August 30, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs II

Continued from Part I

Let's talk a little more about Guided Reading.

Guided Reading is term used in the balanced literacy movement. In balanced literacy, there is a desire for students to self-select books they want to read. The theory goes that these books should be "authentic children's literature" and not "less authentic" books designed specifically for instruction.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that reading authentic children's literature is more enjoyable for students than reading literature designed for instruction. Of course, if you've ever actually read the books that a typical first or second grader is capable of reading on his own (even with guidance), you know that they are far from "literature" in the traditional sense.

As I alluded to in Part I, in order to accomplish this lofty goal, much of the canon of children's literature has been analyzed for reading comprehension purposes using semantic difficulty (word frequency) and syntactic complexity (sentence length) as the controlled variables. In this way the way, children's literature has been leveled for the children based on their ability to comprehend the book.

When my son started first grade he was tested and it was determined that he was was capable of reading books on at level G. This corresponds to about 3/4 of the way through first grade. It was a fairly accurate assessment of his reading ability since he was about two months shy of finishing the first grade level of Reading Mastery.

Time for a quick aside. It is convenient for purposes of this post that my son started first grade reading at an end of first grade level (Level G). To read at this level the student is becoming a proficient decoder. Prior to this level, the books are highly "inauthentic," often containing predictable text with abundant picture clues. By starting at Level G, I'm conveniently avoiding the phonics vs. whole language debate. Kids coming into first grade reading at an end of first grade level have generally developed good decoding skills, by whatever means they've acquired them. These kids understand what reading is about and although they still need a lot more practice to become proficient readers they are on the right path to literacy.

When my son started first grade, he was told to pick out books that looked interesting to him from the Level G bin. During his reading period, the kids in level G would have a daily session with the teacher in which they would read their books and the teacher would offer guidance in the three cueing system when students came to a word they couldn't read. I'm not going to go into the merits of the three cueing system for beginning readers, suffice it to say that readers at my son's level are mostly getting all the information they need from the information contained in the the words themselves and not form the other spurious sources.

After this fifteen minute of so teacher guided reading session, the students are told that they should read their books, or look at the pictures, or draw a picture, or something else that kind of looks like a literary activity while the other groups are getting their fifteen minutes of teacher time.

At first I wondered why the students were given so many options when it was clear that what they were supposed to be doing was sustained silent reading (SSR). I quickly realized, however, that the reason the students were given all these non-reading options was because a good third of the class didn't know how to read well enough yet to read on their own. Looking at the pictures was about the closest they could come to actual reading.

You can see how this SSR, an integral part of Guided Reading, favors the good readers and discriminates against the bad ones. The good readers, the ones who can read with accuracy, are reading their books during SSR and getting practice at reading. The poor readers, the ones who can't read or read without accuracy, are either looking at pictures or making many errors and trying to employ inappropriate reading strategies. They're not getting much reading practice during SSR time. This is known as the Matthew Effect--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In addition to SSR time, it was expected that the student would bring home his book and read for ten to fifteen minutes every night with his parents. This is how I managed to get an ongoing sample of what it's like for a child to learn how to read the Guided System way.

The first thing I noticed is the the Guided Reading method of controlling books on the basis of reading comprehension is a less than ideal way to select books for the beginning reader. Sometimes the book my son selected would be much too easy for him and contained little instructional value.

Sometimes, he selected a book that was punishingly difficult, containing many difficult words that he did not know how to decode yet. If you can only decode about 80% of the words, this means that every fifth word you read on average will be unreadable, making the text incomprehensible. Knowing that reading these punishing books is a motivation killer, we usually just skipped the readings that night and encouraged him to pick a different book for the next day. This became less and less a problem as his decoding skills improved, but what happens to the kids who isn't picking up the reading game as quickly?

And, sometimes the books came home that were in the the range of 90% or better decodable.

Here's how the system works: The student continues to read books from his level. Periodically, the student is tested to see if he reads well enough to progress to the next level. If he does, he moves up to increasingly difficult books.

But, what happens if he stops progressing?

We'll pick it up there in the next post.

I welcome comments from reading teachers and parents who can add any details to what I've laid out so far or to point out any areas I didn't quite get right. I want to be accurate when I start comparing reading programs in the next post.

(Continued in Part III)

August 29, 2007

SAT scores continue to drop

SAT scores continue to drop.

Verbal scores are now down to 1994 levels. This year's mean score on the verbal portion was 502, dropping one point. Math scores also dropped three points to 515.

Did you know that the SAT was recentered back in 1995 to disguise the disturbing fact that scores had plummeted since the high water mark of 1963. Verbal scores had dropped so low that the College Board, which administers the test, boosted scores by 80 points. They boosted math scores by 20 points.

So this year's scores of V502 and M515 equate to a scores of 422 for the verbal portion and 495 for math. Both scores are below the traditional average of 500. Verbal scores are now below the 1994 level. Thank you whole language and balanced literacy. Math is still about 18 points above 1994 levels thanks to calculators whose use is now permitted during the test.

Here is a plot of mean SAT scores from 1951/52 to 1993/94 using the old scale.

Something very bad happened in education between 1963 and 1980. Something we haven't recovered from.

The Times reports some of the excuses being made for the lower scores:

The declines for the class of 2007 were not caused by a single factor, College Board officials said. But the increase in the number of traditionally underrepresented minority and low-income students taking the test played a role, they said. So did a new requirement in Maine that all high school seniors take the exam, including those who would not in the past have viewed themselves as college bound.

Here's the minority group breakdown courtesy of the Times:

August 28, 2007

So Why Won't Johnny Read?

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette wants to know why some kids are reluctant readers:

For years, the question "Why can't Johnny read?" has plagued teachers, students and parents. Another troubling question, especially as students move into their teen years, is: "Why won't he or she read?"

The questions point to two critical problems affecting millions of teenagers: students who can't read at grade level and those who don't want to read, known as "reluctant readers."

More than 8 million adolescents between grades four and 12 are identified as "struggling readers," according to the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices.

Many others read reluctantly.

The Post Gazette seems to think that there is a group of kids that know how to read but simply don't want to.

No doubt some kids fall into this category, but, based on reading scores, the better explanation is that most of these struggling readers haven't mastered the skill of reading and, as a result, don't like to engage in an activity they simply aren't good at doing. These kids are impaired readers, even though they may be reading at grade level and even though it may appear that they read normally (at least to a naive observer).

Reading is a learned skill and, like all skills we learn well, learning to read goes through three distinct stages.

The first stage is accuracy. It occurs when the learner can just barely do the skill without error if he goes slow and concentrates carefully. This stage is cognitively intense. If the learner is distracted or hurried he will make errors. With respect to reading at this stage, decoding takes up all the reader's attention and there are no mental resources available to attend to comprehension or for thinking about the meaning of the what he's reading.

I'd say that most readers in this stage are still in the "learning to read" stage. We, however, are concerned with the kids in the "reading to learn" stage kids. That's the next stage--fluency.

The second stage is fluency. This stage occurs when the learner can perform the skill quickly and with no or few errors. Fluency comes with performing a skill accurately and through lots of practice. Fluent readers can read fairly quickly and accurately, but they are still devoting much of their attention to decoding, so there's not much capacity left over for comprehension. Reading is still a chore for the reader at this stage. Things don't change until the reader reaches the third stage--automaticity.

The third stage is automaticity. Automaticity occurs when the learner can perform the skill without conscious attention. Once the skill is automatic the learner can't help but do it. When a reader sees an arrangement of letters on a page, he is obliged to read the word. He has to read the word. At this stage, the learner can perform the task quickly, accurately, and in the presence of distractors. The reader is capable of reading without conscious attention being paid to decoding the words.

You are a stage three reader. Your reading is automatic. You do not need to laboriously piece together the letters of each word to puzzle out its identity. Your mind seems to divine the meaning of prose immediately and without effort on your part. Try this classic demonstration of automaticity for advanced readers.

