Helloween, Too Much of a Good Thing, and a Rank Odor

By Scott J. Cech — November 03, 2005 3 min read

It’s not the goblins, ghouls, and ghosts that scare teachers when October draws to a close—it’s The Day After, when those trick-or-treaters show up back at school either stoked on caffeine and sugar or about to crash from the same. “Sugar rush day” is what English teacher Melanie Ontiveros calls it. Her Morrill Middle School students in San Jose, California, who’ve been up all night demanding junk food and gobbling it wholesale ever since “are going to be antsy and inattentive,’’ she adds. Strategies for dealing with a class full of juiced-up kids vary. “Some teachers will hand out leftover Tootsie Roll Pops to serve as a kind of methadone,’’ says Robert Wright, a Morrill colleague. Although he hopes for the best each November 1, Wright and others tend to put it in the same “probably going to be unproductive” category as the day before winter break and the last day of school. Some districts, such as nearby Milpitas Unified, don’t even try to educate children on Halloween Hangover Day, instead making it a teacher-training period.

Also under the heading of “too much of a good thing,” two new studies show that while preschool accelerates children’s language and math skills, preK kids left overlong in such settings suffer lingering socialization problems. “A lot of preschool staff are underpaid and overworked. After six hours, the quality of activity may get sort of petered out,” says Bruce Fuller, a University of California-Berkeley sociologist who cowrote one of the reports. The results come amid a push in the state and elsewhere to make early education universally available, and advocates of that movement were quick to pick at the studies’ faults. “What they are calling preschool is basically any kind of classroom, most of which are not very good,” notes Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Another study finds that parents and children both worry about what happens at school, but they’re concerned about very different things. While adults fret most about what peer pressure and bullies are doing to their kids, students are more concerned about homework and grades. According to a poll of 9- to 13-year-olds by the nonprofit KidsHealth, 36 percent of the 875 kids surveyed cited academics when asked what made them feel stressed. Notably, only 22 percent of the children said talking to a parent about their problems is something they do “a lot”—possibly because, besides school, their biggest source of stress is family.

Teachers in Denver may also be feeling more stress, depending on how comfortable they are with the idea that their students’ classroom performance will help dictate their pay. With the passage of a
$25 million property tax increase this week, the Mile High City’s public school system became the largest district to adopt a form of merit pay. As of January 1, new classroom hires will be automatically enrolled in the setup, which rewards teachers not for their seniority but for professional development, student achievement, and a willingness to work in tougher schools. National teacher associations have frowned on the Denver plan, but the local affiliate worked with the district to design and promote it. Former union activist Brad Jupp, who’s worked on the plan for six years, happily drank a beer at the campaign’s victory celebration. “We’re ready,” he said. “I feel great.”

The same cannot be said for those whose peculiar burden it is these days to teach—or attempt to teach—biology in Kansas. The task was ranked Number 3 on the magazine Popular Science’s 2005 list of the worst jobs in science. “The evolution debate is consuming almost everything we do,” says Brad Williamson, a 30-year science educator at Olathe East High School and a former president of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “It’s politicized the classroom. ... Students will say things like ‘My grandfather wasn’t a monkey!’ ” There’s apparently not much more support from colleagues in places where education officials aren’t debating whether “intelligent design”—the conjecture that an unnamed supernatural being dreamed up the universe—is a viable alternative to evolution. “I get calls from teachers in other states who say things like ‘You rubes!’ ” Williamson says. The job could be worse (the list ranks “manure inspector” and “human lab rat” as Numbers 2 and 1, respectively) but it says a lot that scientists consider the Kansas job seven rungs more repugnant than Number 10: “Orangutan-pee collector.”

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