Friday, June 27, 2014

News You Can Use

Our pile of newspapers and magazines -- paper and digital -- is growing all the time, and we sometimes get the feeling that education news is happening too quickly for us to keep up with it. Here are some items that we think are important to share.
  • Hofstra University, the largest college on Long Island, with approximately 6,800 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate students, has announced that they are implementing a "test optional" admissions policy
    for students applying for admission for fall 2015. This policy will apply to all but international and home-schooled students. Hofstra is joining more than 800 other colleges and universities that no longer require SAT or ACT tests for admission. Recent research has demonstrated that there is no correlation between high standardized test scores and college success; researchers have found that the greatest predictor of college success is a high GPA in high school. You can find lists of other colleges that do not require standardized testing on the website of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, Fairtest.
  • A new group -- the Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, led by our colleagues at Advocates for Children of New York -- is looking at New York's dismal high school graduation rates and at ways to improve these numbers. Check out a report by the coalition and a PowerPoint presentation which presents some stark numbers: New York is well in the bottom half of states in graduation rates, with an overall graduation rate throughout the state of 74%, a rate which falls to less than 45% for students with disabilities. 
  • ED, the Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has an excellent and lengthy examination of two U.S. Supreme Court cases impacting race and education -- Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision which outlawed segregation in public schools, and Milliken v. Bradley, a 1974 decision which barred most busing across school district lines to achieve racial integration of public schools and left de facto segregation and sharp differences between inner cities and their more affluent suburbs in place. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Jury is Out on New NYC Special Education Rules

Parents who place their children in private special education schools in New York City and seek to have their tuition payments either made directly by the public school system (Connors funding) or reimbursed to them (Carter funding), have long come up against a NYC Department of Education which has put up extensive procedural barriers to avoid making these payments. Even the Mayor's office noted, in a press release, "The special education placement process has been fraught with contention and litigation in recent years."

Now, in the face of a bill pending in the New York State legislature which would make it easier and quicker for families to receive public funding, the City has decided to remove the most onerous barriers faced by families seeking school funding and, according to a statement by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, is "...turning the page, making changes that will ease the burden on these parents [by] ... cutting red tape, speeding up the process, and reaching outcomes that do right by families.”  A 2012 bill which would have permitted funding in religious schools was vetoed by the Governor, but the current bill (which has been put on hold in light of this action by New York City) did not include this provision.

The specifics of the new policy are scheduled to be put in place by September of this year and include:

  • Expedited Decisions: The City will now seek to reach a settlement with parents (in cases where settlement is appropriate) within 15 days of receiving notice from the parent of their intention to place their child in a private special education school.
  • Ending Unnecessary Litigation: The City will no longer litigate cases which were settled or decided in prior years, or where the Department of Education fails to offer a school placement, except where there is a change in the kind of educational setting the student requires.
  • Less Paperwork: Parents will no longer need to submit full documentation every year. The new requirement will be for documentation every three years.
  • Quicker Payments: The City will make monthly payments where required by a school and give parents a payment schedule for other payments. 
  • Payments Pending Appeals: Where parents have won a claim for tuition reimbursement which the City seeks to appeal, the City will pay the tuition while the appeal is pending.

Attorneys practicing in the area of special education are hopeful that these new policies mark an end to the very difficult relationship between the City and it's Department of Education and parents. Still, the devil is always in the details and families and the attorneys representing them are reserving judgement until they see how this new approach works in practice. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Recommended Reads: Princess Academy

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Ages: 5th – 8th grade; may appeal to girls more than boys.

Awards: Princess Academy was named a Newbery Honor Book in 2006.

Plot: Fourteen-year-old Miri is a misfit in her beloved mountain town. The people of Mount Eskel, home to
generations of quarry workers, are strong, hearty folk. But Miri is too small to work in the quarry, and although she is treated well by her widowed father, sister, and community, she longs to contribute something of value. Miri gets her chance to show just how valuable her qualities are when a messenger from the king surprises the town with an announcement: The nation’s priests have prophesied that the next queen of the Danland will be a resident of Mount Eskel and each girl must be trained to be the next princess, just in case she’s the one the prince picks. The teenage girls are whisked away to a Princess Academy where a harsh mistress rules with an iron fist. At the academy, Miri’s intellect is as laudable as her massively strong friend Frid’s muscles were back in the quarry. Many of the girls are sure the prince will choose her. But along with exciting possibilities come uncomfortable questions. Does Miri want to live among lowlanders, people whom she has been raised to despise? Her new friend Britta, an orphan from the lowland who studies alongside Miri at the academy, dispels many of Miri’s beliefs about the superiority of mountain folk. Does she really want to marry the prince, a boy she’s never even seen? Stirrings of affection for her childhood companion Peder feel like more than friendship. And could she really ever leave Mount Eskel, a place she does not fit in but loves anyway? Adventure, humor, and wisdom abound in this refreshingly original book. And we wager that you won’t see the ending coming!