In this exercise you must name the color in which the words are printed, but ignore the word that the letters spell. So, for the stimulus Turkey the proper response is "blue."

First try this list:


Now try this list:


The second list is much harder to read than the first list because, for you, reading is automatic. Even though you try not to read the words that the letters form, you read them automatically and doing so conflicts with naming the ink color. For someone who cannot read, the second list is no harder than the first.

It is the readers in the third stage that can finally enjoy reading because decoding is mostly effortless. The reader can attend to making meaning from the text.

In contrast, readers still in the second stage whose decoding is less than automatic not only have impaired comprehension, but their decoding is still labored and cognitively demanding. This makes reading not fun and enjoyable, but a chore. The result is that kids in this stage do not find reading pleasurable and, therefore, won't engage in the activity. And, not practicing reading, this semi-skilled reader will never gain the automaticity needed to make reading enjoyable.

This is why many kids are reluctant to read.

(A minority of kids may also have a comprehension problem in addition to or, in some cases, instead of decoding deficiencies. It's easy to test this condition. If the student does not comprehend the passage when he reads it and also doesn't comprehend the passage when it is read to him, then there is a comprehension problem. See Automaticity in Decoding which forms the basis of this post.)

August 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs

My son was in first grade last year.

In September, he entered first grade reading at about an end of first grade level (According to Scholastic's Guided Reading Chart: level G). By June, he was reading on an end of second grade level (level M). This is based on the school's testing. By the end of the year he was reading about 120 correct words per minute.

At the beginning of the year he was at about lesson 140 (out of 170) in Reading Mastery Fast Cycle. If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know that Reading Mastery is a Direct Instruction (DI) reading program that is carefully sequenced and scripted. By lesson 140, the explicit phonics portion of the program has been almost entirely completed and the modified orthography has been faded. The sounding out exercises are done. All of that, took place in lessons 1 - 120, in kindergarten. By lesson 140, the instructional program consists of actual reading done by the students. There are no phonics worksheets or other busywork. There are worksheets aligned with each day's reading that obtain feedback from the student to determine whether the student is learning and comprehending what has been read.

Here is the teacher's script for Lesson 68 from Reading Mastery III which my son would do about halfway through first grade.

My son wouldn't be doing Reading Mastery in school. I doubt there is a school within 200 miles that uses Reading Mastery as the primary reading program. We did Reading Mastery at home instead of the levelled readers he was supposed to be reading in his school's reading curriculum. Like most schools in this area, his school teaches first graders to read by using a Guided Reading program.

If you have a child in elementary school, you probably know what guided reading is already. Briefly, guided reading is the balanced literacy version of Reading Mastery. Whereas, Reading Mastery depends upon a carefully designed sequence of lessons using carefully controlled decodable words for instruction, guided reading depends mostly on magic for instruction.

Instead of controlling the decodability of the stories, guided reading programs control for reading comprehension using semantic difficulty (word frequency) and syntactic complexity (sentence length) as the controlled variables. Basically, in a guided reading program, a bunch of children's books are analyzed and assigned a level according to their semantic difficulty and complexity. A student starting at, say level G, would be directed to pick out a book he finds interesting from the G bin and read it to himself. Then, the student will read his book to his teacher in a small group of other kids at the same level. The teacher will listen to the students read, correct mistakes, offer help developing reading strategies (including mini-phonics lessons). After a few weeks of this routine, the student is tested to see if he's learned how to read well enough to move on to the next level. The system works well enough for some kids who progress as expected. This is were the magic comes in. But when the magic fails and the student stops progressing, there is no easy way to diagnose and remediate the problem because the system is so haphazardly designed.

Over the next few days, I'm going to compare and contrast a well designed instructional reading program (Reading program )with a more poorly designed and far less instructionally robust reading program (Guided Reading) and how my son progressed through each program during first grade.

(Continued in Part II.)

Best Example of Why Test Prep Doesn't Raise Test Scores

Courtesy of Miss South Carolina (Teen USA)

Let the Parade Begin

With the school year about to start and with NCLB re-authorization looming newspapers are beginning to run their agenda heavy agenda columns in an attempt to influence the public's perception of NCLB.

In today's WaPO, we get a column from Susan Goodkin which appears to be recycled from an eerily similar column she wrote back in December 2005 for WaPo.

Goodkin's premise is that gifted kids are getting short shrift from schools that are being forced by NCLB to focus on lower performing kids.

These parents are fleeing public schools not only because, as documented by a recent University of Chicago study, the act pushes teachers to ignore high-ability students through its exclusive focus on bringing students to minimum proficiency. Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students.

These predictable problems were reported as early as 2003, when the Wall Street Journal warned that schools were shifting their focus overwhelmingly toward low achievers. Expressions of concern from distressed parents and educators of gifted children have come in increasing numbers ever since.

Gifted kids have been getting the shaft since schools did away with tracking in elementary schools. This de-tracking/full-inclusion movement began well before NCLB went into effect. Schools were de-tracking when I was in school in the early 70s.

The effect of de-tracking was to throw all the kids, regardless of their ability level, into the same classroom and pretending to teach them all at the same time at the same pace. In reality, however, this meant that the teacher would teach to the middle of the class and would move on when the middle of the class "learned" the material. Such a pace, of course, is too slow for the bright kids and too fast for the dim ones.

Compounding this insanity was the simultaneous movement toward social promotion which made it all but impossible to hold a student back a grade no matter how little he learned. This meant that a hapless fifth grade teacher might have a class full of students that were at a skill level spanning first to eighth grade.

A recipe for disaster if ever there were one.

NCLB only minimally changed this insane condition by forcing schools to pay more attention to the lower performers to make sure that they are actually learning something. In practice, this means that in a conscientious school lessons are likely geared to a lower ability level and the pace is probably slowed even further. In a less conscientious school, the school just does test prep.

But, NCLB didn't cause the problem, NCLB merely exposed the insanity of the de-tracking/social promotion regime that was prevalent in most schools.

Not surprisingly, with the entire curriculum geared to ensuring that every last child reaches grade-level proficiency, there is precious little attention paid to the many children who master the standards early in the year and are ready to move on to more challenging work. What are these children supposed to do while their teachers struggle to help the lowest-performing students? Rather than acknowledging the need to provide a more advanced curriculum for high-ability children, some schools mask the problem by dishonestly grading students as below proficiency until the final report card, regardless of their actual performance.

This problem existed well before NCLB as my school copybooks will attest. I have pages upon pages of doodles drawn in the margins of each page as a testament to my boredom. And, many of my classes were somewhat tracked.

No Child is particularly destructive to bright young math students. Faced with a mandate to bring every last student to proficiency, schools emphasize incessant drilling of rudimentary facts and teach that there is one "right" way to solve even higher-order problems. Yet one of the clearest markers of a nimble math mind is the ability to see novel approaches and shortcuts to attacking such problems. This creativity is what makes math interesting and fun for those students. Schools should encourage this higher-order thinking, but high-ability students are instead admonished for solving problems the wrong way, despite getting the right answers. Frustrated, and bored by simplistic drills, many come to hate math.

If these math fact are so rudimentary, why is it that schools are taking so long
to teach them? And test scores that they still aren't being adequately learned by many students.

The rest of the paragraph is unproven gobbledygook. There is no evidence that trying to teach novices in math, regardless of their ability level, creativity directly doesn't work any better than teaching skills sequentially. In fact, when these high ability math kids get to college, they will learn all their math ans science subjects in a sequential fashion starting with basic skills and ending with less basic skills which will become the more basic skills of the next course. Creativity only comes with lots and lots of rehearsals and practice, in in educrat parlance "drill and kill."

