Rich Student, Poor Student

Students in Salem, MA learn a hard lesson about class

backtoschoolDear [insert name here]:
Welcome back to school, Salem, MA student! If you’ll be attending this school, this school or this school, let me take this opportunity to congratulate you. Like the mariners of yore, your parents successfully navigated the treacherous shoals of Salem’s school *choice* system. And that’s great news for you because it means that you’ll be having your *whole child* educated this year, including the part of you that loves art, music and super cool project-based learning. As for those of you who’ll be going to this school, this school, this school or this school, well, your education is going to look just a little bit different. Shall we pop in and see?

Blueprint 4 Success
blueprintSay hello to your new teachers, Bentley Elementary 3rd, 4th and 5th graders! You see, your old teachers were supposed to lift your school up and turn it around—but they couldn’t make it turn fast enough. And that got some grownups thinking: what if instead of waiting for your old teachers to make the school turn faster, some professional turn-er-arounders ran your grades instead? Better wear your helmet, because your school is going to be turning fast!

scheduleRelentless rigor
I bet you’re noticing some big changes at your school already—like the fact that you’re wearing a uniform, and that you’re there for a real long time. You see, grownups have figured out that the best way to make your test scores go up, which is the same thing as making your school turn faster, is for you to spend LOTS of time at school. Which is why your day now starts at 7:00AM with *routines and structures,* before moving onto the *responsive classroom,* *ELA/social studies,* *ELA intervention,* *math intervention,* followed by *math,* and wrapping up with *additional intervention.* And just to make sure that your scores are going up, up, up, you’ll be assessed every six weeks. In other words, your new school is *going to be relentless about planting the college seed* but without wasting time on studying the process of germination. Extra credit: one math problem that no one has been able to solve yet? Just how much is Blueprint being paid to turn up your scores?

school-uniforms2Uniform culture
Well hey there, Bowditch student, looking snazzy in your new uniform (which you discovered you would be wearing two weeks before school started.) Now you may be wondering why only kids at some schools in Salem wear uniforms, but there’s an easy answer: choice! You see, students who chose this school, for example, get to study weaving and may even choose to wear clothes to school that they’ve woven themselves. You chose a different kind of school, one that is *charting a course of excellence* and will become even more excellent next year when it becomes a charter school. Oh, and if you’re wondering about whatever happened to that dual language program for students like you who are still learning English, well, it’s no mas, because as Mayor Kim Driscoll, the jefe of Salem explains*We can’t have our cake and eat it too.* Translation: only the kids whose parents chose to send them to a school with a project-based baking unit get to do that!

testprepExtended enrichment
You know what would be funny, Collins Middle Schooler? If some grownups decided to make your school day longer and waited till two weeks before the start of school to tell anybody, not even the teachers! But this is no laughing matter. You see, at schools like yours, Salem is *moving away from a model of teaching the whole child and towards a model of academic rigor.* Which of these is the definition that best fits the word rigor? 1) a word that certain grown ups use a lot when describing the kinds of schools to which they’d never send their own kids 2) the opposite of *enrichment,* as in only the kids whose parents are *enriched* enough get to study science every day 3) a person who rigs or attends to the rigging of the sailing ships that, along with psychic shops and witch-related attractions, now provide the basis of Salem’s tourist economy or 4) strictness, severity or harshness, as in dealing with people.

Write now 
Psst: hey Carlton kid: do you like to write? No, silly, not creative writing! That’s only for kids whose parents chose this school, this school or this school. Writing at your school means preparing for the MCAS long composition, and you’re going to spend a LONG time preparing for it. That is until the ELA MCAS is done and ELA is no longer important, then it’s math, math, math! In fact, you’ll be so busy getting ready to take the MCAS that there won’t be any time left for *fluffy stuff* like science. Did I mention that you’ll be spending eight whole days taking ANet tests so that the grown ups at your school can predict whether or not you’re going to pass the MCAS, and other grown ups can evaluate your teachers on how good of a job they’re doing preparing you to prepare to take the MCAS? I have an idea: since it’s time once again to prepare for the long comp portion of the MCAS, why don’t you write a persuasive essay now about how you feel about the MCAS? Extra credit if you’re able to demonstrate in a single real assignment that the grown ups who are making the decisions in your school and school district are wrong about almost everything.

mcas journal

Note: thanks to all of the parents and teachers in Salem for sharing what’s happening in your schools.

