August 31, 2006

The Last Word (Hopefully) on Class Size Reduction

Never willing to let well enough alone, Mike in Texas, dredged up the class-size debate in the comments of this post again. I'm weary of the need to rehash these arguments over and over in comments battles so I'm going to make this post my definitive class size rebuttal post and just link to it when the need arises.

Executive Summary

Class size reduction in and of itself is not a proven technique for raising student performance. Class size reduction in combination with other factors does form a necessary factor in successful programs that do raise student performance. In any event, the research on classs size generally stinks; it is riddled with methodological shortcomings and typically shows small effect sizes. Given this and the high expense reducing class sizes entail along with the present teacher shortage, reducing class size does not represent a good investment for raising student performance.

I. The Hanushek Krueger meta-analyses

Both Hanushek and Krueger performed a meta-analysis on the extant class size research. For policy purposes, their conclusions are the same.

A. Hanushek (The Evidence on Class Size) (The Class Size Debate)

In a meta-analysis of 59 studies yielding 277 estimates of the effect of class size in student achievement, Hanushek found that 14.8% of these estimates were positive and significant. That is, students in smaller classes showed significantly higher achievement than their counterparts in larger classes. The remaining estimates were either insignificant (no difference in achievement – 71.9%) or negative and significant (smaller classes had lower achievement — 13.4%).

B. Krueger (Economic Considerations and Class Size) (The Class Size Debate)

Krueger reanalyzed the studies in Hanushek's meta-analysis using three alternate methods of analysis, only one of which is not controversial. Krueger found that 25.5% of these estimates were positive and significant. The remaining estimates were either insignificant (61.2%) or negative and significant (10.3%).

Much like hanushek found, a majority of studeies had insignificant or negative results.

C. Effect Sizes

The Hanushek-Krueger debate is all but academic. Here is the important finding by Hanushek that makes the debate academic:
More importantly, the estimated magnitudes are very small. A class size reduction of 10 students, which approximately cuts average class size in half and represents a 2½ standard deviation movement, is never estimated to yield more than 0.12 standard deviations improvement in student achievement for the results that are statistically significant. When results are separated for students eligible for free or reduced lunches, the performance of disadvantaged students is found to be more sensitive to class size: A 10 student reduction in class size reductions could yield as much as 0.19 standard deviations (in fifth grade math performance). Estimated class size effects for students ineligible for free or reduced lunch are, however, less than half the size of those for disadvantaged students and are more frequently insignificant.
This finding is not in dispute.

It's generally recognized that effect sizes smaller than about 0.25 standard deviations are not educationally significant. In other words, in the real world it is not worth pursuing an intervention whose research only procurred having such a tiny effect size. To put it in persepective, in theory your typical Title I school performing at the 20th percentile (80% of the kids are not at grade level) would only be boosted to the 28th percentile (72% of the kids below grade level) with the application of an intervention having a 0.20 effect size. In reality the increase would be less than that.

II. Project Star

The big kahuna of misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misued education research -- Project Star.

Project Star should be the poster child of what ails education research. To educrats Project Star is now slogan -- a talisman they can wave that proves that class size reduction is the panacea for our education woes. Hardly.

Let's start with the methodological flaws in the research which are signficant:

  1. that not all students started the experiment at the same time, because kindergarten was not mandatory or universal in Tennessee;
  2. sizable attrition occurred over the course of the experiment because of mobility and other factors, and this attrition was likely not random;
  3. parents,teachers, and schools knew they were part of an experiment and, because of pressures from parents, part of the experiment was compromised by re-assignments of students;
  4. no achievement tests were given before kindergarten, making it difficult to analyze whether elements of the random-assignment process contributed to any subsequently observed achievement differences;
  5. approximately 6 percent of the students were transferred across treatment groups at the end of the first year of the experiment; and
  6. there was some drift from the target class sizes of 15 and 22 so that there is actually a distribution of realized class size outcomes over time in both treatment groups.

Each of these issues has been raised by the initial researchers (e.g., Finn and Achilles, 1990) and by later interpreters of the results (e.g., Mosteller (1995) and Krueger (1997)), but the experimental data do not provide information that permits fully ascertaining the effects of such possible problems.

These methodological flaws remain unrebutted and go right to the heart of whether project STAR is even valid research. But, let's not get caught in that thicket. We don't need to even go there. Once again small effect sizes come to our rescue.
The Lasting Benefits Study, which has traced students after the end of the STAR experiment, showed that students from the small K-3 classes maintained most of the prior differences through the sixth grade (Nye et al., 1993). Comparisons of small versus regular classrooms yielded effect si
zes on the norm-referenced third grade tests of 0.24 and 0.21 for reading and math, respectively (Word et al., 1990). In the sixth grade, three years after the end of any differential resources for the two groups, the effect sizes for comparisons of students previously in small versus regular classrooms were 0.21 and 0.16 for reading and math, respectively (Nye et al., 1993). In other words, the differentials in performance found at kindergarten remain essentially unchanged by third grade after class size reductions of one-third were continuously applied (see figures 6 and 7) and remain largely unchanged by sixth grade after class size returned to its prior levels for another three years. This latter finding leads to rejection of the fall-back model and indicates that class size reductions after kindergarten have little potential effect on achievement
Once again we are confronted with educationally insignificant effect sizes. And even these miniscule results required reducig class sizes down to 13-17 students. And, don't forget about all the methodological flaws casting serious doubts on even these reults.

See tables 2 and 3 (pp. 20-22) of this study for a complete list of effect sizes obtained in STAR.

III. Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE)

Think of SAGE as STARs ugly step-sister. Although, it is commonly believed that SAGE evaluated the effects of reducing class sizes, it did not. Class size reduction was only one component of the intervention. Here are some of the other components:
  1. a longer school day and increased collaboration with community organizations
  2. a more rigorous academic curriculum
  3. staff development and accountability mechanisms
So which of these factors contributed to increased student achievement? We don't know. If you want to implement the SAGE intervention, it's a package deal. You have to do class size reduction plus the three other not-insignificant components.

So, what's your reward at the end of the day? You guessed it -- the usual, small effect sizes:

Effect Sizes After Three Years in SAGE
Math: 0.193
Reading: 0.136
Language Arts: 0.350
Total: 0.213

Once again we have mostly educationally insignificant effect sizes.


The research, such that it is, simply does not suppport the commonly held notion that reducing class sizes will have an educationally significant effect on student performance. There are many other reasons why teachers are giddy for reduced class sizes, but improved student performance is not one of them.

This seems counterinuitive, even paradoxical. I agree. Let me offer an explanation. Ineffective teaching practices are relatively immune to class size changes. The system is just as broken with 15 kids in the class as it is with 30 kids. Throwing a few more kids in a classroom isn't going to break the sytem any more than its already broken. Teachers generally present material inefficiently and without regard to whether students are actually learning. Certainly some kids are learning the material -- the same top 25% who've always learned no matter how poorly the material is presented. Gaining a few extra a minutes a day of teacher time through reducing class size isn't enough to significantly alter this dynamic. As a result failure persists.

On the other hand, effective teaching practices are very sensitive to class size issues. I'll discuss those conditions in part II along with why I ultimately conclude that teacher presentation size is a critical component to increasing student achievement in highly effective instructional programs at least at the elementary school level.

Take me right to Part II.

August 30, 2006

My First Fan

Back in April, I took to task an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press which bought into the defeatist educrat crititicisms of Minnesota's plan to teach algebra to all 8th graders. One of my criticisms was that the article interviewed a bunch of kids instead of real experts. One of those kids was Therese Harrah.

Therese Harrah is in algebra this year and thinks about half her classmates could take the class. She also thinks there's a big fear of math out there that students could overcome by taking good notes, following directions and taking the problems one step at a time.

"People think it's really hard because of all the equations, variables and exponents," Therese said. "But as soon as you learn how to break down the solutions in different parts, it's not that hard."

Here's what I wrote.
Poor Therese has already bought the "blame the student" meme. It's the kids' fault they didn't do well. They need to take better notes, follow direction better and solve the problems systematically. Isn't this the teacher's job? To, you know, teach how to do this stuff?

Algebra really isn't very hard. So long as you've mastered elementary math. Then it's just a matter of "learn[ing] how to break down the solutions in different parts" according to little Therese. Of course, you learn how to do this by being taught how to do it. It's only hard if you're not taught how to do it well. And, if you're not taught it well, you can forget about calculus. And, if you can't do calculus well, then you can forget about a career in math, science, or engineering -- i.e., the high-paying careers.
Lo and behold, four months later Terese Harrah (or at least someone from St. Paul who found this blog by googling her name) has responded.
umm... excuse me?? i'm that "little therese". not kidding. i'm the girl in that article. i didn't say that it was the students fault, but, c'mon, not every 8th grade student is perfect! do you expect evry student to take perfect notes and always study for tests? no way! it's not the students fault, or the teachers. mary hoffman is a great teacher who actually got me to enjoy math. she works hard and loves her job. so it's not the teachers fault, and it's not entirely the parents fault either. it's a combination of all three. i don't pay attention in class, i get a poor grade. the teacher doesn't teach, i get a poor grade. the parents don't help or support, it affects my grade. so don't go around saying, "poor little therese got it wrong" when in fact you don't have YOUR story straight!
I think Therese has been reading The Education Wonks.