So what is the solution:

The response of many parents to this situation was summed up succinctly by one of our numerous friends, colleagues and family members who have pulled their children from neighborhood schools: "We've learned that the real solution is called 'private school.' "

In economic terms, this means that the consumer (the parent) who doesn't like the product being offered by the public schools has chosen to seek out a new product, a private school education, and to pay for it twice. Last I checked this used to go on before NCLB and I don't know of, and Goodkin doesn't provide, any data to suggest that more parents of high performing kids are pulling their kids out of public school and enrolling them in private schools.

But since when has the WaPo required data from it's columnists?

August 24, 2007

Today's Quote

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 an 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 disadvantaged 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 will 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.”

--Zig Engelmann

(I've posted this quote before, but you really can't post this one enough. Especially since the sentiments behind the quote don't appear to be sinking in.)

Washington College Students Don't Understand Math

Or so reports the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Thousands of college students in Washington don't understand simple algebra and must take classes to learn what they should have mastered in high school.

The operative word in that paragraph is "understand." A more accurate paragraph would have been: After a decade or so of trying to improve math understanding, thousands of college students in Washington still don't understand simple algebra and must take classes to learn what they should have mastered in high school.

So that constructivist heavy pedagogy hasn't worked out as expected, or at lest how math educators who didn't really understand how to teach math expected. Just because you made a collage in edschool extolling the virtues of constructivism, doesn't mean it's going to work in practice.

And, we're not talking rocket surgery here either. Here's the kind of sophisticated math these kids are failing to understand.

I hesitate to call problem 1 algebra. And, problem 2, should have been learned in middle school. Or maybe it was "taught" in middle school by having the students draw various configurations of cheeseburgers and french fries, trying to guess and check to find the right answer, and then writing a heartfelt paragraph on the senseless slaughter and exploitation of all the cows and potatoes that went into making them. That's the kind of math that invariably gets you high marks on your math portfolio and allows your math teacher to explain to your parents how well you understand math while relieving her and all your past math teachers from the burden of teaching you how to set up and solve simultaneous equations and the years of prerequisites forming the foundation of that skill.

It's win-win, at least until college because Washinton is the home of the WASL, the most irresponsible of state tests.

Some high school math courses have focused more on standardized tests -- such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- rather than on college math standards.

Students take the WASL during the 10th grade, but the amount of math they learn by that time isn't enough to prepare them for college, said Paul Kurose, a math instructor at North Seattle Community College and project director of the Seattle Transition Project.

In the WASL you get credit for drawing cheeseburgers and french fries instead of solving the simultaneous equations as long as you mention at least three PETA talking points in your paragraph.

August 23, 2007

Technology for Technology Sake

Let's face it.

Most schools don't know much about education. Sure, most of them do a swell job of educating the easily educable--the bright kids who are self-motivated to learn. Schools which are blessed with many of these kids handily make AYP and are viewed as being successful schools. That's because it doesn't take a whole lot of skill to teach these kids. Educating these kids is like surfing; as long as you point yourself in the right direction and are somewhat careful you can ride the wave all the way in without falling unless you do something really stupid (i.e., anything "student centered").

On the other hand, these same successful schools do an awful job of educating the dim and/or unmotivated. And, woe be to the school which is burdened with many of these kids. We call these schools failing schools because they don't make AYP and their students lag behind grade expectations.

In this way, we conveniently label schools based on which category of kid predominates in the school. But, ostensibly, most schools are the same as far as ability to educate goes. That is, not very good. Schools know this. It is their dirty little secret. That's why they hate NCLB--it draws attention to their short-comings, and they'd rather you not know about it.

The result is that almost all schools are looking for a solution to their education woes. Maybe they have a school full of under-performers. Or maybe they have a persistent pocket of under-performers. In both cases, the problem isn't going to go away any time soon. This is because schools don't know how to make the problem go away. More accurately, they don't want to institute the rigid curricular and quality control measures that are necessary to improve educational outcomes.

So, they look for the next best thing. The magic bullet. And, the magic bullet of choice is new technology.

New technology is great if you are a clueless educator. You get to spend money on the latest must-have toys. Lacking this money, you get a good excuse to plea for increasing your budget to acquire said new toy. In any event, eventually you'll get your new toy, special interests dominate diffuse interests. And, with new toy in hand, you'll get to show parents that you're actually doing something about improving education. You are a caring educator, a pillar of the community. If you are media savvy, you'll be able to snare a gullible journalist, who surprisingly knows even less about education than you, who'll come over to look at your new toy and write a breathless story about you and your new toy.

Kinda like this story in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Here's your script. When journalist arrives to see your new toy make sure you have a young student available to demonstrate something that looks like education. Bonus points if the student is photogenic and young enough to cuddle. Extra bonus points if the student comes from an historically underperforming minority group. Super bonus points if the student is mildly retarded or has some other disability, preferably one of those fashionable learning disabilities.

The day took a decidedly atypical turn for one class when Angel Chavez, 5, wrote his name on the classroom board.

Instead of chalk or marker, Angel picked up an electronic pen and scrawled his name, as best he could, across the class’s new interactive white board, a computer screen sensitive to touch that also runs computer programs, streaming videos and Web sites. It’s one of 25 going up in Springdale classrooms this fall.

Next, display as many of your new toys as possible making certain to explain how much money you're spending (in education and technology more money = good) and how the technology is needed to connect with today's tech-savvy youth.

Arkansas educators will spend millions this year upgrading classroom technologies. The rollout figures to be particularly striking in Northwest Arkansas, a region state officials say is already home to the most hightech classes in the Natural State. Whether it’s electronic white boards, software that teaches students to read or even Global Positioning System devices for math classes, the new gadgets are aimed at one goal: plugging a generation of computer-savvy youth into learning.

Then trot out your technology director (if you don't have one dress up a custodian) and have her say something positive about your new toys. Bonus points for cramming in as many edu-buzzwords, like learning styles, differentiated instruction, and diversity, as possible.

“Kids in school now live in a multimedia world,” said Kathleen McInroe, technology director for the Bentonville School District. “They text message. They use cell phones. They do YouTube.

“ Learning in a visual, interactive kind of way has become their best learning style. We can’t ask them to leave that at the school door because we have other ways we are more comfortable teaching.”

Now, hold out the tin cup because even if you're flush with money you can never have enough of it. Bonus points for incorporating a heartwarming story of how you're already fleecing Uncle Sam to buy your existing toys. Message: you care.

FINDING THE MONEY Melanie Bradford, head of the Arkansas Department of Education’s research and technology division, said there is little state or federal money earmarked for technology in schools.

The only significant revenue stream from either source is the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant program, Bradford said. The program sent $ 2. 4 million in competitive grants to Arkansas schools with large numbers of low-income students last year.

Beyond the federal dollars, it largely falls to individual schools to squeeze money out of existing budgets to bring technology to their classrooms, Bradford said.

Now bring the journalist to a classroom in which many of your new toys are being used. Noe do a little compare and contrast, i.e., this is how we used to do it in the dark ages and this is how we do it now in the gilded age. Be sure to claim that educational outcomes are improving. Journalists are either too lazy to check the stats or won't understand them if they do. Bonus points for calling your profligate spending an "investment."

EVOLVING TECHNOLOGY Barbara Brannan has seen the region’s investment in technology first hand. Brannan is a science teacher at Holt Middle School in Fayetteville. She’s seen technology transform the way she teaches after teaching science in Fayetteville for more than 30 years. Before, she used transparencies, slides, and a video — if her school’s one television set was available — to teach concepts like the scientific method.

Today, Brannan and her students use laptops, document cameras, classroom clickers that let students answer questions electronically, and even GPS units to master the same concepts.

Incorporating technology is such a priority at Holt that administrators are starting to consider digital offerings when deciding whether to adopt new textbooks.

