To The Victims of Testing: When Tests Can End One’s Life

Dear Diane Ravitch,

I applaud your courage to admit openly and publicly the mistake that was made with No Child Left Behind. It is unfortunate that healthy reflexivity is almost entirely absent from policy making today. Perhaps, if all policy makers as well as scholars are more open to reflect and possibly admit their mistakes, we could live in a different world today. However, my post is not about self-reflexivity, it is about victims of testing. I wish to devote this post to orphans in Russia who have suffered from mistakes in testing and evaluation. I would like to share two short real life stories that captured my heart and mind.

Galina is now about 28 years old. Her family abandoned her the day she was born. Galina was born with some physical disability. At the young age, she has been tested, evaluated, and diagnosed as “mentally retarded.” Do you know what that means for a Russian orphan to be labeled “mentally retarded”? It means a child will get minimum if no education; until the age of 18th, he or she will be living in an orphanage with minimum contact with the outside world. When these children reach their 18th birthday, they will be transferred to a mental asylum where they will spend the rest of their lives literally behind the walls. They will not get married, have children, get driving license – they will have almost nothing. Galina ended up living in asylum. However, curiosity and inner strength encouraged her to seek for a way out. In fact, Galina was an intellectual and a talented human being. She wrote a petition for the hospital administration asking to live on her own. It took three years for the administration to consider her appeal. Finally, she was granted a permission to live on her own, which is a very rare and an extraordinary case to begin with. Typically, if you are labeled as mentally retarded once, there is no way out. People do not like to admit their mistakes. Now, Galina is studying in a college and she has aspirations for higher education. She is a talented artist and she loves to draw and paint. She loves travelling and exploring the world. Galina is a protagonist of a recent documentary ‘Ten Percent’ by Elena Pogrebijskaya.

Galina’s case is extraordinary and cheerful. However, it is depressing and frightening at the same time. Just imagine if Galina, while being an intellectual and a talented human being, was placed in asylum for being “mentally retarded,” then how many other talents did we suppress and lock in asylums? How many lives full of potential, discovery, curiosity, and exploration ended up in the mental hospitals?

Galina, for sure, is not the only one who has been wrongly diagnosed by the virtue of human ignorance or human laziness to double check the “finding” or flaws in seemingly “objective and scientific” testing and evaluation, or human cruelty – or altogether. A good friend of mine, who is also an orphan, was called into court by the orphanage administration who wanted to prove that he is mentally retarded. For orphanage administration, it is sometimes easier to deal with “mentally retarded” as they get more funding from the government and at the same time they have less accountability – there is no need to provide education or provide housing. All of “mentally retarded” orphans will be transferred directly to asylum. Some people helped my friend to prove in the court that he is not mentally retarded. As a result, he was not placed into asylum. However, he had to live almost 6 years on the streets, as he did not have any housing. Despite the hardship, he did not lose his humanity. He managed to get a job, he is currently working in social services and he helps elderly people. Half of his salary goes to the government for renting a room to live. He applied for higher education for three executive years and finally got accepted. Remember, people wanted to prove him mentally retarded.

What would have happened to Galina if she did not have enough courage to defend her rights? What would have happened if there was no one to help my friend in the court? Both of them would be locked in an asylum with no rights to education, travel, marriage, and work under the justification of psychological and IQ tests’ results.

These are just two cases that demonstrate how wrong our “scientific” tests can be. The same applies to school tests, however…. How many lives did we lose for students committing suicides because of failing test scores? How many students with low tests scores did we discourage to further pursue knowledge? How many people in this world did we make feel bad and insignificant about themselves because of low tests scores? How many people suffered because of the incorrect testing and evaluation? How many victims of testing are out there?

Devoted to all the victims of testing…..
______________________________________________________
Here is the list of documentaries about Russian orphans:

1) Bluff, or Happy New Year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pGbQ_6Ervw
2) Mama I’m Gonna Kill You: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyBfZMZ6Tlo

3) Ten percent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V48fL1ysHqU

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One for all, or all for some? Re-examining the limitations of gifted education in the public school system.

