. After he left, I thought about what I wanted to say to the kids. If, indeed, one of them was guilty, I am not a believer in the proverbial group butt-chew. Teenagers suffer enough with being painted with the same brush. I am not going to be a party to that. However, believing as I do that they are good people, I saw no harm in mentioning the issue of stolen property to them in case they saw/heard something and could help solve the mystery.

I have to tell you that my kids were genuinely horrified by the suggestion that they were thieves. I made it clear that I, personally, trusted them and had no reason to doubt their motivations. Most of them had no clue what the equipment in question actually looked like---so I had to dig around for some to show. They agreed the stuff was cool, but not that it was okay to take any of it.

This other teacher wanted to blame some of my boys. He referred to them as "bad" and "stupid." I'm not sure why he would say this. He has never taught any of them. His only communication has been to yell at a couple of them when they borrowed a ruler off of a table for an assignment. After ~155 school days, I know my kids. To this other teacher who is so fond of dismissing brown male teens as trash, I can only say one thing: Whatever.


Age vs. Credits

05 May 2008

When I taught in New Mexico, we had all of the eighth and ninth graders in the city. It was the largest junior high in the state---1200 adolescents and a few dozen adults managing things as best we could. Why the kids never realized that they outnumbered us by far and took over the school is still a mystery to me.

The ninth graders were earning high school credits and, in theory, they were supposed to have a certain number of these before moving up to the high school. There was a flaw in this plan, however: some students were becoming perpetual ninth graders. More often than not, it was due to poor skills, but some kids preferred to flunk and hang around to deal drugs to the new crop of kids each fall. It was finally determined that if a student was 17, they had to go to the high school---credits or no credits. (And yes, there were 17 year old freshmen each year.)

I was reminded of this when reading an article in the Washington Post about a DC area school which is experiencing something very similar. Due to a confluence of factors, they are finding out that 17 year old boys don't belong in the same school with 12 year old girls...especially when some of those are students from the local juvenile detention facility. (We had the same deal in Carlsbad.) To its credit, however, the DC school has managed to make a lot of positive changes in its organization and delivery of instruction. It may be that the age vs. credit dilemma will always be part of the public school system. We just need to keep looking for solutions.

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Short List Wednesday

12 September 2007

I recently listened to a parent describe one particular frustration with a teen. When it came time to get ready to go somewhere, the parent would tell the kid that they needed to leave in ten minutes...and before then, would the teen take out the trash, put the dog out, and get the laundry out of the dryer. Five minutes later, the teen was still sitting around playing video games. The parent was fit to be tied.

Teen brains are still growing. Frontal lobes don't always do what they should, which means that things like planning, remembering lists, and concepts of time don't fire on all cylinders. Giving a young teen a verbal to do list and a time limit is a recipe for disaster. (Meanwhile, other parts of the brain haven't developed enough to interpret the emotions shown on others' faces...so the kids can't even see that you're pissed off.)

In the classroom, when I have a "to do" list for kids, I keep it short, always visible, and try to smile in spite of gritted teeth every time I'm asked "What do I do next?"

The list for Wednesday is very short. There is only one item and it's easy to do because I'll include the link: go to the Carnival of Education. It is hosted this week by History Is Elementary and is the finest collection of posts to be found in the edusphere. Enjoy! (Okay, it's a two-item list.)

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You Must Be This Tall

18 April 2007

My first or second year in this area, I saw a young girl (16 or 17 years old) wearing a t-shirt that had a dashed line straight across the bust line. The words above said "You must be this tall to ride this ride." Funny? Very. Inappropriate for school? Ah, yes. So, off she went to change her shirt.

But hey, regardless of size, you can ride any of the great posts over at this week's Carnival of Education. Click on over to Dan's place and engage in a little digital action.

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Knowing Your Audience

06 April 2007

A few weeks ago, I helped a colleague chaperone a field trip. Although it was a good chance for me to get out of the office and see some of my former students, the teacher really didn't need an additional chaperone. He had 17 charges---most of them high school seniors with an eye on academic pursuits. They were the kinds of kids who would have been just fine without any adults to shepherd them. And yet, they were still kids.