If the journalist does the unthinkable and asks whether student performance has improved with your new toys don't panic. Suppress your urge to run. Remember, he's not looking for the truth; he's looking to find pretty numbers that validate the prevailing viewpoint which includes the meme that technology is good for education.

The solution. Lie. Better yet, find someone with credentials to misrepresent the facts for you. Bonus points if your "expert" can actually spin the truth enough to get the truth printed while fooling the journalist. Hint: The word "correlation" is your friend and, in education at least, the word "research" can include things that aren't research. Be bold.

THE BENEFITS Northwest Arkansas educators give different answers when asked whether investing in technology leads to increased student achievement. Part of the reason for the discrepancy may be because there is limited research on the correlation between technology and learning.

The Metiri Group, a California based educational consultancy, put out a report in 2006 summarizing the existing research on the educational impact of technology in the classrooms.

The report found that technology provides a “small, but significant” boost in learning when implemented carefully.

Genius. Almost no one who isn't an economist understand that there are opportunity costs in adopting something that yields “small, but [statistically] significant” instead of something that yields results that are large and educationally significant.

The story practically writes itself. Now go out there are do some good, the world needs more heroes.

August 17, 2007

Edweek Spins Reading Research

Edweek reports on the What Work's Clearinghouse's latest report on Reading Curricula but can't help spinning the results.

A long-awaited review of beginning-reading programs by the federal What Works Clearinghouse found few comprehensive or supplemental programs that have evidence of effectiveness in raising student achievement. But what is missing from the review may be even more telling: None of the most popular commercial reading programs on the market had sufficiently rigorous studies to be included in the review by the clearinghouse.

And Edweek is surprised why? It's not exactly a secret that valid research on reading programs is scant. The situation is even worse for math. This is the phony set-up for the sucker punch:

Just one program was found to have positive effects or potentially positive effects across all four of the domains in the review—alphabetics, fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement. That program, Reading Recovery, an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program, has drawn criticism over the past few years from prominent researchers and federal officials who claimed it was not scientifically based.

Federal officials and contractors tried to discourage states and districts from using Reading Recovery in schools participating in the federal Reading First program, citing a lack of evidence that it helps struggling readers.

This isn't the first time Edweek has whored itself for Reading Recovery. They even stooped to using Dick Allington, the Dick Van Patten of bad education research, to lend credibility to their spin.

What Edweek is trying to do is to misleadingly tie in that Reading Recovery has an alleged valid research base and should not have been excluded from Reading First funding while other reading programs which lack a valid research base were funded.

There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, the Reading First statute doesn't require that the reading programs funded thereunder have a valid research base. The statute only requires that the eligible reading programs be based upon or consistent with the scientifically based reading research. There are lots of good arguments that this should have been a requirement, but it wasn't made a requirement. The requirement was unfortunately loosened. So we hired a bunch of reading experts to determine whether programs were consistent with the SBRR. And, as it turns out, they determined that Reading Recovery wasn't consistent with the SBRR. And, there's good reason to think that the WWC dropped the ball on its evaluation of Reading Recovery.

Second, the Reading First statute requires that reading programs eligible for Reading First funding contain the five essential components of reading instruction (ECRI). Reading Recovery lacks at least one of those ECRI no matter how hard they try to distort the data to pretend otherwise. And even if you think that the WWC's evaluation is accurate, you can't help but notice that the areas that the WWC evaluate, alphabetics, fluency, comprehension and general reading achievement, don't align with the Reading First ECRI which are defined in section 1208 (5) of the Reading First statute as:
explicit and systematic instruction in—
‘‘(A) phonemic awareness;
‘‘(B) phonics;
‘‘(C) vocabulary development;
‘‘(D) reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and
‘‘(E) reading comprehension strategies."

Nice try Edweek.

The only question remaining is when will in-house Edweek blogger extraordinaire, Alexander Russo, report on this scandal going on around him?

Update: Russo falls for the bait. (Fixed some typos too.)

August 16, 2007

A Fool's Errand

Is what I'm on.

I'm trying to track down what these "multiple measures" thingies are that Congressman Miller talked about in his speech.

In my bill, we will ask employers and colleges to come together as stakeholders with the states to jointly develop more rigorous standards that meet the demands of both. Many states have already started this process. We seek to build on and complement the leadership of our nation’s governors and provide them incentives to continue.

This requires that assessments be fully aligned with these new state standards and include multiple measures of success.

These measures can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization. Rather, they must reflect critical thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts. These are the skills that today’s students will need to meet the complex demands of the American economy and society in a globalized world.

Sounded like edu-cant to me. So I decided to dig a little deeper.

As luck would have it, Sherman Dorn has a post on this topic in which he uncharacteristically uses a whole lotta words to say a whole lot of nothing in an apparent defense of "multiple measures" and a weak criticism of Ed Trust's attack of same. Nonetheless, Sherman has led me to the culprits behind this new meme--the Orwellian-named Forum of Educational Accountability who issued this 53 page "Expert Panel" Report (PDF), Assessment and Accountability for Improving Schools and Learning: Principles and Recommendations for Federal Law and State and Local Systems.I

Then I found this August 13th letter from a bunch of education "researchers" which draws from the above-mentioned report.

Are you still with me?


At 53 pages there's too much to comment on in a single blog post, so let's just pull down some low hanging fruit.

Here's a doozy from p. 40.

Gaps will only close if students who are behind progress more quickly than those who are not. There is a lack of evidence to demonstrate schools alone can ensure that their historically disadvantaged populations can progress more quickly than more advantaged populations. Expecting schools to accomplish this feat without markedly increased support is likely to continue the NCLB problem of causing harmful educational consequences resulting from educators' desperate attempts to meet NCLB mandates without the resources to do so.

Most of the "expert" panel are supposedly testing, assessment, and standards experts, yet they don't seem to know how simple statistics work.

It is not true that the achievement gap will only close "if students who are behind progress more quickly than those who are not." The gap can close if both groups progress at the same rate. In fact, the gap can also close if the group that is behind progresses at a marginally slower rate.

Perhaps an example is in order.

Let's suppose that we have two groups: the low performing group (the top distribution) and the high performing group (the bottom distribution). These groups have a mean difference in achievement of about a standard deviation. When we first test both groups the students perform at passing level 1. At this passing level, 50% of the low performing group is failing but only 16% of the high performing group is failing. This is represented by the shaded area under the curve The achievement gap is now 34 points (50 - 16).

Now let's teach the students and retest them. Let's assume that both groups improve by the same amount and now perform at passing level 2. At this passing level, 16% of the low performing group is failing, but now only 2% of the high performing group is failing. The achievement gap is now 14 points (16 - 2). The achievement gap has miraculously shrunk by 20 points. Since the distributions are normal, the area under the curve changes non-linearly.

Both groups have progressed at the same rate and yet the achievement gap has shrunk by more than half. In fact, the low performing group could progress at a substantially slower rate under this example and the achievement gap would still shrink. In this example even if the lower performing group only progressed to a level in between passing levels 1 and 2, let's say at a level where 35% of the students were passing, the achievement gap would still be shrinking even though the higher performing group progressed at a much faster rate.

This is statistics 101 and the "expert panel" who wrote this report should be ashamed of themselves for such misleading hackery.

Analyzing the first sentence, we've established that the "expert panel" doesn't understand simple statistics. Now let's establish that they also don't know anything about real education research by examining the second sentence.

There is a lack of evidence to demonstrate schools alone can ensure that their historically disadvantaged populations can progress more quickly than more advantaged populations.

Could it be that the "expert panel" has never heard of the largest and most expensive educational experiment in US history, Project Follow Through, in which one the interventions, the Direct Instruction Model, was able to get "historically disadvantaged populations" to progress more quickly than more advantaged populations? In fact, the Direct Instruction Model was able to get the "historically disadvantaged populations" caught up or nearly caught up to the more advantaged populations by the end of the third grade.

No, it couldn't be. Smart guys like these couldn't have missed something like that.