I am a product of a supplemental “gifted education” curriculum in a public school system. Up until taking this curriculum course, I did not reflect deeply on what that actually meant not only to myself but to the larger system I belonged to. Discussing the topic of gifted education in class prompted me to think more purposefully about the meaning behind the word “gifted” and how these types of programs may unwittingly foster inequality not only within the school setting but in society at large. The issues that gifted education pose are bi-fold and, at times, overlapping: sociocultural and academic.

A classmate in the field was recently discussing the extreme difference between low-income and high-income areas where she has taught. She mentioned that, while the average percentage of ‘gifted’ students in a school is ~ 3%, in some high-income areas it can be as high as ~ 50%. This poses a serious concern – it is inconceivable that this difference can be chalked up to actual differences in capacity. More likely, it is a combination of culturally perceived differences and how much exposure a child has to intellectually stimulating materials (i.e.  books, tutoring, etc.). Another classmate referred to this phenomenon as “economic giftedness.” This issue is mirrored in the under-representation of racial and ethnic minority students in gifted programs. Ford (2008) discusses this issue through what she calls the “deficit thinking” that occurs in the public school system:

“With deficit thinking, differences in someone who is culturally, racially or ethnically diverse are interpreted negatively as if the individual and/or characteristics are abnormal, substandard, or otherwise inferior. For example, a student who speaks nonstandard English and is making good grades in school may not be referred to screening and identification if the teacher neither understands nor appreciates nonstandard English.” (Ford, 374)

Ford also points out that academic aptitude exists across racial, ethnic and economic divides. It is illogical, then, that there is such a dearth in minority, low-income students receiving the label of ‘gifted.’ This problematic situation demands that policy makers and curriculum designers address how to provide gifted education programs that are both excellent and equitable.

There is another issue plaguing gifted education that straddles the border between cultural and academic. This is how we (collectively) define the term ‘gifted.’ The type of gifted education that Ravitch and Ford discuss is typically centered on scholastically advanced students, as measured by a standardized IQ (intelligence quotient) test. Winner (1996) discusses the potential ethnocentrism of gifted education by highlighting the differences between ‘western’ definitions of ‘giftedness’ and those of other cultures. Specifically, she discusses how the Pueblo “have no word for giftedness” and instead believe that “special abilities should not be used as a basis for evaluating one person over others. For this group, a special gift is meaningful only if it is used in a way that benefits the community” (Winner, 4). In other words, individualistic western culture values individual success over community well-being and rewards competition rather than collaboration. As such, gifted education can reproduce a number of inequalities, creating a divisive environment within the school (an example of the kind of ‘hidden curriculum’ also discussed by Ravitch).

Further issues with gifted education that warrant discussion are the curriculum and assessment of such programs. In my experience, many ‘gifted education’ programs are project-based and have an emphasis on divergent thinking. This is in contrast to the rote memorization being pushed in ‘normal’ classrooms. We must question why the methods being employed to teach the ‘best’ students are not made available to other students who may benefit from similar approaches. Additionally, some states employ ‘merit pay’ for teachers, judging their performance on students’ scores. In this scenario, teachers of gifted students would, theoretically, receive higher pay than those of ‘average’ or ‘below-average’ students. However, in one of her blog posts Ravitch blasts this ‘myth’ stating that when a “students’ scores are already at the top… they have nowhere to go, so the teacher will get a low rating.”

While students who excel at school should, in my opinion, receive an education capable of stimulating them and encouraging their talents, I also believe that this benefit should not be reserved for those who score the highest on standardized tests. It is high time that we (both culturally and in terms of educational policy) recognize non-standard forms of ‘giftedness,’ encourage critical thinking and creativity and, most importantly, rid ourselves of the ‘deficit’ mindset that is denying so many capable children the opportunity to excel, solely because they do not fit the societal and/or academic standard.

Sources:

Winner, E. (1996). Gifted children: Myths and realities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Ravitch, D. With VAM: All Teachers of the Gifted Are “Bad” Teachers. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from  http://dianeravitch.net/

Ford, D. (2008). Recruiting and retaining gifted students from diverse ethnic, cultural and language groups. In J.A. Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and Perspectives, (371-392). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Thoughts in Anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s Visit to Lehigh

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh on her Books, Experiences, and Opinions involving Educationhqdefault

There is so much pressure for change that it actually hinders change. The requirements outlined in the curriculum and standardization are tools for measurement, results, and comparing different demographics. However, the emphasis on the results of those tests has been so great that the curriculum no longer promotes education quality and creativity.

