Tuesday, August 23, 2011

School's a matter of quality, not quantity

A must read article from the North Platte Telegraph. Sage Merritt, the News Editor for the North Platte Telegraph, speaks out against Nebraska's new truancy law. She takes on the "trend of attributing academic problems to a lack of classroom time" and says, "this analysis suffers from the classic fallacy that correlation equals causation". Finally a voice in the press that takes the issue head on. Please emial her your thoughts and post them to the site.

The editor puts herself up as an excellent example of why it is foolish to put every student in the same box and say that every student should be in school everyday until they graduate. Sage is not a high school graduate. She says, "I left high school at 15, after my sophomore year at NPHS, because my parents and I (not the state) decided that my educational needs were best met elsewhere. That fall, I began an accelerated-learning program for gifted young women at a college in Virginia. I graduated four years later, at 19, with my bachelor’s degree in a double major — freeing me up for a head start in a career I love and have pursued for my entire adult life."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nebraska Aims for Perfect Attendance but Misses the Mark

The Omaha Learning Community will go forward with a more detailed plan that aims for perfect school attendance. Kevin Riley, Superintendent of Gretna Schools and a key member of the drafting team said, "You'll notice in the title that you don't see the words 'absent' or 'truant.' Those are symptoms."

RPS Superintendent Jerry Riibe said, "We need to be more forward-thinking in seeing that we have all students, every day, in class and learning." With the goal of perfect attendance, it is hard to imagine that the fears expressed by parents over this plan won't be realized. I am curious to see how this plan is administered. This year will tell the story. How will school administrators define appropriate absences and in what cases will parents be deemed irresponsible?

As it stands, the MPS student handbook states just four justifiable reasons for absence: illness, emergencies, religious observance, and participation in school-sponsored functions. By this standard, an out-of-state family wedding, a visit with a deployed soldier, the birth of a sibling, or any other important family consideration would not be excused.

Several recent World Herald articles highlighting the new plan have called the plan “smart” and said "that if students' absences are excused, the children won't be hassled." I certainly hope that the process to determine whether or not to excuse an absence doesn’t cause parents of good students to feel as though they are under constant scrutiny. Parents today already alter their parenting in unhealthy ways because of the fear of being judged an unfit parent.

The World Herald editorial page said we should give our local superintendents credit for putting together a “smart plan”. The report went on to say that "without a common-sense way to handle absences due to illness and other legitimate reasons, this new truancy law was at risk of running into resistance from parents." I think the question parents have at this juncture is why are they no longer trusted to determine whether an absence is legitimate or not?

Putting the decisions of parents under a microscope could backfire. Even without the more aggressive early interventions laid out by the new plan we have seen parents alter their responsible family-centered decisions as a result of the law. Last year, as parents became aware of the new law and received notifications at home warning them not to miss any more days of school, they cancelled family plans, sent their kids to school sick, and curtailed other important family needs to stay clear of getting in trouble with school authorities, or worse.

I am one of many skeptical and concerned parents who were outraged last year in dealings with proponents of this law. We were told by Sen. Ashford, sponsor of the legislation, that parents have never had the right to excuse their kids from school for any reason and Judge Crnkovich, presiding judge of the Douglas County Truancy Diversion Program, told parents they’re not qualified to discern when their children are sick.

These messages were loud and clear, the only latitude parents have in making these decisions is granted to us by the state, and that all natural rights we claim as parents are forfeit upon enrollment. It may be an idea accepted by the Governor, who stated at Tuesday’s press conference that the plan is “about helping our children.” But the reality is that our children are not wards of the state; they in fact belong to us as parents.

We have earned the distinction of parent and all the rights that go with it from the moment of birth, and through every day that we have, through our own sweat and tears, kisses and hugs, raised, nurtured, and provided for those children God has entrusted us with. This plan, however well meant, represents a conflict between how parents view their parental role and how it is viewed by the professionals tasked with implementing the new truancy triage system.

Hyper-Schooling is Robbing Our Kids of a Carefree Childhood

Alison Gopnik's article at Slate.com hits at the heart of why American education is failing our kids. Not only does it address the detrimental effects of excessive "schooling", but it makes it clear that standardized testing is hardly and effective gauge of intelligence. When you take these studies combined with other warnings, like the one released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, you start to get a more complete picture of what really ails our kids.

