September 30, 2009

I don't know why I bother ...

Stephen Downes has another good post on knowledge and expertise.  And, by good I mean that it serves as a good springboard to demonstrate why his understanding is off.   In any event it is relevant to our ongoing discussion of the topic (and in which Stephen has shown up in the comments to serve as the foil once again).

Stephen attacks Willingham for the following statement:  "Prior knowledge is vital to comprehension because writers omit information."  The accuracy of this statement depends on whether the reader can fill in the missing "knowledge" (not facts).  Stephen pounces on an offhand example in which he is able to fill in the missing knowledge with a logical deduction.  Fair enough, but this doesn't prove the general case.

In the comments, I pose the following test to show the importance of content knowledge.

Here are four questions that are domain specific. Each is readily answerable with minimal knowledge in the specific domain and some general reasoning skills. However, let's assume you lack the required content knowledge and a means for acquiring that knowledge. Use your (superior) general reasoning skills to derive the same answer an expert would give for each.

  • The total enthalpy of any non-isolated thermodynamic system tends to decrease over time, approaching a minimum value. Why?
  • As the location of the subatomic particle becomes more precise, what would you infer about its momentum?
  • Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run. Where is Jones and the runner?
  • When John walked out onto the street, he nictitated rapidly. Where might John have just come from?

Stephen, responds with the folowing admission: "yes, you need domain knowledge to answer requests for facts within that domain. So what?"

Notice the crafty substitution of "facts" for "knowledge" -- A lovely misleading rhetorical flourish which I coincidently just noted:

Arguments for much more reasoning and less content (a necessary tradeoff, given the time constraints) in K-12 science begain decades ago. Eventually, the idea became a catch phrase. "Content" was redefined to function as a synonym for "facts" (or "mere facts") independent of reasoning. But defining content that way is nothing more than a rhetorical move. No honest study of science textbooks and lessons nationwide, not even from the benighted decades preceding the launch of sputnik, could conclude that just memorizable facts were required, with no reasoning. Facts were (and are) taught, and facts must be learned if any discipline is to be understoood and practiced. The rhetorical flourishes of those arguing for more scientific reasoning have affected some people's perceptions, but they have not changed the reality that, in general, science curricula have never been exclusively lists of facts to be memorized, devoid of the means by which those facts are discovered and gain acceptance in the scientific community.
And then the back and forth begins in the comments which I think is the important and relevant bit.

My argument is simple.  In those domains (pretty much every subject taught in school) in which a prior knowledge of content is required for understanding and using a person's general reasoning ability within that domain, shouldn't that prior knowledge be learned/acquired in school since not learning the content precludes understanding?

September 29, 2009

The only difference between scientific reasoning and other kinds of reasoning is the content

From Professor Gross' article, which I discussed in the previous post, comes another gem on the nature of scientific reasoning.  What's so special about it?  In short nothing but the content.

What differentiates scientific from, say, historical reasoning?  Other than the content being reasoned about, I can't think of anything, so, I turn to the distinguished philosopher of science and epistemologist Susan Haack to discover that the notion of species of reasoning unique to science is unfounded.  Haack writes.

Scientific inquiry is continuous with the most ordinary of everyday inquiry.  There is no mode of inference, no "scientific method," exclusive to science and guaranteed to produce true, more nearly true, or more empirically adequate results ... And, as far as [science] is a method, it is what historians or detectives or investigative journalists or the rest of us do when we really want to find something out: make an informed conjecture about the possible explanationsof a puzzling phenomenon, check how it stands upto the best evidence we can get, and then use our judgment whether to accept it, more or less tentatively, or modify, refine, or replace it.
The practices of  good science are distinguished by that "informed conjecture"--by a special dependence upon technology (e.g., instruments that broaden the human range of perception), and by especially strong and well-enforced rules having to do with scrutiny and testing of claims and reproducibility of  results.  But they are not distinguished by an array of clearly identifiable, cognitively unique forms of reasoning.

What then, is to be understood by scientific reasoning?  The answer cannot be very deep because the question isn't.  Scientific reasoning is using, within a framework of scientific content, certain general cognitive abilities that develop over time or can be encouraged in most learners.  So, there is not much that is exclusively scientific about such reasoning other than the fact that one is thinking about scientific content.  Scientific reasoning is a sibling to, if not perfectly congruent with, historical reasoning, which is the use of similar cognitive basics in the context of records and commentary on the past.  Scientific reasoning is deployed with hypotheses and observations about nature.  It has other siblings as well: social, artistic, and literary reasoning for example.

The Bao et al. study showed that the Chinese and American cohorts had about the same level of general reasoning ability.  Yet, the American students  access this ability when attempting to reasonwhithin the Physics domain because they lacked the Phsyics content knowledge.

Also, if you want to believe that the typical Chinese education is painful rote and the typical American education is overly constructivist, then you're also led to the conclusion that a rote learning is every bit as capable of developing general reasoning skills as a constructivist education (or every bit as incapable depending on whether you think the skills demonstrated were sufficient).  I, however, think it's more a matter of degree between the more traditional education that the Chinese cohort received (which isn't rote, but mostly problem-solving) and the typical education of the American cohort which is a hodge podge of content-lite traditional education with an emphasis on constructivist learning activities.

So, to the extent that the Chinese cohort received more content instruction it aided their understanding within the confines of the content domain (i.e., physics) and it did not diminish their general reasoning abilities.  In contrast, the increased instructional time devoted to constructivist activities not only failed to improve general reasoning abilities (as the theory goes), but also hinered their ability to reason within a particular domain (physics) because the content of that domain was not learned.  And, whatever benefits that supposedly come from constructivist learning failed to compensate for teh lack of content analysis that was forfeited by reducing the amount of content knowledge taught while pursuing those constructivist activities.

There are opportunity costs in education, as there are in every other human endeavor.

Learning Science and Everything Else

Last April, Science Magazine, published a study in which researchers administered  a pair of physics tests and  a test of general scientific reasoning to new freshman engineering and science majors in America and China.  Not unsurprisingly, the Chinese students performed very well on the physics tests (forces and mechanics:86% and electromagnetism: 66%) since they had received many hours of physics instruction in high school.  The American students performed not so well (forces and mechanics: 49% and electromagnetism: 27%) because only about a third of American students take physics in high school, the rest learn physics concepts from general and other science courses.  In contrast, both groups peformed identically on the test of general science reasoning (74%). From this the researchers concluded:

[This] finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability.

Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”

As I indicated in this post, this is not a fair conclusion from the study:

What? This isn't the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is that that learning facts in a domain will improve the ability to reason in that domain. This wasn't tested in the study. What was tested in the study, via the FCI and the BEMA, was the students' understanding in the domain (physics) which was significantly higher for the Chinese students compared to the American students. Not surprisingly, the American students didn't understand much physics since they didn't learn many physics facts and their "scientific methods" instruction failed to fill the void. Constructivists take heed.
Naturally, I got some pushback from the usual sources.
When your long commentary concludes that the investigators misinterpreted the results of their own study, I know something amiss - with your commentary.

Perhaps there was something wrong with my analysis.  But if there were, there's also something wrong with biologist Paul Gross' more-detailed analysis in this month's American Educator which essentially concludes the same as I did. (HT Education Next blog)

Here, then, is an alternate view of the Bao et al. results. The Chinese students know physics. The American students don't. Now both groups face a different challenge--different enough from the standard physics problems so that the Chinese students' superior conceptual and problem-solving skills in physics provide no immediate advantage. The new challenge is to think about problems of a very simple scientific character, but in forms and subject-matter domains that neither group has encountered before. As the authors explain in their online supplementary materials, the LCSTR "measures fundamental reasoning components with simple context scenarios that do not require complex content understanding. This test design can improve the measurement of the basic reasoning abilities by reducing the possible interference from understandings of content knowledge." But if so, both cohorts will handle most of the questions on the LCSTR (or any challenge like it) the same way. The will need to think through each question from scratch--to find the best answer starting from elementary principles. That kind of thinking is slower and more error-prone (Ed: see this post for why) than the thinking available to a physics-savvy Chinese student taking the FCI or BEMA.
It's a very good article and analysis (and not just because Gross agrees with me) so you should read the whole thing.

The article is also relevant to our ongoing discussion on expertise and knowledge.  Gross gets right to the heart of the current debate.

Arguments for much more reasoning and less content (a necessary tradeoff, given the time constraints) in K-12 science begain decades ago.  Eventually, the idea became a catch phrase.  "Content" was redefined to function as a synonym for "facts" (or "mere facts") independent of reasoning.  But defining content that way is nothing more than a rhetorical move. No honest study of  science textbooks and lessons nationwide, not even from the benighted decades preceding the launch of sputnik, could conclude that just memorizable facts were required, with no reasoning.  Facts were (and are) taught, and facts must be learned if any discipline is to be understoood and practiced. The rhetorical flourishes of those arguing for more scientific reasoning have affected some people's perceptions, but they have not changed the reality that, in general, science curricula have never been exclusively lists of facts to be memorized, devoid of the means by which those facts are discovered and gain acceptance in the scientific community. (emphasis added)

Proponents of inquiry/discovery learning, 21st Century skills, more scientific reasoning are basically arguing against a strawman they've created to push their "agenda."  No one is arguing for the mere memorization of facts.  Simialrly, no one is arguing for the merely learning how to reason generally independent of any facts. 

Everyone wants students to increase their ability to reason generally.

One side believes that this can be accomplished directly in an environment in which the learning of content is downplayed or minimized in favor of various learning activities centering around learning the scientific method, data collection techniques, formal logic, critical reasoning/reading, performing scientific experiments, and the like.  Since time is limited in K-12 education, so devoting time to all these activities cuts into learning content.

The other side believes that this general reasoning ability is not something that can be taught directly but is the result of learning how to reason within a wide variety of different domains which entails learning the content inherent in each domain.  Sadly, there is no shortcut to learning, no mtter how badly you'd like there to be.  And, yes, some areas of the areas of learning pointed out by the 21st century learners do need to be improved; however, they need to learned independently for each domain.  For example, if you want students to know about how to conduct an experiment, you're going to have to teach in in physical science, then again in biology, and again in chemistry, and yet again in physics.  Yes, there will be some transference between domains, but the research tells us that the transference with be minimal.  each domain has its own special considerations which are doman specific.  I tried to illustrate this point in the context of critical reading in this post.

The debate is really about where the line should be drawn between how much content should be taught and what (often ignored) skills should be emphasized given the time constraints of K-12 education such that the student will be able to best build on their acquired knowledge base as they continue their learning after K-12.

That's the debate we should be having, but sadly aren't.

September 24, 2009


In my last post on expertise and experts I indicated that an expert (one who has expertise) is broadly defined as someone who has acquired lots of knowledge in a particular domain.

So what is knowledge?

First a few preliminaries:

1.  Stephen Downes has a post addressing this issue from a different angle, so you might want to check that out to see where we agree and disagree.

2.  I addressed this same issue back in April so it will look familiar to some of you.

3. I've adapted this explanation from Martin Kozloff's Making Sense of What You Read and Hear, and Making Sense When You Teach.


Each form of knowledge represents a connection. To understand the knowledge is to understand the connection. To use the knowledge (to apply it to possible examples of it) is to apply the connection.

The forms of knowledge are:
  • verbal associations - facts and lists: (this one thing goes with that one thing);
  • concepts - sensory and higher-order: (all these things have some features in common);
  • rule relationships: (this set of things goes with that set of things); and
  • cognitive routines: (to read all of these words, or to solve all of these math problems, or to write these kinds of essays, do steps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6)
These forms of knowledge are defined by the logical structure of the knowledge itself. The logical structure is the connections inherent in the knowledge. Learning one of the forms of knowledge means learning the inherent connection.

Let's now look at each form of knowledge.  I'll provide some examples, a definition, and one way to teach the form.

1. Verbal Associations: Facts

Ex: “The U.S. Constitution was written in Philadelphia.”

For purposes of instruction a fact is a true and verifiable statement that connects one specific thing (Constitution) and another specific thing (Philadelphia).

Teach the connection.

2. Verbal Associations: Lists

Ex. 1: “The elements of sugar are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.”

Ex. 2: “Here is a list of facts about the U.S. Constitution. Written in Philadelphia between May and September, 1787; the draft was sent to the various states for ratification; the Constitution plus the Bill or Rights is a compromise between advocates of strong central government (Federalists) and advocates of strong state governments with a limited central government (anti-federalists); the Constitution was finally ratified in 1789.

Like with facts, these statements connect one specific thing (elements of sugar, Constitution) and a list (of other specific things).

Teach the connection(s).

3. Sensory concepts

Exs: blue, on.

The specific things (examples) of the concepts differ in many ways (size, shape), but they are connected by a common feature, such as color or position.

All of the defining features of the concept are in any example. Therefore, the concept can be shown by one example. However, a range of examples is needed for the learner to see what the common feature is and to cover the range of variations (e.g., from light to dark red).

Teach the range of examples needed for the learner to determine the common feature and the range of variations.

4. Higher-order concepts.

Exs: Democracy, society, mammal.

The specific things (examples) of the concepts are connected by a common feature or features; e.g., making societal decisions through elected representatives (representative democracy).

The defining features of higher-order concepts, however, are spread out. Therefore, you can’t simply show examples to teach a higher-order concept. You have to give a definition (that states the common, defining features) and then give examples and nonexamples to substantiate the definition.

Teach the definition of the common features and then substantiate the definition through suitable examples and non-examples.

5. Rule Relationships

These are statements that connect not specific things but whole groups of things (concepts or categories).

  • Categorical Propositions. Some rules or propositions state (assert, propose) how one kind of thing (concept or category) is part of or is not part of another kind of thing (concept of category). These are called categorical propositions. For example, all dogs (one kind of thing) are canines (another kind of thing). Or, No birds (one kind of thing) are reptiles (another kind of thing). or, Some bugs are delicious.

    Teach the rule or proposition.

  • Causal or hypothetical propositions. Other rules or propositions state, assert, or propose how one kind of thing (concept or category) changes with another kind of thing (concept or category). These are called causal or hypothetical propositions. You can tell that a statement asserts a causal or hypothetical proposition because it states (or suggests) the following signals: if, if and only if, whenever, the more, the less.  If one thing happens then another thing (happens, comes into being, changes, increases, happens more often, decreases).

    The “thing” (variable, condition, antecedent event) that is the alleged cause of something else can work (have an effect) in different ways. For example, the alleged cause might be considered a necessary condition for something else to happen or change. (“If X does not happen, then Y will not happen.” Or, “If and only if X happens will Y happen.”) Or, the alleged cause might be considered a sufficient condition for something else to happen. (“Whenever X happens, Y will happen.”)

    For instance, Whenever temperature increases (one kind of thing), pressure increases (another kind of thing). [This proposition suggests that a rise in temperature is a sufficient condition (by itself) to cause an increase in pressure.] Or, If and only if there is sufficient oxygen, fuel, and heat (one category of thing) will there be ignition (another category of thing. [This proposition suggests that sufficient oxygen, fuel, and heat are a necessary condition for ignition.]

    Note: When you have identified all of the necessary conditions, you now have a set of variables that are a sufficient condition. Think of a causal model of fire, a cold, and a revolution.

    Teach the rule or proposition.
6. Cognitive Routines

Routines are sequences of steps that usually must be done in a certain order. Solving math problems, sounding out words, and stating a theory or making a logical argument (each proposition in the theory or argument is like a step that leads to a conclusion).

Teach the routine.

Routines are often thought of as "skills."

: A routine is a connection of a number of events, such as steps in solving a problem or a listing of events leading up to a war. There are different arrangements of steps or events in routines. You want students to see what these arrangements are.

  • Sequence in one direction. A leads to B leads to C leads to D. Ex.: sounding out words, solving math problems.
  • Sequence with feedback loops. A leads to B and the change in B produces a (reciprocal) change in A which produces more change in B until some limit is reached. Exs.: Outbreak of war, onset of illness, falling in love, divorce, getting porky and out of shape.
  • Stages or phrases. A sequence of events or steps can be seen as a process divided into stages in a process.

    Ex1: Load rifle: steps a—b—c--d; Fire rifle: steps e—f—g; Clear rifle: steps h—i; Clean rifle: steps j—k, etc.

    Ex2: In history: If you examine enough (examples of) genocidal movements, you notice that one group has some features (e.g., property, social status) that produces envy in another group, or does something that threatens another group (e.g., resists power). This might be seen as the background (first) phase. Then (phase 2) the genocidal group demonizes the first group with racial slurs and propaganda. Then (phase 3) the genocidal group begins to mistreat the victim group; e.g., attacks, job loss, confiscating weapons, special (degrading) clothing. If (phase 4, escalation) the victim group fights back, this provokes worse treatment. If the victim group submits, it furthers the genocidal group’s perception of the victim as degraded. The genocidal group then (phase 5) creates an organization for killing or transporting. Then the killing begins (phase 6).

  • Logical argument. A text might be arranged as a logical argument. There are two sorts of logical arguments:

    a. Inductive. Facts are presented. Then the facts are shown to lead to a general idea, such as a conclusion. For example, examine five examples of genocide and induce (figure out) the common phases and the activities in each phase.

    b. Deductive. Or, text may be arranged so that it presents a deductive argument. It begins with a general idea, such as a rule--first premise.

    “If X happens, then Y must happen.”

    It then presents facts relevant to the first premise—evidence or second premise.

    “X happened.”

    It then draws a conclusion.

    “Therefore, Y must happen.”
So having knowledge means more than merely knowing lots of facts or having certain skills, 21st centurey ones or otherwise.  There is much more to it than that.

But, certainly, if you want students to have expertise in certain domains to gain the advantages that expertise conveys then these students will possess knowledge in these domains.  I don't think there's any way around that.  But, if you think there is, be sure to let me know.

Next we'll discuss Dinosaurs.

Duncan on the Future of NCLB

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives a pretty pep talk on the future of NCLB. It is unfortunate that pretty speeches have such a long history of not translating into good education policy, or I might have been moved by such a speech.

Let's look at the highlight reel.

I heard their voices -- their expectations, hopes and dreams for themselves and their kids. They were candid about their fears and frustrations. They did not always understand why some schools struggle while others thrive. They understood profoundly that great teaching and school leadership is the key to a great education for their kids.

Great teaching and school leadership are but two components of delivering a great education. There are many other needed components and the Secretary doesn't know what they are because if he did, he would have adopted them in Chicago when he ran that school district. But he didn't and Chicago remains a poorly performing district.

The other problem is that no one knows how to convert an average teacher into a great teacher. The great teacher argument is based on statistical games.

Whether it’s in rural Alaska or inner-city Detroit, everyone everywhere shares a common belief that education is America’s economic salvation.

They see education as the one true path out of poverty – the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. It’s the only way to secure our common future in a competitive global economy.

That belief is wrong. America's economic well-being depends it part on our ability to create educated workers, but if we don't grow enough of them at home, it's pretty easy to brain drain the rest of the world for talent as we've been doing for decades. American education is for the well-being of Americans, not so much for America.

But when it comes to defining the federal role in an education system that evolved over a century-and-a-half – from isolated one-room schoolhouses to urban mega districts -- there’s a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and division.

Last I checked, the Constitution defines that role. And, the Constitution defines that role as "no role" except possibly to make sure there is equal opportunity as defined by the 14th Amendment, i.e., to avoid racial discrimination. And, I don't see much of that nowadays. What the Secretary wants to do is to continue to define the Federal role beyond what the Constitution defines. And, by the way, we do have a mechanism to amend the Constitution to give the Feds whatever role the public wants. The problem is that not enough people want to give them this power.

People want support from Washington but not interference. They want accountability but not oversight. They want national leadership but not at the expense of local control.

As a former superintendent, I can tell you that I never looked forward to calls from Washington.

By support the Secretary means collecting local taxpayer's tax dollars at the Federal level and then sending it right back to local schools, often through one or more intermediaries and often with strings attached. Here's a crazy idea, if you want "support" without federal "interference, oversight, and accountability" just eliminate the Feds and keep the tax dollars in the state. What schools really want is free money with no strings attached and the best way to get that is to send tax dollars through a long convoluted chain thereby diffusing responsibility and taxpayer ire.

And now that I’m here I’m even more convinced that the best solutions begin with parents and teachers working together in the home and the classroom.

Really? Which solutions are they? I can't thnk of one that has originated with teachers or parents. They all seem to originate from special interest groups that are way above teachers and parents.

Our role in Washington is to support reform by encouraging high standards, bold approaches to helping struggling schools, closing the achievement gap, strengthening the field of education, reducing the dropout rate and boosting college access

Only one of these has the patina of a Constitutional mandate: "closing the achievement gap [between black students and non-black students]" And, quite frankly, if you control for student characteristics, the achievement gap disappears. White students with the same characteristics of black students perform the same. So, what we're left with is an attempt to change the student because the characteristics of the average black student is below the average white student. We haven't had much success there with such paternalistic policies. What we really want to do is improve the educational outcomes for all students, but I don't see a Constitutional role for the Feds there.