I am writing this blog in anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s visit to Lehigh University. After reading some of her work including chapters from her book, Diane Ravitch was the Assistant Secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She was involved in the process of creating and implementing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The act proposed that all states have to ensure that all students would meet the national standards through testing. By raising the bar each year, the goal of NCLB was to ensure that all students were passing by 2014 (last year!). 14 years ago the proposal sounded great and possible; however, here we are one year after the expected year of success and nothing has changed in education. Let’s ignore the name of it and just focus on what it proposed.

The first issue, as with many educational reforms, is that it sounds so perfect that it is almost impossible to argue against it. Especially with a name such as “No Child Left Behind”, anyone who attempts to critique it sounds inhumane. After all, who would want to leave any children behind? There were some good amendments in the law, but the bad ones outweigh the good. For instance, there is no time or funding for the tutoring that is mandatory for children that are below standards. Teachers do not have time to focus on helping the students that are behind because they have to ensure the entire class is following the curriculum. Teachers have to choose between spending extra time with students who are behind or spend that time moving everyone else forward by following the curriculum. Both choices are not possible. In either case, the teacher is not meeting a standard.

Another issue is that the law allows for each state to set its own educational standards to meet. Some states’ standards are so low that nearly everyone can pass them to ensure they receive their state funding. Although the school may be technically passing, that does not mean that all of the students are on a proficient learning level for their grade. Teachers have to teach to meet these low standards which hinder the quality of education. On the other hand, states that actually have high standards for their schools are at risk for having more schools that do not pass. A failing school does not receive federal funding or state funding. As a result, the school does not have the funds to purchase resources or programs needed to help these failing students, which attributes to budget cuts such as firing teaching, cutting programs, and increasing the class size. Either way, the children the law claims will not get left behind, are indeed getting left behind

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch quotes Donald T. Campbell who states that “the more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the more value placed on standardization and testing to make decisions such as enrollment, classification, and acceptance the more corrupt that system becomes. Standardized tests are used for benchmarking and comparing students, but they have lost their innocence.

There are now teachers teaching to the test or cheating rather than teaching their students information to prepare them to learn, understand, and succeed. Now looking at the Act, without the context and innocence of its name, the amendments seem nearly impossible. This is the problem with curriculum, standardization, and educational reform in society. There is more focus on creating a proposal that sounds good than actually taking time to make sure it IS good. As Diane Ravitch stated, “there are no fads, no shortcuts, no utopias, no silver bullets” in terms of reforms for fixing educational issues. Teachers have to follow a state or national schedule of teaching rather than teaching based on need. Students learn through at different speeds, styles and have different interests so why teach all kids of various cultures, states, social classes, backgrounds, intellect, and who are so simply different through the same methods?

Questions for Diane Ravitch:
• What made you decide to get so actively involved in educational reform through speaking out on your experiences and writing so many informative books?
• With so much emphasis on testing and standards, what do you think would be a good way to measure progress?
• It seems like a major reason reforms do not end up being successful is due to the high demand for fast progress. Quick fixes clearly do not work, but how should an administrator propose and manage an idea that is longer term and avoid the pressure or force of being fired?
• How do you propose a shift in standardization back to being more of a tool for measurement and less of an emphasis in teaching to the test?
• Race to the Top is yet another education law that sounds appealing and optimistic, what are your thoughts on it? What do you think it will take for it to be successful?

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

(Re)Examining Privatization and Public Education in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

The latest issue of European Education addresses a heatedly debated topic of privatization of public education in post-socialist Eastern Europe and Eurasia. This region is of particular interest because of the rapid transition from central to market economies, and the lack of subsequent systematic research on privatization in education either in the global literature on education or the regionally focused literature on privatization and its extension into marketization and public–private partnerships. This special issue aims to bridge this gap by stimulating further research and debate about the effects of privatization on education across the former socialist region. Drawing on case studies from Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and Tajikistan, the articles in this issue raise questions about the incentives and potential for structural discrimination that are created as private funds for education are directed into school systems through a variety of mechanisms that include school choice, private schools, parent payments to public schools, not-for-profit private providers, and supplementary tutoring courses.

