May 30, 2006

Why Is It So Difficult to Take Responsibility

In today's Charlotte Observer we learn that West Charlotte High, a perenially failing school, decided to finally do something about its low test scores.

With a projector propped on a stack of textbooks, [the principal] began flashing 2005 End of Course test results onto a rippled screen.

At the top: Providence High, with 86.6 percent passing.

As Modest reached the middle, chuckles and comments rumbled from the freshmen.

When he got to dead last, the noise was a dull roar, much of it laughter.

West Charlotte: 37.1 percent.

"I don't think this is funny, folks," the new principal said.

"This is the last time we're going to be at the bottom of the list."


Year after year, West Charlotte's scores have been among the state's lowest. Four principals in the past decade have tried to change that. Each failed.

So what's the problem?
[The principal] didn't know hundreds would arrive without having mastered eighth-grade math and reading.

Where did they get this guy? Mars? What educator doesn't know that kids in low-SES high schools come in lacking many skills they should have mastered in elementary and middle school? And, did you notice the skillful use of passive voice to obfuscate the cause of this failure, the lower schools these kids came from.

So what did they try to do? First, they tried to high better teachers, but ...
Not a single qualified teacher has signed up for West Charlotte. "That's heavy right there," Modest said, sounding stunned.
Such is the price you pay when you fail to properly educate at least the past two generations of students from these areas.

Then they switched to plan B:
As the school year draws to a close, the principal is still pushing a two-pronged mission: Get students to take responsibility for their own success. And get teachers to believe in students.
So, the students have to take responsibility for learning while the teachers don't quite have to take responsibility for teaching. They just have to "believe in students." I suppose believing is better than nothing.

I'm wondering how a student is supposed to take responsibility for learning if the teaching isn't any good. Isn't good teaching, which starts with teachers taking responsibility for teaching well, a prerequisite to any student learning?

May 26, 2006

Ding Ding Ding

Here's the Memorial Weekend topic for Discussion.

K-8 Education. What should we expect students to learn in K-8. What constitutes a fundamental education. How should it be taught. Focus on Math and English Language Arts, but feel free to discuss other subjects. Be realistic. Break it up for the three main student populations:
  1. High performers. Kids who typically pursue a college education. The top 25%
  2. Average Performers. The middle 50%. Currently graduate from high school, but don't go on to college
  3. Low Performers. The bottom 25%. These kids currently don't graduate from high school. Let's exclude the very lowest performers who may not be educable to simplify the discussion.
What should each of these groups learn by the end of 8th grade. How should they learn it. How do you determine what is learnable. How do we assure it gets learned. Who is responsible when it isn't. Carry it through to 12th grade if you're so inclined. Be prepared to defend your answers. Feel free to provide constructive criticism.

I'll try to pull responses up to the main post for easy reading and typo correction.

I have an idea of what I want to write, but I'm going to watch a movie instead tonight.

Let's get it on.

Here's My Proposal

First define the goal. I'd use some independent rigorous standard like the College Board AP exams. So, the goal in math would be Calculus BC and in English, English Language and Literature.

Then define the sequence that satisfies the goal. For each course, a continuous sequence of classes would be defined that enable any student who progresses along the sequence to meet the goal. Such sequences, for the most part, are already present on the high school level. They need to be extended back to K. So being able to do calculus would be the end game of the math course, even if some students don't actually take calculus until college. Being able to read, analyze, and write about challenging literature (great books) would be part of the end game of ELA.

Next define passing criteria for each level of the sequence. These are cumulative end exams that define proficiency. Tests should be of the "Do It" type variety. For example, the student will be able to solve a set of problems of varying difficulty involving division of fractions with at least 90% accuracy. So something like this might be an appropriate end exam for fifth grade elementary math. Students who pass this exam will be ready to begin pre-algebra or algebra. ANother example: Given a grade-appropriate passage, students will be able to identify grammatical mistakes with 90% accuracy.

Assessments will be continual and frequent. Student performance will be monitored closely and when deficiencies are identified, remediation will be provided promptly, so the student doesn't fall behind. Since a sequence has been defined, projections can be made and student performance can be measured against the projections, ensuring prompt identification of lagging students.

At the K-8 level, all students would get the same instruction. However, not all students would proceed through the curriculum at the same pace . So, high performers might be ready for alegebra by 6th grade, average performers by 7th grade, and lower performers by 8th or 9th. At the high school level students would be able to specialize.

Schools would be able to teach however they want, but minimum levels would be set student achievement benchmarks determined by the best-performing curricula. So if we have an identified curriculum that can get 90% of the students proficient in elementeary math by the sixth grade, then that standard becomes the benchmark. Schools can teach whatever and however they deem appropriate, but 90% of their students (adjusted for SES/IQ factors) must be proficient in elementary math by the sixth grade.

Memorial Day Dust-Up

Who wants to suggest a nice controversial edu-topic that I can write-up quickly today that we can use for comment fodder this weekend. Only the hardcore will be reading edublogs this weekend, so we might as well give them something they can fight about all weekend long.

May 25, 2006

Connect the Dots

During the great Parental Support debates of aught six, I heard over and over how low performing students were unmotivated and disengaged from school. According to educators, this is a large reason why students are not learning in school.

Students need to take ownership of their learning and parents need to be better role models and motivate their children to learn.

Motivation is the problem. Parents are (at least a large part of) the solution. Or so I was told.

NCLB is so unfair bcause it's directed at schools, not parents. Parents and their bratty kids are the real problem.

And, that was that. Case closed.

But, then a funny thing happened on the way to the teachers' lounge this week.

Reading is Fundamental

First we learned, courtesy of the National Council of Teacher Quality, that our Ed schools aren't doing a very good job teaching reading teachers how to instruct kids how to read. If you know anything about reading instruction, this study did not come as a surprise to you. If you compare the reading programs that have a legitimate research base with the reading programs in common use in schools, you'll quickly see the latter look nothing like the former. This was the most insightful line from the NCTQ study:

As a result of this research, we can appreciate that for some children learning to read appears [] effortless. For these children, it does not really matter what reading curricula or teachers they encounter, they will learn how to read. For a significant number of other children, the path to literacy is far more difficult and by no means assured. In the case of these children, it matters very much what curriculum is used and who their first teachers are. By routinely applying the lessons learned from the scientific findings to the classroom, their reading failure is now considered largely avoidable. It is estimated that the current failure rate of 20 to 30 percent could be reduced to the range of 2 to 10 percent
The highlighted text is the main fallacy under which our schools operate. Some children learn how to read no matter what reading curriculum or teachers they encounter; therefore, we can teach reading however we want. This is our schools research base for "balanced literacy."

D-Ed Reckoning's tip of the day to parents with kids learning how to read: if your child is confronted with a word she doesn't know how to read and her reading teacher tells her to first look at context clues to guess the word's meaning instead of directing her "sound it out," make no mistake about it, your child is being mistaught how to read. If you're lucky, your child will be one of the ones who finds reading effortless. If, however, your child finds reading difficult, parental support isn't needed. Parental reteaching is needed and needed fast, because the teacher isn't doing her job. And, the longer the child is mistaught, the more difficult the inevitable reteaching will be.

Before we go on, let's stop for a moment and contemplate what happens to the young child who is a struggling reader. Reading is a skill that is used constantly in school. Like every single day. Imagine being the hapless kid that can't read very well and has to perform in front of his peers every day. Now put yourself in that kid's shoes and imagine how you'd feel in class every day.

Reading = Motivation

So many children are being mistaught how to read, resulting in reading failure. Now let's take a look at the research on the effect of this reading failure, courtesy of Kerry Hemenstall:

  • Taken together, these results provide evidence for the role of mastery of reading achievement in aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, and in depression, particularly in girls. The preventive trials provide evidence of the direction of effects, and the reversibility of the aggressive behavior and depressive symptoms in some children by raising the level of reading achievement. Kellam, S.G. (1999). Developmental epidemiologically-based prevention research: From efficacy to effectiveness. National Institute of Mental Health Fifth Annual National Conference on Prevention Research.

  • Young boys with reading problems were three times more likely to report high levels of depressed mood than their peers. The reading problems influenced boys' risk of depressed mood. Maugban, B (2003). Reading problems and depressed mood. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 210-229.

  • By the secondary grades, struggling readers have little confidence in their ability to succeed in reading and little sense of themselves as readers (Collins, 1996). Guthrie, Alao, and Rinehart (1997) noted an "eroding sense of confidence" in these students. They are acutely aware of their reading problems (Wigfield & Eccles, 1994) and likely to suffer serious psychological consequences, including anxiety, low motivation for learning, and lack of self-efficacy.

  • Many children with difficulty in learning to read develop a negative self-concept within their first two years of schooling. Chapman, J.W., Tunmer, W.E., & Prochnow, J.E. (2000). Early reading-related skills and performance, reading self-concept, and the development of academic self-concept: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 4, 703708.

  • A pathway from reading difficulties to anxiety or depression may be mediated by poor readers' well-established vulnerability to problems in academic (and possibly more global) self-esteem. Chapman, J. W. (1988). Cognitive-motivational characteristics and academic-achievement of learning-disabled children-A longitudinal-study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 357-365.

  • " ...a successful learning experience is itself a major contribution to mental health" (p.153). Steinberg, Z., & Knitzer, J. (1992). Classrooms for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students: Facing the challenge. Behavioral Disorders, 17, 145-156.

  • In a first-grade intervention study, boys whose reading skills improved from fall to spring showed a much reduced depressive symptomatology than their peers who continued to show problems in reading. Kellam, S. G., Rebok, G. W., Mayer, L. S., Iaolongo, N., & Kalodner, C. R. (1994). Depressive symptoms over 1st-grade and their response to a developmental epidemiologically based preventive trial aimed at improving achievement. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 463-481.

  • The twin study indicated that increased rates of internalizing symptomatology among poor readers were attributable to reading problems rather than to shared family factors. Willcutt, E. G., & Pennington, B. F. (2000). Psychiatric comorbidity in children and adolescents with reading disability. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, 1039-1048.

So, not learning how to read causes serious problems later on, mostly motivational and emotional problems. Learning problems too. Afterall, reading is the gateway to higher learning.

This is where the parental support meme comes in, because educators want to lay some of the blame on parents for their kids' academic failure. They want to share responsibility for student learning, or rather they want to share responsibility when children fail to learn. They're quick to take all the credit when they do learn.

Taking Responsibility

OK, so some kids aren't learning to read and experience academic failure. Nothing new here. And educators want to pass the buck. Again, nothing new. We're just hearing more of it now under NCLB because student failure is receiving loads of attention. Plus, who really cares about these theoretical issues but a few cranky edubloggers.

Well, guess what? Apparently, there's a dark side to educators blaming others and not taking responsibility for their teaching failures:

My study of a nationally representative sample of 1st graders and their teachers suggests that teachers who take personal responsibility for student learning can improve student achievement; specifically, children with teachers who have a greater sense of responsibility for student outcomes learn more in reading during the 1st grade. Unfortunately, the findings presented here also suggest that the teachers of economically disadvantaged students, the very students NCLB targets as most in need of teachers and schools that take responsibility for their learning, are less likely to take responsibility for student outcomes.

My results show that a teacher’s sense of responsibility for student learning does seem to make a positive difference in a student’s reading achievement at the end of 1st grade. An increase of one standard deviation in the strength of a teacher's sense of responsibility is correlated with an increase in a student’s 1st-grade reading skills of .04 of a standard deviation.

Because this study was a snapshot in time of 1st-grade teachers and their students during one school year, I cannot claim with complete certainty that a teacher’s sense of responsibility causes increases in student achievement. It is a chicken-and-egg problem: did the teacher’s sense of responsibility improve student achievement, or do highachieving students make a teacher more likely to take responsibility for her students? At least with respect to student achievement, however, the data do provide hints as to what is cause and what is effect. While a teacher's sense of responsibility is not related to the average previous academic achievement level of a class, it is associated with the achievement gains individual students make while they are in her classroom. This strongly suggests that teacher responsibility affects achievement, not vice versa.

But teachers who believe that children should know basic reading skills before reaching 1st grade are less likely to hold themselves accountable for student learning. An increase of one standard deviation in expectations about student preparation is associated with a 0.05 standard deviation reduction in responsibility.

Perhaps surprisingly, the same negative relationship exists between a teacher’s endorsement of daily homework for 1st graders and responsibility. First-grade teachers who expect students to arrive at school with basic reading skills and who endorse daily homework may wish to downplay their responsibility and highlight parents’ and children’s responsibility for school success. Teachers with greater confidence in their instruction of learning-disabled students or students with limited English proficiency have a greater sense of responsibility (each associated with an increase of 0.06 standard deviations). My findings also suggest that teacher responsibility is related to the characteristics of the students in the teacher’s classroom. Student characteristics may influence teachers’ expectations for student success and teachers’ attitudes toward responsibility for their learning. Previous research has shown that teachers tend to perceive students from lower-income families as inadequately prepared for school and to set lower achievement expectations for them than for students from higher income families. In line with these earlier studies, I find that the less financially well-off a teacher’s students are, the less responsibility she takes for their learning (a decrease of 0.18 standard deviations in responsibility for each standard deviation decrease in family income).
From Climb Every Mountain: Teachers who think they should make a difference ... do! In this month's Education Next.

So, educators not taking responsibility for their teaching can have somewhat small but statistically significant detrimental effects on student performance.

Big Wrap-up

Let's connect these dots. Ed schools don't teach teachers well. As a result, teachers don't know how to teach students how to read, among other things, very well. This alone causes serious achievement problems since reading is the gateway subject. Kids that don't know how to read well, quickly develop motivational and engagement problems creating even more achievement problems. And finally, educators not taking responsibility for teaching can exacerbate the problem even more.

So teachers, when you blame external forces (such as motivation) on student failure, you not only have the cause and effect backwards, you may also be contributing to the probem.

Now you can color in the drawing we just made and hang it on the fridge so you don't forget what we learned today. I'm getting tired of repeating it.

May 24, 2006

I'm Not Dead Yet

After taking his ball and running home last week, J.D., of Math and Text, makes a triumphant return to the school yard to play with the big kids again. (We kid because we love.)

Anyway, for those of you who haven't been playing along at home, the topic has been Parental Involvement/Support and Effective Instruction. Oddly enough, we seem to be both for parental support and for effective instruction. Yet, there's a disagreement.

The disagreement appears to center around what happens when parents are not supportive.

I say that this lack of support does not absolve schools from teaching these kids. Moreover, my position is that parental support would not be necessary if schools were using effective teaching practices. To the extent that schools continue to use ineffective instructional practices, they are solely responsible for the failure to educate kids who (the research indicates) would have succeeded if effective practices were employed, regardless of external factors, such as lack of parental support. There are a few kids at the margin who may need additional parental support to succeed even with the use of state-of-the-art instructional practices. I've conceded some joint responsibility there (at least until we develop better instructional techniques), but these kids represent a tiny fraction of current student failures.

J.D. says that research shows that parental support has positive effects on learning. Parents, students, and schools are jointly responsible for the student's education. J.D., also believes that schools also need to improve their instruction too. J.D. seems to think that if we improved parental support, schools wouldn't need to make major changes to improve student preformance. (At least I think this is J.D.'s position; he'll let us know if I've mischaracterized it.)

With that groundwork set let's go to the latest round of the debate:

[T]he short answer is they can't--EXCEPT to encourage their children's schooling, get on them when grades are low, instill in them the value of an education (think immigrants), reinforce a work ethic as it involves school, etc.

This is ALL parent involvement, and I'm sure that most teachers would say (wrong or right) that such involvement is NOT there from many families.

I'm sure it's not there for a significant portion of low-SES families. One hallmark of low-SES people is that they tend to make bad decisions like this. But we knew this going into the game. The question remains though, what should we do when these kids show up at the school house door?

I think your position is that we expend resources trying to get this elusive parental involvement in the hope that we get the small but positive effect size we see in the research (giving the benefit of the doubt that research is valid).

Problem is, we need large effect sizes to get most of these kids up to grade level. Parental involvement will help at the margin for some kids, but we need much than that to solve our problems.

I think we both agree that the "that" is much better classroom instruction. And, what I've been saying is that the effect size is sufficiently large when you make the instruction more effective, that the parental involvement component is not a significant factor anymore. Again, great if you can get it, but it isn't necessary and the lack of it would only affect a very small percentage of kids at the margin.

All the examples of parental involvement you've listed (encourage their children's schooling, get on them when grades are low, instill in them the value of an education ..., reinforce a work ethic as it involves school, etc.) are motivational. First, all of these things should already be part of a competent classroom management system directed toward disciplining and motivating students, reducing the need for motivation at home and second, all this motivation is for naught anyway when the kids are getting the constant negative feedback when they are not learning caused by a curriculum that is sufficiently lousy that.

Although you are inclined to not believe me, I have not found a single study that tested the effects of increased parent involvement to yield a negative influence--NOT ONE.

I would expect to see such results: good parental involvement resembles teaching which tends to have a positive effect.

But this is Ed research we're talking about. Most of it isn't valid because the design of the studies are flawed. Did you weed out the bad research first? I'm also certain that the research does not say that "parental involvement" in the global sense, but rather that the specific kind of parental support, given under specific conditions, may have a positive effect. This is what the research tells us, but this is not what you've been arguing.

There are some that show no significant effect, but the rest show positive results.

This doesn't mean that increased parent involvement is the strategy now pursued by every district in the U.S., and to the extent that it is, they're wrong. It is not a cure-all.

There's nothing wrong, per se, with schools trying to get more parental support. It just shouldn't be used as an excuse not to pursue other more effective things and the failure of some parents not to play along shouldn't be an excuse.

But neither is a system-wide change. At least right now. At least right now. I am the first to jump on the bandwagon of any argument that suggests total systemic change from the education industry, but I'm also aware enough to know that's not happening now.

Changing the curriculum is not a system-wide change. Schools do it all the time with little complaint. Are you saying that we shouldn't try other changes until if we see if increased parental involvement works? I'm sure even your research doesn't show the effect sizes needed to sufficiently improve student achievement.

And, to be frank, I have some misgivings about turning teachers into robots reading from an Englemann script, no matter how effective it is in the short term.

What do you call teachers when they read from their own lesson plans aka scripts? Are they robots too? There wouldn't be a need for scripts if Ed schools did a better job teaching teachers how to effectively instruct students. There also is some evidence that it is equally effective in the long term.

We're not Singapore or Japan, and test scores, no matter what the Feds say, are not the end-all and be-all of education.

Of course not, but when test scores are showing a problem, like they currently do, you fix it. You can have high test scores and all the other stuff too.

The system of education in this country was, in small part, designed to reduce the influence of such "King Georgeism."

The original system perhaps, but then we installed a public education system which all but guaranteed it.

What we have right now is a system that doesn't work to the best of its ability. So parents can either do something about it or sit on the sidelines like a bunch of screaming nags and bitch about how everything is wrong.

As long as educators are denying there is a problem, claiming that they're doing their best already (we just need more help from the parents), using bad instructional programs, denying that they're not bad, refusing to change, and generally making all sorts of ridiculous claims; there is a value to pointing out the problems and proposing alternate solutions. I suppose you'll be torching the newspapers and other media outlets later today that basically serve the same function.

And how is this any worse than the apologist education blogs which make excuses for the shortcoming of the education system, you know, like when some parents don't provide adequate support?

I'll be the first to say that I think we can do both.
There, I let J.D. have the last word.

May 23, 2006

Adam Smith Knows Education

Hot on the heels of my and Edwonk's dueling WWI analogies, history once again comes to my rescue.

TracyW brings to my attention a quote from Adam Smith, the father of capitalism and new patron saint of D-Ed Reckoning, in the Wealth of Nations:

Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education.
Adam Smith knows motivation. Adam Smith knows that ineffective instruction kills motivation. Back in the 18th Century no less. Adam Smith knew the evils of progressive education before it existed.

Adam Smith loved capitalism, but hated capitalists. Imagine what he'd think of our current crop of progressive educators.

May 22, 2006

Over the Wall

Edwonk is taking Secretary Spellings to task over an op-ed piece the Secretary authored. Edwonk makes his favorite argument--we can't improve student achievement without parental support and motivated students. In the comments Edwonk makes a nice little World War I analogy:
Spellings and her Gang of well-fed, well paid politically appointed EduCrats remind me of certain British Officers of the First World War.

While evading actual front-line service themselves, they would sit well behind the front lines, in relative comfort, and while toasting one another with claret order their troops to repeatedly charge machine gun emplacements.

When the front-line troops didn't achieve the expected results, those soldiers were threatened with courts martial. To the generals, the troops weren't trying hard enough.

Similarly, teachers aren't given the tools to get the job done by our rear-area dwelling EduCratic generals but are being held 100% accountable for achieving the expected results.


I would love to see how the Madame Secretary handles a child who refuses to attempt homework or a parent who refuses to discuss their child's academic needs with the school.
I really like this analogy. But, I think there is the rather large chink in the armor of Edwonk's argument.

Let's sort out the players first.

The British Generals are Spellings and the Dept. of Ed. The Generals give sufficient supplies and orders to ...

The Hapless troops who are teachers, like Edwonk, who are supposed to use the supplies and follow the Generals' orders (complaining the entire time if they want) to beat ...

The Germans who are the students and parents.

Presumably, the Germans (students) will be beaten (educated) when the troops (teachers) defeat (educate) them.

According to Edwonk, the students and parents are in their trenches firing machine guns at the teachers (resisting schools effects to educate) who are sitting in the trenches afraid to go over the wall as the Generals are ordering them to do.

Edwonk's argument is that the Germans can't be defeated until they stop shooting at the troops. In effect, he's looking for the support of the Germans to win the war. Great if you can get it. The argument is that the opposing generals (parents) should order the enemy troops (students) to stop shooting machine guns (do homework and pay attention in class) at the troops, so the troops we can beat (educate) them. Until then we're not budging, no matter what the Generals say, until the other side stops shooting. talk about entrenchment.

In the beginning years of WWI, Edwonk's argument was valid. The machine gun was a serious problem that was a major factor leading to the trench warfare stalemate in WWI. At first there was no effective countermeasure to the submachine gun. During this time Edwonk's analogy holds up well. Sending troops over the wall during this time was suicide for the troops.

But, then the tank came along. The tank finally changed the balance of power and reduced the effectiveness of the machine gun. This is our present situation. Tanks (effective instructional programs) have been developed. It is no longer suicide to go over the trench wall. It's still going to be hard work, and we'll lose a few troops, but with the aid of the tank the war can be won.

In effect, General Spellings is ordering the troops to go over the wall and use the tanks to charge and defeat the other side. The Germans will still be shooting back, but the tank will make their shots much less effective.

Edwonk and other educators want no part of that. They want to stay in the safe confines of the trenches (teacher lounges?) which they've come to enjoy. Instead of charging the enemy, educators are still refusing to follow the Generals' orders, even though their excuse is no longer valid.

So the Generals have taken out the bayonets (NCLB) in an effort to prod the educators out of the trenches. "Use our tanks, or use your own, but the war is now winnable. It's time to get out of the trenches and start educating the other side."

Educators have responded to the bayonet in two predictable ways.
  1. There is no tank. Er, yes there is. At least one, and

  2. Even if there is a tank, we don't like it. We want to continue doing what we've always done and that means the machine guns will mow us down, so we're not budging until they stop shooting at us. Er, that's why you're not a General.
So the tank (effective instructional programs) is the gaping chink in Edwonk's armor. Edwonk needs to fix this chink if he wants to keep using his favorite (parental and student support) argument. He needs to explain to us why effective instructional programs (which don't require parental support) aren't the answer--he needs to explain why the tank won't work, despite all the evidence that says it will.

He better find it soon or else Spellings might put him in front of the firing squad.

Update: Edwonk stops by and gives us a history lesson in the comments. (Do they even teach military history in high school any more?) He also continues to dodge my Project Follow Through evidence. I'll get it out of him yet.

May 19, 2006

Parental Panacea

Is parental involvement the panacea to our educational woes?

Educators would have us believe that it is. Of course, lots more money wouldn't hurt either.

Teachers know what they see in the classroom. When teachers see a kid who's failing, the also see a kid who inevitably is disengaged and unmotivated and/or started school far behind his peers. If only this kid had gotten and/or would get more parental support (forcing kids to do homework, providing motivation, being a good role model, etc.), he'd succeed.

Perhaps this is the case in their educational fantasy land--the land where all teachers are Socrates and teachers' lounges are paved with gold.

In the real world this is a pipe dream. In the real world, student achievement is mostly governed by student IQ. And, unfortunately, IQ is inherited. So when we see lower achieving kids, we tend to also see lower performing parents.

Let's see how this plays out in three hypothetical, typical families:

The Winthorpes: Affluent and college educated. Their children tend to be smarter than average and successful in school.

The Six-Packs: Average and high school educated. Their children tend to be of average intelligence; some succeed, others don't.

The Valentines: Poor and uneducated. Their children tend to be below average in smarts and student performance.

Let's see how parental involvement plays out for these three families. See if you can spot the cruel irony.

The Winthorpes, being educated themselves, are the most likely to value education and provide parental support to their kids. They are the most capable of providing such support because they are highly educated and have more resources. Their kids, though probably not as smart as their parents (regression to the mean and all that), tend to require the least amount of parental support. The kids will also be the easiest to teach. So we have the best parental teachers paired with the most capable students. This is a recipe for academic success. Though tending to be rare, if it turns out that a Winthorpe kid wound up at the low end of the gene pool and struggles in school, the Winthorpe family will be the most capable of picking up the slack. As a result, most Winthorpe kids will succeed academically.

The Six-Packs, being moderately educated, also tend to be capable of providing parental support, though not as capable as the more educated Winthorpes. They also tend not to have as many resources available, further reducing their capacity. Their kids are also more likely to be struggling in school than the Winthorpe's kids since they are probably not as smart. As a result the Six-Pack kids are more difficult to teach and are in more need of parental support. Here we have average parental teachers paired with average students. So, if the six pack kids struggle in school, it will be more of an effort to provide parental support to them than it would be for the Winthorpe kids. The problem is compounded because the parents aren't as capable teachers and won't be able to pick up the slack as well. It's a toss-up as to which of the six-pack kids will succeed or not. Such is your lot when you are average.

The Valentines are the least educated and are the least likely to value education and be capable of providing parental support to their kids. They also are the least likely to have the resources to obtain outside support for their kids. The Valentines are the most dependent on the schools for educating their kids. To make matters worse, their kids tend to be the least smart (though usually smarter than their parents) and tend to require the most parental support. The kids will also be the most difficult to teach. So we have the worst parental teachers paired with the least capable students. How's that for a double whammy and a recipe for academic failure. When the Valentine kids struggle in school, and most of them assuredly will, they have the least capable familial support system available. And, to the extent that the Valentine parents are even capable of providing meaningful support, they get stuck providing it to the least capable kids. As a result, most of the Winthorpe kids will fail academically.

The kids who are going to struggle the most in school will comprise mostly the Valentine kids and the lower half of the Six-Pack kids. And, by "struggle" I mean they aren't learning as much as they should be at school. So now what do we do?

For the most part, schools think they're doing all that they can with these kids, though there's ample evidence that they are not. If you ask a random educator how to solve this dilemma, you're mostly going to hear three answers:
  1. We need more money, even though school funding has increased dramatically after WWII with almost no effect on student achievement. At 2006 funding levels there is a random correlation between educational spending and student achievement.

  2. We need smaller class sizes, even though class sizes have reduced considerably over the years with no discernible effect on student achievement. Even the most optimistic of (scientifically valid) research on class size indicates the effect size would not be educationally significant. This leaves us with the excuse currently favored ...

  3. We need more parental support, even though when we get that parental support it'll come from the Valentines and the lesser six-packs--the parents least capable of providing that support. And when the Winthorpe's provide it we'll mock them as helicopter parents.

Our educators must really believe that when they cry for parental support the highly educated Winthorpes will be coming to their rescue. They don't realize that the Winthorpe kids aren't usually the ones in academic hot water. And, they don't seem to realize that they themselves are the highly educated Winthorpes that society has sent to do the job of educating the least capable for us. And, somehow even though they've failed at the task and in doing so have sucked most of the resources out of the system, they still believe that the second string team of uneducated parents are needed and will be able to clean-up the mess they've left.

