October 30, 2006

Financial Woes in the Philly School District

Readership of the Philly Inquirer and Daily News is so low that these papers are being forced to lay-off staff. One reason is the high incidence of lame-brained agenda journalism, such as articles like this one on the "protests" which have arisen due to the budget cuts threatened by the Philly School District.
Parents and students will rally outside school district headquarters this afternoon to protest cuts being considered to erase a $73 million budget shortfall.

"We're drawing a line in the sand," said Helen Gym, a parent activist. "We're calling for a protective order on our schools. There will not be another school cut."

The protest comes in the wake of last week's finger pointing among city and school officials over the budget deficit.

The article starts off with the big number fallacy--big numbers given out of context look impressive. The author might as well say 289.5 gazillion; that means about as much sense to the reader. Better yet, the author should have just written the first paragraph like this to achieve the same effect:
Parents and students will rally outside school district headquarters this afternoon to protest cuts being considered to erase a really super big budget shortfall.
Had the journalist lacked an agenda and wanted to accurately report the budget shortfall in an informative way it would have taken five minutes of work.

According to the district's own budget numbers, it had $1.9 billion dollars budgeted for FY 2005/2006 and there were 176,000 students attending schools in the district. Do the math.

A $73 million cut, represents a cut of $414 per student from operating expenditures of about $10,875 per student. (Actually, according to School Matters, the district's total expenditures were $12,761 per pupil in 2004 alone which is a better indicator of the district's profligate spending.)

That's a cut of about 4.0%. Are the tears welling-up yet?

How about if I told you this little nugget from p. 23 of the budget:
Enrollment in District-operated schools continues to decline from about 182,000 to about 176,000 in part due to the DistrictÂ’s continued support for charter school expansion.
Let's do the math: (182,000 -176,000)($10,875) = $65 million. So, if the district trimmed expenses to account for the drop of 6,000 students this year, the cut needed would be only $8 million at best.

And, if the district hadn't built the School of the Future (p. 13), cost $63 million, they'd be running a $55 million surplus.

Let's recap:
  • The district spends somewhere between about $11k to $13k per student. Cutting $414 per student is like removing a pimple of the ass of this bloated budget.
  • The district lost 6,000 students, so cuts should be inevitable and shouldn't affect the quality of education.
  • The district wastes a lot of money, such as on boondoogles like the school of the future.
I also noticed that the journalist failed to mention that the mayor of Philadelphia, a majority of councilmen, and the governor of Pennsylvania are all Democrats. I'm sure, if they'd been all Republicans, party affiliation would have been mentioned somewhere in the article a week before elections.

This is one reason why I am down to only getting the Sunday newspaper and, even then, most of them go straight into the trashcan without being read.


People here really take seriously the notion that our mission is about trying to figure out what works and not letting our personal political views affect that.
-- Dr. Gill said of the Rand think tank.

October 28, 2006

In their own words

It seems to me that one thing educational theory has been unable to address is the possibility of multiple theoretical perspectives, the possibility that there is no one taxonomy, set of standards, methodology, etc., that will define The Way to do education.

Certainly, any approach to learning theory that suggests that an experiment can be conducted in (say) a double-blind model in order to test hypotheses in terms of (say) achievement of learning outcomes in my view demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the enquiry.

We need to move beyond consensus, beyond sameness.
Courtesy of Half and Hour.

This is the sort of rationalization you get from a non-professional in a pseudo-profession with no standards of accountability who wants to continue practicing proven, unsound methods no matter the results.

Imagine walking into a doctor's office with a migraine and doctor Killpatient wants to put you on a regimine of anal leeching. When you question his methodology and suggest that the medical research has shown that a triptan class of medications is the most effective course of treatment, the good doctor informs you that there are multiple theoretical medical perspectives and that there is no standard that defines how to do medical treatment. As he's pulling out the leeches, he informs you that any theory that suggests that double-blind experimentation that tests the achievement of medical outcomes is a fundamental misundestanding of the nature of the medical inquiry. It's time to move beyond consensus.

At this point, most sane people would be out the door already, leaving the little cloud of smoke like in the roadrunner cartoons.

October 27, 2006

Can't get there from here

Here is the heart of the problem: American public education -- because of the way it is structured, administered, funded and understood by parents, teachers, administrators and taxpayers -- is incapable of delivering on the promises of NCLB. The root of the problem isn't in the law; it's in the American education system. It can't get there from here.

Today's public education system essentially tells parents: "This is the school your child will attend. This is when we teach, what we teach and who will teach." In short, it puts the system ahead of the child.

Eugene Hickok, a Bradley fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation, in today's WaPo.

Ridiculing Pseudoscience

There is a legitimate place for ridicule, sarcasm, and satire when arguing a position, especially when the opposing position is inherently ridiculous. Such is the case when arguing with many educrats who hold positions based on pseudioscience bordering on religious fanaticism.

These people typically have an absolute attachment to a particular position and rational argument cannot dissuade them. In that case, ridicule is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes it's the only way to illustrate the absurdity of an opponent's position.

Ridiculing an opponent based on his irrational position is not the same as making an ad hominem argument which is merely a personal attack. Someone needs to explain the distinction to these guys. Not that'll do any good at this point; they've drunk the Kool aid.

I raise the issue because a little debate has broken out between Allen and Anon in the comments due to Professor Plum's ridiculing of educrats as imbeciles.

Here's Allen's position:
Plum's quite a guy but in this he's wrong and it should be self-evident.

His assertion, "they are imbeciles", is clearly not true. Ed school profs, school administrators, school board members and teachers are not imbeciles at least not in the classic, definitional sense. This is Plum's way of dismissing a point of view with which he disagrees and that results in practices which he can prove don't work. Yet they, the "imbeciles", are unimpressed by his proofs and continue espousing and using bad methods.

What possible explanation could there be for preferring unproductive practices over productive? Plum's response is dismissing the plyers of educational snake oil as imbeciles.

Since they aren't imbeciles - they drive cars, write checks, dress and feed themselves, write dissertations - there must be some other, rational explanation for preferring dull tools over sharp. A reason Plum, and all the other edu-pundits I read, either can't or can't be bothered to try to understand.

That's a lousy attitude to hold if you're trying to diagnose an institutional illness because without understanding these seemingly illogical actions you've reduced your own actions to dart-throwing. Whatever remedies you want to apply, without an understanding of the cause of the situation, they're made random due to that ignorance.

Anyone care to proffer a reason one batch of edu-crats might choose constructivism or whole language and another batch choose direct instruction and phonics? To make the task more difficult, and worthwhile, any answers that are inherently self-inflating, are forbidden. That means no psych evaluations of insanity which imply the sanity of the diagnostician and no intelligence estimates which imply the brilliance of the estimator.
And, here's Anon's position.
Allen, I hear what you are saying. You are arguing that if Prof. Plum can't pinpoint exactly why Constructivists do what they do, then he should not instead resort to a type of name calling, for this is an example of coming to a conclusion without valid premises. Such conclusions, I hear you saying, do not follow the principles of logic and are thus invalid. Is this your basic argument here?

But allow me to present you with the following:

What would you conclude if you were trying to understand why an educated person say, wouldn't agree that 2+2=4. First you tried using manipulatives, showing this person that if you first gave him 2 M&Ms, and then you gave him 2 more M&Ms, that he now had 4 M&Ms. But the person said no, that what was in his hand did not prove that 2+2=4. So, you continued to make you explanation more detailed, going further and further into a discussion of mathematics, and what the concept of numbers represent, etc. Yet, the more you talked to this person, the more you found out that the person did not believe there was a such thing as integers, despite epochs of legitimate mathematical discovery on the subject.

But this individual just keeps insisting that 2+2 does not equal 4, and that no math is real, it is all a theory. No matter what, this person will not admit anything.

Would you proffer a reason this educated person might say such nonsense? Would you defend him by coming up with euphemisms to describe his point of view, or coming up with a term to describe his philosophy? Would coming up with a term to describe his philosophy then validate his philosophy, by virtue of the fact that you either came up with a term for it, or that the philosophy was well known, and already had a term? Or would you still insist that this guy is wrong, that everybody knows 2+2=4, and that no amount of his rationalizing and theorizing was going to change that fact?

Is there any chance you might resort to characterizing him as stubborn, nutty or just plain contrary for the sake of being a pain in the ass? Or would you instead, label him, and refuse to try and characterize him because his belief system has a name?

Would you never conclude this person was imbecile, or stubborn or ignorant?

What if you discovered that this person had fiduciary links to the philosophy via a say, a TV-based religion, or a line of self-improvement books and tapes, and the guy was making a lot of money spreading this philosophy? Would that change your tact on any of the way you'd handle his arguments?

Just curious as to what you think...
I think I side with Anon on this one (as does SteveH). Allen raises some good points, but I think you go down the rabbit hole when you try to determine the motives behind some of these positions. Motives likely vary, but the nuttery is a constant.

Update: Mr. Person of Text Savvy has his taken on this imbecile business and threatens more to come.

Stalinist Airbrushing in the Edusphere

Looks like constructivist nutter, Doug Loon, has engaged in a little digital airbrushing over at his blog Borderland. (I'd link, but the intellectual midget has set up a childish redirect, so just use google.)

Here's the backstory.

Loon didn't like having his precious opinions (as opposed to legitimate theories) challenged and not being able to respond without engaging in postmodern nonsense, thereby opening himself up to even more ridicule, he did the next best thing--he erased the entire incident from the history books.

We have the blog equivalent of a black hole over there now. You can't see the original argument directly, but you can tell it once existed by looking at Loon's other posts (and comments) and the links to Loon's original post.

They're back at their echo chamber blogs now gathered 'round the campfire singing kumbaya and bemoaning the fact that not everyone has drunk the constructivist Kool-aid. Now that their views being challenged, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place--they have to either defend the indefensible, thereby prolonging the pain and looking silly, or refuse to respond to the challenge, thereby looking cowardly and silly.

Looks like they're opting for plan B at this time.

You're a hero, Doug, a true hero.

Update: Trotsky lives! The comments are either back up or never were missing in the first place. So my allegations of Doug being a Stalinist airbrusher may have been premature. Narrow-minded censor-yes. Stalinist air-bruasher--no.

Wet Streets Cause Rain

This blurb comes from a Michael Crichton speech given to the International Leadership Forum on April 26, 2002. Crichton was criticising the media for failing to provide any factual support for their endless speculation or "theories," but his citicisms apply equally to educators.
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I'd point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.
The question is why do we still listen to anything educators say. Hasn't a century of failed "reforms" taught us anything? Taught us that they know almost nothing about their own profession -- education?

Professor Plum said it best a few days back:

The truth is, they are imbeciles.

You'll be shocked (or maybe not) at how boneheaded, smug, and just plain stupid these persons are.

They can't define knowledge.

"Knowledge is uh uh uh...what you know." [Oh, good.]

They can't give a coherent definition of learning.

"Learning is uh er oh mmm uh what happens when you learn." [Get the ropes.]

They can't list the phases of mastery---acquisition, fluency, generalization, retention.

"Phases of what?

They can't define a concept, rule, or cognitive routine.

"A concept is an idea. A rule is an idea, too, sort of, but uh uh uh er er."

They can't tell you the criteria for logically adequate curriculum design.

"A good curriculum is a seamless web [insane] of holistic experiences experienced in the context of naturalistic and learner-centered activities in a democratic and nurturing community. Howz that?" [Stick your head in the toaster and jump in the bathtub.]

In other words, they don't know anything about their business.

October 26, 2006

The Educrat Stranglehold

This article on Project Follow Through (PFT) dovetails nicely with this post at Rightwingprof on how we need to break the ed school stranglehold on education before we can solve our education crisis.

The PFT article explains how our educrats ignored the results of PFT because they did not comport with their favorable, though ineffective, teaching methods. The results were an embarrassment to educrats:

Nobody was more surprised than the constructivist curriculum authors when PFT demonstrated two things.

First, the basic-skills-oriented DI far outperformed both the control groups and the other models.

Second, the five constructivist-style curricula actually reduced school performance in districts that were already among the lowest performers nationwide.

DI even outperformed the constructivist models in areas in which they were supposed to excel.

Three tests of success were employed: academic (students' ability to answer questions correctly), cognitive (students' ability to reason for themselves), and affective (students' feelings about themselves).

With names like Cognitive Curriculum and Self-Esteem, the constructivist curricula were supposed to boost higher-order thinking and self-opinion.

According to PFT, they actually reduced both.

At first, the response to PFT was to attack the research project and DI:

The purpose of these attacks was to prevent a mutiny among the constructivist academics running most university education departments, and to retain control of the purse strings at foundations and in the federal government.

Of course, subsequent research has confirmed the PFT results. SO the educrats changed their tactic to ignoring the elephant in the room.

After the initial barrage of attacks, the constructivists adopted a new strategy regarding PFT: silence. The best news about failure is no news and, unlike their curricula, the constructivists' political strategy works.

You can gauge the success of the campaign of silence for yourself: Ask any teacher or administrator you know about Project Follow Through, the world's largest education research project, and you'll most likely get a blank stare.

Since school districts are generally free to pick whatever curriculum they want, here is how the system works:

This is convenient for constructivist curriculum authors, who are generally also professors at influential teachers' colleges. Constructivist orthodoxy is so dominant today it is almost impossible to get a teaching degree at most schools without openly subscribing to it.

Each year, teachers' colleges crank out thousands of teachers and administrators determined to stamp out successful non-constructivist programs, such as DI, in an effort to ensure the continued flow of billions of dollars of grant money and curriculum sales into programs that are proven failures.

PFT's enduring lesson is that the American people, even acting through the federal government, are powerless against the entrenched interests of the education monopoly. Despite our intent to wage a "war on poverty," we have for decades unwittingly financed the engineers of our own defeat.

The author, like Ryan from Edspresso, is more optimistic than rightwingprof, but I don't think anyone disagrees that the vested interests of the edublob, unions, ed schools, politicians and their minions make for a formidable barrier standing in the way of decent publicly susidized education.

Grading the Tests

There's been a lot of back and forth in the comments about the difficulty level of the tests that states have created in response to NCLB. Educators seems to uniformly agree that they are unable to get most kids to the proficiency level by 2014. Parents don't seem to have any idea what's even on the tests. So why don't we take a look at the testing regime of a state to see what's going on.

I'm going to pick Pennsylvania because a) that's the state I'm most familiar with and b) they make a lot of information available on their website, a poorly laid out website for sure, but you can usually find what you're looking for if you poke around long enough.

