School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

What’s in a name?

Across the U.S., state lawmakers continue to face unprecedented budget woes. Today in Washington state, Governor Christine Gregoire (D) convened a special session for the legislature to address a $2 billion shortfall. Gregoire has proposed tax hikes and cuts to state programs, including significant cuts to education.

Faced with decreased revenue streams in a flat economy that shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, some cash-strapped public schools and districts are looking to private donors to fund certain projects. Mary Gale Hare and Liz Bowie report in The Baltimore Sun that corporate or private sponsorship of facilities is on the rise at public high schools, following a similar trend at colleges and universities, where corporate sponsorship of everything from football fields to department chairs is becoming the norm. Chris Daley, senior account executive at Maroon PR, a Baltimore-based marketing company, describes it this way:

Given the state of the economy, and the big cuts many school systems are taking, many institutions are looking for outside donations. We’re used to this policy with professional [sports] teams and even college teams. Across the country, big-brand corporate sponsorship is definitely on the rise with high schools as well.

At North Hagerstown High School (also in Maryland), a $500,000 donation gave donor Mike Callas naming rights to the football stadium. At that same stadium, naming rights to everything from the athletic field ($250,000), scoreboard ($100,000) and even the restrooms ($10,000) were sold to donors eager to have their names memorialized a la Friday Night Lights. When the county wanted to build a new magnet high school for the arts, Vincent Groh donated the building, named after his late wife, Barbara Ingram, an art teacher in the county school system.  At the school, rooms have been named after donors.

Although the prospect of five and six-figure donations might seem too tempting to pass up in the current fiscal crisis, some school boards are treading lightly. According to Hare and Bowie, many districts lack clear policy guidelines to help them evaluate prospective donations. Others are worried about setting ill-advised precedent, or selling naming rights for too low a price. For example, one school board rejected a donation of $20,000 by two NFL players for a new scoreboard at Aberdeen High School in exchange for naming the school football field after them, because the donation was too low.

But at other school districts, such as Baltimore County, school board policy allows the naming of building and athletic fields for donors; the community and school board work together to decide on the requisite financial donation.  The head of school construction for the state of Maryland, David Lever, has “encouraged school systems to look into the benefits of selling naming rights.”  

For school districts interested in raising revenue this way, Daley (the Maroon PR accountant) advises administrators to “spell out what you are looking for,” and to keep each potential sponsorship “open for negotiations.”  Putting term limits on items that need regular renovation or repair, such as scoreboards, is another way to keep the revenue stream constant.

Beth T. Sigall

November 28, 2011

On Thanksgiving, thankful for public education

As a nation we owe much gratitude to Thomas Jefferson, a visionary whose wisdom and foresight laid the groundwork for public education as we know it today.

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness. . . .Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to George Wythe, August 13, 1786, republished at Thomas Jefferson/Monticello (Quotations)

Beth T. Sigall

November 24, 2011

Some thoughts on abuse in special ed classrooms

A story on NBC’s Today Show this week about teachers abusing a student with disabilities has received a lot of attention. Parents of a 14-year old special needs student in Washington Courthouse, Ohio wired their child with a hidden recording device in her clothing over a four-day span because they suspected she was being bullied by her teachers. Their daughter, Cheyenne, had transformed from a student who enjoyed school to one who was resorting to self-injury to avoid going to school. According to the parents, they asked the school and school district to investigate whether Cheyenne was being abused. But the parents claimed they were told by the school that their child was lying, that there was no independent proof of any misconduct, and that the teachers were doing a good job.

During an interview of Cheyenne and her father on the Today Show, excerpts from the recordings revealed numerous instances of abusive and bullying conduct of Cheyenne by the lead teacher and teacher’s aide. At various times the teacher or teacher’s aide calls Cheyenne “dumb” and a “liar,” then adds to the humiliation by concluding “No wonder you don’t have any friends.” In one instance, the teacher’s aide sarcastically chides the girl: “Cheyenne, are you kidding me? Are you that damn dumb? You are that dumb.”