I'll just point Therese to this post and see if she can figure out the correct solution for herself by breaking down the solution problem into different parts and solving.

Parental support is always a good thing. But, if the material was being presented properly in school, the need for parental support would be greatly diminished. Parental support is a crutch for inadequte teaching.

Of course, students do need to pay attention. But, how well they pay attention is a function of how well the material is being taught and how well previous teachers have taught previous material. As it turns out, kids who have difficulty manipulating algebraic expressions usually haven't learned how to manipulate fractions all that well either. So what are they doing in algebra class? I'll answer that: not paying attention because they are lost.

In order to do algebra these kids have to learn not only algebra and all the math they didn't learn in previous years. Learning algebra is difficult enough by itself. The problem is exacerbated because these kids are likely lower performers and have a difficult enough time in the first place.

This is a common misconception about how kids learn. Teachers make this same mistake all the time, so you can't blame Therese for faliing into the same trap.
Many teachers believe that lower performers are something like crippled children. They can walk the same route that the higher performers walk, but they need more help in walking...

The information these teachers receive about low performers is that they do not retain information, that they need lots and lots of practice, and that they don’t seem to have strategies for learning new material. Ironically, however, all these outcomes are predictable for students who receive the kind of instruction these students have received. High performers receiving instruction of the same relative difficulty or unfamiliarity would perform the same way. Let’s say the lower performers typically have a first-time-correct percentage of 40%. If higher performers were placed in material that resulted in a 40% first-time-correct performance, their behavior would be like that of lower performers. They would fail to retain the material, rely on the teacher for help, not exhibit self-confidence, and continue to make the same sorts of mistakes again.
From Student-Program Alignment and Teaching to Mastery, pp. 14-15.

Don't feel bad Therese, even the mighty EdWonk has stumbled on this same issue.

Let's Go to The Videotape

All you need to know about the sad state of public education is contained in two graphs I made up (with the help of my buddy Excel) based on data I painstakingly collected from S&P's Schoolmatters for the state of Pennsylvania.

The first graph plots student achievement vs. instructional expenditures for the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania.

The correlation between instructional expenditures and student achievement at these funding levels is random (R2 = 0.0013). Below the median (about $6700) we have a scatterplot. Above the median we see the residual effects of SES sneaking in. Above the regression line we see a lot of affluent school districts who have fallen prey to their monopoly rent-seeking school districts. Below the regression line we see mostly big city districts with lots of state and federal funding being pumped in and having little affect on student achievement.

These effects become clearer when we go to the next graph, student achievement vs. median household income:

The correlation between household income and student achievement is 0.42. That's a pretty good effect size for the social sciences. The data is a bit noisy because the PSSA data (which I'm using for student achievement) is not a very good measure of student achievement and the household income data is community based data, which may not correspond exactly to the student's household data. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that family income is a good predictor of academic success. An even better predictor would be parental education, which I'll scrounge up soon hopefully. The best predictor would be student IQ, but we don't have that data.

So when Affluent School DistrictTM claims that they educate your kids better, thus justifying the high tax rates, you can tell them that their value-added is minimal. Their performance is mostly the result of student ability. They've been dealt a better hand. Same is true for the supposedly bad schools at the lower end. Their performance is a product of the students they get.

The affluent schools don't do a much better job with their poor and minority kids and the bad schools would do almost as good a job with the higher ability kids. The fact of the matter is that in the end most schools teach the same hodge-podge of faddish crap. A few really good teachers doesn't make much of a difference, education is the by product of many teachers over the course of many years. It all evens out.

Schools Causing Increasing Remediation

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a high-school focused think tank, released a report yesterday on the cost of remediation for community colleges. Here are the money grafs:
Of those who enter high school, only about 70 percent will graduate--—one of the lowest rates among industrialized nations (Greene & Winters, 2006). As important, however, is the fact that, of those who do receive a diploma, only half are academically prepared for postsecondary education (Greene & Winters, 2005). A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam confirms this; half of the students were ready for college-level reading assignments in core subjects like math, history, science, and English (ACT, 2006).
If these figures are accurate, 30% of students drop out of high school and of those that remain half are unprepared for the rigors of college.
When the increased demand for postsecondary education is coupled with the poor preparation many students receive in high school, it is perhaps not surprising that colleges and universities are being forced to offer, and often require, remedial courses to large numbers of students. These classes have the sole objective of teaching pre-collegiate subject matter. Across the nation, 42 percent of community college freshmen and 20 percent of freshmen in four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial course (NCES 2004b). That is almost one-third of all freshmen.
Inside Higher Education puts these figures in better context.
Bob Wise, president of the organization, said that the new estimates are probably on the "very conservative"” end because the numbers do not include students who attend four-year public or private colleges, nor older community college students. Additionally, they assume that each student takes only one remedial course.
So at least 1/3 of students are so unprepared that they need to take remedial courses upon entering college. And bear in mind that many high school grads choose not to go to college at all. It is likely that these kids represent the bottom of the academic curve, so its safe to say that they would also require remediation that is likely even more extensive.

And, here's the most important graf:
Research shows that the leading predictor that a student will drop out of college is the need for remedial reading. While 58 percent of students who take no remedial education courses earn a Bachelor'’s degree within eight years, only 17 percent of students who enroll in a remedial reading course receive a BA or BS within the same time period (NCES, 2004a).
It all comes back to elementary school. Kids in need of remediation in college are not being properly prepared in high school. Kids who aren't being prepared in high school are the ones who aren't learning how to read and do basic math in elementary school.

In the elementary years, schools have much more control and influence over students (the peer effect has not yet kicked in) and yet they continue to fail miserably at the task of education.

August 29, 2006


I stumbled upon a seven part series on education in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A veritable goldmine of he-said/she said journalism. The problem with this kind of lazy journalism is the problem of the U.N. It gives undue credence to those that haven't earned respect and don't deserve it. The problem of the U.N. is legitimizing tin pot dictatorships and giving them a seat at the same table as the democracies. In education journalism, it legitimizes the crackpot and unscientifically-unsound theories of educrats.

Let's go mine the journalistic stupidity shall we.

In Part one of the series they set out the conflict between "accelerating" education too soon and too rapidly and letting kids proceed at their own developmentally appropriate pace.

Parents are taking 3-year-olds to academic tutoring programs, complete with flashcards and homework.

Kindergartners are working on letters and numbers at their desks in the way that first-graders used to do.

Middle schoolers are enrolling in algebra courses a year or two earlier than was once the accepted practice.

High school students are taking colleges courses, signing up for prep classes for the SAT college entrance exam as sophomores, and seeking early college admission more than ever.

Everything is starting earlier and earlier in education.

Unfortunately, the entire conflict is a straw man as you're about to see.

"Acceleration is a widespread phenomenon with a lot of flavors," said Alan Lesgold, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. "Some are good and some are not so good.

"There are parents who think their little darling needs to get ahead of everyone else, starting in preschool and all the way through college. If kids are ready for that, fine. But if they're not, all it does is add more stress."

Second Rule of education journalism. Deans and college professors of education generally don't know what they are talking about when it comes to education. Most of them have never successfully taught lower performing kids, developed a curriculum that successfully taught lower performing kids, or have trained teachers who are successful (on average) teaching low performers and yet here they are teaching the next generation of teachers. You see the problem? You have a better chance getting a coherent answer on education matters from the guy who pumps your gas.

In any event, Dean Lesgold is setting up the beginnings of the "developmentally appropriate" meme that serves as a favored excuse for explaining, for example, why many kids are still not reading by third grade. Kids aren't learning because they aren't ready to learn. They're not ready to learn yet. Nevermind, that they came into kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers and really need to get on with the business of laerning. Let them fingerpaint in kinergarten instead of learning academics. Fingerpainting is developmentally appropriate for them, not learning how to read.

Of course, the developmentally appropriate practices theory remains unproven crackpottery If anything, there are significant counterexamples that almost every kid can begin and be successful in an academic environment at or before kindergarten.