The students had a bit of an extended break at lunch and a few of them were chatting a bit noisily in the cavernous lobby of the science institute we were visiting. They weren't being "bad" or inappropriate, just momentarily self-absorbed in the way that teens sometime can be. I wandered over and whispered a reminder to them to use their "indoor voices" and smiled. They giggled and understood. Their teacher asked what I had told them and after I passed along the information, he said, "I didn't think that would work. It doesn't work on my nine-year old anymore."

That's the funny thing about knowing your audience. You can use the "indoor voice" or "six inch voice" phrase with little ones or with late teens and they're understanding (the older ones are amused at the reference). Junior high kids? Not so much. They're a bit too self-conscious, and want to distance themselves from child-like reminders. Their brains don't know how to read the facial expressions of others well---they can't always tell if their teachers are joking. Feelings are hurt very easily. It would be a tremendous insult to a junior high aged student to tell him or her to use an "indoor voice."

I think that one has to be an ethologist of sorts in the classroom. You have to live within the culture of the age group you're teaching. It's not always easy because a teacher has so much other professional and personal life experience to bring to the table. There has to be some trial and error in learning which boundaries you can push. You find some tricks to use with each grade level and age and then learn to adapt them with others. The audience for all of this will be active in shaping things along the way. They want you to know them.


They're Teenagers...You Were One, Too

16 March 2007

A friend and former colleague invited me along to chaperone a field trip on Thursday. I jumped at the chance. For one thing, it got me out of the office and still allowed me to support science education and student learning. Secondly, I do miss being around teens and many of those on the trip are ones who were in my own classes over the last two years. They are seniors now and I was excited to hear all of their post-high school plans. I had a great time with them.

I wish I could say the same for others who were out and about in the world and saw our group of young adults. While we waited for a bus in Seattle, I saw numerous people glance at the kids with either a look of fear (Boogie-boogie! They're coming after you!) or disgust (How dare they take up air and space in my vicinity!). I don't get it. Why is there such prejudice against teenagers?

I understand that there are some "bad apple" teens. I've had some in my classes over the years who have done some horrific things. There have been rapists, drug dealers, and thieves among my students, but it is such a small percentage overall. If adults never engaged in such behaviors, I might understand some disdain from people in that age group...but it just ain't so.

The kids yesterday seemed blissfully unaware of some of the looks they were getting. I have had some conversations with students who have experienced prejudice based on their age. I don't know what to tell them---I don't understand why the service they receive at stores and restaurants can be so different just because they aren't grown-ups. Yes, I know a few kids probably have acted like butts, but painting all kids with the same brush should not be acceptable.

I hope that if I don't get back in the classroom soon that I find a way to keep this perspective. I hate to think that I'll become one of those people who forgets what it's like to be young and full of hope and promise. I want to remain able to admire the spirit of youth.


My Dog's Better Than Your Dog

05 February 2007

My apologies to those of you who now have the jingle from the old Ken-L Ration commercial stuck in your heads for the day, but it was the first thing that came to my mind when I read this article in the Washington Post where teens are engaging in one-upsmanship over who is taking the hardest course of study.

Fierce but subtle rivalries are playing out among the teenage academic elite in the Washington area as high schools expand college-level courses. Like Ivy Leaguers who debate ad nauseam whether Harvard, Yale or Princeton reigns supreme, many high schoolers enjoy engaging in a game of one-upmanship over their brand-name curricula.

Their tit for tats might appear trifling, but students say the debates help them answer fundamental questions about their high-achieving existence: Whose life is most out of control? Which program is more impressive to colleges? Which provides the best education? Who suffers the heaviest workload?

There's much more to read in the whole article. I became more and more incredulous as I read. Please understand that I support the idea of a rigorous education for all students---whatever may be appropriate to their abilities and interests; but, this article points to something out of control, in my opinion. It is a gross consumerism of grades and status without any value placed on learning. What does it say about a kid whose goal is to prove that they have the greatest lack of a personal life? Or the colleges who value these candidates?

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Oh, Grow Up

25 January 2007

My high school principal had a story about The Nerd. The Nerd was a man who did deep background checks for the government. Every couple of years, someone who had grown up in my little town would apply for a high security job out in the great wide world and The Nerd would come and talk to people about the applicant. One year, he was asking neighbors about the young man who had grown up in the house next door and a woman told him that she didn't remember all that much...except that one time she was watering her yard and the kid ran through her sprinkler and flipped her the bird. The principal told us this story as a morality tale: you never know what people will remember about you, so be careful about what you say or do. One day, The Nerd might be there on our behalf.

