May 15, 2006

Trading Places

The debate over the merits of effective instruction vs. blame the students whether teachers should take responsibility for their teaching continues with The Daily Grind and Math and Text.

Mr. McNamar attempts to clarify his position and tells us explicitly what he believes:
Some teachers are highly effective and most students learn.
Some teachers are effective and many students learn.
Some teachers are less effective some students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and still some students learn.
This may be accurate for Mr. McNamar's school. But, to be a useful framework we need a statement that generalizes better. To be accurate, the statement must take into account the demographics of the students. So, let's invent a new school, the Randolph and Mortimer Duke School for the Pompously Affluent. At the Duke school, we'd typically see:
Some teachers are highly effective and most students learn.
Some teachers are effective and slightly fewer students learn.
Some teachers are less effective a couple less students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and many students still learn.
Now let's switch the curriculum to a significantly more successful curriculum:
Some teachers are highly effective and all but a few students learn.
Some teachers are effective and slightly fewer students learn.
Some teachers are less effective a couple less students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and most students still learn.
Not much of a difference. This school was performing well to begin with and it is loaded with many smart students who were already succeeding under the typical, yet inferior, curriculum. Smarts kids have a way of doing that. The few kids at the lower end of the curve would benefit the most from this improved curriculum, but they are so few in number that it doesn't have much effect on the school's overall performance. Similarly, more students will be prepared to take on the rigors of a difficult college curriculum, like math, science, or engineering, but that is beyond the scope of this post; but keep it in mind.

Now let's switch the curriculum to a significantly inferior one, here's what we'd see.
Some teachers are highly effective and many students learn.
Some teachers are effective and slightly fewer students learn.
Some teachers are less effective a couple less students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and almost as many students still learn.
Same story. Student performance has suffered slightly, but not much. Again the most vulnerable kids at the bottom of the curve will be affected the most, but their numbers are small. There's also most likely a familial back-up system in place for most kids that'll kick in to prevent outright student failure. Marginally more kids will enter college under-prepared, but by the time the parents realize the problem (assuming they ever do) their kids will be out of the school system and they'll only be able to complain from the sidelines.

Now let's put ourselves in the shoes of a teacher at the Duke School. She sees lots of student success. The curriculum doesn't matter much. Students usually succeed, except for the slackers. Most of the students who don't succeed are not too bright, lazy, unmotivated, unengaged, and/or have parents that don't care. If only they took ownership of their learning, they'd perform so much better. They have no one to blame but themselves.

There is rarely any reason to switch to one of those pesky highly-structured instructional programs with their nasty scripting that bores teachers and robs them of their precious creativity. Students mostly perform well; except for the few slackers. Of course, if these kids were ever placed in a more effective instructional program their performance would improve dramatically, as would their attitude toward school. But, this isn't going to happen any time soon at the Duke school--too few students are affected. Plus, we have a built in excuse for failure--it's the kid's fault.

Now let's switch things up a bit. In Wizard of Oz-like fashion we're going to transport the Duke school to the worst part of town. Everything will stay exactly the same, except for the name which we'll change to the Billy Ray Valentine School for the Poor and Needy. At the Valentine school things aren't nearly as rosy as they were at the former Duke School. Everything is the same except for student performance. Typically, we'd see:
Some teachers are highly effective and some students learn.
Some teachers are effective and slightly less students learn.
Some teachers are less effective a couple less students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and almost no students learn.
It's bedlam. There's very little learning going on. On average kids make about 0.6 years of progress every year they're in school. Most kids are disengaged from school and not motivated to learn. Some, maybe many, students are disruptive and make any learning significantly more difficult for the other students. Almost none of these kids is adequately prepared to go to college, most are smart enough to know they shouldn't even try.

Now let's change the curriculum to something awful:
Some teachers are highly effective and a few students learn.
Some teachers are effective and slightly less students learn.
Some teachers are less effective a couple less students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and almost no students learn.
Again, not much of a difference. There's still very little learning going on. Most kids are still disengaged from school and unmotivated to learn. Some students are still disruptive. Wisely, almost no one goes on to college.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of the hapless teacher at the Valentine school, we'd come to the same conclusions as that of the Duke school teachers. The only difference is that there are a lot more slackers. A lot more slackers; but there's also many more available excuses since the home environment of these kids is wretched.

Unfortunately, there are so many kids performing poorly that the State and Feds have started to hassle us. The Man is hassling us; and interfering with our autonomy to boot. We've tried the typical faddish, yet consistently underperforming, remedies on our short list everything, but nothing is working. Time for desperate action. Time to switch to that horrible, scripted curriculum (which, if implemented properly, will lead to):
Some teachers are highly effective and many students learn.
Some teachers are effective and many students learn.
Some teachers are less effective and many students learn.
Some teachers are not very effective and many students still learn.
Now there's learning going on. Since there's learning going on, students are motivated and engaged. This school is an odd bird indeed; most teachers have never seen a school like this operate. Here are some of the characteristics of such a well-performing school:

  1. The curriculum has been field tested and known to work with almost all students if implemented properly.
  2. Lessons are fast paced and instruction is clear so that student engagement is maintained.
  3. Students are constantly reinforced and praised for good achievement and behavior. Bad behavior is ignored as much as possible.
  4. The curriculum is designed so that learning is made explicit, so data on student achievement can be collected.
  5. Classes are homogeneously grouped as to student ability.
  6. Students are initially placed according to their existing skills and ability.
  7. Lessons are paced so that all students in the class can keep up.
  8. Students receive sufficient practice so they are capable of mastering the material within a reasonable time period.
  9. Classes with lower performers have smaller class sizes.
  10. They also get the most effective teachers and are shielded from the less capable ones.
  11. The curriculum is highly structured and sequenced.
  12. Because of this sequencing, projections can be made as to what students are capable of learning.
  13. When the student achievement data does not match the projected performance, action is taken immediately:
    • The teacher and classroom is checked to make sure the material is being presenting properly.
    • Then, the student is tested to make sure he is placed appropriately in the sequence.
    • Then, the pacing is checked to ensure the student is receiving enough practice, and additional instructional time is scheduled if necessary.
This high-performing, high-poverty school is a fragile enterprise. If the school permits excuses to be made to accept substandard performance, the achievement of the students will suffer. Rather, the school must always assume that the problem resides in the instructional delivery system; and the problem must be diagnosed and fixed promptly or continued high performance cannot be maintained. These kids entered school behind and their performance must be accelerated for them to catch up to their middle-class peers at the Duke school.

This is why schools need to take responsibility for their teaching, at least until we find that magic bullet that will cure all our education woes. When that happens Mr. McNamar and J.D. can blame whomever they want and I won't care at all.

8 comments:

Mr. McNamar said...

I do teach a scripted program. It doesn't bother me at all that I can't be creative in my lesson plans; it actually saves me a great deal of planning time while eliminating the frustration of a mental block.
But, two things I've noted. You could get anybody to walk in and read the script. But, not all people can walk into room, connect with those students and convince them to take part. Believe me, I have many students who will attest to how much they hate READ 180. But others love it. It is their favorite period of the day.
And second, not all of my students have succeeded in the program.
Now, I know you will blame me, because you clearly have all of the answers, and despite never having watched me teach, you seem to know that it must be my lack of effectiveness. Oh, by the way, your profile doesn't give your credentials. Let me guess, 20 years in the field of education, teaching math or science. Then you realized how ineffective schools were and became a researcher who has conducted field study upon field study that shows with 100% accuracy that Direct Instruction is the perfect method, if done properly, for every student in the country.
If you are going to continue to have the debate, that is fine, but please, don't assume you know me or how I teach.
At no time do I put 100% of failure on the heads of the student.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ken

off-topic - Do we have info on the learning rates of gifted, high-average, average, low-average....whatever categories there are....kids?

I've seen it said that gifted kids learn math concepts with one exposure, while other kids need 6 to 8 exposures. (not fact-checked)

Is there a spectrum?

How generalizable is the 6-to-8 figure?

I'm curious, because of a John Gatto Taylor observation that the bell curve is a religious & ideological fiction (an idea I don't reject out of hand, btw...)

I think Taylor would say we have a tiny number of gifted kids, a tiny number of LD kids, and then a big mass of kids who are more or less similar in learning abilities & potential....(putting words in his mouth)

Catherine Johnson said...

Mr. Mcnamar

I'm interested in READ 180.

What is the program?

Catherine Johnson said...

On average kids make about 0.6 years of progress every year they're in school.

yeah, and the Randolph Duke kids are making 0.6 years of progress compared to the Monsieur Science Po kids.

The Billy Ray kids are behind the kids who are already behind.

That reminds me....I may have told this story at ktm.

Ed is editing a book of essays from French historians about what made them become interested in France.

A couple of them told math horror stories in passing.

One of them said he was the top of his school in every subject including math & science.

When he went to France for junior year abroad, he placed into the "low girl track" in math.

"Low girl track," IIRC, meant both that the class was the slowest and was in the "arts & literature" track, which was more heavily populated by girls.

KDeRosa said...

Not all scripted programs are created equal. There are good ones and bad ones. What little reseearch there is on READ 180 indicates it does not have an educationally significant effect on student achievement.

It doesn't bother me at all that I can't be creative in my lesson plans; it actually saves me a great deal of planning time while eliminating the frustration of a mental block.

Good point and one often ignored by critics.

You could get anybody to walk in and read the script. But, not all people can walk into room, connect with those students and convince them to take part.

Even scripted programs require good teachers. The DI people say it takes two years of trainer before a teacher can adequately teach a classroom full of lower performers even with their scripted program. I never said it was easy.

and despite never having watched me teach, you seem to know that it must be my lack of effectiveness.

We can't say that for sure yet since you're not using an effective program. It could be the program causing the problems. I don't blame teachers specifically, I blame the schools for education failure. There is a difference.

shows with 100% accuracy that Direct Instruction is the perfect method, if done properly, for every student in the country.

Have you read the research? There is a lot of it. It doesn't work with every student; I never said that it would. Butit will work with all but about 90-98% of students depending on how well the school is run.

KDeRosa said...

Catherine, I posted something to that effect at KTM awhile back. It's not exactly scientific; more like relative learning rates.

The taylor blurb sounds statistically sound if you define gifted and cognitively disabled as 2 standard deviations from the median or IQs of 70 and 130. This gives gifted and disabled populations of 2.5%

Catherine Johnson said...

The taylor blurb sounds statistically sound if you define gifted and cognitively disabled as 2 standard deviations from the median or IQs of 70 and 130. This gives gifted and disabled populations of 2.5%

2.5% in total, or at each end? (sorry to be thick - won't begin studying stats for awhile)

So what do you make of the idea of a fairly uniform "lumpen" middle?

This is my question....do we have a spectrum of "ability," defininig ability as the number of trials a student needs to learn the concept, or the amount of practice?

Wickelgren says that students need, IIRC, 20 to 30 practice problems a day.

He doesn't advise a spectrum of practice problems. Just 20 to 30 a day for everyone. (Don't know what he'd advise for the extremes.

What do you know about this?

KDeRosa said...

That's 2.5% apiece. 5% total.

In practice I think it actually works like this for an average school:

22.5% should be part of the low performing class with the lowest 2.5% in special education.

25% should be part of the high performing class with some percentage in a GATE class

The remaining 50% (two clases) should be part of the average class.

As far as the number of practice problems needed for mastery. I'm not sure. I think Wickelgren's standard may be a little crude. In CMC, I know that they only give about 3-5 practice problems for each strand taught in the lesson.