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Success in the City, The Lemming Leagues, And Cash-for-Coughs

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, Sept. 6-17.

It's no surprise that, as the debate over how best to serve special-needs kids in public schools continues, parents are taking charge. Last year, 5-year-old Thomas Ellenson, who has cerebral palsy, was one of several special-needs kids enrolled in an "inclusion" classroom in the Manhattan School for Children. His parents, Richard and Lora, got the ball rolling in May of 2003, after they realized that their options—either mainstreaming Thomas or enrolling him in a school designed specifically for the disabled—wouldn't provide their son with the real-world experiences they felt he needed. So, after an impromptu appeal to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom they bumped into in a restaurant, calls were made, a school was found, and classrooms were refitted so that Thomas and a few others would have the space and tools they needed to learn alongside able-bodied peers. There were many up and downs, of course—including Richard Ellenson's frustration over not being able to come up with a template for future classes. But the couple's greatest hope, that their son would be able to make friends, was realized: Thomas just started 1st grade at MSC with his best friend, Evan.

Dreams of a different sort occupy the minds of millions of other Americans—dreams of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. More than ever, high-schoolers, encouraged by their parents, are shooting for the "Gotta-Get-Ins," thinking there's no substitute for assured success. Well, they're wrong, according to Gregg Easterbook, whose piece "Who Needs Harvard?" is part of the "college admissions" package in Atlantic Monthly's October issue. Studies show that, aside from the Ivies, as many as 200 schools can help pave the way for wealth and/or fulfillment. That's because, in the last 30 years, those schools—thanks to a profusion of able faculty members and alumni donations—have improved their educational quality. Meantime, increasing numbers of teenagers are vying for a fixed number of Ivy slots, setting up themselves, and their parents, for crushing defeat.

So why do these families torture themselves? Status is the short answer, according to Easterbrook, and "as society gets wealthier," he says, "there are simply more and more people who can care about status." The wealthy, in this case, are baby boomers, whose own Ivy League dreams never died. "The college counselors I interviewed told me that half the parents they counsel talk as if it's them applying to college," Easterbrook reveals. So it only makes sense, as he indicates, that "an awful lot of baby boomer parents today are writing their children's application essays." Stopping the madness isn't easy, however. Even Easterbrook, a well-heeled father of school-age kids, admits to anxieties about their competitive potential. And he uses a boomer-era analogy to explain the phenomenon. "In an arms race," he says, "each individual player knows the race is ridiculous, but they also know that their opponents are doing everything possible to win."

Acing a test is one way to show potential worth. But researchers say that 20 to 30 percent of K-12 students suffer from text anxiety, doing everything from blowing chunks to going blank during quizzes and exams. What's triggered is a vicious cycle: Johnny, afraid his parents will ground him for getting a C on the math test, is so nervous he gets a D; so he's punished, and when it comes time for the next test, he flunks. Seeing as tests, for better or worse, are the standard measure in American schools, some educators have resorted to stress-reducing tricks. One Illinois 5th grade teacher puts on Elmo slippers and a funny hat, then dims the lights and plays classical music before exams. A 4th grade teacher in Alaska doesn't even call them tests. "I explain to them," she says, "that 'Zimbabwes' are a way for me to know how each of them is coming along and they are not in competition with any other students in the room."

How about this for pressure: Dave Cowles, superintendent of the Vista Unified district in Southern California, strongly suggests, via newsletters sent home, that his 25,000 students forgo at least one sick day this year. Revenue from the state, he explains to families, is based on average daily attendance, which means that, had each student gone to school just one more day last year, $600,000 would have been added to school coffers. And perfect attendance by every student this year would mean—ka-ching—$3 million extra. Seeing as Vista has had to make $23 million in cuts since 2001, his reasoning is understandable. But should an 8-year-old kept up all night by allergies have to miss out on a day of rest just because the district is pinching pennies?

—Rich Shea

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