December 20, 2006

Color me sceptical

I'm finding it hard to believe that a first year teacher with no prior teaching experience, using her own curriculum, made-up on the fly, managed to raise the performance of low-performing, inner-city fifth grade students from the 16th to the 77th percentile on a test like the Stanford 10. Such a thing borders on the miraculous, even taking KIPP"s famously extended classroom time into consideration. But what is even more miraculous is that said teacher did so while spouting such things as:

I've found that most traditional textbooks oversimplify and isolate concepts, and yet, are still too difficult for non-readers to use. They don't generally push students to think, but offer repetitive, and boring, practice.

and

My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it.

and

My sequence and pace are set by a long-term plan that I have designed to catch the students up on second-, third- and fourth-grade material as well as introduce every single D.C. public schools fifth-grade standard by testing time. I model my word problems after the eighth-grade text that I used in Louisiana because those problems require the level of understanding that I am looking for. I focus on non-traditional problems so that students are forced to think.


She even issues a less-effective kind of praise:

You're brilliant! I can't stand it.

One indication that things might be amiss is:

although Suben's students improved markedly on the nationally standardized test, that was not enough to meet the first-year federal target for No Child Left Behind when they took the new and unusually rigorous D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test.

but, state tests are often so awful that they are not fair indicators of student knowledge. The D.C. test may be such a test.

I know performance gains of this magnitude in fifth grade math are possible in inner city schools. See the fifth grade performance (pdf) of the City Springs School in Baltimore. But, in one year? In City Springs in took the 2003 fifth grade cohort five years of good teaching to hit this level, using a curriculum that's been tested, retested and revised over the course of thirty years.

In any event, I am having trouble suspending disbelief when I hear things like this

What's the key. It's not that my lessons are so dramatically better than anyone else's lessons. It's just that we, the students and I, own our lessons.

No one who really knows how to teach math effectively says things like that. But, maybe it's just youth speaking. Or, maybe there's a massive disconnect between the rhetoric and the actual teaching.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Could she have packed more code words in?

I guess all of those years passively receiving information from teachers amounted to nothing since I did not construct my own understanding.

I agree, something is up here.

I have noticed with some teachers that they will say things like this teacher, but still use traditional methods in the classroom when it suits them. However, they don't seem to "own" that fact very often.

Susan

Barry Garelick said...

She spouts the constructivist philosophy, but as Susan said above, she probably uses traditional methods and believes she is practicing constructivism.

I also find it odd that she decided not to use Saxon because she found that it did not cover concepts well. The article fails to go into details about that. Can anyone tell me how Saxon's math textbook for fifth graders skimps on concepts? I used the sixth grade textbook for my daughter and found it covered concepts quite well.

KDeRosa said...

Barry, are you familiar with the D.C. exam. Is it a legitimate indicator of student performance or the typical mess of a test.

Anonymous said...

I'm very familiar with Saxon 5th grade through Algebra 1. It only skimps on concepts if you fail to read it or teach from it correctly.

There probably weren't enough pretty pictures or biographies in there.

Susan

allen said...

Susan wrote:

I agree, something is up here.

Seems so. The next step is to formalilze Suben's techniques/ideas/tricks/tactics/
strategies/spectra/overviews/etc so the results can be replicated by an uninterested party using another, but equally valid, test to see if the results agree with each other.

Probably some thought ought to be given to other confounding variables like, maybe, kids selected in some way that skews the results or some technique or idea that doesn't make it to the formalized description of her techniques.

Of course, that sort of tedious nit-picking is only necessary if you're interested in verification. Typically, a glowing review, such as Mr. Mathews' article, is all the verification a miracle du jour needs to become a national phenomenon.

On the basis of that national notoriety, grants are obtained to establish a scholarly institution dedicated to the advancement of the originating ideas.

By then you've got emotional and professional buy-in from a range of academics, school boards, acolytes and reporters. They're strongly motivated to defend the miracle regardless of the results the technique generates when used by teachers of average talent.

Probably it would also be a good idea to wait to see if Suben can pull her trick a second time before committing resources to independent verification. A hole-in-one becomes something more then a novelty the second time you manage the trick.

Barry Garelick said...

Barry, are you familiar with the D.C. exam. Is it a legitimate indicator of student performance or the typical mess of a test.

I'm not familiar, but can find out. Don't forget, DCPS were the folks who adopted Everyday Math back in June 2005, so you have good cause to wonder about how good the DCAS is.

rightwingprof said...

This was her first class. Wait and see if her classes' scores continue to go through the stratosphere.

NYC Math Teacher said...

Can a TNT movie deal be far behind?

Anonymous said...

Ken: "I'm finding it hard to believe that a first year teacher with no prior teaching experience, using her own curriculum, made-up on the fly ..."

She isn't a first year teacher with no prior teaching experience. From the fine article:

"After she graduated from George Washington University in 2003 with a degree in economics, she joined Teach For America -- which places recent college graduates in low-income schools -- and she was assigned to be an eighth-grade math teacher in Opelousas, La. When she completed her two-year commitment she came back to D.C. to be closer to her family. She was a natural hire for KIPP, which finds many of its teachers among successful survivors of Teach For America's sink-or-swim approach to classroom training."

-Mark Roulo

KDeRosa said...

Thanks, Mark, I missed that blurb. It does increase the probability of her doing what Matthews claims she did and also explains her fluency of eduspeak.

Anonymous said...

You are welcome :-)

The constructivism language doesn't bother me, either. If she knows where she wants to go, a Socratic approach (ask the right questions of the kids) should get there just fine w/o her *telling* them anything. It could also be quite effective because it forces the kids to engage in the class more.
(But it isn't constructivism ...)
It just requires a teacher that is *really* on the ball ... not many people (in any occupation) can do this well.

For what it is worth, I wouldn't be surprised if:
a) She *can* do this again, and
b) It can't be replicated/used by other teachers

Kinda like we can't get sports superstars to tell us how they do what they do such that we can make more of them.

This would be disappointing because what she is doing won't scale, but I'd still be quite happy to take the win of X kids/year doing that well with her as a teacher.

-Mark R.

CrypticLife said...

Mark,

Absolutely, I tend to agree with you, and suspect there might be more to her success.

She spent three hours each night preparing her next day's lesson. That means she could follow an evolutionary process, actually taking her students' understanding into account. I am not surprised this process would be better than a standard curriculum.

I wouldn't minimize the fact that she specifically looked for unusual examples. She's right, this will make kids think, and divorce them from relying on rote. Rote memory is great and almost necessary for multiplication tables, but not so great for math problems.

I kind of suspect her fluency in eduspeak is a sham -- she's had "Teach for America", not a degree in teaching. There's nothing particularly wrong with eduspeak except that it's typically empty and doesn't mean anything.

She's probably effusive and genuine in her praise. Saying something so ridiculous as "You're brilliant! I can't stand it" probably isn't going to come off forced.