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.comFollow Jennifer @EduShyster.


  1. In addition to taking MCAS last schmy Carlton student worked on a personal fairy tale, did in-depth science and history projects, visited the PEM on multiple occasions, participated in the school newspaper,

    1. Good point! Although I haven’t seen other schools (in Salem or elsewhere) go to the kinds of lengths Carlton is going to align parts of its curriculum with the ANet tests. (The decision to use the EngageNY math curriculum, for example). Salem is also the first district I’ve encountered where district leaders appear to be using ANet results to evaluate teachers. Thanks for reading.

  2. ALL the schools in Salem align their curriculum to ANET, not just Carlton. It’s the district’s policy. It’s a mandate! You may want to research the district’s improvement plan (now in year 3) so that you can understand things more accurately. Also, I’m pretty sure that the teacher’s in my kid’s school (Carlton) do not use any program for math, as it goes against their Innovation Model. You may want to pay Carlton a visit so you can see what actually happens there before you blog about it. They use a combination of programs and resources that match the kid’s needs. This is not the Carlton experience, and it’s really too bad to see misinformation spreading! Olympian’s practice for the big games, my kids practice more than once a week for soccer, kid’s practice piano weekly, gearing up for MCAS makes sense, but what this is saying is blown way out of proportion. Again, this makes me really upset to read–it’s NOT the Carlton experience.

  3. The Common Core-inspired fixation on writing with evidence is wreaking havoc on our schools. This is a stupid and easy lesson to teach: “Kids: support your claims with evidence.” Lesson learned. Sure a few examples and a little practice helps. But this knowledge is but 1/100th of what it takes to be a good writer. A lot of the other 99/100th is learning about things. You cannot read or write about a thing unless you know about that thing. Practicing the process of supporting a claim with evidence a trillion times will not make you a good writer or a smarter person unless you know the subject you’re writing about and possess the vocabulary with which to write about it. This knowledge and vocabulary comes via an old-fashioned liberal arts education, NOT through this modern mutant version of education that consists of arid writing and reading drills in a knowledge vacuum! It’s repulsive what we’re doing to schools in the name of rigor. Here is where America’s love affair with innovation and infidelity to tradition really hurts us. If only we thought twice before jettisoning tradition, we’d have spared ourselves this Common Core-cum-KIPP travesty of education.

    1. Exactly!! You can’t have good readers and writers if they don’t have the background knowledge. Kids are forced to spend so much time on reading strategies like making “text-to-self/text/world connections” and predictions and inferences and the like. It seems that the teachers spend so little time building students’ background knowledge (which is EXTREMELY necessary for reading comprehension) that they are unable to deliver a well-rounded education. And since these reading and writing strategies seem to take up so much of the instruction time, knowledge about history and science and art is pretty much overlooked, leading MANY kids (especially lower income) to end up functionally illiterate. You can’t expect a child to read a book about Michelangelo (for example), even if he can READ the words, to understand it, unless he understands the art and time period in which Michelangelo lived!

      1. Uh, yeah they can. After about second grades, kids are supposed to be able to learn from what they read. We can’t expect that kids are going to learn all of their background knowledge from classroom lessons. They need to be reading lots of non-fiction in addition to the fiction that is the traditional purview of most elementary / English classrooms. And that’s exactly why CCSC is important – it raises the importance of reading across subject areas. By the time kids get to college, they are primarily reading non-fiction unless they are English majors.

        I would agree that repetitive text-to-self connection lessons are not worthwhile. But the idea that kids can’t read things they know nothing about is ridiculous. Isn’t that the purpose of reading – to learn about things you don’t know?