But what do you do when you are an educrat unable to teach many kids? You dream up post hoc rationales excusing your failure. Developmentally appropriate practices is merely an attempt to shift blame for not learning away from schools to the kids. Our educrats excel at this.
All I know is that my daughter, age 3 years 8 months, demanded that we teach her how to read when she saw her older brother learning how to read. She just completed lesson 38 the other day and was able to read, without any pictures or contextual clues the following: "that man has the mail. he is late" Here's what she'll read during her next lesson, "we see a hut. we will run in the hut. we will lock the hut" That's after two months of reading lessons.

Let's get on with the next meme:
Lynn Spampinato, deputy superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said schools were trying to adjust to the realities of the 21st century.

"We don't want education to be the way it was in 1920," she said. "There's more for children to learn today, more exposure to all kinds of information at younger ages. Education doesn't set the values and the pace of society, but it's our job is to prepare students for the world they're going to live in.

"I'm not sure I believe we're pushing children to the edge," she added. "I'd say in many cases we're not challenging them enough."

She almost redeemed herself at the end there. What is so much better about education today than it was back in the 1920s? What really needs to be taught today at the k-8 level, besides how to work a computer, that wasn't taught back in the 1920's? I say nothing. The problem we have in education today is that we haven't improved teaching techniques since the 1920s.

Sherry Cleary, assistant professor of education at Pitt and director of the University Child Development Center, said much depends on what the acceleration is intended to achieve. Encouraging students to challenge themselves and expand their horizons is always a good thing, she said.

"But if they're being pushed to get a head start on college credits mainly so that they can finish early and go to graduate school early and get a job early, one has to wonder, what's the rush?"

So challenging themselves and expanding horizons (two things that can't be measured) is good, but pushing themselves to get a head start on college (which can be measured) is bad. See the difference? I'm still unsure why exactly "rushing" to complete formal education early is so bad. What's so beneficial in putting in boring seat time at your local underperforming school? Just once I'd like to see an educrat on the side of learning more, faster, and better.

The "rush" became a topic of national discussion in 1981, when psychologist David Elkind published his landmark book, "The Hurried Child." It is about to be reissued in an updated 25th anniversary edition.

Today, Dr. Elkind said, the phenomenon is even more prevalent than it was a quarter-century ago.

"It's gone in both directions, up to high school with more Advanced Placement courses and down to infants with computer lap-ware," he said.

"The high school end is probably a good thing, as long as it's not pushing down the curriculum in a way that causes kids to fail.

Some kids can proceed at a faster pace through the material than others. But, pushing down the curriculum doesn't cause the failure. Not adequately teaching the material that came beforehand is the culprit.

"But the early childhood end doesn't make sense from what we know about human development. We are biological beings who grow in stages, able to do some things at some ages and not at others. We don't have a memory system for the first five years because there are no space and time units to put the memory in."

Poppycock. Dr. Elkind obviously doesn't have kids of his own. If there's one thing that young kids have is a memory system and are capable of learning the tiniest of details. The very act of learning how to talk requires an amazing amount of memory and the ability to generalize. How else can we explain the fact that many kids enter kindergarten with significant academic skills already under their belt. Someone taught them or they taught themselves.

Educators agree [Ed: giggle] that offering college electives to high school teens is a largely positive step. Virtually all advocate for courses that allow students to advance their skills and pursue special interests. Some districts have even established "middle college high schools," where at-risk students who don't do well in traditional settings can earn their high school diploma and college credits at the same time.

That makes no sense. How can a kid who isn't doing well with high school material able to do well with college material, especially when it's taught at the same time.

But the younger the child, the more controversial it becomes to push down academic curricula.

Child development experts [Ed: giggle giggle] are in near complete agreement that young children learn best in rich play environments that stimulate the senses in age-appropriate ways, not from standardized drills or flashcards.

This is a good reason why you don't want development experts educating your kids. I'm almot tempted to find the "studies" these "experts" are "in complete agreement" with just to mock them.

Let's skip the bit on Kumon, it's too sensible.

Dr. Cleary, on the other hand, called the downward push of academics to younger ages "a great idea gone awry."

"The whole idea of offering pre-K programs funded by the state was to give these children a really rich range of experiences so that they would be better prepared for school and life. Instead, 4-year-old programs in many places have become miniature kindergartens."

But some say that a rich range of experiences and academic learning are not mutually exclusive.

"I don't know that there is an actual ready point for learning," said Dr. Spampinato. Even if there is, she said, "You don't wait around for it. How can you know they're ready for something unless you expose them to it?

"It's not an either/or situation of play vs. academics. It's how you deliver. Learning can be a lot of fun, and children feel really good when they break the code and learn to read."

That was the he said, she said portion of the article. It works well when you have real experts debating, not so well when one is a crackpot.

Earliness is also a growing factor in middle school math, where algebra is becoming more commonplace at younger ages.

At Pine-Richland Middle School, for example, pupils who qualify with high grade-point averages and test scores are enrolled in what the district calls "pre-algebra" in sixth grade. That leads into algebra in seventh and honors geometry in eighth.

"This is for students who are mathematically advanced," Assistant Principal John Pietrusinski said. He said 50 students were taking sixth-grade pre-algebra this year, but the number who stay in accelerated math drops as the grades advance.

Let me be clear. Almost every kid should be ready to begin learning algebra by the sixth grade, if they started elementary math in kindergarten and it was taught properly. Algebra is only difficult for kids who've not been taught elementary math properly. Whose fault is that?

The real challenge, though, lies in teaching math earlier to all students, not just those who are considered gifted, said Nancy Bunt, program director of the Math and Science Collaborative at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

It's only a challenge when you don't know how to teach. It takes almost no skill at all to teach elementary math to mathematically gifted kids. They practically teach themselves. The kids who do need help learning, the ones dependent on the teaching skills of the school, are the ones who have the problems. Again, whose fault is that?

"The trend is toward introducing concepts of math and science in middle school, where it used to be considered an acceleration. Now the expectation in the state standards is that all students are to be learning it," she said.

Low expectations are the problem. Odd that standards are the driving force behind raising those expectations. Schools weren't exactly doing that on their own.

Instead of teaching the low performers math, they were delaying the teaching of higher level math later and later until they'd pushed it right up to the high school level where the sensible low performers wisely decided not to take those classes. Good scam, huh?

A big reason for the change is the Trends in International Math and Science Studies survey of 1995. The results showed American students were ahead in fourth-grade math but dropped to the bottom in 12th.

"That was a wake-up call," Dr. Bunt said. "The rest of the world was teaching geometry and algebra by eighth grade. We were cramming all the higher-level math into the four years of high school, for those we let learn it at all. You only got it if you were going to college."

Now, she said, educators believe all students can and should learn higher-level math if it's properly presented.

Believing they can do it, is a lot different than actually teaching them to do it. The trick is being able to properly present teach the material.
That does not mean teaching algebra to younger students in the same way it's always been taught to older ones, she stressed; it means changing the methods and curriculum, and laying the foundation for understanding the concepts much earlier than has been the practice.
And now we've run the math train off the tracks. In Edspeak, "laying the foundation for understanding the concepts" is code for constructivist math. A failed method of teaching math to novices. Even when educators identify the right problem there's always room to screw up the solution.

Many believe the change can't happen too soon, as algebra remains a stubborn roadblock for large numbers of American teenagers.

One example: the Los Angeles Unified School District recently made passing algebra a graduation requirement. Some 48,000 ninth-graders took the course in 2004, and 44 percent of them failed. Many went on to repeat the course several times and kept on failing until they gave up and dropped out.

Actually, elementary math remains the problem. Not being able to do elementary math will prevent you from learning algebra in a timely non-frustrating manner.
Connected Math, the middle school curriculum used by the Pittsburgh Public Schools among districts, was designed to introduce mathematical concepts in a way that students could apply to real life, but that program has become something of a lightning rod for debate, Dr. Spampinato said.

"Connected Math is a national issue," she said. "We had the reading wars, and now there's the math wars."

See what did I tell you. Connected Math is a constructivist math program that isn't very good at teaching math. It has no research base. It is controversial because it doesn't work.

The city schools are about to introduce a new algebra curriculum this fall, she said, with the same degree of rigor regardless of whether students take the course in seventh, eighth or ninth grade.

Students who take the course for the first time in ninth grade will have to score at or above grade level. Those who don't will have to take an additional tutorial class each day.

"As of this year, there will be no watered-down supplemental math courses," she said.

Seems almost sensible. Of course, you can't just teach by fiat. Kids need to have learned the prerequisite material before they can learn more difficult material, such as algebra. Algebra isn't necessarily the problem.

At one time, only students at the top of the class were encouraged to take college-level courses in high school. That's no longer the case. Districts increasingly are viewing college courses as way of expanding their offerings and holding students' interest.

"We don't do a great job with high school in this country," Dr. Cleary said. "We bore students half to death and can't understand why they don't want to be there. So when they can register for college electives like psychology or biology, we see them becoming more motivated. They feel the course work is more relevant."

