November 27, 2006

Serenity Now

From Wapo. After Class, The Parent Becomes The Pupil.

Offered without comment:

Her daughter Rachel is a kindergartner in Fairfax County. But that was Cindy Wade in the cafeteria at Island Creek Elementary School one recent evening for a mathematics lesson with Froot Loops and colored pasta.

Wade, a lawyer who's taking a break to raise her children, and other parents crowded around a table as teacher Brooke Harris encouraged them to have their children practice forming simple patterns at home by lining up bits of pasta or cereal.

NCTM gets pounded

I'm busy schlepping the kids around Epcot today, so I didn't get a chance to fully read this detailed commentary criticizing the NCTM, Why Do Supporters of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Insist Only They Are Right?

I maintain there is mounting evidence in the NCTM "reformed" mathematics curriculum of the following: inaccurate views based on poor research, reverse discrimination (against white males), stereo-typed learning styles that have helped increase achievement gaps for minorities, opaque and convoluted lessons about mathematical procedures, and a disrespect for the historical importance of texts that represent the rich concepts and principles of mathematics.

I am also baffled as to why anyone still listens to what the NCTM has to say. It's not like what they've said in the past has proven to be successful.

November 24, 2006

On my way

I'm on my way to Disney World today for a week's vacation. I do have my laptop to do "real work," so maybe I'll squeeze some blogging in too.

Meet the New Calculator

According to this article, educators have started using i-pods to read text to "leaning disabled" kids.

You won't believe the caption of this photo. No, really you won't:

Tiler Jones, 12, listens to an iPod while taking a reading skills test at Louisa-Muscatine Elementary School near Letts.

A reading skills test.

A reading skills test.

Tiler is listening to his reading test on the i-pod so his reading skills can be accessed. Shouldn't they call it a listening skills test?

Now that calculators are being relied upon by educators to obviate the need for teaching math calculation, how much longer will it be until we hear the same excuse for allowing the i-pod to be used to eliminate the need to teach reading.


November 22, 2006

Social Promotion

Instructivist left this timely comment in response to this post:

[E]ven with good curricula and teaching methods you are still facing pupils with bad attitudes, poor motivation and atrocious behavior. There is something very wrong with the school culture. I am more and more convinced that decades of progressive, child-centered education (and the consequent demotion of the teacher) fosters this bad culture.

Educators have taken their eye off the ball. Instead of focusing on outcomes, educators want to focus on the process of education. When you focus on process, learning may or may not take place. When process is the focus of education, there are no winners or losers because no one is keeping score. We're all familiar with this lack of accountability meme.

But today I want to discuss the nasty side effect of stressing process instead of outcomes alluded to by Instructivist -- the unintended, but entirely predictable, consequences of social promotion: student apathy and misbehavior.

Social promotion is a byproduct of focusing on process instead of outcomes. When there is no agreed upon outcome that can be reliably measured, there is no choice but to keep moving children ahead regardless of their skill level. And, it doesn't help that there is some touchy-feely junk science research out there claiming that kids are more likely to drop out if they are held back. In recent years, accountability measures have cut back on this pernicious practice somewhat, but it still thrives in most schools.

Vicki Snider has written about the dynamic:

When there is no accountability, students are unlikely to put forth their best effort. This is especially true at the high school level. It is the rare adolescent who is intrinsically motivated to do well in school, and those that lack the basic skills and background knowledge necessary for success are even less motivated. No one is intrinsically motivated to do things he or she is not very good at. Eighty-one percent of the American public said that students achieve only a small part of their potential (Johnson, et al. 2003; Rose & Gallup, 2001) and even students seem to recognize that fact. Public Agenda found that 71% of students readily admitted that they do the minimum to get by and 56% said that they could try a little harder (Johnson & Farkus, 1997) and a Metlife (Markow & Scheer, 2002) survey found that 73% of students agreed that students in their school do only enough work to get by.

Well, no friggin' duh.

Incentives matter. That's why communist economies fail at a fast rate and socialist economies also fail but at a slower rate. The rate of economic failure is inversely proportional to the amount of incentives to work removed from the system. When you're giving "to each according to their means" and only asking "from each according to their abilities," you create a perverse incentive to do as little as possible. The lefties who control education, haven't learned this economic lesson yet. (In fact, they have no incentive to learn it--to continue my analogy).

Grade inflation only exacerbates the problem. Getting good grades for doing very little just feeds the fire and gives students an inflated sense of achievement. Students end up thinking they know a lot more than they really know. The chickens won't come home to roost until college or their first job when performance is finally demanded and excuses cease to be available.

And here's the kicker.

While no student is served well by focusing on process instead of outcomes, it is the students who arrive at school the least well prepared for academic learning who suffer the worst effects.

Snider is on it again:

One might think that de-emphasizing specific content in favor of thinking skills would benefit smart, curious youngsters regardless of their socioeconomic status or cultural background--but it turns out that 's not true. Children who come from homes where education is not stressed or where the parents are uneducated themselves are less likely to acquire the background knowledge that they need to achieve school success.

This is not intuitively obvious (unless you read this blog regularly), so allow me to explain.

In order to learn, you need to comprehend. Comprehension is highly dependent on your background knowledge. The more you know about what you are trying to learn the better and more easily you will learn it. This underlying knowledge is background knowledge. Those who lack it are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Being a curious youngster, means you are willing to learn which means you are willing to use your working memory to think about something for a period of time. But to actually learn this new thought requires that you understand the new thought well enough to find a place where it fits in your long term memory. To do this, however, requires that you not exceed the limited capacity of your working memory. You manage this feat by marshaling the resources stored in your long term memory, i.e., your background knowledge, to expand the capacity of your working memory and allow you to finish your thought. If you can't finish your thought, you're not going to learn, no matter how curious you are.

Background knowledge is critical to higher levels of learning. The acquisition of background knowledge becomes increasing reliant upon the reading of books. Most books used for "reading to learn" are written at a fourth grade level or above. The vocabulary in these fourth grade books and above tend to contain words that are seldom contained in everyday speech, including on the television. Vocabulary (and the underlying concepts) is merely background knowledge.

Traditionally, schools have been designed to educate the middle class. This means that schools could rely on the students family to impart the vocabulary and oral concept knowledge needed to read at a fourth grade level. Such knowledge is not forthcoming in lower class families. And, most schools have never taken on this responsibility. Right out of the starting blocks, disadvantaged are in a position where it is impossible for them to learn by the time they hit fourth grade.

Focusing on the process of education has created perfect storm conditions in most schools, but especially the schools in which the students have low levels of background knowledge. It's a two-pronged pincer attack:

Prong one: Removing the incentives to learn and the consequences of not learning, creates apathy. Apathy breeds misbehavior and defiance. Misbehaving, apathetic kids are difficult to teach.

Prong Two: Not caring about the content of what is learned, reduces the the already slow process of accumulating background knowledge. Failure to acquire background knowledge reduces the student's ability to learn new stuff. This reduction of capacity to learn increases the effort level required to learn. Kids who find it difficult to learn are difficult to teach.

When the prongs come together in an environment of social promotion under a teaching pedagogy that downplays the importance of teaching content, you have the perfect positive feedback loop: apathetic misbehaving kids with insufficient background knowledge who have no incentive to put effort into learning and who find learning increasingly difficult.

Welcome to hell.

November 21, 2006

Why public education costs so much

There are four ways in which you can spend money.

You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you're doing, and you try to get the most for your money.

Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I'm not so careful about the content of the present, but I'm very careful about the cost.

