November 13, 2006

Today's Education Strawman ...

... comes courtesy of Australia's The Age attacking the idea of a national curriculum. But once you start reading the article you quickly realize that the columnist has more a beef with the particular national curriculum chosen, rather than the concept of national curriculum generally.

The columnist humanizes the argument by finding a dupe pre-service teacher, Sarah, and using her as an unwitting mouthpiece.
Earlier this year, Sarah had a disquieting teaching experience. She taught the latest in "direct phonics" lessons to a group of secondary school students in Melbourne who were deemed to need remedial help.

The passive voice -- the lazy columnist's best friend.

So here we have high school students who apparently can't read well because they lack decoding skills. The school appears to have placed them in a "direct phonics" course to remediate these skills. I assume that direct phonics (in scare quotes naturally) means that the students will be taught synthetic phonics (i.e., sounds are taught how to be blended rapidly) in a direct systematic and intensive manner. The reason, no doubt,is because this is the only kind of phonics that is effective with struggling readers, like these high school kids.

One can assume that if these kids are in high school and are still read poorly however they were taught to read in the lower grades, probably not a direct phonics, didn't work.
The lesson was completely scripted for Sarah. In a foretaste of what is in store for students in the centralised curriculum model currently described by neoconservative politicians and media pundits, it was a one-size-fits-all lesson that could be taught anywhere across the nation, at any time.
A truly impressive string of cliches.

I suspect that automobile manufacturers used to say the same sort of nonsense about Henry Ford when he standardized the manufacture of automobiles. Then they either adapted or went out of business, so we don't hear about such complaints much any more.

One reason to standardize the curriculum is to improve quality control, the sort of quality control that might have prevented kids from reaching the high school level not knowing how to read well. "A supervisor entering a classroom can quickly determine what is happening and compare this with what should be occurring. The supervisor, therefore, is better equipped
to provide direct, practical demonstrations or suggestions to the teacher or aide. By standardizing the teaching program in this way, it is also easier to monitor the progress of the
children with criterion-referenced tests that children should pass if they have completed lessons at a specified level."

Then we have the "scripted lesson" critique. We are lead to believe that novice teacher Sarah, fresh out of school will magically turn out to be a master teacher. Perhaps, she'll be mentored by the schools current crop of expert teachers-- you know, the ones that weren't able to teach our hapless high schoolers. Scripted lessons are a hot button topic for educators. So why do many successful curricula use them -- because they work:
The scripts permit the selection and testing of sequences of examples that produce efficient learning if followed. Most teachers simply do not have time to find appropriate words and examples or to sequence skill hierarchies in the most efficient possible manner. When teachers phrase their own questions, they may choose terms unknown to lower-performing children or may include unnecessary verbiage. In choosing examples, moreover, they may teach incorrect rules because the positive examples have some irrelevant feature in common. In sequencing, it is easy to omit those skills critical for later, more complex tasks.

It's all about quality control. Back to the column.
In one 35-minute period of "teaching", every word that Sarah spoke, the precise time at which she delivered these words, and even the hand signals to accompany the words, were all tightly scripted.

Now we have "teach" in scare quotes. I wonder if the columnist would put scare quotes around his description of the failed teaching that preceded this?

We also learn that signals are bad when used as a cue for students to respond together. When students respond in unison, the teacher can determine which ones understand what is being taught (the ones who responded) and the ones who don't (the ones that didn't respond or incorrectly responded). This permits the teacher to provide a remedy to the students who still need more instruction. Another way of saying this is that signals permit the teacher to differentiate the instruction by targeting students who need more instruction and determining when they have learned. So much for one size fits all.

According to educators, signals are apparently good for choir and band practice, but bad when teaching reading, even though the effective use of signals obviates the problem of having the slower kids imitate the faster kids when responding. Without signals, it becomes difficult to determine who has learned the material and who is merely parroting what the smarter kids are saying.

When Sarah talked with me (her English education lecturer) some time after this experience, she had mixed emotions. After an exhausting week of planning, teaching, marking, staff meetings, in-service activities and much more, this scripted curriculum seemed a welcome relief. "I didn't have to think," she said.

She laughed, although it was clear she was still ambivalent about the experience. Then she asked: "But what sort of teaching is it when I'm not required to think?"

Presumably better that the instruction the kids received previously which forced the state (the entity running the schools) to intervene against the wishes of the educators, who were failing to do perform their job adequately.

The only time teaching a scripted lesson requires little thinking is when all the students are responding correctly. Students who are responding correctly are learning the material. Then the script, really is like the lines delivered by an actress and all the teacher has to do is read the lines, making sure that the students are responding correctly. This is a job most people would kill for.

However, invariably, there will come a time when some students will not respond correctly when they are supposed to. This is where the teaching comes into play. At this point the teacher has to first recognize that the students have responded incorrectly and then to provide a remedy. This requires the teacher to deviate from the script and follow the specified correction procedure, fix the mistake in learning, and then resume with the lesson. In this case the script is more like a flow chart and the teacher is required to make all the difficult decisions to know when to provide remedies when students aren't learning in addition to presenting the scripted material inn a lively and brisk manner that keeps the students on task and engaged.

This remains an exceeding difficult job than requires much training and classroom ability for teachers to get right. The experience is that teachers need at least two years of training to know how to teach the scripts correctly with low performing children so that these children are actually learning instead of being passed through the system as they are currently. This job requires a lot of thinking, otherwise we'd hire monkeys to read the scripts to children-- they work for bananas.

Now you should be able to answer the columnist's rhetorical question.

Indeed. At a time when neo-conservative commentators and politicians are touting the benefits of an efficient, centrally controlled curriculum, where decision making at the local level is taken out of the hands of teachers and schools, Sarah's story should give us cause to reflect.

Parents might well ask: Is this the sort of curriculum we want for our children? Do we want our children taught by a teacher who is not required to think?

No, we want them to continue to fail to learn how to read, write, and do math as they currently are. Idiot.


Anonymous said...

"neo-conservative commentators"

Twice. I guess that says it all.

"Do we want our children taught by a teacher who is not required to think?"

How is this different from the proverbial guide-on-the-side who doesn't think?

Of course, for both techniques, the teacher has to think, but which one is more effective? This is not about the teachers; it's about the kids.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what the author thinks neo-conservatism has to do with whether poor little Janie the Teacher thinks during class.

Anonymous said...

"The passive voice -- the lazy columnist's best friend."

I always like to come here for the daily guffaw.

I miss the nun, though.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that was me.


Anonymous said...

I call b*llsh*t on the following paragraph:

In one 35-minute period of "teaching", every word that Sarah spoke, the precise time at which she delivered these words, and even the hand signals to accompany the words, were all tightly scripted.

The author, Graham Parr of Monash University is relying on the fact that he is not talking to teachers. I *am* a teacher, and furthermore, I teach in the state where Graham claims that these scripted lessons exist. *Planned* lessons do exist, they specify content and activities. They do *not* turn the teacher into a marionette. No lesson plan I have ever seen requires "scripted hand signals". For one thing, it would be impossible, without a teleprompter in every classroom.

Can you imagine the size of a document that not only specifies your every word - but your every movement for 35 minutes? