May 6, 2006

Disagreeing with the Education Wonks

There is a lot that the Educations Wonks and I agree on. But not everything. One topic we disagree on is the need for parental support. In response to Secretary of Education Spellings' letter celebrating teachers, the Wonks took the opportunity to beat the parental support drums:
And oh, before I forget, I saved the best for last: According to Spellings and Co., schools will be held 100% accountable for getting 100% of students at or above grade-level in reading and math by 2014.
Schools must accomplish this laudable goal in spite of parents who will not return phone calls, bother to show-up to parent-teacher conferences, check to see that their child's homework has been done, or even make sure that their children arrive on time to school rested and with paper and pencil.
Let's assume going into this that the school has discipline under control and that the teachers are effectively managing their classrooms. In short, we're assuming that the school is performing its job correctly for the six hours a day, 180 days a year the students are in their care.

It's also a safe assumption that a certain percentage of parents simply doesn't care about their child's education. Unfortunately, the lower the SES of the school the greater the percentage of parents fall into this category. These are, of course, the children who are in the greatest need of parental support. But, I have bad news for the Wonks and any other educator teaching in low SES schools. The sad fact is that you're not going to be getting the parental support you think you want or need. Moreover, you've made a serious error if you designed your instructional program around getting this elusive parental support. This is like a bridge manufacturer designing a bridge based on a design requiring steel when only wood is available.

I know this makes a difficult job even more difficult. And, the Wonks have every right to complain since they have an exceedingly difficult job. But at the end of the day, blaming lack of parental support when students fail is not a valid excuse.

When the parents don't care, you have to make the best use of the six hours a day, 180 days a year you have with the students. If the kids refuse to do assigned homework and you can't get them to do it, then you've made an error trying to use homework to instruct. And, I always thought parent teacher conferences were for the parents' benefit, if the parents don't care why bother with the conference? When students are tardy, then the school needs to do a better job enforcing the truancy and compulsary attendance laws. And, I don't want to hear about schools not having sufficient suppplies of anything with the lavish funding taxpayers provide them. This is a school mismanagement issue.
According to the federal government, our public schools must fulfill NCLB's mandates despite disruptive and defiant students who cannot be placed in more structured classroom environments due to federal regulations. These same students will often not even make an effort to attempt their school work. Pupils cannot even be required by teachers to get the after school help that they need.
Show me a student who is not engaged, motivated, and/or disruptive, and I'll show you a history of ineffective instruction. Show me an unmotivated high school student and I'll show you a student who wasn't taught to read properly back in elementary school when they were motivated. Show me a disruptive student and I'll show you a poor reader who'd rather act up than be viewed as being dumb by his peers. Show me an unengaged student and I'll show you a student who is being instructed far above her ability level and who lacks many critical preskills.

Sure, they'll be a few hard cases that won't respond to effective classroom management or who lack sufficient cognitive ability. A few percent at best. This might be an issue in 2014, assuming the NCLB stanards aren't loosened before then, but it isn't an issue today.
Instead of simplistic platitudes, I heartily wish that the Secretary would for once mention the need for parents and students to also share in the responsibility for achieving their own academic success.

Educating children is a team effort involving educators, parents, and the children themselves.
I wouldn't characterize it as a need per se. An advantage, perhaps, that would make teaching easier, but not a need that would excuse teaching failure. The sad fact is that most future failing students are, for all intents and purposes, academically dead before they're out of elementary school, before they are old enough to be responsible for much of anything.

Six hours a day, 180 days a year is sufficient time to teach children what they need to know. There are low SES schools that get the job done within these constraints. There's only a need for a team effort when the job isn't getting done during school. So whose fault is this?
Almost without fail, Spellings aims her remarks at only one component of the team: educators. A classroom teacher who is serving between 20-40 students of varying academic abilities should not cannot be reasonably expected to get 100% of his or her students at or above grade-level proficiency in reading, math, and (soon) science.
With this I agree. But we can't blame the student or his parents for this shortcoming. The school is responsible for this problem. Children of varying academic abilities should not be in the same instructional grouping. Grouping should be by ability. The fact that children of wildly varying abilities are routinely placed in the same classroom is a good indication that the school does not know how to teach effectively. Show me one low-SES school that is pulling off heterogeneous grouping successfully. There are none. Yet, this is the preferred method of teaching children. Go figure.
But it's so much easier for Spellings ... hold us teachers and site administrators solely responsible for the satisfactory academic progress of 100% of our students.
It might be easier. But it's also proper. The reponsibility of teaching is the school's. And, it is the quality of the teaching that determines whether satisfactory progress is being made. Where are these schools that are both not making satisfactory academic progress and teaching effectively. There are none.
If the Secretary really was interested in helping teachers more effectively serve students and parents, she would advocate the adoption of legislation that would give teachers the classroom management and instructional tools that they need in order to do their jobs so that they would have at least a sporting chance of accomplishing the mandates set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Is this a rhetorical question? The Wonks fail to give any examples of the instructional tools they think are necessary to comply with NCLB. I'm willing to bet that there is either no legislative prohibition and/or there is no evidence of success for many, if not all, of the Wonks' proposed tools.

23 comments:

jklugman76@netscape.net said...

"Moreover, you've made a serious error if you designed your instructional program around getting this elusive parental support...If the kids refuse to do assigned homework and you get them to do it, then you've made an error trying to use homework to instruct."

Has anyone designed an instruction program that requires minimal-to-none parental involvement and homework in the child's education? It seems to me that parental involvement anchors the pedagogy that goes on in public and private elementary schools in the US (and perhaps in all industrialized countries) and saying that teachers just need to adopt a new model comes off as very glib.

KDeRosa said...

Has anyone designed an instruction program that requires minimal-to-none parental involvement and homework in the child's education?

Yes. Direct Instruction.

Where are you getting your data that parental involvement anchors the pedagogy?

Josh (jklugman76 at netscape dot net) said...

I don't have any empirical data per se; it seems uncontroversial to me though to say that teachers everywhere (or nearly everywhere) expect parents to get involved in their child's learning. e.g. help them with homework, or help motivate them to do homework, read to them, etc. To get students to master material at a proficient level without relying on homework and/or parental involvement seems to me a Herculean task; if Direct Instruction truly does this then I will be very, very impressed. Thank you for the link; I appreciate it.

Catherine Johnson said...

This is like a bridge manufacturer designing a bridge based on a design requiring steel when only wood is available.

I like that.

KDeRosa said...

Hi Josh.

it seems uncontroversial to me though to say that teachers everywhere (or nearly everywhere) expect parents to get involved in their child's learning.

You're right. This is almost the universal response I hear from teachers.

My view on parental support is: great if you can get it, but it shouldn't be an excuse if you don't.

In DI they do not like giving homeowrk because they want to be in control of the learning environment. They do not want the student going home and learning misrules because misrules are difficult to correct. It is easier to teach a blank slate than to teach a slate that has been written on incorrectly.

From p. 19 of Summary of Presentation to Council of Scientific Society Presidents, December 8, 2002:

The programs provide for very little
homework. The assumption is that all the skills the children need are best taught in class, where there is greater control.

The paper gives a good summary of what DI has achieved.

SteveH said...

As an example, look at the 4th grade NAEP sample math questions and the horrible results. I want someone to tell me what is so difficult about any of these problems that it requires parental support. We are not talking about a calculus track level of math, although that level can be achieved with just 30 minutes of proper math work a day - in class.

I agree 100 percent with Ken. I'm tired of talking about generalities. Teachers need to show exactly what is required (and why) by parents to make their curricula work. My son's Everyday Math (which is only an adequate math program) homework (4th grade) takes at most 10 minutes. This could easily be done at school by eliminating many of the time-wasteful hands-on group discovery periods.

Now, tell me what it is that I (a parent) do that is so beneficial? Actually, what parents do that helps the most is to cover all of the CONTENT and SKILLS that K-8 educational pedagogues FAIL TO TEACH!

The fact that there is such a big correlation between parental support and student success shows that there is a huge failure in K-8 education.

How can a school tell the difference between not enough parental support and bad education? This is not a trick question. Just don't tell me what our public schools tell me: "Our kids hold their own in high school."

Laura said...

I appreciate your addressing this, and I see your point. However, I think you missed mine. You might be surprised to learn how many parents either outright or essentially tell their kids school doesn't really matter. Or worse yet, they may SHOW them it doesn't.

Any young person can spend six hours a day in an environment geared toward valuing education, but if they go home and see their heroes--parents, uncles, aunts--hanging sheetrock, living off of significant others or government checks, or, Heaven forfend, peddling drugs without so much as a high school equivalency, which example is going to influence them more greatly?

We cannot be there since birth. We cannot buy them teddy bears or video games or jewelry for their birthdays--especially if we have 30 or more in each class, I might add. Teachers simply do not have the weight of home examples. And they should not. It is a sad state of affairs when children cannot trust those who are raising them, and teachers can only do so much to counteract such setbacks, wouldn't you agree?

And again, we can spend less time doting on them, less time counteracting these effects, if we have such large loads. There is much more time to check on how each is feeling today, what's going on at home, and what they need if we have, say, 15-20 per class. Is that not logical?

I understand that we cannot solve their home lives (a dangerous, and perhaps derogatory way to put it, yes), but at the very least, would you not grant that we could do more to balance out the less advantageous situations if we had fewer to get to know, thus more time to devote to each?

Laura said...

As for homework, it is generally considered a means to practice skills taught in class. When only allotted 45-90 minutes per day over the course of 180 or 90 days, it is difficult to provide for adequate instructional AND practice time. I have heard that six is generally the number of times or ways that a topic needs to be approached truly to be learned. To get the depth and breadth required therefore, it is also necessary to extend school hours effectively.

What's more, homework is but one way to try to counteract an a-literary home environment. If a student leaves learning at school, then they are not learning to value learning. My Spanish class students will never learn to speak Spanish if they only use it 90 minutes a day, and very few will take the initiative to try it out without assignments. So we reward the home application as best we can.

Anonymous said...

Sure, they'll be a few hard cases that won't respond to effective classroom management or who lack sufficient cognitive ability. A few percent at best. This might be an issue in 2014, assuming the NCLB stanards aren't loosened before then, but it isn't an issue today.

It is an issue now, for simple political reasons: maintaining the 100% mandate in the near future (and 2014 is the near future) keeps people from accepting NCLB in its entirety. Give people what you yourself acknowlege is an impossible mandate (it's not a goal) and they will reject it. Make it 95%, which is reasonable, and you'll get more people working together to reach that figure.

--Mike

KDeRosa said...

Laura, I understand your point about some parents not being good role models. What do you think has a bigger effect: a bad parental role model or the constant feedback the student receives that you're dumb when you don't succeed academically and/or can't read well? I'm thinking it's overwhelmingly the latter. I also don't think any amount of parental role modelling or support will be effective so long as the student continues to fail academically. Many parents do not have the ability to remedy these problems even if they provided support.

There is much more time to check on how each is feeling today, what's going on at home, and what they need if we have, say, 15-20 per class. Is that not logical?

There'd be less need for doting if the academics were better. Academic success eliminates many problems. Some kids will need smaller classrooms to succeed academically and they should get them.

As far as the homework issue goes, certainly by the high school level homwork will most likely play a part in learning. But before that, I'm not so sure it's needed, though certainly the more the kids practice what they've been taught the more they'll learn. The point, however, is that there is sufficient time to get kids up to grade level given the typical school day if the classroom time is used more effective. In the typical classroom, time is not used effectively and many homework assignments are mere busywork assignments with little learning or practice opportunities.

I'd day that if the students have a home environment tha supports doing homework, then by all means use that opportunity. But, if the environment is not there, the work still has to get done in school.

KDeRosa said...

Mike, right now the NCLB level is 99%. The Di people say that all but 1% to 3% can achieve at grade level if the proper conditions are in place with proper instruction. Myybe this is too optimistic. In controlled studies, the mobility rate in low SES school ditricts is too high (25%) to achieve this kind of success. This is why I use a higher number, 5% - 10%, when I argue because that's the best we can show with certainty. But, I see no reason to just accept this lower pass rate without trying to achieve the best we can.

And,I do not think that the high NCLB rate is any reason for schools to not be doing their best. We are four years or so into the game, and most schools have doon little if anything productive to improve, besides complain.

Laura said...

This probably all goes back to your contention that we have to catch them early, then. At a certain point, no number of A's is going to counteract dollar signs or hormones--unless, perhaps, they were raised with that early on.

However, I remain skeptical that academics can replace the rest. One needs only consult Maslow's hierarchy of needs to deduce that one. If their physical safety needs are not met, their need for belonging, how can they focus on self-actualization of any kind? I'm sure we have ALL experienced the mind-numbing stomach grumble (or even emotional stomach grumble) that superceded any will to learn.

Just the same, I like your points and that we can really dialogue about these things. Much can be learned.

SteveH said...

"If their physical safety needs are not met, their need for belonging, how can they focus on self-actualization of any kind? I'm sure we have ALL experienced the mind-numbing stomach grumble (or even emotional stomach grumble) that superceded any will to learn."


What percentage of kids fall into this category?

24 / (6/2) = ?

4th grade math. 42 percent got this wrong?

Are these the kids who can't focus on self-actualization of any kind? Are they in a zombie-like state at school?

Either schools can teach these kids something or they cannot. If schools cannot, how do they know that? They try really, really hard and fail, so the problem has to be somewhere else?

Laura said...

Steve H.--As far as your math problem, I myself do not recall seeing denominators in parentheses until 7th grade, and I was in Algebra. Standards are rising, but to what end?

I would say the 10 minutes of homework is to get kids into the habit of taking work home before high school when broad AND deep standards that have been raised--to the points that college Biology teachers raise their eyebrows at the 10th grade tests--make home practice a necessity.

As for percentages, you and I both know they vary school to school, community to community, and citing any national or state-level statistic would be rendered irrelevant given inherently different demographics. A variety of factors contribute to fulfillment of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and not all can be controlled by schools--nor do I feel it is within the school's scope to CONTROL all of them--and even if they were, could easily be undermined elsewhere. These needs can be threatened not only by abuse, poverty, hunger, and parents in jail, but by common every day things like break-ups, fighting with friends or parents, or media expectations.

So, if you insist on absolutes and it's all or nothing, then no, schools cannot teach. They cannot always counteract every factor, and any number of traumas could have occurred during the week in which problems like that one were covered.

Also, let me make it clear that I am not dealing with math or fourth graders in my spetting. I come from a high school English perspective primarily, and thus can offer few definite answers as to that particular math problem.

Anonymous said...

What do you think has a bigger effect: a bad parental role model or the constant feedback the student receives that you're dumb when you don't succeed academically and/or can't read well? I'm thinking it's overwhelmingly the latter.

The problem is, KD, that frequently (in my experience and in that of teachers I know) a bad parental role model is also an abusive parent, and that constant feedback of "dumb" comes from the parent before it comes from anyone else. So I would say that a loving parent who is a bad role model is better than that constant negative feedback from the world, but that constant negative feedback from a parent outweighs most everything else.

Mike, right now the NCLB level is 99%.

I'd prefer to see it lowered a bit, to around 95% (no lower, though).

Mike

KDeRosa said...

So, if you insist on absolutes and it's all or nothing, then no, schools cannot teach. They cannot always counteract every factor, and any number of traumas could have occurred during the week in which problems like that one were covered.

I disagree. I think that virtually all kids can be effectively taught regardless of external factors. I've given the example of the City Springs School (in the next post up) who are doing an outstanding job in a very bad environment. If they can pull it off, then any school should be able to.

KDeRosa said...

I'd prefer to see it lowered a bit, to around 95% (no lower, though).

That's about right. It should be around 97% - 93%. And, many of these kids can be brought up to the basic level. They should be handled on a case by case IEP-like basis.

SteveH said...

"Either schools can teach these kids something or they cannot."

This is NOT an all or nothing statement on my part. NAEP test results are so bad and schools are complaining so much, my reaction as a parent is to question whether schools think they can teach ANYONE, not EVERYONE.

SteveH said...

"Standards are rising, but to what end?"

If you think that standards are high enough already and question "to what end" they are rising, then I want you to stay away from my child. If you think that K-8 teaching and curricula are just perfectly fine, then I'm going to fight even harder for unrestricted charter schools and full vouchers.

I don't have any major issues with public high school curricula, except for the fact that many kids leave K-8 unable to take advantage of their offerings. There is a clear curriculum gap in math between our K-8 schools and our high school. There is also a curriculum and educational philosophy wall between the two. A number of parents have told me that the idea is to send your child to a private K-8 school, and then you can send them to the public high school. The overwhelming problems with K-8 education are low and fuzzy expectations.

SteveH said...

"Maslow's hierarchy of needs,"

This pyramid is neither necessary or sufficient for a basic education. A proficient level of education (as defined by the NAEP) is not precariously balanced on meeting all of these needs. There can be many external interfering factors that reduce one's ability to learn and they don't necessarily have anything to do with any sort of hierarchical pyramid of needs.

The question I have is how schools know that a student's inability to achieve a minimal level of education is the result of not meeting these basic needs? What percent of the kids are unable to meet minimal levels of education because of these needs? Schools seem to think that it is a very high percent.

Laura said...

I cannot speak from personal experience with K-8 standards except in as far as it has gotten my 10th graders, for example. Judging from their abilities, there might be too much emphasis on breadth and too little on depth, thus making any connections they make too little to perform higher level tasks.

And just about all external factors fit somewhere in the pyramid of needs, in my experience as a teacher and a human.

Not all of the answers are in the scores, and the numbers will not tell you the reasons each kid got each question wrong. Ask each kid's teacher, though, or counselor, or school social worker. One of them--in any decent school--can give you the factors that influenced the kid.

For example, I could tell you why my Spanish students did not conjugate AR verbs well, but then did fine with ER and IR verbs--they were sick for two days when AR verbs were introduced and did not see me--or apparently anyone else--to catch up. But their scores only show I did not teach them that. I'm afraid to ask if you honestly believe, Steve H. that that is something for which the school--or I--can be held responsible. I cannot turn the whole class around every time someone is absent, right? We would be able to cover so VERY little ground that way, and thus have failed standards in other ways. I'm sure the same is true in math classes.

So if you want to know percentages, check the absentee lists. Check with educators who work with the child. They will tell you. I can only speak for my own students--not generalized percentages from outside my school and classroom.

KDeRosa said...

Laura, in the effective curricula material is always presented in at least three classes, nothing is considered to be learned until it's been presented at least three times. Then after that massed practice, the material is used constantly in distributed practice until the student has mastered it.

The situation you are describing of a student who was sick the day the material was presented would almost never happen in a better designed curricula.

SteveH said...

"I'm afraid to ask if you honestly believe, Steve H. that that is something for which the school--or I--can be held responsible.

The school(s)? Yes. You, I have no idea. You make the same mistake that many teachers make. You see the problem of education as what walks into your classroom each day. I look at the problem as the summation of everything that student has gone through during his/her previous school career. If a student walks into your classroom with a very poor grasp of prerequisites, do you just wonder how on earth you are going to prepare him or her for testing and learning the material? Or, do you go and complain that these students should not be in your class in the first place?

Many look at these problems and wonder how they can fix high school. My answer is to start in the lower schools. For example, some sixth grade teachers complain that kids come into their class not knowing the times table, but their reaction is to complain that they have to get them to meet the state's testing requirement. Testing is not the problem. The problem is that the school does not do its job and simply passes the students along.


"I cannot turn the whole class around every time someone is absent, right?"

This isn't about students being absent. That cannot possibly be an excuse for horrible scores on simple, standardized tests. That's what we are talking about here. The results are so bad that it cannot be blamed solely on the kids, the parents, lack of food, or society. There has to be some sort of mechanism to evaluate curricula, expectations, and teacher effectiveness. Apparently, schools do not admit that there is a way to do this.