September 30, 2007

Are you as smart as a 8th grader?

Take this test and find out.

I got a 100%. Woo hoo. That should tell you how difficult the test is.

The questions come from released items from the California state tests for 7th and 8th grade.

Then read the story in the NC Times.

I like the obligatory educator spin:

In the course of a year, students cover an extensive amount of material and remembering each detail can be difficult on test days, said Tony Ricchuiti, a seventh-grade math teacher at Del Dios Middle School in Escondido.

Ricchuiti added that while the tests mirror the state's standards for each subject, students learn at different paces and in different ways. They also may know the material when they are tested in class, and then misunderstand or overthink a question, just by how it's asked.

"It's always a challenge," Ricchuiti said, adding that offering adults a chance to take the exams themselves might give them a better understanding of what is being asked of kids.

"I think they would see how difficult it is," he said. "It's hard for adults ... and it puts a lot of pressure on us and the kids."

I was not impressed at all by the test questions. The questions certainly weren't rigorous. The math and reading questions were especially easy for a putative eighth grade student. I fail to see why it is so difficult to get students to learn this stuff after nearly nine years of formal education.

What do you think?

September 28, 2007

The root cause

One persistent problem in education is the ambiguous teacher presentation. A presentation is ambiguous when it can be interpreted in more than one way by a student. Since we know that children differ in their ability to learn, it should not be surprising that some of them will interpret an ambiguous presentation incorrectly. And, more often than not, it will be the less smart kids that will tend to make the most misinterpretations.

Here's an example of the typical ambiguous teacher presentation from Engelmann's book Your Child Can Succeed from 1969.

"Look at what I have," the teacher says, holding up a card that illustrates a red ball. The teacher then points to various cards on the floor in front of six four-year-olds. "who can find a card that is the same color as this card?"

The little boy next to Andy holds up a card with a yellow ball on it. A little girl picks up three cards and puts one of them into her mouth.

Andy looks at the teacher for a moment before returning his attention to his shoelaces.

"Listen, boys and girls. I want you to find a card that is the same color as the card that I have here."

Two of the children hold up the cards that they have selected. A girl shows two cards. None is identical to the teacher's.

Apparently unperturbed, the teacher picks up a card with a picture of a red apple. "This card is the same color as the other card that I have. Andy, look at the cards. Andy . . ."

Andy looks tentatively at the teacher. He doesn't look at the cards. Instead, he looks intently at her face, trying to figure out her game.

"Andy," she continues, "look at the two cards. They are the same color, aren't they?"

Without removing his stare from her face, Andy nods yes.

The teacher says, "And what color are the ball and the apple?"

"Re . . ." a little girl shouts.

"Re . . ."two other children mimic.

The teacher says, "They are red, aren't they, Andy?"

Andy nods yes.

"Can you find something else that is red?" the teacher asks.

Andy looks at his shoes. He then points cautiously in the direction of three or four cards.

"Is one of these red?" the teacher asks.

Andy nods and says, "Yeh," almost inaudibly.

The teacher picks up a card that displays another red apple.

"This is red, isn't it?" she says. "Were you pointing to this card?"

Andy glances quickly at the card and then back to the teacher's face. He nods yes.

"Leon," the teacher says, "what color is this?"

"Re . . . " Leon says loudly with his hands over his ears.

The teacher then holds up a card showing a green evergreen tree." And what color is this?"

"Re . . . " Leon says.

"Re . . . " one of the little girls says.

"Re . . . " Andy says.

Has the teacher actually taught anything through this activity? Was it possible for the teacher's presentation to teach all of the children? It seems that the teacher assumed that the children understood the concept of "color" when they did not. This might be an assumption in a middle-class school. But, it probably is not a safe assumption in a "poverty" school. But let's forget about the children's abilities for a moment and focus on the concept of color that the teacher was trying to teach and see if her presentation was capable of teaching it to a very intelligent being who didn't happen to know what red meant. Engelmann continues:

Since red is the same for all people, it is reasonable to begin with a simple analysis of the concept to see what it is that all people must learn about red. Red is a visual property. It is not dependent on the size of the object or on the object's position, shape, or texture. The first requirement of a demonstration designed to teach red, therefore, would be that the demonstration make it clear that red has only to do with that visual property of redness. Andy's teacher did not satisfy this requirement. All of the red objects were round, implying that red may have something to do with shape. Therefore, we could expect that a being with superior intelligence might come away from the teaching demonstration confused about the meaning of red. Specifically, this being might show us through his behavior that he thinks that red is another word for round object or that red is something that only applies to two-dimensional objects on a card.

Since the presentation would not be consistently capable of teaching a naive being with superior intelligence, maybe Andy, Leon, and some of the other children are not completely at fault for not learning from the demonstration. Maybe they would have responded well to a demonstration that carefully showed what red means. We can't make any clean assertions about the problems the children might have had, but it seems presumptuous to declare that the children ... should have been able to extract the appropriate interpretation from the teacher's presentation even if it was not logically possible to do so.

It is difficult to explain the difference between a demonstration that will teach and one that won't. So, Engelmann makes up an example that adults can better relate to since adults understand the concept of color.

Let's say that a teacher presented each of these objects:

The teacher says that each is a "glerm."

Next, the teacher presents this object and asks you if it is a glerm:

The response of virtually any child or adult would be "Yes."

Now the teacher presents this object and asks if it is glerm:

We cannot predict what your response will be. If we present the task to thirty different people, we can predict that over half of them will say, "Yes, it's a glerm." The others will say, "No, it is not a glerm."

In any case, some who respond will fail the task. The response of those that fail, however, is a reasonable response. Both responses are consistent with the presentation of the objects. One person might interpret the presentation this way: "The teacher showed a group of objects. All were rectangles and all were called glerms. Then the teacher presented another rectangle and asked if it was a glerm. I said, 'Yes.'"

Another person might interpret the presentation this way: "All of the initial objects were vertical. It seemed more than accidental that they were all vertical. The teacher then presented a rectangle that was not vertical and asked if it was a glerm. I said, 'No.'"

Now imagine that glerm did in fact mean vertical, but you thought, quite reasonably, that glerm meant rectangle. What happens when the teacher starts teaching more advanced material that relies on the concept of glerm and uses the word "glerm" in later presentations to describe the glerminess of objects? Do you think your ability to learn these advanced concepts might become more difficult because your understanding of glerm is wrong?

What is education but a series ambiguous teacher presentations designed to teach increasingly difficult concepts. Sooner or later someone is going to label an understanding of these advanced concepts "higher order thinking" and your inability to engage in this "higher order thinking" is eventually going to get you labelled a dummy or worse. Is it true that you're incapable of engaging in higher order thinking or is it simply that you lack the understanding of a bunch of prerequisite lower-order concepts, like "glerm," that prevents you from engaging in higher order thinking? We don't know, but that won't stop us from theorizing about your deficiencies.

Some people will notice that you and people like you tend to have lower IQs. People with low IQs tend to have a difficult time engaging in the kind of abstract problem solving that is needed to tease out and synthesize the correct concepts from the thousands of ambiguously presented concepts, both in and out of the classroom, one needs to understand in order to become "educated." Your low IQ will become a severe burden in becoming educated and will ultimately be a brutal predictor of your academic success under such less than ideal learning conditions.