I thought about this story after seeing a former student in Home Depot. I had him in class when he was a junior. He was a high energy kind of guy and not on task very often. The thing I most remember about this student was his constant pining for California. His family had recently moved to Washington and he was quite unhappy about that---and loved to tell us all about how he was going back right after graduation. And here it is...nearly 10 years after graduation...and he's still living and working in the same town. When I see this kid---who is now a young man---this memory pops into my head. It's really unfair, isn't it? He probably doesn't even remember going on and on about "Cali" those years ago and there is more to his life now. But in my mind, he is forever frozen at 17. I can't reconcile that with the person he has become, because I don't know him now.

Maybe that is just the way it is in teaching. We have kids for a brief moment in time and then they move on to new teachers and life experiences. They don't get to grow up for us. We don't get to watch them change and be part of their lives as they learn new things. We just have to make the time we have together a positive one and wish them the best as they head down the road.

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Growing Up Global

09 January 2007

Currently, the total population of 10- to 24-year-olds is estimated at 1.5 billion, of which 86 percent live in developing countries. The growth is most rapid in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Call it a new wave of global baby boomers who are, in some instances, the first true generation of "teenagers" their countries have known.

Lloyd calls adolescence - or what Americans call the teenage years - a "relatively new life cycle phase" for many developing countries. Previously, young people tended to move directly from childhood to adulthood. Adult status was much more tied to physical changes, such as puberty, she says.

Spurred by improved health care, the onset of puberty is also declining for young people in many developing countries - from about 15 to 12 years of age. That trend, along with economic and technological gains, has affected cultural practices tied to puberty and delayed employment, marriage and childbearing while increasing time spent in school.

Lloyd and international development agencies suggest the possibility of a critical, and potentially dangerous, global generation gap as emerging adolescent populations age and their political and economic expectations rise.

The World Bank's 2006 World Development Report, following up on "Growing Up Global," found:

- Nearly half of all unemployment in the world is among young people.

- 500,000 young people under the age of 18 are recruited by military and paramilitary groups. Some 300,000 have been involved in armed conflict in more than 30 countries.

- 13 million adolescents give birth each year.

- Young people account for nearly half of all new HIV infections.

There is much more to read in the full article from the Bend, Oregon, Weekly News. I hadn't really thought about "teenagerhood" in these terms before---that as nations continue to develop, that having teenagers will be one of the growing pains. So to speak.

What will our world be like in the next 10 - 20 years...having this explosion of youth?


You're Kidding, Right?

16 December 2006

"U.S. public schools should be run by private contractors who would graduate most students by 10th grade, concluded an expert commission sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The plan also calls for state funding to replace local property taxes, free pre-kindergarten and higher teacher pay on a merit-based system. The Gates Foundation and other sponsoring groups may pay states to help implement it, organizers said...

The panel, called the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, estimates that its plan would cost little more than $500 billion the U.S. currently spends each year on kindergarten through 12th grade education. The federal government provides about 9 percent of the current total, with the rest split between state revenue and local property taxes...

The added costs of about $60 billion a year would be offset by graduating about 60 percent of students after the 10th grade, when tests would show they are are ready for jobs or college. The commission predicted its improvements eventually would leave about 95 percent of all high school graduates ready for college."

There's much more to read in the article, but I pulled out the more frightening aspects. Graduating kids in 10th grade? After working with 15- and 16-year olds the last 15 years, I'm not convinced this is in the best interests of kids. Will there be jobs waiting for them? Can the kids get to them? Not all of them drive, let alone own their own cars. Might this become another area where low income families again get left out of options?

How does getting kids out of high school at 10th grade mean more of them will be ready for college? I'm also mystified how private contractors would do better than the current public system. It's not as if all of the issues---NCLB, uninvolved parents, poor families---are magically going to go away just because a company is running the school.

I'm hoping that this be one study that gets swept under the rug.

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Table Rules

12 December 2006

Ah, junior high girls. Well, that's my assumption after reading the "Lunch Table Rules" that were drafted by a girl. How it ended up posted at "I Am Bored" is anyone's guess.