Then, I can spend somebody else's money on myself. And if I spend somebody else's money on myself, then I'm sure going to have a good lunch!

Finally, I can spend somebody else's money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else's money on somebody else, I'm not concerned about how much it is, and I'm not concerned about what I get.

And that's government. And that's close to 40% of our national income.

--Milton Friedman, and also P.J. O'Rourke -- Eat the Rich

Today's Assignment: Drill and Kill

Hello, boys and girls, today is our third lesson on second grade logic. Here's Lesson One and Two.

Let's Not waste time. The quicker we get the lesson done, the longer we'll have for recess.

Lesson Three

Here's a rule: Tadpoles have a tail.

Item 1. A cat is not a tadpole. So what else do we know about a cat? Answer (highlight): Nothing.

Item 2. Sam is a tadpole. So what else do we know about Sam? Answer (highlight): He has a tail.

Item 3. Pam is not a tadpole. So what else do we know about Pam? Answer (highlight): Nothing.

Item 4. Jean is a tadpole. So what else do we know about Jean? Answer (highlight): She has a tail.

End Lesson Three

By lesson three the skill is presented as independent work. The idea is that you learned the skill by the end of lesson one or lesson two at the latest. For novice second graders this skill is likely not yet mastered, however. If we stopped here, the process of forgetting will start to work and the skill will be forgotten in short order. It is not sufficient to simply learn something. If you want to remember it, you have to overlearn it. And, the best way to overlearn something is to practice it.

Today's lesson is your first practice session. With enough practice, the skill will make it into your long term memory where is will hopefully be protected against the ravages of forgetfulness. Even if you do forget it, there will be a substantial economy in relearning it.

The problem with most educational programs is that they do not provide the student with sufficient practice for mastering the skill. Here's the schedule for the practicing of this skill in Reading Mastery III:

1. Skip a day, present lesson 4.
2. Next day, present lesson 5.
3. Skip two days, present lesson 6.
4. Skip two days, present lesson 7.
5. Skip three days, present lesson 8.
6. Skip four days, present lesson 9.
7. Skip three days, present lesson 10.
8. Skip four days, present lesson 11.
9. Skip two days, present lesson 12.
10. Skip three days, present lesson 13.
11. Skip two days, present lesson 14.

In the span of about forty lessons (two months in school), this skill is presented to the student 14 times. Each lesson consists of a different rule followed by 3 or 4 questions. Some lessons present variations of the rule, such as "all the green men are small" or "every little girl wants to grow up."

Higher performers who learn information at a faster rate and who retain information with less repetitions can be accelerated by, say, eliminating every other lesson and/or doubling up on the number of lessons taught per day.

Basically each lesson is a delayed retest of the student's ability to successfully recall the information and apply the skill to a similar environment. If the student cannot recall the skill or doesn't understand the skill well enough to apply it, he will not be able to answer the questions successfully. This is the acid test for learning--being able to apply what you've learned.

After lesson 14, the skill is subsumed into more advanced skills. These more advanced skills require student to know this skill in order to complete successfully. The skill is never taught and then left for dead. Otherwise, why bother teaching it in the first place?

Teaching in this way is considered to be drill and kill to our educators. Their idea of educating is to present an elaborate inquiry session (bonus points if manipulatives are used) designed for the student to discover the rule and its application, perhaps have the students perform a few problems applying the skill for homework, leave the skill for dead for sixty lessons, then spiral back around to the skill and teach it again (bonus points if its taught differently). Wash, rinse, repeat.

And they wonder why kids don't learn.

That only works in Hollywood

Just because you don a lab coat, thick rimmed glasses, and a clipboard, doesn't mean you get to call your unsubstantiated opinions a "study."

You've been flim-flammed

This WaPo article focuses on the plight of hapless students who've been lied to by their schools.

Sylvia James hardly considers herself clueless in mathematics. After all, she finished sixth grade with a B-plus in the subject and made the Honor Roll, which she saw as a victory in a challenging year of fraction conversion and decimal placement.

But what happened when she took the state math test?

She flunked it.

Sylvia dear, I have bad news, you've been lied to. Bamboozled. Your well-meaning teachers are pretending to teach you sixth grade math, but they're not. They're teaching you fourth grade math, maybe even third grade. They're probably not even doing a very good job either. Worse still, they're covering their incompetence by giving you high grades. It's a scam from top to bottom.

"I was kind of shocked," said Sylvia, who attends Herbert J. Saunders Middle School in Prince William County. "I just thought I was going to pass it because I always usually pass everything else. I guess I went through the test pretty quickly."

Yes, you usually pass everything else as long as it's a test given by someone at your school which is just interested in passing you through the system until you reach the end of 12th grade. Then you're someone else's problem. They don't care if you learn anything during those 12 years, just behave yourself. They've developed an elaborate web of deceit to mask their inability to teach. If you don't learn and do poorly on their simple classroom exams, it's not their fault; it's your fault. You're "learning disabled." Can't read? Your dyslexic. Can't do your homework? You lack parental support. You get the picture.

Many students in the Washington region are suffering from academic split personalities. Driven by the federal No Child Left Behind law and tougher state diploma standards, the testing blitz has left these students in a curious limbo: They pass their classes with B's and C's yet fail the state exams.

These cases surface frequently, with one local high school reporting, for example, that a quarter of students in beginning algebra passed the course but failed the state test.

A quarter of algebra students can't pass a test which not only doesn't have much algebra on it, but what little algebra it has, should have been taught in week one. These algebra students are failing tests that include mostly math questions that should have been learned in elementary school.

The discrepancies have emerged amid fierce debate over the role of testing in public education. Supporters of the federal law say standardized exams are the best way to raise academic standards and the only way to hold schools accountable for results. Critics complain that time spent on test preparation saps classroom creativity and that test scores are just one indicator among many of student achievement.

Yeah, that's what poor Sylvia needs, more creativity. State tests indicate that Sylvia really needs more math, but that's only one indicator. Another indicator, classroom grades, indicates that everything is sunshine and lollipops. Let's use that one instead and just hope that Sylvia never has to calculate a tip at a restaurant.

Don't worry, Sylvia, you're not the only one robbed of a decent education. Fancy college boy WaPo journalist can't even recognize a simple logical fallacy, like the false dilemma he put in the previous paragraph.

I'll spare you the litany of lame excuses false-dilemma boy lists in the next few paragraphs. Let's move on to our next education victim--Brittanie Morris.

Brittanie Morris, 14, a freshman at John F. Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, is taking a catch-up math class after school because she did not pass her Maryland exam last year.

"I got a B for the total year in algebra last year, but this makes me feel uncomfortable . . . and you feel kinda slow," Brittanie said. "It feels weird to be in the class because it makes you feel like you didn't pass, when you did."

Better that you learned the deception now, Brittanie, than in year one of college. If you've landed in the remedial math classes in college, you're chance of graduating is virtually nil. You could always transfer over to one of the soft majors in the liberal arts or education schools that practice the same deception, but then your chances of landing a decent job are virtually nil.

Brittanie's mother, Kay Morton, was befuddled when she opened the mail and saw the results of her daughter's standardized math exam.

"It's hard to understand a situation where you can have an Honor Roll student who doesn't pass the test. She's been an Honor Roll student since the sixth grade," she said. "I can't say I really hold her teacher accountable. . . . I just accepted the fact that Brittanie may not be a child that tests well."

Oh. My. God. What. An. Idiot.