If you would like to read the entire paper or any other content from our journal, you can find out more about subscriptions here. We will also be featuring video interviews with the authors about their articles published in this special issue!

Table of Contents

Editorial Introduction: (Re)Examining Privatization and Public Education in Eastern Europe and Eurasia

Kate Lapham, Daniel Pop, and Iveta Silova

Private Pre-University Education in Romania: Mixing Control with Lack of Strategy

Cristina Stănuş

Reworking of School Principals’ Roles in the Context of Educational Privatization: A view from Ukraine

Serhiy Kovalchuk and Svitlana Shchudlo

Parental Choices in the Primary and Secondary School Market in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Christopher Whitsel

The “Language Barrier” in Private Online Tutoring: From an Innocuous Concept to a Neoliberal Marketing Tool

Olga Kozar

Gifted Education Series, Part 3: A Possible Alternative

In my last two posts, I discussed the arguments of both those for and against gifted programs in public schools. This last post in this series will explore my personal, conflicted views on this topic as well as offer a possible alternative that some are suggesting instead of the traditional gifted programs.

Personally, I still find myself torn in this debate. I myself benefitted greatly by being in Honors classes as far back as I can remember. While these weren’t a part of a specially titled “gifted” program per say, they had generally the same goal. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without these differentiated classes, but a large part of me wants to say that there’s a chance I wouldn’t. Would I still have succeeded as well as I have if I hadn’t been pushed as hard as I was in middle and high school? Would I have been asked to teach other students who were lagging behind instead of moving forward with the curriculum? Would I have been bored in undifferentiated classes and therefore lost my interest in learning and love of going to school? The answer to all of these questions is simply, maybe. But also maybe not.

I do however clearly see the negatives of these types of programs as well. Coming from a very racially and fairly economically non-diverse area, I personally did not see the kind of perpetuated segregation in my school that results from them in others, but after having done research on this topic, it is clear that this is the unfortunate case more often than not. In that regard, I agree with those against them that they should not be in place.

There is one alternative to gifted programs that is being seriously considered in NYC and, if successful, could serve as a model for other schools around the country. Incoming New York Education Commissioner Carmen Fariña signaled at a town hall meeting that the city may dial back separate gifted programs in favor of personalized and more challenging curriculum for all kids in every class. All students should have an appropriate education. The question is how best to do so without reverting to a Jim Crow society where “separate but equal” was promised but not practiced. They are calling her school-wide enrichment model the “differentiated classroom.”

The premise of this program is a way of blending kids rather than isolating them, as well as stretching limited classroom resources. They argue that with the right structure (and that is the key part to me) one teacher can accelerate learning for the highly gifted in an integrated classroom without separating them from others or slighting those who lag behind. They want to give “gifted education for all” through academic enrichment tailored to each student’s strengths. Ms. Fariña said she was eager to bring strategies used in gifted programs, including project-based learning, to schools across the city. She said bright children outside gifted programs could be served by other means, including clubs, lunchtime programs, and science, technology, engineering, and math enrichment—“There’s a lot of other ways to reach the needs of these kids,” she said.

In an ideal differentiated classroom, curriculum is tailored to student’s skills, small group work is common, and so is individualized work. Students who move faster are given enrichment materials or pushed forward, while the teacher gives extra help to those lagging behind. The key to this program is that it will be planned as part of the curriculum coming from the school district and not just left up to the teacher to do by themselves. Fariña’s vision for New York is to give every child personalized and challenging opportunities, and she thinks the differentiated classroom can do it. They hope that this differentiated classroom will help eliminate the intense and difficult battle of getting children into gifted programs at such a young age.