To see and read things like this makes me sad. The same sorts of mindgames girls played when I was in junior high (and no doubt there were versions in previous generations) are still around. I know that some would say that this is just kid stuff...so that makes it okay. But when does something like this make us take a more serious look. Are lunch table rules okay? Or, do they fit our 21st definition of bullying? I wonder what the teachers of these young ladies think about the behavior and if they said anything.

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No Child Left Behind Bars

09 December 2006

I knew that the oft reviled acronyms of NCLB and AYP were already causing a greater degree of angst with alternative programs, but until I read this, I hadn't thought about prison schools.

Juvenile offenders go to school while incarcerated. Once they turn 18, they are moved to an adult prison and schooling ends. Meanwhile, the schools often show as making 0% growth toward AYP and "face the public embarrassment of being put on a state failure list, with sanctions that can ultimately be as severe as staff replacement. That leads to demoralized teachers and difficulty recruiting."

I'm trying to imagine what the state plans to do when it steps in to take over the school. (Isn't it pretty much running juvy, anyway?) Will it be able to recruit teachers who get all of the kids to standard...just in time to turn 18 and get a pimp named Buddha in their next cell? I do think that education is a key to breaking cycles of poverty. Assuming that these kids make it back out into the real world, they're going to have to have some tools to make it...tools they didn't get before they were sent to the clink. I just wonder if these types of exceptional situations need some exceptions from unfunded mandates.

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Of Tweens and Teens

26 November 2006

When I was in junior high, one of the heartbreaks my peers and I endured was that there were no school dances. This was not reflective of the plotline in Footloose (although the movie was contemporary to our situation), but rather that the school thought that it was best to save some experiences for high school. "What will you have to look forward to if you get to do everything now?" This rather old-fashioned point of view was not enjoyed by those of us in our pre-teen/early teen years, but I respect it now.

I was prompted to remember this story after reading "'Tweens Are Fast Becoming the New Teens" on the AP wire. The gist of the piece is that typical teen behaviors (need for independence from parents, dating, etc.) are now being seen more and more commonly in 8 - 12 year olds. It's not just behavior that's changing, but also bodies. "Several published studies have found, for instance, that some tweens' bodies are developing faster, with more girls starting menstruation in elementary school — a result doctors often attribute to improved nutrition and, in some cases, obesity. While boys are still being studied, the findings about girls have caused some endocrinologists to lower the limits of early breast development to first or second grade." Are parents really having to buy training bras at the same time they provide training wheels for their daughters' bikes?

I recommend a look at the whole article, if you can spare a few minutes. It brought up a variety of questions for me. "Childhood" is really a 20th century and western cultural concept. Could it be that some of the behavioral maturity we're seeing is just something that was there all along? Right or wrong, children used to be viewed as mini-adults and expected to be as such. We may not be sending our kids out to the fields or off to work in the sweatshops, but we are sending them to school and continuing to push the envelope in terms of what we expect kids to know and be able to do. We now have tutoring for toddlers and learning benchmarks for early childhood (starting at birth).

The article does make some good points about the role of parents in all of this. Just because your nine-year old is nagging you for a cell phone doesn't mean you have to give it to her. Parents can monitor and guide selections for tv, music, and video games. However, even the most vigilant parent isn't likely to completely prevent their young children from learning about sexy, violent, or "in" things from their peers. I especially liked the point about clothing. What kind of parent buys their 12-year old a pair of shorts with "Hottie" printed across the seat? My guess is that most consumers out there will blame manufacturers for these, but if there wasn't a demand for it, they wouldn't make and sell it. How many parents out there had children because they would be the ultimate accessory item...and are treating them as such?

I get the feeling that this road to early physical and behavioral maturation is a runaway train. We're not likely to stop it at this point. One thing that is not in the article that I wonder about is the cognitive development in children---and if there have been any changes there. My guess is that the pre-frontal lobe of the brain (responsible for more complex decision-making and abstract thinking) is not maturing at an earlier point in time. In other words, kids might look and act more like adults at a younger age, but they can't think like adults. What impact will that have on them in the long run?

RIP, childhood.