The Tests

Pennsylvania does not release actual test questions from its PSSA test; however, they offer the next best thing -- lots of sample questions from each test. Good enough for our purposes. Here are representative problems (pdf) for the upcoming 2006-2007 tests for 5th and 8th grades and from the 2005-2006 exams for 11th grade. (all in pdf form.). The tests are given at the end of March.

5th Grade
5th Grade
8th Grade
8th Grade
11th Grade 11th Grade

Before you look at the tests, let me tell you what it means to be proficient. To be "proficient" on the tests here's the percentage of questions that the students would have to answer correctly.

Math Reading
5th Grade
65% 67%
8th Grade
62% 75%
11th Grade
62% 73%

These proficiency percentages were calculated from the cut scaled scores given on p. 117 and the raw score to scaled score conversion tables given in appendix II-9 of this monster 2005 technical report (pdf).

So in math, a student could get 1 out of every three problems wrong and still be proficient. In reading, the student could get one out of every four problems wrong and still be proficient.

Here's a few more notes before you jump into the sample questions. In the math portion, students are permitted to use calculators on all but a tiny fraction of calculation questions on the fifth and eighth grade exams. In addition, a formula sheet and ruler are provided, as indicated in the scoring sampler.

Now go ahead and take a look at the sample problems.

In math, you'll see that many of the problems at each grade level are simplistic. Many of the problems can be solved easily by plugging the multiple choice answers into the calculator. Few, if any problems, require multiple steps to answer. Few of the problems contained in each test are at grade level; many questions test skills that should have been taught years before. Manipulation of fractions, a critical skill needed for success in algebra, is barely tested at all.

In reading, the passages are about at grade level (using the lexile calculator); however, the comprehension questions are simplistic, frequently requiring that the student find the requested fact in the text.

Here are the disaggreagated scores from the 2005-2006 PSSA exams. The table shows the percentage of students who scored at or above the proficient level. Math scores are given first followed by reading scores (math/reading).

All Asian
Hispanic Black Low SES
5th 67/61 83/73 74/68 47/36 40/34 49/40 33/24
62/71 82/81 70/78 39/45 33/44 42/50 20/27
52/65 72/70 58/71 25/35 22/35 29/41 11/19
The scores break down almost exactly along IQ distribution lines. There is an achievement gap of roughly a standard deviation between whites and blacks/hispanics in both math and reading. And, there is an achievement gap of 0.4 between asians and whites. This indicates that about 4/10 of asians in PA are from northeast asia and 6/10 are from southest asia which seems about right to me based on my observations from the Philadelphia area.

Here's another basis of comparison.

Here's the placement test given for the middle of fouth grade for Singapore Math. Compare the questions to the 5th grade math PSSA questions.

Here's the placement test given for the middle of sixth grade for Singapore Math. Compare the questions to the 8th grade math PSSA questions.

Here's the placement test given for the second year of algebra (8th grade) for Singapore Math. Compare the questions to the 11th grade math PSSA questions.

Singapore is tops in the world for math achievement. One reason for that achievement is the rigorous Singapore Math curriculum the country uses. Another reason is that Singapore is full of brainy northeast asians. That's why I selected the placement tests that were one to three years behind the PSSA tests, giving less brainy U.S. students an extra one to three years to catch-up.

Here's the post test for Connecting Math Concepts (CMC) level F, a fifth grade math program. The curriculum has been extensively field tested so that almost every student, including the ones with IEP, who has completed the six years in the probram will be able to answer at least 80% of the post test questions correctly. Compare the questions on the post test to the PSSA questions. Now look at the high percentages of black,hispanic, low SES, and IEP students who are not proficient in Pennsylvania (the 11th grade IEP students are performing at the chance level, i.e., randomly filling in the bubbkles will yield the same score). Now ask yourself why less than 2% of schools use CMC or a math program like it.

The comments section is open.

October 25, 2006

John Dewey on Constructivism

Ed school mole John Dewey has posted another letter at Edspresso. This time he clarifies the definitional problems with constructivism. Mr. Person (of Text Savvy) and I discussed this very issue here.

My view is that it's not constructivism when you've given the student all the information to solve the problem. And, almost every teacher provides some kind of guidance and scaffolding during instruction because unguided discovery learning doesn't work.

It really doesn't matter what you call it anyway. The only thing that matters is what the students have learned or haven't learned at the end of the day and what they've retained by the end of the course. In math, it's easy to determine what works and what doesn't: how well the student solves math problems he's been taught.

Edwonk Hearts Spellings

The edusphere's beloved Edwonk runs another picture of Secretary of Education Spellings today in this post. Edwonk runs an awful lot of pictures of Spellings.

I'm imagining the floor surrounding his workstation is covered with pictures of Spellings with the eyes cut out. I try not to think about what we'd see if we shined a black light.

Unteaching class size reduction

Here's an argument proponents of class-size reducation never seem to address:
Public-school authorities often complain that classes are too large. They claim that teachers can't solve the core problems with public schools. No matter how small classes become, nothing will help if the teachers are ill-trained or their teaching methods are useless, destructive, or idiotic. For example, if English teachers use the whole-language or "balanced" reading instruction method, they can cripple students' ability to read no matter how small the classes are. If math teachers use "fuzzy" or "integrated" math, they can turn kids into math cripples. Even if classrooms had one teacher for every student, that child's ability to read or do math could still be wrecked if the teacher used these destructive reading or math-instruction methods.
Sadly, these conditions are present in many U.S. classrooms. It doesn't matter whether there's ten or fifty kids in your typical first grade whole-language heavy "balanced literacy" classroom, there's not going to be a whole lot of learning going on. Unless, the class is like my son's first grade class in which half the kids already know how to read. You could put a hundred of these kids in the classroom and be confident that all of them will be able to read by June since they already are reading.
In fact, under these conditions, smaller class sizes could give a teacher more time to damage (not intentionally) each student's reading or math abilities. So if a public school has teachers who are poorly trained or who are forced to use idiotic teaching methods by their supervisors, the ironic situation can occur where the smaller the class, the more damage the teacher can do to her students.
I'm not sure I'd go quite this far. Some kids have an amaxing ability to learn and generalize no matter how idiotic the instruction is. My son has one Wile E. Coyote smart kid inhis class who not only taught herself how to read but is probably reading on at least a third or fourth grade level already. This is the kind of kid who can suceed in a whole language classroom.
Here's an analogy on this issue of class size vs. teaching methods. Suppose a horseback-riding instructor was teaching one little girl to ride. This instructor's teaching method was to tell the bewildered girl to sit backwards on the horse, facing the horse's rump, hold onto the horse's tail, and say "giddy-yap." Does it matter that the student-teacher ratio in this horseback-riding class is one-to-one if the instructor is an idiot or uses idiotic teaching methods?
Exactly. I pity the next instructor who'll be tasked with teaching this mistaught girl . First, the girl has to unlearn all the misconceptions she's learned, then she has to be taught properly. It's much more dificult to teach someone who's been mistaught than it is to teach someone who's never been taught.

I wish I could be like Mike

In this particularly inane column by Marty Solomon, we have this particularly inane analogy:
It was inevitable that the huge and largely unfair pressure placed on teachers by NCLB has left many frustrated to the point of belligerency because so many know that, while they work hard and have high expectations for all of their children, some kids will never be able to dunk a basketball. And, no matter how much punishment, pressure and demands we place on children, too many will never score "proficient," a level that in many states represents knowledge that would be nice for all kids to achieve, but a significant segment will never achieve.
Marty wants us to believe it takes a Michael Jordan to pass the NCLB state tests.


