Posts by Sarah Glickstein

The iPad Orchestra

When my younger brother was little, his special education teachers gave him a large, bulky device to help him communicate and verbalize what was always stuck in his head. He could form sentences through words and pictures, and then click on the large white box at the top of the screen for a monotone voice to read out what he put together. Of course, given my brother’s sense of humor, he enjoyed making silly sentences and blasting them at full volume for all to hear. In addition to adding humor, his device helped him sound out words that we could not understand, making him a more confident speaker.

My brother was diagnosed with autism far before the world of iPads, iPods, iTouches, and i-Everything elses. He had always been interested in technology, and his school enjoyed testing different types with their students. Recently, there have been more and more articles published about apple products being used for special education purposes, helping to “deepen engagement, communication, and creativity” in classrooms around the world. I find the most interesting use of this application in the special ed. music curriculum.

A PS 177 music instructor in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, New York uses tablet computers to reach his students with disabilities. The entire band is made up of students who all play traditional musical instruments and iPads. Yes, that’s right – they play iPads. The iPad now has applications that allow people to produce complicated orchestral-style arrangements, allowing people to play all kinds of different instruments at the same time with just a push of a button. Instead of having to learn the intricacies of different instruments, students can play with the sound of different notes in creating music. This is especially close to my heart because my brother has always loved creating music.

support.apple.com

support.apple.com

This iPad revolution is not exclusive to the United States. On June 4th of this year, an exceptional educator from the United Arab Emirates received an award for “bridging gaps between children with special needs and their classmates by creating the first electronic tablet orchestra that includes children with special needs in the UAE.” This teacher, Hanan Al Attar, is a music supervisor at the Sharja Education Zone, and agrees that replacing traditional musical instruments with the iPad is a good solution to a short supply of instruments. Her orchestra is comprised of 68 children with both mental and physical disabilities.

Why are iPads so effective for special needs children? Educators believe that the combination of clear, big, and bright visual cues coupled with the easy-to-use touchscreen make it simple for kids to use without creating a visual or sensory overload. The iPad has therefore been significant in changing the way that people look at others with disabilities. Karen Gorman, the director of Assistive Technology for New York City’s Public Schools, and Hanan Al Attar agree that people are starting to look at the talent of students rather than at their disabilities.

Apple has published a video themselves to highlight their great contribution to the special needs community. The video profiles three schools, one in the Czech Republic, one in Japan, and one New York’s District 75, the world’s largest special education district. In all three locations, there seems to be an emphasis on “the individual learner.” Special needs students each have a wide range of abilities and disabilities, and each must therefore have a specialized education plan for maximum success. The iPad has allowed students to learn socially through different virtual games and simulations. Activities in such activities include washing their hands before eating or turning off the stove before leaving the room. The iPad can also perform the same function as my brother’s old device, allowing students to form words and sentences via pictures and sounds. Apple claims that their product has the potential to make the nonverbal verbal, and to enhance the social, emotional, and academic performance of special needs students across the world.

Though the iPad is more expensive than individual instruments, I completely agree with its use in a special needs music classroom as well as its use in other special education classes. The special needs community is a part of the student population that is often times segregated into separate schools, even though students greatly range in their abilities in each school. I think that the iPad has the potential to promote an individualized education and special attention to students, as well as expose them to the new technologies that are being exposed to all students across the mainstream and disabled spectra. As technology continues to change, educators and policy makers should use it to their advantage in promoting new learning opportunities. And these opportunities should clearly not be exclusive to the mainstream population.

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“Get the door. It’s Domino’s!”

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture began to raise nutrition standards for foods served in schools, causing consumer advocates and nutritionists to believe that fast foods would disappear from school lunch lines. This did hold true for many commercialized products, as most fast foods did not meet these new “healthy” standards. However, some food giants like Dominos began to use these new rules to their advantage, changing their already existing products to fit in with the reformed school nutrition guidelines.