Students are mostly bored because they haven't learned what they needed to learn in K-8 to be able to do the high school level work. Taking watered down college offerings isn't going to help.

Recognizing this, and the fact that college admissions officers increasingly want to see AP and college courses on their applicants' transcripts, the state Department of Education now provides grants to school districts offering college courses to high school students.

In the Pittsburgh Public Schools, juniors and seniors may earn up to 12 college credits a year; the state covers tuition, books and bus passes. Those with a grade point average of 2.5 may take courses at Community College of Allegheny County; those with a 3.0 average may attend Chatham College, La Roche College or Penn State University's McKeesport campus.

"Some students will be able to take more challenging courses than they would have in high school," Dr. Spampinato said. "For others it's exposure they might not otherwise get."

I guess that's one solution, bypass high school altogether, go straight to college. Cut out the underperforming middleman.

Ok. let's skip down to Dr. lesgold's second shot at explaining why he knows best:
"As a strategy for getting into college, [taking AP level course] often works," Dr. Lesgold said. "But it's also a source of huge pressure for kids. Parents want their kid to have the advantage so they push them early on to take SAT prep courses, see a college counselor and do 16 activities.

"The level of pressure doesn't always make sense, and there's some evidence it doesn't entirely work from an educational standpoint."

The dreaded excessive pressure argument again. Jeez.

Theer's a lot less pressure taking difficult courses and passing exit exams when students have been properly prepared. The pressure only comes into play when the students haven't learned what they were supposed to. Again, whose fault is that?

He cited high school calculus as an example.

"We see kids who got a decent score in the AP test, but when they enroll in the university and take a placement test, they have to take algebra over again. They're learning the superficial minimum to score well on a test, but it's gone the next morning. Four months later, they can't remember any of it because they never understood it in the first place. The acceleration didn't really work.
If students can't remember what they've learned the next morning, they don't understand it and probably didn't understand it when they took the test the night before. In fact, I find it unlikely that they passed the AP calc test. Certainly not the BC test. You can't memorize your way to passing that test.

That was exhausting.

August 28, 2006

Irony Noted

The AFTies are at it again.

The AFTies take Edspresso to task for relying on a study on voucher effectiveness that supposedly shows:
A blip in year two, no impact after three years, "uncertain results"
and concludes:
that hardly makes a strong case for vouchers.
And yet ...

Hardly a post goes by on the AFTie blog that doesn't tout the effectiveness of gaining new union members reducing class size based largely on Project STAR which showed a blip in year one and no additional impact after three more years.

Hardly makes a strong case for reducing class size now does it.

August 27, 2006

Here We Go Again

Dennis Fermoyle takes of From the Trenches of Ed. takes offense at a comment I left at The Education Wonks. Dennis is an apologist for public schools. Under communism he would have been called a useful idiot.

I've already responded. Let's see where this goes. I'm thinking I'll be getting emotion and anecdote, raher than data and well reasoned arguments based on same. We'll see.

Feel free to pile on.

August 25, 2006

Let's Run the Numbers

In the comments of my last post, Mark Ruolo reminded me that per classroom expenditures are even more useful than per student expenditures for showing how much funding is really available to our public schools:
For what it is worth, I like to use "per classroom" as well as "per pupil" numbers. In California this year, the state budget allocates about $10K per K-12 student. I find that telling people that this means that we are spending a quarter of a million dollars per classroom (assuming 25 kids per classroom, which seems about right) has more effect than $10K per student.

I think this is because one classroom pretty much equals one teacher and so we get $250,000 per teacher, but everyone "knows" that teachers are underpaid. Well they aren't underpaid at $250,000 per year. The average California teacher gets about $55K/year in salary. Add in some generous benefits and it still looks like $250,000 per out to be enough to pay for a quality education.

Per-student numbers don't easily allow this sort of "obvious" conclusion.
Bear in mind that the Philly school system has about 30% more funds available to it than what's available in California.

But it gets better. California State rep, Tom McClintock, penned an op-ed last year illustrating just how far this kind of money goes. He lopped $3000 per student right off the top to bribe the educrats to stay away from the the schools an education altogether. That left him with about $7,000 per student to spend in the classroom:

To illustrate how we might scrape by at this subsistence level, let's use a hypothetical school of 180 students with only $1.2 million to get through the year. We have all seen the pictures of filthy bathrooms, leaky roofs, peeling paint and crumbling plaster to which our children have been condemned. I propose that we rescue them from this squalor by leasing out luxury commercial office space. Our school will need 4,800 square feet for five classrooms (the sixth class is gym). At $33 per foot, an annual lease will cost $158,400.

This will provide executive washrooms, around-the-clock janitorial service, wall-to-wall carpeting, utilities and music in the elevators. We'll also need new desks to preserve the professional ambiance.

Next, we'll need to hire five teachers, but not just any teachers. I propose hiring only associate professors from the California State University at their level of pay. Since university professors generally assign more reading, we'll need 12 of the latest edition, hardcover books for each student at an average $75 per book, plus an extra $5 to have the student's name engraved in gold leaf on the cover.

Since our conventional gym classes haven't stemmed the childhood obesity epidemic, I propose replacing them with an annual membership at a private health club for $39.95 per month. Finally, we'll hire an $80,000 administrator with a $40,000 secretary because, well, I don't know exactly why, but we always have.

Our bare-bones budget comes to this:
5 classrooms -- $158,400
150 desks @ $130 -- $19,500
180 annual health club memberships @ $480 -- $86,400
2,160 textbooks @ $80 -- $172,800
5 CSU associate professors @ $67,093 -- $335,465
1 administrator -- $80,000
1 secretary -- $40,000
24 percent faculty and staff benefits -- $109,312
Offices, expenses and insurance -- $30,000
TOTAL -- $1,031,877

The school I have just described is the school we're paying for. Maybe it's time to ask why it's not the school we're getting.

It simply boggles the mind how much more efficiently private industry is able to provide basic services and how inefficiently the public sector operates.

Using McClintock's assumptions, we'd have about $10,000 per student to spend for each student in Philadelphia, almost 50% more than in California. With this extra money, we could hire a private trainer for the gym class, hire a car service to chauffeur the kids to and from school, and purchase a few of those fancy smartboards and laptops for each kid.

Did I miss anything?

August 24, 2006

AFTies Obfuscate

I almost broke down in tears when I read this heart-wrenching post over at the AFT blog.
I posted awhile back about TABOR, the spending limitation that may be on the ballot in several states this year. When this idea was floated earlier in Pennsylvania, the state's budget office estimated that if TABOR had passed in 2002, that by 2005-06 the state budget would be 9 percent lower. To get some perspective on this, the school district of Philadelphia was budgeted in 2005-06 to receive $1.139 billion in state aid. A 9 percent reduction is a loss of $104 million.
There they go again, those fat cat bureaucrats cutting school budgets again. It's a crying shame.

But on my way to the tissue box, I realized that although AFTie Ed was claiming to give me "some perspective" on the 9% reduction in state aid that the Philly School District might have to endure under TABOR-like spending limitations, I still didn't understand what was going on behind all those big meaningless numbers.

As Homer Simpson once said, "I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals FLAMING!" And I like my school spending numbers on a per pupil basis; otherwise they don't make sense and you can't gain any sense of perspective.

A 9% reduction in state aid represents a 5.35% cut in total budget. According to Schoolmatters, the Philly School District spend a whopping $12,761 per student back in 2004. A 5.35% cut would have brought them down to $12,078. That year, the average school in PA, spent only $11,294 per student. So even with the cuts, the Philly school district would have been $784 above the average.

Of course, those figures come from 2004 and need to be inflated to 2006 levels. Let's be conservative and say a few percent each year and quick as a wink we're back to about $13,000 per pupil.

No matter how you cut it, even with the potential reduction, there's no getting around the fact that the Philly school district's spends an awful lot of money educating -- or more accurately failing to educate, its students. This isn't Dickens, guv'nor.

So when AFTie Ed says:
And it's important to remember that in each additional year there would likely to be more tough decisions as a result of this initiative.
I'm thinking you only get to $13k per student by failing to have made a lot of tough decisions over the course of many years. There's plenty of fat that could be cut before we get remotely close to "tough."

I wish I had a picture of the palatial building in which the school district administration meets to show you the kind of extravagant waste that exemplifies the Philly school district and which is choking Aftie Ed up just contemplating the potential of cutting.