If you've seen any of the actual questions from these tests you know that this is more the speed he's talking about:

October 24, 2006

The WaPo Agenda

There is so much wrong with these two articles on reading in today's Washington Post, I don't know where to begin. I wish I had time today to give these scandalously inept articles the full fisking, but, alas, I don't. Maybe tonight.

I do want to note a few points now:

1. Lack of Balance. WaPo solicits two two whole language cultists, Calkins and Allington (he'll deny it, but in actuality he is), for their expert blurbs while failing to solicit a refutation from educators who actually know how to teach children how to read.

2. Irony: Note how the "experts" lament that kids don't read very well, but they fail to tell us that the main reason is that they are being mistaught how to read using "balanced" reading programs that are skewed far to the failed whole language side of the balance beam causing kids to mislearn the critical decoding skills.

3. Bad Definitions: In one of the articles our 'experts" define fluency to include lots of things (mostly vocabulary and reading comprehension) that do not fall under the scientific definition of fluency. They then proceed to create straw man arguments based on this faulty definition. Here's the proper definition of fluency. Here's how fluency instruction is supposed to be sequenced, contradicting much of the strawmen arguments laid out by the "experts." Here's how one fluency test, retelling fluency, used in DIBELS that assesses when students are reading fluently but without comprehension, demolishing another strawman.

Cursive nearly a lost art

Buried deep in this Delawareonline article on the death of penmenship, which basically serves as a platform for whacking NCLB, is the actual reason why learning penmanship is still a critical skill for children to learn.

But more important, he said, penmanship proficiency affects the fluency of writing, which can make a big difference for young writers who may forget what they want to say while they concentrate on remembering how to make the letters.

"Sometimes we are in the flow when we are writing, ideas are coming superquick to us," Graham said. "Think about a kid in first grade who writes 10 words a minute and is trying to hold in memory this whole sentence. The chances of losing ideas are much greater the slower your handwriting is."

The fluency, rather than the form of handwriting, is what matters most, Graham said.

"The issue, whether it is typing or cursive or manuscript or a combination ... is how fast you can do this," he said. "You don't want things such as handwriting and spelling taking up a lot of your cognitive resources."

Neatness is nice, but the ability to write fluently, using up few of the precious cognitive resources of your working memory, is critical to writing well.

Megaskills Founder Phones In Homework Article

I'm worried about homework, not about whether there is too much of it or too little, but rather because a lot of it is the wrong kind.
Exactly. This article by MegaSkills Education Center founder, Dorothy Rich, began so promisingly ...
By the wrong kind, I mean the drill sheets that still come home even for kindergartners and first graders. They ask very little of children. You know the kind: fill in the letter, draw lines from number to number, very routine, very rote.
Usually it's a gift when an educator misuses "rote" this early in an article since you can usually cut your losses quick and move on to the next one. By "rote" Ms. Rich means "stuff I don't like." I'd bet little of what she calls rote involves learning devoid of meaning. Certainly filling in the letters and drawing lines from number to number aren't rote if they involve practicing skills the child hasn't mastered yet. And that's what it boils down to, Ms. Rich, doesn't think your child needs to practice to mastery. No doubt the Megaskills Corporation has found the magic road to learning in which children learn by using their imagination and singing catchy jingles to reach the magic land Knowledge. (The Megaskills site looks like a fertile site for educational moonbattery if some intrepid blogger withh more time than me today wants to take up the gauntlet.)

This is the kind of homework we had when we went to school. We may be comfortable with it, and we may think that this is what homework ought to be like, but too much of it is inadequate for what children need today.
Offered without proof, naturally.
Students today need homework that calls for creative responses, for problem solving, for innovative thinking. This is homework that asks children: What do you think and how does that work and why?
These are code words for discovery learning. Give the student partial information and partially taught material and ask her to dream up creative responses at home with her parents at night when they're getting tired and cranky after being in school for seven hours. That and a macaroni art project are what fun family nights are made of.
Teachers would assign more creative homework but many are fearful. What are they afraid of? The tests! Students need to make a good showing on the end-of-year tests. That makes teachers and principals look good, and the public is kept happy.
Did I miss something? Why wouldn't kids who've gotten a rich diet of the kind of creative non-rote homework Ms. Rich is advocating be able to do well on basic tests? Because it's a crock, that's why. Kids who are force fed this kind of contrived discovery homework invariably don't do as well on basic tests as they should. If you've read my previous articles on the brain, you'll know why.
Students doing rote homework are getting practice to do well on basic tests. If you have seen these tests (and every parent really ought to ask to see a sample) you will immediately see the resemblance between drill homework and test sheets.
So students doing "rote" homework do better on simple tests than the kids doing homework calling for creative reponses. Hmmmm, maybe that should tell you something. In fact, kids who've learned basic skills to mastery perform better on tests of higher order cogntive skills as well. See Project Follow Through where the Basic Skills programs beat out the programs that supposedly taught cognitive skills directly, like Ms. Rich is trying to do.

Let's skip some fluff, so we can get to this doozy.
How does homework help with all that? When our kids are spending their time filling in blanks, they are not using their brains to invent, imagine and learn to address problems.
Ms. Rich, try to fill in the black to this homework problem:
The positions of a particle and a thin (treat it as being as thin as a line) rocket of length 0.280 m are specified by means of Cartesian coordinates. At time 0 the particle is at the origin and is moving on a horizontal surface at 23.0 m/s at 51.0°. It has a constant acceleration of 2.43 m/s2 in the +y direction. At time 0 the rocket is at rest and it extends from (−.280 m, 50.0 m) to (0, 50.0 m), but, it has a constant acceleration in the +x direction. What must the acceleration of the rocket be in order for the particle to hit the rocket? ____________
It is a false dilemma to state that all fill in the blank problem problems are mindless.
A few examples can help make the point about better homework. In the younger grades, instead of kids filling in puzzles designed by long ago teachers, let's ask them to make up their own word and number puzzles.

This lets children demonstrate that they know how to manipulate words and numbers; it stretches their brains.As students grow older let them write stories with and about their families. Let them design a new form of car, and come up with solutions to problems that they and their schools are facing. In the higher grades, let's sit down with children and figure out budgets, maybe even review the insurance policy and the mortgage.
Why not just ask them to solve real math problems and read books and answer comprehension questions?
The big goal is to apply and extend what children learn in school. Of course, some rote learning is needed in basic reading and math, historical dates, scientific formulas. I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Yet, what is basic today is bigger and broader that ever before.

Nothing is really simple anymore. There is more choice. Everything comes at us, all at once, really fast. Our kids will have to be smarter in many ways, beyond academics. They need the ability to move forward while living with ambiguity and even danger. Better homework is a modest start.
Most of the basic skills needed for academic success are the same skills that were needed 100 years ago. Trade in the slide rule and the log tables for a computer/calculator and you've got most of them covered. They still have to be taught and mastered.