I always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps, and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.

Possibly the best sentence in the speech.

NCLB helped expand the standards and accountability movement. Today, we expect districts, principals and teachers to take responsibility for the academic performance of their schools and students.

Actually, we've almost always expected that from Federal programs, we just never enforced it very well, so educators simply ignored it. NCLB changed the game by enforcing the accountability provisions and that's when all hell broke loose.

And while existing state tests are not ideal measures of student achievement, they are the best we have at the moment.

Until states develop better assessments – which we will support and fund through Race to the Top -- we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress – but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.

I don't undertand why such bribery is needed in the first place.

States are doing exactly what all governments do when they run something poorly, they disguise the low quality of the services to make it appear as if they are doing a swell job.

I also agree with some NCLB critics: the law was underfunded -- it unfairly labeled many schools as failures even when they were making progress -- it places too much emphasis on raw test scores rather than student growth -- and it is overly prescriptive in some ways while it is too blunt an instrument of reform in others.

Where to begin on this one?

Under Funding: We're going to find out soon that providing more funding (a la Race to the Top) isn't going to improve anything, except a few bank accounts. At current levels, funding doesn't matter.

Schools-Making-Progress Penalized: Does anybody remember NCLB safe harbor provisions. This is how schools get credit for falling short but making progress. The problem is that many schools fail to make enough progress to satisfy the Safe Harbor provisions. This is where Growth Models come in and permit even less progress to satisfy the NCLB mandate. Just one more way for schools to appear to be doing their job when in fact they are not. The issue boils down to how much progress is enough. The desired answer is very little. Sad.

But the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards.

In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not.

This is a problem that is endemic to the current system of government-run public schools. States can easily adopt universal high learning standards. We'd just have very low student achievement because few would meet the standards. That's political suicide. So States have done the politically smart thing by adopting low standards which almost very student can pass. That's how you get re-elected. If you want high standards and high student achievement, you are going to piss off quite a few very influential special interests groups who like the status quo just fine. Basically, you need lots of political will which no politician has (especially when you consider many Republicans don't think this falls under the Feds' purview anyway).

It’s one reason our schools produce millions of young people who aren’t completing college. They are simply not ready for college-level work when they leave high school.

Of course, there is an enoormous gulph between setting high (college level) standards and getting students to actually meet those standards. That's the hard part.

Low standards also contribute to the nation’s high school dropout rate.

I never imagined that standards were so magical. I'm thinking we should raise the standards on cancer treatments so all patients will survive cancer.

When kids aren’t challenged they are bored -- and when they are bored they quit.

So, it's boredom that's driving the drop-out rate, eh? Boredom caused by low-standards? This might be the most ridiculous statement I read this week and I've read a lot of education articles this week so this is quite an accomplishment.

In my view, we should be tighter on the goals – with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers – but we should be looser on the means for meeting those goals.

You couldn't get much looser than the current law which permits states to do pretty much whatever they want. They set the standards, the cut scores, and determine what and how to teach.

We should be open to new ideas, we should encourage innovation, and we should build on what we know works.

I'd like the DOE to make a list of what it "knows works" and I can guarantee you two things: most of the items will have no evidence of success and most of the rest won't be built on properly.

We need to agree on what’s important and how to measure it or we will continue to have the same old adult arguments – while ignoring children.

I can assure you this day will never come. And the only reason it has to come in the first place is that we have a system in which consumers of education get almost no choices and consolidating power at the Federal level on common standards will only reduce the few choices we have. That's the main advantage of a competitive market -- consumers get choices and everyone gets a chance to see if their crackpot theories work the way they think they will.

And to those who say that we can’t do this right now – we need more time to prepare and study the problem – or the timing and the politics isn’t right – I say that our kids can’t wait and our future won’t wait.

Isn't this how every other crackpot reform started out? Rushed, poorly thought out and poorly researched. You couldn't ask for a better example of the politician's fallacy.

This is our responsibility and our opportunity and we can’t let it to slip away.

The President has talked a lot about responsibility. He’s challenged parents and students to step up and do more. He’s challenged teachers and principals to step up and do more.

He’s called on business and community leaders and elected officials at every level of government to step up and do more.

Education is everyone’s responsibility – and you who represent millions of people across this country with a direct stake in the outcome of reauthorization – have a responsibility as well – to step up and do more.

I don't believe we're relying on the altruism of others to solve our self-inflicted education woes. Has no one in this administration read Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The problem with the current education system is that the self-interest of the adults running the system is not aligned with the interests of the children being educated. It's that simple.

It’s not enough to define the problem. We’ve had that for 50 years. We need to find solutions – based on the very best evidence and the very best ideas.

You can bet that nothing will be done on the Federal level to assure that the best evidence is generated, gathered or consulted and that the solutions will be based on this evidence.

This is why the Administartion's hodge-podge of upcoming reforms is doomed to failure before it's even begun.

September 23, 2009

Expertise: Who wants some?

Let's talk about expertise and why acquiring more expertise might be a desirable goal of education.

But, rather than start with the premise that having more expertise is preferrable to having less expertise. (And, being an expert is preferrable to being a novice. And, performing more like an expert is preferrable to performing more like a novice (or non-expert)). Let's see if the premise is generally true.

What are the advantages of having expertise or being an expert, where an expert is defined as being more knowledgable than a non-expert?

Such an explanantion assumes three things. The expert has acquired more knowledge in a particular domain and that knowledge is organized and structured. The fundamental capacities and domain-general reasoning abilities of experts and non-experts are more or less identical. And, the differences in the performance of experts and non-experts are determined by the differences in the way their knowledge is represented. See Two Approaches to the Study of Experts’ Characteristics (Chi 2006)

Experts and novices have been studied extensively by cognitive scientists. As a result, we know quite a bit how experts differ from novices.  Chi distills the following seven advantages of being an expert in the above cited article.
The advantages of being an expert and having expertise.

  1. Generating the Best. Experts excel in generating the best solution, such as in solving problems or designing a task, even under time constraints. Moreover, they can do this faster and more accurately than non-experts.
  2. Detection and Recognition. Experts can detect and see features that novices cannot. For example, they can see patterns and cue configurations in X-ray films that novices cannot. They can also perceive the "deep structure" of a problem or situation.
  3. Qualitative Analyses. Experts spend a relatively great deal of time analyzing a problem qualitatively, developing a problem representation by adding many domain-specific and general constraints to the problems in their domains of expertise.
  4. Monitoring. Experts have more accurate self-monitoring skills in terms of their ability to detect errors and the status of their own comprehension.
  5. Strategies. Experts are more successful at choosing the appropriate strategies to use than novices. For example, when confronted with routine cases, expert clinicians diagnose with a data-driven (forward-working) approach by applying a small set of rules to the data; whereas less expert clinicians tend to use a hypothesis-driven (backward chaining) approach. Experts not only will know which strategy or procedure is better for a situation, but they also are more likely than novices to use strategies that have more frequently proved to be effective.
  6. Opportunistic. Experts are more opportunistic than novices; they make use of whatever sources of information are available while solving problems and also exhibit more opportunism in using resources.
  7. Cognitive Effort. Experts can retrieve relevant domain knowledge and strategies with minimal cognitive effort). They can also execute their skills with greater automaticity and are able to exert greater cognitive control over those aspects of performance where control is desirable.
Chi also lists seven ways in which experts do not excel.  One is especially relevent to education policy.  In fact, it's a doozy.

