June 17, 2008

The Middle School Teacher Fallacy

One of the problems with the classroom observations of middle and high school teachers is that they are observing instructionally damaged students and often the teachers don't seem to realize this.

Take for example this post by Corey Bunje Bower over at his Thoughts on Education Policy blog in which Corey explains why he supports the Broader Bolder Approach.

Here's the reality of the situation: schools can help, but they can't change everything. I taught for two years in an atrociously run middle school in the Bronx. Every day was filled with much chaos and little learning. And here's what I learned during my two years: the biggest reason for the failure of the school was what was happening at home. Now, that's not to say that we couldn't have done better. I could name a couple incompetent and mean-spirited administrators that should've been replaced. Us teachers certainly could have done better. The school could've been better organized. Any number of things would have helped the situation.


I don't think the conclusions Corey draws from his observations of middle school students are valid.

I don't see how Corey is able to separate the the out-of-school effects from the in-school effects and conclude that the out-of-school effects are the primary cause for the chaotic and disruptive behavior of his middle school students.

One thing we do know is that, for whatever reason, the instruction failed at Corey's school for many students. Corey concedes that the instruction was a problem. Because, the instruction failed these students experienced at least six years of academic failure before they even reached Corey's classroom. Academic failure is a leading cause of disruptive behavior.

The question remains: why did the instruction fail? There are two primary causes:

1. There was mostly something wrong with the school and its instructional delivery mechanism (curriculum and teachers), or

2. There was mostly something wrong with the students and their home life.

Corey, after taking some blame for the poor school environment, cites reason 2 as the primary cause for the educational failure he observed. Here are the reasons he gives:

But that doesn't hide the fact that most of the problems existed before students ever set foot in the building. I had some horribly disruptive students my second year. The only thing that seemed to help one's behavior was calling home. But when I did that he would come back with large welts across his arms. When I would call the home of another one, his mother would tell me that she didn't know what to do. Kids would stroll into the building late with an empty stomach and an angry demeanor. When an argument erupted, it was quite difficult to defuse because kids would tell me that they were under instructions from their parents not to "stay hit." Kids would come in and fall asleep b/c they had been kept up till the wee hours of the morning by any number of activities. A couple kids disappeared for a month to go visit family in the Dominican Republic. And on, and on, and on.


It appears that Corey is blaming the students' bad behavior as the primary culprit. But, it sounds to me that Corey lacked the classroom management skills needed to establish a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning. I don't mean to blame Corey because he most likely did not receive any practical training in how to manage the classroom full of unruly academic failures that he inherited.

Contrast Corey's observations with Engelmann's observations:

Our observations of many failed schools would ... disclose that most teachers either completely fail to manage children or rule through intimidation (yelling at children, issuing demeaning comments, but rarely praising children). The instruction that we see is technically unsound according to all the evidence on how to communicate effectively, how to achieve mastery, and how to reinforce and manage children effectively.

...

Teachers lecture for long periods of time. What “tasks” the teacher presents occur at a very low rate. There are no systematic correction procedures, no attempts to repeat parts that are difficult for the children, and no serious concern with whether children master the material. The pacing of the presentation is laborious. The material the teacher uses is far too difficult for the skill level of the children. Most of the students’ time is often spent on pointless “worksheet” activities. The students don’t like reading, math, or any other academic activity.


What Corey sees as a student problem, Engelmann sees as an instructional problem.

Many of the justifications I see for Broader Bolder actually have instructional roots, like the one Corey gives. The problems Corey sees may start at home, but there is no reason to believe that they cannot be solved and compensated for by schools.

23 comments:

Mr. McNamar said...