Ironically, by the time we get to the third sentence:

Expecting schools to accomplish this feat without markedly increased support is likely to continue the NCLB problem of causing harmful educational consequences resulting from educators' desperate attempts to meet NCLB mandates without the resources to do so.

we finally get something for which no empirical support exists.

There is no evidence that schools currently lack the resources needed to adequately educate disadvantaged children. Furthermore, there is no evidence that increasing resources will result in increased student achievement.

You'd be hard pressed to find a paragraph that is more wrong than this one, which is why I say I'm on a fool's errand analyzing this report.

August 14, 2007

Miller's Plan for Reforming NCLB

Last week I promised I would cover Congressman Miller's plan for reforming NCLB.

So here it is. Miller thinks he can improve NCLB by:

  1. Providing much-needed fairness and flexibility.
  2. Encouraging a rich and challenging learning environment and promote best practices and innovation taking place in schools throughout the country.
  3. Supporting teachers and principals.
  4. Continuing to hold schools accountable for students’ progress.
  5. Joining the effort to improve America’s high schools.
  6. Investing in our schools.

Let me translate this congressional gobbledygook into English:

  1. weakening standards
  2. spending more money
  3. spending more money
  4. doing more of the same
  5. spending more money
  6. spending a lot more money
So, Miller's main plan to salvage NCLB is to spend more money on education. That's always worked so wonderfully in the past, I can't imagine why it wouldn't work this time.

I suspect Miller thinks that he knows how to spend the money in new and better ways. Yet, I couldn't find any evidentiary support for anything Miller is proposing. I'm not surprised and neither should you be. Miller is one of the self-anointed educational experts who simply knows how schools must be run to achieve superior student achievement and doesn't find it necessary to justify any of his bold initiatives with cold hard evidence.

There's not enough digital ink to cover every one of Miller's points, so I'll hit the less silly ones.

The legislation I will introduce will contain a growth model that gives credit to states and schools for the progress that their students make over time.
Growth models are basically the same as the current safe harbor provision. There is the illusion of "fairness" since you are measuring the growth of the same cohort. But who are we kidding? The schools that need the growth model the most have such a high transient rate to make the concept of "same cohort" laughable. Moreover, there is a downward trend in student performance as they rise in grades, making achieving growth goals all but impossible, if the growth goals approximate anything close to the student's actually achieving proficiency by the time the graduate.

In addition, many Americans do not believe that the success of our students or our schools can be measured by one test administered on one day. I agree with them. This is not fair.
I suppose if "many Americans do not believe" it, it must not be true.

So what's the answer? More testing? Where is the evidence that more testing will yield more reliable/accurate results than one test?

We will allow the use of additional valid and reliable measures to assess student learning and school performance more fairly, comprehensively, and accurately. One such measure for high schools must be graduation rates.

So if they can't read or do math, the school passes if they graduate enough illiterate and innumerate students?

The legislation will also drive improvements in the quality and appropriateness of the tests used for accountability. This is especially important for English language learners and students with disabilities who should be given tests that are fair and appropriate, just as they should continue to be included in our accountability system.
Because the current legislation requires states to give unfair tests to ELLs and disabled kids currently. Actually the current legislation leaves it up to the states to decide and the states don't have a great interest in failing kids unnecessarily now does it?

In exchange for increased resources, states will be allowed to develop better tests that more accurately measure what all students have learned.
Sure it will.

In so many meetings I have had in my district and elsewhere, employers say that our high school graduates are not ready for the workplace.

Because states are looking to make their standards even tougher being that their students can't pass today's easy standards.

This requires that assessments be fully aligned with these new state standards and include multiple measures of success.

These measures can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization. Rather, they must reflect critical thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts. These are the skills that today’s students will need to
meet the complex demands of the American economy and society in a globalized world.

We all know how well students apply those elusive "critical thinking skills" before they learn (or memorize if you will) those "basic skills."

This is pure semantics. The critical thinking skills kids learn today are tomorrow's basic skills, just as the basic skills kids learned yesterday form the basis of tomorrow's critical thinking skills. Skills are skills are skills.

Even with all of these changes, we will not meet our national goal of closing the achievement gap until and unless we close the teacher quality gap. No factor matters more to a children’s educational success than the quality of their teachers and principals.

Except the curriculum factor. Great teachers with a substandard curriculum aren't exactly known for their superior results.

All children deserve their fair share of teacher talent and expertise. We must do more to ensure that poor and minority students are taught by teachers with expertise in the subjects they are teaching.

In a world where the rules of supply and demand do not exist perhaps.

As a nation we are not offering teachers the respect and support they deserve today, and as a result we are facing a very real teacher shortage crisis. Particularly in urban and rural communities, in subjects like math, science, foreign language, and for children with disabilities and children learning English, we must hire, train, and retain excellent teachers.

For these reasons, the legislation I will introduce will provide for performance pay for principals and teachers based on fair and proven models, teacher mentoring, teacher career ladders, and improved working conditions.

A certified teacher shortage perhaps. But there is no shortage of
people capable of educating students in any of these subjects. This one will get past the teachers unions sometime about the time hell freezes over.

The bill will include comprehensive steps to turn around low-performing middle and high schools. It will include uniform standards for measuring graduation rates that are fair, accurate, reliable, and will do more to keep students in school.

Because we know exactly how "to turn around low-performing middle and high schools." Thankfully, those "steps" will be enshrined in the next legislation.

This new direction for education in America is premised on the growing consensus that there is a need for greater and sustained investments needed in American education.

The legacy of a great American education system for our children and our country cannot be built on the cheap. America deserves better.

"Growing consensus" my ass.

If only our education system was built on the cheap.

Social and economic opportunity begins in the classroom. Discovery and innovation begin in the classroom. Economic growth and economic disparity begin in the classroom.

This is all true which is why our public education system with all its unfulfilled promises for minorities and the poor is such a national disgrace. It is a failed experiment with socialism. Miller merely wants to double down now, like a good tax and spend Democrat that he is, when he should be folding his hand.

It's Being Done

A few posts back, I lambasted journalist-turned-author, Linda Perlstein, for her hackneyed observations made during a year long visit to one cherry-picked elementary school.

Perlstein is one of the anointed. She doesn't seem to understand that when you observe a correlation between A and B, this might mean that:

  1. A causes B

  2. B causes A

  3. Both A and B are the results of C or some other combination of factors

  4. It is a coincidence.

The anointed stop the analysis at the first or second pattern of causation and don't worry too much about the last two, even though typically in education the evidence is rarely sufficient to conclude that the result is anything more than a coincidence.

But enough about Perlstein.

In the comments, another journalist-turned-author, Karin Chenoweth, left the following comment:

[F]or those readers interested in a book that demonstrates how successful high-poverty and high-minority schools operate, I would suggest they read my book, It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.

The criteria I used to select schools to visit are fairly clear--the schools had to have substantial populations of students of color or students of poverty or both, and high achievement scores or rapid improvement trajectories. (The criteria are laid out in more detail in chapter one.)

For the most part, these schools did not spend endless amounts of time having students writing paragraphs about poems nor writing endless numbers of poems, but rather taught them some poetry, along with lots of other literature, science, history, and other stuff. In other words, they honest-to-goodness taught their students.

The book was published by Harvard Education Press. Learn more about it at

I realize this is a shameless plug, but it seems appropriate to the discussion.

An interview with Chenoweth can be found here. And, the criteria she used to select the schools she observed are:

  1. Significant population of children living in poverty and/or a significant population of children of color

  2. Proficiency rates above 80 percent, or a very rapid improvement trajectory

  3. Smaller achievement gaps than the state

  4. Two year’s worth of comparable data

  5. High graduation rates and high proportion of freshmen who are seniors four years later (Promoting Power Index)

  6. Annual Yearly Progress met

  7. Open enrollment for neighborhood children (no magnet, charter, or exam schools)

You cheapskates can find many of the articles that form the basis of the book here.