Sensing that this change would come, Dominos quickly looked toward its research and development team in developing a new type of pizza eating experience, designed specifically for school-aged children. In 2010, Dominos introduced the “Smart Slice,” which has 1/3 less fat, 1/3 less salt in the sauce, and 1/2 of the fat in the cheese. It also uses 51% whole-wheat grains as opposed to exclusive white grains that have more sugar. In 2010, the “Smart Slice” was being delivered to school cafeterias across three states. Now, this has expanded to over 3,000 lunchrooms in 38 states. I think it’s about time for some critical Domino’s-inspired analysis.

as.lsu.edu

as.lsu.edu

First, let’s look at the actual extent to which Domino’s has made a drastic nutritional change to their pizza. If we look at the nutrition information on the Domino’s website, it does not specify the calories for one slice of pizza. Instead, let’s look at the smallest pizza size, the 10”, which is designed for individual consumption. Domino’s reports that for a small, 10” thin crust pizza the serving size is 1/4. That is much smaller than one regular slice of pizza. I speak from collegiate experience when I say that most people consume the entire 10” pizza, which is 880 calories – a calculation that Domino’s does not give on their website. And that’s just the thin crust! If we switch this calculation for “hand tossed” crust, which is what Domino’s is known for, the serving size magically changes to 1/6 of a 10” pizza at 200 calories. This means that this individual pizza would cost you 1,200 calories of the average 2,000-calorie a day intake.

The calorie count for the “Smart Slice” is most likely slightly lower than these calculations, although I cannot be sure because the nutritional information about this specialty is no where on their main consumer website. There is simply a beautiful picture of the “Anatomy of a Domino’s Smart Slice,” but nothing about overall nutritional content.

And if that wasn’t enough of an “ew” moment for you, we haven’t even gotten to the discussion about the effects of this commercial material on children’s minds! Dominos delivers these pizzas directly to schools, and “its trucks, employees, insulated boxes and lunch-line placards help imprint the company’s red-and-blue logo on the brains of students.” Students are becoming “brand brainwashed” in schools, and nutrition and consumerist experts warn that this will drive more students to head to Domino’s after school hours. Not only is Domino’s able to develop a loyal following of young eaters, but the “Smart Slice” creates a false sense of reality that Domino’s pizza, or pizza in general for that matter, is healthy.

Here’s the kicker: the “Smart Slice” is not available at any local Domino’s locations and the company has no plans to sell this type of pizza in their actual stores. So their increased adverting in schools may claim to be aimed at this “revolutionary” pizza slice, but I (and I hope most consumers) can see right through this type of immoral advertising.

Domino’s is not alone in this endeavor, and this is not a new phenomenon. For years, commercial companies have been promoting school-related projects, textbooks, lunches, posters, and more in the hopes of advertising to young children. It seems genius for these companies: reach a large number of young people who are likely to buy a certain product, and target them where they spend the most time exercising their brains. If students are learning important material while sifting through corporate logos and slogans, the advertising strategy is likely to work.

A Domino’s spokesman was quoted by the New York Times, stating, “Some schools like the branding because brands drive sales…”. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with this type of marketing tactic’s affect on students? Shouldn’t schools realize that equating one of the unhealthiest food chains with health is not such a good idea? I think it is time for a cold, hard look at these corporate sponsorships and their impact on the youth of America.

Who Doesn’t Want Permanent Employment?

Teacher tenure has stirred controversy among teacher’s unions, state unions, school administrators, and government officials since the policy first appeared during the late 19th century. A couple of weeks ago, three states and the District of Columbia eliminated tenure, claiming that granting teachers permanent employment may be harmful to students. On June 10th, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled, “Teacher tenure laws deprive students of their constitutional right to an education.” This is especially significant given that California is our nation’s most populous state. This decree has potential ramifications for education systems across the country.

Nine students from the Los Angeles school district brought forward the lawsuit, claiming that tenured teachers limited their access to equal educational opportunity. In California, teachers are eligible for tenure after just 18 months of teaching, which administrators and policy makers argue is not enough time to observe a teacher’s potential and/or effectiveness. The plaintiffs in the case argued that ineffective teachers are disproportionately placed in schools that serve low-income and minority students. Citing the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Judge Rolf Treu stated that “all students are entitled to equal education” and that “the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students.”

 

Though I disagree about Judge Treu’s use of this historic court case in arguing against teacher tenure, I do understand the frustrations of students, parents, and administrators regarding ineffective teachers being granted permanent employment. Tenure laws do make it more difficult to hire and fire, which is concerning in schools that already do not receive enough funding. Struggling schools are sometimes left with ineffective or under-trained teachers, coupled with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When the system becomes more rigid and teacher mobility becomes more difficult, the argument against teacher tenure is clear-cut: schools need effective teachers, and tenure has the potential to offer under-qualified teachers permanent positions, affecting students’ access to a quality education.