KD--It's been a while since you've ruffled my feathers, but I really want you to come spend some time educating teachers on how to educate low performing students. Please come spend a year teaching at some of these schools, my current one would be a great experience for you.
And you are right, I have not been trained on how to handle a student wandering the hallway, and when asked to see his pass, responds with "Who the fuck are you? And what the fuck are you going to do about it?" I wonder what Direct Instruction will do for that kid?
To assume that it is always, always teacher instructional failure is limited in perspective.
THERE IS VALIDITY IN WHAT DIRECT INSTRUCTION PROMOTES.
AND, THERE IS VALIDITY IN WHAT THE CLASSROOM TEACHERS REALIZE ON A DAILY BASIS.

ms-teacher said...

I have to disagree with you, in part, on this post. As you know, last year I taught REACH, a DI program designed by Engelman. As you also know, I went to two trainings (one a week-long in Eugene, OR, the mecca of DI).

I extensively used the techniques that I was taught during the DI training when I taught the REACH program last and continued to use them this past year. Two of the most valuable things I learned in my DI training was the extensive use of positive praise and to have more student involvement through shortening my instructional time.

With all that being said, this past year, I had one student who continued to perplex me. On a daily basis, he would literally fall asleep at his desk. Trying to get him to do any work was impossible.

One day I sat down and talked to him about my concerns because I was clearly exasperated. He confessed me at that time that he often stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning watching t.v. or playing video games. In a conference with his grandmother (his primary caregiver) she admitted to me that this was true. When I asked both of them if he had a t.v. in his room, they said that he did. My suggestion was to remove the television. Grandma's only response was to say that it sounded like a good idea.

They never removed the television from the room and the student has basically failed 6th grade. I don't think that I failed him because I did everything I knew how to do in my power, even to the extent of trying to help him at lunch and sending work home.

This year was probably one of my best years ever as far as teaching goes and much of that I do attribute to the valuable information that I learned at my DI training. That being said, at point do parent/guardians also take some responsibility? Afterall, I have students for a total of 2 hours each day, whereas, they have them for a much longer period.

Parentalcation said...

Ironically, the Air Force figured this out years ago.

In my professional development courses, we are specifically taught management/leadership strategies that concentrate on positive feedback vs negative feedback.

I currently supervise 26 personnel, and I go out of my way to seek opportunities to praise them. I demand high standards, and then when they meet them, I praise them for their specific actions. I have discovered that the secret is to start out with tasks/standards that are challenging but relatively easily attainable. Then I assign more challenging tasks, always making sure to acknowledge excellence. I wonder if teachers wouldn't benefit from some management/leadership classes.

Tracy said...

Mr McNamar, wouldn't it make more sense to get someone who has successfully educated low-performing students to teach you? For example, Zig Engelmann? I think that would be a far better use of your time.

To assume that it is always, always teacher instructional failure is limited in perspective.

On the other hand, at least this attitude is likely to lead to far better teaching, as schools seek to improve their teaching techniques as much as possible. After all, if you start out with the assumption that you can fix a problem, aren't you more likely to fix it than if you start out with an assumption that you can't fix it?

(Soon to be Former) NYC Math Teacher said...

Ken,

Is a lack of consequences for chronically disruptive students at least partially to blame? I accept the fact that teachers, myself included (though I am soon to be a former teacher), could benefit from better instruction in classroom management. However, absent negative consequences (as is the case in my school), the students quickly learn that they can do (pretty much) whatever they want.

KDeRosa said...

I never wrote that all students can be reached with better instruction and classroom management techniques. In fact, these kids, and their numbers should be low, should be removeed from the classroom and given individual attention until their behavior improves. Permitting them to roam the halls or do nothing in class should not be an option.

Mr. Mcnamar, you don't want me, you want Ms. teacher to show you how its done.

KDeRosa said...

Is a lack of consequences for chronically disruptive students at least partially to blame

That's operant psych 101.

And I'm thinking the school is the primary culprit for the lack of consequences.

Why are you leaving the business?

Soon to be Former NYC Math Teacher said...

I'm leaving to work at my wife's growing speech therapy practice (in an adminsitrative capacity), not because of any frustration with teaching, though this has been a frustrating year. My classroom management had been getting incrementally better, but I would have tried something more intricate next year (including more positive reinforcement).

I hope to develop a math tutoring business, too.

I'll keep reading...

KDeRosa said...

I'll keep reading...

That's the important part.

Good luck.

Classroom management has to be accomplshed school wide to be effective.

Stephen said...

Wow... what an amazing display of completely baseless claims about what does, and does not, cause to students to misbehave in school.

Corey's comments are actually supported by evidence that he learned first hand in the classroom, e.g. children came to school hungry, children came to school beaten, children came to school with instructions to fight, while you merely state "Academic failure is a leading cause of disruptive behavior," and then provide no evidence whatsoever to support this claim other than some author's comments on the subject?!

Are you serious?! What would a patent attorney from the Swarthmore know about what does, or does not, lead to disruptive students in schools? As a JD whose actually taught in a middle school setting, I would urge you to be less cavalier in the future about issues that you clearly know nothing about.

And while I don't agree with all of Corey's points, his are at least logical and well reasoned, as opposed to yours, which simply seem to be fueled by shoddy research and academic conjecture.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Thanks for reading. You make some good points. But I stand by my assertion. For all the problems of governance, it was the home life of students that held us back more than anything. That's not an excuse (if anything, it's a reason to work harder), it's reality -- at least as I perceived it.

I've posted an exceedingly long response at:
http://www.edpolicythoughts.com/2008/06/home-vs-school-influence.html

Tracy said...

Stephen Downes, may I recommend you read some of the writeups of people who have turned around low-income, disastrous schools?

See for example: http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2007/03/counter-example.html or http://www.nsdc.org/library/publications/results/res10-98sparks.cfm
http://www.arthurhu.com/INDEX/success.htm#barclay

If academic failure was inevitable, and schools could not do anything in the face of "children came to school hungry, children came to school beaten, children came to school with instructions to fight", then we would not see any schools with those drastic changes in performance.

What would a patent attorney from the Swarthmore know about what does, or does not, lead to disruptive students in schools? As a JD whose actually taught in a middle school setting, I would urge you to be less cavalier in the future about issues that you clearly know nothing about.
As a JD whose actually taught in a middle school setting, I would urge you to be less cavalier in the future about issues that you clearly know nothing about.


I understand that KDeRosa is drawing from statements by people who have successfully taught students from disruptive homelifes.
A question for you, Stephen, why do you think that some schools do so much better with low-income students than others? Why do you think some schools change their outcomes drastically over time? Or are all these examples of high-performing schools with low-income students wrong in some way?

KDeRosa said...

you merely state "Academic failure is a leading cause of disruptive behavior," and then provide no evidence whatsoever to support this claim other than some author's comments on the subject?!

That author has sucessfully taught the same kinds of kids as Corey -- with the same problems. That authors instructional programs have been validated by rigorous large scale longitudinal experimentation.

I'd suggest going through the blog's archives and learn a little on the subject so you can make informed comments in the future.

What would a patent attorney from the Swarthmore know about what does, or does not, lead to disruptive students in schools?

I know nothing, but what I've gleaned from the evidence of experts in the field.

As a JD whose actually taught in a middle school setting

But one that appears not to know how to avoid logical fallacies in his arguments and how to repsent and evaluate evidence.

KDeRosa said...

Tracy, I'm fairly certain that this Stephen is not Stephen Downes. Even Downes knows beter than to make arguments like this.

rightwingprof said...

It's an indictment of the quality of their own education that anyone can graduate with a graduate degree and make such claims as poverty, or hunger, or whatever unrelated variable is the cause of educational failure, and without any kind of evidence, much less research. Not, mind, that it isn't feasible that these factors may be at least partly responsible, but without hard data, you can't make the claim. And the fact that many people face the same problems, yet excel academically, does not lend weight to the argument.

And isn't this Downes guy the bozo who went on and on about my "empiricist paradigm"? Or was that some other educrat?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Ken, I thought we were having a productive discussion. Why not disagree with Stephen without simultaneously belittling him?

RWP, same goes for you. My claims are backed by two years of in-depth qualitative research -- a.k.a. actually working in the school. If you'd like, I could provide reams of research that find a link between poverty, hunger, etc. and academic achievement. I'd ask that anybody who argues that home life doesn't influence academic achievement also provide us with the evidence that says this.

KDeRosa said...

Corey, we are having a productive discussion. You deserve and have earned a civil response and that's what I'm giving.

Stephen's comment was not civil nor productive and was laced with ad hominems. If anything, he deserved an even harsher response than I gave him, which I thought was tame. And, mind you, I did respond substantively to what little substance he offered.

kerri said...

Although I have no intention of wasting much of my time on what a patent attorney from a wealthy suburb thinks is wrong with my high-needs urban students, I would like to point out that you have still failed to offer any evidence, yours or anyone else's, that explains how instructional failure makes kids hungry. Forgive me if I'm not able to make that "logical" connection myself, but you need to spell it out.

As for what it is about some schools that makes them successful with low-income urban kids, let me count the ways. Using KIPP as one example: they expel kids who misbehave; their kids' parents were motivated enough to enroll them in a school other than the neighborhood one to begin with, which sets them apart from other kids; the schools have a ton of money.

I will admit I have not combed through your archives with any particular care, mostly because I don't really see what your qualifications here are. I don't read articles about the latest developments in patent law and then have a blog where I tell lawyers what to do about them. Please tell me why you are qualified to do this to education.

KDeRosa said...

I would like to point out that you have still failed to offer any evidence, yours or anyone else's, that explains how instructional failure makes kids hungry

That's because it doesn't. In any event, I don't remember making such a claim.

Using KIPP as one example

Yes, Kipp has selection bias effects. But there are other high performing public schools without such effects. Your explnantion for these?

Please tell me why you are qualified to do this to education.

You haven't established that you are more qualified than I am to opine on education matters. The fact that you teach "high-needs" kids is not necessarily relevant because most teachers who teach "high needs" kids do not so so successfully. Being a failure at what you do is not a qualification. In any event, the whoel qualification issue is an appeal to authority -- a logical fallcy. If you have an argument to make, make it and provide your support, your expertise, or lack thereof, is not relevant to the strength of your argument

Stephen said...

Can I offer you some cheese with that whine?

Tracy said...

Tracy, I'm fairly certain that this Stephen is not Stephen Downes.

oops, my mistake. My apologies to Stephen Downes.

rightwingprof said...

"Why not disagree with Stephen without simultaneously belittling him?"

If this is the person I'm thinking of, because there is nothing to disagree with; he provided no evidence, and when called on it, rambled on about my "empiricist paradigm," which of course means "oh, you silly thing, data don't mean anything because everything is a narrative!"

And "qualitative research" is an oxymoron -- as is "anecdotal evidence."

Mr. Murcray said...

How intriguing! What an interesting and fun post this has been to read! Thank you for all of the information.

I am a teacher who has successfully instructed high-needs urban poor on a regular basis who were hungry, abused, active in gangs, homeless, perpetually tardy, rude, brought porn to school and tried to make it look like I brought it, fought in class, threatened to kill me, tagged my classroom, etc. To think that those things will not have an effect on education is silly. To think that we can not successfully educate those children is offensive.

Teaching children is not easy. Learning how to do it well requires far more than a two-year stint. It wasn't until my fifth year that I felt like I knew what I was doing and in my tenth year, I am still looking for more ideas that work.

If you struggle with these issues, I would suggest getting in touch with classroom management techniques and ideals such as love and logic. I would also suggest making a plan. If you know they won't do homework, don't send it. If you know they only show up sometimes, create a packet of essential work to have them do when they are present. Be creative and proactive. All children can learn, and I appreciate anyone, even a lawyer, who recognizes this and calls the professional educators of the world to do their jobs effectively.