Fraudulent Diplomas


A recent article by Kate McGee of WAMU, working with the education team at National Public Radio, highlights the perverse incentives hanging over school administrators, and the disastrous outcomes that may result.  Titled “What Really Happened at the School Where Every Graduate Got into College,” this article uncovers fraud at a breathtaking scale that should alarm all parents.
The school in question is Ballou High School.  It is located in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Washington, D.C., and has long struggled with low graduation rates.
According to the article,  “An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.”  
The article continues, “An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”  According to one teacher, “It was smoke and mirrors.”  As another teacher explains, from the student’s point of view, “If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?”  Even the grading policy is in on the ruse, with an artificial floor of 50% credit for work that is never done.
Teachers report feeling intense pressure from the administration to pass students despite chronic absenteeism.  They sometimes receive calls from school officials telling them to change a grade without proper justification.  Resistance to these dishonest and coercive tactics could be met by poor teaching evaluations, and perhaps dismissal.  This is deeply unfair to teachers, especially those who are committed to upholding high academic standards, as well as the ideals of honesty, integrity and character.  Worst of all, the students are grievously cheated by this scandal.  They receive diplomas without genuine academic achievement; they go on to college and enter the work force without being adequately prepared.  Many return to the community as adults and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
Why would the school administration so callously throw its students and teachers under the bus?  Simple: by artificially boosting graduation rates, school officials (and some teachers) receive financial bonuses of up to $30,000.  What a disgrace!
Read the whole article here:


The Secret to Success

There’s an old joke.   Driving around New York City, a tourist rolls down his window and asks a passerby “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

Indeed, the path to excellence is well known among musicians.  They are aware that learning to play the violin, for instance, doesn’t result from attending lectures or reading textbooks on the theory of violin-playing.  They know that musical skill comes only from practice.  Twenty minutes a day, an hour a day, or four hours a day — depending on their goals.  Lessons do help, and theory can be taught in a classroom setting, but learning to perform comes only from performance itself.  To be more precise, the acquisition of skill derives from the cycle of performance; critical feedback; and diligent, deliberate and conscientious practice.
Athletes, too, have always known the way forward.  A football coach can provide wise counsel, and videotaped plays can furnish helpful analysis, but you cannot develop the actual abilities and talents without putting on your helmet and pads, going out to the field, and dirtying your uniform.  Like the musicians, the jocks know that practice is necessarily a daily thing (excluding days rest and recovery, of course).  Similarly, no one prepares for a marathon by running a practice marathon the day before.  Rather, it takes many months of steady, intensive training.
The same principles for skill acquisition apply to every field of human endeavor.  This is particularly true of academic subjects, such as math or expository writing.  To learn math, you must do math.  Going to lectures and seeing math done at the board does help — but not much more than listening to recordings of Isaac Stern will help the aspiring violinist.  That’s where homework comes in:  homework provides the opportunity to be challenged, to perform, to receive constructive feedback, and to take corrective action.  It should be done on a steady (almost daily) basis, in order to maintain the level of intensive engagement necessary for the associated neurological adaptations to take root.  As with the marathoner, you cannot properly prepare for a test by cramming the night before.
So the secret to success is not such a secret after all.  We’ve known it all along: practice, practice, practice.

Cause and Effect

In December 2015, the School Superintendent’s Association published a column on school discipline, touting reforms intended to reduce suspensions and expulsions by adopting alternative approaches.

“Suspensions and expulsions often disengage and disconnect students from school, feed students into the juvenile system and criminalize children at increasingly younger ages: instigating a Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Harsh and punitive policies, including zero tolerance and the overuse of suspension and expulsion, can devastate the lives of children. We are committed to educational equity and reform to ensure the highest quality education for all students.

“In 2013 and 2014, AASA and The Children’s Defense Fund entered a partnership to explore alternative school district practices and system wide solutions for school leaders to bring back to their districts. This initiative was funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies….”

One of the school districts supported by this initiative has been Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Fast forward to November 21, 2017, and we learn from a New York Post article that “Dozens of teachers terrorized by out-of-control students flee school district.”

“A group of Pennsylvania teachers is sharing horror stories of getting beaten up by pupils as young as 6 — and begging their school district for help.  

“I have been kicked, punched, hit, scratched. I’ve had a student physically restraining me in front of my other students… And many of the personal things that I have bought for my classroom have been broken or destroyed,” first-grade teacher Amanda Sheaffer told the Harrisburg school board at its meeting Monday, according to the news website PennLive.  

