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.


Kilian Betlach said...

"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."

Our experience (that was referencing those I work with, not a royal plural) is somewhat different. By grouping by a combination of academic ability and language level, we give our 6-8 graders an opportunity to redefine themselves in relation to their peers. Kids are given the opportunity to be "the smart kid." By pre-teaching material to low-achievers, we further even out disparities in self-perception. When done right, this can be extremely powerful in promoting success in kids who've rarely tasted it, and rectifying many, many years of under-teaching.

Anonymous said...

"It doesn't take Rothsteinian socio-economic finnagling, it only takes good solid teaching."

This is even more true for average kids. Tests (like NAEP) are so easy and the results so bad that one wonders if schools and teachers accept any level of responsibility. It's understandable that an individual teacher feels little responsibility to fix years of bad education, but it's not understandable that they would not fight to fix the systemic problems.

I always think of a sixth grade teacher frustrated by the fact that many of the kids walking into his/her class do not know the times table. Rather than complain loud and long about the lower grade teachers (or the curriculum and expectations), they complain loud and long about how they have to take time out of their class to "teach to the test". It's almost as if these tests don't send up any big red flags for them. Then again, I find that many teachers define the problems of education by what walks into their class, and they think that the problem is mostly based on external forces.

Perhaps many just don't know what can be done. You would think that Ed Schools would focus on case studies of what works. It could be that they just have a different idea of education - an emphasis on learning process rather than content and skills. When you have a fuzzy idea of education, it's hard to decide on what works and what doesn't. When kids don't learn, then they think it has to be a problem with the tests or external causes.

KDeRosa said...

TMAO, you just rattled off a half dozen things on the ideologically banned list at most schools. That's why I wrote "all but impossible."

Anonymous said...

Good post, Ken.

Special ed is tough, but not nearly as tough as people seem to think. Most special ed kids (probably all, I imagine) aren't operating on level, yet so much of their day can be spent with teachers talking to them as if they are. So much flies over their head. Disengaging from school just gives their brain a break from all of the confusion.

However, finding out their specific skills and level is not rocket science, but it is often treated like it is by parents as well as teachers. I'm not sure why exactly.

I will say that parents of special ed kids have got to be more hands on than any group. Unfortunately, I believe they are often less due to a variety of reasons, including denial. Teachers can "appear" to be absolutely wonderful and be teaching them nothing or very little. There can be loads of self esteem and no basic skills being learned, much less mastered.

Regular ed kids, while disengaged, can still overcome a lot down the road. There is rarely a "down the road" opportunity for special ed kids. This is it for them in many ways. There will be no opportunity to go back and get these basic skills that just required more patience and repetition.

Parents have got to insist their schools teach substance and mastery of skills to their special ed kids or prepare to do it themselves.


KathyIggy said...

"Parents have got to insist their schools teach substance and mastery of skills to their special ed kids or prepare to do it themselves."

I couldn't agree more.My 5th grade daughter has Autism Spectrum Disorder. This year, she is going to be in a special ed instructional class for most subjects instead of in the mainstream class. We've seen her motivation go down drastically as so much of the "teaching" last year was not direct instruction, but project-based learning which was way over her head; she didn't have the basic foundation to get anything out of these projects. Her frustration increased and behavior problems increased--she just tuned out. I love the article about Amanda--these kids can learn with the right instruction. This year's IEP goals include teaching of specific content in the objectives; we also will be using SRA Math's direct instruction program. We also have Megan in KUMON and that approach really helps her self-confidence too. We have high hopes this year.