It may also be important to look at the tenure program from a monetary perspective. John Deasy, the Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, testified during the trial stating that, “It can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent tenured teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so…can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.” This opportunity cost is a significant expense to school districts that already have limited funding.

 

home.isr.umich.edu

home.isr.umich.edu

Though I agree that this is an unnecessary expense, I think that it is important to look at this case from the teachers’ perspectives. Teachers and state unions argue that overturning these laws would allow administrators to make unfair personnel decisions, including firing without legitimate cause. Many believe that the current tenure system preserves academic freedom, something that is slowly being taken away through the increased use of standardized educational tests and procedures. Tenure also helps attract talented teachers to a profession that does not pay as highly as others.

When this ruling is final, it will “prohibit the state from enforcing a law that gives teachers permanent employment after less than two years on the job.” Other states are impatiently watching this ruling to unfold, knowing that it will greatly influence tenure policies across the country.

Recently, the tenure debate was important enough to be featured on the front page of the New York Times website. But I do not think that enough educators, teachers, and professionals are talking about it. The fact that students brought forth the lawsuit proves that those within education policy are too scared to bring tenure into the spotlight. The debate calls for difficult questions and discussions about employment, teacher training, low-income versus high-income districts, and school funding. These seem to be the subjects that cause nightmares for policy makers.

Among all of this current, front-page debate, I still remain conflicted on this topic. I do sympathize with the argument against tenure, especially given what I know about ineffective teachers being disproportionately placed in under-performing schools. However, I also understand the attraction towards tenure in drawing talented people into the education field, providing job protection, and allowing academic freedom. Perhaps the reason why I am still so conflicted is because this issue rarely makes a newsworthy story. Rarely do students learn about tenure, not to mention those in the education field themselves. If this debate encompasses so many other important factors of education policy reform, shouldn’t it be at the forefront of discussion?

SAT Blues

Taking the SATS were the most stressful part of my high school career. I had always been a high achieving student, constantly getting A’s and increasing my involvement in as many extracurricular activities as I could. But I knew that I would not be able to apply to my dream colleges if I didn’t master the dreaded SAT. I was fortunate enough to be able to take an SAT class with other students – three hours every week that was meant to teach us how to take the test. I ended up doing quite poorly on the test after that class, and decided to take it again in the beginning of my senior year with no class, tutor, or preparation. I got the same exact score. With my frustration mounting and college applications due asap, I knew that my dream schools were no longer within reach. And of course, being the overly dramatic high school senior that I was, I equated my SAT score with my future success and happiness.

It is difficult for me to make sense of the College Board’s decision to drastically change this test in 2016. This new test will have different vocabulary words, focusing on “high utility” words that appear in more contexts. It will be shortened to three hours with an optional essay “in which students will be asked to analyze a text and how the author builds an argument.” These essay scores will be separate from the other sections of the SAT, unlike the current test that has a required 25-minute essay where students must argue a position. This new test out of 1600 will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written section with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions. How the College Board came up with these calculations…I will never be able to understand.

In addition, every test will contain a passage from a US founding document. As if the test wasn’t unfair enough for non-US citizens, here the College Board goes again, making it even more discriminatory.

lygsbtd.wordpress.com

lygsbtd.wordpress.com

David Coleman, the president and chief executive of the College Board, spearheaded the process of revising the SAT. He was also one of the key architects of the Common Core state curriculum standards across the nation, and argued that the College Board’s vision of the SAT should parallel that alignment. These changes are being implemented, in theory, because standardized tests have become too disconnected from the work of high school students, and are not preparing students for the information that they may encounter in college. Rather, tests are too full of “tricks” to raise scores and are too stressful for students. While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not see how the foreseeable changes will fix this problem.

Another internal change coming is that the College Board will partner with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials to students, hoping to create a more transparent test between students, teachers, and guidance counselors. I can see the benefit of this plan, as standardized tests are meant to be an equalizer in the first place, so it is unfair that some are able to afford “insider secrets” while others must blindly take this test. However, I believe that SAT tutors will quickly adjust to this new test, continuing to offer their test taking tips and services at a high fee for only the wealthy to afford. But any step towards transparency would be a good one to take.

