May 25, 2006

Connect the Dots

During the great Parental Support debates of aught six, I heard over and over how low performing students were unmotivated and disengaged from school. According to educators, this is a large reason why students are not learning in school.

Students need to take ownership of their learning and parents need to be better role models and motivate their children to learn.

Motivation is the problem. Parents are (at least a large part of) the solution. Or so I was told.

NCLB is so unfair bcause it's directed at schools, not parents. Parents and their bratty kids are the real problem.

And, that was that. Case closed.

But, then a funny thing happened on the way to the teachers' lounge this week.

Reading is Fundamental

First we learned, courtesy of the National Council of Teacher Quality, that our Ed schools aren't doing a very good job teaching reading teachers how to instruct kids how to read. If you know anything about reading instruction, this study did not come as a surprise to you. If you compare the reading programs that have a legitimate research base with the reading programs in common use in schools, you'll quickly see the latter look nothing like the former. This was the most insightful line from the NCTQ study:

As a result of this research, we can appreciate that for some children learning to read appears [] effortless. For these children, it does not really matter what reading curricula or teachers they encounter, they will learn how to read. For a significant number of other children, the path to literacy is far more difficult and by no means assured. In the case of these children, it matters very much what curriculum is used and who their first teachers are. By routinely applying the lessons learned from the scientific findings to the classroom, their reading failure is now considered largely avoidable. It is estimated that the current failure rate of 20 to 30 percent could be reduced to the range of 2 to 10 percent
The highlighted text is the main fallacy under which our schools operate. Some children learn how to read no matter what reading curriculum or teachers they encounter; therefore, we can teach reading however we want. This is our schools research base for "balanced literacy."

D-Ed Reckoning's tip of the day to parents with kids learning how to read: if your child is confronted with a word she doesn't know how to read and her reading teacher tells her to first look at context clues to guess the word's meaning instead of directing her "sound it out," make no mistake about it, your child is being mistaught how to read. If you're lucky, your child will be one of the ones who finds reading effortless. If, however, your child finds reading difficult, parental support isn't needed. Parental reteaching is needed and needed fast, because the teacher isn't doing her job. And, the longer the child is mistaught, the more difficult the inevitable reteaching will be.

Before we go on, let's stop for a moment and contemplate what happens to the young child who is a struggling reader. Reading is a skill that is used constantly in school. Like every single day. Imagine being the hapless kid that can't read very well and has to perform in front of his peers every day. Now put yourself in that kid's shoes and imagine how you'd feel in class every day.

Reading = Motivation

So many children are being mistaught how to read, resulting in reading failure. Now let's take a look at the research on the effect of this reading failure, courtesy of Kerry Hemenstall:

  • Taken together, these results provide evidence for the role of mastery of reading achievement in aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, and in depression, particularly in girls. The preventive trials provide evidence of the direction of effects, and the reversibility of the aggressive behavior and depressive symptoms in some children by raising the level of reading achievement. Kellam, S.G. (1999). Developmental epidemiologically-based prevention research: From efficacy to effectiveness. National Institute of Mental Health Fifth Annual National Conference on Prevention Research.

  • Young boys with reading problems were three times more likely to report high levels of depressed mood than their peers. The reading problems influenced boys' risk of depressed mood. Maugban, B (2003). Reading problems and depressed mood. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 210-229.

  • By the secondary grades, struggling readers have little confidence in their ability to succeed in reading and little sense of themselves as readers (Collins, 1996). Guthrie, Alao, and Rinehart (1997) noted an "eroding sense of confidence" in these students. They are acutely aware of their reading problems (Wigfield & Eccles, 1994) and likely to suffer serious psychological consequences, including anxiety, low motivation for learning, and lack of self-efficacy.

  • Many children with difficulty in learning to read develop a negative self-concept within their first two years of schooling. Chapman, J.W., Tunmer, W.E., & Prochnow, J.E. (2000). Early reading-related skills and performance, reading self-concept, and the development of academic self-concept: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 4, 703708.

  • A pathway from reading difficulties to anxiety or depression may be mediated by poor readers' well-established vulnerability to problems in academic (and possibly more global) self-esteem. Chapman, J. W. (1988). Cognitive-motivational characteristics and academic-achievement of learning-disabled children-A longitudinal-study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 357-365.

  • " ...a successful learning experience is itself a major contribution to mental health" (p.153). Steinberg, Z., & Knitzer, J. (1992). Classrooms for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students: Facing the challenge. Behavioral Disorders, 17, 145-156.

  • In a first-grade intervention study, boys whose reading skills improved from fall to spring showed a much reduced depressive symptomatology than their peers who continued to show problems in reading. Kellam, S. G., Rebok, G. W., Mayer, L. S., Iaolongo, N., & Kalodner, C. R. (1994). Depressive symptoms over 1st-grade and their response to a developmental epidemiologically based preventive trial aimed at improving achievement. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 463-481.