In the Slate.com article, "Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School", new research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire. The article focuses on how "direct instruction" may be effective at teaching skills and facts but is inadequate for fostering curiosity and creativity that are more important in the long run. The article is just another case where we hear evidence that the "experts" are changing their minds about what is best for kids, fortuneately it is in the direction of what parents have suspected all along. 

In the American Academy of Pediatric report another set of experts warn parents of the relationship between increased depression and anxiety in children and the lack of the simple childhood pleasure of play. The report states that "the national trend, to focus on the academic fundamentals of reading and arithmetic, spearheaded by No Child Left Behind, has decreased time left during the school day for recess, creative arts, and physical education." Compound that with extended hours in after-school programs that emphasize academics, the hours of unsupervised video gaming and constant T.V. and you have a recipe for a nation that cannot create, work, or think.

Reliance on the "expert" opinions of educators of the past has lead the Federal Department of Education to drown our kids in "testing". It has become an "established fact" by these same experts that our kids need more "instructional time", they need to go to be "schooled" at ever younger ages, they need to be in school longer each day and throughout the year, and they shouldn't miss more than a few days of school lest they "fall behind"!

We are told by education "experts" that our kids need this hyper-schooling or they will be unable to "compete" in the "global market place". Funding for birth to the grave "schooling" is ever increasing with the promise of preserving America's economic dominance. Whether reluctantly or passively, the majority of parents have gone along with the trend pushed by these "expert" opinions, believing that American kids are falling behind the rest of the world and that the tests were proof of it.

Slate.com questions the status quo, "How do you measure learning, anyway? Almost by definition, directed teaching will make children do better on standardized tests, which the government uses to evaluate school performance. Curiosity and creativity are harder to measure."

Perhaps we should look to the real "experts" our parents and "take it with a grain of salt". Why are we so quick as parents to just take what the "experts" say as rock solid fact when it goes against what our own excellent parents knew was best and our own natural instincts. I've had numerous conversations where the consensus was that our kids don't have the carefree childhoods that we had. Whose to blame for that?

Ultimately we are! We are the parents and like our parents before us, we have to do what is best for our kids no matter what "everybody else is doing." Take it from another "expert", my mom, who said, "if they decide to jump off a cliff does that mean your going to?" I'm not jumping off this cliff and I'm hoping I can convince others to put their feet on solid ground and start listening to their inner "expert" and trust their own common sense. Never mind the implied judgements that you're neglecting your child's "education". You're protecting their intelligence!

These articles should make us all STOP, and take a more critical look at the government agendas and cultural trends that push this hyper-schooling onto our kids. This trend may have negative implications for the social and emotional development of children and adolescents. What our kids need most is good quality time with their parents, plenty of good old-fashioned free time, and a lot less pressure to take on the full time job of "schooling" at five years old!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Should lawmakers trust the "Good Old Nebraska Common Sense" of Nebraska parents?

As parents prepare their kids for another school year, Governor Heineman, standing in solidarity with superintendents throughout the Omaha Learning Community, defended the new truancy law by telling Nebraskans that they can trust the “good old Nebraska common sense” of state officials as they manage the early interventions under the new plan and arbitrate the heavier load of truancy filings.

I found this thinking upside down. It should be the other way around, they should trust the "good old Nebraska common sense" of parents to decide for their kids what is an appropriate reason to absent from school. He asked us to trust the government to do the right thing while at the same time supporting a law that is built on the mistrust of parents and assumes that a considerable segment of parents are putting their children at-risk when they take their kids out of school for anything other than a serious documented illness.

The key to the plan, as stated by the Governor, is to “intervene earlier”. Last year schools lacked the resources and organization to implement these early interventions that were a key "prevention" mechanism in the new law. The Governor is confident that when these early interventions are implemented fully the law will spare law-abiding Nebraskan families. I have serious doubts that a law which was designed to scrutinize parents more closely at the earliest possible point, will in practice leave Nebraskan parents free from government intrusion.

So what should parents expect going forward? The law to be enforced. Nebraskans have not yet seen the full effect of the law; they don’t yet realize how sweeping these reforms are and how they will affect their families. The biggest change will be putting the “early interventions” prescribed in the law to work. So what are early interventions? And who is affected? 

Under the law when a student misses only five days in one quarter they engage in a type of delinquent behavior termed, “excessive absenteeism”. At this point the school is obliged to meet with parents to investigate the cause of the absences and direct “services” to correct or “compel” a change of behavior. These "services" are the "early interventions" mentioned at the press conference.