The data available on these "pass/fail" students -- most of whom apparently are getting C's or better in their courses-- vary across the region. But a glance at local schools shows that the number of such students is sizable.

Brittanie's mom, how does your theory explain that your daughter is passing the classroom tests, but not the State test?

He said. She said time.

Defenders of standardized testing say the exams function like audits, revealing gaps in the curriculum that must be filled if the students are to reach high academic standards. Critics say that the differences between scores and grades show the fallibility of the exams, which provide only a snapshot of what a student knows.

And those grades weren't based on a bunch of snapshots? Not to mention the whole subjectivity problem which we learn about a few paragraphs down.

Teacher Nancy Hencken said she thought Bilal was an articulate student who easily demonstrated his knowledge of the subject matter in class. During class exams, Hencken noted, Bilal and other students could ask her for guidance. That wasn't allowed under the state's strict testing format.

Yes, cheating usually isn't allowed. We want the student to demonstrate she knows what's being asked on the test, not what she knows with the teacher's help. Ms/ Hencken won't be around the next time Bilal has to figure out that idiomatic expression he's just read in real life.

I can't even bring myself to write about the next two paragraphs; it's just too painful.

And, the next one's not much better.

Schools take several approaches to help students who fail standardized exams. In the District, some schools may offer special remediation classes, said William Wilhoyte, a regional superintendent. But in general, he said, schools prefer to help students in their regular classes. They do so by grouping students by ability, based on their performance on certain test questions.

Maybe if they grouped by ability before the tests, they'd have less kids failing the tests.

If they were really serious about improving the passing rate, they'd have mandatory teacher remediation for all the teachers with too many students failing the test. We'd have a lot less child-centered nonsense being practiced if teacher smith had to attend mandatory teacher training after school. Incentives do matter.

Of course, you could always blame the unmotivated students:

Some students placed in remediation appear more than eager to proclaim their academic credentials. During a recent catch-up math class at Saunders Middle School, seventh-grader Lexie Hunt wanted to share some good news with teacher Pamela Childress.

"Ms. Childress, I made Honor Roll!" Lexie said. "In this school, do they give out bumper stickers for that?"

Damn lazy kids.

Update: Dr. P (who needs to blog more) stops by in the comments and reminds us that schools just as often are prematurely covering above grade level material before students have mastered the underlying material. The tests are showing this lack of mastery.

Update two: Eduwonk nails the issue. As does Kevin Carey.

November 20, 2006

NYT perplexed over achievement gap

The NYT is perplexed over the achievement gaps between whites and blacks and hispanics.

Despite concerted efforts by educators, the test-score gaps are so large that, on average, African-American and Hispanic students in high school can read and do arithmetic at only the average level of whites in junior high school.

"The gaps between African-Americans and whites are showing very few signs of closing," Michael T. Nettles, a senior vice president at the Educational Testing Service, said in a paper he presented recently at Columbia University. One ethnic minority, Asians, generally fares as well as or better than whites.

The reports and their authors, in interviews, portrayed an educational landscape in which test-score gaps between black or Hispanic students and whites appear in kindergarten and worsen through 12 years of public education.

Some researchers based their conclusions on federal test results, while others have cited state exams, the SATs and other widely administered standardized assessments. Still, the studies have all concurred: The achievement gaps remain, perplexing and persistent.

Why is this so perplexing?

Because of political correctness, that's why.

The achievement gap mirrors the IQ gap. Of IQ gaps we cannot speak amongst polite company, such as those that still read the NYT.

That's the elephant in the room.

Even the legislators behind NCLB were not so crazy to think that NCLB was going to magically erase the achievement gap. You can search all day long in the legislation, but you won't find anything that suggests that the real performance of all the racial groups will be the same in 2014.

What you will find is achievement measured by defining a cut score over which even our dullest students will be able to jump over into proficiency land. However, once they're in proficiency land there will still be an achievement gap. And, that gap will be the same as it is now due to the persistence of the IQ gap.

The aim of NCLB is to set a minimum competency threshold and get all students over it. The theory goes something like this. States set a proficiency level as low as is politically feasible, then schools improve teaching until 99% of students can meet or exceed the goal. If the goal were set much below 99%, we'd still see an achievement gap due to the IQ gap, so don't expect to see that level reduced below about a mid ninetieth percentile.

The best NCLB can accomplish is masking the achievement gap.

Insta-update: Guest blogger Jal Mehta at Eduwonk either toes the political correctness line like a good think tanker that wants to keep his job or gets it wrong:

[F]rom a policy perspective, I think (and here is that Rorschach test) it reveals the weakness of external accountability as a lever to accomplish what is one of the most difficult of our social policy objectives -- breaking the link between family poverty and school outcomes. In a sense, setting standards and measuring progress through assessments are the low-hanging fruit -- what they leave undone is the much more difficult task of actually helping kids do tomorrow what they couldn't do today. These questions--of which accountability systems are one part but a relatively small part--is where the policy dialogue needs to go. Let's hope today's story sounds the bell and starts that conversation.

If this is the typical substitution of "poverty" for "IQ" wink-and-a-nod that we see when talking about racial achievement gaps, we have the problem that "
breaking the link between [IQ] and school outcomes" is all but impossible. Smart kids learn more per unit of instruction and that's that. Otherwise if Jal really means that poverty is somehow responsible for diminished school outcomes, he has a wet streets cause rain problem. He's got the cause and effect thing backwards. And, he's ignoring the effects of the IQ gap. An immigrant family from one of the Northeast Asian countries who might be living in poverty today will likely have children who perform well in school, whereas your native inner city family who just won the powerball lottery will likely still have children who won't do well in school. Poverty has little to do with school performance, especially the way we define poverty in this country which includes many families who would be considered filthy rich in most of the rest of the world.

And, as far as the "
what [accountability systems] leave undone is the much more difficult task of actually helping kids do tomorrow what they couldn't do today" meme goes, I view this as a good thing. NCLB is basically saying, you've been taking our federal money for a long time now with little to show for it. We don't like it. If you want to keep on taking our money, you need to start showing results. Here's what we want to see in 14 years. You set the standards as you see fit and you, as the experts in education, find a way to meet those goals, in whatever way you want to. You want to teach to the test? fine. You want to expand the school day? go ahead. You want to adopt a sunshine and lollipop curriculum? Great. Just don't come crying crying to us, if you don't meet your goals. Little did they know, educators would be crying in less than five years.

Super update Two: Joanne Jacobs writes that:

[W]e could cut the gap considerably by giving disadvantaged children more experienced and expert teachers, a well-designed curriculum, frequent diagnostic testing and after-school tutors who could provide the support their parents can't. I also think we could work more closely with parents to tell them what they could be doing to help their children do well in school. Maybe the gap wouldn't close completely but it can be narrowed.

Sure, we can raise student achievement of low performers by improving their curriculum. I'm on board with that. But, I don't think, it'll diminish the achievement gap. How long do you think it would take for middle-class families to start demanding the same improved curriculum that the poor kids are getting? Once they get it too, their achievement will also rise. Back to steady state, i.e., achievement gap.

And guestblogger Jal Mehta at Eduwonk begins construction on what appears to be a strawman when he characterizes my position as "assuming that racial gaps are [] immutably given by nature." I see where he's going with the "immutable" language. We've already squeezed out most of the immutability about as far as we're going to take it, now that the poor are super-nutriated. Closing the gap further by reducing "poverty effects" have proven elusive and starts to bring us into the land of Kozol.

Another math article

Do journalists have a false dilemma macro they use when writing articles about math?