Our Take:
The title of this book brings to mind pink gowns and sparkling tiaras, but many girls will be delighted to discover that this tale is far from fluffy. Miri displays the kind of grit, courage, and cunning not usually associated with syrupy princess stories. The plot structure, like the storyline itself, is unexpected in this gem of a book; just as it seems things have settled into a comfortable resolution, another unexpected surprise presents itself. Hale has managed to weave a tale that is at once fast-paced and introspective. The language is lovely, and the multi-layered tale ensures that there’s something for just about every reader.

Good to Know: The sequel, Palace of Stone, was published in 2012.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Help for Developing a Number Sense

When we work with children who struggle with math, we often find that they have not developed a strong "number sense" --  the feel for how numbers work, and such concepts as greater than, less than, and ordering. Since math is a cumulative subject, where each skill builds on knowledge of a another, children who do not internalize a number sense at an early age are at a disadvantage in learning more complex aspects of math.

It is this issue that Dr. Mike Connell sought to address in an app for the iPad called Native Numbers, developed by his company, Native Brain. As noted in the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the app is based on extensive research as to how children learn specific skills. If your young child is drawn to playing on an iPad, you may want to consider making her playing time more constructive and check out this app, available on iTunes for under $10.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Dreambox - A Fun Option for Summer Math Learning

The words “summer vacation” don’t conjure up images of math remediation in most kids’ minds. But for those who struggled during the school year, ceasing math instruction completely during the summer is risky. Many kids need continued exposure to math to maintain what they know and maybe even gain some ground. At the Yellin Center, we’re firm believers that kids need lots of unstructured time to be, well, kids during the summer, however. So how to strike a balance? Dreambox may be the answer for some families.

Dreambox is a web-based math software package that provides math instruction in the form of games. But there’s serious research behind the fun. The skills taught are carefully sequenced and the program is able to continually assess users, allowing students to progress at their own rate. Based on answers the student enters, the program identifies and remediates areas of demonstrated need.

One important thing to note about Dreambox is that parents cannot dictate what specific skills the program will teach. In other words, there is no way to force the program to align with student’s classroom curriculum. Instead, Dreambox will identify gaps in learning that may have gone undetected in previous instruction and remediate those areas. This capability is what makes Dreambox such an ideal tool for summer. Math is a very cumulative subject, so often a child struggling with a particular concept today is actually demonstrating a weak understanding of skills learned last year. The software will fill holes in a student’s understanding and provide him with a solid platform from which to begin next year’s math learning.

Because the program is fun, parents won’t need to beg and plead to persuade kids to spend twenty minutes playing a few times a week. And families on the go can even download the Dreambox app to keep learning via tablets and smartphones. Dreambox may even be appropriate for the future mathematician in the house; it can give her a taste of more advanced material if she whizzes through all the more basic lessons.

Although kids won’t need adult support to use Dreambox, the Parent Dashboard allows parents to stay in the loop by monitoring their kids’ progress. Dreambox will target weak areas, of course, but information about what skills still need work may be useful to teachers at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.

Visit the Dreambox homepagefor more information. The program is available for whole-school use, but the “Getting Started” tab provides pricing and information about purchasing subscription for a single child or just a few kids. A free 14-day trial is also available for those who want to take the program for a spin.

No software program we’ve seen can take the place of a skilled, intuitive instructor. But for families strapped for cash or kids who need just a boost or a platform for maintaining their skills, Dreambox could be an excellent solution.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recommended Reads: If I Stay

If I Stay by Gail Forman

Ages: Best understood by upper middle school or high school students, though the text would be easily decoded by fifth or sixth graders. Will appeal to girls more than boys.

Plot: Cello prodigy Mia’s life is turned upside down on a snowy February morning when the car carrying her family crashes. Her parents are both killed instantly and Mia’s and her younger brother’s lives hang by a thread. Mia finds herself looking down at her mangled body and is able to watch the events that unfold in the hours after the accident, though she is powerless to communicate with anyone. One of the nurses at the hospital tells her grandparents that Mia’s survival is a matter of choice, leaving Mia stunned with the responsibility of choosing whether she will fight for her life or succumb to death. Her best friend, her boyfriend, and her extended family gathered at the hospital remind her of the wonderful things left in her world. But as she reflects over her happy past, can she bear to continue living given all that she has lost?