Chenoworth's interview is much better than Perlstein's. She appears to understand what is important to improve student achievement and what is not:

I think some of the structural reforms that people focus on are not all that important. For example, the grade configurations of schools. Whether a school is K–8 or broken up into elementary and middle school is not as important as making sure that teachers know what needs to be taught at each grade level. Similarly, whether a school has a block schedule or a six- or seven-period day is less important than the quality of instruction. At a district level, whether a school board is appointed or elected is not as important as whether the district has a coherent curriculum and a [teacher] development plan that supports the curriculum.

It is about improved instruction and making sure that the instruction is working. To do that you need strong leadership and data. You get data by testing. And, the strong leadership makes sure that the right course is taken in response to the data.

And, that's what came through when I read the Achieve Alliance articles Chenoworth penned.

However, what also came through was that many of these "successful" schools were still making it up as they went along. Which is to say that their decisions were not fully based on the current state of education research. These schools have made many right decisions, but they've also made many ineffective decisions--decisions that the leaders of these schools should have known were not the best decisions to take.

And, the articles, and I suspect the book as well, does not provide the level of detail necessary to inform other school leaders how to change their own schools to achieve similar results. Moreover, what we get are a bunch of "one-off" success stories, whereas it would have been better to have gotten replicated success stories so we can discount the possibility that the results are due to coincidence.

Then there is the problem that what the schools think is the cause of their success and what Chenoworth thinks is the cause may not in fact be the real cause. I don't see the track record of success from anyone that would lead me to trust their opinion. Nonetheless, there is value in dispelling the myth that schools are responding to NCLB by turning themselves into test prep factories and by limiting the curriculum.

Take a look at one school that Chenoworth visited--Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia. Here's the report (pdf). I noticed this potential problem.

In the 2003-04 school year the scores skyrocketed when 71 percent of Stanton’s students met state reading standards and 47 percent met state math standards. The growth was so dramatic, in fact, that the district retested the students to
make sure there had been no mistake or chicanery. The retest confirmed that most students at Stanton were meeting state standards in reading, and many exceeded those standards. And when the 2005 test scores were released, showing that 73
percent of the students met state reading standards and 84 percent met state math standards, it was clear that 2004 had not been a one-year fluke but rather a reflection of new practices – practices that include a careful reorganization
of instruction, comprehensive professional development of teachers, close examination of student data, a curriculum tightly aligned to state standards, and shrewd use of federal Title I dollars.

Based on the data from SchoolMatters and despite the re-test, I am suspicious of these fifth grade scores. Stanton did indeed perform well, above the state average, in fifth grade in 2006. But, Stanton also performed below average in every other grade tested, i.e., third, fourth, and sixth, in 2006. I am especially suspicious of the anomaly in the reading scores. The cohort that had 73% passing in 2005 (fifth grade) sunk down to 16% passing in 2006 (sixth grade). Such a dramatic decline should be all but impossible if the student achievement was the result of a real educational improvement as opposed to artificial test prep. The decline in math was nearly as dramatic.

The fifth grade test has been around for a long time. The fourth and sixth grade tests are new. I have a feeling there was more test prep going on that Chenoworth observed on the two days she visited.

The Vision of the Anointed

During my vacation weekend I read The Vision of The Anointed by economist Thomas Sowell.

It's not directly about education.

But, it's all about education, if you know what I mean.

Education is full of the self-anointed elite, and their numerous followers, who make education policy and whose prevailing social vision is "dangerously close to sealing itself off from any discordant feedback from reality." Hence, the hatred of testing and NCLB which mandates such testing.

It's not so much that their views are especially evil or especially erroneous (though they certainly are erroneous). The problem is that the ignoring or evidence and feedback permits the blind following of a dangerous course of action to a fatal conclusion until you wind up with a majority of students who can neither read nor perform basic calculations at an acceptable level of proficiency.

Sowell explains the danger of this mindset:

Even when issues of public policy are discussed in the outward form of an argument, often the conclusions reached are predetermined by the assumptions and definitions inherent in a particular vision of social processes... To a remarkable extent, however, empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted. Facts may be marshaled for a position already taken, but that is very different from systematically testing opposing theories by evidence. Momentous questions are dealt with essentially as conflicts of visions.

Sound familiar? Or, how about:

The focus here will be on one prevailing vision--the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite of our time. What is important about that vision are not only its particular assumptions and their corollaries, but also the fact that it is the prevailing vision--which means that its assumptions are so much taken for granted by so many people, including so-called "thinking people," that neither those assumptions nor their corollaries are generally confronted with demands for empirical evidence. Indeed, empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision.

Lots of good stuff which will make for good blog fodder for months to come. In the meantime, go pick up a copy and read it.

Once you understand how the anointed think, its much easier to dissect their "visions."

Back from Vacation

Took the family to Cape May, NJ for a little vacation.

We stayed at the Inn of Cape May, a 113 year old Victorian Inn.

Because we made reservations so late, we got stuck in the fancy (i.e., more expensive) room all the way up on the tippy top (the fifth floor). Normally, this is a bonus, but the Inn lacks a full time elevator which means walking five flights of stairs--Victorian Style.

The inn is very charming in a late 19th century sort of way. All weekend long I wanted to don (and then doff) a monocle, wax my moustache (and grow one), and go on at length about the Union and Pacific Railroad. The Inn has been updated with many, but not all, modern amenities, such as electricity, private baths showers, and air conditioning.

The renovations are, shall we say, less than perfect. The A/C unit is guaranteed to wake the dead as it cycled through its refrigeration cycle, though it did manage to keep the room cool. The retrofitted private bathroom was tiny and made a small room feel even smaller. The old public bathrooms (at the end of the hall at each floor) are still there as a ghostly reminder of less affluent times. And the electricity was added the cheap way - by running conduit on the outside of the walls. Even then the electric outlets were few and far between.

Nonetheless, it's nice to see how bad the "rich" had it 100 years ago. No one would mistake the pre-renovated Inn for squalor, though the lack of bathrooms and electricity would certainly cause modern day poverty hustlers to agitate for better living conditions. We don't realize how good we have it today.

We also took the kids on the obligatory trip to the Wildwood boardwalk one night. Bit of a let down after visiting DisneyWorld last year, especially considering it was just as expensive.

The Northeast elites are fond of disparaging middle America as being unsophisticated. They need to visit their own amusement parks before casting such aspersions. I saw lots of tattoos, piercings, obesity, and bad manners, not to mention expensive cell phones, clothing, hair styles, and sneakers among the boardwalkers. Poverty is not what ills these people.

And, don't get me started on the nanny state hi-jinks that is New Jersey.

August 10, 2007

No Child labels schools unfairly, administrators say

As NCLB reauthorization approaches expect to see a lot more thinly veiled articles like this one from the San Diego Union Tribune trying to water down NCLB.

The premise is given in the lede:

The federal accountability system for public schools unfairly labels many achieving schools as failures, regional school leaders said yesterday.

Let's see if the "reporter" has marshaled any facts to support the premise that NCLB is unfairly labeling "many achieving schools as failures." Notice the careful., i.e., misleading wording.

First, we get the obligatory grudging acceptance from educators:

“We understand (No Child left Behind) is here to stay, but it needs to be fixed in order to be reauthorized,” said Kelli Moors, board president for the Carlsbad Unified School District.

They tried for six years to get NCLB repealed. That failed due to overwhelming public support. Their new tactic is attempt a flanking maneuver during reauthorization to water down the law so they can go back to miseducating kids without the pernicious spotlight of shame shining on them.