This guy must.

Ron Lankford, as a boy growing up in Seneca, used reform math in the hay field without knowing it.

"I used to be able to look at a load of hay, and tell you just by looking at it how many bales were in there," Lankford told me. "I was thinking mathematically... there were four rows and each row had so many. I just knew it."

Yeah, 'cause you know you never learned such stuff in traditional math. Thank you, reform math.

I really like this hilarious typo.

What Lankford, now in his eighth year as superintendent of Webb City Schools, did instinctively has become a focal debate in public education. There is an ongoing shift from teaching math by rote, as in mesmerizing tables and formulas, to trying to impart concepts.

Reform math teaches you how to mesmerize tables and formulas instead of memorizing them.

That should be their slogan

Now meet the three horseman of the apocalypse.

The concept is broken into three major components: "Everyday Math" for grades kindergarten through fifth; "Connected Math," for the middle grades, and "Core-plus" for the upper grades. The goal is to use a cohesive method for teaching, using "spiraling" concepts that connect one idea to the next.


It gets better.

When Chicago University researchers dug into the problem, they concluded the fundamental issue was the way students were being taught - by memorizing facts and formulas, rather than being forced to understand and apply concepts. The difference is an auto mechanic knowing how to change the spark plugs in an engine, and knowing what the spark plugs do and what happens when they don't work.

What the knuckleheads at Chicago didn't realize was that the auto mechanic must still know how to perform the procedure for changing the spark plug if he wants to get the car to run again. And, unfortunately, the best way to do that is by practicing changing a lot of spark plugs.

Plus, as I recall, traditional math consisted of the teacher prattling away at the front of the class trying to teach understanding, not memorization. It didn't work all that well then and it doesn't work all that well now because novices don't really understand any topic when they first learn it. That comes later. At lest in the traditionally taught math, there was a coherent sequence of learning in which one skill builds on another. Think a computer program. In reform math, the sequence has largely been dispensed with in favor of presenting a series of unrelated problems to the student for discovering the answers. Imagine the computer programmer falling down on his way to class and dropping his punch cards and getting them all mixed up.

Georgianna McGriff, the Seneca curriculum director and a delightfully upbeat advocate for change, understands the frustration of teachers, parents and students. She acknowledges foibles in how the program was laid out in the district, and also agrees "no program" is perfect and that some adjustments may need to be made in how it is used in Seneca.

She notes that the way public education had been teaching mathematics was not keeping Seneca, Missouri or the nation competitive with the rest of the world. Doing nothing is not an option.

Yeah, but doing something stupid for the sake of change isn't the answer either.

Many employers, primarily manufacturing and technology, say some workers coming to them from public high schools and even colleges are not good at math. They know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but not how to think on the fly, to solve problems that require visualizing a logical sequence and then making changes to achieve the desired end.

In other words, how to think.

Except that in the reform math, kids aren't any better at solving problems than traditionally taught kids. If anything, the calculation skills of reform taught math kids have taken a nosedive. So, not only don't they solve problem any better, they don't
add, subtract, multiply and divide as well. Lose-lose.

Few disagree with the end result. We must be able to teach kids how to analyze, to critically examine a situation and come up with a unique solution. The debate is over how to do that.

Everyday Math has been the subject of dozens of contentious meetings around the country, and the issues are nearly identical. Parents are upset because they don't know how to help their children.

Let's take a look at the end results. Everyday math--61 studies. 57 were garbage. Out of the 4 that were OK, 3 had statistically insignificant results, the last study was performed by a researcher affiliated with Everyday Math who won't release his data set. Thus, the end result is that Everyday Math appears to be not the way "how to do that."

Webb City schools have used Everyday Math for several years and educators noticed early in its implementation that the elementary program failed to properly ground students in memorizing the multiplication tables. It is impossible to visualize higher concepts, such as counting a wagonload of hay in a single glance, without knowing that 4 times 12 is 48. Teachers began sending multiplication work home with the kids and urging parents to help them, which left more class time for teaching the concepts rather than memorization.

Oh wait, so you apparently still do have to memorize things in math. That's not what the authors of Everyday Math and the NCTM standards originally said. They thought that Understanding + Calculators = Math Bliss. Instead it's turned out that Understanding + Calculators = Math Failure.

So now the reformers are in a fighting retreat while doe-eyed educators are forced to hand out endless supplemental worksheets home (in addition to the normal homework) if they want kids to actually be able to do any math. This wouldn't sit too well with me if I were a kid. Lots more work for the same performance. Once again lose-lose. Compare this to a math program like Connecting Math Concepts where the practice is already built into the program by the curriculum designer. The result is that for most kids, all the practice is performed in class and there is no need for homework.

"No one math program is perfect," she told me. "This is a way of addressing a much larger problem."

Yes, but some are clearly better than others, so why not pick the ones that work?

Remedial education in college

Good article on the growing need for college remediation.

Joe Bagnoli graduated from Ashland Holy Family High School with a 3.7 grade-point average and with A's in four years of college preparatory math courses -- algebra I and II, geometry and trigonometry.

So it didn't add up when he took a placement exam as a Berea College freshman in 1984 and learned that he wasn't quite prepared for college math. It took one hard week of work in a remedial math course for Bagnoli to get caught up.

Welcome to the real world, Joe. Your K-12 school(s) were long on lofty rhetoric and short on actual math teaching. But, being prepared to do college level math is the acid test. Calculus and Physics will test how well your school taught you algebra and basic math. If you don't understand algebra and haven't developed a good degree of automaticity in it, you won't be able to apply all that algebra in solving calculus and physics problems. Oh, and by the way, you'll be learning a lot of calculus and physics at the same time, not leaving you with much time to re-learn algebra.

So, how widespread is the problem today?

Currently, 53 percent of entering students at the state's public universities and community and technical colleges need at least one remedial course, according to a recent report from the state Council on Postsecondary Education. The report also showed that 44 percent are not ready for college math, 32 percent are not prepared for college English and 25 percent do not have college-level reading skill.

Pretty widespread, I'd say. So, what's the problem?

"What we do is developmental education because students are developing basic skills that are needed for success," she said. "It's nothing remedial because there's nothing about these students that needs to be fixed. They are not broken. They need preparation."

The basic skills of college are the higher order skills of K-12. But, when you get right down to it it's all basic skills to somebody. Know enough basic skills and sooner or later when only a small segment of the population has those skills, we start calling them higher order skills. But, they're only basic skills to the guy on the next level.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

November 19, 2006

Kids as snowflakes

The buzz phrase in Ed circles is differentiated instruction which is based on the notion that since all kids are different, they each must be taught differently. Such sentiments are thought to be profound and are sure to procure lots of knowing nods from the educrati.

The kernel of true in such statements is that children are indeed different in many ways; however, it is equally true that children are the same in many ways.

As far as teaching goes, we only really care about the differences and similarities that influence learning and instruction. Of course, the vast majority of differences between children have little or nothing to do with how kids learn. Often these differences are expressed in terms of "learning styles and modalities," "multiple intelligences," and "differing interests."

Allow me to practice what I preach by pointing out that all of these so-called differences are similar in that none has any empirical support nor has any been shown to have an effect on learning or instruction. This is because the content of instruction dictates about 90% of what has to be taught:

Content, and the nature of content, doesn't change according to the interests of children, nor according to any other characteristic of children. If we were trying to teach a gorilla to read, the nature of reading wouldn't change. Obviously, when it comes to the nature of content, differences among learners don't have much to do with anything.
Learning style differences are usually assessed informally through teacher observation. Teachers, however, often know little about inducing real learning. These learning styles are often expressed as superficial external traits like visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic which mask the underlying complex cognitive traits.