        1. Sorry – I should clarify. I am referring to the papers my kid brings home with short texts (excerpts from books) that is then followed by two pages of questions asking how the text connected to the reader’s world, what parts of the setting did he feel connected to, etc. And there is a whole folder filled with these worksheets. One of the excerpts was about Michelangelo and it was pretty clear that more time was spent on picking apart the details of the text than actually discussing the text and having a conversation on the historical context of the piece.

  4. I’ll chime in to say that getting kids to write coherent essays using evidence that is explained and logically organized, whether it’s about science, a novel or social studies, is a hell of a lot harder than Ponderosa seems to claim. I agree that drills aren’t going to do it; doing a lot of writing with teacher feedback will.

    My students write an essay a week in science (based on what they learn in class, or a reading they do in preparation for their essay). They write creatively. They write about what they are reading in reading class – every single night. They write responses to their social studies lessons. These are mainly black and Latino 7th graders in a school with a high poverty rate.

    This is NOT traditional education. My students write more in a week than I probably wrote in a semester in middle school. My traditional, white, suburban, district, middle class middle school experience was filled with sentence diagramming, vocabulary workbooks, mindless textbook math assignments, and science worksheets. I read Paul Zindel in 7th grade English; my kids read Outliers, Lord of the Flies, Midsummer, Twelve Angry Men and All Souls. I memorized the parts of cell. They do hands on investigations about different energy levels in different colors of light. In social studies, I marched through the history of the US. My kids learn about this history of slavery – from ancient cultures in Mali, China and Egypt – to the US – to modern international slavery. The math isn’t even close – I used to spend most of the class period reviewing the previous night’s homework. My kids discuss math at high levels, master crucial concepts and solve complex problems. Oh, yeah, and they take yoga and photography and computer programming and lyrical dance choreography to boot.

    Schools should not be losing their arts, social studies and science for drill and kill reading and math instruction. Schools also should be safe and educationally valuable even if they are populated by low-income kids. Shouldn’t there be outrage over both? It seems, though, that when the traditional system isn’t working to provide safety and some basic educational outcomes for all kids, something needs to change. Forever, though, we hear two trains of thought. First, that “these kids” can’t reach the same standards and it’s unfair to ask them to. Second, that “we can do, just give us more time and money.” Which one is it? And if progress isn’t being made, doesn’t something need to happen. It’s these moments that the entrenched interests (districts, unions, etc.) usually say something like, well, the tests are a bad judge of what kids know. But you know what, I’d be alarmed if my own kids couldn’t get proficient on MCAS – the test is just not that hard, but measures whether kids have some basic abilities to read, write and do math.

    I actually think PARCC and Common Core are going to prove that the drill and kill strategies, and many traditional strategies that have worked in wealthier districts, are ineffective in getting kids to really understand what they are learning. That’s going to be true in struggling schools and “good” schools too. For too long, we’ve been content to let a subset (usually of the most privileged kids) of every town carry the torch that we are doing a good job as a nation educating the youth of America. But in reality, most kids aren’t really college ready when they leave high school. [Do I think everyone needs to or should go to college? No, but they should have the option if that’s what they want to do.] Do I think Blueprint is the right choice? Don’t know enough to judge. But I do think we need to honest about what our kids actually are capable of with the right schooling, not just because of what family they were born into or are being raised by.

    Oh yeah, and I teach at a charter school with some of the highest MCAS scores in the state. Go figure.

  5. Mathteacher,

    Sure, you and I are able to learn new things by reading. But we’re able to read, say, an article about vernal pools, because we already know a lot of the words and concepts (e.g. evaporation, periodic, larvae) in that article. How did we acquire that knowledge? The “starter kit” was a huge fund of knowledge coming in our ears and eyes from educated parents’ explicit and implicit instruction, school teachers’ talk, PBS and whatnot. School needs to dedicate itself to endowing kids with this big starter kit. Maddeningly most teachers don’t view their job this way; instead they think that the act of PRACTICING reading makes you able to read well. This is simply false. Background knowledge makes you able to read well. Reading tons of young adult fiction will not enable you to read about vernal pools with comprehension. Learning some science will.

