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.


Unknown said...

Great post, but I have to make one small correction about the BC AP calc test. You can get a three on the test if you know most of AB calc and a superficial amount of BC calc. A three is techinically a passing score, and some colleges choose to grant credit for it. I still don't see why someone who managed a three would possibly need to retake algebra, but it is very likely that he/she would need to retake some calculus in college. I think colleges currently accepting 3's on the BC test need to change their policy.

KDeRosa said...

Hi Stormia.

I agree. Whether the student knows sufficent calculus to merit college credit is one thing in an AP calc course. But getting a 3 or higher in the AP exam does require a fair bit of algebraic understanding. I am still amazed that colleges even offer remedial algebra.

Anonymous said...

"Of course, the developmentally appropriate practices theory remains unproven crackpottery."

At the very least, they can't define how they know when kids are ready. Perhaps they define it as the point when kids can figure out something without much help from the teacher (in child-centered groups). If teachers have to work at it, then kids are not ready yet.

"That's after two months of reading lessons."

As a Kindergarten teacher told us. "I get many kids who can read an encyclopedia, but they don't know what it means." In other words, shut up and go away.

"The Hurried Child" angle is used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Lots of different things are going on in education. "The Hurried Child" is the least of the problems, but it's used to justify all sorts of low expectations that have absolutely nothing to do with hurry.

I could really get started on CMP - but maybe in a couple of days.

KDeRosa said...

As a Kindergarten teacher told us. "I get many kids who can read an encyclopedia, but they don't know what it means." In other words, shut up and go away

I love that little bit of nonsense. The implication bwing that they somehow teach "meaning" better, even though they can't teach decoding properly.

The simple fact is if the kids can decode quickly and skillfully and if the decoded words are in his oral vocabulary he will attend to the meaning.

Anonymous said...

Then would you be amazed to find that universities offer remedial PRE-algebra courses, or that they are some of the highest enrollment courses in the math departments?

KDeRosa said...

Amazed? No, not any more. But I'm long since jaded.

Rightwingprof, does state college release their remediation rates?

I would think that the college remediation rate is one of the best indicators of how well schools are preparing their students.

Anonymous said...

Do they release remediation rates? Well yes and no. The schedule of classes is accessible to the public, and provided you know which class number is a remedial class, you can see how many are enrolled in how many sections.

I should have made it clear, though, that remedial classes are not for credit. That, at least, is something.

KDeRosa said...

I just found a report released just yesterday on remediation rates. See here.

If colleges were really interested in shining the spotlight of shame on high schools, they could match up their students in need of remediation with the high schools they come from and release a nice report every year. If a fair percentage of colleges did this, we'd have a good indication of exactly how prroly many schools are preparing kids for college level work.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I've run into in trying to collect data is the Privacy Act of 1974. We teach a two-semester class sequence, and wanted to analyze the data over the two semesters. Well, we couldn't. Why? Because that would entail tying a grade to a student, and you can't do that because of the Privacy Act. We did, eventually, but we had to assign an arbitrary key to students to do so, and then, the university threw up all sorts of roadblocks. First, we couldn't do it at all and had to analyze aggregated data. Then we could do it, but only if nobody had access to the real identity of those keys we assigned (obviously, somebody had to have that data). Then there was the "somebody could sue" line from the attorneys. Only after endless meetings were we allowed to collect data on our own students.

So I do sympathize with anybody who wants to do any kind of real analysis in education. Been there, done that.