But, that's why I like per pupil spending so much. Anyone reading the per student figures immediately understands the magnitude of the numbers. In this case you see that not only is the Philly school district spending higher than average even with the cuts, but the raw amount of spending, $13k per student, is high by any reasonable standard. It also makes statements like this:
When people think about spending limits, there is an assumption that belt tightening can happen without consequences. It isn't so.
come off a tad bit melodramatic, bordering on silly. And, that is the advantage of gaining the proper perspective. And, no doubt why AFTie Ed didn't tell you the per pupil figures up front.

An Answer For the Education Wonks

Recently, while engaging in his favorite past time of bashing Sec'y of Ed Spellings (sometimes deservedly), Edwonk pondered:
She'll be more than happy to explain (again) why public school educators are accountable for student progress even when students don't bother to attempt to do their assignments
The answer is simple. When they don't know how to do the work, kids would rather act-up, such as by being disruptive or not attempting to do the work, rather than look stupid in front of their peers. This implies a teaching problem, not a student problem, and that's why schools are held accountable. I knew the answer at the time, but I figured Edwonk was sick of hearing it from me.

Today I was reading this interview with Marion Blank, Director of the A Light on Literacy program at Columbia University, who says pretty much the same thing. Maybe Edwonk will listen to her:

Years ago, when I first started observing classrooms, I was drawn to a simple, but pervasive interaction. A teacher would ask a question, call on a child to answer it and the child would be unable to come up with a satisfactory response. The pain and humiliation that the children experienced were palpable.

I am not referring here to occasional mistakes. Those are an unavoidable part of the learning process. But for many children, the mistakes are frequent. In that situation, they assume a different and pernicious role. Then a multi-dimensional force takes hold that includes a sense of helplessness, the anxiety of being exposed and the repeated shame of making mistakes in front of others, including powerful authority figures and one's peers. I chose to call this force error dynamics.

Children are keenly aware of what is happening. That's only reasonable. Think back to your experiences in the classroom when you did not know the answer and prayed the teacher would not call on you. Remarkably, that fear lingers on-- for years after our school days are distant memories. It's why adults avoid sitting in the first row in a lecture hall—they want to make sure that just in case the speaker asks a question, they are not the ones who might be called on to answer.

Amazingly, this force goes virtually unrecognized by both teachers and parents.
This is why successful instructional programs carefully scaffold student learning so that students, even the slow ones, can answer a high percentage of the questions successfully. It's an important rule. In Direct Instruction programs it is rule one:

Rule 1: Hold the same standard for high performers and low performers. This rule is based on the fact that students of all performance levels exhibit the same learning patterns if they have the same foundation in information and skills. The false belief that characterizes the conventional wisdom about teaching is that lower performers learn in generically different ways from higher performers and should be held to a lower or looser standard. Evidence of this belief is that teachers frequently have different "expectations" for higher and lower performers. They expect higher performers to learn the material; they excuse lower performers from achieving the same standard of performance. Many teachers believe that lower performers are something like crippled children. They can walk the same route that the higher performers walk, but they need more help in walking.

These teachers often drag students through the lesson and provide a lot of additional prompting. They have to drag students because the students are making a very high percentage of first-time errors. In fact, the students make so many mistakes that it is very clear that they are not placed appropriately in the sequence and could not achieve mastery on the material in a reasonable amount of time. The teachers may correct the mistakes, and may even repeat some parts that had errors; however, at the end of the exercise, the students are clearly not near 100% firm on anything. Furthermore, the teacher most probably does not provide delayed tests to assess the extent to which these students have retained what had been presented earlier.

The information these teachers receive about low performers is that they do not retain information, that they need lots and lots of practice, and that they donÂ’t seem to have strategies for learning new material. Ironically, however, all these outcomes are predictable for students who receive the kind of instruction these students have received. High performers receiving instruction of the same relative difficulty or unfamiliarity would perform the same way. LetÂ’s say the lower performers typically have a first-time-correct percentage of 40%. If higher performers were placed in material that resulted in a 40% first-time-correct performance, their behavior would be like that of lower performers. They would fail to retain the material, rely on the teacher for help, not exhibit selfconfidence, and continue to make the same sorts of mistakes again.
Eventually, these low-performers make it into Edwonk's history class after years of enduring this sort of academic abuse. Edwonk observes that these kids aren't interested in attempting to do the work anymore. Based on this observation, Edwonk concludes that it's the kids' fault. In actuality, it is the school's fault by failing to teach the material in a way that these kids could have successfully learned it.

Edwonk's mistake is a mistake of dead reckoning. He is basing his conclusion on what he observes in the classroom without a full understanding of the underlying problem and its causes.

We have never successfully taught low performers. The system has always been broken. This is why teachers are frequently wrong when they opine on education policy matters. What they know is based mostly on observations of a broken education system (and whatever crap they happened to learn at ed school). This is also why there aren't many good solutions coming out of the education establishment.

They don't understand the problems, let alone the solutions, and the system has ossified into a state in which change and innovation are all but impossible from within.

Dissent Crushed

Brad at Hun-Blog has shut down further debate on the whole heredability of IQ and the effects of SES dabate. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. My parting shots in the updates.

For my next trick, I'll slay Brad's other sacred cow: constructivism. Is it a useful pedagogy for teaching novices with little domain knowledge? I say no.

Update: Brad posts a letter from a lead-poisoning researcher who discusses the effects of lead poisoning on IQ. Lead poisoning is a bad thing. Fortunately, at levels where it becomes a known medical problem it is exceedingly rare. However, recently activists have been claiming that even tiny levels of lead exposure cause damage and may affect IQ. Unfortunately for theactivists, those "studies" are junk science:

As was pointed out in the New England Journal of Medicine, “...the investigative bodies found Needleman’s studies scientifically flawed... involving a ‘pattern of errors, omissions, contradictions and incomplete information...’ The University of Pittsburgh... stated that had Needleman accurately described his methodology and subject selection, he ‘would have risked rejection’ of his article by the New England Journal of Medicine. In addition, the [federal] Office of Research Integrity cited misplotted graph points, which were found ‘difficult to explain as honest error’...”

Subsequent studies, generally conducted by activist-researchers such as Lanphear, purport to support Needleman’s original claims. But the studies suffer from the same basic flaw: their weak statistical associations between blood lead levels and learning and behavior problems could easily be explained by socio-economic factors not adequately considered by the researchers.

Female Dominance in College

The Quick and the Ed comment on the growing female dominance on college campuses.

I think its a cause for concern, but not really a cause for alarm, at least not yet. Here's why:
  1. Men are still over-represented in the hard sciences, the fields that are actually useful and where real work continues to get done. These are the B.S. fields. Men dominate these degrees. Women, on the other hand, dominate the less useful to totally useless B.A. fields. According to the NCES: females graduate with less than 50 percent of degrees in only five areas: agricultural and natural resources (45%), computer information sciences (28%), math (48%), engineering (20%), and physical sciences (41%). Business management is evenly split.

  2. Men have more sufficiently well-paying blue-collar job opportunities available to them. Women gravitate to more pink collar jobs where there is more the need for a college credential, even if it is a only a B.A. credential.
So, I'm not ready to send up the warning flares just yet. However, I'm still concerned that our over-feminized and radicalized K-12 school system is causing much of the problems we're seeing to men at the margins. Those who have the brainpower to earn a college degree, but who are so turned off by the 13 years of nonsense they are forced to endure before getting there.

Summer Slide

Hardly a day goes by that I don't come across another clueless newspaper article on education.

Today's article comes courtesy of the Boston Globe. Ostensibly, it's about the so-called summer slide kids experience after school ends in the spring. The article focuses on cutesy summer enrichment programs that supposedly help kids keep their minds active during the summer which I'll gloss over. That's all well and good, but as you're about to see, the article gets the whole cause and effect thing wrong. I'll skip over the portions on the enrichment programs and get right to the meat of the problem.
Worried about the so-called "summer slide," the attrition of hard-won academic gains in the absence of daily lessons and homework, they increasingly are searching for creative ways to help children stay mentally sharp during vacations.
The "summer slide" is not the attrition of hard-won academic gains in the absence of daily lessons and homework. It is the attrition of academic skills that were never adequately learned in the first place.

Educators are supposedly the experts in learning, yet they are invariably clueless when it comes to student learning and retention of learned material. It's not due to lack of research on learning and retention; it is because they continue to ignore the research.

Whenever I run across one of these pseudo-problems in education I always turn to one of the successful instructional programs to see how they handle the "problem." Invariably, they are not only cognizant of the problem, they have successly avoided or cured it. This time I'll turn to the succesful Direct Instruction program, always a fertile source of knowledge on learning. Here's what they've said on the issue.
Teachers had been told the ASAP policy for placing students at the beginning of the school year: Go back no more than five lessons in the program sequence and bring students to a high level of mastery on the material. This firming is to take no more than five school days. After the review, students should be well prepared to pick up in the program where they had finished in the spring.