For example, children cope with their inability to read in ways that might superficially seem like a learning style, but that actually reflect poor reading skills. It's easy to misinterpret certain behaviors. Consider the following examples.
  1. Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they can't track words with their fingers. It's more likely that they can't read the words. Usually these auditory learners can keep their eyes riveted to a television or video game screen for hours.
  2. Sometimes elementary teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they memorize and rely on picture clues rather than sounding out words. It's more likely that they revert to visual clues because they can't read the words. Without knowledge of the underlying sound structure of language, they have little choice but to rely on memorization and guessing.
  3. Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are auditory learners because they need the text read aloud or explained to them.
  4. Sometimes high school teachers say that poor readers are visual learners because they need pictures, graphics, and visual displays to explain the text to them.
  5. When students are labeled tactile/kinesthetic learners, they often need hands-on experience, group work, and activities to learn, not because of their learning style but because they need structure, assistance, and feedback on difficult or unfamiliar tasks.
In all of these examples, the source of the observed behavior is poor reading skills. To ignore the basic problem in no way benefits the students.

The point is that all kids (and humans) share some characteristics that are useful for learning, and, therefore, instruction has to accommodate those samenesses among learners, rather than the many differences among them. Learning styles and "intelligences" and student interests and modalities couldn't possibly have too much influence on learning, not when the nature of content doesn't vary among learners, and not when some of those things that make us all human are so central to learning.

Efficient instructional programs make every effort to communicate the essential nature of content to all learners (because it is the same for all learners), and they make every effort to take full advantage of the ways all humans generalize more accurately and efficiently. What is the same about children is their innate capacity for language, to learn to read and think inductively and deductively. What is the same about all children is that they will learn if given appropriate instruction. They may learn at different rates and may need different amounts of structure and practice to master academic skills and concepts, but they can learn.

Educators should be designing and delivering instruction that capitalizes on the sameness of all children, rather than to cater to their differences.

On the responsibilities of school districts

The greatest shortcoming of the [school] districts is their failure to recognize that they must be responsible for the training and monitoring of teachers. Nearly every school district suggests that any new teacher must be able to "adjust instruction so that it is appropriate for individual students." Yet, this ability is never tested, and the district has virtually no capacity to induce it in the teachers who can't do it (which would include the vast majority of teachers). We have analyzed the skill level of teachers in typical school districts, and the results are appalling. The teachers typically know very little about the instructional programs that they use, have a very vague understanding of students' skill level or ability to perform on the topics that are "taught," and teach in a way that is not well designed to transmit information to the average student. Despite their skill deficiencies, however, the teachers are not monitored or trained. Furthermore, the diagnostic procedures used by the schools are designed to protect the teachers. A district may have file cabinets full of records of students who failed because these students are assumed to have problems, such as "dyslexia." In contrast, there is usually not one folder on a child who failed, not because of a child problem, but because the teachers failed. The probability of such a distribution is very suspect.

Engelmann, Advocacy For Children, 1982

November 18, 2006

Reading Well and Motivation

Here is a nice short video from Reading Rockets highlighting the need to make sure that kids do not fall behind in reading. Since reading is a complex activity and, in school, a very public activity, the constant feedback a poor reader receives is deadly to motivation.

November 17, 2006

Progress report from TMAO

TMAO provides an update on the progress of his special ed and ELL kids:

  • Of the 0% who could demonstrate mastery on the parts of speech, 73% are at that 80-80 mark.
  • Of the 0% who could identify the parts of plot structure, and articulate the conflict-climax connection, 93% can now reasonably do so, although still not on grade level text, but utilizing grade level vocabulary and analysis
  • Of the 60% who could write the alphabet correctly, in order, and identify the vowels, 98% now can (don't ask about that 2%)

These kids started the year far behind, but are starting to make progress. After six years of non-learning, kids like this can be less than motivated about learning. But, it is amazing how a little academic success and a desire to please teachers/adults/parents can motivate children (at least at this age).

When I say I need to cancel Saturday Academy because I need to go renew my driver's license, leaving out the part where I'm commuting 110 miles a day on an expired piece of plastic, there are audible groans.

Once when I inadvertently failed to put a star on my three year old daughter's reading "homework," I could tell by the look in her eyes that unless I rectified the oversight with due haste that I'd be on the business end of a makeshift shank crudely fashioned out of her Dora the Explorer kiddie spoon.

Then there's my six year old son who insists that I dutifully record the bonus points he's earned in the built-in motivation system of his reading program. Mind you, we've never discussed what the bonus points are for or what the consequences or bonuses might be for said bonus points, but damn if he's not going to get whatever bonus points he's got coming to him.

Clearly, Alfie Kohn does not have kids of his own.

A mom's plea: Don't make me do school projects!

Here's a must read from the CSM:

Please, oh please, dear curriculum developers, give us parents a break: Ban all make-work projects. Parents have jobs, too, you know. We do our children's homework. We serve on school boards, coach basketball, and volunteer with the Boy Scouts. Now you want us to be creative?!

"I feel like telling them that I've already been through third grade," complained one mother. "I've already built a mobile of 'Jack and the Bean Stalk.' I don't feel like doing it again."

It get's even better:

Recently, while rummaging through my son's 20-pound backpack, I found a note from the literature teacher: "Class, please sew together a stuffed animal representing a character from the Dr. Dolittle novel we read in class. It doesn't have to be elaborate, simply use any old scraps you have around the house. And, please, whatever you do, DON'T INVOLVE YOUR PARENTS!"

Oh yeah, sure. They always say that. Who, may I ask, is going to drive to the fabric store and run the sewing machine? Who will buy the stuffing, find buttons for the eyes, and sew on the cute whiskers? Certainly not the 9-year-old boy who is busy playing a Star Wars game on the computer.

Most parents would rather spend all night helping with real homework than wasting time with this nonsense.

Logic Lesson Two

Are you ready for your second grade logic lesson two? (Lesson one is here.)

Here we go:

Lesson Two

Here's a rule: Fish live in water.

Say the rule without looking.

The rule tells about fish. What does it tell about? Answer: Fish. (highlight to see)

You must pretend that you don't know about anything else.

Item 1: Fish live in water. A trout is a fish. So what else do you know about a trout? Answer: It lives in water.

Item 2: Fish live in water. A frog is not a fish. So what else do you know about a frog? Answer: Nothing.

Why don't you know anything else about a frog? Because the rule only tells you about fish.

Item 3: Fish live in water. A whale is not a fish. So what else do you know about a frog? Answer: Nothing.

Why don't you know anything else about a whale? Answer: Because the rule tells only about fish.

Item 4: Fish live in water. A turtle is not a fish. So what else do you know about a frog? Answer: Nothing.

Why don't you know anything else about a turtle? Answer: Because the rule tells only about fish.

End Lesson Two

Lesson two was probably unnecessary for most of you high performers. For you, today's lesson could have been presented as independent work. But, in a classroom setting some students may have been absent yesterday and need the material taught by the teacher while lower performers may not yet clear on the concept and need the extra instruction. In future lessons this skill will be presented as independent practice.

