Archive for the ‘ Education ’ Category

I’m Saying No to High-Stakes Testing—And You May Want to, Too

Friday, December 19th, 2014

To test or not to test? At this point, that really isn’t a question for me. I’m refusing to allow my fifth grader to take the PARCC, the latest Common Core high-stakes test crafted by for-profit educational company Pearson. There are more than a few reasons to reconsider just going with the flow, if your child’s on tap to take these tests.

There’s little to no evidence that these tests actually mean anything. Study after study has indicated that the SAT (you know, the old gold standard for college admissions) correlates most closely with your family’s income level. (Higher income levels, unsurprisingly, meant  higher SAT scores.) And the PARCC test that my daughter is supposed to spend hours taking later this year is completely unproven to measure anything—other than that the student has been coached on how to take the PARCC. (In fact, our kids are serving as the guinea pigs for this, as Pearson is still “field testing” these assessments.)

Schools are being forced to stress test prep over more important subjects. My daughter’s teacher barely has time to squeeze in science (SCIENCE!) because he’s so busy ensuring they have enough computer time to be able to effectively type essay questions for the PARCC. And after school, they’re being assigned online test prep as a homework component, in addition to a pretty extensive workload. Our schools should be focused on helping children develop creative thinking skills and mastery of subjects that actually apply to real life, so they can go on to innovate and solve the myriad problems our world is facing. Instead, they’re being drilled on multiple-choice strategy—a skill I haven’t used since I took my last standardized test more than 20 years ago. (How about you?)

They’re putting way too much pressure on our kids. Schools want to do very well on these tests to get funding—and so they’re pushing the kids hard. My daughter’s school had special workbooks dedicated to learning the NJASK (the PARCC’s predecessor), which they completed in full. And that probably explains how they scored third in the state for their NJASK scores last year. They began harping on the PARCC in earnest as soon as the NJASK was over,  more than a year before the kids would even take the test. My kid’s the kind who cried for two hours when she received her first non-A on her report card—so it probably wasn’t a surprise that she was freaking out about the PARCC over the summer, when her biggest worry should have been whether she should ride bikes or run through the sprinkler. If I continue to subject my daughter to this level of stress, she’ll be needing therapy before we even get her through junior high.

These tests are extremely flawed. The very first practice question I read over my daughter’s shoulder was grammar related, requiring the student to choose the correct way to connect two separate sentences. While two of the four answer options were definitely wrong, the other two were technically correct. (As a professional writer and editor, I know my way around a sentence—but my copy-editor husband and a slew of editor friends also agreed that there were two correct answers.) My daughter selected the one that Pearson apparently deemed “incorrect.” After that experience, I decided to take a full-on PARCC practice test on my own. I have a master’s degree in magazine journalism, a Mensa-level IQ and a long and storied history of rocking standardized tests, but I did not answer every question on the fifth-grade English test correctly. How can we expect our 10-year-olds to do better?

The school systems are often required to administer the tests to children who can’t do them. A special-ed teacher I know is supposed to administer the PARCC to autistic and developmentally delayed children. They can’t read and they can’t communicate—do you really think they’re going to write an essay about the themes in a complex reading passage? You can see how one Maryland mom expressed her concerns for her special-needs son. (She appears at 1:41.00.)

The tests require significant investments in technology, and the states aren’t ponying up the cash. PARCC tests are taken online, which means that the school district needs to have enough computers to allow every student in a grade to take the test simultaneously. Our school has been grossly underfunded by the state for the past decade—and yet we had to make some pretty significant investments in new computers to ensure that they had enough to test our students. But that money had to come from somewhere: We lost foreign language teachers, and my daughter’s  social studies book is older than her college-aged babysitter. What did the kids lose out on in other school districts?

There’s something rotten about the whole deal. Pearson not only makes mediocre textbooks—they are now in the business of testing whether our kids are learning anything from those books. Shouldn’t one part of this equation be independent of the other? There’s also some concern that Pearson may be in cahoots with technology companies like Apple to get some lucrative business for both parties—and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into it. And the federal government is even pulling funding from the Common Core, just as our state is making the decision to commit to it more fully.

I’m writing my letter right after winter break to refuse to allow my child to take the tests, and I’m fortunate to live in one of the only school districts in New Jersey that is officially allowing children to opt out and have other educational experiences during test time. (Last year, many school districts forced kids who were opting out to remain in the classroom and “sit and stare” for the duration of the test—something bordering on child abuse, in my book.) I’m exercising the parental rights afforded by the Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which protects my fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of my children. The Court declared that “the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” And I hope that you’ll consider fighting against these tests, too.