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Busting Out

05 August 2006

I attended high school in a small school (59 people in my graduating class) in west Texas in the 1980's. Dress code for students meant no one could have untucked shirts; boys could not wear jewelry; and if any boy had hair longer than collar length, the principal came with a pair of scissors to the classroom and cut it then and there. There were more rules, few of which ever caused a fuss---and even then it was only with students who had recently moved into the area. There was also a dress code for teachers, although most of the items (such as no bare legs and no sleeveless tops) applied only to women.

I started my career in a junior high which also had a specific dress code. It was not quite as restrictive as the one I grew up with, but it helped a lot to have things in print. If you could let kids know you were paying attention to the small things, they often didn't test the boundaries of more important rules. At this point, the time was the early 1990's and saggy pants were all the rage with boys. Between this fashion statement and young ladies excited to show off their newly developed assets, we found the need to create a "No Cleavage" rule. We did have to explain this rule in more detail when we became a grades 6 - 8 school. There might not have been many opportunities for "top" cleavage displays, but plenty of undercleavage was still en vogue.

The district where I work now has nearly no dress code for students. It was a real shock to come here and discover that cleavage in all of its flavours wasn't banned from the classrooms. A few years ago, I begged the valedictorian at my school to buy a belt before college. Teachers had nicknamed her the "Queen of Crack." Working in a cooler climate means that the busty sort of cleavage isn't a problem much of the year...but make no mistake, there are plenty of sweet young things out there who are quite happy to pull out their spaghetti strap tops at the hint of sunshine. I fortunately haven't heard any stories similar to Coach Brown's of a parent claiming that their kid had a hot little body and should flaunt it. My guess is that it's only a matter of time.

I hadn't thought much about the "No Cleavage" rule for awhile---and then yesterday, CBS News posted this story about the controversy surrounding a similar rule that has been instituted in Arlington, Texas. Girls are now required to keep their girls covered during school hours. It appears that not everyone is in agreement with this new rule, although I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps there is a freedom of expression issue, but the fact is, most people don't get to wear whatever they want everywhere they want. Is it so much to ask that students and teachers don't have to see body parts they don't want or need to see during the few hours school is in session? Or is that too much of a Victorian expectation?

I doubt that we'll ever have a cleavage ban here. Schools are instead trying to define the kinds of clothes that are off-limits, as opposed to just simplifying things to "No cleavage (of any variety)." I'm all for keeping it simple...and keeping it covered.

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What's the Buzz?

20 December 2005

I am continually surprised by the range of prescription meds my students have had access to throughout their young years. I tend to have "goody two-shoes" kinds of kids, so their talk of Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, and more is a little hair raising. It means that these pills were prescribed for them---they didn't steal them out of their parents medicine cabinet. (And if they did, they wouldn't be foolish enough to brag about it in class.)

Are the results of a recent government survey of teens about drug use any surprise? Rates of smoking (both tobacco and marijuana) are down. The use of inhalants and steroids has decreased. But Oxycontin and its kin? They're on the rise.

I have no doubt that many teens across the U.S. are raiding family medicine chests to find prescription painkillers. I have plenty of Percocet leftover from my post-surgery days last year. How many? I don't know. If one or two went missing, I wouldn't be any the wiser. My guess is that a lot of parents out there could be in the same boat.

I have to wonder about how prescriptions for painkillers are determined. "Pain" is such a relative thing. If a doctor is reasonably convinced that a patient is suffering (or will be following a surgery), then why wouldn't s/he do something to ease the pain? How do you know what "enough" painkiller looks like? Do doctors tend to overprescribe a few pills each time...just in case? And you can't return the leftovers...and flushing them isn't desirable. Perhaps we need more alternatives to leaving them in the medicine cabinet.

But hey, maybe you don't really need a prescription. All you need is a credit card. While most teens lack this sort of access, it still doesn't preclude them from googling for "no prescription oxycontin" and obtaining what they (or friends) want.

Beyond all this, alcohol is still the primary drug of choice for teens. This is not news. What I find interesting, though, is that teens are turning more and more to depressants. Is today's digital world so overstimulating that the only way to tune out is to tune in to something that numbs the neurons?