October 23, 2006

Reading Recovery Tries to Cook the Books Again

In the Summer of 2001 Dame Marie Clay, creator of the New Zealand based Reading Recovery program, and her entourage came to the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, to speak with House Education Committee Staffer Bob Sweet. Her purpose was to ascertain whether Reading Recovery would be eligible for Reading First funding once the bill was passed. Bob explained to Ms. Clay that explicit, systematic phonics instruction had to be included in any program eligible for RF funding because it was one of the necessary key components of reading instruction that had been established through decades of carefully conducted quantitative research. ... He encouraged her to provide the leadership within the RR family to make the modifications necessary, and thus make RR eligible for RF funding consideration. With a stare as cold as ice, Marie Clay replied that RR would not be making any changes to their program; however, Mr. Sweet could be certain a new description of its components would be written in such a way as to bring it into compliance with the RF law. Momentarily dumbfounded, he maintained that Reading Recovery could not be eligible for RF funding without modification, and his initial estimation then still stands today.
By Nancay Salvato in the National Ledger.

That's the peferred way to bring your curriculum into compliance with the research, rewrite the "description of its components" to make it appear like it conforms. Here's the comical fruition (doc) of those efforts.

For those of you new to the reading wars, Reading Recovery is the ultra expensive program that uses predictible text, i.e., the stories are deliberately written so that they repeat many times certain words, phrases, or sentences, and have highly descriptive pictures, which kids use to guess the words based on these contextual clues. Phonics is thrown in as an afterthought; howeer, the phonics is neither systematic nor explicit in the manner contemplated by the research.

Engelmann has written about a demonstration that he did showing how confusing the approach is to naive kids:
We went into a first grade classroom where a teacher had worked on four different selections. Each had an illustration and the text. The kids could "read" all selections perfectly. We then switched the illustrations (paired them with different texts) and tested the kids. About half of the kids pointed to the words one at a time and, with great fidelity, recited the passage that was appropriate for the picture. In other words, half the kids didn't have the faintest idea of what reading was all about.
And, that would be the reason why Reading Recovery was excluded from reading First funding.

Solving Problems Makes Your Brain Hurt

(This is part five of a multi-part series on your baiin and why constructivism doesn't work. Start at part one.)

In part four, we learned how knowing a lot of stuff helps you learn, think about, and retain new information and skills. In this installment we'll learn why learning by solving problems, the main theory behind most of constructivism, frequently makes learning more difficult.

The theory underlying constructivism is that people learn best in an unguided or minimimally guided environment , generally defined as one in which students, rather than being persented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themeselves. Thus, constructivism requires the novice student to search a problem space for problem-relevant information to discover the essential information, i.e., the solution to the problem posed.

As we learned in previous installments, this search must occur in our limited working memory (WM). All problem-based searching makes heavy demands on WM and often overburdens the limited WM, requiring WM resources be used for activities that are unrelated to learning. Therefore, while your brain's WM is consumed searching for a problem solution, it's not contributing to the accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory (LTM). As a consequence, students can engage in problem-solving activities for extended periods and learn almost nothing (i.e., store what's been learned in LTM).

Bear in mind, the goal of instruction is rarely just to search for or discover information. The goal of education is to give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in LTM.

Allegedly, constructivism helps students to derive meaning from learning materials. However, cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment generates a heavy WM load that is detrimental to learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners who lack proper cogntive LTM structures to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge.

The consequences of requiring novice students to search for problem solutions using a limited WM or the mechanisms by which unguided or minimally guided instruction might facilitate change in LTM appear to be routinely ignored in constructivist theory. The result is a set of differently named but similar instructional approaches requiring minimal guidance that are disconnected from much that we know of human cognition.

Novice students learn much more from examining worked problem examples rather than solving the problems themselves. This effect only disappears and reverses as the student's expertise increases. Problem solving only becomes relatively effective when learners are sufficiently experienced so that studying a worked example is, for them, a redundant activity that increases WM load compared to generating a known solution. This phenomenon emphasizes the importance of providing novices in an area with extensive guidance because they do not have sufficient knowledge in LTM to prevent unproductive problem-solving search. That guidance can be relaxed only with increased expertise as knowledge in LTM can take over from external guidance. The vast majority of students at the K-12 level are novices in the subjects they are learning who do not have the needed expertise.

Because novice students learn so little from the constructivist approach, most teachers who attempt to implement classroom-based constructivist instruction end up providing students with considerable guidance or direct instruction. In fact, teachers frequently provide a lot of “scaffolding” when students fail to make learning progress in a discovery setting. If they expect to be effective, teachers typically spend a great deal of time in instructional interactions with students by:
simultaneously teaching content and scaffolding-relevant procedures … by (a) modeling procedures for identifying and self-checking important information…(b) showing students how to reduce that information to paraphrases … (c) having students use notes to construct collaborations and routines, and (d) promoting collaborative dialogue within problems.
One of the more frequent excuses for retaining the inquiry or problem solving instructional theme, even when it is heavily scaffolded with direct instruction and guidance, is the belief that providing students with partial information enhances their ability to construct an LTM representation more than giving them full information. This is incorrect.

Most students of all ages know how to construct knowledge when given adequate information and there is no evidence that presenting them with partial information is beneficial. Actually, the resevesr seems most often to be true. Students must construct a mental representation or schema in LTM regardless of whether they are given partial or complete information. Complete information will result in a more accurate representation that is also more easily acquired.

And, while there is little doubt that students remember material they generate themselves better than material that is handed to them. This "generation effect," as it is called, is indeed powerful, and it is due, in part, to forcing the learner to think about the meaning of material (although other techniques can do that as well). Part of the effect does seem to be unique to the actual generation of the answer, over and above thinking about meaning. For this reason constructivists believe that discovery learning should be employed whenever possible. However, given that memory follows thought, one thing is clear: Students will remember incorrect "discoveries" just as well as correct ones.

Altering LTM is the ultimate goal of learning. The generation effect does affect how information is learned, but so do many other factors that we've discussed in previous installments. The main underlying flaw of constructvism is the undue attention paid to the generation effect to the detriment of recognizing the important limitations of our working memory. Moreover, it ignores the very real negative byproducts when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge. Today, there is little evidence that supports the notion that learning under a constructivist pedagogy is as good as, much less improved, over well designed direct instruction at the K-12 level.

This brings us to the point where we can finally discuss the remaining underlying fallacies of constructivism. We'll do that in the next installment.

Unclear on the Concept Day Three

Grammar on the Ropes

From Australia's The Age:

This year in the London Times, Truss pithily summed up her frustration with the decline in grammar teaching: "People can read very widely and well, and they are still not able to spell, or construct a sentence, or work out whether there's an apostrophe in 'its'. It's similar to music. You don't just pick up how to play the piano. I feel kids are being let down. In a communications age, knowing how to write is a life skill."

Formal grammar is not a usual part of most Victorian school English courses. This has been the case since the 1970s when it went out of fashion and creativity at all costs was the preferred approach. The results have been ruinous on standard English acquisition.

I'm still waiting for the first Ed reform that requires teaching more instead of less.

October 21, 2006

Unclear on the Concept

Professor Plum Rides Again

(Professor Plum left this classic comment in another post. It was too goo not to pull up front.)

It's tempting to think that educationists innocently look in the wrong place to explain low achievement and to raise it.

1. “Schools need more money.” [In fact, the U.S. spends more money on schools than anyone else. The problem is that a lot of money is spent on curriculum materials that aren’t very good.]

2.“Disadvantaged children enter school with too little vocabulary.” [True, but there are preschool and kindergarten language and reading programs that can close the gap.]

3. “Students are unmotivated. They don’t want to learn.” [Did you ever see unmotivated kindergartners? It’s more likely that children become unmotivated AFTER they find out they aren’t learning.]

4. “Classes are too large.” [Ineffective instruction is ineffective no matter how small classes are. Besides, countries with high achievement have larger classes.]