These two lessons have been field tested, so we know that it takes this amount of teacher led instruction is necessary for lower performers to understand the skill. No doubt, you higher performers are getting bored with the repetition of the presentation. The interesting thing to note is that the presentation is the same for both the lower and the higher performers. The only difference is the rate at which they learn and master the material. The lower performers need more modeling and leading by the teacher, but by the end of the lesson, they will have learned the same skill as their higher performing peers. They didn't need a more elaborate explanation, a connection to some real world phenomena or the use of manipulatives. They learned it like the higher performers, it just took them longer and it'll take them longer to master the material and retain it, but they are capable of learning it.

And, this is not an easy concept to understand. I took a course in deductive logic in undergrad, and the professor told us that the class would fall into two groups, those that understood it and got A's and B's and those that didn't and got D's and F's. There were no C students in logic. He was right.

Many students had trouble with introductory logic concepts as presented in this lesson, especially when presented at the brutally fast rate of a college course. Some students think that when you're told that p = q, that you can deduce that if r ≠ p, then r = not q. So, in today's lesson, some students might be under the false belief that if we know that we are told that fish (p) live in water (q) that it may be fair to conclude that frogs (r) don't live in water (not q) or that frogs do live in water ( r = q) is false. As we know, both of these conclusions are wrong; we don't know anything about frogs, it is possible that they don't live in water and it is possible that they do. This simple misunderstanding is at the root of the problem when the deductions get more complex and/or the terms are more abstract or beyond the familiarity of the student.

This is a good demonstration of the folly of not grouping students by ability. In a typical classroom, instruction is targeted to the average student. Some of the instruction would be cut out. Thus, higher ability students are still forced to endure repetition they don't need and could be proceeding at a much quicker pace. While, lower ability kids aren't getting enough instruction to understand and master the concepts and skills presented. It is a bit cruel that our least capable students are being challenged the most by being forced to learn with less instruction and practice that they need to learn. Due to the cumulative nature of learning, this deficit slowly snowballs to the point where the lower performers learn less and less each lesson and soon aren't learning anything at all. Failure does not breed motivation.

A commentor in the post on Lesson one wrote:
The logic lesson here is interesting from my perspective as a college student interested in education, but I suspect that my second or first grade self would have found it senseless, repetitive, and frustrating if it were not accompanied by some kind of comprehensible explanation.
Now bear in mind that I am dropping you in the middle of the sequence. Previous lessons taught the students about following rules of the type (p = q, if r = p then r = q ) i.e., Fish live in water. A trout is a fish. So what else do you know about a trout? A trout is a fish. In these current lessons, students are learning p= q, if r ≠ p, then we don't know anything further about r, which is an incremental addition to what the know. The lesson presumes that students know this prerequisite information, so only the incremental change is taught, it does this by inductive teaching. It presents the student with an example rule ("Big men are heavy. An elephant is not a big man. So what else do you know about an elephant? Nothing student who doesn't understand the rule would not be able to perform the disc. This rule tells about big men, not elephants. The only thing we know is what the rule tells us.") and requires the student to discriminate between similar examples (whales are not fish) and non-examples (Jack is a big man). This is why such a simple teaching technique is not teaching by rote. the student is required to immediately apply what he has just been taught to perform the discriminations presented in the second part of lesson one and in today's lesson. If the teaching was by rote, the student would have to be taught the rule in the second part of yesterdays lesson and today's lesson. Instead, the students are already generalizing from what has been taught about the rule presented in the first half of lesson one. This ability to generalize is what efficient learning is all about. Teaching by rote would have required three times the amount of teaching since three separate rules would have been required to be taught.

Also, providing more of a comprehensive explanation would not necessarily improve learning or understanding for the student. A brief explanation was provided in the beginning of the lesson. If the student did not grasp the concept then, he would not have been able to perform the discriminations later. Providing more explanation might aid in more understanding, but it might also serve to decrease engagement as the teacher prattles on with an explanation that might be outside the students ability to understand since the bit of knowledge being taught has not yet been internalized. It is difficult to synthesize gibberish. A balance must be struck between student engagement and understanding. The theory behind this sort of instruction is to keep the student maximally engaged, to provide a brief an explanation as possible to perform the discriminations, and to get the student performing those discriminations as soon as possible.

If the lesson were senseless to the student, this implies he does not yet understand the material, which would not be the case if he can perform the requested discriminations, i.e., answer the questions asked. Students get frustrated when they can't perform the task assigned, which is again would only be the case if the student couldn't answer the questions correctly. I think what the commenter means was that the lesson was too repetitious and boring for her since she immediately understood the skill and was forced to endure the rest of the lesson. This is no doubt the case for many adults and high performer children (my son understood the skill by the end of one example and one non example and proceeded to finish the lesson on his own). This is where good teachers come in; good teachers know when to move on as well as when to go back and reteach. In the instant case, the teacher would know to teach the first half of lesson one to a group of high performers and assign the second half as independent work, making sure that all the students were answering the questions correctly. Lesson two would be independent practice.

In the next lesson we'll get to the drill and kill portion of the sequence. I hope you can bear the agony and not have your precious natural curiosity crushed by this mindless practice.

Go to Lesson Three

November 16, 2006

Teaching Logic to Second Graders

Modern educators often deride direct instruction as the teaching of mere basic skills by rote memorization. It is said that this harms children by preventing them from constructing their own knowledge. They contrast this with what they claim they teach--higher order skills taught with understanding.

This is, of course, sheer nonsense. But, don't take my word for it. Let's take a look at an actual direct instruction lesson so you can judge for yourself. In fact, I'm going to present it to you like it is presented to students over the course of the next few days. See if you can construct the knowledge for yourself.

The lesson is about making written logical deductions based on a rule. This comes from Lesson 22 of Reading Mastery III. Normally, average students would get this lesson in the early fall of second grade. Advanced students might be presented with this lesson as early as early fall of first grade.

Pretend like you're a second grader just learning how to read. Follow my instructions and answer when directed to. Let's get to it.

Lesson one

Here's a rule about using rules: You must pretend that the only thing you know is what the rule tells you.

Here's a rule: Big men are heavy. Say the rule without looking.

The rule tells about big men. What does it tell you about? Answer: _____________ (The answer is (Highlight to see answer): Big men.)

You must pretend that you don't know about anything else. You must pretend that you don't know that whales are heavy. You must pretend that you don't know that elephants are heavy. The only thing you know about is big men.

Item 1: Follow along: Big men are heavy. An elephant is not a big man. So what else do you know about an elephant?

Nothing. This rule tells about big men, not elephants. The only thing we know is what the rule tells us.

Item 2: Big men are heavy. A whale is not a big man. So what else do you know about a whale?


Item 3: Big men are heavy. Jack is a big man. So what else do you know about Jack?

Answer: _____________ (The answer is (Highlight to see answer): He's heavy.)

If you didn't get it correct, read the following (Otherwise, skip to item 4): Jack is a big man. So what else do you know about Jack? Here's the answer: He's heavy.

Your turn. Big men are heavy. Jack is a big man. So what else do you know about Jack? Answer: _____________)

Item 4: Big men are heavy. Bob is not a big man. So what else do you know about Bob?

Answer: _____________

You don't know about Bob because the only thing you know about is big men.

(The answer is: Nothing. If you didn't get it correct, read the following: Here's the rule: Big men are heavy. Bob is not a big man. So what else do you know about Bob? Here's the answer: Nothing.

Your turn. Big men are heavy. Bob is
not a big man. So what else do you know about Bob? Answer: _____________)

Let's go over those items again.

1. Big men are heavy. An elephant is not a big man. So what else do you know about an elephant? Answer: _______________. (Answer: Nothing. If you got it wrong repeat the question until you can answer it reliably.)