Recently there was a NY Times article about a former Lehigh student, now very successful journalist, who feared getting into Lehigh because of his SAT scores. Because he had previous generations of Lehigh alums within his bloodline, he was able to secure a spot in his graduating class. As a student who once believed that all of my hard work in school was worthless because of my low score on this exam, this article was important for me to read. This article proved that the higher your income bracket, the higher your SAT test scores, and that one’s scores had zero correlation with future success. While this is all very reassuring, it is still hard for me to relive my SAT days. My brother will be affected by these changes in 2016, and I am curious if these changes had affected me, would I have done better? Would my college applications have yielded different acceptance results? I can only wonder.

Testing within the Special Needs Community

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every student with special needs is entitled to “free and appropriate education.” This means that every student, regardless of disability, is entitled to receive quality public education in the United States. In practice, however, not every student with special needs is provided with adequate public education. Many times, parents must advocate on behalf of their child’s educational needs, without the support of legislature or policy provision.

The very phrase “special education” evokes conflicting feelings, perspectives, and experiences, making policy discussions on this issue especially sensitive. It is a very hard concept to define, but in an idealistic sense, special ed means that “the individual needs of a student who has a disability are met by the mandate of a legal document known as an Individualized Education Plan, or an IEP.” There is a large achievement gap between special-education students and general-education students, and this gap seems to have been growing over the past few years.

As someone who has grown up with a younger sibling with autism, I am somewhat familiar with the struggles that my parents had to go through in providing my brother with an adequate education. He cannot be mainstreamed, even though that discussion was brought up numerous times by local administrators and legislators. Through numerous battles with our state and township, an agreement was reached to provide my brother with public education at a school for special needs children in another town. This also means that he is provided with free transportation to and from the school, and has access to after school activities and resources.

While all of that seems fine and dandy, my parents face constant challenges within the special needs’ education system. To me, it seems that the most highly contested issue is that of standardized testing within the special needs community. As the No Child Left Behind Act made its rounds through the US education system, it also infested special needs public education. Instead of my brother learning basic reading and math skills, he was being given homework on advanced reading comprehension and other test-related concepts. If he and his classmates did not pass these tests, the school would lose funding. My brother was frustrated because he didn’t understand the material, the school was frustrated in not being able to teach practical information, and my family was frustrated in this wasted instruction.

blogs.longwood.edu

blogs.longwood.edu

Not everyone agrees with this “anti-testing” mantra. A teacher who was interviewed by the Huffington Post argues that special needs students should be analyzed with standardized tests because the tests provide data on how students are performing in accordance with “Common Core Standards.” This teacher further claims that special needs schools need this type of statistical information to help future student achievement, and the only way to gather that information is through standardized tests.

Perhaps they would feel differently if they sat down at the dining room table with my brother and tried to help him with his homework.

These assessments for special needs testing have inherent flaws. These tests attempt to generalize statistics for a group of students who are all unique – who all have different socialization and educational needs. By definition, students with special needs need individualized education plans, meaning that their individuality is fundamental to their being, and therefore, fundamental to their success in school. How can we group these individuals together as a cohort to study for future educational change?

Recent lingo on this issue has included “voucher systems,” which would take funds away from public schools and move them to private schools. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Republicans proposed a measure for this type of system, claiming that it would allow children with disabilities to have greater “options” and “flexibility” within the education system. I have a fundamental problem with this system: I believe that a voucher system would put special needs education at risk. IDEA rights may not apply or be enforced as much in private schools, meaning that special needs children in public schools may be at risk.

It is clear that the issue of special education will always be a topic of debate throughout the United States as well as the rest of the world. We must work to preserve every disabled child’s right to quality education. My brother, and the rest of the special needs community, deserves to have quality education as a fundamental right…just like the rest of us.

 

Bilingual Blues

While most college seniors venture to an all-inclusive resort for their last spring break, I decided to take a more rugged approach and backpack through Europe (quite the opposite of all inclusive I might add). It turns out that many people fear the cold of Norway, Ireland, Belgium and Denmark in early March, making it the perfect opportunity to downplay my experience as a tourist. I have never been to Europe before, but I have been to Asia, Africa and South America…not the norm, I’m aware.