“Many minutes are spent each day dealing with violence that is happening in the classroom,” Sheaffer said. “How am I supposed to have a safe, nurturing learning environment when this behavior happens?”  

“Sheaffer was one of about a half-dozen elementary school teachers and several parents who implored the board for help in dealing with increasingly violent and troubled kids.

“We aren’t complaining. We are here begging for help so that we can help those students,” said Harrisburg Education Association president Jody Barksdale.

“Barksdale represents some of the teachers asking for help and brought similar concerns to the board in January, according to PennLive.

“At least 45 teachers resigned between July and October because of kids terrorizing their classrooms, Barksdale claimed, according to Fox 43.

“Teachers and students are being hit, kicked, slapped, scratched, cussed at … and observing other students flip over tables, desks and chairs,” she said. “Teachers have had to take the rest of their class into the hallway to protect them during these outbursts. Not much has changed since last January.”

Indeed, these include schools (Harrisburg, PA) in which the disciplinary reforms had been instituted only a few years ago.  It is clear that the students have learned something:  they have learned that there are no meaningful consequences for misbehavior at these schools.  It is not yet clear whether the administrators have learned anything.

Be The Twenty

My son was complaining the other day about a group project for school in which he ended up doing most of the work himself, and the other members of his team contributed either very little or nothing at all.  I explained that he had collided with the “Eighty-Twenty Rule.”  This is a rule of thumb that seems to apply to any kind of group project – for school, for work, or for other organizations:
   Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people.
The rule is actually a mild misapplication of a mathematical law known as the Pareto Principle (go ahead, google it), which does govern many phenomena in nature and in human affairs.  As an observation about people, I think it has some validity.
My advice to my son was this:  Be the Twenty.  Cultivate those habits of mind that characterize the twenty percent.  Conscientiousness, attention to detail, willingness to work long hours.  Getting credit for your efforts is nice, but excellence is your goal.  When a task needs to be performed, you’ll answer the call, roll up your sleeves, and get it done, perhaps inspiring others by your quiet example.  In times of urgent need, those around you will know who they can rely on, who they can always turn to for capable leadership.
Be the Twenty.  Because you now know about the Eighty-Twenty Rule, you’ll expect it to happen, and it will not surprise you.  Therefore you will not let it upset you if sometimes you carry more of the burden on your shoulders.  Instead – revel in it; seize upon the opportunity to serve and to shine.  By accepting that there will always be Eighties, you will also then waste no energy feeling resentment or bitterness toward them; no personal relations will be tainted by such negativity.  You will need to grow a big heart in order to accomplish this.
Be the Twenty.  Those in the twenty percent will go on to thrive and prosper in college, in military service, in the workplace, and in all things.  You will become the leaders, innovators, and visionaries for the next generation.  And when you are my age, you will be able to look back with satisfaction at a life well led.


Unlearning Unreason

Here are excerpts of an article in the New Boston Post by Adam J. MacLeod, who is an Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University.  It addresses reversing certain habits of thought that could stand in the way of future success.

I teach in a law school. For several years now my students have been mostly Millennials. Contrary to stereotype, I have found that the vast majority of them want to learn. But true to stereotype, I increasingly find that most of them cannot think, don’t know very much, and are enslaved to their appetites and feelings. Their minds are held hostage in a prison fashioned by elite culture and their undergraduate professors.

They cannot learn until their minds are freed from that prison. This year …, I found my students especially impervious to the ancient wisdom of foundational texts, such as Plato’s Crito and the Code of Hammurabi. Many of them were quick to dismiss unfamiliar ideas as “classist” and “racist,” and thus unable to engage with those ideas on the merits. So, a couple of weeks into the semester, I decided to lay down some ground rules…

Here is the speech I gave them.


Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. … And reasoning requires coherence and logic. Most of you have been taught to embrace incoherence and illogic. You have learned to associate truth with your subjective feelings, which are neither true nor false but only yours, and which are constantly changeful.

…[Y]ou should not bother to tell us how you *feel* about a topic. Tell us what you *think* about it. If you can’t think yet, that’s O.K. Tell us what Aristotle thinks, or Hammurabi thinks, or H.L.A. Hart thinks. Borrow opinions from those whose opinions are worth considering. As Aristotle teaches us in the reading for today, men and women who are enslaved to the passions, who never rise above their animal natures by practicing the virtues, do not have worthwhile opinions. Only the person who exercises practical reason and attains practical wisdom knows how first to live his life, then to order his household, and finally, when he is sufficiently wise and mature, to venture opinions on how to bring order to the political community.