2. Big men are heavy. A whale is not a big man. So what else do you know about a whale? Answer: _______________. (Answer: Nothing.)

3. Big men are heavy. Jack is a big man. So what else do you know about Jack? Answer:
_____________. (Answer: Jack is heavy.)

4. Big men are heavy. Bob is not a big man. So what else do you know about Bob? Answer: ____________. (Answer: Nothing.)

Here's a new rule. Dogs have hair. Say the rule without looking: Answer: ____________.

The rule tells about dogs. What does it tell about? Answer: ______________. (Answer: Dogs.)

You must pretend that you don't know about anything else.

Item 5. Follow along. Dogs have hair. A girl is not a dog. So what else do you know about a girl? Answer: ______________. (Answer: Nothing.)

Why don't you know anything else about a girl? Because the rule tells you only about dogs.

Item 6. Follow along. Dogs have hair. Jokey is a dog. So what else do you know about Jokey? Answer: ______________. (Answer: He has hair.)

Item 7. Follow along. Dogs have hair. A cat is not a dog. So what else do you know about a cat? Answer: ______________. (Answer: Nothing.)

Why don't you know anything else about a cat? Because the rule tells you only about dogs.

Here endeth your first logic lesson. We'll do lesson two tomorrow.

This is the lower performers version of the lesson, so there is more instruction that you probably need to learn the rule. Plus you're an adult and know a lot. But I wanted to give you an idea of what a high quality Direct Instruction lesson looks like for teaching logical deductions.

When I did this lesson with my first grade son last night, we got to the third question and he figured he learned what he needed to learn and just finished the remaining questions independently. Elapsed teaching time: three minutes. This lesson might take 5-10 minutes with lower performers.

Bear in mind that almost all kids who've completed the previous lessons will be able to get through this lesson in a timely manner. This includes inner city kids, poor rural kids, kids whose parents don't love them, kids who didn't eat breakfast this morning, kids with toothaches, kids with low motivation, etc. Whatever wacky external factor you can dream of, with the exception of a legitimate cognitive disability, any kid will learn the skill taught in this lesson. A skill that most k-12 do not know, by the way.

I suppose this skill can be taught using constructivist techniques. (If anyone has any ideas leave them in the comments.) But, it is doubtful that this skill can be taught using such techniques in within the same 3-10 minutes interval that the skill can be taught using direct instruction techniques. That extra time is now available for practicing previously taught skills, which we'll do tomorrow.

Does someone still want to make the argument that this is rote learning? If so, then how do you explain the fact that students are able to generalize the skill by item 5, assuming they answer it correctly? Granted items 5-7 are very similar to items 1-4, and it is likely that students probably can't generalize the skill further by applying the skill to deductions that aren't as similar. That's OK, the students knowledge is still inflexible at this time, since the skill has just been learned. In time and with practice with increasingly difficult problems that knowledge will grow increasingly flexible and students will be able to generalize better.

Anyone have any ideas how the lesson could be improved? Teachers say they don't like following scripts. Fair enough. How would you improve the lesson?

Does anyone think that this scripted lesson relieves the teacher from thinking? In a typical lesson, the teacher would have to determine when students are firm with their answers. They have to know when to repeat questions, where to emphasize words, how to pace the lesson so kids will be engaged, when to apply the correction procedure when answers are wrong, and when to move on when it is clear that all the kids are firm on the material presented.

Is this a basic skill or higher order skill? If this is only a basic skill, what's a higher order skill?

I'll follow-up on this post later. You have a lot on your plate to digest.

Go to Lesson Two

There They Go Again

Blaming everything and everyone but themselves.

Student poverty, parent education, home resources, English-language proficiency and other factors outside our control work in tandem like a perfect storm to dampen our results in ways that few others have to contend with.

Said Michael Casserly, executive director of the ironically named Council of the Great City Schools, in reponse to the recently released NAEP results showing that at least half of fourth and eighth graders tested in science failing to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the subject in 9 of 10 major cities, and fourth graders.

No, the perfect storm is that you've been getting kids like this for at least fifty years and you still have absolutely no idea how to teach them such that they learn anything.

November 15, 2006

WaPo Picks Fave Edubloggers

WaPo's Jay Matthews wants to know who your favorite edubloggers are. He and prolific letter writer Walt Gardner are going to do the judging:

I hope readers will e-mail me at and Gardner at the links to their favorite education blogs -- no more than five per reader, please, and I would love you to rank them in your order of preference. Gardner and I will look them over and reveal our favorites in a future column.

Matthews seems genuinely interested in blogs, but Garner seems to think otherwise:

I have an aversion to them because they too often become venues for rants rather than for reason," he said. "It's a question of time management. I do learn valuable things at times from blogs, but they seem to attract a disproportionate number of self-styled experts with dubious credentials who just want to ventilate.

This coming from someone who's ventilated in nearly 200 letters to the editor in the past 14 years. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Here's a list of Mr. Gardner's letters to the NYT. He seems to be on the wrong side of most education issues. And, by wrong side, I mean he touts things that have no proven track record of success. He's a test-hatin', excuse-makin', cliche-spoutin', card-carrying member of the Kozol Kool-Aid drinkers brigade.

Unless the social and economic factors that account for the differences are addressed early in disadvantaged children's lives, the No Child Left Behind law will eventually result in virtually all of this country's schools' being declared failures.
Can anyone still maintain that public schools serving students from the kind of rundown urban neighborhoods that Helen Epstein describes can compete with public schools serving students from affluent suburbs?
Walt Gardner letter says problem with standardized tests is that they measure more what students bring to classroom in way of socioeconomic status and inherited ability than what is learned in school.
What she has accomplished in four years at the school is proof that the most important educational goals are often those that are impossible to assess using existing instruments.
From the 1960's to the present, I've known countless students who did not conform to the model of intelligence in place in school and yet went on to become productive, responsible adults, involved with their work, their families and their communities. That is the ultimate test of what education is all about.
Standardized test scores, therefore, report how knowledgeable one student is compared with another, but not how knowledgeable either one is about the subject matter being tested.
To avoid the intrinsic unfairness of standardized tests that is a direct result of their construction and interpretation, schools need to look seriously at performance-based assessment of learning.

Remind me again how being a classroom teacher for 28 years automatically qualifies you as being a legitimate expert on education policy as opposed to, say, a "self-styled expert[] with dubious credentials." It'd be one thing if we knew he was a successful teacher of low-performers. Then we might give his experience based views some credence. Otherwise, his teaching tenure is an appeal to authority that lacks any real authority.

The one good thing about writing letters to the editor; you don't have the room to provide support for your opinions. And, it's not like anyone is going to take the time to criticize a letter--except maybe some wacky blogger.

BTW, my favorite edubloggers are listed in the sidebar. There are a few more that I haven't yet included and a few that need to be culled (for lack of blogging). Some I agree with, some I don't. But, they all have something interesting to say.

Education Research

Recently I criticized this post by Stephen Downes of Half And Hour which claimed:

Certainly, any approach to learning theory that suggests that an experiment can be conducted in (say) a double-blind model in order to test hypotheses in terms of (say) achievement of learning outcomes in my view demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the enquiry.
Stephen stopped by in the comments and defended his position

My arguments are not without foundation and evidence. What I am criticizing (as one who knows the field understands) is a particular approach to testing and evidence that has been subject to widespread criticism both inside and outside the sciences.

and suggested that we drop by his site and see what he had to say. So, I did. I found this.