In each of the four countries that I visited, I traveled with ease on public transportation, ordered food by speaking in English at restaurants and asked numerous people for directions, simply expecting that they would understand and want to help…and everyone did.

My first trip to Europe made me realize the power of bilingualism, specifically the power of bilingual education. In the European Union there are 24 official languages, and the European Commission has declared a long-term objective to “increase individual multilingualism until every citizen has practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue.” It is clear from my recent visit that the majority of European citizens are bilingual, learning their second language in school starting at a very young age. And it is not enough to say that Europeans are just bilingual – speaking English in addition to a native language seems to be a given, with additional languages taught alongside English.

The story of the United States is very different from that of the EU. The United States federal government has a long history of eradicating bilingual programs in the hopes of “acculturating” or “saving” certain diverse populations. In the mid-19th century, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs established “a series of English-only boarding schools” in attempt to stamp out native Indian languages. In the beginning of the 20th century, anti-German hysteria caused systematic closings of German language schools. Up until the mid-20th century, Mexican-American students in Texas were segregated from white students in schools. And these trends are continuing. Latino students in Hempstead, Texas were recently told that they would be punished for speaking Spanish in class, and that Spanish would be permanently banned at school.

In 1998, Californians voted to pass a measure called Proposition 227 that placed restrictions on bilingual education. The state government was convinced that “California’s language diversity…was a problem to be eradicated, rather than a resource to be developed.” This is a huge issue in California especially where the Latino population is expected to surpass the white population as the single largest ethnic group in the state. This debate continues on in many states. In New Mexico, House Majority Leader Rick Miera sponsored the “State Seal for Bilingual and Bilterate Graduates” act which “certifies that the recipient is proficient for meaningful use in college, career or to meet local community language need in a world language other than English.” New Mexico continues to fight for the rights of multilingual citizens, and is seen as a leader in multilingual education.

Though New Mexico and various other states in the US are making progress towards more intentional bilingual education, the United States still has a long way to go. The majority of US citizens are not bilingual, and are lucky that English is spoken all over the world. To me, this is more than just a language debate – it is also an identity debate. According to NY Times reporter Peter Teffer, foreign languages can foster social inclusion, diversity and intercultural dialogue. The identity that languages form for children and young adults involves interactions in relationships and communities. Especially given our globalizing world, “languages are a crucial asset for mobility and jobs.”

I’m not sure which is worse: taking away the ability for students to speak their native language in schools or not providing all students with a bilingual education from the start. As this debate continues throughout the world, I can only hope that the United States begins to see value in bilingual education, and works to make changes to the education system in order to accommodate these powerful globalizing forces.

The Hot and Steamy Debate about Sex Education

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are only 22 US states, including the District of Columbia, that require sex education to be taught in public schools. Though sex education has been a controversial topic for years, it has recently been catching the eye of reporters in a slightly different context as before. It seems that events this year have prompted some student pushback on legislation against comprehensive sex education in the classroom, making this a type of youth movement within the field of education policy.

Just this week in Kansas, recent legislature bills were proposed that would require students to obtain parental signatures before receiving sex education in schools. Law enforcers sought an “opt-out policy,” where students and/or parents could decide not to partake in sexual education classes. The proposal currently reads: “No board of education of any unified school district shall provide instruction on health and human sexuality to a student, unless written consent has been received from a parent or legal guardian.”

Parents seemed to be outraged by the potential for their students to learn sexual information, while college students felt quite the opposite. On Monday, college students from all over Kansas came together to lobby against the bills, highlighting the importance of sex education in schools. Students argued that parental consent for this type of education would be difficult. How can a student approach their parents about this issue? Why should kids be put under this pressure to learn valuable information? There should be a safe place for students to talk about these sensitive topics other than their homes, where parents may censor what their children are exposed to. The argument continues over whether the school board should make decisions on sex education or whether it should be up to the legislature. It seems that this piece of a student’s education remains up in the air.