Oddly enough, educators don't understand why we've stopped coming to them for solutions and have saddled them with an accountability sytem. NCLB is society's shot across the bow. The message is: schools start doing your job and stop blaming everyone else.

May 18, 2006

More Loose Ends

In the comments to Tying Up Loose Ends Kate raises some great issues that I've been meaning to get to.
I would be interested in seeing how well all the students (the entire range) performed using [DI] when tested a year later; in other words, what is the long-term retention of the subject?
DI does work across the entire range of students. Thousands of students went through Project Follow Through, some of them in typical middle class schools, so we have lots of data on how well DI works with various students. Here's a pretty graph of some results.

So DI works well with at least students with IQS from 71 through 131.

This figure shows the students’ performance on the Metropolitan Achievement Test. The growth rate for all groups of students corresponds to one grade equivalent for each year in school. These results provide evidence that Direct Instruction is appropriate for, and effective with, a wide variety of individuals including those with low IQ scores, those with IQ scores in the average range, and those with high IQ scores. In addition, because children in this study were taught in small homogeneous groups (having students with relatively the same skill levels), the gains of students with lower IQ scores were not made at the expense of other students nor the other way around.

Engelmann's take is:
The lines are parallel, suggesting that the same rate of the students in achievement was realized for all students. This outcome is partly an artifact of the priorities of the DI model, because it focused disproportionately on the lower performers, those students less likely to succeed. With more emphasis on the higher performers, their performance could have been accelerated more dramatically.
And there are other studies that reached the same conclusion:
Tarver and Jung [1995] reported that the Direct Instruction program was equally effective for lower and higher performing children who participated in the study. Other studies provide additional evidence that Direct Instruction programs accelerate the learning of high-performing students in language (Robinson & Hesse, 1981), reading (Schaefer, 1989; Sexton, 1989), and science (Vitale & Romance, 1992).
Now, let's deal with the retention issue. DI is a mastery learning program. Mastery learning is based on the principle of overlearning to automaticity. In DI there is lots of distributed practice. Lots of distributed practice leads to overlearning. Ovelearning leads to automaticity and retention of knowledge against the ravages of time. And, this is what the research on DI bears out.
[F]ollow-up studies have been conducted with students taught with Direct Instruction. For example, Myer (1984) followed children (predominantly African-American or Hispanic) in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn who had been taught reading and math using Direct Instruction in elementary school. At the end of 9th grade, these students were still one year ahead of children who had been in control (nonDirect Instruction) schools in reading, and 7 months ahead in math. Similar results were found in a study by Gersten, Keating and Becker (1988). Former Direct Instruction students continued out-performing children who had received traditional instruction. In addition, Direct Instruction students have higher rates of graduating high school on time, lower rates of dropping out, and higher rates of applying and being accepted into college (Darch, Gersten, & Taylor, 1987; Meyer, Gersten, & Gutkin, 1983).
And let's finish up by hammering the last nail into the misguided learning styles meme with some post-Brophy research.
[D]espite its common appeal and widespread acceptance, reviews of controlled research studies have consistently failed to find any relationship between instruction and learning styles (Snider, 1992; Stahl, 1999; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995). That is, there is no empirical evidence that matching instruction to a student’s so-called learning style results in better outcomes for the student than instruction that is not “matched.” The idea is simply not supported by research findings.

Attempts to prescribe specific teaching approaches based on measures of learning
styles have systematically failed. However, it is clear that effective teaching does depend on a much more focused approach to adjusting instruction to the needs of individual students. Students’ instructional needs are based on the skills that they currently possess. Direct Instruction places a high value on continually adjusting students’ placement in programs, pace of lesson coverage, and amount of repetition on each activity based on students’ performance. This approach eschews the hypothetical and elusive characteristics of learning styles and instead focuses on students’ needs that are clearly seen in their performance and are directly relevant to making specific adjustments in instruction.

Did I miss anything?

Tying up Loose Ends

Differentiated instruction is all the rage. In theory at least. In the comments to the last post, we learned that in practice often what passes for differentiated instruction is only superficially differentiated. I'm not surprised. Real differentiated instruction is a terrible hassle for teachers.

And remember, the only reason why educators are doing differentiated instruction is because they think it'll somehow improve student achievement. In reality, there is little evidence to support the theory.

I think I know what the problem is. The concept behind differentiated instruction is partially right. Kids need to be instructed at their skill level and some kids learn faster than others. Instruction should take these two factors into account. However, learning styles and other individual differences are a bunch of hooey. And, it's easy to show that they are.

One way to prove this is to design a highly refined teaching sequence that clearly teaches concepts. Ideally, the teaching sequence would teach the exact same thing to each student.

This is where the DI laserdiscs (the precursor to DVDs) come in. The laserdisc programs were designed to provide a minute or two of instruction during which the narrator shows how to work a particular operation or discrimination. (See some examples of the video presentations from a new DVD-based programs, which are most likely similar, here.) Then the live segment stops and a problem appears on the screen, with instructions. After the kids work the still-frame problem, the teacher simply proceeds with the program and the correct work for the problem appears on the screen.

Quizzes and test are incorporated into the program. After a test, the teacher assesses the number of kids who missed items in a part of a test and determines what remedy is needed. If a remedy is needed, the teacher determines it by choosing from a simple menu that indicates various remedies. The rules for managing the kids were simple. Here they are for the math videodisc program:
  1. Do not present from the front of the room. Use your remote and circulate among the students as the video presentation is going on and when students are working the still-frame problems.
  2. Model responses you expect from the students. When the narrator asks a question, answer it. Reinforce students who answer.
  3. When students are working still-frame problems, direct them to follow the instructions on the screen. Do not "reteach" or explain things that were presented during the live segment of the video.
  4. Reinforce students who work quickly and accurately.
  5. During the early parts of the program, be very strict about mechanics. Students are to write the problems exactly as specified. Don't permit them to omit signs, omit specified steps, or deviate from solutions that are shown on the screen.
So the laserdisc program teaches all the kids in a classroom the same exact presentation of material. All kids work out the same problems and their performance is evaluated. If the students did not learn the material, the appropriate lesson is re-presented to them until it is mastered. Then, the program picks up at the next lesson in the sequence.

So now if Brophy is correct, the videodisc program should prevail in studies and even lower performers should do well, regardless of their learning style. Several such studies were, in fact, conducted using the DI videodisc programs. Engelmann describes one study that compared the performance of "learning disability" high school students and "remedial students" who had failed previous science courses to the performance of advanced-placement students who were in their second year of chemistry.
This study was done as part of the initial field-testing of our videodisc program on Chemistry and Energy. The learning-disability kids and remedial kids went through the laserdisc sequence, after which they and the advanced-placement kids were tested on bonding, equilibrium, energy of activation, catalysts, atomic structure, and basic properties of organic compounds. Although the advanced-placement students were light-years ahead of the video group in achievement (close to the 90th percentile in math and science), the remedial students outperformed them on every topic, and even the learning-disability students outperformed them on bonding and equilibrium. The mean post-test scores for the video group was 75, compared to 71 for the advanced-placement students.
No doubt, if the AP kids went through the video sequence, they would have outperformed the LD and remedial kids. But the laserdisc studies show that all kids can learn what they are supposed to learn if the instruction effectively communicates to the kids, teaches the kids exactly what to do, and provides adequate practice. The only stipulation is that the kids have the requisite skills assumed at the beginning of the program.

