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Education ’ Category
Thursday, November 14th, 2013
Seven months ago, I wrote about my roundtable discussion with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocating for expanding public preschool offerings to low-income families. The plan calls for the federal government to subsidize states by up to 90 percent in their effort to make early-learning programs available to children whose families otherwise couldn’t afford them. President Obama sees it as an investment in their (and our) future, since children learn so much in preschool and attending a high-quality program prepares kids for kindergarten and the greater challenges beyond.
After months of behind-the-scenes negotiation, the idea finally has legislative form. Yesterday, the twin bills, called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, were introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY). Anyone old enough to remember Schoolhouse Rock’s classic “I’m Just a Bill” knows that it’s easy for any proposed legislation to get stuck in committee on Capitol Hill. That is especially true right now: Our divided Congress seems more concerned with adhering to party ideologies than passing laws. Earlier this year, it failed to act on a measure that would require background checks for gun purchases despite the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans supported it.
Similarly, 70 percent of Americans favor increased public funding for universal preschool, including 60 percent of Republicans, according to a Daily Caller poll. The 10-year plan calls for federal grants to assist states in providing access to high-quality, publicly funded pre-K offerings. Its goal is to cover all 4-year-olds in families whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($46,000 for a family of four), as well as to improve early-learning opportunities and home visits for underprivileged kids 3 and under, according to the nonpartisan New America Foundation. The major stumbling block is the pricetag. Initially, President Obama hoped to fund the program by means of a cigarette tax. Predictably, big tobacco lobbied vehemently against this idea. Currently, the bills make no mention of where the money will come from. For an initiative that could cost $75 billion during the next decade, that is a major obstacle. Still, Strong Start has been praised by early-education advocates, teachers, and members of both parties. It likely won’t pass without extensive floor fights and compromise. But here’s hoping this bill has the mettle and determination of the cute little Schoolhouse Rock guy so that it, too, can become a law someday.
Wonder what career your child is destined for? Check out our quiz to find out.
Children and teacher playing with musical instruments in preschool via Shutterstock
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Thursday, October 31st, 2013
I have vivid memories of my mom trying to get my attention as she shuffled through Spanish vocabulary flashcards in the living room. She lured me in with the promise of a card game, or so I thought. I split once I realized this wasn’t a game of concentration. I didn’t want to learn Spanish. My mom tried again, but had a different idea. She let me put Muy Bien! (very good!) stickers on quizzes as she graded them. They beat my Lisa Frank collection by a long shot.
Little did I know, she was trying to teach me a crucial skill. Spanish is the most-spoken non-English language in U.S. homes, according to an August 2013 Pew survey. More than 37.6 million people over 5-years-old speak Spanish at home. The language has grown due to Hispanic immigration and population growth and has immersed itself into many aspects of American life. You can’t go anywhere without toddlers referencing Dora the Explorer or seeing ads for Spanish food, among other things.
There are numerous benefits to foreign language education, like better reading skills and more confidence. Children who start learning at a younger age have a better chance of developing a natural-sounding accent, something older kids have a hard time with if they learn later. Learning another language can also help with listening skills. A study at Northwestern University showed that people who knew a second language could better identify another speaker’s voice among distracting noises. Most importantly, kids will develop a broader perspective of the world.
By the time I got to high school, I was able to conduct basic conversations and conjugate verbs with ease. I wanted to challenge myself to master the language. Spanish was pretty easy to learn and I welcomed each class as a break from the rigor of honors coursework. I also watched Selena, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Bajo La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon) not for extra credit, but to gain a better understanding of Hispanic culture.
Encourage your kids to take Spanish if languages are a curriculum requirement. A majority of the vocabulary is similar to English, which can make it easier for kids to grasp basic terms. Learning another language at a young age may inspire a love of languages. You might have a multilingual child in your house before you know it!
Image: Boy in school via Shutterstock
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Thursday, October 31st, 2013
National Bullying Prevention Month wasn’t around when I was a kid. And no one called what happened to me bullying back then—when a “friend” started talking about me behind my back and actively excluding me from our group of friends. The kind of bullying that girls tend to engage in—emotional bullying—was just something you were meant to suffer through in silence, until graduation got you (hopefully) out of harm’s way.
Back then, schools often looked the other way on physical bullying, too. When my brother repeatedly came home with cuts and bruises from being shoved and punched, the school’s vice principal told my mother that my brother needed to just punch back. And when my mother asked, incredulous, if the vice principal was actually encouraging physical violence in his school, he simply shrugged. (That’s when my parents made the decision to move to a different town to keep my brother safe.)
But what no one really talks about is the lasting damage bullying can do, long after the cuts have healed and the remarks have cleared the air. I can feel its shadow in my friendships even now, more than 20 years after I last saw my bully. (Which makes me wonder how kids today manage to keep going, when the insults and nastiness are captured forever on the internet.) I catch myself worrying when a friend turns down an invite and analyzing what was said when we get together—even though I know that the friends I have now are true friends, and that the days of bullying are over for me.
Except that it isn’t entirely, because I have to shepherd my own children through it. I’ve worked with my kids on strategies for fighting bullies, and stressed that our kids should try to befriend the kids who are being picked on, and develop empathy for everyone in their class (even the bullies). And they learn these social skills in a weekly class with their guidance counselor, now mandated by our state.
But that clearly isn’t quite enough. The boys in my daughter’s class recently started making trouble with her, mocking her with racially-tinted taunts. I’m fortunate that the school has taken it very seriously—the principal, the guidance counselor and the teacher are all working together to keep it from happening. But even then, they have to walk a fine line, as calling the kids out on it directly may just lead to more anguish for my daughter. The bullies never like a tattletale.
I know that a lot of bullying comes from the parents themselves. My brother created a documentary about bullying, and went back to our old neighborhood to interview some of his former tormentors. (A few of them, it turns out, were in jail.) One of them said that he bullied my brother because he was envious of what he had: a stable home, loving parents, and a promising future. And in retrospect, I can see how my bully’s mother may have influenced her decision to treat me that way. My only hope is that I can teach my kids to be kind, so that they don’t inflict this pain on other kids—and give enough strength to deal with the kids whose parents won’t.
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Thursday, October 10th, 2013
I miss summer. Not so much for the warm weather (we’ve been blessed with a beautiful early fall in the Northeast) or lazy days at the beach. No, what I really miss is carefree evenings with my family unfettered by homework assignments. These days, my ninth-grade son arrives home from school and gets right to work. He’s working when my wife and I walk through the door in the evening, and he’s still working after my 8-year-old goes to bed. In most cases he’s done by 10 o’clock, but sometimes it lasts even later. Even though I know he could be more efficient in his reading, studying, and writing (who among us can claim otherwise in our work), it seems like an awfully heavy load on top of a nearly 7-hour school day. While he always finishes and hasn’t complained (so far), I wonder how he’ll stay on top of assignments once winter and spring sports start up. And I know I’m far from alone in my concern.
As we report in “The Homework Blues” in our November issue, the workload being placed on kids these days is greater than ever. The old 10-minutes-per-grade-level guideline has disappeared. Moreover, homework has trickled down to kindergarten, where some kids are spending an hour a night reading and completing worksheets. Although the demands on my fourth-grader haven’t been as overwhelming as on her brother—yet—she knows things are going to heat up. I remember how miserable she was last year when, on top of reading, math, spelling, and other assignments, she had to take practice exams at home in preparation for statewide tests, which have taken on increased significance in light of the adoption of the Common Core. It took a toll on her outlook and on our entire household. Ironically, studies show that for all its increased emphasis as a learning tool, homework offers scant academic advantage in grade school and can turn kids off to learning.
In my son’s case, I know he is doing advanced work that will prepare him for the demands of college. I also see how the hours pile up. When every teacher gives, say, 30 to 45 minutes per day, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that six reasonable assignments add up to an excessive workload. Karl Taro Greenfeld found out the same thing when he tried to do his 13-year-old daughter’s assignments for a week, which he chronicled in The Atlantic.
So what can you do to manage your child’s homework? For starters, make sure she’s set up for success by creating a dedicated study space that’s clear of clutter. “The Homework Blues” offers a number of suggestions for helping your child develop a consistent routine as well as for taking steps to lighten a load that you deem excessive. You can also download these homework surveys to pass out at the next PTA meeting. This move can help you assess the severity of the problem at your school and build support for policy changes. Above all, you need to be a nurturing presence, guiding your child to complete assignments (without doing them yourself) and finding ways to keep him calm when the pressure of a lengthy or difficult assignment causes him to melt down.
Tell us: Does your child have too much homework, and how do you deal with it?
Image: Angry and tired schoolgirl studying with a pile of books on her desk via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
Last week, I read an article on The Atlantic’s website titled “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me,” and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In the piece, Karl Taro Greenfeld is concerned that his 13-year-old daughter, Emme, is doing way too much homework. As an experiment, he tries to do Emme’s homework for a week.
Though I enjoyed reading about Greenfeld’s attempts to complete the homework assignments, I was more intrigued by the lengths that Greenfeld’s daughter took to ensure that she did her homework fully every night. “Some evenings, when we force her to go to bed, she will pretend to go to sleep and then get back up and continue to do homework for another hour,” Greenfeld writes.
I remember the similar lengths that I took to complete my homework in middle school. During religious school, I would do my algebra homework underneath my Hebrew worksheets. I studied between dance routines during recitals, a trick I learned from other children, older and wiser.
In his article, Greenfeld expresses his belief that teachers should give less homework, especially less busy work. I agree with that; the amount of time I spent doing pointless assignments is impossible to calculate. However, the larger issue that Greenfeld’s article touches on goes beyond homework struggles.
The pressure to compete with other kids for the best grades can be enormous and it is a serious problem. When I was in middle school, we were often graded on a bell curve. You did not have to do well on an exam; you had to do better than the other students. After our tests were returned, the teacher posted the curve on the wall so you could see where you ranked in relation to others. Though there were no names on the sheet, students would spread rumors about who scored what. Do we really need preteens to feel more self-conscious?
I am all for healthy competition and encouraging children to do well in school, but some schools have taken it too far. When Greenfeld wonders if his daughter will ever have the time to read a book for fun, I cringe, because I know his question is valid. There is often no time built in for unstructured personal enjoyment. There has to be a way to allow kids to get away from the stress of school, at least every once in awhile.
The teachers are not the only ones to blame, however. Parents are responsible for pressuring their kids as well. A recent Slate article brought to light the increasing trend of “redshirting” kids in kindergarten. A full 9 percent of parents wait until their child is 6-years-old before sending him to school. Though in certain cases this is a justified move, in many situations children are being held back solely because parents want to give them an academic, social, and athletic advantage over the other kids in the grade. Imagine the expectations! Slate calls this era “an age of parenting as a competitive sport.” My question is: When the game’s over, who really wins?
What do you think? Does your child feel too much pressure to succeed in school?
Image: A teen school boy studies hard via Shutterstock
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