"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eugenics is Alive and as Sick as Ever in Rockland County, New York

In defiance of common sense, core research studies, the best thinking from universities, ethical norms, and humanitarian principles, the loons in charge of schools in East Ramapo, New York have run the clock backwards by almost a hundred years to a time in America when it was cutting-edge thinking to propose identification and segregation of defective individuals that stood in the way of American aspirations for purity and perfection.

Today in East Ramapo, instead of using the crude IQ tests that Yerkes, Terman, and Goddard devised to separate the poor and the brown from others with non-defective "germ plasm," we use crude standardized achievement tests on young humans (1st graders) whose normal developmental differences would make such tests a joke, if the results were not being used to fail first graders, to segregate them, to drill them in math and reading, and to remove art, music, social studies, and science from their lives.

Can you guess the snazzy title of this test-and-segregate policy for first graders? The Gift of Time. Let's all nominate Dr. Mitchell Schwartz, retiring superintendent, for the 2008 Orwell Prize.

Can this really be happening in 2008, in America? From the NYTimes:

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing over the past decade, large urban school systems have famously declared an end to so-called social promotion among youngsters lacking basic skills. Last year, New York flunked 6 percent of its first graders, and Chicago 7.7 percent.

Now the 8,400-student East Ramapo school district in this verdant stretch west of the Palisades is going further, having revived a controversial retention practice widely denounced in the 1980s to not only hold back nearly 12 percent of its first graders this spring but to segregate them in a separate classroom come fall.

The special classes, which are limited to 15 students and follow a pared-down curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic, are called the Gift of Time and come with extras like tutoring and field trips to a local farm.

School officials say that adding resources — about $2,000 per child, in a district whose average general-education spending per pupil is about $13,000 — and tailoring the lessons for low-performers works. Nearly 80 percent of the 54 first graders and 47 second graders in Gift of Time classes this past school year now read at grade level (although they are, of course, a year behind their age group); at least 30 percent of the younger group and 11 percent of the older group are above grade level, according to district evaluations performed last month.

Iraida Hada, the principal of Hempstead Elementary here, said that merely holding back students without a special program to address their needs would not have been as effective.

“How are we going to make it work the second time around, if it didn’t work the first time?” asked Mrs. Hada, whose school was one of five in the district that inaugurated the program this year. “What are we going to do for them? What are we going to change? I believe this program has afforded them another opportunity.”

But some parents have greeted the idea with skepticism, and many education experts say it doubly stigmatizes vulnerable children by combining two practices widely discredited by research: retention and tracking low-achievers.

“This is very worrisome,” said Jay Heubert, a professor of law and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, arguing that both holding back students and separating them can lower self-esteem and academic achievement, increasing the likelihood of dropouts.

Michelle Brown, 34, a certified nursing assistant, fought unsuccessfully to keep her son, Nallehc, out of the program this year for fear that he would be picked on — which he was.

“We believe that for you to have to repeat first grade, it means that you are not capable, you are a dunce child,” Ms. Brown said. “It was bad enough to repeat, and then to repeat in a Gift of Time class. I thought it was a polite way of saying he’s a special-needs child.”

The concept, often called transition classes, was tried in kindergarten in thousands of schools — including East Ramapo’s — in the 1970s and ’80s. Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said such programs were generally abandoned after students failed to show significant academic gains and often developed a worse attitude toward school.

“Kids as young as kindergarten were aware that they were being held back and that what they were doing wasn’t normal,” Dr. Shepard said.

But with the federal No Child Left Behind law and a battery of state mandates increasing pressure on schools to raise test scores, efforts to end the longtime practice of promoting children based on age rather than achievement have taken on new urgency. Districts in Milford, Del., and Lakeland, Fla., are among a handful nationwide that have been experimenting with transition classes in recent years, though both dropped them in the face of parental resistance and, in Florida, concerns among teachers.

“I had a hard time putting just the low-achieving kids together,” said Betty Fitzgerald, principal of Lakeland’s Churchwell Elementary, which ran a separate class for repeating third graders for two years in response to tougher state standards. “It’s like saying, ‘You all are low kids, and you all didn’t pass.’ ”

(The Delaware schools scrapped the retention piece: low-performing kindergarteners are promoted, but grouped in a first-grade class that emphasizes basic skills)

Supporters of the separate classes say they give struggling students a chance to learn at their own pace rather than setting them up for future failure by shoe-horning them into a uniform timetable. Since the 1970s, several schools scattered around New Hampshire have placed kindergarteners in what they call readiness classes for up to a year before starting first grade; the classes are usually smaller and promote social development as much as academics.

“I feel it raises the academic bar in the entire school,” said Dillard E. Collins, principal of an elementary school in Hampstead, N.H., who enrolled his own son in a readiness class in nearby Nashua in the 1980s. “If all the children are ready to go, it’s like moving the starting line up.”

Here in Rockland County, the East Ramapo district serves a mostly poor and minority student population: nearly three-quarters qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program; about 56 percent of the overall public school enrollment is black, 25 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian.

District officials said they revived Gift of Time classes to address a widening gap in the vocabulary and other skills of the youngest children. Similarly, the district began requiring full-day kindergarten last year for the bottom one-fifth of students.

Dr. Mitchell J. Schwartz, a psychologist who retired this spring as the district’s superintendent, said East Ramapo had similarly tried separate classes in the 1980s to address an achievement gap between boys and girls (boys were behind). He said those classes, also called Gift of Time, were successful but were eliminated after several years for financial reasons. . . .

Yesterday Congressman Miller got through the House a bill that would shut down the human rights hellholes that operate under the name of youth boot camps. Where is the bill that would put an end to the kind of publicly supported abuse and humiliation that is happening in Rockland County's first grade classes for poor children? Inspired, no less, by that policy fiasco we shall never forget as No Child Left Behind?

Some price to pay, huh, for a school privatization plan gone haywire?


  1. LOL! A little bit histrionic to call this "eugenics" -- no one's getting killed here.

    However, I'm not surprised if there are issues. I'm rather intimately familiar with East Ramapo, having gone there myself back in the 70's and 80's. It was different then, but I'm still aware of what's gone on.

    A fair portion of the school board is controlled by a voting bloc of a religious nature whose members send their children to private religious schools. They vote in the school system largely so they can reduce taxes, and have little interest in raising home values. They eliminate a lot of extra services and activities which might make it a nice school district to attend, and in the past ten years it's become quite undesireable to go there. A politician recently actually asked, in a meeting, that no more people without children in the public schools run for the school board (and this politician was actually a member of the religion the bloc comprises). They have no interest in creating a good school system.

    I believe a lot of the minorities moved in after the home prices started nose-diving.

  2. I wish that you knew as much about eugenics as you purport to know about the schools of East Ramapo. JH