The teacher’s aide also castigates Cheyenne for being overweight, and blames Cheyenne’s family: “Don’t you want to get rid of that belly? . . . Go for a walk. Do you know how to? You are just lazy and your family is lazy.”

In the recordings we also hear what appears to be the lead teacher’s refusal to grade Cheyenne’s completed test: “You failed it. I know it. I don’t need your test to grade. You failed it.” The Columbus Dispatch reports that on the tapes it appears Cheyenne was forced to run on a treadmill as a consequence for answering a question incorrectly.

These recordings are every parent’s worst nightmare. Each morning at school drop off parents make a leap of faith: “Here’s my child. Please take care of her.” At Cheyenne’s school this bond of trust has been irrevocably shattered.

The overwhelming majority of teachers and aides working with students with disabilities are remarkable people doing remarkable work. But the ugly episodes of abuse we hear on these tapes inevitably (and unfairly) tarnish teachers as a whole, because they create doubt about the safety and well-being of our children. Thus even though Cheyenne’s teachers are a few bad apples, as parents we want checks in place to ensure that even those few bad apples don’t end up in our kids’ classrooms, particularly and especially if it’s a special education classroom.

So, like most parents, I’m left wondering what measures could have been in place as built-in checks against this type of bullying and abuse. Two ideas come to mind.

First, no one seemed to believe Cheyenne except her parents. According to the parents as reported by ABC News, the school district wanted independent corroboration, but that’s hard to come by if the abusers are the only witnesses, and the student lacks appropriate communication skills because of their disability (which appears to have been the case with Cheyenne). Cheyenne’s classroom was a resource room where “students with severe disabilities” were taught. As such, it’s highly likely that Cheyenne’s classmates weren’t capable of reporting what they saw to another adult, or even understanding why it was wrong.

This is why states should require that school districts install security cameras in self-contained special education classrooms and resource rooms. The students in special education classrooms are among our most vulnerable. Security cameras can and should serve as the voice for children who cannot speak for themselves. Many schools already use security cameras to monitor areas where students may not have enough supervision, such as hallways, playgrounds and school buses. Special education classrooms are a logical extension of this, because in these areas the student population needs additional monitoring and protection.

Second, let’s keep working on making special education classrooms and resource rooms more accessible to all students, not just those with disabilities (as many schools and school districts already do). The presence of typical peers in these classrooms in mentoring or buddy programs can serve as a check on abusive or bullying behavior by teachers, aides or other students. These peer model students can not only serve as witnesses to any misconduct, they can also help form friendships that are crucial in making the school experience a successful one for all students.

Beth T. Sigall

November 18, 2011



And then there were 35,000

The great online learning experiment that began on October 10 at Stanford University rolls on, albeit with a smaller, but still historical, number of students. In a previous blog post I wrote about a free, online class in Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) offered by two rock stars in the world of A.I., Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. My husband and 140,000 others signed up for this class.

Each week I’ve witnessed my husband (an intellectual property attorney by day) labor through homework assignments that would induce migraines in most ordinary folk. And evidently many migraines have been induced, as each week the class size has dropped from its peak of 140,000 to the current estimate of about 35,000. In order to continue you must turn in completed homework assignments every week. The online students are ranked against the Stanford students taking the class on campus, and earn a certificate of completion at the course’s end. Stanford students earn regular course credit.

The professors estimate that the typical student should spend about 12 hours each week on lectures and homework. For those day laborers like my husband, this means many a late night and weekend are spent tackling course work and listening to lectures. For the two professors, the prospect of 35,000 students hanging on your every word means spending extra hours getting every detail of the lecture right. Observed Professor Thrun: “If I make a mistake, I’ll get about a thousand emails about it.”