This issue is not just affecting Kansas. This week in Kentucky, about 50 high school students rallied at the capital to voice their concerns and demand more comprehensive sex education, claiming that it would “reduce dating violence and prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians.” It has been proven that effective sex education can delay the initiation of sex, reduce the frequency, reduce sexual partners, and increase contraceptive use. This is especially important for Kentucky, a state that has the eighth highest teen pregnancy rate in the United States and spends almost $150 million for teen pregnancy related costs. Kentucky’s youth are actively fighting against a traditionally conservative General Assembly, taking control over their own education as well as the education of many others.

A third state that has been in the news about a similar issue this week is Tennessee, where lawmakers have been ridiculing students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for hosting “Sex Week.” Sex Week features “a series of lectures about sexuality and sexual health, discussions about sexual violence, dance classes, a drag show, an art show and a poetry slam.” There are also discussions about abstinence and safe sex practices. In past years, state lawmakers have cut state funding to the university because of this week, and students had to rely on private fundraising to keep their vision alive. The week remains a hot topic: students and alumni believe that it is important in providing information, advocacy and resources to the students, and lawmakers believe that the school is wasting their money on provocative and unnecessary causes.

As a student who was lucky enough to grow up with comprehensive sex education, I can definitely see its value. Schools should serve students in more than just a traditional academic sense: students need to learn about situations that they will face as they enter into adulthood. Of course, this topic must be handled with delicacy and care, as it stirs up many sensitive political and religious views. The fact that the youth are speaking their minds around the country proves that we, the student generation, want to learn about this information, and think that others deserve to learn it too.

Sex education is an important part of a student’s overall learning process, and has a great potential to influence students’ future decision making. I am happy to see that youth are taking a stance against these state legislatures and lawmakers. Youth movements around the country are definitely making some noise about these issues, driving change and hopefully creating a generation of more tolerant young adults. My only hope is that those with the funds and power put their political differences aside and see that this type of education is necessary in schools.

Snow Days, not Snooze Days

I dread the day when I have to explain to my children what a snow day was. I picture myself saying, “Believe it or not, snow days happened pretty regularly. We would get a call in the morning that school was canceled and jump with excitement knowing that we had a free day to relax, drink hot chocolate, watch movies and play in the snow.” Though in coming to college I thought that snow days were a joy of the past, I was surprised to learn that almost every year at Lehigh, school had shut down for at least one day due to some kind of inclement weather. This year, this trend has culminated in four total shut downs due to snow so far. Ironically, as I sit in my room catching up on piles of work on the fourth snow day of the year, I can’t help but think about how these days affect education policy, and wonder how the use of technology and online teaching will change “snow days” forever.

The entire country has been greatly affected by inclement weather this winter, with many schools around the country losing upwards of 10 days due to snow. As this has never happened before, many states began to take action, holding virtual classroom sessions, uploading digital lesson plans, and requiring students to complete online assignments to stay on track. Some teachers have become even more creative, developing hash-tags and using video chats and Google hangouts to host virtual presentations. This year in Illinois, a state that was hit extremely hard this winter, teachers and students are holding virtual discussions, using technology to their advantage. Similar trends are occurring in Ohio, as policy has changed to say that districts can make up as many as three snow days per year through online lessons. In fact, about 150 Ohio schools have created what they call “Blizzard Bags,” which prepare academic sessions for inclement weather that students can complete through technology at home. Many districts are content with this decision because it prevents days from being removed from summer vacation at the end of the school year.

Part of the reason that schools are so intent on continuing learning and not missing a day is due to funding and standardized testing requirements. In many states, aid is based on actual attendance, and states can lose funding for every day that they fall short on these attendance standards. Dick Flanary, the deputy executive director for programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that “day-to-day school attendance won’t typically affect a school’s finances…but it can lead to cuts if test scores sink, if students or teachers miss a chance to shine or if schools can’t fulfill a grant obligation based on instructional time.” The argument seems simple: that if students are snowed out of school, their learning will be jeopardized.

At first glance, “e-learning” or “tele-school” seems like an ideal option. Students will have the ability to learn from anywhere, not just inside of a school building. But can there ever be a substitute for a teacher? Will these “e-days” just lead to further discussions of online learning as an alternative for traditional learning? And will the pressure to perform on testing to secure funding remain the most prominent argument for these anti-snow days?