22 July 2005

When I started my career in teaching, Bart Simpson and Beavis and Butthead were also newly introduced to the world. I remember the moral outrage about all of them. They were, apparently, going to be to blame for the end of western civilization as we knew it. Much like Elvis after his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Or those naughty flappers and that pesky voting rights for women movement even longer ago. What stuck with me most about Bart and his contemporaries was the influence it had on the slang students used.

Since then, I've seen other terms enter our social vocabulary: da bomb, sweet, my bad, and jacked up. Sometimes I have asked kids what they mean when I hear a term for the first time. Other times, it's easy to figure out within the context it's given---kind of like seeing a new word in print.

The most recent additions to the "kidspeak" pantheon are coming from the on-line world. Some are terms used by hackers. Most of the words come from slang found in chat rooms. By the end of last year, terms like "n00b" and "pwned" were becoming standard among my students. I've even had kids say "j k happy face." (translation: "Just kidding, okay?") In print, these terms take on a variety of spellings---often including numbers or other symbols in place of letters. But I haven't seen my kids using them in their written work. Yet.

I found this link on another site yesterday. It was written to illustrate what World War II would have been like if it had been played out in an on-line gamers' forum. Warning: implied four-letter words and other inappropriate/offensive terms are liberally sprinkled throughout. Read at your own risk. If you do choose to follow the link and need help translating any of the lingo, go here. I have to say that I find the concept of this illustration rather clever: taking a historical event and giving it a modern twist. I'm wondering if I might be able to offer something like this as an option for kids next year, although without the more offensive elements. Not for every assignment, mind you---but I do like to give students some choices in terms of products when I can. Demonstrating that one can "meet the standard" need not require a three-paragraph essay.

Even if I don't end up using this in class, I know that the "kidspeak" will continue to evolve. New pop culture references will creep in and I will have to learn a whole new set of slang words. I hope I can keep up.


Mind the Gap

11 July 2005

What I really wanted to do after finishing high school was have a "gap year." I didn't know what to call it. What I did know was that I wasn't ready to take on college. I wasn't even 17.5...felt as though I had been pushed through school...and I needed a break. In the minds of my parents, that really wasn't an option. You're done with high school? Pack your bags and go to college in the fall.

So, I did. And I figured that as long as I had to do it, I might as well get it over with in as short of an order as possible---finishing my degree requirements in less than 3 years. I'm not one of those people you'll find who will extoll the virtues of college and what a wonderful experience it was. It was just another hoop to jump through, as far as I was concerned. I'm sure that this was why I didn't get interested in teaching until the month I graduated from college.

But I still pine for that "gap year."

I read an article this morning about the current crop of U.S. high school graduates and the prevalence of the "gap year." As you might imagine, with all the (perceived) pressures that go along with college admissions these days, the "gap year" idea is pretty uncommon. "But experts say that as the admissions process gets more stressful, the case for a gap year gets stronger. Colleges generally encourage the practice — as long as students who have committed to one school don't use the extra year to apply elsewhere. Since the 1970s, Harvard has used the letter it sends to admitted applicants to advise them to consider a gap year. Some, like Sarah Lawrence, have sent similar letters after realizing more students than they expected planned to show up in the fall."

I hear very few of my own students talk about taking a year off after high school. Some of the Mormons do head out on their missions. But in general, if you're a kid who has college in mind, then you go right away after high school. In the future, I think I'll keep the following resources in mind:
  • Gapyear.com---A student's guide to taking time out.
  • Yearout Group---Students can use the gap year to live abroad and take part in any number of opportunities to learn a skill or volunteer
  • Taking Off---"A service for students who take time off from the traditional classroom to pursue experiential learning."

I do run into kids from time to time who, like me, aren't all that excited about going to college right away. It's in their plans, but they just feel like they need a year to get their poop in a pile. Maybe being able to hand them some ideas and resources would help their families and them draft a slightly different (and improved) plan for these kids.

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Farewell, Class of 2005

09 June 2005

When I was in high school, long ago and far away, seniors didn't get out earlier than anyone else. We didn't officially attend school on the last day, but we did have mandatory graduation rehearsal and other school sponsored faldaral in its place.

Here and now, I'm always amazed. School isn't out until next Thursday---and yet today was the last day of class for seniors. (One school in our district let its seniors out 2 days ago.) I'm not sure how we get around the whole "180 days" thing, but I guess it really isn't my concern. Anyone who is not a graduating senior was very ready for the seniors to be gone. Maybe it's just as well they go away now and leave us in peace.