Context Dependence within a Domain.  Expertise is restricted to a specific domain. Moreover, within their domain of expertise, experts rely on contextual cues. For example, in a medical domain, experts seem to rely on the tacit enabling conditions of a situation for diagnosis. The enabling conditions are background information such as age, sex, previous diseases, occupation, drug use, and so forth. These circumstances are not necessarily causally related to diseases, but physicians pick up and use such correlational knowledge from clinical practice. When expert physicians were presented the complaints associated with a case along with patient charts and pictures of the patients, they were 50% more accurate than the novices in their diagnoses, and they were able to reproduce a large amount of context information that was directly relevant to the patient's problem. The implication is that without the contextual enabling information, expert physicians might be more limited in their ability to make an accurate diagnosis. Experts’ skills have been shown to be context-dependent in many other studies, such as the failure of experienced waiters to indicate the correct surface orientation of liquid in a tilted container, despite their experience in the context of wine glasses, and the inaccuracies of wildland fire fighters in predicting the spread of bush fire when the wind and slope are opposing rather than congruent, which is an unusual situation.

To put it more simply: expertise is domain limited. All the advantages of having expertise are limited to the domain in which the expert is knowledgable. In other domains, the expert performs like a non-expert.

This is a robust finding in cognitive science (See the Chi article for numerous research studies).

It seems to me that the advantages of having expertise far outweigh the few disadvantages.  And, I really can't see anyone desiring to engage in a period of study acquiring knowledge and skills and ending up performing no better than an novice.

Further, it seems to me that trying to acquire some enhanced domain-independent skills in lieu of acquiring domain-specific knowledge is a fool's errand and an incredibly risky proposition (not to mention a potentially large waste of time).  I'd like to see the research base for the claims being made by the proponents of  these generic 21st century skills.

Anyway, I'm throwing this out there for you to ponder and I'm going to try to delve a bit deeper into the expert-novice research adn what it means to be an expert and have domain knowledge in the next few posts.  I'm not exactly sure of the right path to take through all this, so if anyone has any suggestions or has already spotted a misstep, feel free to comment.

September 22, 2009

Answer Sheet Bubbles in Wrong Answer

Unlike Uncle Jay's new blog, the Washington Post's other education blog, The Answer Sheet, has gotten off to a rocky start (despite Willingham's pinch hitting).

Take for example the post on "The Problem with Kindergarten" and this follow-up post.

The Answer Sheet has a problem with the increasingly academic tilt of Kindergarten, favoring a less academic model.

The movement toward turning what should be play time into academic time is several decades old, sparked by the notions that kids are not learning enough at school and that they are capable of starting earlier than long thought.

That's not entirely accurate. The actual notion is that some children, let's call them "at-risk children" for lack of a better name, come to school far behind their peers, are not ready to learn when the enter first grade, and never catch up to their peers academically. This is generally considered a bad outcome. So the thought was to stop wasting kindergarten doing macaroni art and other sundry crafts in favor of catching them up academically to avoid the awful educational trajectory most had in store for them.

This decade’s era of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, pushed curriculum into lower grades faster than ever.

Yes, that's what happens when the feedback gleaned from those nasty tests indicated that some kids weren't learning all that much. I'm certain if the tests indicated kids were learning just swell, refrigerators would once again be festooned with macaroni art.

Anyway, NCLB was mentioned; cue ominous music.

Now kindergartners are being taught how to take standardized tests and are often required to sit and work for far longer than their metabolisms can actually tolerate--even though there is no research that proves that foisting formal academics on such young kids has any long-term benefit.

[*record scratch*]

Actually, there's plenty of research that shows that good academic programs in kindergarten can have educationally significant positive effects. See, for example, Academic Kindergarten and Later Academic Success: The Impact of Direct Instruction (2008) which documents quite a few studies that are exactly on point. In fact, it would be a good education on education policy to read the whole thing.

Research has shown that children of this age learn best through active exploration of materials such as clay, sand, water, blocks and other manipulatives. Yet these things have been removed from many kindergarten classes.

Research has shown that children who engage in socio-dramatic play have better language skills, better social skills, more empathy, are less aggressive and have more self-control than children who do not. Yet the Alliance for Childhood study reported that some teachers say the curriculum does not allow time for any play.

No links to the purported research are provided. The first rule of blogging is to provide links so you can be fact checked. And, the first rule of education journalism is that you can't trust education research to be actual scientific research. I'm going to give the Answer Sheet a mulligan this time since a) I'm exceedingly nice and b) the Answer Sheet is new. I'm also going to ignore some of the sillier cliches being bandied about in the paragraphs surrounding the last quote. (The Answer Sheet also violates the second rule of education journalism by citing blogger Jim Horn as an authority on education.)

The Answer Sheet, however, dug itself into a deeper hole, in the follow-up post.

Advocates of a more kid-friendly kindergarten are not suggesting that anybody be “held back” so that kids less advanced can catch up. A child who can read should, obviously, be encouraged to read. A 5-year-old who understands the concept of infinity should explore whatever he/she wants to explore.

They may not be advocating that anyone be held back, but they aren't exactly advocating that anyone be taught either. A child who can read (most likely because someone at home taught them) can "explore" reading, but apparently shouldn't be taught how to read better. That doesn't make much sense.

The question is about how the non-Einsteins of this age learn best.

Do they learn better by sitting for hours and filling out worksheets--even if they are able to do it--or by engaging in sophisticated forms of play that help build problem-solving and other skills and by hands-on learning that allows them to explore?

The classic false dilemma. Evil worksheets vs. sophisticated play. Is there no middle ground?

Oddly enough, in the study I cited above, I know that the reading program used in that study, Reading Mastery, uses well-designed worksheets and the students do "learn better."

Some children come to school so well prepared and ready to learn that they can tolerate a year of macaroni art and crafts. This doesn't mean that children should waste a year doing such fluff in lieu of academics, but the harm will be minimal. In contrast, for the kids who come to school woefully behind, they need to productively utilize as much school time as possible, wasting an entire school year on fluff could very well be the difference between catching up to their more-ready peers and not.

Carl Bereiter said it best when he criticized the kind of child-centered educated favored by The Answer Sheet:

Unless thinkers and experimenters committed to child-centered education become more sophisticated about instruction and start devoting more attention to designing learning activities that actually converge on objectives, they are in danger of becoming completely discredited. That would be too bad. Child-centered educators have evolved a style of school life that has much in its favor. Until they develop an effective pedagogy to go with it, however, it does not appear to be an acceptable way of teaching disadvantaged children.

Child-centered education may by OK for the children of Washington Post writers, but that doesn't mean that it's also effective with disadvantaged/"at risk" kids. That's what the real research shows.

September 21, 2009

This Isn't Getting Us Anywhere Fast

There isn't anything more disappointing than finding a long essay that starts off well and promises many insights based at least in part on its length, but then veers off track violently a few paragraphs in. Such wasted potential.

This is what I was thinking by about paragraph 11 (and confirmed by paragraph 15) of Stephen Downes' longish essay on 21st Century Learning.

It is especially disappointing because I've been hoping that someone would advance the argument because it appears that both sides are talking past each other. And, as long as we're talking past each other, the issue doesn't advance. The issue needs to advance because it is an important issue.

Stephen's essay clearly demonstrates where the issue has stagnated.

In paragraphs 1-15 he erects and then dismantles the "students need to learn facts" strawman and assures us that everyone agrees that they do:

Not only do I make these statements, I would say that any person who is an advocate of 21st century learning also makes these statements. I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century skills by saying 'we need facts'. Everybody has already agreed with that.

Then he takes the carcass of that dismantled strawman and proceeds to erect another strawman, the "students need to learn skills" strawman, and naturally assures us that they do:

We know now - and, indeed, have probably always known - that an education based strictly and solely in facts is insufficient.

He then takes the remainder of the essay, the bulk of it, to dismantle this newly erected strawman. He could have just written a few points why skills are important and then cut and pasted a slighted altered version of the paragraph he used in dismantling the "students need to learn facts" strawman:

I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing any sort of educational reform who does not agree with these statements. This is important, because it means it isn't sufficient to respond to advocates of 21st century [facts] by saying 'we need [skills]'. Everybody has already agreed with that.

If anything, it would have saved him the typing of a few thousand words.

Why don't we move the argument to a more productive place. Both sides apparently agree that students need to learn both facts and skills and what they currently are learning is insufficient. The question is which facts, which skills, and how should they be best taught to maximize the knowledge that students need to be both productive and informed and to enable them to continue their learning throughout their life after formal education has been completed.

I'm still trying to work out these issues for myself and hopefully I'll be able to present a coherent essay on the issue in the near future. In the meantime, I am able to point out some of the flawed assumptions that Stephen makes in his essay in the hope that he can get himself back on track and thinking about the same issue from his very different perspective.

First, it isn't impossible to teach people facts. Quite the opposite is the case - we understand, and can prove (and have proved, over and over) that we can teach facts very simply and easily, through repetition, rote, memorization, practice examples, worked examples, and more. People can memorize the alphabet, the multiplication tables, the Koran, whatever. A great deal of our education today in fact turns on this very proposition: it consists of the teaching of facts, and the testing for recall of those facts.

The testing also shows that students are not able to recall those facts very well, despite this supposedly being the primary focus of present education and that facts are supposedly simply and easily taught.

Both sides apparently believe that at least some facts need to be learned and should be able to be readily recalled by students. Both sides also apparently believe that students need more than mere recall of facts. It follows that both sides should be concerned that students aren't able to recall facts if only for the fact that if they can't recall facts, it's unlikely they can do any "higher-order" things with those facts. Yet only one side is concerned over the current state of affairs. The other side is either being disingenuous with its call for the learning of facts or is playing fast and loose with the definition, as you'll soon see. In any event, their stance needs clarification.

When you teach children facts as facts, and when you do it through a process of study and drill, it doesn't occur to children to question whether or not those facts are true, or appropriate, or moral, or legal, or anything else. Rote learning is a short circuit into the brain. It's direct programming. People who study, and learn, that 2+2=4, know that 2+2=4, not because they understand the theory of mathematics, not because they have read Hilbert and understand formalism, or can refute Brouwer and reject intuitionism, but because they know (full stop) 2+2=4.

Again, both sides apparently agree that children should learn facts and to question/analyze facts and the evidence presented that establishes these facts. The implication that direct instruction is an inferior way of learning anything but facts has no empirical support. It's also wrong to imply that direction instruction is synonymous with rote learning and conversely that non-direct instruction isn't rote or is somehow "better."

We want people to know both the theory of mathematics and that 2+2=4. The two are separate things. And, I am especially suspicious when an educator claims to be teaching the "theory of mathematics" as a better way of teaching that 2+2=4 only to find out that the student cannot reliably determine what 2+2 is when questioned.

I used the phrase "it's direct programming" deliberately. This is an analogy we can wrap our minds around. We can think of direct instruction as being similar to direct programming. It is, effectively, a mechanism of putting content into a learner's mind as effectively and efficiently as possible, so that when the time comes later (as it will) that the learner needs to use that fact, it is instantly and easily accessible.

There is certainly no guarantee that direct programming will result in the instant and easy accessibility of content. This conflates the act of acquiring content with the act of retaining the content. It also ignores what we want the learner to do with the content once it has been mechanism acquired, that is, think about it and assimilate it so it can be represented in a structured and orderly way. No one seriously believes that merely learning lots of facts is the end-game of education. The real-end game is the student's ability to think and analyze better (at least in the relative domain of which those facts form the basis). And there's no getting around the fact that those who do know better (i.e., experts) also know more relevant facts and that these same experts don't think any better in areas that they don't know the facts.

Not so long ago, pretty much every bit of information a person needed in his or her life could be taught as a fact, which basic mechanisms - such as literacy - being used to make up the difference. Spending a lot of time teaching facts could be justified, because people needed basic knowledge to survive in an industrial world, needed to be able to understand the basics of language and literature, science and mathematics, and - crucially - not much more. And anything that detracted from that learning made a person less able to cope in society. These useless 'soft' skills might help with their hobbies and avocations, but they wouldn't help them get a job or do well in their career.

This presumes there was some golden age of education in which nearly everyone who tried, learned nearly everything that was important. There was no such golden age. I can think of no time in the past century in which one reform or another was under way in an attempt to reform the perceived inadequacies of the then-present education environment.

The economy has certainly shifted, in the US at least, from manufacturing to service, but I don't believe that service workers need to know any more or less than their manufacturing counterparts.

Nonetheless, I believe that both sides believe that a first-rate education (however defined) is paramount.

Today, the situation has completely turned around because of the six factors identified above. People need such greater capacities in literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting. And as their need for these dynamic skills and capacities increases, their need for facts decreases. Indeed, the more these skills are needed, the more the teaching of facts as facts actually impairs the teaching of these skills. The more static our teaching, the less dynamic the learner can be.

There is certainly a need for expertise and knowledge today. But, from what we know about the study of experts, one thing continues to be true -- experts know a lot of facts, otherwise known as domain knowledge. We value these experts because of their greater analytic ability (such as "literacy, learning, prioritizing, evaluation, planning and acting") and understanding of the domains in which they are experts. However, and this is the crucial bit, these same expertise have no greater analytic ability than the average Joe in areas in which they don't know the underlying facts.

By the way, did you notice that it didn't take many paragraphs of prose for Stephen to go from extolling the need for knowing facts, to belittling the need to know facts, to claiming that learning facts impairs the development of 21st Century learning.

That's the tell. And, that's the problem with all the advocates of "21st Century Learning" -- they say one thing, but they "tell" you another. Either they contradict themselves right in their own argument, as Stephen does, or they provide gloriously-fact-free "model lesson plans", like P21 does, that contradict their argument that "of course, learning both facts and skills is important."

So, while I believe Stephen when he writes that skills cannot be taught in the absence of facts, I also believe, based on his writings, that he thinks that facts should be marginalized as much as possible, taking a back-seat to the skills he thinks are important (based on current technology which apparently never goes obsolete). This has been a recurring theme in the 21st Century learning debate. One side is playing fast and loose with the rhetoric, keep getting called on it, deny it, continue using a slightly modified rhetoric, and wonder why the other side isn't taking them seriously.

And, that's a shame because we aren't getting anywhere fast in this debate. No progress is being made despite the apparent common middle ground that exists if you believe the rhetoric. The losers, of course, continue to be the school children.

September 16, 2009

Innocuous and Clueless but Creepy

That's the impression I got when I listened to the President's speech to school children last week. I described the innocuous and clueless parts in a previous post. I'll get to the creepy part.

The reason why I'm still writing about a week-old speech is a late feed I got for Will Richardson's post on the speech.

After I read Will's post, I thought to myself how that would be the exact argument I would include in my Little Red Book when I become leader for life.

The real reason why the President's speech was controversial to many and offensive to some is the President's lack of respect for federalism and the limited government powers given to the federal executive office's. That the speech was given to children in a government-run school doesn't help matters. The implicit power grab by the President is unseemly. The dear leader parallels and the paternalistic overtones are simply creepy. That smart guys like the President and Will Richardson completely missed them is, well, disturbing. Didn't we fight a revolution not too long ago over executive overreach?

The Cato guys have the best take on these aspects of the President's speech.

Now compare to Will's take.

I keep thinking of those teachers out there right now who have had a level of confidence and professionalism stripped away by school districts who have ceded to parents wishes to avoid rather than to trust them to teach.

Last I checked, we still lived in a representative democracy. The people, through their elected school boards, still run the show (at least in most places). That is how it should be and the fact that some teachers and school districts misjudged and had to bend their will to the opinion of the locals is a healthy reminder of who remains in charge.

I keep thinking about what kids are learning by the way their schools are reacting, what it says to them about what school is and its value in their lives.

It tells them that their parents and not the schools are the ultimate authority.

I keep thinking what this says about a public school system that has “educated” the people at the front of all of the screaming and yelling.

This is how a democracy works when it comes to deciding controversial political issues like what goes on in public schools. In a private school, there is no yelling and screaming when the leadership of the school makes a bad decision, there is only a quiet call to the principal demanding a tuition refund.

That many people, many publicly-schooled, either missed or failed to appreciate the present controversy at the heart of the amount of power we've ceded to the government in the current environment of the public voluntarily ceding back hard-earned freedoms to a government (both Democrat and Republican run) that presents itself as a all-knowing benevolent dictator is quite disturbing. As Will writes -- "Talk about a teachable moment." Indeed.

September 15, 2009

SAT Scores and Family Income

Here we go again.

This graph of family income vs. SAT sub-test scores from the College Board (via the NYT's Eeconomix) has been getting a lot of play lately.

Many interpreted the graph as saying that raising family income causes an increase in SAT sub-test scores. (The Economix's sloppy "boost" language didn't help here. Nor did the left-unexplained R2 of 0.95, an artifact of how the graph was constructed, rather than as a measure of the actual variance between family income and test scores which is far lower.)

Faithful readers will already know that the underlying data for the graph is incapable of supporting a causal analysis of the relationship. It only supports descriptive and correlational analyses. Yet that didn't stop many from making the causal leap in logic by opining how obvious it is that all we need to do to produce better students is to provide their family with more money (preferably lots more money) and, thus, solving all our education woes.

Economist Greg Mankiw points out the danger (and ridiculousness) of claiming causality from mere correlational data.

Suppose we were to graph average SAT scores by the number of bathrooms a student has in his or her family home. That curve would also likely slope upward. (After all, people with more money buy larger homes with more bathrooms.) But it would be a mistake to conclude that installing an extra toilet raises yours kids' SAT scores.

It's also a mistake to conclude that winning Powerball or getting a governmental handout is going to raise SAT scores as well. Suggest the former and you'll attract funny glances; suggest the latter and half the edusphere and three quarters of edu-journalists will call you profound. Yet both are un-empiric and equally silly.

This is especially so considering there is ample correlative and experimental evidence indicating that there is a third variable driving the test score - family income/number of bathrooms and similar income-derived correlations. Take a look at the correlation between IQ test scores and biological father's income in this graph.

The graph shows the correlation for both ordinary children and adopted children. The correlations are remarkably similar, yet the contribution of the biological father of adopted children is mostly limited to some sperm. That's some mighty potent sperm. Seems like we'd get a better bang for our buck if we assured that fathers have plenty of money instead of wasting it on kids once they are conceived.

I can waste the better part of the day dredging up silly correlations. Some of them might confirm your biases and opinions on how to improve education outcomes. You'll like those. Others will go against the grain of your biases and opinions. You won't like those and you'll probably think of a way to discount the results. In both cases you're not thinking scientifically. And that's the real problem in education.

Two Legends Depart

First Swayze

and now


No one puts Andy in the corner.

September 11, 2009

Duncan Finally Gets One Right

Today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged universities to get more involved in helping to improve under-performing schools, by forming partnerships with local school districts, establishing charter schools, and improving teacher education.

There's nothing I'd like to see more than Ed schools putting their crackpot theories on how best to teach children, manage a classroom, and run a school into practice under the unblinking eye of NCLB's data collection scheme (the one saving grace of NCLB).

The joy of being able to compare the performance of these Ed-school-run schools to other schools. Finally for the public to see that the emperor really has no clothes.

OECD Locks Up It's Latest Report

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development isn't being very cooperative these days as it locks up its latest report Doing Better for Children from those of us that want to find out how to do better for children. (Or, those of us who want to point out the OECD's various methodological flaws and other sundry mistakes.)

I can see why the OECD wants to charge for a pretty bound copy of the report, but charging to download the PDF?

I don't see the wisdom.

Isn't the whole point of being an advocacy group to, you know, advocate by spreading your "truth" far and wide?

September 9, 2009

If you only read one post on education today ...

... make it David Boulton's interview with Zig Engelmann over at Children of the Code.

It's a rare treat when the interviewer is actually knowledgeable about the subject being discussed.

If you didn't understand my point about the President's speech exhorting students to work hard being largely a waste of time, then this interview should clear things up. Hopefully.

I'm posting this now without comment, but I will follow up.

New edu-blog Mid-Riffs agrees

I agree with promising new edu-blog, Mid-Riffs', take on Obama's speech.

But all of that leaves out the demand-side: the students’ willingness (or not) to learn. We can deliver the perfect curriculum via perfect teachers led by perfect principals in perfect schools operating under perfect accountability standards and choice, but if the students have the attitude that “I refuse to learn, because it’s not cool, or it’s acting white,” they won’t learn very much. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Exactly. Certainly, there are some kids at the margin who need a good motivational speech to get them to try a little more earnestly.

But, such a motivational speech only makes sense if the required learning is within the student's reach once the effort is made. Otherwise, the students are merely wasting their time.

Let's take a look at reading performance at the President's hand-selected Wakefield High. 75% of black students and 77% of Hispanic students are not achieving at a level being achieved by 75% of white students (a level that in my estimation falls somewhere between basic and proficient on the NAEP).

Does anyone really believe that 75% of black students, 77% of Hispanic students, and 25% of white students just need a presidential kick in the ass to make the grade?

I'd venture that few would without a major overhaul of the curriculum and pedagogy with the help of a time machine to transport them back to K for their do-over.

Then you can give all the motivational speeches you want.

And, be sure to not to miss John Carney's alternate speech which gets a lot closer to the actual truth of the situation. (HT Mid-Riffs)

September 8, 2009

Obama Harangues Students, Still Clueless on Ed Policy

Update: After surveying the edusphere, the consensus seems to be that the President's speech was mostly innocuous, perhaps a little uplifting, and by golly them youngsters needed to be reminded about the value of hard work. Nuts to that. At best it was a waste of our time. I believe that schol-age children are mostly rational actors. They know the value of hard work. And, they know the value of acquiring a good education. What they do not see is how working hard for thirteen long years is going to end with their acquiring that education since, try as they might, they always end up at the bottom of the class. What's more foolish to give up or to work hard in light of the daily stream of data telling you that you're a failure? So, the President's oratorical skills might lead to a temporarily up-lifting of spirits, but don't expect it to last afetr the results of the next test. What Obama missed was an opportunity to address the real problems in education: why aren't some students doing well in school and how should we go about changing that. (And I edited the post for readability which was awful in version one and is slightly less awful now.)

The Obama Administration continued its muddled approach to education today in the President's speech to American school children. The administration's policy on education is based on the politician's fallacy.

  • We must do something
  • This is something
  • Therefore, we must do this.
Previously, the Administration's "this" was to spend lots of money (how many more times do you think we'll be able to double the deficit before we can't do "this" anymore) and give the unsustainable spending binge a fancy slogan ("race to the top").

In today's speech, the other shoe dropped for America's students. The Race to the Top money came with some strings attached. (Though kudos, mr. President, for keeping the "dear leader" aspects to a minimum.)

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Actually, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the "best" schools (whatever that means), AND students taking responsibility for their education and still not wind up with academic success at the end of the day.

By stressing the student responsibility part of the equation in today's speech, Obama is implying that all the other preconditions for school success are already in place for students who take responsibility for their education to succeed -- which is patent nonsense.

I could point to plenty of well-funded schools with dedicated teachers and supportive parents with plenty of student failure disproportionately affecting the black, Hispanic, and poor students. Take for example the Radnor Middle School and The Napa High School that I blogged about back in 2007. Or Philly's Science Leadership Academy or the School of the Future.

In fact, I could also point to many schools that aren't so well-funded, with apathetic parents, and middling teachers in which plenty of students still succeed. Of course, you'll have to go back to the dark days of the 70s to find less than well-funded schools, where you'll also find a population that was far less wealthy and less educated, and where many parents believed their responsibility for education ended with paying school taxes and making sure the their kids went to school on a somewhat regular basis.

Obama's list of pre-conditions of academic success is both under and over inclusive. And, that's being generous. A less generous interpretation is that the Obama administration is just as clueless as their predecessors when it comes to education policy. They don't know what's wrong with education policy, nor do they know how to fix it. But, they know something needs to be done and by god they mean to do something about it. Or at least look like their care and are doing something about it. Because that's how you get re-elected without having to show actual results. That's also why the public sector underperforms the private sector.

No doubt that's why Obama's team chose Arlington's Wakefield High to deliver his speech. Symbolism. Wakefield High has all the right symbolism.

  • Wonderfully diverse student body for celebration purposes;
  • Fashionable diverse leadership, also for celebration purposes;
  • Has own Twitter account;
  • Believes in the magic of smartboards;
  • Making adequate yearly progress across the board under NCLB (thanks to VA's pitifully low standards) (p. 9);
  • Voluntaryily under School Improvement Plan demonstrating the helping (though not heavy-handed) hand of government;
  • Involved parents;
  • Technology, technology, technology;
  • Passes the ten minutes with Google "Nothing-Blatantly-Controversial"Test.

What's there not to like?

At least that's what the underling who vetted Wakefield high was probably thinking.

But I'm guessing he or she didn't have the math skills to understand (or at least didn't dig deep enough into) the Virginia Department of Education's very own report card on Wakefield High. Symbolism isn't very effective when the hard date shows chronic failure. And make no mistake about it, Wakefield High is a typical failing high school in which many students would rationally have no interest in working hard. This directly undermines the message in Obama's speech and whatever symbolic value Wakefield high was choosen for. So, let's take a look at wakefield high's data.

I suppose our unknown vetter stopped at page 4 of the report which shows black and Hispanic students performing within about three percentage point of whites based on pass rates. That's close enough for government work. It's also a statistical artifact of having a very high pass rate, such as Virginia's. When the pass rates are very high (or very low for that matter) the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students appears to be small. But, it isn't.

Trust me, the achievement gap is alive and well at Wakefield High as you can see with your own lying eyes on pages 10 to 18 in which subgroup performance data is laid bare (thank you NCLB). In particular, you want to look at the scores for the Advanced category which is a) a tougher standard, b) with a lower pass rate, and c) required but not used for anything under NCLB.

2008 English (Reading) - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 25% (1% above state average)
Hispanic: 23% (8% below state average)
White: 75% (18% above state average)
Achievement gap: 50% (holy cow)

2008 English (Reading) - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 18% (2% above state average)
Hispanic: 13% (6% below state average)
White: 62% (22% above state average)
Achievement gap: 44% (yikes)

2008 Geometry - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 5% (2% below state average)
Hispanic: 8% (7% below state average)
White: 34% (5% above state average)
Achievement gap: 29% (ouch)

2008 Algebra II - Percent of students scoring advanced
Black: 9% (2% below state average)
Hispanic: 14% (3% below state average)
White: 30% (2% above state average)
Achievement gap: 21% (ouch again)

On and on it goes for nine depressing pages. (The only subject without an achievement gap is Algebra I, but that's what you'd expect with a pass rate below 10% in a "restricted range" course.)

Wakefield High needs to celebrate its diversity because that's about all it has to celebrate.

Wakefield High is the poster child for the Obama Administration. Since the administration doesn't know how to reduce the achievement gap (and lacks the power to in any event), it'll be sure to befuddle you with tables and graphs to disguise the gap. And, it'll celebrate diversity to assure you don't look behind the numbers and to insulate itself from criticism.

Not caring about school isn't a cause of student failure; it's an effect acquired through years of trying and not being able to succeed in school. It's the result of a system that provides an education that many students are unable to access. And, as Wakefield High shows, celebrating diversity doesn't make academics any more accessible. Nor does having a black principle lacking a Y chromosome. Nor does living in the mecca of government sinecures and diversity make-work jobs. And, so much for twitter and smartboard being an educational panacea.

So, yes, by all means, blame the students for failing to take responsibility. That's an excuse as convenient as any for a politician.