Other people will notice that you and people like you tended not to have the kind of parents that made sure that you entered formal education knowing what the typical middle-class kid is expected to know. This is because teachers base their presentations on the typical middle-class child. That's why the hypothetical teacher's presentation of red in the beginning of the post would tend to convey the concept of redness to a typical middle-class kid who came into school with an understanding of the concept of color and probably already understood the concept of red. It's also why the presentation would almost certainly fail to teach the concept of red to a child who does not understand the concept of color in the first place. This is one reason why balanced literacy/ whole language finds some success with kids who come into school with a good understanding of the alphabetic principle, with good phoneme aware, and some rudimentary phonics skills. Same goes for fuzzy math.

Others will notice that having good parents correlates with academic success. Good parents make sure the child goes to school on a regular basis, well fed and ready to learn. Good parents also tend to monitor their child's academic progress and will ensure that the child understands imperfectly presented concepts and will help the child learn these concepts outside of school (reteaching or hiring a tutor if necessary). In short, good parents will maximize a student's likelihood of academic success and will make sure the student successfully navigates the shoals of choppy academic waters.

Others will notice that having a good teacher, say a hero teacher, also correlates highly with academic success. Maybe the hero teacher is able to present a better academic presentation that is less likely to induce wrong interpretations. Perhaps the hero teacher is better at monitoring student progress and ensuring that students are understanding the right concepts. Maybe the hero teacher is a good motivator of students and is able to keep the student motivated while he struggles to learn the concepts he is expected to learn. Maybe the hero teacher is able to act as a substitute for bad, uncaring, or incapable parents. Hero teachers tend to have some or all of these skills which correlate highly with academic success.

Lastly, others will focus on your motivation. More specifically, they will notice your lack of motivation to learn. It is the rare child that enters kindergarten unmotivated to learn and it is the rare child that leaves fifth grade motivated to learn unless that child has experienced academic success in the ensuing six years. Clearly, something inside the school environment went horribly wrong from a motivation standpoint during this time, yet for some reason motivational problems rarely get blamed on schools. Perhaps it's because elementary schools are quite adept at labelling students to excuse their inability to learn from the ambiguous teacher presentations. You didn't learn because you are learning disabled, brain damaged, not ready to learn, have a different learning style, and the like. Eventually, however, middle school and high school teachers will notice this lack of motivation to learn. They didn't see the six years of academic abuse that was experienced in elementary school. But, they do see that the students are unmotivated in their class. These students lack the gumption and drive needed to not only remedy all their past academic deficiencies but to also engage in the same punishing presentations that have failed them in the past. Should the student have the Sisyphean motivation to do the work now, the student's likely reward will be to graduate at the bottom of the class with real skills far below grade level. That's quite the plum. Some students may be dull, but you're not stupid.

Here are a few recent posts from some teacher blogs venting because their classrooms are full of unmotivated and/or disruptive students. (Make sure you read the comments.) I do sympathize with these teachers. They find themselves in an impossible situation, the direct result of bad school policies enacted to deal with students their schools have been unable to successfully teach. I'm not quite sure any tenth grade teacher is capable of teaching tenth grade material to a classroom full of students with skills ranging from 3rd to 12th grade, to give but one example.

But do notice the reasons these teachers are giving as to why some students aren't learning in their classrooms. It's usually one of the following: it's the students fault, the student's parents' fault, society's fault, or some other excuse external to the school environment. Sometimes, it'll be a school specific factor that is other than an instructional factor. More funding and smaller classrooms are the usual recommended cures despite the fact that both of these panaceas have a long history of not living up to the research base they supposedly have. At least not in the real world. Occasionally, a teacher will question his teaching ability and the ability of the string of teachers that have profoundly affected the students before they got to his classroom. But that questioning is usually fleeting and generally doesn't result in any teacher changing what they are doing instructionally. At least not in a way that improves instruction except in the most superficial of ways. Things have not really changed on an instructional level since Engelmann penned his passage on glerms nearly 40 years ago.

While the "glerm" example may seem far removed from the classroom situation, the "glerm" format is perfectly analogous to the one that the naive child encounters in the classroom. The teacher says a strange or unfamiliar word. She then gives an example that illustrates the word. She may say the word red and present an object that is an example for red, perhaps a picture of a red apple. "See? It's red," she says. And from this kind of demonstration the child is supposed to figure out what red means, just as you had to figure out what glerm means. The child must try to figure out whether the word red means an apple, something shiny, something the teacher is holding, the color of the object, or the position, or whether simply a word that the teacher uses arbitrarily.

Since any of these interpretations is consistent with the teacher's presentation, we shouldn't conclude that the child is "slow" for selecting a wrong interpretation. The labeling should be deferred until the teacher has provided a presentation that is far less ambiguous.

It does not follow from:

bad instruction + one or more external factors = academic failure


academic failure is caused by the one or more external factors.

especially since

good instruction + one or more external factors = academic success (at least in some cases)

As Engelmann suggests, let's save the excuse making until we clean up our instructional act.

Independent Strategies: A balanced literacy poem

PaulaV forwarded this great ode to balanced literacy:

Independent Strategies

When I get stuck on a word in a book,
There are lots of thing to do.
I can do them all, please, by myself;
I don't need help from you.

I can look at the picture to get a hint,
Or think what the story's about.
I can "get my mouth ready" to say the first letter,
A kind of "sounding out."
I can chop the word into smaller parts,
Like on and ing and ly,
Or find smaller words in compound words
Like raincoat and bumblebee.
I can think of a word that makes sense in that place,
Try a word or say "blank" and read on
Until the sentence has reached its end,
Then go back and try these on:
"Does it make sense?"
"Can we say it that way?"
"Does it look right to me?"
Chances are the right word will pop out like the sun
In my own mind, can't you see?

If I've thought of and tried out most of these things
And I still do not know what to do,
Then I may turn around and ask
For some help to get me through.

(Thanks to Jill Marie Warner, a reading specialist in the Ithaca City School District.)

This would be Plaintiffs' Exhibit One in the ensuing malpractice litigation.


I have a bleg from Tangoman:

Maybe you can help me find a particular post that appeared on an education blog a year or so ago. The post described the experience of an elementary teacher who had a young, special needs, girl placed into her class and the teacher described the nightmare that ensued over the course of the school year. Does that account ring a bell with you? I have absolutely no clue where I read that account and I want to find it again.

It rings a bell with me, but, like Tangoman, I can't seem to locate the post. If anyone has any better information, let me know in the comments. Thanks in advance.

September 26, 2007

When Phonics Isn't

There is an interesting discussion on the DI listserv regarding whole language, phonics, and the recent NAEP scores.

Anyhoo, Mary Damer, chimed in about how many of the classrooms she visits which claim to be doing phonics, really aren't doing phonics.

When a district buys a phonics program like Open Court or Hougthon Mifflin and continues to do "4 Blocks" or any other variation of balanced literacy in the early grade classrooms, one can observe for days without seeing a legitimate phonics activity where children are orally connecting letter sounds with graphemes and receiving feedback. The teachers simply avoid those activities in the teachers guides and often do not know how to do them. Often the teachers skip all of the separate decodable reading and instead only select the leveled books that are always suggested in the "so called" phonics programs. I've talked to many people from California who have reported this same thing going on out there. When the The Whole Language Umbrella Organization hosted its conference just before Reading First started and had the lead discussion group titled something like "Surrender and Win" I wondered what would be coming down the corner. I didn't anticipate that the name for "whole language" would simply be replaced by "balanced literacy" and five to ten minutes of unrelated phonics practice or something where letter sounds are mentioned would be touted as a phonics.