There was a barbecue for the graduating class today. One of my colleagues asked if we teachers had to go (we don't, but can if we want to) and was relieved to find that he could spend his time elsewhere. He said he was "senior'ed out" and that it was already too long of a goodbye. After all, we had their awards night on Monday..."Moving Up" assembly yesterday...check out procedures and barbecue today...breakfast tomorrow...and graduation is on Saturday. Whew.

Every class has its own personality. Some you adore and remember for years afterwards. With others, you hope to never hear from them again. This class falls somewhere in between. They were nice kids, but not much was distinguishable about them as a group. Maybe they just haven't blossomed yet.

Tomorrow, the building will seem empty without the seniors, but there will be a good buzz among the rest of us who will be moving forward together next year.

Best wishes to the Class of 2005.

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The Hard Stuff

20 April 2005

As I've mentioned before, teaching sophomores has been one of my greatest joys as a teacher. There are things about all grades between 6 and 12 that I have liked, but there's just something about 15 and 16 year olds that suits me best.

One of the things I like most about working with sophs is that they're in the process of learning to independently think about some big muddy issues. Younger teens can often still be stuck in "black and white" mode---where a topic only has two sides...only one of which is "right." Biology is the perfect medium for helping sophs test their comfort level of grey areas.

Thankfully, the Terri Schiavo case has passed from media attention, but at its frenzied zenith, my sophs liked the opportunity to talk about it. Washington state has recently put together a "life sciences' fund." Do the kids know what stem cell research is---and why the controversy? Would you buy genetically modified produce (a/k/a "Frankenfoods")? What purpose is there in being able to clone an organism? Should parents be allowed to choose the sex of their child? If the state is making research in biotechnology a priority, what impacts will that have on you?

I love their opinions. I can often tell that our class discussion is the first time someone has asked them what they think about bioethics. They are always honest---even if their answers are occasionally a little on the naive side. But hey, they're 15 and 16. And they seem to be enjoying every moment of it.

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Number Crunching

13 April 2005

Seems like every few days, more surveys and data are released about how well the public education system in America is preparing students for the future. Here is another:

"As many as 40 percent of the nation's high school graduates say they are inadequately prepared to deal with the demands of employment and postsecondary education, according to a recently released national survey of nearly 1,500 recent high school graduates, 400 employers and 300 college instructors. The survey is the basis for the report "Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work?" The survey was commissioned by Achieve, Inc. in Washington, D.C., and conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies of Washington, D.C.

Among the findings:
  • More than 80% of high school graduates say they would work harder and take tougher courses if they could do high school over again.
  • Eight in 10 recent graduates say that they would have worked harder if their high school had demanded more of them.
  • A majority of graduates who took Algebra 2 in high school say they feel more prepared for the math they need in college or on the job.
  • Employers estimate that 39% of recent high school graduates are unprepared for the expectations they face in entry-level jobs. Employers also estimate that an even larger proportion (45%) of recent workforce entrants is not adequately prepared to advance beyond entry-level jobs.

To view the entire report or a PowerPoint Summary, go to www.achieve.org."

These sorts of things could be depressing. Or, you could go have a look at this post over at Pratie Place regarding how America has nearly always bemoaned the poor state its youngsters are in.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) turns 40 years old this week. We've known for a long time that "Johnny can't read." Recent renewals of this Act (a/k/a "No Child Left Behind") have been aimed at ensuring that Johnny---regardless of what gender, colour of skin, or socioeconomic status s/he may be---has an opportunity to acquire the basics and be challenged.

Want more to think about?

The New York Times published a story today about the "Northwest Evaluation Association study involving a 'broad but not nationally representative' sample of pupils in 23 states, student math and reading scores have improved somewhat under NCLB, but within grades, over the course of the school year, students made less academic progress than they did before the law was implemented. Researchers found minority students' growth lagged behind that of whites, a troubling trend which, they said, could widen the achievement gap."


Makes me wonder that no matter what we do in public ed, we can't really get every Johnny reading (even when Johnny has center stage). What's the answer then? We've tried for decades to have an "educated" populace. Will there ever be a time when we achieve this?