Learn more about the Common Core—and what it means for your child.

Lisa Milbrand is a contributing editor to and the blogger for In Name Only.

The Parent's Role During School Years
The Parent's Role During School Years
The Parent's Role During School Years

Image: Mighty Sequoia Studio/

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Help Your Kids Learn the Value of Giving

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Christmas gift boxChristmas was always my favorite time of year as a kid. School would close for a week, my family would make amazing food, and I would spend an entire day opening presents.

While I’m sure I appreciated them at the time, there’s really only a single gift, one I received every year, which I remember. I had a family member who would send me a card every year, and in the card it would say that money was given in my name to a needy family somewhere in the world to help them tend their farm, or buy livestock, or make clothes for themselves—something that deeply affected another family’s way of life.

That gift has always stuck with me, and it is a beautiful thing to donate your time, talents, or money to give back to others, especially during the holiday season.

So, to help teach your kids about the gift of giving, here are 3 great charities and organizations that you and your children can visit to choose a donation to make in honor of your loved ones this holiday.

1. Save The Children- This organization offers seven different categories of gift giving, from education and sports to programs specifically in the United States. After selecting a gift, a customized card can be sent to your loved one via email or postal mail to fill them in on the donation your family has made in their honor. A printable card is also available, so your kids can get in on the action by decorating it and writing personalized messages.

2. International Rescue Committee- When you view the IRC’s website, you can choose from a variety of donation options, including maternal health care and teaching supplies for communities and families in need. Here, you can also customize an e-card or print card, and they can have your card shipped to its recipient within 7-10 days.

3. World Vision- Donations given to World Vision help to support various problems, including poverty in America, gifts for needy girls and women worldwide, and clean drinking water. Participants can opt for an e-card to send, or pick out a handcrafted gift, like a necklace, scarf, or coffee set, where proceeds from sales will go directly to needy communities

Stamped Snowman Card
Stamped Snowman Card
Stamped Snowman Card

Image: Gift box with red bow via Shutterstock

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Watch This Before You Start Saving for College

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

I knew that college had changed a lot in the years since I graduated—that it is a lot more competitive to get into top schools (the New York Times reported that it is common for kids to apply to up to 20 schools, and, in one case, a record-setting 86!) and, of course, a lot more expensive (it costs nearly $60,000 per year at elite colleges like Harvard, and that’s not including books, travel, and other expenses).

What I didn’t fully realize is why it is so pricey and pressure-packed these days—until I saw Ivory Tower, from the Emmy-nominated team of Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack. The film, which makes its global television premiere tonight at 9PM ET on CNN, questions the cost, values, and methods of America’s higher-education institutions. It’s a disturbing look at a system in which, at many places, learning almost seems to be an afterthought. Universities are depicted as engaging in an arms race to provide ever-fancier attractions to lure students, from fancy dorms to climbing walls to swimming pools to high-profile athletic programs. Academics, meanwhile, take a back seat: An ever-smaller percentage of most college budgets goes toward tenured professors. Nearly half of all students fail to display significant academic gains after two years of college, and 36 percent reported that they spend less than 5 hours per week studying.

Perhaps the most alarming focus of this documentary is the out-of-control cost of sending a kid to college. Tuition has risen more than 1,100 percent since 1980. As state and federal funding have dried up, student debt has exploded to more than $1 trillion—a figure that exceeds our nation’s total credit-card debt. The average student graduates $35,000 under water, and almost half wind up unemployed or underemployed (at least in the short term), creating the environment for a broad-scale debt spiral many can’t see themselves escaping.

Before you decide not to open a 529 (or to stop contributing to one), keep in mind that in the long run, college is still very much worth it. Ivory Tower displayed a chart showing that kids who earn a bachelor’s degree have an expected lifetime earning capacity that is nearly $1 million more than that of high-school graduates.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) also loom as a potential low-cost solution. The technology is already in place to bring our nation’s top professors right into your living room at a fraction of the price tag of regular tuition. For sure, some kinks need to be worked out: Early experimentation run by for-profit startups has shown poor retention and pass rates among virtual students, largely because they lack the access to one-on-one assistance and group discussions that on-campus students take for granted. Perhaps these shortcomings can be addressed, though.

As for the seemingly unmanageable bill, keep in mind that few families save the entire cost for higher education. Financial aid and scholarships can diminish your expense, and student loans (but hopefully not insurmountable ones) can bridge the remaining gap. My advice: Start saving early, contribute regularly, and keep your fingers crossed that the pundits who believe the rate at which college costs are climbing isn’t sustainable are correct.