The truth is, they are imbeciles.

Ask any educationist----an education perfesser (esp. one of the illiterate "literacy" hacks, or any dummy perfesser of elementary education. Can you imagine a more lame field?), or a district "curriculum specialist," or a member of one of the organizations that "guide" education (such as NCTE or NCTM)----a series of questions that get to the core of education.

You'll be shocked (or maybe not) at how boneheaded, smug, and just plain stupid these persons are.

They can't define knowledge.

"Knowledge is uh uh uh...what you know." [Oh, good.]

They can't give a coherent definition of learning.

"Learning is uh er oh mmm uh what happens when you learn." [Get the ropes.]

They can't list the phases of mastery---acquisition, fluency, generalization, retention.

"Phases of what?

They can't define a concept, rule, or cognitive routine.

"A concept is an idea. A rule is an idea, too, sort of, but uh uh uh er er."

They can't tell you the criteria for logically adequate curriculum design.

"A good curriculum is a seamless web [insane] of holistic experiences experienced in the context of naturalistic and learner-centered activities in a democratic and nurturing community. Howz that?" [Stick your head in the toaster and jump in the bathtub.]

In other words, they don't know anything about their business.

Imagine a physician who could not define cell or tell you how muscles work.

This field does not need more knowledge of how to educate, nor more materials. It needs persons with intelligence. At least common sense, and who don't tolerate any ooompus boompus from wiseass students.

We'd be far better off if we hired late middle aged men and women as teachers, and gave them a crash course in design and effective communication.

And instead of the usual administrators coming out of schools of deaducation, hire retired military.

That's the considered opinion of me and my pal Jose Quervo.

October 20, 2006

The More You Know, the More You Know

(This is part four of a multipart series. Part One is here. Best to start there and work your way up. We'll wait)

I've changed my mind. Before I get to my take-down of constructivism, I want to throw a few more things on your plates to mull over.

In this installment I want to discuss how knowing stuff benefits students.

Knowledge helps students in three critical ways:
  1. it makes it easier to learn new information,
  2. it makes it easier to remember new information, and
  3. it improves their ability to think by circumventing the thinking process and by freeing up space in working memory.
Let's take each in turn.

Knowing stuff makes it easier for you to learn new stuff

Comprehending or understanding something you hear or read demands background knowledge because language is full of semantic breaks in which knowledge is assumed and, therefore, comprehension depends on making correct inferences. Thus, one way in which knowledge aids the acquisition of more knowledge lies in the greater power it affords in making correct inferences. If the person conveying the information assumes that you have some background knowledge that you lack, you'll be confused when he explains or teaches that information.

Let's take an example from Willingham:
Suppose you read this brief text: "John's face fell as he looked down at his protruding belly. The invitation specified 'black tie' and he hadn't worn his tux since his own wedding, 20 years earlier." You will likely infer that John is concerned that his tuxedo won'’t fit, although the text says nothing directly about this potential problem. The writer could add the specifics ("John had gained weight since he last wore his tuxedo, and worried that it would not fit"), but they are not necessary and the added words would make the text dull. Your mind is well able to fill in the gaps because you know that people are often heavier 20 years after their wedding, and that gaining weight usually means that old clothing won'’t fit. This background knowledge about the world is readily available and so the writer need not specify it.

When you read "tux," the cognitive processes that are making sense of the text can access not just "a formal suit of clothing," but all of the related concepts in your memory: Tuxedos are expensive, they are worn infrequently, they are not comfortable, they can be rented, they are often worn at weddings, and so on. As the text illustrates, the cognitive processes that extract meaning also have access to concepts represented by the intersection of ideas; "tux" makes available "clothing," and "20 years after wedding" makes available "gaining weight." The intersection of "clothing" and "gaining weight" yields the idea "clothing won't fit" and we understand why John is not happy.
Here's another:
Suppose that later in the same text you read, "John walked down the steps with care. Jeanine looked him up and down while she waited. Finally she said, 'Well, I'm glad I've got some fish in my purse.'" Jeanine's comment might well stop the normal flow of reading. Why would she have fish? You would search for some relationship between carrying fish to a formal event and the other elements of the situation (formal wear, stairs, purses, what you'’ve been told of Jeanine and John). In this search you might retrieve the popular notion that wearing a tuxedo can make one look a little like a penguin, which immediately leads to the association that penguins eat fish. Jeanine is likening John to a penguin and thus she is teasing him. Sense is made, and reading can continue. Here, then, is a second and more subtle benefit of general knowledge: People with more general knowledge have richer associations among the concepts in memory; and when associations are strong, they become available to the reading process automatically. That means the person with rich general knowledge rarely has to interrupt reading in order to consciously search for connections.
How about one from Hirsch:
Consider the following sentence, which is one that most literate Americans can understand, but most literate British people cannot, even when they have a wide vocabulary and know the conventions of the standard language:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Typically, a literate British person would know all the words in the sentence yet wouldn'’t comprehend it. (In fairness, most Americans would be equally baffled by a sentence about the sport of cricket.) To understand this sentence about Jones and his sacrifice, you need a wealth of relevant background knowledge that goes beyond vocabulary and syntax--—relevant knowledge that is far broader than the words of the sentence. Let's consider what we as writers would have to convey to an English person to make this sentence comprehensible.

First, we would have to explain that Jones was at bat. That would entail an explanation of the inning system and the three-outs system. It would entail an explanation of the size and shape of the baseball field (necessary to the concept of a sacrifice fly or bunt) and a digression on what a fly or a bunt is. The reader would also have to have some vague sense of the layout of the bases and what a run is. By the time our English reader had begun to assimilate all this relevant background knowledge, he or she may have lost track of the whole point of the explanation.What was the original sentence? It will have been submerged in a flurry of additional sentences branching out in different directions.

This is fun. Let's take one more from Hirsch:
Take, for example, this passage from my book What Your Second-Grader Needs to Know:

In 1861, the Civil War started. It lasted until 1865. It was American against American, North against South. The Southerners called Northerners "Yankees." Northerners called Southerners "Rebels," or "Rebs" for short. General Robert E. Lee was in charge of the Southern army. General Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the Northern army.

Potentially, this passage is usefully informative to a second-grader learning about the Civil War--but only if he or she already understands much of what'’s addressed in it. Take the phrase "North against South." A wealth of preexisting background information is needed to understand that simple phrase--going far beyond the root idea of compass directions, which is simply the necessary first step. The child needs a general idea of the geography of the U.S. and needs to infer that the named compass directions stand for geographical regions. Then a further inference or construction is needed: The child has to understand that the names of geographical regions stand for the populations of those regions and that those populations have been organized into some sort of collectivity so they can raise armies. That's just an initial stab at unpacking what the child must infer to understand the phrase "North against South." A full, explicit account of the taken-for-granted knowledge that someone would need to construct a situation model for this passage would take many pages of analysis.

Hopefully, these examples make it clear why it's easier for someone with a lot of background knowledge to learn new information even when he knows quite a lot of information already. Conversely, it is the novice who knows very little that finds it more difficult to learn new information, even though he has much more to learn.

Knowing Stuff makes it easier to remember new stuff

Knowledge also helps when you arrive at the final stage of learning new information--remembering it. Knowledge makes it is easier to fix new material in your memory when you already have some knowledge of the topic. Many studies in this area have subjects with either high or low amounts of knowledge on a particular topic read new material and then take a test on it some time later; invariably those with prior knowledge remember more.