If you thought the truancy letters were intimidating, the hands on “services” called for under the law may be shocking. These "services" at the school level include: educational counseling, educational evaluation (which may include psychological evaluation), and investigation by the school social worker. 

If it is determined by school level officials that the parents have been derelict in their duty the law provides the schools the power to share information about students with DHSS and law enforcement agencies. These actions can be taken by school and state officials when a student misses as few as 5 days of school.

Speaking to the "common sense" of the government officials in our state, the Governor said, “OK, some kid misses 20 days of school, he’s got straight A’s. That’s not really the kid I’m worried about today, OK." I think it unlikely that it has escaped the Governor's attention that families with honor roll students with special circumstances have already been made criminals because the law lacks common sense. What is his meaning, "not...worried about today"? Will he be more worried about them in the future?

I have become personally acquainted with some of the families most impacted by this law, and I doubt they would agree that "common sense" has prevailed. They certainly don't appreciate being considered a "work in progress", as the Superintendent at South Sarpy Schools, Chuck Chevalier, described it. Words that cut deep for parents like Lucy Hall, who under threat of having her child removed from her home, entered her daughter into the truancy diversion program, despite her honor roll status. Their family has been court ordered to entertain social workers in the home weekly and follow a regimented schedule of truancy intervention activities. 

At every opportunity, proponents of this legislation have asserted their honorable intentions to "keep as many kids as possible in school, out of trouble and out of court – now, or later in life." They have described the target of this plan as being those students whose absences result from issues of family transportation, lack of medical care for members of the family, mental illness, drug abuse, lack of daycare for a sibling in the family, or homelessness. Despite their assertions that they're not "after families like yours", and that we simply need to "know the process to feel comfortable about it", "functional" families have been affected adversely by the law. 

They're asking us to “shift our thinking” and no longer see “judges as judges, but as problem-solvers”. In other words, we need to feel grateful when GOALS, the new Truancy Diversion Task Force, brings us together with “a group of experts in the area of local government to analyze...” our family's personal decisions and determine whether we're really doing what's best for our children! I wonder how they can expect any parent to feel comfortable about being investigated by a social worker or being referred to the county attorney, a law enforcement officer who deals with criminals?

We obviously come from different worlds! In my world, parents have a God-given natural right to discern when their child is sick, a family trip is prudent, or their child will garner more educational enrichment in an out-of-class activity. It's outlandish to suggest otherwise.

We need to trust the “good old Nebraska common sense” of parents and re-write this law to make it clear that students with excused absences are not subject to “early interventions” or fall under the jurisdiction of county law enforcement, HHS, or juvenile justice. We need to trust parents and restore the traditional relationship between parents and principals in navigating school attendance policy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"Plan to help truancy law work": Code for getting serious about enforcement!

I'll comment on this news spot in the words of a viewer who commented on the WOWT page: "If the kid makes up the work, and the absences are legitimate excused absences, the county court should keep their noses out of it." This story, like most of them, misrepresents the law and claims the plan is designed to "make the law work"...will it reduce absences? Absolutely. What good law-abiding Nebraskan parents would risk entanglement with social workers and “attendance navigators” to go to an out-of-town wedding?

Go to the WOWT page and weigh in on this discussion.

There were some great comments on this one. If we are going to be successful at pushing repeal of this law we are going to need these Nebraskans of like mind acting in mass when the time comes. Weigh in these discussions and encourage people to get evolved by following the issue here.

Jackie said: The schools say don't send your kid to school if they have a fever. Fevers can stick around for days. The schools say if your kid has been prescribed medication because they are sick, they have to be on it for 24 hours before they can return to school. If your kid has a cough, they can't attend school without a note from a doctor. Those days can really add up fast. They are so adamant about not wanting sick kids at school but yet if they miss so many days you get reported. But yet they WANT you to send your kids to school with head lice because they say it's not a health threat!! And they won't even send a note home saying head live has been found in your kid's class room!! I think the schools have their priorities wrong!!!

An anonymous viewer: Good thing they added in the vomiting children and the ones who have orthodontist appointments to the list of the unexcused so they'll have more parents to talk to. Wouldn't want the task force to have time to work with the kids who are actually truant.

Doug said: Oh wow, another thing the Learning Community and OPS can screw up. If they were doing their jobs in the first place there would not be a need for a law. What's next, passing a law that the kids have to do their homework.