The class message boards reveal the intensive nature of the work. For example, students had to be reminded to drink water and get rest after one student apparently collapsed from exhaustion (clearly the class needs a cyber-room mom). And in a new twist on the age-old town versus gown rivalry, a higher percentage of online students have scored “perfect” on the homework than did their in-class counterparts at Stanford. A surprised Professor Thrun queried “how can this be?”



What is the class like? According to my husband, it’s a lot like treading water because the course work is “very difficult. You have to work really hard just to understand the basics of it.” Another participant lamented that during one lecture he felt as if he’d just “had a stroke” because the material was so challenging. Being able to review the lectures online multiple times is “very useful,” as are the message boards, which abound with additional materials and supplemental online lectures. For example, one student posted online lecture materials from a similar course at Berkeley, which many students found more instructive than the online Stanford ones.

The downside of being an online student? Like many online learning experiences, the lack of in-class connection, and the inability to ask the professor questions in real time can be frustrating. Students who completed all homework over the first four weeks of class did receive a “you are doing great” email from “Sebastian and Peter” over the weekend, with a friendly reminder that the next homework assignment is due today.

Beth T. Sigall

November 14, 2011

Foster Care in the Age of Neuroscience

It is common for assistance programs to use chronological age cut-offs to determine eligibility. In the foster care system, this typically means that children must exit foster care at age 18 even if they are in no way prepared to do so. In a recent interview on NPR, Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, described the process this way:

 So when you are [a foster child] at age 18, on your birthday you’re very often handed all of your belongings in a plastic trash bag and you’re assumed to now be fully independent and on your own, even though other people have been making all of your life decisions for you up till now.

 And the consequences are fairly predictable. Homelessness is very common, at least temporarily among young people leaving foster care. Many don’t go on to complete their education. And for many who are couch surfing, trying to find places to live, the rate of child bearing is higher than the regular population.

The latest research in brain development suggests that helping foster children transition from foster care to independence means we need to look past bright-line tests of chronological age. This is because during adolescence, the brain experiences a phase of major development similar to that of early childhood. During these latter stages of growth, all children, including and especially those in foster care, are learning to become adults.

And that’s where life as a foster child can become terribly complicated. Most adolescents rely on their family and an extended network of friends and others to acquire the basic skills of adulthood through part-time jobs, extra-curricular activities, internships, etc. From this process, adolescents learn to take risks and become independent within a relatively risk-free and highly supportive environment. So whether it’s getting a short-term loan from a parent to cover a few months of rent, or working after-school at a part-time job for the parent of a friend, it is common for adolescents to rely on an informal support network as they transition to adulthood.

In foster care, children are raised in a system where decisions are made for them in almost every instance, because the system was designed for the care and safety of young children removed from the custody of their biological parents. But as children grow older in foster care, they need to learn new skills that will help them function independently as adults. Right now the system for the most part throws them in the deep end of the pool at age 18. But a few states are trying a new approach called Positive Youth Development, based on research from the Jim Casey foundation.

In Positive Youth Development, adolescents are provided opportunities for “healthy risk taking via constructive, meaningful activities.” They receive counseling to help them determine their strengths, interests and passions. Family-based networks provide the adolescent with an environment where getting a part-time job is the norm, and participation in extra-curricular activities is encouraged. Most importantly, adolescents are taught to pursue their interests and proactively plan for their future by learning decision-making skills. In sum, they begin the process of owning their future.

Foster care is but one example of a social services system where policy-makers are examining the role of brain development to help improve outcomes. In other arenas, such as gifted education and special education, neuroscience research again suggests we should reconsider the role of brain development throughout childhood in administering these programs, particularly when it comes to over-reliance on chronological age cut-offs for testing and eligibility.

Beth T. Sigall
November 7, 2011

Best Practices for the SAT, Autism, and Life

In Toughest Exam Question: What Is The Best Way To Study, the Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger examines a growing body of research on how to prepare for high-stakes tests, such as the SAT or college exams. In reviewing these findings, I was immediately struck by the similarity between best study practices and effective instructional strategies for students with autism. Our oldest son has autism; much of what I talk about below is based on our experience with him and students like him.