There is no need to monkey around with learning styles, multiple intelligences, individual differences, or any other faddish excuses educators use to excuse substandard teaching.

May 16, 2006

Differentiated Nonsense

Differentiated Instruction is all the rage with our faddish educators. It's the new buzzword in education. It's also a load of unproven bunk.

The idea (I'll resist the strong temptation to put the word idea in scare quotes for the time being) is that teachers will tailor (or differentiate if you will) their instruction to the individual needs of each student. And by doing so, the theory goes, the students will learn more.

But is there any empirical support for such a theory. Let's set the wayback machine to 1986 and listen to the conclusion set forth by James Brophy in a paper he presented that year:
Research has turned up very little evidence suggesting the need for qualitatively different forms of instruction for students who differ in aptitude, achievement levels, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or learning style.
Nothing has changed in the intervening two decades to change that conclusion. In fact, by 1986 we already knew of one instructional program which was effective and which taught each student the exact same material. Engelmann, the creator of that program, clarifies Brophy's conclusion and how it relates to instructional design:
Some kids will need more practice exercises than others. Some will take more time to accumulate the skills needed to enter a particular program. But if the program does an effective job of communicating with the kids, showing exactly what to do and providing adequate practice for the kid who needs more practice, the program is a good program for all kids who have the skill assumed at the beginning of the program.
In 2006, most educators would disagree vehemently that learning styles and individual differences have a relatively minor effect on kids' academic performance. They've turned their classrooms into a chaotic mess by trying to provide different instruction to each kid.

In engineering, we call this a kludge--an inelegant solution to a problem. To make matters worse, the problem is self imposed. The problem is heterogeneous grouping of students. Throw all the kids into the same classroom and try to teach them the same stuff. Apparently, it doesn't work too well. Duh.

So, instead of scrapping the whole idea of heterogeneous grouping and going back to (flexible) homogeneous grouping, educators, instead of admitting wrong doing, are attempting to fix the problem by applying a differentiated instruction band-aid. This let's them keep on doing what they've always been doing by making superficial changes.

I'm surprised they didn't call it balanced grouping.

Update: I found this post at JIS Topics that discusses their school's recent adoption of Differentiated Instruction.

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.

May 14, 2006

Your Own Lying Eyes

I've been debating the merits of effective instruction vs. blame the students lately. To prove my point I've cited a lot of research and test scores from existing schools which show that effective instruction can indeed substantially raise student achievement even among the unmotivated and disengaged. This is because, not unsurprisingly, bad instruction tends to cause motivation and engagement problems in the first place.

Nonetheless, many of my latest naysayers have been high school teachers who simply can't believe that such research, which was done mainly in elementary schools, applies to older students and "higher order" skills.

As luck would have it, the DI people helped developed math and science videodisc programs for use with older students for teaching more advanced skills. The discs were effective instructional tools.

One of the programs was an algebra program and it had an interesting history. The algebra program consisted of 15 initial lessons. The program was based on what the DI people assumed the kids knew by the time they reached algebra. Unfortunately, their estimates were seriously mistaken:

As part of the pre-test for the tryout group, we presented a series of problems that involved simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication of fractions.

When we tabulated the results of the pre-test, we knew that we might be in deep trouble. Of the 32 junior-high kids in the tryout group, one could add fractions with unlike denominators:

2 3
--- + --- =
3 4
One kid in the group could multiply fractions:

2 3
--- x --- =
3 4
Unfortunately, the kid who could add was not the kid who could multiply.

They went ahead with the program field test anyway, but soon had to face the grim reality that things weren't going to work out.

[I]t became apparent that the only thing to do with these kids was to bring them back to frame one and teach them about the properties of fractions and basic fraction operations. Their misconceptions were amazing. Some of them could tell whether a fraction was more than one or less than one; however, they didn't seem to understand that the 1 referred to is the same 1 you say when you count: one, two, three ...

We looked at some other "pre-algebra" groups and observed the same problems we saw in our group. So we scrapped the algebra program and started over about ten rungs lower on the academic ladder, with fractions, what they are, and how they work.

So, the program was rewritten before it was released, which is all but unheard of in education. A study was then conducted with the program. The study involved two teachers:

One was a devotee of manipulatives and the NCTM approach. This teacher spent lots of time teaching math -- 1 1/2 hours a day. She gave her students big time homework assignments. She worked until eight every evening preparing for the next day. The other teacher did not believe in homework (yea for her). She spent far less time on teaching math.

The study was great because the kids (6th graders) were matched in performance, and pairs were randomly split for distribution to the two classrooms. The resulting classrooms were greatly heterogeneous. In the end, the "NCTM" group was slightly ahead (but not significantly) above the video group.

After both groups worked on fractions, decimals, and percents for a semester, they received a three-part test: the first part on tasks and problems that were unique to the video program; the second on the tasks and problems unique to the NCTM program; the third on tasks and problems common to both programs.

The results:

The lower half of the videodisc program outperformed the upper half of the NCTM group on everything. On the items presented only in the NCTM program, the lower half of the group averaged 65 percent correct; the upper half of the NCTM group averaged 51 percent correct. On those items common to both groups, the lower half of the video group averaged 65 percent correct; the NCTM group averaged 35 percent correct. The upper half of the video group averaged 90 percent and 97 percent on these two parts of the test.

Clearly the problem of providing effective math instruction has far less to do with kids then with the delivery of instruction.

I'd like to think I've made my point by now about the importance of effective instruction, but our educators won't let a little thing like facts get in the way of their pet biases.

I do enjoy hearing their rationalizations though, so I'm going to stir the pot a little over the course of the next week or so and run through all we learned with these videodisc programs.

May 13, 2006

Ethical Dilemmas

In the comments in the last post Chris Correa echoes a common sentiment that I want to address:
Reading through a script and watching a few minutes of video will give you a good idea of how the program can be successful from some students' perspective and also why teachers often find it boring or frustrating to work with.
Chris highlights two points that need further elaboration: 1. DI tends to be successful and 2. some teachers don't like it.

DI Tends to Be Successful

Chris states that "[DI] can be successful from some students' perspective." I'm not sure why Chris added the "from some students' perspective" qualification. DI is either successful with a student or it isn't. The student's perspective seems to be superfluous, unless Chris is implying that student learning in DI is illusory (and I don't think he is). But, the research on DI, which is extensive, does not appear to bear that out.

What the research does bear out is that DI is very successful with almost all students if the program is implemented properly. But it is neither teacher nor administrator proof.

Currently, a well implemented DI curriculum can increase student performance by up to two standard deviations. Considering that effect sizes in education on the order of 0.8 standard deviation tend to be considered large and unheard of, DI's performance is practically unparalleled.

For most children, DI is simply the most effective instructional program for learning reading and math and is often the difference between a poor or non reader and a good reader. Same goes for math.

This will be a critical distinction when we analyze Chris' second point.