Our Take: (This section hints at some spoilers.) Young women will whip through this soulful book that begs some of life's biggest questions. The writing is evocative and almost visceral at times; descriptions of the hospital with its mysterious medical apparatus and strange smells are particularly vivid. But while Mia and many of the characters are well-rounded and credible, her relationship with her family is perhaps a touch too idealized to be believed. Forman seems to take great pains to establish that Mia's parents are ultra-cool and, similarly, Mia's relationship with her younger brother is flawlessly blissful. Did she worry that Mia's loss would seem less tragic if Mia and her family had occasional disagreements? Another minor quibble is that Mia's decision near the end of the book feels slightly rushed and anti-climactic. Mia’s best friend is a delightful character, however, and Mia’s confusion about the choices she must make in her final year of high school (stay nearby with her boyfriend or pack off to far-away Julliard?) will be familiar and real to any high school student pondering the future. And the descriptions of Mia’s feelings for the cello music she loves are sometimes achingly beautiful. As a whole, If I Stay is a very good choice for young people. The subject is a dark one indeed, but the book manages to steer clear of melodrama. Instead, it is a thought-provoking read that will get readers thinking about what really matters to them.

Adult Themes: Some very mild sexuality.

Good to Know: A movie version of If I Stay will hit theaters in August. Also, readers curious to know what happens after the book concludes will be happy to discover the sequel Where She Went, which is told from the perspective of Mia's boyfriend Adam and is set several years after the accident.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Benefits of Learning to Write by Hand

We were fascinated by a recent piece in The New York Times about the controversy over handwriting instruction. The article thoughtfully summarizes work by neuroscientists demonstrating that learning to write by hand plays an important role in a number of developing neural pathways. Handwriting appears to have a positive impact on reading, idea generation when writing, and memory formation when taking notes in class. Keyboarding does not appear to have the same impact. Interestingly, manuscript and cursive writing each seem to provide different benefits, and research indicates that learning each style of writing leads to greater cognitive engagement than using only one approach. At a time when many schools are abandoning cursive instruction, this finding is particularly provocative.

As our world becomes ever-more reliant on technology, it is important to develop a true understanding of the impact that writing by hand has on the learning process. In our practice, we speak with many parents who are unsure whether to belabor handwriting development when their kids genuinely struggle. Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply transition to typing since that’s what they’ll use when they’re adults, they wonder? And, as the Times piece points out, the nearly ubiquitous Common Core standards suggest that children learn to hand write legible letters only in kindergarten and first grade; after that, the focus is shifted to keyboarding skills.

Here at the Yellin Center, we often find ourselves considering “the genius of and versus the tyranny of or.” Simply supplying children with a list of accommodations (e.g. either do it this way or learn it that way) is often limiting; a better strategy is establishing a system of accommodations that works in conjunction with a carefully crafted instructional plan (e.g. do this and that, too). Some students need help with a mechanical aspect of a task to complete classwork and should be given workarounds to get through particular tasks. But that doesn’t mean those mechanics shouldn’t be practiced at a separate time. For example, a child who struggles to sound out words certainly needs to develop those critical decoding skills. However, it’s also important that she listen to texts that match her intellectual level so she can practice her comprehension skills and build a love of literature. Learning to decode and listening to texts is a much better approach than only working on either decoding instruction or using audiobooks.

Children should learn how to write by hand, but if they are having difficulty with letter formation they should be given “bypass strategies” like having someone scribe for them, using speech-to-text software, or keyboarding, so their capacity for developing rich written output is not hijacked by their weak graphomotor function. It is essential, however, that kids continue developing handwriting “off-line”; as their mastery and automaticity grows, handwriting can be brought online and integrated into the writing process gradually.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Get a Sense of Your Number Sense with Panamath

Research suggests that students’ achievement in math class may be related to their innate number sense, and it’s no wonder. Number sense, the intuitive recognition of numbers and numerical relationships, is something that animals—including humans!—throughout the world are born with. Panamath, whose name comes in part from the acronym for the Psychological Assessment of Numerical Ability, is an organization hoping to understand the relationship between in-born number sense and math achievement. Through a grant from the National Science foundation, they’re investigating number sense. And if you’re curious about how yours stacks up, their online test is an interesting (and free) resource.

The test is simple enough for even a young child to take: A series of colored dots flashes across the screen and test-takers must decide whether they saw more blue or yellow ones. Both accuracy and decision speed are measured. When the test is over, one can view one’s results compared with other same-age testers. Individuals may wish to take the test out of curiosity, but teachers and clinicians can download it in order to save students’ results. As more is learned about the relationship between number sense and math instruction, gauging a student’s innate skills could be very useful for shaping lessons.