  • The twin study indicated that increased rates of internalizing symptomatology among poor readers were attributable to reading problems rather than to shared family factors. Willcutt, E. G., & Pennington, B. F. (2000). Psychiatric comorbidity in children and adolescents with reading disability. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41, 1039-1048.

So, not learning how to read causes serious problems later on, mostly motivational and emotional problems. Learning problems too. Afterall, reading is the gateway to higher learning.

This is where the parental support meme comes in, because educators want to lay some of the blame on parents for their kids' academic failure. They want to share responsibility for student learning, or rather they want to share responsibility when children fail to learn. They're quick to take all the credit when they do learn.

Taking Responsibility

OK, so some kids aren't learning to read and experience academic failure. Nothing new here. And educators want to pass the buck. Again, nothing new. We're just hearing more of it now under NCLB because student failure is receiving loads of attention. Plus, who really cares about these theoretical issues but a few cranky edubloggers.

Well, guess what? Apparently, there's a dark side to educators blaming others and not taking responsibility for their teaching failures:

My study of a nationally representative sample of 1st graders and their teachers suggests that teachers who take personal responsibility for student learning can improve student achievement; specifically, children with teachers who have a greater sense of responsibility for student outcomes learn more in reading during the 1st grade. Unfortunately, the findings presented here also suggest that the teachers of economically disadvantaged students, the very students NCLB targets as most in need of teachers and schools that take responsibility for their learning, are less likely to take responsibility for student outcomes.

My results show that a teacher’s sense of responsibility for student learning does seem to make a positive difference in a student’s reading achievement at the end of 1st grade. An increase of one standard deviation in the strength of a teacher's sense of responsibility is correlated with an increase in a student’s 1st-grade reading skills of .04 of a standard deviation.

Because this study was a snapshot in time of 1st-grade teachers and their students during one school year, I cannot claim with complete certainty that a teacher’s sense of responsibility causes increases in student achievement. It is a chicken-and-egg problem: did the teacher’s sense of responsibility improve student achievement, or do highachieving students make a teacher more likely to take responsibility for her students? At least with respect to student achievement, however, the data do provide hints as to what is cause and what is effect. While a teacher's sense of responsibility is not related to the average previous academic achievement level of a class, it is associated with the achievement gains individual students make while they are in her classroom. This strongly suggests that teacher responsibility affects achievement, not vice versa.

But teachers who believe that children should know basic reading skills before reaching 1st grade are less likely to hold themselves accountable for student learning. An increase of one standard deviation in expectations about student preparation is associated with a 0.05 standard deviation reduction in responsibility.

Perhaps surprisingly, the same negative relationship exists between a teacher’s endorsement of daily homework for 1st graders and responsibility. First-grade teachers who expect students to arrive at school with basic reading skills and who endorse daily homework may wish to downplay their responsibility and highlight parents’ and children’s responsibility for school success. Teachers with greater confidence in their instruction of learning-disabled students or students with limited English proficiency have a greater sense of responsibility (each associated with an increase of 0.06 standard deviations). My findings also suggest that teacher responsibility is related to the characteristics of the students in the teacher’s classroom. Student characteristics may influence teachers’ expectations for student success and teachers’ attitudes toward responsibility for their learning. Previous research has shown that teachers tend to perceive students from lower-income families as inadequately prepared for school and to set lower achievement expectations for them than for students from higher income families. In line with these earlier studies, I find that the less financially well-off a teacher’s students are, the less responsibility she takes for their learning (a decrease of 0.18 standard deviations in responsibility for each standard deviation decrease in family income).
From Climb Every Mountain: Teachers who think they should make a difference ... do! In this month's Education Next.

So, educators not taking responsibility for their teaching can have somewhat small but statistically significant detrimental effects on student performance.

Big Wrap-up

Let's connect these dots. Ed schools don't teach teachers well. As a result, teachers don't know how to teach students how to read, among other things, very well. This alone causes serious achievement problems since reading is the gateway subject. Kids that don't know how to read well, quickly develop motivational and engagement problems creating even more achievement problems. And finally, educators not taking responsibility for teaching can exacerbate the problem even more.

So teachers, when you blame external forces (such as motivation) on student failure, you not only have the cause and effect backwards, you may also be contributing to the probem.

Now you can color in the drawing we just made and hang it on the fridge so you don't forget what we learned today. I'm getting tired of repeating it.


Anonymous said...

Well said! and lest we forget "Language based math" programs like Growing with Mathematics. Without the proper grounding in reading, these kids are S.O.L.

Anonymous said...