This is because a rich network of associations in long term memory (LTM), i.e., deep structure, makes memory strong: New material is more likely to be remembered if it is related to what is already in memory. Remembering information on a brand new topic is difficult because there is no existing network in your memory that the new information can be tied to. But remembering new information on a familiar topic is relatively easy because developing associations between your existing network and the new material is easy.

Knowing stuff helps you think

As we discussed in a previous installment, background knowledge allows you to "chunk" information. The ability to chunk helps free up working memory (WM). That freed up WM is now available to attend to other tasks, such as recognizing patterns in the material.

Most of the time when a student is listening or reading, it'’s not enough that he understands each sentence on its own--he needs to understand a series of sentences or paragraphs and hold them in WM simultaneously so that they can be integrated or compared. Doing so is easier if the material can be chunked because it will occupy less of the limited space in WM. Chunking, however, relies on the existence of background knowledge.

It'’s not just facts that reside in LTM; solutions to problems, complex ideas you've teased apart, and conclusions you‚’ve drawn are also part of your store of knowledge. The student who does not have the distributive property firmly in LTM must think it through every time he encounters a(b + c), but the student who does, circumvents this process.

It's also not sufficient for you to have some facts for the analytic cognitive processes to operate on. There must be lots of facts and you must know them well. The student must have sufficient background knowledge to recognize familiar patterns (chunks) in order to be a good analytical thinker. Consider, for example, the plight of the algebra student who has not mastered the distributive property. Every time he faces a problem with a(b + c), he must stop and plug in easy numbers to figure out whether he should write a(b) + c or a + b(c) or a(b) + a(c). The best possible outcome is that he will eventually finish the problem--but he will have taken much longer than the students who know the distributive property well (and, therefore, have chunked it as just one step in solving the problem). The more likely outcome is that his working memory will become overwhelmed and he either won'’t finish the problem or he'’ll get it wrong.

So, now we know that a deeply structured LTM full of relevant knowledge, such as facts, background knowledge, and solutions to problems, helps in all stages of the learning process. In the next installment, we'll learn why learning by problem solving frequently does not and why it typically hinders the learning process.

Go to part five now.

Bracey Earns Another Rotten Apple

I would hold that, for whatever reasons, blacks are not yet receiving effective instruction.
-- Gerald Bracey, education apologist extraordinaire, slips in his latest Kappan article (pdf) and finally admits schools have a problem educating blacks.

Of course, we don't really have a problem educating all blacks, we only have a problem educating the lower-IQ ones. We have the same problem educating lower-IQ whites, asians, and hispanics as well. We do a reasonable job, as we've always done though there is ample room for debate here, with the higher-IQ students of all races. It's just that we're not content with merely educating the top third of the IQ curve. We're paying a princely sum in an attempt to educate the bottom two-thirds as well. And, as Jerry has just admitted, schools are not doing a very effective job of it.

In fact, in the few instances where lower-IQ students have received effective instruction (instruction that got them performing as well as average students), that same instruction boosted the scores of higher-IQ students by the same amount.

And, there's good reason to believe that, if anything, higher-IQ students would benefit even more from better instruction:
Figure 5 shows the math performance (in standard scores) of DI students of various IQ ranges (from over 131 to under 71) as they progressed from grade 1 through grade 3. The lines are parallel, suggesting that the same rate of the students in achievement was realized for all students. This outcome is partly an artifact of the priorities of the DI model, because it focused disproportionately on the lower performers, those students less likely to succeed. With more emphasis on the higher performers, their performance could have been accelerated more dramatically.
-- From Engelmann's CSSP Acceptance Speech, p. 5.

So, there's good reason to believe that increasing the effectiveness of instruction across the board would lead to a widening of the "achievement gap" between groups, incidentally demolishing another point Jerry was trying to make in his article.

NB: the skillful use of passive voice in Jerry's quote. I suppose it was too painful to write "schools are not yet effectively educating blacks." Kinda like in that episode of Happy Days when the Fonz couldn't admit he was wrong and couldn't even say the word.

Just say it, Jerry, "I was wr-, wr-, wr-."

October 19, 2006

Dropout Crisis

Looks like Jay Greene was right. As reported in the Philly Inquirer, a new study on graduation rates in the Philly School system shows that:
Between 48 and 54 percent of the students who started ninth grade between 2000 and 2005 graduated in four years. The rates improved to between 61 and 63 percent after six years. The rest dropped out without earning diplomas.
So only about 62% of students in the Philly School system graduate within six years. Appalling.

It even seems that they are starting to take education research seriously. What took you so long? Why did it take until 2006 for us to have any idea how many kids were graduating from high school?
Drawing on the most comprehensive student data assembled here - or in any other large urban district - the report outlines in stark detail the scope of the district's dropout problem.

By tracking individual students over time and linking school records with data gathered by the University of Pennsylvania and from the courts and other city agencies, the research tells the district for the first time not only how many students are dropping out, but also who they are and how many others are on the verge.

So what's the leading cause of these dropouts?
Balfanz and Neild found that eighth graders who attend school less than 80 percent of the time and fail either English or math have a 75 percent probability of dropping out.
Gee, that's a shocker. Kids who aren't doing well in school, drop out.

Buried on page 34 of the report, we see how far behind these drop outs actually are when they drop out.

For students dropping out in ninth grade, 57.9% were reading at a fifth grade level or less and 20.4% were reading on a 6th-8th grade level based on the SAT-9 test. For tenth grade drop outs the stats are slightly less grim since the herd's already been culled: 49.5% were reading at a fifth grade level or less and 22.7% were reading on a 6th-8th grade level.

To put this in perspective, after nine to ten years in school between about 50%-58% of the drop outs were reading an an elementary school level. Another 20%-23% were reading on a middle school level. I'm thinking its difficult to do high school level work when you can barely read.

Females are doing better than males. And, hispanics males are doing the worst.

Female students graduate on time at higher rates, and the gender gap was nearly 15 percentage points between 2000 and 2003.

Latino males have the lowest on-time graduation rate of any group in the city: 29.3 percent to 38.2 percent.

I'm dying to see how this study is going to get spun.

I'm Homework

Looks like my post on Alfie Kohn has been assigned as part of a homework assignment at a Montreal school. Students are supposed to read one of Kohn's screeds and then my post and blog about it.

Oddly enough, half the class appears not to have done their homework.

October 18, 2006

Everyday Math on Long Division

The authors of Everyday Math do not believe it is worth the time and effort to develop highly efficient paper-and-pencil algorithms for all possible whole number, fractions and decimal division problems.…It is simply counterproductive to invest hours of precious class time on such algorithms. The math payoff is not worth the cost, particularly because quotients can be found quickly and accurately with a calculator.
-- from the Everyday Math Teacher's Guide

This quote is from Barry Garelick's article A textbook Case of Textbook Adoption in which he describes the games played by the publishers of Everyday Math and used by the Washington DC school board (and many other school boards) to justify the adoption of this controversial elementary math program.

In case you forgot. Out of the 61 studies touted by the proponents of Everyday Math, none fully met the What Works Clearinghouse's criteria. Four studies met with reservervation, and 57 did not meet at all. Out of the four studies that met with reervations, three had statistically insignificant results and the fourth was conducted by a researcher affiliated with Everyday Math and has refused to release his data.

My school district adopted Everyday Math just this year. There was no protest by parents or a fight of any kind. They're all sheeple. Needless to say, I'm teaching my son math at home.