Practice, Practice and Practice Some More: Research shows that students perform better on exams when they practice (and practice and practice) retrieving and applying the knowledge from their short-term memory. At the end of studying, students should be able to explain the topic from start to finish from memory. One student described taking 30 practice SAT tests this way: “I just took it over and over again, until it became almost aggravating.”

For students with autism practicing targeted skills across settings is a critical piece of any academic or therapeutic plan. A targeted skill is considered “mastered” when it can be repeated without prompts across settings for consecutive trials (e.g., responding to simple requests from different adults). In special education plans, targeted skills typically must be demonstrated by the student with accuracy over multiple trials (e.g., fluency in reading text or math operations). At times this can be frustrating, because the student might demonstrate the skill, but only sporadically. The repetition ensures generalization of the skill. Many students with autism also need more time on task. They can master a skill, but just need a lot more practice.

Sleep Well and Eat Well: Pulling all-nighters before tough exams (still) doesn’t work; in fact it’s linked to lower grades. Neither does waking up earlier than usual to study. What does work is reviewing the most challenging materials right before going to sleep. Eating well up to a week before a test also resulted in better performance by test takers.

For students with autism time alone to recharge is vital for learning and overall well-being. Put simply, living with autism is tiring. You spend much of your energy navigating a world that, at times, can feel overwhelming. Social situations are tricky. Processing what others are saying and doing is challenging. You spend extraordinary effort trying to figure out what the rest of the world takes for granted. At school our son has learned to ask for a break if he needs one. After school he takes a 30-minute break with no interruptions. He enjoys long hikes, and uses the time to recharge.  We also try not to overschedule him with multiple activities. 

No Noise is Good Noise: Contrary to what practically every teen says, students do not study better while listening to music, texting friends or engaging in multiple forms of information juggling. Research shows that teens who listened to music while performing basic tests of recall and categorization performed worse than teens who took the same tests with no distractions.

For students with autism keeping distractions to a minimum helps with focus and attention. Students with autism process language and information differently; this means their brains are again working overtime to filter and categorize materials in a meaningful way. Some students benefit from using headphones to eliminate background noise. Other students need help with visual organization; using notecards to block out extraneous information on a worksheet or textbook can help. Other students might need to sit at the front or back of a classroom to keep distractions to a minimum.

A doctor once described the autism brain this way: A typical brain is like a large filing cabinet. You open up the drawers in any situation and pull out the information you need. Or you put information in the relevant drawer or file. This all happens automatically.

The autism brain has the same filing cabinet, but the filing system is random and disorganized. So imagine opening up files with a recipe for your favorite cookies, but that’s right next to multiplication tables you need to know for a test tomorrow, and the multiplication tables are filed next to the “how to make your bed” file, and that’s filed next to what you are supposed to do when someone on the bus bothers you (e.g., “ask an adult for help”). It’s a monumental task to sort through such a disorganized filing system every time to find the right response. That’s why it helps to keep external distractions to a minimum.

I’m Nervous. I Need A Visual: Research shows that 35% of students are so nervous before a high-stakes test that it impacts their performance. Mental strategies that rely on using visuals can help, such as the student imagining she is a basketball player scoring the winning basket. Other visual strategies include visiting the test site in advance, or writing down and reviewing a list of stress triggers.

For students with autism visuals are a highly effective way of previewing stressful situations. If the student is transitioning to a new classroom, a visit beforehand, preferably during off-hours, pays huge dividends. The student can see what his/her new environment will be like. That gives them an image to store in their brain. Writing down “things I like/things I don’t like” about a new situation also helps the student work through his/her anxiety. If there is a major event coming up, previewing it frequently by talking about it also helps.

Whether it’s going to a new school or taking the SAT, life is filled with high-stress, high-stakes situations. That’s why teaching these coping and studying strategies on the front end can reap big dividends over the long term, both in school and in life.

Beth T. Sigall

November 1, 2011

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