Accordingly, one of Professor MacLeod’s ground rules for his course is

If you ever begin a statement with the words “I feel,” before continuing you must cluck like a chicken or make some other suitable animal sound.

MacLeod continues:

…Disagreement is not expressing one’s disapproval of something or expressing that something makes you feel bad or icky. To really disagree with someone’s idea or opinion, you must first understand that idea or opinion. When Socrates tells you that a good life is better than a life in exile you can neither agree nor disagree with that claim without first understanding what he means by “good life” and why he thinks running away from Athens would be unjust. Similarly, if someone expresses a view about abortion, and you do not first take the time to understand what the view is and why the person thinks the view is true, then you cannot disagree with the view, much less reason with that person. You might take offense. You might feel bad that someone holds that view. But you are not reasoning unless you are engaging the merits of the argument, just as Socrates engaged with Crito’s argument that he should flee from Athens.

Read the whole article here: Perhaps there are lessons for all of us.

Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning


I recently read a book by Daniel Willingham titled Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  The title itself is misleading — the book says very little about why students don’t like school — but the subtitle nails it. This volume surveys the breakthroughs in cognitive science from the past 2 or 3 decades, and identifies the implications of these results to teaching and learning.
There are insights, for example, into the neurological process of building memories, and ways to enhance this process in the classroom.  These involve the role of repetition, story-building, and tying in emotions in some way. It can also be said that memory follows cognition; rather than memorize a formula by rote, a student is more likely to retain it after applying it in a series of practice problems.  The learning experience is enhanced further if the subject matter could be engaged at a deeper emotional level.
There are perhaps some surprises in these findings.  Studying with the music on, for example, is detrimental to learning, contrary to the often held view that it promotes concentration.  In fact, any kind of multi-tasking has a similarly adverse effect.  This tells us that the TV shouldn’t be on when doing homework, even with the sound turned off.  Even having one’s cell phone nearby interferes with the learning process to a small degree.
There is a great deal of information in this book that could be used by teachers (and sufficiently mature students) to make the most of learning opportunities.

Students, parents must be accountable for discipline problems

The following article by Paul Day appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on October 29, 2017.


I APPRECIATE The Pilot exposing the student discipline problems in Virginia Beach schools. As a retired police officer and now a substitute teacher in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I have witnessed firsthand the discipline problems in our schools.

I have seen students curse out teachers and threaten them with physical harm without any ramifications.

Technology can be a useful tool, but the use of cell phones and computers during class time has become a big problem. Students text each other during class, watch movies and more, yet teachers feel powerless to enforce discipline.

As The Pilot’s story said, teachers are fearful. They are fearful of reprisal if they speak out against the administration because they have been told to reduce the number of student referrals.

A recent teacher survey conducted by the Virginia Beach school division indicated that nearly one-third of students in Virginia Beach middle and high schools do not know the consequences of misbehavior. The survey also found that one-third of middle and high students do not respect their teachers. If boundaries are not set and consequences not given for breaking the rules, discipline problems will continue to worsen.

Teachers have an increased workload due to larger class sizes. They are required to take more professional learning courses, and they have testing requirements that can be overwhelming. Recently, teachers were required to complete cultural awareness training, which is part of the administration’s effort to reduce suspensions of minority students.

“Restorative justice” is the term used for the new discipline procedures being used in Virginia Beach schools and in other school systems across the country. It focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. Teachers become counselors, along with all the other tasks they have been assigned. It’s amazing that teachers have time to actually teach lessons, grade papers and assist students with their educational needs.

On Nov. 13, 2015, the Virginia Department of Education issued a directive for schools to implement different strategies for student discipline. These strategies include PBIS (Positive-Behavioral Intervention and Supports). This directive states that exclusionary discipline practices (punishment and suspensions) have a negative impact on the learning environment.

I wholeheartedly disagree with Virginia Beach School Board member Trenace Riggs’ opinion that teachers need more training in developing relationships. I would counter that not providing punishments to unruly students has a very negative effect on the ability of teachers to teach effectively and for well-behaved students to learn. I also disagree with Superintendent Aaron Spence’s statement that “the discipline process should not be about punishment.” There must be consequences for misbehavior when students break the rules.

It is not the role of government to counsel students and teach them how to behave. That is the role of the parent. If the parent is notified of a student discipline problem and the behavior does not change, then ultimately the parent is the one responsible for the student’s actions, not the government. It is the role of the government to provide a safe learning environment for all students and to enforce the rules set forth by the School Board.