I can't imagine that we'll quit trying. After all, we're not allowed to or the feds will give us even less support than they do now. But perhaps we need to be realistic. We can't just point fingers at the schools, tell them the source of ill, and that they'd better shape up. We'll have to take on some other larger societal issues, like poverty and universal healthcare. How is a kid who doesn't come from a home where there's money to buy food or provide medical aid supposed to concentrate on reading, writing, math, and science?

Schools will continue to plug along, just as we always have. In a moral sense, it is unacceptable to determine that 100% of kids will acquire basic skills (and then some). Which kids would you choose to leave uneducated? Who decides? And yet, the reality is simply that some kids will not get what they need, in spite of our efforts. Schools don't need more numbers...we need more solutions.

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Rites of Passage

24 March 2005

I love working with high school sophomores. There are members among the faculty at my school who do not, but it has been my favourite age to work with. (Maybe that says something about my maturity...or lack thereof?)

There are so many events I get to be a part of during the year: "sweet sixteen," new drivers' licenses, first formal dance, removal of orthodontia, and so on. It's fun to see the kids hit these marks. It doesn't matter that it's the umpteenth time for me. It's new to each of them.

Perhaps you remember reading Julius Caesar as a sophomore. Maybe you can remember other events associated with your sophomore year that everyone seemed to experience.

High school biology has it's own addition to the pantheon: Hemo the Magnificent. When the time rolls around each year to show this film, I always start off talking to my kids about "rites of passage." (This year, I wrote the phrase on the board, because last year, one kid thought I'd said "rights of passage" and that led the discussion in an entirely different direction.) We talk about "sophomore-ness" and the associated rites. We look forward in time (for them) to what they can (legally) experience at 18 and 21. When they whine about ole Julius, I talk to them about "cultural literacy." We look at Julius from the perspective that it is part of their "ticket" to the adult world. As adults---and gatekeepers of their move to adulthood---we want to be sure that they have been properly indoctrinated with the things the society (at large) claims are important.

I own a copy of "Hemo" in glorious 16 mm. Do you remember watching films in that format? The noise of the machine? The scratches and "skips" in the movie? This year, not a single one of my sophs could say that they'd ever watched a movie shown this way. It's very sad, I think. Maybe they do, too, as one remarked later, "I'm going to be sad when this comes out on DVD." I told her that it already had. Another student wanted to know, then, why I didn't show the DVD. The first student piped up to say, "But then it wouldn't be part of the tradition!"

I had to smile. She got it. Since 1957, biology students have been watching this 16 mm film. It was good enough for their parents, for me, and now for them. (The content is still very worthwhile, too, by the way.)

Welcome, kids, to the fellowship of biology.

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Spring Fever

23 March 2005

Spring Break is still over a week away for our district. Kids and staff alike are starting to get a bit cranky. It really feels like a long time since Christmas. We need an energy boost.

Yesterday, a sophomore in the neighbouring classroom got bent out of shape because his biology teacher used the words "penis" and "vagina." Mind you, my colleague didn't just blurt the words out because he felt like it. The terms were related to the discussion at hand. Students had told the teacher that intercourse was necessary for sexual reproduction. The teacher asked them if trees had penises and vaginas. Anyway, the kid wasn't offended by the words. His problem was, "Why do teachers get to say whatever they want and kids don't?" He was sure that if he said "penis" at school he'd be suspended. And he might, depending on how and when he used the term.

Kids this age can still be pretty black-and-white about things. If "penis" is okay to say in one context at school---why not every context? It's still the same word.

And then, there were my sophs yesterday. We talked about hormones related to the ovarian and menstrual cycles. I asked them to design a birth control pill. They asked me all kinds of questions about menopause (I'm guessing there's a lotta moms out there who are cranky, too.) and PMS. And no one batted an eye.

So, what's the difference? Is it because my "honors" students have a better developed pre-frontal lobe ? Is it due to talking about sex in biology all year long? Was the kid yesterday more in need of a vacation than the rest of us?

It's always interesting to come back from break. Kids have acquired tans and shorter hair cuts. The girls have brought out all their skimpy clothes and the sap will really start to run. I wonder what yesterday's upset boy will be thinking about sex then?

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