Some Teachers Don't Like DI

Chris also states that "teachers often find [DI] boring or frustrating to work with." The "often" part is an overstatement, but Englemann himself has acknowledged such sentiments:
The main complaints are that the programs require teachers to follow a script, which
supposedly limits their creativity, and that the programs are boring...

Good teachers become superior DI teachers. Although the program may be boring for some teachers, it is not for the students. The rate of misbehavior is a lot lower during the structured DI periods than it is during less structured times of the school day.
This is a critical distinction. Students like DI. Students learn more with DI. Many DI teachers do, in fact, like DI. But some teachers don't like DI, because they find it boring and frustrating.

Of course, this boredom mostly applies to the beginning reading instruction (depicted in the DI videos) and math programs where basic letter sound and counting skills are taught. In fact, most instruction in beginning skills (playing music, martial arts, sports) are pretty boring endeavors for the teacher and, for that matter, so is teaching reading by balanced literacy approaches. But let's assume arguendo that these bored teachers are right and that DI is marginally more boring.

Unlike other professionals who are burdened by malpractice claims, bored teachers are now faced with an ethical dilemma: teach the boring, but effective, curriculum that might result in about 5% student failures or teach the less boring curriculum that usually results in over half the students failing.

Guess which they overwhelmingly pick?

It's not a question of merely selecting the less boring alternative. In 2006, the less boring alternative is also substantially less effective teaching most children. In fact, the alternatives are so bad we had to make up a new category, "learning disabled," to describe kids of normal intelligence who still unexplainably don't learn what they're supposed to. But at least the programs are less boring for the teacher.

The lack of empathy for children is both amazing and brazen.

Could you imagine if surgeons refused to perform the effective new operation because it was boring and tedious and instead stuck with the easier operations even though they resulted in significantly more deaths? It's unimaginable. It's unimaginable because insurance companies would never allow such behavior, knowing that every patient who died would be suing.

But educators get off the hook scott free. Some even go so far to blog about their student failures, never missing an opportunity to blame the student (and often their parents) for their failure.

May 9, 2006

Response to "No end to Clayton teacher brain drain"

This article appeared at Edspresso earlier today.

No end to Clayton teacher brain drain-- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confusingly reports that Georgia’s Clayton school district’s change to Direct Instruction (DI) this year is to blame for its substantial loss of teachers. Yet a few paragraphs down we learn that the teacher loss has been ongoing for at least three years.

“Clayton County had the highest turnover rate for regular teachers among metro school districts between the 2003 and 2005 school years, statistics show”

How does a change in curriculum this year cause losses in previous years? Perhaps something else is causing the losses? We'll never know because the article jumps right to a disgruntled teacher who claims to be leaving because DI is “too scripted” and that she “no longer uses her expertise to assess students individually and tailor lessons to their weaknesses.”

Our intrepid reporter fails to catch the inconsitency in the teacher's claim. The “teaching expertise” the teacher is referring to was resulting in a large number of students who were failing academically. That’s why the district changed to DI. Ironically enough, considering she hates scripts so much, this teacher appears to be following the same script we get from other critics of DI.

According to Zig Engelmann, the creator of DI, “The main complaints are that the programs require teachers to follow a script, which supposedly limits their creativity, and that the programs are boring.” But, these claims have not been substantiated by research. “Good teachers become superior DI teachers. Although the program may be boring for some teachers, it is not for the students. The rate of misbehavior is a lot lower during the structured DI periods than it is during less structured times of the school day.”

And, there are many good reasons why DI uses scripts instead of allowing teachers to teach in the same manner which previously wasn’t working with many students. The scripts are based on extensive research regarding student retention, and every aspect of every script is based upon results that were demonstrated through research. The great advantage of this approach is that every teacher using the script becomes the beneficiary of that research and will probably teach much more effectively than if left to her own devices.

We next learn that this disgruntled teacher “has a master's degree and has taught reading for 14 years." This is an appeal to authority without any authority. To find out what a teacher has actually taught, you have to look at what the students have actually learned. But, the reporter doesn't give us any statistics on student learning in this district. And I don't trust the inflated scores on the Georgia state test to be a reliable indicator of student success. The only thing I can vaguely find approaching a standard, though it is rife with selection bias, is that the high school students are performing over a 100 points below the national average in the SAT, even though only about half the students took the tests. No doubt these were the smart ones.

Another teacher also considered leaving because of DI and claimed that teachers “don't feel they are getting respect… We don't have any input on anything."

And, there we have the real reason for the discontent: teachers aren’t being permitted to continue what they’ve always done even though it was resulting in lots of academic failure. It’s all about the teachers and their precious feelings, not whether the students are actually learning.

At this point the article gets around to telling us the reason why the administrators brought DI in. “Administrators said they were trying to bring research-based methods into the classroom and standardize lessons so children who changed schools midyear didn't get lost." The new approach also ensured that lessons built on each other from year to year.

Seems reasonable enough to me, especially considering the high mobility rates (upwards of 25%) in these districts.

Then we finally hear from a teacher who liked DI. "I would base my 34 years of experience on saying that it does work." I suppose that counts for something, but wouldn't it be a little more persuasive to hear from an administrator or teacher from a school that successfully implemented DI. How about the City Springs School in the inner city of Baltimore.

In 1998 the city springs school was the worst school in Baltimore City, which is quite an accomplishment considering the general wretchedness of the schools in Baltimore City. CTBS/TerraNova scores for the fifth grade were 14th and 9th percentile for reading and math respectively. Then they changed the curriculum to DI and five years later the scores improved to 87th and 79th percentile respectively. That's about as good as it gets.

The principal of the City Springs School has said “It bothers me that the critics say, ‘Oh, Direct Instruction, so robotic.’ It’s what you make it.” Whether a curriculum is engaging to pupils and helps them learn depends on how teachers teach it. “Any curriculum can be boring to a kid,” she said. “If you give the kid motivation—that they are achieving—you’ve got them.”

Who would you rather have teaching your kids?

Article at Edspresso by Yours Truly

An article I wrote on the train on my way to work one day appears at Edspresso today.

The article is about the harsh reality many college students, in this case engineering students, discover once they've entered college and realize they haven't been adequately prepared for the rigors of college. Now it's too late to do anything about it.

I eventually cleaned up the article and added a bunch of links to all the good cog sci research that proves the points I was trying to make. If you take the opportunity to read all the articles that I linked (and this one too which ccame out in the interim) you should have a much better understanding of why our existing education system doesn't work and performs so poorly.

The article originally appeared at Kitchen Table Math, so if you like what you're reading I'd suggest tearing through the KTM archives--there's a lot of good stuff there on the nuts and bolts of education.

Let me know what you think.

May 8, 2006

Looking for a Scapegoat

(This is my (hopefully final) response to J.D.'s latest response on the subject of who is responsible for academic failure in schools. My previous response, along with his first response, and my initial post might also be worth reading.)

There are four basic perspectives toward improving student achievement: the pessimist viewpoint, the generalist viewpoint, the constructivist viewpoint, and the direct-instruction viewpoint.

J.D.'s viewpoint (and that of the Wonks and many others) seems to be a subset of the pessimist orientation in that he believes that instruction can be more effective but academic failure can at least be partially excused when parents don't take an active and/or effective role in their children's education or are otherwise "bad" parents. What J.D. is doing is latching onto the most egregious external factors that affect student performance, the one's where the parents are culpable due to their bad behavior, and excusing (at least partially) the subsequent academic failure of the children who are affected by this bad parenting.