It's not just language-based math that causes poor math results. All of the fuzzy, lower grade math programs expect little practice and slow the pace way down.

Our (affluent community) public schools still try to get some of the kids to know their adds and subtracts to 20 in third grade. It's the same effect. Some kids will pick up the skill very easily and you could use almost any program, except for the very slow pace. Most kids, however, need lots of practice and instruction. They don't get the practice because schools think that this is drill and kill. Schools only worry about concepts and thematic (trivial) real-world connections. They see no connection between mastery of the basics and understanding. They mistakenly connect practice with rote and no understanding. Math is cumulative and takes lots of practice for most kids. Schools that don't take responsibility for making sure kids meet skill-level goals each year end up creating kids who will hate math. Ironically, these kids will think that they are "just not good in math", as if it is some sort of genetic thing. My impression is that many schools somehow believe that it takes some special sort of "math brain" to be good in math - that instruction can only do so much. Perhaps this is because only those who find math easy will survive really bad math curricula.

Our K-8 public schools only offer what I call algebra lite on top of CMP for all 8th graders. Nobody can get anything else - on purpose. The school knows that the content of this course does not tie in with the Calculus math track in high school. The justification for this is that our schools did a self-study and found that our kids "hold their own" in high school compared to other towns that offer three levels of math in 8th grade (pre-algebra, algebra, and advanced algebra). Astonishingly, this did not raise any questions for them.

I say that if the schools want parental involvement, many of us parents will give it to them. What we parents want to be involved with are expectations, philosophy, curricula, and accountability - not making sure that little Johnnie did his fuzzy homework.

Schools don't get very far with self-analysis. They set things up based on their own philosophy and educational biases. Some kids will always do well, so there will always seem to be some level of success, no matter what they do. Rather than examine their fundamental assumptions, they will only look for relative improvements, like tweak the teaching process, more money, smaller class size, and more parental support. With so many variables, it's very easy to focus on only small, relative changes, rather than fundamental assumptions and externally-defined, high expectations.

One of the reasons that many public high schools do so well is that they separate students by ability and must provide courses that lead up to the externally-defined AP courses. Unfortunately, many of the kids who are able to get into the good high school tracks are the ones who got outside help (parents or tutors) or would do well no matter what. A number of parents have told me that the idea is to send your kids to private K-8 schools, and then they can go to a good public high school.

Lower schools have no such external influences. They seem to be stuck in their own low-content, developmentally appropriate, full-inclusion world. They are not prone to scientific self-study. This philosophical wall between K-8 schools and high schools creates a curriculum and expectation gap where only the best (or parentally-supported) students can survive.

1citizen said...

I have seen first hand what can happen to those kids who seem to "get it" effortlessly. It works just fine for K-2 or 3. But when grades 4 and 5 come along, the words they need to know increase at an exponential rate. If they don't have a proper foundation, they hit the wall because they can't possibly memorize that many new words.

KDeRosa said...

I've heard the statistic that a child can only memorize about 300-400 words a year. This works out ok for K-3, but then in grade 4 when they are out of the controlled readers, the word deficits become much more apparent, because the (rote) memorization of words doesd not generalize to learning other words all that well.

Anonymous said...

I will say this: on this subject, my arguments vary from what I would usually say. I tend to make arguments similar to those cited above, BUT, recall I am dealing with 10th graders. If my kids are lacking in reading, they have to echar ganas--put in some will and effort--to get to where they should be.

As far as the teaching of reading, I should be teaching them to make all kinds of higher order connections, but if they are not to that stage, they have to stick with me to get there. There is nothing I can do if they do not. Further, if those who surround them the rest of the day show the young ones that they don't feel it's worth it, then how are they going to do anything about it?

So, if the temptation is to compare these statistics to anything I, for one, have said, please bear in mind the difference of vantage point.

I am not saying we can't teach first graders who don't want to learn. I'm saying I can't teach 10th graders who don't want to or see any reason to.

KDeRosa said...

I am not saying we can't teach first graders who don't want to learn. I'm saying I can't teach 10th graders who don't want to or see any reason to.

I'm not disagreeing. You shouldn't have to teach kids in tenth grade lacking ninth grade skills. But the bigger point is why weren't these kids properly taught in first to ninth grade before they got to you?

Anonymous said...

As we've been over and over, there are surely a number of factors that my kids are not prepared when they get to me. It is an excellent idea to be sure future classes will be. But in the meantime, the question I'm worried about is how do we help the 10th graders I ALREADY have?

KDeRosa said...

What else is there to do, but to go back and teach them all the things they failed to learn, which I'm sure is all but impossible?

Ryan said...

I've heard the statistic that a child can only memorize about 300-400 words a year.

What do you mean by memorize? Apply during speech, read and comprehend, sound out...?