This will not be easy to pull off however, and will at the very least require that teachers have more resources and smaller class sizes to do it properly. Skeptics say that if these needs are not met that gifted children will still be left to drift. Many still do not believe that a differentiated classroom can address the needs of students of all skill levels without leaving an exhausted teacher to focus on the middle segment. If not done correctly, and teachers hold up the entire class for the sake of one or a few students, every child’s learning will suffer.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide on which side of this heated debate you fall and if you think the “differentiated classroom” could be a useful alternative to please both sides. Personally, I think it has potential, but will need a lot of strong planning and resources to be executed correctly and have a positive impact on all students. Its success will remain to be seen.

Gifted Education Series, Part 2: Against Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

In my previous post in this series, I looked at what some of the advocates of gifted education say about the benefits of these programs. Here, I will examine what those who are against them have to say.

It is not easy to measure giftedness in the first place. Intelligence tests and achievement tests are often culturally biased and may “reflect ethnicity, socioeconomic status, exposure and experiences rather than true giftedness.” Some children just might not be good at taking tests or may be gifted in ways that tests cannot measure well—like creative thinking. When you can’t even rightly identify those students who should be placed in gifted programs, should you have them?

There are several criticisms of gifted programs, the main one being that it promotes segregation in the classroom along racial and socioeconomic lines. Many say that the practice of separating the top 2% of the population from everyone else clearly falls under the definition of segregation, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as “an action or state of setting someone or something apart from other people or things.” Instead of white-only water fountains, there are smart-only schools or schools within schools. If, under the mandate of equal protection, the Supreme Court struck down the idea of schools separating children based on skin color, it seems logical to assume that this should be the case for IQ as well since this is another “immutable” trait. Providing equality of opportunity also applies to publically-funded gifted programs that receive extra money and prestige.

An example of this segregation comes from New York City’s gifted and talented programs, which have a long history of exacerbating socioeconomic and racial segregation within city schools. As of 2011, roughly 70% of all New York City public school students were black and Latino, but more than 70% of kindergartners in gifted programs were white or Asian. Even if a school has nominal diversity in itself, this is undermined by segregation in the gifted program. Schools may look diverse, but the general education classrooms look very different from the gifted classrooms in terms of racial/ethnic and economic background. In one specific New York City school, 63% of the students are black or Hispanic and 33% are white or Asian. In the gifted classrooms, 62% are white or Asian. These disparities are most apparent at the lower grades.

Socioeconomic status advantages also give better-off preschoolers a testing advantage that is compounded by gifted programs. These very young children have to cram for high-stakes exams in order to get into these gifted programs. Their parents push them and might even hire test prep services to make sure their children do well. Many educators find that this practice does not sit well with them. This flawed system reinforces racial separation, negative stereotypes about class and race, and contributes to disparities in achievement. Gifted admissions standards favor middle and upper class children and create castes within schools where some children are enriched and accelerated while others are getting the bare-bones version of the material.

When looking at the gifted classrooms, one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way children are selected into these programs. These programs create a cycle in which students start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools over their years of schooling. The number of black and Hispanic students who make it into specialized high schools in NYC has declined significantly over recent decades. Some say that if the objective is diversity, this system can never work.

Parents argue that it’s more economics than race, even though this goes hand and hand in many cities. If you were upper income and well educated, you would want your child to have a more enriched education. But when you think about it, not only are the black and Hispanic children being denied more intense education and enrichment, but those white students who are in separate gifted programs are being denied the cognitive and social benefits that socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms are shown to offer.

In concordance with this thinking, the NYC schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, actually completely eliminated the gifted program at the school where she was previously the principal. Many parents of the gifted students at her school were outraged, but she calmed them by promising school-wide improvement in instruction [6]. Many are urging NYC schools to take this approach that betters the whole school and incorporates mixed-ability classrooms instead of perpetuating these segregated classrooms by continuing separate gifted programs. This will be explored further in the last post in this series.

Gifted Education Series, Part 1: For Gifted Education Programs in Public Schools

Gifted education in public schools has been a highly polarizing topic of discussion, especially recently. Both sides make some compelling arguments and, in my opinion, it is hard to declare a firm winner in this debate. In this blog series I will explore this subject from both sides, as well as offer a possible alternative, and leave it up to you to decide where you land.

Many of those who are for gifted education in public schools see it as a new take on the “old American conflict between equality and opportunity.” If the goal is to make sure no child is left behind, then schools should also be helping others to get ahead. Some say that “it makes sense to at least create a haven where these kids can develop their gifts, rather than asking them to be patient in classrooms that are not geared to developing their talents.” It’s also worth noting that the students with special gifts may be those most likely to one day develop miraculous cures, produce inspiring works, invent technological marvels, and improve the lives of all Americans, so they should be pushed forward in order to get on with those future impressive tasks.

Over the last 15 years, schools have been so focused on raising the performance of the lowest achieving kids that those who move faster are taken for granted. These poorly performing students get extra help in a number of ways, but those who are advanced do not usually receive any special services, despite the fact that schools are there for all children to achieve. Gifted students can be likely to fall through the cracks if they don’t get instruction tailored to their abilities and can struggle academically or even drop out. Ann Sheldon, the executive director of the Ohio Association for Gifted Children, says that, “Because they meet the (academic) threshold, districts can ignore them.”

Many say that in order for gifted students to grow to their full potential they need to be developed and nurtured within the school system. If not pushed, gifted underachievers may decide they will only do the minimum requirements and choose easy work even though they are capable of much more. Some get bored from the easy work, some don’t develop study and organizational skills because they don’t have to, and others don’t want to look gifted because it isn’t “cool.”

Some argue that gifted students will get by on their own without any special help from the school. They say they come from wealthy families who can meet their children’s needs on their own. Gifted students require special services and programs to ensure the growth rather than the loss of their outstanding abilities. Some of the kids worst served are “at-risk, low-income kids with a lot of talent but who are stuck in schools that are doing everything they can to get kids over a minimal bar.” These poorer gifted kids will never get the advantages at home that wealthier kids have. If the school cannot push them forward, they will get lost in the flow.

One mother in Georgia, whose child attends a school where there is no gifted program, had local school officials refuse to let her son skip a grade despite his very high IQ test scores. She had to fight with teachers and administrators in order for her child to have adequately challenging work. A similar story happened in Texas where an assistant principal told a mother that “she does not support accelerating students and that [her] only option is to send [her] daughter to private school.” For many families this is just not an option for financial or other reasons and to them, public schools should be able to provide their children with an education equal to their needs, as they do with underachieving students. The average IQ score is 100 and many people argue that the further away from that mean a child is, the greater they have a need for special education, regardless of whether they fall to the left side or right side [6].

Parents who can afford to send their children to private school are doing so, however. The No Child Left Behind act is causing many families to flee public schools because it is pushing teachers to focus so much on bringing students to minimum proficiency that gifted students are forgotten about. This “benign neglect” causes them to lose interest in learning because school becomes “an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.” If public schools want to keep these students, they need to provide for them.

School board support of gifted programs, especially in large, diverse cities, shows parents that their kids can thrive if they remain in the city. For example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s ambitious plan to attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the next 10 years depends in large part on convincing young families that its schools can offer an excellent education to their children. Gifted programs are a means of keeping middle and upper class families in the public school system.

Another refuted argument against gifted programs is that teachers can implement small changes into a gifted child’s assignments to further his/her thinking. Asking one teacher within a classroom of around 30 kids to differentiate their assignments and keep track of just one or a few students with gifted ability is asking a lot. Anyone who has watched a teacher labor to “differentiate” instruction in a classroom that encompasses both math prodigies and English language learners knows it’s unreasonable to expect most teachers to do this well, so they argue that separate programs are a necessity.

Those against also suggest that parents look into educational opportunities outside of school such as academic clubs, private tutoring, or other forms of private study that are less costly than private school, but are still engaging and effective. This seems far from practical. Even if parents can afford these extra services for their children, again, why should they be required to do so when schools exist for a reason? Would it not make more sense to just have special programs available within their child’s school that they already attend?

I find it hard to argue with parents who only want the best possible education for their children. Why shouldn’t public schools provide this for them? Stay tuned for my next post about those who are against gifted programs in public schools!

Confronting our Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes an intense emotional stress reaction experienced after an individual recognizes that they hold two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time (Festinger, 1957). This discomfort happens when realizing the logic that two things that oppose each cannot both be true. Cognitive dissonance can occur when an individual learns new information that conflicts with already held beliefs or when they perform a contradictory action to their belief. When people realize that their internal consistency is challenged, they get extremely distressed and will either do things or change their cognitions to bring that consistency back.