    It sounds like your school offers some meaty reading; that’s great. David Coleman would say that the challenging books they’re reading benefit the kids because their challenging-ness builds up reading “muscles” in the brain. This is wrong. Those books are beneficial because they expand the kids’ vocabulary and expose them to aspects of existence beyond the young adult American existence. That is, they benefit kids as readers because they teach them knowledge. Thus reading workshop, unless the texts expand kids’ horizons, is a poor use of school time. Juicy lectures or read-alouds would do more to build kids’ reading capacity, counterintuitive as it may seem. We’ve got to get past the dogma that “reading makes good readers” and the Common Core fetish for making the slogging through texts the alpha and omega of education. It’s not.

    The fact that some public schools are lackluster is not a justification for any and all attempts at reform. It is a justification for well-founded reform. One reform I support is curricular reform: more American schools need a more coherent, sequential, knowledge-rich curriculum. Are charter schools the reform we need? It seems to me most successful inner-city charter schools succeed through a combination of strong discipline and de facto skimming. The two go hand in hand: you cannot maintain the tight discipline unless you have the credible threat of expulsion (or “counseling out”). If KPP had to take and keep a randomly selected group of inner city kids, its discipline and scores would sharply deteriorate. I actually don’t have a huge problem with these practices. What bothers me is that these charters deceive the public and their billionaire cheerleaders about the centrality of skimming to their success and fail to speak up when people make utterly unfair apples-to-oranges comparisons between them and the regular public schools that have to keep the extremely difficult-to-teach kids they exclude. They lead people to think that it’s all the young, energetic teachers, the longer hours, the higher expectations (as if public school teachers WANT to keep expectations low!). Sure these help, but the cornerstone is skimming, and because only veteran teachers “get” how this could be so, they feel they can get away with sweeping this fact under the carpet. Don’t you think these charters ought to publicly own up to the fact that they rely on triage and that it’s therefore very unjust to make invidious comparisons between them and public schools? If KIPP and its ilk came out and said, “We skim and that enables us to give the kids we have an orderly learning environment and high test scores; it’s not the non-union status of our teachers, and it’s not that we’re smarter, more caring or hardworking than public school teachers, then I’d have a lot more respect for these schools”.

  6. Ponderosa,

    I think you and I agree in principle. Well-rounded reading instruction is best. (Wow, people agreeing to agree on this blog). But I do think the process of learning what do when faced with a challenging text is important, too. That is, using context when coming across a new word, looking up words in a dictionary, making connections to prior knowledge, etc. So reading challenging texts has two types of value: learning new information and getting better at comprehending tough texts. Will kids with more background inherently have an easier time? Sure. I guess I feel like my daughters will always have an advantage over most of my students because she has two highly educated parents. But I can help my students do better too – by getting them content information AND by helping them when faced with a tough text.

    One of the reasons the students at my school do well on tests is that they have skills to persevere through something that might initially seem too hard by spending more time to figure out what the text means.

    The skimming argument would be more palatable to charter folks if there was any admission that what we do is moving the needle for the kids we actually teach. I know that self-selection has an impact on my school. I know that a parent that is unhappy with the strictness or high academic standards can pull a kid out. I know that a kid with severe special needs might not even apply to our school or take the spot if offered. On the other hand I know that we have one of the highest student retention (not being held back, but not losing kids) rate in the state. I know that we teach a rate of low income kids similar to the district. I know that for the kids we do teach, we have a massive impact on their learning while they are there. I know that one of our rising 6th graders just left to move to Texas and when she got there she placed into 9th grade math. She was not abnormal at our school. I know we get ELLs with with almost no English and by the end of kindergarten they can read and speak in English. I know that our kids outperform the kids in the white kids wealthy suburbs. They massively outperform the METCO kids in the suburbs (so it’s not that suburban schools are really all that – it’s just that they have a high rate of wealthier kids). We don’t ID as many special ed kids (on the mild side of things because they mostly make progress without a formal plan), but the kids we do ID and have plans have the highest achievement in the state. If the districts and the unions would admit that that is amazing even if our kids aren’t QUITE as disadvantaged as their kids (but massively more disadvantaged than the kids we are actually comparing them to in the burbs), then the skimming argument might be more out there.

