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A pox on reading logs!

Not my daughter’s, but worse! This one also requires math, including clock math, everyone’s favorite pastime!

I’m sitting here looking at my daughter’s fourth grade reading log.  Starting on day 1 of school, the teacher decreed that students must read for at least 20 minutes each day, keep track of the reading in their reading log, and turn it in with student and parent signatures affixed.  The log requires Chloe to fill in the title of her reading material, along with a code designating what type of reading material it is.  Then she needs to record how many minutes she read, as well as the pages she read, and both of us need to fill in comments about the reading at least once a week.

Looking at this reading log literally makes me feel like crying.  What better way could a teacher concoct to make children hate reading?  I have loved to read since I learned how.  Right now I’ve got two books on the “front burner” and three on the “back burner,” meaning there are two books lying around which I tend to pick up and read at least a few times a week, and a few others I started but got distracted from for the moment.  I had to start using the library instead of my Kindle because I was spending way too much money on books without realizing it.  I’m a reader!  And my voracious reading has delivered concrete benefits like high test scores and a massive vocabulary, so no one can argue that the way I read or what I’ve chosen to read isn’t academically useful.

And I don’t read log-style.  I read what delights me at the moment.  Sometimes the delight comes from satisfying curiosity or tackling a challenge, and sometimes it’s just getting on board for an easy ride with some fabulous characters.  If I had to fill out that log each day to document my forays into Botswana with Mma Ramotswe or my visits to the eldritch New England of H.P. Lovecraft, I would probably start avoiding books.  I would procrastinate reading, because it would have mutated into a chore.  One with tiresome bookkeeping responsibilities.  Would the stories enchant me and make me lose track of time and place when I had to quantify how long I read? My heart feels heavy when I try to imagine this scenario.

So how much heavier are the hearts of kids who still stumble over new words and are just starting to taste that fluid reading skill which delivers one into a new world, rather than merely presenting words on a page?  My child already gets frustrated sometimes when she misreads and has to go back to figure out a sentence, or when she comes upon a new and idiosyncratic proper noun.  She doesn’t need a taskmaster standing over her shoulder reminding her what a chore reading is on top of it all!

For now, I will be filling out Chloe’s reading log.  I will write down whatever number the teacher has said is the minimum for that day.  I will not refer to the clock when I do so.  I will discuss with Chloe what we read, and jot down one of her comments on the log, along with one of my own.  I want her to interact with this poisonous document as little as possible.  Later, when the teacher has learned to know and love Chloe, I might discuss with her my concerns about the reading log.  I don’t want to be a parent who launches the first week of school by shoving an Alfie Kohn essay into the teacher’s face.  So we’ll be on the down-low for now.

The one good thing about this reading log is it did make me think about how much we read, and realize I would like to expand reading time.  But I won’t be setting a timer – well, maybe I will, for the TV.  Limiting TV, keeping good books around, and sitting down to read with my kids will be my approach, rather than treating books like overcooked Brussels sprouts that must be choked down.

(By the way, if you want to test your vocabulary size, check out this cool site.)


Are Private Schools Better?

I know from watching Trading Places that swanky private schools teach people how to talk about tennis in a posh, clenched-jaw accent, and how to shun friends who fall on bad luck.  But do graduates of private institutions have a claim to academic and intellectual superiority?

This is a contentious issue, and you can probably find a study to support whatever side you choose.  But from my brief review, it looks like the short answer is “no.”

First, private schools don’t necessarily make kids smarter, but smarter kids might be more likely to go to private school.  In this case “smarter” isn’t referring to native IQ alone, but to circumstances and opportunities that are correlated to higher scores on aptitude tests.  Things like having highly educated parents, having a higher household income, and living in a nicer neighborhood.  As you can imagine, private schools, which require parents to pay for admission, are likely to have a higher proportion of kids set up to achieve.

Second, private schools may have some obvious advantages over public schools (e.g., small class size) but they also have weaknesses, which can result in private schools making a poorer showing on standardized tests.  They don’t necessarily keep up with the most up-to-date techniques and may have fewer certified teachers.  They tend to invest in professional development for teachers at a lower rate.  And religious schools have to factor in how well a teacher conveys the school’s philosophical stance, so they may pass up teachers who are more qualified in their subject, but who don’t have the right beliefs.

Third, private schools may be thought of as shi-shi, but sometimes they don’t have the same resources as public schools, especially when it comes to special education (for both gifted and special needs students) and extracurricular activities.

Now, private schools do have better SAT scores and college admission rates.  Even when we control for socio-economic status.  Do they teach more critical thinking, rather than barf-it-back memorization, as hypothesized in this article?  That would certainly dovetail with the smaller class size typical of private schools. It may also be that a more homogeneous, wealthy student body allows teachers to cover basic skills quicker, and move on to higher-level skills.  Or maybe private schools coach more for the SAT, and have more social connections with ivy league schools.

One thing is sure – the differences between individual schools is more significant than the general differences between public and private.  Students will achieve more at a well-run public school that works on continuing education for its teachers than students at a private school whose first priority is teaching religious beliefs, rather than hiring certified teachers.  (N.B., in one study Catholic schools run by religious orders* outperformed all other schools, so I don’t have  in for religious schools in general.  But conservative Christian schools may have as low as a 50% certification rate among teachers.)

For instance, to be in the gifted program at my daughter’s public school, a child has to score in the 90th percentile on both an aptitude test and a skills test.  Guess what percentage of students are in the gifted program?

Half.  Half the kids at our school score better than 90% of students their age country-wide.  Add in our income, my husband’s engineering degree, my law degree, our involvement in our kids’ education, our voracious reading habits, and so on, and my kids will have a very good chance at an excellent education and entry into a good college, without us forking over tens of thousands of dollars along the way!  It’s sure good enough for me.

(It should be noted that at least one private school offers an extraordinary education, beyond anything that can be achieved at standard schools, but also involves a non-trivial risk of death, poisoning, possession by evil wizards, and other dangers.)

*My guess is their secret to success is their teachers literally have no lives outside of school!