Archive for the ‘ Education ’ Category

Friday Night Tykes Is Mesmerizing (And Scary)!

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

I didn’t watch the first season of Friday Night Tykes, a documentary series chronicling the ultra-competitive Texas Youth Football Association (TYFA). I had heard about it—the intensity, the injuries, the cussing—but I figured that having seen Dance Moms with my 10-year-old daughter, it would be a testosterone-fueled version of that popular reality show. Boy, was I wrong.

The 20-minute preview of the second season, which begins tonight on Esquire Network, is like nothing you’ve ever seen before (even if, like me, you are a sports parent who has coached your kid for years). It depicts 10- and 11-year-olds being put through a training regimen that puts many high school athletes to shame. They complete endless tackling drills in searing heat, in which the object is to hurl your teammate to the ground. As a 10-year-old lies on the ground in agony, a coach tells him, “If you can’t play with pain, you’re in the wrong sport.” Another says having feelings is a “girl thing” that has no place on the gridiron.

During a game, one coach removes a center that has made two errant snaps and yells, “What the f— are you doing?” I quickly lost count of the number of curses, but I can tell you that the coaches hurl expletives at their players, the referees, and each other with alarming regularity. It paints a brutal picture—of the state of youth sports in America; of the parents who allow their kids to be verbally harangued and put them at risk of serious injury (not to mention burnout) in pursuit of a long term, long-shot college or NFL dream; of the well-meaning but sometimes misguided coaches, who push these young kids so hard to win at all costs.

And yet, at the post-screening forum, I was surprised by the muted reaction of the panelists, including ex-NFL stars Tiki Barber (now a CBS sports radio host) and Bart Scott (now an NFL analyst) as well as psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Psy.D. All agreed that the footage was difficult to watch at times. The show’s executive producer Matt Maranz, said the show is designed to provoke debate on “how far is too far, how young is to young, to push kids.” But when the moderator, ESPN commentator Jeremy Schaap, asked if the footage amounted to child abuse, all three replied no.

Barber conceded that the use of profanity around kids this age is wrong, and that coaches should keep in mind that not everyone—even highly motivated young athletes—responds best to yelling. Dr. Ludwig, though, pointed out that the coaches were likely revisiting the methods they had experienced when they were players, and that despite their hard words they truly meant the best for the children in their charge.

As far as the safety of having kids participate in full-contact drills and play tackle football as early as age 7 (as they do in the TYFA), opinion was divided. Schaap pointed to research suggesting that concussions are particular dangerous to young children, whose skulls are thinner and more vulnerable than those over age 12. Barber, whose 12-year-old has already suffered a concussion, supports his son’s right to play. “The key is  educating him and making sure he follows the proper protocol if he has a head injury,” Barber says.

Scott, who in the past had said he wouldn’t want his child playing football due to the risks, now coaches his 7-year-old. “Once he decided to play, I knew he would be safer if I taught him the proper technique for tackling and falling so he doesn’t get hurt,” says Scott.

Scott and Barber were both playing pee-wee football by age 9, so neither is shocked by the physical nature of the youth game depicted in the series. Scott, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Detroit, believes the backlash against the show is due in part to the fact that American kids today are too soft. “They need to learn how to work hard and push the limits,” he says. “And I like that this league doesn’t give everyone a trophy or make sure they get equal playing time. You earn it on the playing field.”

Scott makes a valid point about our “everyone’s a winner” mentality. I can’t say I agree that grade-schoolers are ready to work out ’till they vomit or to be instructed by a coach before a game to “rip their freakin’ head off and let them bleed.” But I do recommend you tune in and make your own judgments. It’s riveting TV, even if you often need to cover your eyes.

How to Pitch Like a Big Leaguer
How to Pitch Like a Big Leaguer
How to Pitch Like a Big Leaguer

Photo courtesy of Esquire TV

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Why I Don’t Like School Rankings

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

I spend a lot of time every week working for Parents on stories that rank things—from children’s hospitals to Caribbean islands, theme parks to birthday party places. By all accounts, the numbers geek in me should be all over my daughter’s school rankings, whether they’re from the state or an education website. But I don’t even bother looking them up anymore because I think the methodology is shaky. And if you’re using rankings to decide where your child is going to go to kindergarten in the fall, I’d put more stock in the gut feeling from the school tour.

Here’s why: The basis of these rankings is most often standardized test results (and they’re under a lot of fire these days for whether they’re a valid way to measure what kids learn). Even if you do have a sound standardized tests that all kids could take, you’d still have to be very careful when looking at the data comparing two schools because the number of children with learning disabilities, non-English speaking students, and economically disadvantaged kids (all of which likely have lower test scores) would probably be different at each school. What’s more, if a school has a lot of students who transferred there within the last year or two, it muddies the picture too.

A couple of years ago, a national magazine ranked a high school in my area the second best in the state. I was confounded at that because this school didn’t have high-school sports teams, a theater program, or much else in the way of extra-curricular activities. But the magazine didn’t take that into consideration.

For what it’s worth, I think the best schools have a diverse student body; loving, involved parents; dedicated teachers who are problem-solvers, as well as an administration who is willing to take risks. Unfortunately, school rankings come up short in giving up this information.

Karen Cicero is contributing nutrition and travel editor at Parents, and mom of a tween. You can follow her on Twitter at @karencicero. 



Preparing for the First Day of School
Preparing for the First Day of School
Preparing for the First Day of School

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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.

Baby wearing a graduation cap and gown via Shutterstock

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