Save for College
Save for College
Save for College

Baby wearing a graduation cap and gown via Shutterstock

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New Child-Care Law Breaks Gridlock

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Although it’s hard to get anything done in Washington these days, young children in child care will now be safer thanks to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014, which President Obama signed into law today. It has been 18 years since Congress reauthorized and revised the legislation that provides child-care subsidies to states, and the new law includes quality standards that Parents advocated for in our 2012 article, “The Child-Care Crisis.” As part of a partnership with Child Care Aware of America, we hand-delivered a copy of the article to every member of Congress, and many of our readers sent emails to their Senators and Representatives in support of the bipartisan legislation.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the primary federal grant program that provides child-care assistance to low-income families. The new law affects child-care centers and individuals who care for children with the support of federal funding, but all children in child care are likely to benefit from the new higher standards. “For far too long, this program lacked key protections for children and families receiving federal assistance for child care. The quality needle has finally moved to ensure that children are in a safe setting that promotes their learning and healthy development,” says Lynette Fraga, Ph.D., executive director of Child Care Aware of America.

Some of the key changes:

  • States must develop health and safety standards related to first aid and CPR, and to reduce the risk of SIDS and child abuse.
  • States must perform at least one annual inspection.
  • Individuals who care for children must undergo a comprehensive background check.
  • States must set aside three percent of funding to expand access and improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers.

Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care
Child Care: How to Find Quality Child Care

Photo via Shutterstock

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Tags: | Categories: Child Development, Education, Health, News, Safety

5 Reasons to Find Time for Fiction

Monday, November 10th, 2014

I’m happily married to magazines (and to you, honey), but I am having a delicious affair with novels. Thanks to my friend Penny who convinced me to join her book club years ago, reading fiction has become a necessity for my mental health, just like exercise. But I have plenty of smart friends who feel they’re just too busy to read books. Here are some reasons I think it’s worth it.

1. You’ll discover new voices that are dear to your heart. When my daughter was in second grade, their nightly reading time was called “Drop Everything and Read,” or DEAR. How fitting. Anyone who’s asked me for a book suggestion lately will tell you that I’m crushing on Liane Moriarty, the author of the current best-seller Big Little Lies as well as the earlier gems, What Alice Forgot and Three Wishes. I am finishing the last of her six novels now and don’t want it to end (although I was glad to hear she’s signed another two-book deal). She writes about being a woman, mom, wife, girlfriend, sister, daughter, friend, triplet, and stalker with such memorable details and surprising word choices that I often laugh out loud.

2. Taylor Swift thinks you should. She is very popular in my home; my 9-year-old sings her songs and is learning to play them on the piano. How cool that Swift recently teamed up with Scholastic to encourage kids to get excited about reading. As she said in this video chat with kids, “I wouldn’t be a songwriter if it wasn’t for books that I loved as a kid. When you can escape into a book, it trains your imagination to think big, and to think that more can exist than what you see.”

3. Even if you love social media, sometimes you need antisocial media. Whether you’re with co-workers or children all day, it can be a treat to delve into the pages of a book by yourself. And fiction can be a respite when there’s too much bad news in the real world. Of course, books can be social too. I look forward to my book club—not only to discuss our monthly pick, but to catch up with an eclectic group of women. And you can follow your favorite authors (and your kids’ favorite authors) on Twitter.

4. You can read anywhere. I will never give up on paper books, but I love the Kindle app on my phone, which allows me to have a handy-sized book at my fingertips. Stuck on a crowded subway? Waiting in a chilly exam room for the doctor to finally come in? I just read a few pages. I have converted quite a few people to this convenient alternative.

5. It can be a family affair. My husband I and sometimes read the same book. Recently, I encouraged him to read the terrific A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman (he wasn’t initially excited when I told him it was about “a grumpy Swedish man”), and we ended up talking about me how much Ove reminded him of his grandfather I’d never met. My daughter and I often sit on the couch and read our own books together, and I’ve suggested middle-grade titles I think she’ll like, such as Elizabeth Atkinson’s I, Emma Freak, and Rain Reign, the newest from Ann M. Martin. Ah, it’s sweet when a book is more compelling than the iPad.

No matter how old your child is, check out our Best Children’s Books of 2014.

3 Things to Help Kids Read
3 Things to Help Kids Read
3 Things to Help Kids Read

Photo via Shutterstock

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