Results not as high as you’d hoped? Never fear! Number sense, like just about every human ability, can be improved. Here are a few ideas for helping kids sharpen their number sense:

Represent Numbers with Different Objects

Pick a number, starting with a small number like five for very young kids. Ask your child to collect different objects and put them in groups that contain that number. (For example, your child might find five rubber bands, five grains of rice, five cotton swabs, etc.) Write the number on a several paper plates and load them with the objects. Point out that groups of ten marbles, ten pieces of puffed rice cereal, ten large crackers, and ten toy cars may take up different amounts of space, but they still contain the same number of objects. Leave the display out for a few days to help your child create an association between the number symbol and the number of items in the group, then try again with a different number.

Comparison Game

Play a guessing game in which you compare groups of different-sized objects with your child. For example, ask your child to cover her eyes and lay out four wooden blocks and seven beads. Then ask your child to look quickly at both groups and point to the one that has more. Next, count the groups to see if she was right. Make the game more challenging by laying out more objects and objects that are closer in size.

Practicing Estimation

There are infinite ways to do this with children. At the grocery store, ask your child to decide which line has the fewest people in it, then count the people in your line and other lines while you wait for the cashier to determine whether your child’s guess was right. Enjoying a treat of candy? Ask kids to guess how many pieces of each color they see or how many pieces there are altogether. Make the estimation games trickier by introducing proportions: Is your child’s little sister half as tall as he is? A third of the height of her father? Measure everyone to see. Is the area of the living room twice the area of your child’s bedroom? More? Less?

Motion Math Games

Evidence suggests that the digital games developed by Motion Math may help kids improve their number sense. The easiest of the games is appropriate for three- or four-year-olds, while other offerings will challenge and entertain kids through early middle school.

How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz

This outstanding picture book was made to help children understand large numbers, which can be difficult to conceptualize. No time to get to the library? The book is (of course) available as a charming video  on YouTube.

For even more ideas, investigate the “Number Sense and Place Value” series by NRICH, which contains a wealth of activities for helping very young and elementary-aged children to improve their number sense

This post contains our own ideas as well as inspiration from Panamath ( and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Monday, June 2, 2014

First Book Offers Incentive to Promote Diversity in Children’s Publishing

Browsing the shelves of a children’s bookstore can be a delightful experience. But just a few minutes in nearly any store or library reveals a disturbing disparity: Though young readers are increasingly diverse, the vast majority of children’s books feature characters that seem cast from the same mold. Most are about white kids from white families. Few characters with disabilities or different sexual orientations appear even as supporting characters, let alone as featured protagonists. According to Kyle Zimmer, CEO of an organization that distributes free books to needy kids called First Book, this is a big problem. It’s harder for children to be enthusiastic about reading when the books available don’t feel relevant to their lives, and this puts millions of kids at risk for lowered reading achievement.

In an interview with NPR, Zimmer pointed out some troubling statistics: In a survey of 3,600 children’s books, only 3.3% starred African American kids and 1.5% featured Latino children. According to Zimmer, research by First Book indicates that kids are far more likely to become enthusiastic readers when they “see themselves” in books. And she adds, importantly, that the benefit of diversity in books extends beyond groups outside the majority; all kids can benefit from reading about the experiences and perspectives of different groups.

Ezra Jack Keat's wonderful books
 feature African American children
To promote diversity in publishing, First Book has launched a new project. Stories For All  offers an incentive to publishers by offering them a guaranteed market for books about characters from under-represented communities and groups. Publishers can present books by unpublished authors that promote diversity to First Book and they will buy 10,000 copies of each of the best ones.

First Book, by the way, is an incredibly worthy organization worth checking out. To date, almost 90,000 classrooms and non-profits have signed up with First Book, meaning that millions of children now have books to call their own. And their programs have been so successful that school personnel report elevated test scores, more literacy activity at home, and tripled interest in reading among kids who get books from First Book. Their call to promote diversity in publishing is just one more expression of the group’s innovative thinking; First Book has dreamed up some very inventive ways to get books into the hands of deserving kids. Their Marketplace sells heavily discounted books to community programs and schools that serve children in need. And their Book Bank is a clearinghouse for publishers’ unsold inventory, allowing excess books to be donated to millions of kids.

If this has got you interested in books about diverse characters, check out our post “Girls of Color Star in Three OutstandingTransitional Book Series” for some suggested titles. We hope these titles will tide you over until Stories for All bears fruit and launches fresh offerings into the market.