When I go observe in districts (often RF schools) which claim to be doing phonics in kindergarten and first grade but where they also admit that they are combining phonics with balanced
literacy what do I see:

1. word sorts (sight word based activity)

2. whisper reading (teacher doesn't hear all of the student errors like the observers sitting behind the students do -- no corrections given)

3. partner reading (partners don't know how or can't correct errors which can number up to 3 or 4 per sentence -- no corrections given)

4. Complete lack of "cold reads." All stories and books are first listened to on tape or read aloud to the children sometimes several times -- sight word approach.

5. Word walls with all words high frequency words that students learn by sight (sight word based activity)

6. Silent reading (still can't show an improvement in reading achievement this way)

7. Lots of discussion and some student writing about what they would like to read (but no direct instruction leading to students having the skills to read what they would like to read.)

8. Teachers having students complete worksheets circling the first sound of pictures (no oral connection between letter sound and grapheme so it's simply a review activity unless the students are unable to do it in which case it's a frustration level activity.)

9. Teachers saying a sound and having children hold up the letter sound on one of five colored cards on their desk. Only problem is that some of the children hold up the card that is the same color held up by the child in front of them....they are matching cards not connecting the letter sound with the grapheme. Some children hold up two cards at the same time. There is usually little error correction as the inaccuracy abounds.

10. Teachers unable to clearly articulate the letter sounds adding schwas (saying /buh/ instead of /b/ or /muh/ instead of /m/ thus forcing children to delete phonemes instead of simply blending phonemes into words.

It is stuff like this which makes you appreciate the sad state of education.

September 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs IV

(Continued from Part III)

I spent the preceding three parts of this post explaining guided reading, or at least the most popular implementation of guided reading. For about 75% of middle class kids, guided reading, seems to do the job of teaching kids how to read. Once the student is reading at a solid second grade reading level, the books he'll be reading generally will be legitimate children's literature which has been levelled for understandability. Since the child should have a firm grasp of decoding by this point, the need for books having controlled decodability is somewhat diminished.

At this stage of the reading game, the advantage of a guided reading program is that the child can self-select books (at his level) that interest him. The thought is that by reading books that are interesting for the child will motivate the child to read. A child that is motivated to read will tend to practice reading more and that practice will improve reading ability (with some guidance from the teacher). A nice little positive feedback cycle has been created.

The use of guided reading as your instructional system precludes you from using other instructional systems to teach reading. So let's look at another instructional system for teaching reading so we can talk about the trade-offs and opportunity costs associated with guided reading programs.

I'm going to use Reading Mastery as my example because I am familiar with it. In particular, I'm going to discuss level III of Reading Mastery.

Superficially, the instruction in Reading mastery Level III might appear to be similar to the typical guided reading program.

  • The students read lists of words and do vocabulary understanding activities with some of the words. Teacher directed.
  • The students read a long (between 120 and 850 words) selection and respond to comprehension tasks presented by the teacher. This is the primary activity in each lesson.
  • The students write answers to written items relating to the reading passage, deductions and other skill items, and previously taught material. Independent work.
  • The teacher checks the students' worksheets and makes sure the student understands and corrects items that were missed.

That's basically it. 140 lessons that, if presented properly by the teacher should bring most students from a 2.0 reading level to a 3.0 reading level in one school year or less.

There is, however, a tremendous difference between the two programs below the surface. The difference is due to the fact that the stories that the students read in Reading Mastery were designed from the ground up for instruction. The stories that are read in your typical guided reading are not.
Let's now look at how those differences play out.


New words are first introduced in the word attack lists that are presented in each story. Usually, words appear in two or three lists on separate days. This is done because it is easier for students to read new words in isolation that it is to read them in connected text.

New words then appear in reading selections at least ten times during the course of the program. This cumulative vocabulary development ensures that students receive plenty of practice reading words in sentence contexts.
Because the students have been taught how to read phonetically regular words (and many high frequency irregular words) in the first levels of the program, teaching new words at this level is greatly simplified. If the new words is phonetically regular, the teacher is expected to be able to read the word without any teacher modeling. Words that would probably be difficult to read are first modeled by the teacher, then spelled by the students. (For example, "The first word is actually. What word?" (Actually.) "Spell actually." (A-c-t-u-a-l-l-y.))

To show the students structural or phonemic similarities of different word families, the teacher presents groups of words that have common features. (For example, the students may be given the following list of words: space, bounce, peace, city, race to show the soft-c sound.) By explicitly teaching phonics and other decoding skills in the first levels of the program, the teaching of decoding becomes much simpler by level III and the students can focus on the main objective of reading--actual reading of grade level text.

Following the word-attack activities, the students read the main story aloud with the teacher calling on individual students to take turns reading two or three sentences. The main story contains as many as 25 of the words presented within the last three word-attack lessons. The stories, therefore, provide an immediate word-recognition function.


As vocabulary and decoding skills are being developed, comprehension skills are also being developed. Unlike most reading programs that only teach general comprehension skills (don't specify what is taught), Reading Mastery also teaches specific comprehension skills that involve the procedures that show how the general comprehension skills work. Thus, Reading Mastery provides content that provides practice in the skill and which allows the students to draw inferences.

Here's a summary of the cycle or expanding and developing specific comprehension skills.

  1. A fact (or a rule or perspective or a meaning) is introduced in a comprehension passage (or a word attack presentation).
  2. Within two lessons of the introduction (though often in the same lesson), the fact is used in the main story.
  3. A variation of the fact appears as a worksheet item.
  4. Usually, the item is reviewed in at least eight subsequent lessons.
  5. Some form of the item is usually repeated in at least four main-story contexts.
  6. Facts that are particularly important or difficult to learn appear in fact games.
  7. The final step is the integration of new facts with those previously taught. The combination of different facts provide for increasingly complex applications and review.

Take a look at lesson 68 for an example of this cycle. On the first page two of the vocabulary words, outcome and foul, are used in the main story passage. Also, on the third page, "facts about coconuts," the student learns about--wait for it--coconuts. These facts are then relied upon for understanding the main story and for completing written comprehension questions. On page 6, question 10 ask the student to name the parts of a palm tree; these facts were taught in previous lessons.

Here are a few of the facts, rules, and perspectives that are developed in Reading Mastery III.

  • Measurement rules (facts about centimeters, meters, grams, pounds, miles per hour, seconds, degrees, and liters)
  • Location rules (facts about the United states and a few of its states and many foreign countries)
  • History rules (facts about the Trojan war, cave people, the evolution of horses, Egypt, etc.)
  • Classification rules: (facts about insects spiders, dogs, horses, vehicles, warm and cold blooded animals, etc.)
  • Science rules (facts about, hot air rising, water characteristics, winds, temperature and weather changes, and the like)
  • Word rules (facts about homonyms, homographs, and contractions)
  • Behavior and feeling perspectives
  • temporal perspectives (comparison of how things were done during different historic time periods)
  • size perspectives (comparison of objects viewed by average sized and very small animals)
  • distance perspectives (comparison of different length trips)
  • Place perspectives

Each of these concepts are developed over the at least eight lessons spread throughout the program. So the stories are written to incorporate all these concepts so they can be used in comprehension tasks.

The result is that we get a fully integrated reading program which focuses on teaching decoding skills and sophisticated comprehension skills in the context of thirteen different chapter stories spread over 140 lessons. In addition, a fair bit of science and history content is taught to mastery during these lessons. So while, your typical guided reading program is teaching some decoding skills (hopefully) and some general comprehension skills, Reading Mastery is teaching that plus a great deal of content and sophisticated comprehensions skills.

That is the trade-off when you choose to use non-instructional sources for teaching reading. You forgo many instructional opportunities.

I'll wrap this up in the final post.

Why IQ really matters in education

Wes Becker makes the following point regarding IQ and a student's ability to learn in his book Applied Psychology For Teachers:

The notion that IQ measures the ability to learn is challenged by the cited logical arguments (on level scores and gain scores) and the actual data. In reviewing this issue, Cronbach (1970) concluded that the "ability to learn" is not a satisfactory construct. More relevant is the question "Learning what from what instruction?" There are many kinds of learning tasks, having different prerequisite skills, that make the new learning possible or impossible. And, there are many kinds of "instruction." He concludes: "There is a suspicion afoot that education calls for analytic ability just because the materials are capable of being put into meaningful relationships and the instruction has either failed to display the relationships or has given an explanation that is hard to follow. Then one has to use his brain!" (Cronbach 1970)

Cronbach is suggesting that the high-level analytic ability measured by IQ tests may be affecting learning in situations where the teaching is bad, in addition to situations where untaught vocabulary is required. Under poor teaching conditions, only intelligent students have a chance.

I think Becker is exactly right (even if he is understating the IQ and "ability to learn") relationship). IQ matters very much when the instruction is poor; not as much when the instruction is well designed and presented by a skilled teacher. You'd still expect the higher IQ kids to perform above the lower IQ kids, but the difference in performance should be less.

Becker concludes:

What any person can be taught depends on what he or she has already learned, as well as the methods used in instruction. If the method of instruction is lecture, and the same assignments are given [to] thirty students of highly different backgrounds, it is very likely that some will fail because they lack the preskills assumed by the teacher. In this situation, an IQ test could, in part, predict who would succeed and who would fail. If the method of instruction systematically builds upon the skills each individual brings to the educational setting and uses good motivating procedures, each student will learn to the degree that he or she is effectively taught.

The fact that human beings are products of their genetic histories does not limit what they can learn or guarantee that they will be taught. Genetic histories probably do have some influence on how well students learn, but since there is no measure of or control over the variables involved, the potential influences have no practical implications for the teacher.

Today, IQ is a brutal predictor of academic success and will remain as such (at least on the K-12 level) as long as teaching methods remain at their current primitive level.

Before education was made compulsory, it was the province of the wealthy and/or bright. Instructional techniques were developed over the millennia to service this group with the dimmer members self-selecting their way out when their ability to learn did not measure up to the instructional presentation. Only having to educate the bright, relieved educators from the burden of developing instructional techniques that were adequate for educating the average and dim.

When educating was made compulsory for everyone, it was soon noticed that educators were incapable of educating the unwashed masses with existing instructional techniques. It did not help matters that the job of education was taken over by government, an entity not known for its ability to innovate. And, innovation was dearly needed if education was to reach the unwashed masses.

Instead, IQ tests were developed during this period as a tool for government to determine which students were likely were to have trouble in school so that they could be given special help. Special help that schools did not know how to deliver and which would generally be ineffective. Thus, IQ tests grew out of the problems teachers were having after education became compulsory.

IQ tests remain a valid predictor of academic success today as they did when they were developed a hundred years ago. That's because the educational conditions in our public schools haven't improved since then. And, it doesn't look like there is the political will needed to effect the drastic change needed to improve education conditions, NCLB notwithstanding.

September 18, 2007

Poverty, NCLB, and Excuses

Today's poorly argued anti-NCLB editorial comes courtesy of Ken Neal, Senior Editor of Tulsa World.

First, Neal relies on a Gerald Bracey comparison of the U.S.'s most affluent schools to the average schools of foreign countries to conclude that our most affluent schools are doing great, i.e., "eating a few foreign lunches."

[Bracey] produced statistics showing that schools with less than 10 percent of their students in poverty, outscored students in all the industrialized nations in reading and science and were third in math.

In schools with 25 percent of their students in poverty the U.S. led the other nations in reading and science.

So it appears that “our most affluent kids” are not getting “their lunches eaten” but instead are eating a few foreign lunches.

Don't you think it would have been a slightly more fair comparison if Bracey compared the most affluent schools in the U.S. to the most affluent schools of foreign countries instead of the average school? You know, an apples to apples comparison.

I always feel a little dirty after reading a Bracey analysis, so I don't want to dwell on this too long. Which is just as well since Neal is merely trying to establish the fact that affluent schools tend to perform better than less affluent schools-- a fact that no one seriously disputes. he just happens to be overreaching in trying to suggest that our affluent schools outperform equivalent foreign schools. There is no data that confirms that shakey premise.

Next, Neal jumps to a few unwarranted conclusions.

Bracey correctly assumes that the nation’s top students generally come from families that are not in poverty. His figures bear that out. When all American kids, including those in poverty, are compared to the industrialized nations, the U.S. students fall below the international average.

You better not tell that to Bracey, he thinks U.S. schools are the cat's pajamas.

You've earned your education wings if you've already figured out where this argument is going ...

That's right kids, we're going to Kozol country because Neal is about to blame all the U.S.'s education woes on poverty.

(I will mercifully skip the part of editorial where Neal uses a book full of questionable scholarship to give the misleading impression that the U.S. is full of Dickensonian levels of grinding poverty. Let's just say that Neal doesn't understand how poverty statistics are calculated. Let's also stipulate that there are people in the U.S. who we consider to be "poor" even though their incomes are larger than the average European's income without including government benefits like welfare, food stamps, EIT credits, and the like.)

When most poverty is factored out of U.S. public school performance, U.S. schools rank No. 1 in the world. Since the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty among the competing nations, what does that say about the schools? About the nation?

It says that poverty is the biggest problem of the schools and that poverty, not schools, is the biggest problem in the U.S.

Actually, it doesn't say that at all. Neal hasn't come close to proving the correlation between poverty (or socioeconomic status) and student achievement in this editorial which is pretty pathetic since this correlation is pretty easy to show. Here's a graph of student achievement vs. median household income for Pennsylvania's schools.

So for the sake of moving this argument along, let's pretend that Neal actually showed the correlation between SES and student achievement.

Of course, Neal still has a little problem in that he's confusing correlation for causation. Neal thinks that because he can show a correlation between poverty and achievement that poverty causes lower student achievement. That causation, of course, has not yet been proven by anyone. Ever. Anywhere. Kozol's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding.

But, that won't stop Neal. He's already making policy.

If the federal government, in this case represented by the NCLB, wants to improve the school system, it should work on taking kids out of poverty, instead of trashing the schools for failing to bring up all test scores.

No need to improve school systems. They're doin' just fine. Cancel NCLB and start shoveling money out to the poor (which, of course, won't lower the number of poor people at all because a) we don't count government transfers in poverty statistics and b) poverty is determined as a certain percentage of income below the median income).

The findings are not surprising. Right here in Tulsa, we have known for years that there is a direct correlation between school performance and family income.

You have only to ponder what would happen if by a snap of the fingers, we could transfer entire student bodies from high-poverty schools to schools in prosperous areas. Say, let’s move the McLain High School students to Jenks High School and vice versa.

Wonder what would happen to the test scores?

Instead of pondering, why don't we look at some actual data. No one has actually switched the students in an affluent school for the students in a poor school and measured performance, but we can get a good idea of how well poor students would perform in affluent schools by looking at how well poor students are currently performing in affluent schools. Let's use the latest state test scores for Pennsylvania and see how well poor students are performing in affluent schools. Let's use Bracey's definition of affluent schools as schools having no more than 10% poor kids. I found 99 high schools in Pennsylvania that met the criteria. Here's the graph:

The pink squares are poor students and the blue triangles are all students. I even included the regression lines to make the comparisons easier.

As you can see, the poor students are performing considerably (1.32 standard deviation) below the average performance in these ritzy affluent schools. The mean performance differential is 23.42 points. In fact, the poor students in these schools are performing below the state average by 8.77 points (0.49 standard deviation).

The Neal bussing plan looks like it's not going to work out after all. And, in case you were still wondering what would happen to test scores; the answer is nothing would happen. Affluent schools aren't any better at teaching the poor than poor schools. Whichis not to saythat there is not much room for improvemnet in most schools, rich or poor. There is.

Neal concludes:

NCLB is but the latest of endless schemes to improve the public schools in the mistaken belief that if only teachers, principals and administrators would do a better job the product, our children, would improve.

The figures on test scores and poverty should give us clear direction on how to “improve the schools.” It’s simple. Take the kids out of poverty.

Oddly enough, there's no data that supports Neal's assertion that we can improve education outcomes by "[taking] the kids out of poverty." Except wishful thinking. In contrast, there is data that supports the notion that education outcomes can be improved if "only teachers, principals and administrators would do a better job." See Project Follow Through.

This might be the worst editorial I've seen this year.

September 17, 2007

No Washing Machine Left Behind

According to Consumer Reports, washing machines aren't getting clothes clean anymore.

Not so long ago you could count on most washers to get your clothes very clean. Not anymore. Our latest tests found huge performance differences among machines. Some left our stain-soaked swatches nearly as dirty as they were before washing. For best results, you’ll have to spend $900 or more.

What happened? As of January, the U.S. Department of Energy has required washers to use 21 percent less energy, a goal we wholeheartedly support. But our tests have found that traditional top-loaders, those with the familiar center-post agitators, are having a tough time wringing out those savings without sacrificing cleaning ability, the main reason you buy a washer.

With one piece of legislation the Feds have turned the once successful washing machine industry into a struggling one. With these new low-energy requirements, washing machine manufacturers are no longer able to produce products capable of performing their primary duty--getting clothes clean.

Let's call this new law NWMLB because I see some parallels to education.

NWMLB is a true unfunded mandate which requires washing machine companies to do something they've never done before--build low energy washing machines that work.

A high stakes accountability system is in place. Consumer organizations, like the Consumer's Union, test the washing machines to determine whether they pass proficiency benchmarks and issue accountability reports which employ a grading scheme that shows which company's products are making the grade and which ones are not.

Consumers will use these accountability reports to decide which washing machine they want to purchase. In a sense, all consumers have a "voucher" they can use to direct their purchasing dollars.

A company that is unable to produce a low energy washing machine that gets clothes clean will lose customers and will eventually go out of business unless it can turn around its failing ways.

Then there is the socio-economic problem. The companies are doing a pretty good job with their high-end washers. These expensive washers are getting clothes clean under the new energy regime; however, the low-end washers are still struggling to get clothes clean. The challenge is to get all washing machines, both rich and poor, to wash at a proficient level.

There's also a racial/ethnic component. The side-loader models are doing a much better job getting clothes clean with less energy usage. However, the top-loader models continue to struggle. Some think it's an inherent design flaw with historical roots.

There is, however, one big difference. You can be sure that in a few years, at least some washing machine companies will figure out how to produce a low-cost, low-energy washing machine that gets clothes clean.

September 14, 2007

Miller is a Whiny Bitch

As NCLB reauthorization looks less and less likely, George Miller has taken to crying in his beer over at Edweek.

The Bush administration appears to be taking the position that the current law is better than the confused mess that Miller is proposing and Miller doesn't like that.

Miller's Edweek piece bemoans the fact that there exists some current loopholes in the current version of NCLB that need to be closed. His current proposal aims to close those loopholes. That's a good thing with which few would disagree. But, Miller fails to mention that his proposal opens up a slew of new loopholes that suburban school districts will use to drive a truck through, making a mockery out of NCLB's accountability scheme, albeit a flawed scheme. It's these new loopholes that are putting the kibosh on Miller's dream of reauthorization.

By the end of the piece, it gets so bad that Miller actually shoots himself in the foot while trying to spin his crappy proposal:

What we need is a smarter system of accountability. For example, our discussion draft would allow states to assess school performance on more than just reading and math tests. All over the country, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders believe we should be measuring schools more fairly and comprehensively. I agree with them. If we keep a strong focus on student progress in reading and math, but also allow additional indicators to play a role, we can have a richer, better understanding of what’s really happening inside our schools.

In the first sentence Miller answers his own question why his proposal isn't likely to be adopted. It's not smart. It's dumb and kowtows to special interests.

Then he gives us one good example of why his proposal isn't a "smarter system of accountability." Under Miller's proposal, schools can use "additional indicators" in addition to math and reading scores. The catch is that these indicators can only help a school, not count against it. It won't take long for schools to devise some subjective "indicator" that allows them to skirt accountability. Some might call this a loophole. A large loophole.

Miller is taking away loopholes with one hand, and giving us a slew of new ones with the other. The net result is less accountability. And, that's why even the lefty editors of many big Newspapers have turned against him.

Update: Super-blogger Alexander Russo is jealous that he sold his independence for a paycheck and is now under Edweek's corporate jackboot.

Update II: Sherman Dorn piles on. I point out in the comments that Sherman has a glass house problem. Actually, he has two of them.

Update III: Fat cat labor-monopolist, Leo Casey, engages in a little substance-free name calling over at Edwize will trying to dismiss my argument. Nice try, Leo.

September 12, 2007

Kozol's latest (partial) stunt

Jonathan Kozol has a post at the Huffington Post that is pure comedy gold. The title says it all.

Why I am Fasting: An Explanation to My Friends

Kozol is fasting to protest NCLB. Except that it isn't a fast; it's a partial fast, whatever the hell that is.

This morning, I am entering the 67th day of a partial fast that I began early in the summer as my personal act of protest at the vicious damage being done to inner-city children by the federal education law No Child Left Behind, a racially punitive piece of legislation that Congress will either renew, abolish, or, as thousands of teachers pray, radically revise in the weeks immediately ahead.
The one good thing about NCLB and all those nasty tests that the perpetually pre-prandial Kozol hates is that we now have lots of school and district level disaggregated data on student achievement. And, the data does not support Kozol's crackpot ruminations.

NCLB hasn't done damage, vicious or otherwise, to schools. NAEP data shows that NCLB hasn't had much of an effect at all, good or bad, on student achievement at the macro level. Kozol can decry "teaching to the test" and "narrowing the curriculum" all he wants, but that doesn't change the fact that these questionable practices don't seem to be having any more of an adverse effect on student achievement than the equally questionable teaching practices that preceded them. The only difference being that Kozol likes the latter and hates the former.

The poisonous essence of this law lies in the mania of obsessive testing it has forced upon our nation's schools and, in the case of underfunded, overcrowded inner-city schools, the miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic "teaching to the test" it has imposed on teachers, the best of whom are fleeing from these schools because they know that this debased curriculum would ever have been tolerated in the good suburban schools that they, themselves, attended.

Where to start?

In Kozol-speak, one extra test a year means "mania of obsessive testing."

Some schools may have responded to NCLB by "teaching to the test," but the choice was theirs. I can't lay my finger on a single provision of NCLB which forces such a regime on any state, district, or school. But, then again, bad-decision making has been a hallmark of public schools since well before NCLB was enacted. In fact, many would say that this bad decision making was the "root cause," if you will, of the accountability provisions of NCLB.

"Drill and kill" is education's "sick and tired." Two words that must always go together to create a handy false dilemma. Let me suggest that if your drilling is resulting in killing, you don't know how to drill or teach properly. Same goes for "robotic" teaching. If an actor can perform from a script in a lively and engaging manner, then so should a teacher be able to perform from a similar script.

And, as far as suburban schools tolerating a particular "debased curriculum," all I know is that based on the data, at-risk kids are fairing just as poorly in suburban schools as they are in "underfunded, overcrowded inner-city schools." The debasing is in the eye of the beholder and I think Kozol's eye has been addled by his partial food strike.

It goes on and on like this. This post could set a record for most factually-challenged education post. Ever.

P.S. Be sure not to miss the obsequious edu-blogger, Jim Horn, sucking up at the foot of the hungry master in the comments. "Thank you for your eloquent commitment to what's right for so many years ... A trusted lieutenant, should you need one. Jim Horn" What a jackass.

Napa meet Radnor

Joanne Jacobs has a good post on the distinguished Napa High School's dirty little secret: a giant achievement gap between white and Hispanic students:

Although it’s rated by California as a “distinguished school,” Napa High School is in its second year of program improvement because it missed No Child Left Behind targets for bringing English Learners to grade level. The target was 22.3 percent; the category includes students who’ve been reclassified as fluent in English but haven’t tested as proficient for three years in a row.

Joanne then proceeds to use the data from School Matters to show just how large the achievement gap really is:

Despite its distinguished rating, Napa High has a large gap between white and Hispanic students (nearly all students are one or the other) and an even larger gap between poor and non-poor students.

I did pretty much the same thing when I wrote about the distinguished Radnor Middle School a few posts back which also sports a frightful achievement gap.

These schools are the rule, not the exception. Tony suburban schools are just as clueless about educating poor and minority kids as their decrepit, underfunded inner-city counterparts.

Bill Richardson wants to be your new education president

Presidential aspirant and current Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, thinks he knows a thing or three about education. In this USA Today editorial, he seems to have all the answers.

I have a one-point plan for No Child Left Behind: Scrap it.

NCLB has failed. It has failed our schools, it has failed our teachers and it has failed our children.
It's only been about five years since NCLB has been enacted, yet Richardson has seen all he needs to in order to determine that NCLB has failed. Fair enough. But let's use that same standard to judge Richardson's tenure as governor to see how well he's run New Mexico's schools.

According to NAEP data, New Mexico is not what most people would call a stellar academic performer.

In 2002 when Richardson became Governor, NM's reading scores were in the doldrums. A hearty 21% of 4th graders and 20% of 8th graders scored proficient or above. After 3 years of Richardson's fine stewardship, reading scores skyrocketed to 20% of 4th graders and 19% of 8th graders scoring proficient or above. Now that's the kind of educational leadership we need.

Of course, those tests are given in English and New Mexico has a lot of Hispanic immigrants who don't don't know English. Why don't we look at a subject in which language shouldn't be as large a factor? How about math? In 2003, a whopping 17% of 4th graders and 15% of 8th graders scored proficient in math. By 2005, 19% of 4th graders and 14% of 8th graders scored proficient.

New Mexico's state motto is "Crescit eundo" ("It Grows as It Goes"). Based on those math scores they might want to consider changing it to "Better Count Your Change Twice."

Last I checked, New Mexico ran its own schools, in its own way, using its own money (with a little help from the Feds). Richardson, as governor runs the state and its education system, so he's responsible for New Mexico's academic performance which is miserable. So using Richardson's own standard for NCLB, I think its safe to say that Richardson "has failed New Mexico's schools, has failed New Mexico's teachers and has failed New Mexico's children."

Richardson has especially failed New Mexico's Hispanic children. There is a a 19 point and a 29 point achievement gap in reading and math respectively between Hispanic and white students in New Mexico by the 8th grade.

The Bush administration claims victories, but upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the White House is simply dressing up ugly data with fancy political spin. Far from leaving no child behind, President Bush seems to have left reality behind.

Apparently, he's not the only executive who's left reality behind.

Review the figures, and you will see that our schools are not failing NCLB; the program is failing our schools. In some grades, reading and math scores have actually declined for Hispanics, African-Americans and others.

Like in New Mexico.

With the overheated rhetoric out of the way, Richardson gets down to his plan for improving education.

The key to this improvement is respecting teachers. I signed a law in New Mexico that pays teachers a professional salary. As president, I will fight for national average starting pay for teachers of at least $40,000 a year.

And, quite the improvement we've seen as a result of that law. This is merely a variant of throw more money at the problem. We've been doing that for a long time now with little success to show for it.

Teacher salaries are just the beginning. Quality pre-K programs allow children to show up in first grade ready to learn. These programs must be available to all children.

One only needs to look at the dismal track record of Headstart to see that such pre-K programs tend not to provide any kind of significant academic headstart. And, to the extent that any gains are made, those gains will wash out quickly once the child enters the dismal public school system, like that found in New Mexico.

Finally, we need strong academic standards aligned with the needs of today's workforce. America's schools were designed for the 20th century economy — this is no longer sufficient. Our children need to graduate ready to engage with the New Economy, not the old one.

Ironically, Richardson was supposed to institute these "strong academic standards" in accordance with NCLB. Here's what the Fordham Foundation said about New Mexico's Reading standards:

While New Mexico's English standards may have some fine features, those of less polished pedigree are in far greater supply. Put simply, a good deal of these documents are unintelligible and not measurable. For example, in first grade students are expected to "describe events related to other nations and/or cultures," and in eleventh grade to "analyze the clarity and consistency of literary works or essays on a topic." These are empty words and they don't really make much sense. The topics of New Mexico's content sections are similarly inscrutable. Coherent subcategories are eschewed for vague, overarching topics that could, in fact, include almost anything: "writing and speaking," or "literature and media." In truth, they do address almost anything. The first category covers both literary and non-literary reading in many of its performance standards, and those standards are further divided into subcategories not clearly defined. The benchmarks are superfluous and literary study is given an unacceptably light survey. Were it not for New Mexico's English standards' fine set of guiding principles and good primary grade components, an F would be warranted.

Way to go Bill with your fancy "unintelligible and not measurable" 21st century standards.

True education reform requires more than a set of unfunded mandates and a list of failing schools. It requires a vision for success, the state and federal funding to match, and the experience to bring real reform to America's failing schools.

Vision and Experience that Bill Richardson seems not to possess. But, I'm sure he'll have no way problem reaching into your pocket to fund his crackpot education schemes.

September 7, 2007

Occam's Razor

You need three graphs to explain how education works in the U.S.

The first graph tells us about the students.

The data comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth.

This is our raw material. By far the most important variable affecting the inputs of education is IQ. Simply put, it's far easier to educate a smart kid than it is to educate a dim kid. The sad reality for the low IQ kids is that IQ is a brutal predictor of academic success.

In the U.S. the mean IQ is about 100. We know how to educate the kids with IQs above about 100, at least at the K-12 level. The kids on the left half, not so much.

There are thousands of schools in the U.S., each teaching a little differently. However, the results are almost always the same: the kids on the right succeed and the kids on the left fail. This is because most of the differences aren't instructionally significant. (I'm ignoring for the purposes of this discussion the handful of specialized programs that are capable of improving the educational outcomes of elementary school students because there is little hard data for the upper grades.)

IQ isn't the entire story when it comes to academic outcomes, but it is a major factor. There are lots of other environmental factors that affect academic performance. These factors have a distribution like IQ. So to give an extreme case, the kid with the 95 IQ with the good work ethic and parental support may perform better than the kid with the 105 IQ with behavioral problems and dyslexia.

Now that we know about our student inputs, we have to recognize that kids are not evenly distributed in society. Kids live with their parents, usually in a house that their parents pay for. Typically, parents buy or rent in the best neighborhood they can afford which is largely determined by their socio-economic status.

Graph 2 shows us how children's mean IQ is distributed according to parental SES. The parents with the high SES tend to have the children with the highest mean IQ, while the parents with the lowest SES tend to have children with the lowest mean IQ.

This is why schools located in affluent suburbs perform better than schools in poor areas and perform much better than schools located in the inner city. If an affluent suburban school is pulling most of its students from an area where the parental SES falls within the 7th to 10th decile, you can see how the white kids will have mean IQs in the 110-115 range. Even the black kids in that school district will have higher IQs than the average black kid, though these kids will tend to have lower IQs than the average white student. (This explains the disparity in scores that I highlighted for Radnor Middle School in my last post.)

You should also be able to see why a poor rural school comprised mostly of white kids will tend to have students with a below-average mean IQ. And, this also explains why poor inner city schools comprised mostly of black and Hispanic students is going to be full of students with extremely low mean IQs. At best, these schools will only have about 20% of its students with IQs over 100. And remember what I wrote about us not knowing how to educate kids below IQs of 100.

This is why NCLB cares about the subgroup data for blacks, Hispanics and poor students in affluent suburban schools.

Which brings us to the third and final graph. The third graph is a scatter plot of the academic performance of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts as a function of Parental SES.

As you can see, the results are exactly what you'd predict from the first two graphs. The schools from high parental SES areas with kids having a higher mean IQ tend to perform better, while the schools from low parental SES areas with kids having a lower mean IQ tend to perform worse. (I'm not going to post the graph that plots academic performance vs. instructional spending which shows a very low correlation.)

The schools falling below the regression line are under-performing. The schools falling above the regression line are over-performing. I've highlighted (white arrows) two clusters of schools. The first group of slightly over-performing schools is located at about the $27k point. The second group of slightly under-performing schools is located at about the $67k point. Notice how the academic performance of the over-performing cluster is below the performance of the under-performing cluster. Under NCLB, the under-performing schools would likely to be labeled as success stories, while the over-performing schools would likely be labeled as failures.

I don't mean to imply that schools shouldn't be doing a better job or that there isn't lots of room for improvement. They should be and there is. The point of this post is to highlight the reality that most schools in poor areas aren't doing all that poorly and the affluent suburban schools aren't doing all that well once you consider the hand they've been dealt.

We need to start approaching education with Occam's razor instead of Occam's butterknife if we expect to fix NCLB.

September 6, 2007

Take a look at what $48 Million buys you

Do not miss this Philly Inquirer article on Radnor Township's fancy new middle school. And don't miss the pictures and video either. They're priceless.

To give you a little perspective, Radnor is often the best performing school district in Pennsylvania. Located on Philadelphia's main line, Radnor is one of the wealthiest school district's in the commonwealth. Radnor's location is especially fortunate since there aren't any poor or depressed areas that might be able to sneak in some students.

(Disclosure: I know Radnor. It's in my county, a few miles up the road. Its demographics are similar to the demographics of the town where I live.)

Let's take a look at their demographics.

96.4% of adults have a high school diploma
68.5% of adults have a bachelor's degree
27.9% of households have an income of over $150,000
43.9% of households have an income of over $100,000
54.1% of households have an income of over $75,000

19.%% of households have income less than $30,000, but bear in mind that Radnor is the home of a few colleges, including Villanova, with off-campus graduate students. And capital gains aren't necessarily income.

Clearly Radnor is one of the most affluent areas of the country, and, as such, is ripe for the soaking by a well entrenched monopoly--the Radnor School district. And, soak them they do to the tune of $16,277 per pupil back in 2004. You can bet that's gone up by at least 10% since then. Don't weep for Radnor; they can afford all the latest education fads.

As happy as they are about the building's "green" features, district administrators are even happier that after holding classes for decades in a building that opened in 1923, the district's 850 middle school students and their teachers now have a school designed to match current teaching methods and philosophy.

Studies show that students do better when they are part of a smaller learning community within a school. As a result, three of the four floors in the new school's academic wing hold one grade apiece. The grades are subdivided into areas called "pods" - two on each floor, each with five classrooms. Most students in each grade are assigned to teams of between 100 and 110. They attend all core academic classes in their pod, and there is space enough for the whole team to meet together in a large carpeted common area carved out of the hallway. The teachers in each pod work with the same team of students and share planning time each day.

Dot Conaboy, a sixth-grade language-arts and social-studies teacher, said as she set up her classroom last week that "having the pod [common] area right here is going to be a big plus for projects where we need to spread out a little bit more. And we can now join two or more classes together when we want to - that will be really nice."

Each team has laptop computers stored in the common area; each classroom has wireless Internet, cable TV for educational channels, overhead liquid crystal display projectors, and screens.

Each grade also has a double-sized classroom especially designed for a group of 30 to 40 students and two teachers whose academic life is arranged around a theme that the children study, rather than separate language-arts, math, science and social-studies classes. There are no letter grades and few tests; participants are assessed mostly by their work on long-term projects. Students volunteer and are picked by lottery.

Said Tom Rendulich, a sixth-grade teacher: "We couldn't ask for anything better - we have everything we need and more. . . . It's perfect."