That education is a complex phenomenon, and therefore resistant to static-variable experimental studies, does not mean that it is beyond the realm of scientific study. It does mean, however, that the desire for simple empirically supported conclusions (such as, say, "experiments show phonics is more effective") is misplaced. No such conclusions are forthcoming, or more accurately, any such conclusion is the result of experimental design, and not descriptive of the state of nature.

I'm not convinced. Education research is execrable most of the time. But, legitimate education research does exist which permits general conclusions to be drawn. Often, in education research, we are content if we learn whether an intervention increases student performance. We don't necessarily need to know why the intervention works.

For example, let's put together a hypothetical education experiment for a reading intervention for grades K-2. Let's call it the RITE program. The study will consist of 4000 students in the intervention group and 4000 students in the control group spread over many classrooms with many teachers. We will making sure demographic factors and other student factors are taken into account when splitting up the groups. The control group will be given a "research based, phonics reading program." The measurement tool we'll use is the SAT-9 which appears to be a good measure of reading ability. All students will receive pre-tests and post-tests to measure student achievement. For good measure we'll have an external evaluator conduct the study to reduce the bias effect. Here are the results of our study:
The First bar is for the control group, 36% performed better than than the 50th percentile while 33% performed below the 25th percentile. The next bar is for the intervention group who've gotten one year of the intervention. This group performs about the same as the control group. The next bar is for the intervention group in the program for two years; performance is starting to improve, but the students are not quite up to national norms yet. The last bar shows the intervention group who've been in the program for all three years. This group performs above the national norm -- 61% of students are performing above the 50th percentile, while only 14% are performing below the 25th percentile.

The effect size of the three year intervention group is over a standard deviation which is a large effect size for educational interventions and practically unheard of in education. Due to our large sample size, our results are statistically significant at a high level and we can confidently achieve them by faithful replicating the intervention. We don't need to know whether the intervention group used a whole language program or a phonics based program, whether the students were exposed to rich literature, or any other messy detail. Such details, though important, are irrelevant to us. As are other external factors, because whatever factors affected the intervention group also affected the control group.

And, while it is possible that other interventions might work as well or better than this one, we know with a high degree of certainty that this intervention will significantly boost student achievement.

By the way, the study is real. RITE stands for the Rodeo Institute for Teacher Excellence (Houston). The evaluator was the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics. The report was published in 2002. See more about it here (and here).

If we had more classroom research like this and if schools adopted successful research-based interventions with fidelity instead of trying to extrapolate out the parts they think are the cause for success (invariably they're wrong), student achievement could be markedly improved in this country.

NYT Reading First Hit Piece

The NYT is still milking the Reading First "scandal." This time they're using Cindy Cupp as their willing mouthpiece.

Cupp, who runs a tiny phonics-based reading program, Dr. Cupp Readers® & Journal Writers, filed the first complaint against DoE. I'm not going to go rehash how most of the allegations in this story were not substantiated by the OIG report. I've covered that ground already in detail (Look in the October archives). This time let's focus on Cupp's shaky allegations.

First the NYT sets up Cupp to be a white knight.

Dr. Cupp is a self-described speedboat who spent 19 years teaching children and adults to read. At her company, Cupp Publishers, she visits Georgia schools demonstrating her reading kits, while her sister, a retired guidance counselor, packs them for shipping and handles the bookkeeping.
You'll soon see that Cupp is no white knight. Cupp is merely a grey knight, at best, with limited resources.

When the federal government enacted Reading First in 2002, Dr. Cupp thought her company would surely get a slice of the pie. After all, 90 percent of students in the schools that use her kits had learned to read by the end of first grade.

Lovely sense of entitlement we have here.

To get Reading First funding our little speedboat, Dr. Cupp would have had to have comply with the following requirements:
  1. conduct scientific research validating that her program worked;
  2. show that her program was consistent with the scientifically based reading research conducted on other programs;
  3. managed to convince one or more states to include her program on their Reading First
  4. application; and
  5. have that application approved by DoE's expert panels.
Certainly, nothing on Cupp's "research" page lists anything approaching valid research on her program. At best her program is no better than any of the major publishers' programs that used other people's research to skirt past the lame "consistent with scientifically based reading research (SBRR)" standard of the Reading First law. File this under the two wrongs make a right theory of entitlement.

There is no evidence in the OiG report that DoE Cupp's program was rejected because it lacked SBRR or that states were forced to remove it from their Reading First applications. It could be that states did not include the program in their applications in the first place or voluntarily removed the program from their list after their application was rejected by DoE.

Here is what happened. DoE is not permitted to endorse or disparage any reading program so when a state included reading programs on their list that did not have SBRR, i.e., whole language programs, DoE could only reject applications and offer vague suggestions for the rejections. Many states did not take the hint, so after a few states got their applications approved, DoE started suggesting that to states having problems to take a look at the approved applications for guidance. Cupps program (and SfA) were not on these approved applications, ostensibly because those states chose not to include them in their applications. Frequently, states coming into the process later took the easy way out and just copied the approved programs fromapproved applications. This is how Cupp got screwed. There is no evidence in the OiG report that DoE ever specifically rejected Cupp's program.

The federal program emphasized phonics -- mastering the sounds of letters and letter blends -- as opposed to what officials considered the mushiness of whole-language teaching, which emphasizes grasping meaning through good children's literature. Dr. Cupp's materials also emphasized phonics -- in 60 stories centered on two caped turtles named Jack and Jilly.
This is a nice example of biased and/or sloppy reporting on behalf of the NYT.

The federal program "emphasized" phonics because the Reading First statute mandated that DoE accept only programs consistent with the reading research. Only phonics programs meet this requirement. Whole language programs were considered "mush[y]" because they have no reading research supporting their use because "emphasiz[ing] grasping meaning through good children’s literature" has turned out to be an ineffective way to teach reading.

It is not sufficient that Cupp's program "emphasize[] phonics." Under the Reading First statute reading programs must not only contain the five essential components of reading instruction (phoneme awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) but also teach these components in a systematic and explicit manner. Perhaps Cupp's program meets these requirements, but you have no way of knowing if you get your facts and analysis from the NYT.

Still, schools that used her materials found themselves frozen out of federal money. Dr. Cupp sought an explanation from a friend at the Georgia Department of Education, where Dr. Cupp was director of reading from 1996 to 1999, and was told, she said, that any school listing her reading program “would not be funded.”

After the federal department repeatedly rejected their grant applications, Georgia officials concluded that “this money is available if you follow the rulebook,” said Dana Tofig, communications director for the Georgia Education Department. Dr. Cupp’s reading program “did not meet the benchmarks it had to meet,” he said, adding that the officials who could explain why no longer worked in the department.

Too bad none of this is supported in the OiG report. It could be the case that Cupp failed to meet the burden of showing that her program was consistent with the reading research. It's not like she had any of her own research to rely upon.

Dr. Cupp points out that Georgia chose big textbook publishers, like Scott Foresman and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, spurning what she called home-cooked turkey dinners like her reading program.

More sloppy reporting. While the Foresman program was approved for Reading First funds, other Macmillan/McGraw-Hill reading programs (by their Wright Group) were denied funds. So much for the kooky conspiracy theories.

The article devolves from there, relying much of the same allegations made in last month's waPo article by Grunvald. See Bob Sweet's takedown here. (take a look at the comments as well.) This latest NYT article demonstrates that journalists know nothing about legal analysis and research and know less than nothing when writing about a "scandal" involving both.