It is with great sorrow that we report the death of Eugenia Kemble, the founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, after a long battle with fallopian tube cancer. “Genie” Kemble helped to conceive of and launch the institute in 1998, with the support of the late Sandy Feldman, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Endowed by the AFT and named in honor of the AFT’s iconic former president, the Albert Shanker Institute was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research reports and fostering candid exchanges on policy options related to the issues of public education, labor, and democracy.
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Manila, Genie entered the teacher union movement as part of a cohort of young Socialist Party activists who were close to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. She began her career in 1967 as a reporter for the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the AFT’s New York City local, and became a top aide to then UFT president Albert Shanker. She was a first-hand witness to the turbulent era during which Shanker served as UFT president, including the UFT strike for More Effective Schools in 1967, the harrowing Ocean Hill Brownsville strike over teachers’ due process rights in 1968, the remarkable UFT election victory to represent paraprofessionals in 1969, and the masterful bailout of a faltering New York City government through the loan of teacher pension funds in the mid-1970s.
In this New York Times piece, published on January 13, 1991, Al Shanker discusses the persistent problem of student mobility, how it disrupts children's lives and educational prospects, and what schools and school systems might do to help.
Once upon a time, people talked about student achievement in terms of the kids' responsibility for what they leaned. Some youngsters were smart, and others were dummies. Some worked hard; some were lazy. Nowadays, we've discarded these crude yardsticks because we understand that many things can influence a child's success in school. But we've substituted something just as crude. I mean the notion of accountability that makes schools totally responsible for student learning.
Of course, people have the right—the responsibility—to find out whether schools are doing a good job. And they have the right to call for the changes that are needed. But people should also understand that schools face some big problems over which they have no control.
Take the problem of student mobility, especially among poor children in urban school systems. Every year between September and June, an enormous number of students transfer in and out of these schools, often because their families are in a state of collapse or because they've lost their current housing and have to find somewhere else to live. A recent Wall Street Journal article (November 14, 1990) about the Rochester, NY, schools says that in 1987 annual student mobility—that is, the number of student transfers in relation to the entire student population—reached 64 percent. In one elementary school, it was 100 percent. And if this is true in Rochester, there's no question that something like it goes on in other urban school systems. What does it mean for teaching and learning in these schools?
At a recent press conference, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz addressed the issue of student discipline. “It is horrifying,” she told reporters, that critics of her charter schools’ high suspension rates don’t realize “that five-year-olds do some pretty violent things.” Moskowitz then pivoted to her displeasure with student discipline in New York City (NYC) public schools, asserting that disorder and disrespect have become rampant.
This is not the first time Moskowitz has taken aim at the city’s student discipline policies. Last spring, she used the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to criticize the efforts of Mayor Bill De Blasio and the NYC Department of Education to reform the student code of conduct and schools’ disciplinary procedures. Indeed, caustic commentary on student behavior and public school policy has become something of a trademark for Moskowitz.
The National Move to Reform Student Discipline Practices
To understand why, it is important to provide some context. The New York City public school policies that Moskowitz derides are part of a national reform effort, inspired by a body of research showing that overly punitive disciplinary policies are ineffective and discriminatory. Based on this research evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and School Discipline Consensus Project of the Council of State Governments have all gone on record on the harmful effects of employing such policies. The U.S. Education Department, the U.S. Justice Department, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, consortia of researchers, national foundations, and the Dignity in Schools advocacy coalition have all examined the state of student discipline in America’s schools in light of this research.1
Our guest author today is Emma Gulley, a preschool teacher and current Master’s student at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she studies early childhood language acquisition.
Government-funded early childhood education works. It works for students as they learn academic as well as social-emotional skills. It works for low income and middle class families, who can leave their children in trusted and closely monitored learning environments, rather than in less regulated day care arrangements. It works for school districts that can now, with effective early childhood education in place, avoid expensive early intervention programs, since more students are arriving at school “ready to learn.”