Next, we get a rhetorical alley oop from the reporter who cites misleading facts:

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students achieve the same minimum pass rates on state academic exams. By 2014, all students must reach at least “proficient” levels of performance on state exams.
By 2014 "all" students are not required to reach the "proficient level. Presently 1% are permitted to talk an alternate assessment that is in accordance with their needs. Severely retarded students do not have to pass the same test given to regular-ed students.

Then we get the only evidence cited to support the premise:

Many public school administrators, board members and teachers say the federal system, unlike the state accountability system in California, fails to recognize school progress over time. No Child Left Behind, they say, unfairly labels many schools as failures – no matter how much they are improving from year to year, or how close they are to meeting federal benchmarks.

NCLB does in fact recognize progress. NCLB contains a Safe Harbor provision that permits a school that is, in fact, failing to avoid the "failing label" if it reduces its percentage of students not meeting standards by 10% of the previous year's percentage.

I fail to see how this is unfair. If you are not meeting your state's pass rate and aren't improving sufficiently to fall within the safe harbor, you are failing regardless if you miss that mark by 30% or 0.01%. This isn't horseshoes or hand grenades. Near misses don't count.

So to sum up: NCLB does, in fact, recognize "school progress over time."

Check out this Ed Sector report for the full story. In fact, you'll want to bookmark that report for ready reference because you're going to be seeing a lot more articles like this one in which the reporter doesn't understand the provisions of NCLB relating to Adequate Yearly Progress and educators are all too willing to bamboozle him/her to further their agenda.

August 9, 2007

Nitwit author makes nitwit observations

In USA Today, Greg Toppo interviews Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post reporter, who spent a year at Tyler Heights Elementary School, a "high poverty elementary school in Annapolis, Md" to see for herself the effects NCLB was having on failing schools.

She even wrote a book about it.

Based on this interview, Perlstein clearly didn't know the first thing about education going into the project and failed to learn anything useful during the project. Perlstein bemoans the neglect of "science experiments" in the curriculum, but it is evident that she has never learned how to conduct her own scientific experiment. Her year at Tyler Heights was one big failed experiment from the get go.

To wit: Hotshot reporter observes one failing school. Said failing school makes changes in response to NCLB's requirement to improve student achievement. Said changes fail to achieve desired improvement. Failed educators give hot shot reporter their "opinion" as to why the improvements failed to work and/or how they believe improvements can/should be made. Hot shot reporter adopts opinions uncritically thinking she's learned something.

She hasn't.

All Perlstein has learned is that she picked the wrong school. You don't learn anything from a failed experiment (except, of course, that that that's one way not to do things). There are an infinite number of responses that educators can make in an attempt to improve outcomes. The vast majority of those responses will fail to achieve improved outcomes. Existing evidence shows that only a precious few responses will achieve real gains in student achievement. Had Perlstein been fortunate enough to pick one of these successful schools, she might have learned something useful. Instead, she only learned about one way (albeit a very popular way) a school could get things wrong. And, instead of cutting her losses and writing off a wasted year, she wrote her book anyway and filled it with her own uninformed opinions and the opinions of those who have never failed to raise the achievement of students like the students found at Tyler Heights.

Let's examine what Perlstein thinks she learned from her year at Tyler Heights.

I don't have a problem with testing children. I have a problem with thinking test results tell you most of what you need to know. They simply don't — these tests are often very narrow instruments.

Clearly, Perlstein isn't a psychometrician and hasn't talked to one during her investigation. Of course, there's a lot more to education than learning how to read and do basic math. But, if a student hasn't learned how to read and do basic math, it's fair to conclude that the student is dead, educationally speaking, and that the school has failed at this first critical educational step. I've never seen a student who magically compensated for not knowing how to read and do basic math by learning an adequate amount of history, science, geography, algebra, etc. Such a beast does not exist and never has.

Where reforms have forced educators to notice children who might otherwise have been neglected, I give credit. But I wrote this book because school reforms intended to abolish a two-class system were in some ways exacerbating it. There's one world where students pass the test as a matter of course and get to write poems, and another where children write paragraphs about poems.

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a movement in American schools to educate each child as an individual. The teachers at Tyler Heights work mightily to do that, but they have to get everybody to the same place in the same amount of time, and follow daily curriculum agendas handed down from above.

You know, I just can't place my finger on the section of NCLB that requires schools to force students to "write paragraphs about poems" instead of "writ[ing] poems." That's because such a rwequirement doesn't exist.

Perlstein is failing to distinguish between a problem with NCLB and a problem that some educator has made is response to NCLB's requirement that students actually learn how to read and do basic math. Some wacky educator in Maryland decided that "writ[ing] paragraphs about poems" was a good way to become proficient at passing some portion of the reading test. As it turns out, that's not a good way to teach. Time to change to something that does. (And, let's not ignore what Perlstein has likely failed to observe since it ended before she got to Tyler: disadvantaged students "writing poems" like the advantaged kids and still failing to learn like the advantaged kids.)

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a movement in American schools to educate each child as an individual. The teachers at Tyler Heights work mightily to do that, but they have to get everybody to the same place in the same amount of time, and follow daily curriculum agendas handed down from above.

First, teachers don't make policy decisions. Policy decisions get handed down from above. Just like the curriculum. As long as teachers do as they are told or do what they are permitted to do, there are no repercussions for them when students fail to learn. That responsibility goes to the higher-ups (who frequently try to pass the back down).

Second, the movement to "educate each child as an individual" has failed to produce demonstrable results, so that's a red herring.

Third, there is no requirement to get "everybody to the same place in the same amount of time." NCLB's requirement is to get everyone past a certain point by a maximum amount of time; for example, all students must be reading on at least a third grade level by April of third grade. Implicit in that decision is a policy choice that students can be (and should be) taught to read on what is nominally a third grade level within 3-4 years of schooling.

Tyler Heights kids in some ways are very fortunate: Even though many are poor, their well-off district provides them a safe, clean building, plenty of learning tools and a smart, hard-working staff who cares immensely about them.

Somebody call Jonathan Kozol and tell him we've found the counter example that disproves his life's work.

But those educators feel constrained because of rigid curriculum strictures, the low skills of many kids and the pressure to excel on the test.

I love the words Perlstein has chosen to obfuscate the issue. Instead of saying "pressure to excel on the test" she could have more accurately said "pressure to teach students so that they learn what they are expect to learn and which will be confirmed by their ability to pass a simple multiple choice test." But I suspect that isn't anti-test enough for her agenda.

I also like the conceit that educators are "constrained" and that if they weren't so "constrained," by NCLB of course, they would do wonderful things and perform miracles with these children. Problem is that making collages in ed school and learning wacky educational "theories" doesn't adequately prepare teachers to actually induce learning in students who won't learn on their own. When most teachers are given the freedom to innovate instruction, we still get just as much failure as we do when they are constrained. The only difference is that we get different kinds of failure. That is the sad reality. There are a very few exceptions to this rule and it has nothing to do with whether teachers are constrained or not. It only matters that they teach in a way that works, which few of them know how to do on their own.

So a teacher suspects her third-graders might be asked on the test to write a paragraph enumerating the elements of a poem. The kids can't get it right. Does she have them write that paragraph over and over until they do, or does she let them actually write poems? The latter would be more engaging and, in the long run, instructive, but the school might calculate that drilling is the more direct, reliable line between two points.

Here we go again with the poem writing, like that's the only problem these kids have. Many of these kids can't read anything approaching their grade level, let along a poem. And don't ask them to spell, write a coherent paragraph, analyze what they've read, subtract multi-digit numbers, or calculate the area or triangle, to name but a tiny fraction (and don't ask them to manipulate fractions either) of their deficiencies.

And, what's up with "The kids can't get it right"? Isn't it more accurate to say "The kids can't get it right after the teacher has tried to teach them." This phrasing implies a solution that the original does not, i.e., teach better.