In my view this is a distinction without merit. There are many external factors that can be blamed for academic failure, not just ones where the parent is culpable. Once schools start looking to external factors to excuse academic failure, the result is inevitably the same--educators stop examining what occurs in the schools to explain why children have not been successful. This is why J.D.'s pessimistic viewpoint is so toxic.

More than three decades ago, Becker (1973) pointed out the problem with the pessimistic viewpoint, an orientation tacitly minimizing the importance of teaching:
As long as the educational climate was such that teaching failures could be blamed on the children, there was no pressure on the teacher to learn more effective means of dealing with children. Over the years, psychologists, mental health workers, and some educators have trained teachers to shift their failures to someone else or at least to blame:
  1. the child's home background,
  2. his low IQ,
  3. his poor motivation,
  4. his emotional disturbance,
  5. his lack of readiness, or
  6. his physical disability
for the teaching failure. With the recent advent of the label learning disability (for children with normal IQ who fail to learn) there is no teaching failure which cannot be blamed on the child. (p. 78)
J.D. is focusing on external factors 1, 3, and 5-- the ones in which parents are at least partially culpable due to their bad behavior. But, what about those external factors 2, 4, and 6-- in which the parents' only potential malfeasance was to pass on bad genes to their offspring? Surely we can also blame the parents of these defective children when they're dropped of at the schoolhouse door? While we're at it, we might as well blame the grandparents too for bearing the low-IQ parents in the first place. It is this low parental IQ that correlates so highly with all the bad parenting behaviors that J.D. is singling out after all.

And, now we're well onto the slippery slope of blame which permits schools to excuse student failure which is upwards of 70% in 2006. You only need to take a quick tour of the edusphere to see how prevalent the notion of "blame the student and his parents" has become and how infrequently educators question the effectiveness of their own teaching. Educators have found a scapegoat for their failures; there's no need to look any further.

I've already acknowledged that these external problems, such as poverty, a disruptive home life, and physiological impairments, often make teaching more difficult. However, we must reject the assumption underlying J.D.'s pessimistic viewpoint that failures in student performance are excusable unless there are changes in the children's economic and social environment.

We now have over forty years of substantial and coercive research that supports the proposition that if students are taught fundamental skills directly, strategically, and thoughtfully (much like J.D.'s own new math curriculum will likely do), almost all children will succeed academically despite whatever external problems they may have.

This is why I cited the City Springs school in my last post. It is a benchmark for what a well run school that teaches fundamental skills directly, strategically, and thoughtfully can accomplish with inner-city children who are afflicted with all too many of the external problems commonly blamed on academic failure. Almost every one of those fifth graders are performing at grade level (according to the CTBS/TerraNova standard) despite the 25% mobility rate in the school, which means that many of the students have not been at the school their entire academic career.

Talk is cheap, but I tend to agree with the viewpoint of the guy who developed the successful curriculum used at the City Springs School:
The philosophy behind the program is basically simple. We say in effect, "“Kid, it doesn'’t matter how miserably your environment has failed to teach you the basic concepts that the average five-year-old has long since mastered. We'’re not going to fail you. We'’re not going to discriminate against you, or give up on you, regardless of how unready you may be according to traditional standards. We are not going to label you with a handle, such as dyslexic or brain-damaged, and feel that we have now exonerated ourselves from the responsibility of teaching you. We'’re not going to punish you by requiring you to do things you can'’t do. We'’re not going to talk about your difficulties to learn. Rather, we will take you where you are, and we'’ll teach you. And the extent to which we fail is our failure, not yours. We will not cop out by saying, "He can'’t learn."” Rather, we will say, "“I failed to teach him. So I better take a good look at what I did and try to figure out a better way."
Perhaps if educators spent more time improving their instruction instead of looking for scapegoats to blame (or partially blame, as J.D. believes), schools might start performing better.
I do not understand why card-carrying liberal educators, like J.D., are so willing to accept anything less.

Coming Soon

JD's has responded to my response to his first response to my initial post regarding who is responsible for academic failure in schools.

I'll respond later today, trying to resolve the matter, since I think we mostly agree but are talking past each other.

In the meantime, check out the comment threads to the recent posts. Many good points are being developed and argued and add to the discussion.

May 7, 2006

A Few Steps Short of a Proof

J.D. of Math and Text responds to my Parental Support post below.

First J.D. cites the article that made the rounds recently in which a super teacher recognized that some of her students were hungry and did the reasonable thing and fed them. A heart-warming anecdote for sure, but an anecdote nonetheless, because when we've studied the link between feeding children and academic performance of American kids we don't find one:
Taras noted that studies of absenteeism rates among students who are offered breakfast at school found that when schools offer breakfast, children are not only more likely to attend school but also have low rates of tardiness. American-based research studies do not show any positive effects of a good breakfast on students'’ academic performance once they get to school, but he noted that the studies showed that grades do improve with a school breakfast in undeveloped countries where children are malnourished.
That's because in the U.S. our poor are more likely to be obese than malnourished. Nonetheless, I'm all for feeding any kid who isn't getting enough to eat. With the number of state, federal, and charitable programs that address this concern, there really is no excuse for any kid going to school hungry. But, let's not pretend that it's going to make more than a dent in student achievement failures outside of the Congo.

JD's next argument is a strawman:
If you're a teacher of a student who spends one third of her time in your class, one third of her time being verbally and/or physically abused by her parents, and, hopefully, one third of her time sleeping, that teacher is not responsible for jack-squat. The parents have determined the student's fate...

... The radical message implied by these ramblings is that, even if I were to have sent my daughter off to be raised by wolves in her first 4 years, the state is responsible for catching her up to everyone else.
The NAEP indicates that about 70% of students are not performing at grade level. JD would have us believe that this 70% comprises the "verbally and/or physically abused" and kids raised by wolves. JD forgot about the cognitively disabled and a whole host of other problems that prevent some kids from achieving. But I didn't:
Sure, they'll be a few hard cases that won't respond to effective classroom management or who lack sufficient cognitive ability.
When we add up all the abused kids, the emotionally and/or cognitively disabled kids, and JD's wolf boys we wind up with a tiny fraction of students, about 2%-10%, who won't be able to achieve academically given even the best schooling. I've already excused the performance of these kids. So what about the remaining 60%, JD? Many of these kids are getting at least some parental support.

JD, of all people, should know that the primary reason why these kids aren't achieving is overwhelmingly due to bad curricula and instruction. Maybe an example is in order.

My favorite is the City Springs School in Baltimore City. In 1998 it was the worst school in Baltimore City, which is quite an accomplishment considering the general wretchedness of the schools in Baltimore City. CTBS/TerraNova scores for the fifth grade were 14th and 9th percentile for reading and math respectively. Then they changed the school management and curriculum (one that does not require parental support, JD) and five years later the scores improved to 87th and 79th percentile respectively. This school has every disadvantage you can think of, and yet they've managed to succeed. Apparently, six hours a day, 180 days a year is sufficient time to compensate for all but the very worst of parenting. According to JD, this should be impossible. And yet here we are.