And it works for the United States broadly, since, according to a recent White House press release, investments in high quality childhood education provide benefits to society of about $8.60 for every $1.00 spent. Why is it, then, that 30 percent of Americans do not favor using federal funds to expand universal preschool? Why do only 39 percent consider preschool to be extremely important, while 69 percent think high school is extremely important?
If we want increased support for federal funding of early childhood education we need to provide more clarity regarding: A) what actually happens in the early childhood classroom; B) what improved school readiness means for students’ future success; and C) how that $8.60 benefit is calculated and what constitutes those long-term benefits to society. That is to say, abstract statistics are powerful, but they may not be sufficient or salient enough to convince everybody that early childhood education is about more than just finger paint.
Our guest author today is Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University. Marilyn is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post is adapted from Literacy Ladders, our anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.
The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.
What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.
Our "social side of education reform" series has emphasized that teaching is a cooperative endeavor, and as such is deeply influenced by the quality of a school's social environment -- i.e., trusting relationships, teamwork and cooperation. But what about learning? To what extent are dispositions such as motivation, persistence and engagement mediated by relationships and the social-relational context?
This is, of course, a very complex question, which can't be addressed comprehensively here. But I would like to discuss three papers that provide some important answers. In terms of our "social side" theme, the studies I will highlight suggest that efforts to improve learning should include and leverage social-relational processes, such as how learners perceive (and relate to) -- how they think they fit into -- their social contexts. Finally, this research, particularly the last paper, suggests that translating this knowledge into policy may be less about top down, prescriptive regulations and more about what Stanford psychologist Gregory M. Walton has called "wise interventions" -- i.e., small but precise strategies that target recursive processes (more below).
The first paper, by Lucas P. Butler and Gregory M. Walton (2013), describes the results of two experiments testing whether the perceived collaborative nature of an activity that was done individually would cause greater enjoyment of and persistence on that activity among preschoolers.
Over the past few months, we have heard a lot about discipline disparities by race/ethnicity and gender -- disparities that begin in the earliest years of schooling. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection Project by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, "black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 42% of preschool students suspended once and 48% of students suspended more than once." It also found that "boys receive more than three out of four out-of-school preschool suspensions."
This focus on student discipline disparities has also drawn attention to the research on implicit bias -- the idea that we all harbor unconscious attitudes that tend to favor individuals from some groups (whites, males, those judged to be good looking, etc.), and that disadvantage people from other groups (people of color, women, ethnic minorities, etc.). The concept of implicit bias suggests that good or bad behavior is often in the eye of the beholder, and disparities in disciplinary outcomes (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) may be influenced by unconscious stereotypes.
Part of me is very glad that we are finally having this conversation. Acknowledging the existence and consequences of subtle, implicit forms of prejudice is an important and necessary first step toward mitigating their effects and advancing toward fairness -- see my implicit bias series here. But it sometimes seems that the discipline and the implicit bias conversations are one and the same, and this concerns me for two reasons.
The latest issue of The Progress of Education Reform (released a few days ago by the Education Commission of the States) rounds up some recent research supporting the case that "all children need high quality early science learning experiences" and "science supports children's learning and school readiness in other areas" -- see here. The brief argues that even though science has not traditionally received the attention afforded to other preschool domains, such as literacy and mathematics, "science content and skills are critical and do not detract from literacy development; "in fact, [science] contributes to the goal that all children read with understanding by grade 3."
These statements should come as no surprise. At the Institute, we have long advocated teaching rich, challenging content (including in English language arts, math and science) in the early years. Knowledge, which is what's underneath words and vocabulary, is the foundation for acquiring more knowledge; it's what allows us to read with understanding -- or read to learn. This is important because it means that we must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting “stuff” – including, as the ECS report argues, early science. As I wrote elsewhere:
It's important to start teaching knowledge in the early years and through oral language because children’s preexisting knowledge creates a framework that facilitates the acquisition of new information; knowing more words and concepts scaffolds children’s ability to slot novel information in the “right places," and to learn related words and concepts more efficiently.
We know oral language is young children's door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?
A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.
A recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that "language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay." This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions.