August 24, 2006

An Answer For the Education Wonks

Recently, while engaging in his favorite past time of bashing Sec'y of Ed Spellings (sometimes deservedly), Edwonk pondered:
She'll be more than happy to explain (again) why public school educators are accountable for student progress even when students don't bother to attempt to do their assignments
The answer is simple. When they don't know how to do the work, kids would rather act-up, such as by being disruptive or not attempting to do the work, rather than look stupid in front of their peers. This implies a teaching problem, not a student problem, and that's why schools are held accountable. I knew the answer at the time, but I figured Edwonk was sick of hearing it from me.

Today I was reading this interview with Marion Blank, Director of the A Light on Literacy program at Columbia University, who says pretty much the same thing. Maybe Edwonk will listen to her:

Years ago, when I first started observing classrooms, I was drawn to a simple, but pervasive interaction. A teacher would ask a question, call on a child to answer it and the child would be unable to come up with a satisfactory response. The pain and humiliation that the children experienced were palpable.

I am not referring here to occasional mistakes. Those are an unavoidable part of the learning process. But for many children, the mistakes are frequent. In that situation, they assume a different and pernicious role. Then a multi-dimensional force takes hold that includes a sense of helplessness, the anxiety of being exposed and the repeated shame of making mistakes in front of others, including powerful authority figures and one's peers. I chose to call this force error dynamics.

Children are keenly aware of what is happening. That's only reasonable. Think back to your experiences in the classroom when you did not know the answer and prayed the teacher would not call on you. Remarkably, that fear lingers on-- for years after our school days are distant memories. It's why adults avoid sitting in the first row in a lecture hall—they want to make sure that just in case the speaker asks a question, they are not the ones who might be called on to answer.

Amazingly, this force goes virtually unrecognized by both teachers and parents.
This is why successful instructional programs carefully scaffold student learning so that students, even the slow ones, can answer a high percentage of the questions successfully. It's an important rule. In Direct Instruction programs it is rule one:

Rule 1: Hold the same standard for high performers and low performers. This rule is based on the fact that students of all performance levels exhibit the same learning patterns if they have the same foundation in information and skills. The false belief that characterizes the conventional wisdom about teaching is that lower performers learn in generically different ways from higher performers and should be held to a lower or looser standard. Evidence of this belief is that teachers frequently have different "expectations" for higher and lower performers. They expect higher performers to learn the material; they excuse lower performers from achieving the same standard of performance. Many teachers believe that lower performers are something like crippled children. They can walk the same route that the higher performers walk, but they need more help in walking.

These teachers often drag students through the lesson and provide a lot of additional prompting. They have to drag students because the students are making a very high percentage of first-time errors. In fact, the students make so many mistakes that it is very clear that they are not placed appropriately in the sequence and could not achieve mastery on the material in a reasonable amount of time. The teachers may correct the mistakes, and may even repeat some parts that had errors; however, at the end of the exercise, the students are clearly not near 100% firm on anything. Furthermore, the teacher most probably does not provide delayed tests to assess the extent to which these students have retained what had been presented earlier.

The information these teachers receive about low performers is that they do not retain information, that they need lots and lots of practice, and that they donÂ’t seem to have strategies for learning new material. Ironically, however, all these outcomes are predictable for students who receive the kind of instruction these students have received. High performers receiving instruction of the same relative difficulty or unfamiliarity would perform the same way. LetÂ’s say the lower performers typically have a first-time-correct percentage of 40%. If higher performers were placed in material that resulted in a 40% first-time-correct performance, their behavior would be like that of lower performers. They would fail to retain the material, rely on the teacher for help, not exhibit selfconfidence, and continue to make the same sorts of mistakes again.
Eventually, these low-performers make it into Edwonk's history class after years of enduring this sort of academic abuse. Edwonk observes that these kids aren't interested in attempting to do the work anymore. Based on this observation, Edwonk concludes that it's the kids' fault. In actuality, it is the school's fault by failing to teach the material in a way that these kids could have successfully learned it.

Edwonk's mistake is a mistake of dead reckoning. He is basing his conclusion on what he observes in the classroom without a full understanding of the underlying problem and its causes.

We have never successfully taught low performers. The system has always been broken. This is why teachers are frequently wrong when they opine on education policy matters. What they know is based mostly on observations of a broken education system (and whatever crap they happened to learn at ed school). This is also why there aren't many good solutions coming out of the education establishment.

They don't understand the problems, let alone the solutions, and the system has ossified into a state in which change and innovation are all but impossible from within.

7 comments:

SteveH said...

"Eventually, these low-performers make it into Edwonk's history class after years of enduring this sort of academic abuse. Edwonk observes that these kids aren't interested in attempting to do the work anymore. Based on this observation, Edwonk concludes that it's the kids' fault."

This is what I have seen over and over. Teachers define the problem with education by what they see walking into their classrooms. The kids are unprepared and unmotivated. Their simplistic conclusions are:

1. Unprepared - How can anyone expect teachers to get these kids ready for standardized tests? Ergo, tests are bad or there are other things that are more important than what's on the tests.

2. Unmotivated - That is the student's fault or due to external forces.


Great post Ken.

EdWonk said...

I agree with some of your assertions.

But when a child doesn't know how to do his or her assignment and refuses to come in for extra help before or after school, what's a classroom teacher to do?

Here in California, the law does not permit teachers to require that students participate in after-school tutoring or other interventions as this is considered to be the student's time.

If Margaret Spellings was sincerely interested in helping educators meet the noble goals and objectives of the No Child Left Behind Act, she would advocate the adoption of rules and regulations that would give public school educators the disciplinary tools that they need in order to get the job done.

For example: Under current law, a parent can ignore (with impunity) a teacher's pleading that he or she attend a conference concerning his or her child.

And yet the IRS, DMV, and any number of other governmental agencies can compel that same parent to attend an interview at a stated time and place.

To assume that a child doesn't attempt to do an assignment because he or she doesn't know how to do the work and is thus manefesting his or her frustration by being defiant displays an incomplete grasp of classroom dynamics.

Unfortunately, certain aspects of the popular culture have promoted, and many children have adopted, the counter-productive notion that participating in school-related activities and dedicating oneself to doing well academically is somehow "wrong."

That mind-set needs to change.

Educators can't do it alone.

A teacher has an obligation to teach to the best of his or her ability.

A student has an obligation to give his or her best effort to learn the material and remain focused on the task at hand.

A parent has the duty to support both school and student by ensuring that his or her child arrives at school on time, well-rested, and with the child's homework completed.

A teacher who has some 175 students cannot take the place of the parent in making sure that the parent's duties are performed.

Hillary Clinton once famously said that "It takes a village" to raise a child.

I disagree. It takes a parent, preferably two.

Anonymous said...

A high school near me actually places tutoring help during the day (almost like a study hall), as well as before and after school. This seems like a good idea for the chronically unmotivated. Trap 'em during the school day.

On the other point, I really don't think you can emphasize the embarrassment factor nearly enough. My entire school day was spent in dread of certain teachers and courses due to my having changed schools several times, and a general lack of paying attention until it was too late. Still, only one of those teachers took me aside and explained that I had some gaps and that it would be okay. Because of that one teacher's approach, I could exhale and learn at a faster (and more focused) clip.

However, I spoke with a veteran teacher friend of mine (a straight A over-achiever in school) who said that she experienced that same terror in school. She was horrified about being called on and not being ready. She reports that she couldn't focus on the coursework until she got out of the classroom.

Clearly, it didn't trip her up as much as it did me, but she said that she never got over it and runs her classroom with a lot more sensitivity.

SusanS

KDeRosa said...

Edwonk, there is more to it than that. It's not just that they can't answer questions from a specific lesson. We're talking the signficant gaps in knowledge that accumulate over many years. And, and your level, the peer effect has taken over, making it very difficult for these kids to re-engage to school once they've shut it off.

But I do agree with you that bad laws like the one in CA can contribute to the problem. In addition, schhols themselves follow equally stupid policies (such as social promotion) that contribute to the problem.

Re Spellings, Edwonk, the types of rules you are talking about are state issues, not federalones. You know federalism and all that. DoE can only put pressure on the states and they are leaving it up the states to do the right thing.

To assume that a child doesn't attempt to do an assignment because he or she doesn't know how to do the work and is thus manefesting his or her frustration by being defiant displays an incomplete grasp of classroom dynamics.

You cannot discount this effect out of hand so long as we have signficant numbers of students who are not learning at the elementary school level when schools have much more ability to counter peer effects and behavior is more malleable.

Yes, there will be behavior problems with some kids that even the best classroom management techniques cannot help. But that percentage is in the 3-5% range when kids are in effective instructional programs. No doubt this number increases by the high school level.

Unfortunately, certain aspects of the popular culture have promoted, and many children have adopted, the counter-productive notion that participating in school-related activities and dedicating oneself to doing well academically is somehow "wrong."

That mind-set needs to change.


And let's not forget that schools can be doing much more in this area as well to foster the proper mindset. And, we don't really know whether schools can do it alone. Some seem to be able to.

A student has an obligation to give his or her best effort to learn the material and remain focused on the task at hand.

With the caveat that the student is being taught in a way that he is able to learn. As I've pointed out, yu'll tend to get more effort and focus when kids are learning.

A parent has the duty to support both school and student by ensuring that his or her child arrives at school on time, well-rested, and with the child's homework completed.

I agree. But as we know, we're not going to get this from all parents. One of the reasons why we have a public school system is to, in theory, educate these kids when parents cannot or will not do so. If all parents were model parents, we wouldn't need a public education system. All we'd need to do is subsidize education for those that couldn't afford it.

Now that schools are being put to the test under NCLB, they're dropping all the lofty rhetoric that they can educate all kids and making arguments like you're making and qualifying who they believe can be educated. perhaps we should take the responsibility out of their hands and give it to someone who is willing to try.

SteveH said...

"But when a child doesn't know how to do his or her assignment and refuses to come in for extra help before or after school, what's a classroom teacher to do?"

You are talking about your problem, not the problem of education. Your problem is the result of a lot of things, like the summation of all of the education (or lack thereof) the student had up to that point.

Is the problem motivation, external forces, or the student's lack of ability? Can't you tell the difference? Why do you assume that it's just external forces or laziness?

Your problem is quite different than the problem of education and the solution to your problem can be quite different than solving the problem of education. You could break it into two separate problems; what can you do right now for the kids coming into your classroom, and what can you do so that the kids coming into your classroom in the future are better prepared and motivated.

To blame it all (or even mostly) on external causes is a copout. To say that there is not much you can do (to fix your own problem) until external forces are fixed is also a copout.

Perhaps individual teachers have little control over curricula, teaching methods, and expectations. Perhaps they only have control over their own classroom. With this teacher-centric view of education, there is little you can or will do to solve the problem of education.

Jaime Escalante wasn't so successful just because he was a good classroom teacher. He worked hard to prime the pump. He went back to the lower grades and made sure that many more students had a proper foundation in the basic knowledge and skills of math.

A parent's view of education problems is much more broad. Teachers see just a time or grade-slice of the problem. Parents see the accumulation, or year-to-year problems. When my son started school 5 years ago and I talked to other parents, I started to hear parents talk about "lost years", where their child did not learn very much for one reason or another. My son had one of those years in first grade. He already knew how to read and he could do basic math, so the teacher didn't have to do anything for him. And she didn't. Other kids don't learn the material, but get moved to the next grade anyways.

When I taught college math and computer science, I tried to do everything I could to help my students. I couldn't force them to do the work and I could only fix some of the bad or missing math education they had in the past. Since many of them were freshmen, there wasn't anything I could do to fix their high school educations. However, it wasn't very difficult for me to see which students were lazy and which students struggled with the material. Many of the students who struggled with the material did not hand in the work. This had nothing to do with laziness or other societal or external forces.


"I disagree. It takes a parent, preferably two."


It shouldn't take a parent or two to get all kids to master the trivial material on standardized tests. This is NOT GATE material. (e.g. NAEP 4th grade math - How many fourths in a whole?)

Look at the tests (at the very least). Define a proper curriculum. Set specific grade-level expectations. No social promotion. It is not difficult.

rightwingprof said...

If I may step in, I think one of the problems is that teachers behave as if they are in a vacuum. I see little concern on the part of secondary school teachers about how well they are preparing students for college, and I suspect the same thing is going on in elementary and secondary school wrt different grades.

Anonymous said...

As a parent, I have found that the only "good" parent for teachers are ones that agree with the teacher. If there is disagreement, especially over pedagogy, I believe the MOST attentive and even competent parent is dismissed.

Teachers, I find, are pretty much ignorant of Direct Instruction and just love to give me little pats on the head when I bring it up.

Yes, I'm a parent of a child with autism and I am also a Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst. I'm working toward my teaching certificate. I work full time as a web programmer.