"Perfect," he says. Those words will come back to haunt him in five years or so when Radnor middle school finally gets bitten by NCLB's AYP requirements.

Radnor middle school has a dirty little secret. Despite all it's money, it doesn't know how to educate its pupils any better than some failing inner city school. You can tell by the pseudoscience it quoted to the Inquirer. You can also tell by its current academic performance.

The end product of a Radnor Middle School education, i.e., an eighth grade student, performs as well as you'd expect. At least the white and Asian ones do. White students performed at the 94.1 percentile in Reading, 89.3 in Math. This is how you expect the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, and the upper middle class to perform academically.

Fortunately for us and thanks to NCLB, we now know that some of these wealthy plutocrats are black. They have to live somewhere to, right? And I can tell you they aren't living in the badlands of north Philly. Like everyone else who earns a high income they move out to the affluent suburbs. They move to Radnor and they send their kids to Radnor middle school. And, contrary to the wisdom of Jonathan Kozol, their kids scored at the 66.7 percentile in Reading and 55.3 percentile in Math, below the scores of the average white student in Pennsylvania (77.8% and 69.6% respectively).

And, don't think that the few poor kids (and by poor I mean less rich because truly poor people can't afford to live in Radnor) performed any better. Poor kids scored at the 54.6 and 36.4 percentiles in Reading and Math, respectively, which is about as well as they performed in the average school in Pennsylvania. By the way, the average school in Pennsylvania spends 23% less than Radnor, money that is apparently not being well spent on academics at least. I'm pretty sure that if Radnor thought it needed to spend more money on academics, it'd be spending its money there instead of spending it acquiring the cutting edge of urinal technology (you did watch the movie like I suggested didn't you).

Radnor has it all. The best school building. The best teachers, or at least the best paid teachers. The best students. And, the best urinals. And, yet it struggles to educate the black children of the upper middle class and the children of the lower middle class, regardless of race.

Radnor is the rule, not the exception. I could have focused on almost any other affluent school district and gotten the same results. The more money we let schools soak us for education, the more schools we're going to see like Radnor Middle School. Bright and shiny on the outside; rotten on the inside. The problem is instructional, not financial.

Can someone explain to me why we'd want to let affluent suburban schools off the accountability hook in NCLB 2.0?

September 4, 2007

A Tale of Two Reading Programs III

(Continued from Part II)

Before moving forward, I want to back up a bit because I glossed over a few aspects of Guided Reading that need to be clarified.

I've been confusingly calling Guided Reading a program; however, one of the commenters has pointed out that it's really an instructional strategy, which is correct. So, to clarify: when I write Guided Reading program I mean my school's implementation of the Guided Reading methodology, specifically the Fountas/Pinnell Guided Reading methodology with a couple of twists which I'll describe in more detail in this post.

In my last post I didn't go into enough detail of the teacher guided portion of the instruction. And, since I just mentioned that my school is using the Fountas/Pinnell version of Guided Reading, you can probably guess where this going if you are a teacher/tutor.

To effect the teacher guided portion of instruction, the class is broken up into small, roughly-homogeneous groups. Each group gets their turn with the teacher and the students read from a teacher-selected book during this time in order to teach a particular reading strategy or the like. One strategy that I noticed was being taught to my son's group was to "guess" at words, mainly by using the accompanying pictures. I discouraged this kind of unproductive behavior and even gave the boy a pat on the head when the lowest mark on his mid-year report card was for "using context and other clues." Nonetheless, it was an ongoing battle getting him not to guess at words he was having difficulty decoding. The incidence of guessing was more than when he was reading the Reading Mastery stories since they are designed to be virtually 100% decodable based on the student's current knowledge of the code. Moreover, the leveled books he brought home sometimes contained many words he had not yet been taught to decode and presented a challenge, especially when the pages were festooned with highly predictable illustrations.

I eventually won the battle of wills by continually pointing him back to the letters of word as the only place from which he should glean information. About the only problem I still have with him is that sometimes he will read the first half of a difficult word and guess at the remainder of the word without carefully reading it. I suspect that this is a common problem.

The reading groups are supposed to be flexible with the he students are periodically tested and regrouped based on the progress they've made. This is how ability grouping is supposed to be done,so I can't fault Guided Reading on this count.

In addition to the leveled readers, my son's school did word rings. This entailed having the students read from a leveled word list of what I'm assuming consist of high frequency words. When the student came to a word he couldn't read without hesitation, the word was added to his ring of words. Afterwards, the student would practice reading all the words on his ring (up to ten) for the next ten days, presumably until recognition was immediate. At that point, a pair of words was retired from the ring and a pair of new words was added. I did notice that some of the words were present in the books he was reading, but I do not think the word-ring word lists were aligned with the leveled readers. (Can anyone clarify?)

About 2/3rds of my son's first grade class came into first grade reading at about level E or above. These kids came into first grade with a decent to strong understanding how to read. These kids mostly made steady progress throughout the year and most, if not all of them ended first grade at Level I or above, indicating a second grade reading level. Reading instruction for these kids consisted of lots of sustained silent reading of self-selected leveled books, massed practice of reading from word lists for decoding purposes, and small group teacher-led lessons from teacher-selected books for teaching reading strategies.

For the lower third of the class, mostly boys, reading instruction took on a different face. These kids got individual instruction from reading specialists. When you don't have many kids falling into this category and you are a wealthy suburban school district you can afford to teach like this. These were the kids coming into first grade not yet knowing how to decode. And while I don't know exactly what these kids were being taught by the reading specialists, I can tell you that the books they read from (levels A-E) were about as inauthentic as you get. The books were as contrived as any phonics reader (i.e., Nan can fan a fat cat) I've ever seen. Instead of being controlled for decodability; however, they were controlled for predictability using repetitive language and ample picture clues. So, even if these kids were getting phonics instruction, they would then be forced to read highly phonetically undecodable books. Sends a bit of a mixed message.

But I want to keep the focus on the upper 2/3rds of the class. The part of the class which did know how to decode from day one of first grade or who picked it up soon thereafter. All that these kids needed, for the most part, was lots of practice reading, with a little instruction thrown in to get past sticking points, such as learning some advanced letter combination sounds (oi, ow, oa, etc.) and using context to determine the correct word (i.e., the girls read the sign yesterday). Lots of practice with increasingly difficult text to improve improve fluency until the point of automaticity is reached so that the student can concentrate on comprehension and so that reading becomes less of a chore.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the kids who come into first grade with a leg up on literacy can learn how to read in an efficient manner using Guided Reading using self selected books from the canon of children's literature. Guided Reading is an appropriate form of instruction for these kids because these kids either have the cognitive ability to learn decoding from this form of instruction or they learned it from some other means before first grade.

I've tried to paint the prettiest picture I could for Guided Reading, but if anyone is more familiar with the Guided Reading propaganda, please feel free to add to the list.

In the next post we will finally be able to analyze Guided Reading on its merits as compared to another successful reading program. I will also discuss Guided Reading's trade-offs. All programs have trade-offs, including Guided Reading. And, I don't mean the ultimate trade-off of when a 1/3 of the class isn't learning without the use of reading specialists. I'm talking about the less than obvious trade-offs for the upper 2/3rds of the class--the ones who will emerge as successful readers by the end of third grade.

(Continue to part IV)