Or what about this false dilemma: "Does she have them write that paragraph over and over until they do, or does she let them actually write poems?" Because there is not third alternative. A third alternative would be very helpful in this situation since alternatives one and two don't seem to work very well. But, Perlstein doesn't realize that a third alternative exists because she never observed a school that successfully employed an alternative.

And, I'm wondering how Perlstein knows that "writing poems" is "more engaging and, in the long run, instructive" for these kids since there is no evidence, except Perlstein's conclusory opinion that it is. Perhaps for advantaged kids it is. But, that doesn't mean that you can extrapolate that solution to disadvantaged kids since these kids apparently have unremedied deficits that preclude them from performing at this high level.

Or that science experiments, since they won't be on the test, aren't the best use of a too-short school day. These aren't choices I agree with, but I understand why they're made. The schools with rich curricula exist here and there, most likely with daring staffs and flexible school districts that give
educators plenty of room to innovate.

Why do we care what choices Perlstein "agrees with"? It's not like she's successfully taught disadvantaged kids or has talked to anyone that has (there don't appear to be any at Tyler Heights).

And who is to say that a so-called "rich curricula" (whatever that is) is the right answer? I suspect she thinks that a rich curricula is what rich kids, like her, received at their fancy suburban school. If it worked with her, it must also work for the poor kids. Right? See: busing, failure thereof.

Then Perlstein gives us the example of a teacher trying to teach to the Nonsense Word Fluency Test by directly teaching nonsense words.

The teacher wanted her kindergartners to be prepared for their assessment, which makes sense. Kids should learn to sound out letter combinations whether or not they make actual words. But she would have preferred to use that time teaching her kids real vocabulary.

Clearly, the teacher was trying to cheat by coaching the kids on the nonsense words that would be on the test. That kinda defeats the purpose of the test which is trying to see if students have adequately learned phonics skills (which even the whole language nutters now think is important) for words they've never seen before and which can only be read if you know phonics.

The problem here is that the teacher isn't able to get the kids to learn how to read with any degree of proficiency. So, the next best thing is that they pass the assessment. And the easiest way to do that, at least in the short run, is to try to game the test. That's the problem: the inability to teach, not the assessment. The assessment merely shows that learning has not occurred and that the teaching has failed.

After I left Tyler Heights, the principal eased up a bit on her "laser-sharp focus." Activities were spread more evenly throughout the year, third-graders wrote poems, there were more attempts at critical thinking. Compared to the previous year, the percentage of kids passing the state test decreased in more categories than it increased. But I don't think the teachers would tell you the students learned any less.

That's the beauty of NCLB. Here we have a failing school that changed how it taught, but did so in way that wasn't effective. Hopefully, next year it will change to something different (and that probably won't work either).

Without NCLB, we wouldn't know these failings of Tyler Heights and schools like it. Now we do. And, that's a good thing. One could argue that if the tests were low stakes, we'd still know about the failings of Tyler Heights. This is true. But the difference is that if the tests were low stakes, Tyler Heights wouldn't care and wouldn't be trying to change its failing ways. Now they are. And that also is a good thing, even though it might be a long time before it stumbles upon the right solution. That's another problem; Tyler Height's educators learn about as slowly as their students. Too bad Perlstein was paying the educators undeserved deference too see this for herself.

U.S. News consults wrong critic

It's the 50th birthday for Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. So U.S. News and World Report is running the obligatory puff piece commemorating the anniversary. In paragraph three we learn this little tidbit.

236 words. Geisel had been publishing children's books for 20 years when Cat was published in March 1957; early titles included the classic Horton Hears a Who! The particular endurance of Cat, many critics say, is owed partly to its origins in an emerging philosophy of phonetic learning. Most of the 236 individual words in the book were taken from a list of beginner words for new readers, and only a few are more than one syllable.

So much for U.S. New's vaunted editorial oversight. The Cat in the Hat is about as anti-phonics as you can get. The Cat in the Hat was written as part of the failed "Look Say" movement, the predecessor of the failed (but unfortunately still existing) whole language movement, which required students to memorize words instead of learning the phonetic code.

Dr. Seuss responded to this “challenge” by rigidly limiting himself to a small set of words from an elementary school vocabulary list, then crafted a story based upon two of the words which rhymed—cat and hat.

Dr. Seuss' books were created to supplement the 'look say' reading programs taught in schools. Dr. Seuss' publisher supplied him with a sight vocabulary of 223 words which he was to use to write his books, a sight vocabulary that was in
harmony with the sight words the child would be learning in school.

In an interview he gave in Arizona magazine in June 1981 Dr. Seuss claimed the book took nine months to complete due to the difficulty in writing a book from the 223 selected words. He
continued to explain that the title for the book came from his desire to have the title rhyme and the first two suitable rhyming words that he could find from the list were 'cat' and 'hat'. Dr. Seuss also regretted the association of his book and the 'look say' reading method adopted during the Dewey revolt in the 1920s. He expressed the opinion that "[...]killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country."

I think some of U.S. New's editors must have learned to read using "Look-Say."

August 8, 2007

Miller's Speech Continued

Let's take a look at the second part of Miller's speech: the part where he gives us his learned suggestions for improving NCLB.

Throughout our schools and communities, the American people have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair. That it is not flexible. And that it is not funded.

And they are not wrong.


We want a bill that is fair and flexible – that maintains the integrity of the law through accountability while responding to the legitimate concerns that have been raised.

What a lame rhetorical device that "the American people have a very strong sense" line is. Notice how it allows Miller to weasel out of giving us his opinion and taking a strong position. Political hackery at its finest.

Is NCLB not fair? NCLB permits states to create their own assessment devices, their own standards, their own passing cut scores, and their own definition of AYP. To the extent that the results aren't fair, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the states.

Is it not flexible? Hello, safe harbor provisions. And, do we really want schools to have the flexibility to excuse the performance of the difficult to educate? That's why NCLB exists in the first place. Schools are all too willing to excuse performance and create phony "disabilities" to excuse their inability to educate.

Is it not funded? The only additional requirement NCLB added was the assessment provisions. Those are fully funded and then some. the predecessor to the NCLB already doled out plenty of free funding to schools. That funding continued. The only difference was that schools would have to achieve demonstrable results under NCLB. The chickens have come home to roost.

Let's see what Miller has to say.

I have always said that I am proud to be one of the original coauthors of the No Child Left Behind Act. But what I really want is to be the proud coauthor of a law that works.

To that end, for the last five years I have traveled this country listening to teachers, administrators, students, parents, governors and many others about how the law can be improved. I have listened carefully, as have my colleagues. We have heard an emerging consensus about needed changes.

An emerging consensus? There used to be an "emerging consensus" that the earth was flat, that bleeding was an appropriate medical treatment, and that the sun revolved around the earth. In each of those instances, the "emerging consensus" proved to be wrong because the "experts"doing the consenting relied upon their uninformed opinion. rather than on solid science.

Think global warming. There is "consensus" in the absence of hard science. The "consensus" is all but worthless, especially when you consider that the "science" underlying that "consensus" can't accurately predict the weather next week, let alone a century from now.

Same deal with education. Those doing the consenting have never reliably educated the difficult to educate children NCLB is concerned with, have never reliably induced learning in these children, and have no "science" informing their opinion. Plus, they have a vested interest in avoiding the requirements imposed by NCLB since they are the ones under its yoke.

Miller is, of course, pandering to the special interest groups behind this "emerging consensus" pure and simple.

My vision for this next bill is to take America’s education policy in a new direction by doing six key things:

  • Provide much-needed fairness and flexibility.
  • Encourage a rich and challenging learning environment and promote best practices and innovation taking place in schools throughout the country.
  • Support teachers and principals.
  • Continue to hold schools accountable for students’ progress.
  • Join the effort to improve America’s high schools.
  • Invest in our schools.

Exactly the sort of vague non-specific recommendations that have failed to achieve results in the past. We'll cover each point in the next post.