    And I will say this – schools that are ejecting kids (literally or figuratively) need to get their acts together. We used to be the same way but we’ve figured out how to attract and KEEP kids. And I think the reason is mainly because we provide a rigorous, well-rounded education that I would love to have my own daughter participate in (if only they get into kindergarten – unlikely as it is). But maybe we’re the exception.

  7. Mathteacher,

    Thanks for the civil and thoughtful response!

    I don’t mean to be churlish, but I’m going to press you a bit on the reading issue. You say, “But I do think the process of learning what do when faced with a challenging text is important, too. That is, using context when coming across a new word, looking up words in a dictionary, making connections to prior knowledge, ” This is bollerplate Cris Tovani, Kate Kinsella/ Lucy Calkins –in other words, the present-day literacy gospel. I don’t buy it. It sounds good, but if you think hard about these claims they start to fall apart. Take “using context”. Overblown. I suspect that most humans do this automatically, so it’s a waste of time to teach and practice it. But suppose it isn’t automatic in everybody. This should be a five minute minilesson, not one of the cornerstones of American curriculum as it is now. And I’m skeptical that consciously prompting oneself to check out the context will get most kids very far, because THEY DON’T GET THE CONTEXT EITHER. In other words, we go back to the real problem: kids don’t know enough –and schools, instead of teaching them knowledge, are wasting their time teaching them these dubious strategies instead. It’s as if I asked you to read an article in German and when you complained you didn’t understand I gave you minilessons in using context clues instead of actually teaching you German.

    As for looking up words in the dictionary. This is more boilerplate –not just from the literacy gurus, but from most teachers (including myself at one point). But really –do people do this? And when a kid attempts this, how likely is it that she understands the definition written in the dictionary? This is not a practical approach to overcoming reading comprehension problems, unless one understands 98% of the words and you’re looking to refine your already large vocabulary.

    “Making connections to prior knowledge” is, to me, the most bogus of the popular reading strategies that echo through America’s classrooms. People, the brain is a machine for making connections to prior knowledge. You don’t have to stop as you read or listen and press a metaphorical button to make this happen. The reason this doesn’t happen with weak readers is that THERE IS NO PRIOR KNOWLEDGE to connect to! Believe me, if the knowledge were there, the kids would make the connections –I see it all the time with my seventh graders. They make the connections faster than I do. “Activating prior knowledge”, the preferred cliche around here in CA, seems sheer snake oil from Kinsella, et. al. Sadly most teachers buy it because they’re desperate for some “cure” for the reading problem and this looks plausible. They need to read the true gospel on reading, E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit.

    Have I convinced you?

  8. Poderosa, not quite, though I hear what you are saying. Curious if your kids’ demographic is the same as mine, and what their ability levels are. Because I know that some of my students, when they read, miss a ton that they can later get when they use reading strategies like summarizing, annotating, context clues, etc. So if they can understand when they apply strategies, it’s not a background knowledge issue but rather an “attending to detail” / “doing the hard work of actually thinking” issue. Or perhaps the skills that many of us as adults take for granted take practice and the metacognitive piece of actually thinking about what they are doing (or should be doing) when they read is important.

    I agree that the more background a kid has, the better chance they have to understand a text. There is no way we can teach kids every piece of background they will ever need. We need to give them as much as we can, but also teach them what to do in those cases that they don’t quite have as much as would be ideal. (Your argument about German makes sense; but remember that immersion is also a valid and successful way to teach language.)

    Hell, I’m reading teacher, but I’ve watched what some great ones have done and it has a little of everything.

  9. Thanks for the link to that article by cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, Jason. I’m going to print it out and share it with my colleagues. I hope you’ll take a look at it, Mathteacher –it argues for the benefits of brief instruction in reading strategies, but stresses their limited value.

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