Beyond these questions, I think that this discussion brings up many questions of equality and access that many school districts would have to confront to enact such policies in the future. If schools are mandating that students complete assignments online, that means that they must have technology available at home. While it is true that some districts provide technology to every student, this is certainly not the norm. Ironically, I believe it is those more impoverished and underprivileged areas where not every student has access to technology that could benefit from increased learning days the most. Even if students are granted technology from the district, it does not mean that they will have Internet access at home, and would probably have to find an Internet café or similar alternative during the snowstorm. One of the main reasons for canceling school is so that students and teachers will stay safe. This would be compromised if requiring students to trek out in the snow to find Internet so that they could complete assignments – it appears kind of counter-intuitive.

It seems that there is increased pressure to not miss a day of school, which inevitably brings up tough questions of funding, equity, and equal access to technologies. I sincerely hope that policy makers realize that learning does not always have to happen in a classroom. Sometimes the best learning happens on those days spent in your pajamas, baking cookies, watching movies and taking a break from school-stresses.

Preaching Preschool

During last Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.” Of course, Obama’s emphasis on early education is not new but rather a reiteration of Obama’s previous push for more funding to provide pre-kindergarten education for every four-year-old in America.

Research stands behind the importance of pre-k education. Investments in early education are believed to raise long-term skill levels, increase graduation rates, create jobs, reduce the stress on low-income parents and reduce crime and poverty. I spoke with a current early childhood professional who concurs, stating that preschool provides a space where kids “learn how to learn.” Before the structured academics that children receive from their educational journeys, preschool teaches kids how to behave in school, get into a routine, and socialize with others. Learning how to be one child in a group full of fifteen, twenty or twenty five others is not an easy thing to learn, and must be introduced to children at an early age.

Over the past year, many states across the country expanded or created preschool programs, including Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, and Alabama. Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan believes that this policy move is important because preschool is “a human need and an economic need,” and proceeded to increase spending by $65 million last year. Additionally, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in New York City on the promise of universal prekindergarten education for all city residents. In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, de Blasio spoke of his five-year, $2.6 billion dollar plan to provide full day pre-k for every child in the city.

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Bill de Blasio was elected on a promise of universal prekindergarten. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Based on research and recent state legislation, it seems that the country is in general agreement that preschool for children is necessary for the further development and success of the nation. However, this is not such a beautiful picture in Washington D.C. In Congress, Republicans have opposed Obama’s $75 billion investment in preschool, stating that the policy is too top-down and should instead be the responsibility of local communities and state governments. I think that Republicans in general are resistant to new social programs that Obama proposes, using this as an example to generate opposition. Mandatory pre-k education seems to be a bipartisan cause, but remains divided in our nation’s capital. I find it ironic that Republican and Democratic centered governments alike are on board for preschool policy changes, but that this issue cannot come to fruition in Washington. The way I see it, members of Congress simply want to continue to disagree with social policies, regardless of the good that they imply.

Of course, an issue as such always comes back to a question of funding. The New York Times sites many ways that states are planning to cover preschool, ranging from sales tax increases to legalizing marijuana to casino revenue. However, it remains unclear how to pay for universal access to preschool education. Could it be that politicians are simply preaching preschool to attract voters? In particular, these policy changes would attract the working class and women, which are demographics that many politicians need to charm. Is this a policy move, or more of a political power move?

Growing up in what I consider to be a privileged community, preschool education is taken for granted. It is a given that parents will pay for their kids to go to preschool so that they can work, as it was unusual for my friends to have stay at home parents. Part of the reason that this issue is so highly debated in Washington is because high-income districts can afford preschool funding while lower-income districts would have a harder time enforcing this type of policy. Given the importance of preschool education, it is my hope that funding will move toward city/state/local authorities rather than fall on the responsibility of private incomes, with a focus in problem solving for those lower income areas. I think that the United States has been criticized enough for our faulty education system. This should be one step that policy makers need to put on their priority list – a seemingly simple step that can set up great future success for a nation.

While this is a hot issue right now in national news, it has major global implications. If the United States is a global leader, the policy decisions that we make will be under close surveillance by the rest of the world. Whether this preschool policy shift will bring more success to the U.S. is yet to be determined, but it does have the potential to change some negative perceptions of our education system. I do think that these changes will come from more state and local authorities, as those in Washington continuously seek power over policy. I will forever be a firm believer in preschool education, and hope to see it promoted and enforced by these more localized authorities in the next few years.