A simple example of cognitive dissonance is one that many of us have probably experienced. I have often told myself, “It’s time to eat healthier.” I make a pact with myself that I will cut some unhealthy foods from my diet. However, then a craving for frozen yogurt comes around, and before I know it, I’m on the way to get myself some froyo. I add all of the delicious candy toppings, and my attitude and my head tells me that my kind of frozen yogurt is unhealthy. I feel dissonance between my attitudes and my behaviors of eating it. Yet, I justify my decision to eat this unhealthy food and reduce my cognitive dissonance because “hey – at least it’s not ice cream.”

Cognitive dissonance occurs with my frozen yogurt consumption, as well as serious and systemic issues. It informs how we, as humans, deal with these things.

I think that humans are, at the core, inherently good. Cognitive dissonance exists in large proportions because if we were always aware of how unjust society is, we would be sad and angry all of the time. To deal with some of the horrors of the real world, we resolve our dissonance by making excuses, trying to rationalize, or ignoring injustice. With that being said, no progress could ever happen if we let our cognitive dissonance rule. The purpose of these three blogs is to address and challenge our cognitive dissonance in order to raise awareness to the important issues that plague our world.

One of the ways cognitive dissonance helps humans rationalize injustice is through the idea of meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy is the notion that people work for what they have, and successful people have worked for it and earned it. Thus, people in poverty and people who have not been successful didn’t work hard enough. This ties into the idea that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make a good life, if they try hard enough.

Although effort is incredibly important, this concept devalues the importance of systemic influences and blames victims of inequities. An individual is impacted by their overarching multilevel systems, and often, issues are stimulated by problems in the system, rather than in the individual.

In examining the myth of meritocracy and its role in cognitive dissonance, I will discuss the experience of homeless families. Typically, when someone thinks about the homeless, they automatically think of an adult man who has done something to deserve his homeless status. People in cities walk past homeless people thinking they are crazy, are on drugs, or are lazy. People’s cognitive dissonance leads them to think that the homeless person has done something to deserve their situation. Yet, people’s dissonant perception of homelessness and the myth of meritocracy are often wrong.

Although a majority of homeless people are adult men (67.5%), homeless families compose 1/3 of the homeless population in the United States (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). These homeless families typically consist of a mother in her late twenties with two children. In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 43,000 homeless children (The National Center on Family Homelessness, 2011). Homeless children are more likely than other students to have mental health, physical health, and academic concerns.

Often, these homeless families are victims of circumstances that have led to their homelessness, due to systemic factors like unemployment, poverty, lack of affordable housing, and domestic violence incidents. The homeless family is just like any other family, struggling to support themselves, trying to help their children succeed in school, and caring about each other. When systemic influences put people in a compromising position, it seems impossible to get out of it. An example can be thought of in an experience of a mother who is fleeing, with her children, from an abusive partner. In this kind of emergency, this family needs to escape immediately. Often, this mother will have nowhere to go, and must stay in a shelter. Her income is dramatically lower, due to the absence of her partner, and she must work alone to support her children. In the crowded and loud shelter, she tries to maintain a normal life while balancing her lengthy job. She wonders how she can best support her children when the world has served her an unfair and grim situation.

Yet, when she begs for money on the subway, all people see is a woman trying to scam them to get money to buy drugs.

Our cognitive dissonance does not allow us to see the full picture, makes us jump to conclusions, and doesn’t allow us to think about the serious issues that impact our society. How can a school-aged child who is homeless and seeking shelter be successful at school? How can a single mother provide for her two children on one low-wage salary? How can we walk past a homeless person on the street and make judgments about their life? And, most importantly, how can I, as someone who is concerned about trying to justify my frozen yogurt consumption, stand idly by? I cannot – and therefore, by addressing and confronting my cognitive dissonance, I will fight against trying to rationalize injustice and will attempt to help others confront their cognitive dissonance as well.