These problems are only getting worse because local officials are not addressing them and are not holding students and parents accountable. Parents need to speak out and get informed about what is happening in our schools and demand that discipline be enforced.

I encourage Pilot readers to write to the Virginia Beach School Board and demand that its members come up with a solution to these concerns shared by teachers. Student discipline and safety should be a priority.

VB SPARK Education Association, a new organization, allows the voices of parents, teachers, staff, students and community members to be heard on issues that affect the city’s students. Addressing student discipline problems in our schools is at the top of SPARK’s agenda.

Shaking Up Public Education

Last week Kris Allen wrote an intriguing article for the Richmond Times Dispatch titled “What Public Schools Could Learn from Amazon’s Move into Groceries.”  Allen, who is President of the Virginia Education Coalition, wrote that

“Education and grocery stores are different businesses, but both have much to learn from Amazon. Like traditional grocers, public education’s business model is based on a command-and-control, geographically based, product delivery system that has worked the same for decades. Both take advantage of technology to improve their business model, but in different ways. Grocers use technology to minimize product delivery costs to the store, squeeze 2 percent profit margin from high-volume sales, and compete on price. Public education uses technology to expand and enable its administrative state, increase cost, and compete as a geographic monopoly…

“Amazon’s disruption of the grocery industry is possible because, in a free market, competitive advantage depends upon product differentiation and the lowest cost to deliver the value proposition; firms that provide complementary or substitute products are allowed; and competitors’ barriers to market entry and exit are low. Unlike public education competitors, Amazon entered the grocery industry without being required to build a chain of brick-and-mortar stores, which were required by law to serve a specific zip code — nor was it subjected to compliance with ubiquitous and ever-growing requirements imposed upon it by the industry it disrupted.

“…A similar positive disruption in public education is possible, if the barriers-to-entry are eliminated and parents are allowed to choose their child’s mode of education.”

Allen then cites the example of Summit Public Schools, a charter school with operations in the San Francisco Bay area and in Washington State.  Summit’s pedagogical model is individualized, project-based, and self-directed.  Teachers, mentors and technological resources provide support and content delivery.

The article concludes

“The Summit model is scalable, inclusive, and effective. Today, nine schools are in operation, serving 2,500 students in grades 6 through 12. Eighty percent of [the students] are non-white; 42 percent are low-income; and 12 percent are English language learners.  Per pupil expenditure is $7,000, compared to Virginia’s $11,745. Ninety-six percent of Summit’s graduates are accepted to four-year colleges.  If Virginians want educational outcomes like Summit’s, they must demand that elected representatives remove the barriers to entry for non-traditional educational solutions.”

This is definitely something to consider as we approach the Virginia gubernatorial election.  Read the whole thing here:

Taking a Knee

     In the football pre-season of 2016, then Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat through the national anthem before the games, instead of standing attentively with hand over heart.  Later he went further and kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner.  He did this to protest police brutality and the oppression of people of color; he stressed that (despite appearances to many observers) he was not being anti-American or disrespectful of the military.  In the following weeks and months, some of his colleagues throughout the NFL joined in the protests, as did other athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team.
     This “taking a knee” has become a major point of controversy, with NFL fans, coaches, owners, advertisers, and sportscasters weighing in on the matter.  Other sports figures, celebrities, and politicians — including President Trump — have also taken sides.  In the meantime, Kaepernick has become a free agent and hasn’t been hired by another team, and NFL viewership has plummeted.   In some sense, things are as they should be:  These are adults  expressing their beliefs, taking action, and bearing the consequences.
     On the other hand, we have seen in the news that high school students have taken a knee in Brunswick, Ohio;  Cincinnati;  Bossier City, Louisiana; Cedar Grove, Georgia; New Brunswick, New Jersey;  Houston, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Hillsboro, Tennessee; and numerous other locations.  Players at a Texas middle school took a knee before a game, and were threatened with expulsion from the team.  A middle schooler in New Mexico took a knee while performing the national anthem.  A ten-year-old in Texas kneeled during the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of the school day.  In Belleville, Illinois, an entire team of eight-year-olds and their coach took a knee before their game.
     People of good conscience will differ on this issue, but perhaps we can all agree on the following.  Children should not be used as pawns or props for political reasons.  Furthermore, this is an opportunity for parents to talk to their children in an age-appropriate way about the substance of the controversy.  This is also a chance for everyone to be reminded that we can disagree about something, and still get along as friends, relatives, teammates, neighbors and co-workers.