The teachers were openly skeptical about this procedure, and they ignored it. They argued that, over the summer, students forget much of what they had learned. We told them that learning didn’t work that way. We pointed out that there is a lot of literature on learning and retention that shows that even if something that had been thoroughly learned and had not been practiced for years, there would be great “savings” in the amount of time needed to reteach this material to mastery. Therefore, if appropriate placement for students in the fall (based on error performance) is 80 lessons behind where they finished in the spring, the only possible conclusion is that they had never learned the material in the spring.
To summarize: the summer slide is caused by not adequately teaching the material the first time it was taught, not by kids keeping their mind active during the summer. educators are once again the problem. End of article.

Actually, it's not the end because educators will never admit that they're the problem. So let's have some fun with their creative rationalizations and excuse making.
Concerns over youngsters losing ground while school is out have intensified amid pressure to raise standardized test scores and cover required state standards, leaving little time to review material students have forgotten.
Put another check mark in the "pro" column for NCLB. Educators are now focusing on what students are learning (or failing to learn) under NCLB. The implication being that they weren't so much concerned beforehand, which, of course, is true.

And what's up with this: "pressure to raise standardized test scores and cover required state standards." Another way of saying this is "pressure to learn what the state wants them to learn and be able to demonstrate on a standard testing instrument what they've learned." Another word for this is school.

And, needing "time to review material students have forgotten" can be more accurately expressed as needing "time to re-teach material that was not taught properly the first time around." See how easy it is to understand the solution once you've identified the problem.

In a study released in June, the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that students typically lose one to two months of reading and math skills during summer break, and that teachers often spend up to six weeks reviewing topics already covered.

The summer slide also is widely blamed for causing low-income and minority students to fall further behind their peers, particularly those who maintained or advanced their skills during the summer months.

The ability to maintain and advance skills depends on how well those skills where taught in the first place. Students desire to advance their skills on their own also depends on how well they learned those skills the first time around. Poor understanding coupled with lots of errors does not an enthusiastic student make.

As the study survey shows, not teaching properly typically results in the loss of about 20 to 40 days of instruction due to having to review old material not taught adequately. Even more for low-income and minority kids. Engelmann pegs the the number at 80-100 lessons (1/2 the school year):
In the first ASAP schools we worked with in Utah, teachers routinely placed continuing students at the beginning of the school year 80 to 100 lessons behind the last lesson they had completed the preceding spring.
Reteaching wastes a lot of instructional time. No surprise. Let's see what educators are doing to remedy the problem:
In response to the concerns, teachers are urging students to read more over the summer; libraries and reading-advocacy groups are creating book lists and incentive programs, like Quincy's weekly raffle for book-readers; and schools are offering more tutoring and enrichment classes.
These are all "blame the student" solutions. Even the notion of "the summer slide" pegs the problem squarely on the kids. It's their fault they are regressing.

Nonetheless, the educrat solution is still "reteaching." They're just shifting the reteaching to the summer time with tutoring and enrichment classes or having them read on their own. Can we say opportunity costs.

It gets better.
And more students are attending programs such as Camp Invention, where enrollment has nearly tripled in the past three years to nearly 100 students. The program's popularity, teachers said, is the result of striking a balance between education and good summer fun. True, the projects are aligned with national science standards, but the students don't have to know that.

"It's almost as if they don't know they're learning," said Erin Wiesehahn , director of the Duxbury Camp Invention program and a third-grade teacher.
Yeah, that's probably because if the teaching is the same as what was going on in the spring, they're probably not learning all that much now anyway.
[M]any parents are searching for ways to incorporate reading into summer vacation, and that children are looking for books that will capture their interest. A Scholastic survey has found that parents and children overwhelmingly believe that summer reading helps children perform better once school starts.
Good thing we took that survey then. Now we know what parents "believe" will help children perform better instead of following actual research that tells us what actually is effective in getting children to learn better.

Why do I think that educators also overwhelmingly said the same thing on the survey. The blind leading the deaf and blind.
"It's a major contributor to the achievement gap," he said. To Fairchild, the popular perception of summer as time off from learning needs to change, and he urges educational trips, frequent visits to the library, and daily math refreshers to keep children mentally active.
Summers now contribute to the achievement gap. Say good-bye to your summers low-income and minority kids. I hear a thousand newspapers articles being penned lamenting the loss of summer for these kids in a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine NCLB.

Notice how the article still hasn't even entertained the idea that the teaching could possibly be at fault or a major contributing factor. Of course, also left unsaid is that bad teaching disproportionately affects the most vulnerable students -- the low-income and minority ones.

Barbara Garvey , an eighth-grade English teacher in Brockton, said she can spot summer sliders right away, as soon as she reads the essays she assigns the first day back. Students who have put their brain on pause for the summer take a while to shake off the cobwebs.

"If they've been sitting by the TV all summer, it takes them a good two weeks to get back into the school scene," she said. "You can tell right away who's been reading and who hasn't. The ones who have are right on target."

There's one more persons whose brain is also on pause.

If you look at who was reading over the summer and who wasn't, you're not going to see that the students who were reading well in the spring are the ones doing the most reading and the ones doing the worst, doing the least reading.

We're surprised that kids who didn't learn to read well in the spring aren't enthused about reading during the summer? Let's put this preposterous theory to the test. Give all the students an advanced calculus textbook (or anything well over the reading ability of all the students) to read over the summer and see how much any kid reads and how enthused they are doing so.

Summer slide or not, students at the Duxbury camp were a bit hesitant to sacrifice their precious summer hours to attend school. Noah Schulman , a Plymouth first-grader busy creating a golf-like carnival game, said he was having fun, although a swimming break might be nice. He didn't think his brain had turned to mush over the summer, exactly, but acknowledged that it had lost its sharpness.

The old journalistic standby when it comes to reporting education issues. Ask a few kids what they think. Why not ask a real expert on learning and retention, someone who has developed a program where kids actually did learn and retain material over the summer. Here's a nice research-based factoid they might have gotten from Engelmann had they done so:
For several years, the teachers resisted following the fall-placement rules and continued to use their traditional practices. To correct this situation, we documented the mastery of all students several weeks before the end of the school year. We staged “show off ” lessons that were observed. The observations confirmed what students did know, and in some cases, identified some things they had not adequately mastered. Before the end of the school year, students were placed according to the rules about first-time-correct percentages so they were firm in everything that had been presented in the program sequence.

At the beginning of the next school year, we controlled the placement of students to make sure that teachers were placing students no more than 5 lessons behind where they had left off in the spring. Students performed as predicted. After possibly one or two lessons, they clearly performed as well as they had in the spring.

The response of the teachers was overwhelmingly one of disbelief and revelation. Most of them said something like, "I'm amazed. They actually retained what they had learned."

The magnitude of their surprise suggests how strong the belief was that students could not possibly retain the information over the summer. This strong belief had been supported by what they had observed in the past, which was based on spring placements that were far beyond what students had actually mastered.
The take away: teach properly and you only have to reteach for a week. Teach poorly and you could waste a few months reteaching. And, ruin a few summers in the process.

Summer isn't the problem, bad teaching is.

August 23, 2006

The Schemo Agenda

Hack NY Times education activist journalist, Diana Jean Schemo, once again fails to accurately report the news by shading the DoE's report on charter schools. Here's paragraph one:
Fourth graders in traditional public schools did significantly better in reading and math than comparable children attending charter schools, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Federal Education Department.
The findings of the study are uncritically accepted as fact and reported as such without qualification. And notice how it's a "report" not merely a study--an interpretation of data. Now let's see how Schemo tries to bring balance to the story in the next paragraph:
The report, based on 2003 test scores, thrust the Education Department into the center of the heated national debate over school choice. It also drew a barrage of criticism from supporters of charter schools, the fastest-growing sector in public education, who sent out press statements casting doubt on the reportÂ’s methodology and findings even before they were announced.
She discloses that the study is based on old data, but fails to mention its significance. Error by omission. She also lets us know that the study drew a "barrage of criticism," but it came from "supporters of charter schools," thus discrediting the criticisms as coming from biased sources. The motives of the sources are further impugned as Schemo characterizes the means through which the criticisms were disseminated. These are borderline ad hominem attacks.

Now let's take a closer look at the criticisms.Tthe most significant criticism reported is buried deep down in paragraph 13:
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that advocates for charter schools, said the study used a flawed measure of poverty to find comparable students and failed to capture the variety of children attending charter schools and the many types of charters that exist.
Schemo again downplays the criticisms by placing them in the mouth of an advocacy group. This is rather odd. The criticisms are both indisputed, unrebutted and easily verifiable. As such, they are at least as factual as the findings of the study.

Is it that Schemo doesn't know how to analyze research (a real possibility) or does she have an agenda she's trying to hawk? You decide but bear in mind this is the NT Times.

Now lets catalogue the deficiencies, both reported and unreported by Schemo:
  • using old data (paragraph 2)
  • using a flawed measure of poverty (paragraph 13)
  • failure to account for student's prior academic achievement (paragraph 19)
  • oversampling of charters (implied in paragraph 19)
  • merely a correlation study, not a true experiment proving causation (not reported)
  • charters are still new and it takes at least 5-6 years for achievement to stabilize (not reported)
  • using NAEP scores which merely test a sampling of students (not reported)
These criticisms remain unrebutted. They are not presently in dispute. Not only that, but they represent serious methodological shortcomings of the study. As such, they deserve to be placed right up in paragraph one along with the study's conclusions as they seriously undercut the findings of the study. They shouldn't be buried deep in the story and attributed to criticisms by advocacy groups.

Any serious journalist should be able to evaluate the criticisms and rebuttals of any research study before reporting the findings of the study as unqualified fact. Failing to do this means you are either incompetent or a partisan hack. I'm betting Schemo is both.

This is all too typical of journalism today. By and large, journalists do not meet the minimum standards needed to be a professionals. A deadly combination of incompetence, substandard training and preparation at their preparatory colleges, and ideological infection results in their failure to adhere to minimum professional standards. In this respect journalists are like educators and it is not surprising that both groups largely fail in their primary duties. You can't rely on journalists to report the news straight and you can't rely on educators to reliably educate.

August 22, 2006

Good Debate at Hun-Blog

Hun-Blog has a good post on SES, IQ and student achievement and how they affect education policy. I agree with many of Brad's points, but do disagree on others in the comments. Check it out, especially since there is precious little going on in the eduspehere this week.

Update: Well, that was a disappointment. Here's Brad's premise for his entire argument:
I've come to agree with the assumption that there are no biological differences between races of Homo sapiens. That we measure a difference in IQ is thus an unexpected result.
As it turns out, this once fashionable consensus is being taken over by the data. And even though Brad's not giving up the ghost quite yet, the experts he's relying upon already have. (See also response #7 of this recent interview)

So, in fact, there are biological differences, such as different skin colors, tolerance to types of food, resistance to pathogens, facial characteristics, body types, and the like, between human populations. Such differences make differences in IQ in these populations not unexpected.

Without this premise, Brad has no argument. (Brad, that's a little trick I learned in law school, not in science school.)

The take away is that biologically based cognitive differences exist between people that may not be rectifiable through environmental interventions (such as SES doctoring). Someday we may know more about improving cognitive ability through environmental interventions, but today is not that day. Today, we need to accept the reality that a sizable portion of our child population has a diminished cognitive capacity. They need to be educated today using proven techniques, not speculative Rothstienian twaddle based on outdated politically correct consensus "science."

Update 2: Brad has now shut down any further commenting on this issue. In any event he has posted some links to the somewhat recent Turkheimer study, the misinterpretation of which is explained here, here, and here. And, also, here. Here too. I suppose that's why the comments were shut down. Damn those pesky facts.

August 21, 2006

Teaching the Lower Half

One thing that NCLB has done is focus attention on the academic performance of the bottom half of the curve. The attention has not been welcomed with open arms.

Let's face it, for these kids school has been more day care than school. For those that didn't drop out, high school was the end of the academic road for these kids and most states don't have an exit exam to graduate. It didn't really matter whether or how much these kids learned, it only mattered that they put their time in -- twelve long years.

Under NCLB, we now expect these kids to be learning something. Since many of these kids are still not learning what they are supposed to be, excuses must be found to explain this lack of performance.

One popular excuse, especially among teachers in the trenches, is that these kids are disengaged and unmotivated to learn. When teachers tell you this, they think they are telling you the underlying reason or cause for the underperformance. In fact, however, they are merely describing the effect or the symptom.

Kids are not failing to learn because they are unmotivated. Kids are unmotivated because they are failing to learn. When kids are learning, they are motivated to learn more. Learning more keeps them become motivated to learn more. However, once the learning begins to stop, so does the motivation. And, in no time at all the learning train will completely derail. Good luck trying to get the train back on the tracks. Getting kids back on the academic tracks is an exceedingly difficult task in elementary school. It is all but impossible after that time.

The one thing that the kids on the bottom half of the curve have in common is that they are in the process of derailing or have derailed by the time they're completely elementary school. Lack of motivation is the effect observed by the teachers of these kids, but lack of learning was, and continues to be, the root cause.

Let's take a look at how the motivation-learning cycle typically plays out. Let's take a look at an extreme case. Let's take a look at Amanda (pdf) who was diagnosed with Infantile Autism and has an estimated IQ of 63. (With an IQ this low (the bottom 0.68 of the population), Amanda falls into that 1% group who takes an alternate assessment under NCLB.) Here's what Amanda's school psychologist's had to say in her 2nd grade assessment:
She is mildly mentally retarded, and she will never be a rocket scientist or an engineer. All you can hope for is your daughter to get a mediocre job when she is an adult. She might peak out mentally as an 11-year-old, with a reading capability of maybe a third grader.
Naturally, Amanda was placed into special education where she was floundering academically.
She was easily frustrated and discouraged with lessons. Amanda would come home from school and go directly to bed. She spoke in a monotone voice and rarely smiled.
Amanda was not only not learning, but she was also unmotivated.

Her mother began teaching her at home and initially met with the same attitude that teachers are all too familiar with.
Amanda'’s first attitude was, "I can'’t do this!"” Amanda at times would hide under the table and Marsha would have to force her out to do the program.
Amanda had derailed academically. Clearly, Amanda was disengaged and unmotivated for further learning. For most kids, this is where school for learning ends and school as day care begins.

Sure, schools go through all the right motions, but the one thing at which they are consistently poor is jump starting the learning process in kids who are behind and are difficult learners. For many low IQ and low SES kids, this is how schools get them in kindergarten. Basically, these kids never had a chance in most schools.

But, Amanda's mother wasn't about to give. She did what most schools either don't know how or don't want to do. She went back to square one and began the difficult process of teaching Amanda in a way that she was able to actually learn. It wasn't easy.
Marsha estimated that it took around 1,000 repetitions to teach Amanda the first few sentence forms in the ... program.

Probably one of the most difficult initial concepts for Amanda to learn was the individual sounds various letters make. It took Amanda over 3 years to be able to recognize letter sounds.
Eventually, Amanda started to learn again and as a result her motivation returned.
After several weeks, Marsha noticed Amanda'’s confidence and enthusiasm toward the instruction dramatically increasing because she was given tasks that she could perform successfully.

The transformation in Amanda's attitude toward learning new things was also dramatic. She no longer napped when she got home from school. Amanda began drawing pictures that were vibrantly colorful and detailed. Earlier, the occupational therapist had set a goal for Amanda to include three objects in her drawings. Amanda'’s new artwork far surpassed this goal. The transformation occurred not only in academic and psychological areas, it affected her socialization as well. She developed many friendships, was always smiling, loved going to school,
and was happier at home.
Amanda represents the very bottom of the curve. She isn't the typical face of special education either. Most kids in special education do not have the sort of cognitive disabilities that Amanda has. Many special education kids merely have "learning disabilities" which means they are, by definition, of normal intelligence, but simply aren't learning as fast as they should be. And, even these kids don't account for most of the kids failing under NCLB who aren't even in special education.

The one thing most of these kids have in common with Amanda is that they are disengaged from school and unmotivated to learn. However, the advantage that they have is that it should be much easier to get them back on track and learning than it was for Amanda.

We don't necessarily expect schools to work miracles like Amanda's mother, but we do expect them to do a better job with the rest of the lower half of the curve. It doesn't take Rothsteinian socio-economic finagling, it only takes good solid teaching.

Still Spinning Test Scores

The Philly Inquirer continues its tradition of over optimistic reporting of test scores (the PSSA in Pennsylvania). Compare paragraph one:
High schools led the way in state reading and math tests in the Philadelphia region and in Pennsylvania, with 11th graders showing strong gains, an Inquirer analysis [ED. giggle] shows.
with paragraph twenty [Ed: !!]:
Still, districtwide, only about 27 percent of Philadelphia's 11th graders scored at or above grade level in math and only about a third met the standard in reading.
Now that is a buried lede. Nine grafs deeper than their last test score article. But who's keeping track.

In between comes this inexplicable quote:
Philadelphia officials said they were encouraged.
It must not take much.

Scores are not much better statewide:

The state has a long way to go.

A little more than half of all 11th graders scored at grade level in math; 65 percent reached that level in reading.

The NAEP, a test that can't be taught to, tells a different story:

2005 8th grade Reading: 36% at or above proficient

2005 8th Grade Math: 31% at or above proficient

And then we get to see why the Inquirer performed its own "analysis."