Carnegie Hall

The story so far ...

We learned that your brain comprises two main cognitive areas: the working memory (WM) where the thinking gets done and the long term memory (LTM) where knowledge is stored, usually in concrete form when it is first learned. The amount of information that can be held in WM is extremely limited in both size (about seven chunks) and duration (less than 30 seconds). The LTM is not so constrained.

The object of education is to not only get that information into LTM where it is somewhat protected from the ravages of forgetfulness but also to organize that information around deep structure so it is generalizable to new situations. Today's installment will deal with how to accomplish this.

"Practice, Practice, Practice"

First the bad news. Practice does not make perfect. If you practice or rehearse to perfection, you will be perfect today. You will likely not be perfect a few days later. It is not good enough to learn something to mastery, you have to overlearn it, past the point of mastery, if you want to retain it in LTM. With sufficient practice the skill or knowledge will become automatic.

Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low level details required. When cognitive processes become automatic, they demand very little space in working memory, they occur rapidly, and they often occur without conscious effort. When a skill is automatic, the knowledge necessary to effect that skill can be transferred back and forth between LTM and WM with ease.

Example time.

Nearly everybody reading this article is an expert reader. Decoding words is automatic for you. You do not need to laboriously piece together the letters of each word to puzzle out its identity. Your mind seems to divine the meaning of prose immediately and without effort on your part. Try this classic demonstration of automaticity for advanced readers. In this task you are asked to name the ink color in which the words are printed, but ignore the word that the letters spell. Hence for the stimulus Turkey, the proper response is "blue."

First try this list:


Now try this list:


The second list is much harder to read than the first list because, for you, reading is automatic. Even though you try not to read the words that the letters form, you read them automatically and doing so conflicts with naming the ink color. For someone who cannot read, the second list is no harder than the first.

For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long lasting, sustained practice beyond the point of mastery is necessary. Practice needs to be regular and ongoing and involve increasingly difficult and more complex problems. Practice distributed over several sessions generally leads to better memory of the information. This is known as the spacing effect.

Generally speaking, when something is first learned massed practice (lots of practice) works best followed by many sessions of distributed practice (less practice, but spaced).

And, as you may recall from the last installment, sustained practice also aids the mind in organizing knowledge around deep abstract structure instead of around concrete surface features which the mind is biased to do.

And here's the most important point so I'm going to place it in bold.

No one has yet found a short cut or golden road around the need for sustained practice for learning.

To educators, practice is disparaged as "kill and drill." They don't like it, so they want to avoid it. They are looking for a shortcut around the need for distributed practice to get students to mastery. Fundamentally, they are looking for magic. This is an ongoing theme in modern education. Look at nearly every education reform in recent time and you'll see a common characteristic--the desire to reduce the need for practice.

This brings us to the latest incarnation of educator magic -- constructivism, which we'll discuss in the next installment.

The next installment will be on how knowing stuff helps you learn more stuff.

Go to Installment four now.

October 17, 2006

Inflexible Knowledge is Unavoidable

Now that we know how our brains and the interaction between working memory (WM) and long term memory (LTM) work (See installment one), we can turn our attention to how we learn and the stages of knowledge.

When new things are first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete form rather than abstract ideas. Information is tied to superficial surface features and the result is that this newly gained knowledge is difficult to apply to new situations (i.e., situations having different surface features).

This kind of knowledge is called inflexible knowledge, not to be confused with rote knowledge. Unfortunately, educators knowing little about memory and how information is learned frequently confuse inflexible knowledge for rote knowledge. Then they compound the error by denigrating all memorization as rote learning.

Rote knowledge is knowledge devoid of meaning. Inflexible knowledge, in contrast, has meaning associated with it. That meaning, however, is superfiicial and concrete. That's why the knowledge is inflexible and doesn't generalize easily.

Knowledge becomes flexible when it can be accessed out of the context in which it was learned and applied in new contexts. Knowledge is flexible when it is tied to abstract features, rather than surface features.

Time for an example from Willingham:
A student might memorize this definition: "Classical conditioning occurs when repeated pairing of an unconditioned stimulus (which leads to an unconditioned response) with a conditioned stimulus comes to elicit a conditioned response upon presentation of a conditioned stimulus."

The student with rote knowledge might be able to produce the definition but would not understand it. This student, who learned the form without the meaning, wouldnÂ’t connect this definition to the familiar example: Pavlov'’s dog repeatedly hears a bell (conditioned stimulus) before getting food (unconditioned stimulus), whereupon the bell elicits salivation (conditioned response).

Another student might memorize the definition of classical conditioning and how each term (e.g., conditioned stimulus) relates to Pavlov'’s experiment (the conditioned stimulus is the bell). The student, therefore, understands the relationship of the terms (the dog salivates when it hears the bell because it expects the food). We would be more prepared to say that this student had learned the meaning of the term "classical conditioning," and that her knowledge was not rote.

Now suppose you present some new examples to the student:
  1. Every time a red light comes on, I put water in the bowl of a thirsty cat. In time, the cat learns to approach the bowl when the light comes on. Is this classical conditioning?
  2. Every time a rat pushes a button, it gets fed. In time, it learns to push the button when hungry. Is this classical conditioning?
  3. To cure bed-wetting, I put a pad under a child's mattress attached to an alarm that is rigged to ring when the pad gets wet. In time, the child learns to wake up before the alarm goes off. Is this classical conditioning?
Most likely, she will confidently say that example one is classical conditioning (it is); will hesitantly say that example two is (it is not); and will be stumped by example three (it is). The student successfully recognizes example one, which is new to her, as classical conditioning. That seems to indicate that her knowledge is not rote. On the other hand, does the failure to recognize example three as classical conditioning mean that the student doesnÂ’t really get it? Has this student acquired mere rote knowledge?

No, the learning is deeper than rote knowledge defines. But at the same time, clearly the student has not completely mastered the concept. The student understands classical conditioning, and she understands the meaning, but this understanding is somehow tied to the surface features of the example learned: dogs, food, and bells. When the example is switched to bed-wetting, her knowledge is rendered unavailable.

Knowledge becomes flexible when it becomes tied to deep structure rather than to superficial surface structure. For example, if you know how to find the area of a rectangle, that knowledge is probably generalizable; you can apply it to any rectangle, and the formula is not tied to the specific examples in which you learned it. You think of using the formula in novel situations, such as determining the total square footage of a hallway, kitchen, and dining room.

Inevitably, the question arises whether this deep structure can be taught directly. So far the answer seems to be no. The mind prefers that new ideas be framed in concrete terms rather than in abstract ideas, making deep structure difficult to teach directly. Anyone who's ever taught anyone anything knows that students like to see concrete examples. This is because their minds need to frame the ideas in concrete terms in order to attach some meaning to it.

Here's the take-away:

Inflexible knowledge is the unavoidable foundation of expertise including that part of expertise that enables students to solve problems by applying existing knowledge to new situations. We call this expertise "problem solving skills." As students work with their knowledge, their store of knowledge in LTM becomes large and increasingly flexible. In other words, the mind's concrete form bias is overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples. The end product of flexible knowledge is expertise which is deep structure of a large domain of knowledge. It is this expertise that we associate with higher-order or critical thinking skills and it can't be taught directly.

Now that we know how knowledge is learned, we can turn our attention to how to get that new knowledge into LTM into the first place. That'll be installment three.

Go to Installment three now.