 

 

References

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

National Center on Family Homelessness. (2008). The characteristics and needs of families experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.familyhomelessness.org/media/147.pdf

Cognitive Dissonance and No Child Left Behind

Students thrive in a school environment where they are able to interact with their teachers, have more individualized learning plans catered to their skills and needs, and feel safe in the school community. My best learning experiences were in community-based classes that fostered analytical thinking and asked me to challenge what I was being taught. However, we live in a nation where schooling is typically not like that. To better understand the experience in schools, I interviewed my friend who is a preschool teacher with experiences in classrooms of pre-K, kindergarten, and second-grade. She describes that, “the only time that I have had free reign to be creative with my teaching was as a preschool teacher, where there was no pressure to teach to a test because tests don’t exist at that level. Students any older than that are always preparing for some sort of test, whether that is a simple quiz, a unit test, or a state exam. The fact that schooling is so based around exams limits your freedoms as a teacher.”

We know that all students would benefit from a great education that is catered around individual needs, but not all students receive it, due to social, political, and economic factors. Our current policies on schooling are not helping to achieve the goal of quality education for all.

The wording of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pulls at the heartstrings, and it feels bad saying that you might disagree with “not leaving a child behind.” The act can be interpreted as a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance, an attempt to rationalize and forget why schools are failing.

The act aims to increase teacher accountability, raise standards of teaching, and ensure that students across the country are learning similarly well. It places an incredible emphasis on achievement testing, basing success of teachers and schools on students’ test scores. School funding, teacher salary, and school maintenance is all based on how students perform on tests. This places immense pressure on all people involved in schools.

Children feel pressure because they know that their teacher might get fired if they don’t score well on their test. On No Child Left Behind, this teacher says, “in theory it’s a good idea, but it was executed poorly. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to go to school and learn to the best of their ability, but it’s unfair that they’re expected to take all of these exams. There are the anxious test takers that freeze up when it comes time for an exam. It’s not right to do to the kids.”

Teachers feel like they need to base their entire curriculums around the test content, because their jobs and the students’ welfare is at stake. This teacher says, “in a large classroom setting, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s needs because there are time pressures. The curriculums tell you specifically what questions to ask and how to teach it. In some cases, you’re pretty much given a script to read from, and that leaves no room for creativity at all.”

Administrators fear the test results because they dictate whether their schools will continue as usual or the government will take over. This act has instilled a sense of fear and tension within schools that are supposed to be safe havens.

The No Child Left Behind Act seems like an attempt at an easy fix to a system that needs be prioritized more by the federal government. It puts the education system into simple terms: if you score better, you get more funding. That ignores the systemic impacts on schools and students. It is easier for students in wealthy communities to score better on tests because those students do not have some of the same concerns as students in poorer communities.

In a case study example of schools in West Tallahatchie, Mississippi, as seen in the documentary “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” LaLee’s grandchildren spent their days trying to find fresh water, taking care of their family, and seeking out school supplies that they could not afford (Dickson, Frömke, & Maysles, 2001). How could a child who is looking for fresh water have time to do their homework? They do not have the same opportunities to succeed and are at a disadvantage in school. These children should be bolstered by the government. Their schools should be given more funding to help support the children who need it the most. No Child Left Behind does the opposite. It rewards the schools that are achieving the highest, which are typically not attended by students in poverty. It punishes schools that are struggling and could use help most.

This act feeds into the myth of meritocracy, essentially saying that lower achieving schools have not worked hard enough, and therefore should not be the recipients of more funding. What the act does not consider is the extreme hardships faced by students in poverty, and the systemic reasons why students are not achieving as high as their counterparts.

A system that only rewards schools based on achievement testing actually sustains an inequitable schooling environment around the country. When high stakes testing is the most important thing, it devalues the concept of the whole student and undercuts the quality and creativity of education. However, with a name like No Child Left Behind and an attitude that is trying to rationalize why some schools fail, this policy allows people to lessen their cognitive dissonance and forget about the schools that struggle the most. This policy allows people to make sense of the fact that some students are achieving much lower than others, and that is not ok. The education system in our country should work to support children who need help, not punish them.

 

References

Dickson, D., Frömke, S., & Maysles, A. (Directors) (2001). LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. United States: HBO.

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml

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.