Nearly three quarters of Philadelphia's high schools had more students passing math this year. More than one-quarter of the district's schools gained 10 percentage points or more. The numbers were slightly lower for reading.
To put the proverbial lipstick on the pig. Touche. And, also:
In the Philadelphia suburbs, where many schools already score at a higher level, there was much less improvement among 11th graders. Just under half posted gains in math; many schools also showed a decline in reading scores.
To state the ridiculously obvious.

Then we get a few quotes from school administrators who really need some PR assistance:

Plus, Springfield will use a new math curriculum this year, which should boost scores, principal Joseph Roy said.

The new curriculum requires students to do more problem solving, something the PSSA requires, he said.

Er, sure it will. Just like all the other times they've changed curricula in the past. It would help if there were empirical support for the new curriculum. Then there's this gem:
"I don't know why some schools make it and some don't, why some districts make it and some don't," [the principal] said. "We're just glad our effort paid off, for whatever reason."
This from the person in charge of running the school. Egad. Only a state-run monopolist funded by tax dollars could survive such a foolish quote.

Then we have the story within the story which I pieced together from some blurbs in the story.
"District officials attributed some of the improvement to the breaking down of the larger high schools into smaller ones."

"Vallas also cited the leadership of principal Lois Powell Mondesire. She makes time for her teachers to meet and discuss lessons and approaches, he said."

"Bichner said Gratz used in-class coaches in math and English to boost achievement."

"and the district has looked at individual students' performance to see who needs help so they can get it this school year."

"An academic support teacher has been added in the language-arts area for students who need more support, she said. And the principal has reviewed every student's schedule to be sure they are in the classes they need."

"Gillespie said her school worked hard: Teachers and aides worked with small groups of students who needed extra help."

"One teacher became a full-time PSSA skills coach, and the music and art teachers and librarian helped with test skills during their free periods. Parents went to meetings to learn how they could help their students prepare. The chorus program was folded into music class so that students no longer missed math or reading to participate. Field trips were pushed back to after the PSSAs were given. School opened early for morning tutoring."

"'There was so much emphasis on using every instructional minute,' Gillespie said."
I'd title it: "NCLB gets schools to finally take improving seriously."

Many of these things won't be effective and some are downright foolish, but at least schools are beginning to focus on improving student achievement rather than shuffling them off to the special education ghetto. I'd say that's a good thing.

August 16, 2006

Alfie Kohn: Dangerous Jackass

This is an interesting, and all too typical, interview with Alfie Kohn on his new book The Homework Myth. Apparently, it's taken Alfie an entire book to tell us that there really is no credible research either way when it comes to the benefits or harms of homework.

See, it only took me a sentence to summarize the state of the research and that's all it should have taken Alfie, so I suspect Alfie has used the homework meme as a springboard to fill his book with his typical crackpot theories on education. No doubt our gullible educrats will eat this stuff up as they normally do.

Let's begin at the beginning with Alfie being asked about what he's found out about homework.
Well, I began with the premise that, as parents know, homework is often responsible for stress and family conflict, that it gets in the way of other things kids would like to do after they finish six or seven hours of school, and that homework is viewed so negatively by children that it may diminish their interest in learning.
Right off the bat, Alfie has has given us a false premise. Homework is not responsible for stress etc. It is the student's inability to do homework, no doubt because they weren't properly taught the underlying subject matter, which leads to frustration and stress. When students are not able to do school assignments, they quickly become disengaged from school work, both in school and outside of school.

Then there's the problem of homework that is tedious make-work. Kids aren't stupid; they know when they're wasting their time that could be better spent on other more kid friendly endeavors.

There is a kernel of truth in Alfie's statement that "homework is viewed so negatively by children that it may diminish their interest in learning" but the solution is to improve homework, not necessarily get rid of it, as Alfie is endorsing.
But teachers continue to assign homework (in ever greater amounts, in fact, at least in the elementary grades) and parents continue to put up with it – presumably because they assume that the benefits outweigh the costs. Specifically, it's assumed that homework helps kids to learn better, or at least raises achievement levels as measured in conventional ways. So that's where I began. And, amazingly, it turns out that the evidence simply doesn't support this belief.
Nor does the evidence support the belief that homework doesn't help kids learn better. We simply do not know at this time because the research sucks. Just because the research doesn't prove x (homework is beneficial) doesn't mean that you can assume that -x is true (homework is not beneficial). No, that proposition hasn't been proven either, but that's never stopped our boy Alfie from prattling on like he's proven his point for a few more paragraphs.

By this point though Alfie has hooked his gullible readers who don't know how the scientific method works. Alfie has proven that homework is bad. Once again Alfie is right. Now Alfie has a license to say whatever he wants like it's true. He wastes no time:
I see homework as a case study, really – one of many possible examples where our practices are strikingly inconsistent with the data. I propose half a dozen answers. One has to do with widespread misconceptions about learning, including a naïve belief that more "time on task” produces greater success, and a residual acceptance of behaviorist orthodoxy that leads us to talk about “reinforcing" learning through drill and practice.
Too bad Alfie didn't delve into the merits of this research, because he would have gotten bitch-slapped as the know-nothing poser that he is. Of course, practice and time on task are important for learning any human endeavor, including academic learning. Here's a good article by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham discussing the research and explaining why practice is important. Willingham points out that to become skillful at something, such as at reading or math, you must acquire automaticity in many related skills. And guess how you build automaticity? Lots of practice.
Automaticity is vital in education because it allows us to become more skillful in mental tasks. An effective writer knows the rules of grammar and usage to the point of automaticity--and knows automatically to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence, include relevant detail, etc. The effective mathematician invokes important math facts and procedures automatically. Readers who are able to visualize a map of the world will find various books and assignments easier to read (and learn more from them). In each field, certain procedures are used again and again.

Those procedures must be learned to the point of automaticity so that they no longer consume working memory space. Only then will the student be able to bypass the bottleneck imposed by working memory and move on to higher levels of competence. The development of automaticity for generalized skills depends on high levels of practice (e.g., Shiffrin & Schneider, 1984). There is no substitute. Ensuring consistent, sustained practice is the most reliable way to ensure that a student will become an effective reader, writer, or scientist. Following a complex written argument, writing a convincing essay, or engaging in scientific reasoning are all skills that are enabled by the automatization of each discipline’s basics.

I also like this graph:
Even experts do a whole lot of practicing to increase their skills. Yet Alfie Kohn doesn't want your child to practice. Learning is magical, like riding a unicorn over a rainbow to a pot of gold at the end. According to Alfie, that pot of gold is knowledge. Jackass.

It's not about learning after all, says Alfie, it's about chanting:
Then there's the whole Tougher Standards mindset that still has education in its grip, with an emphasis on intensification, test scores, and competitiveness. It's not about helping kids to understand ideas; it's about being able to chant “We're number one!”
It's also about selling books and giving paid speeches around the country to criticize standards and the like, apparently. I guess Alfie forgot to mention that point.
Interestingly, schools that have eliminated traditional homework tend to find that their students are freed up to pursue challenging and deeply gratifying learning activities in the afternoons and evenings. And that's to say nothing of organized extracurricular activities.
I wonder if there's any practice going on when these kids "pursue" these "learning activities" and "organized extracuricular activities." I guess not; practice is a waste of time. No one practices when they pursue organized sports, learn how to play a musical instrument, or learn to draw, sculpt or paint, or play games, such as chess, to name but a few of the more popular extracurricular activites. In fact, even playing video games takes quite a bit of practice to beome good.
The case for letting kids play ball or surf the Internet is strengthened, I think, by the failure to find any research showing that homework is necessary for intellectual growth, to say nothing of its effects on social or emotional development.
Er, actually it's not. It's just a common misuse of the null hypothesis. One of Alfie's favorite tools in his bag of dangerous tricks.

Actually, Alfie likes some homework:
An in-depth project that helps students understand ideas from the inside-out is a hell of a lot better than a packet of worksheets or a requirement to read another chapter of a dull, committee-written textbook and answer the questions at the end. An experiment that needs to be conducted in a kitchen makes more sense than something that could just as easily be done at school. An assignment that the kids together have decided, during a class meeting, ought to spill over to the evening is probably going to have more beneficial effects than an assignment that the teacher unilaterally comes up with and imposes on them. (Or worse, an assignment that the teacher didn't even come up with but just photocopied.)
The usual bromides: Project based learning. Constructicism. Discovery learning.

Un-proven quackery the whole lot of it.

Luckily, we're coming to the end of the interview so the pain will soon stop.
What drives me crazy is the absence of discussion, the reluctance to challenge the status quo, the tendency to fall back on folk wisdom ("practice makes perfect") rather than examining the data
He has absolutely no shame.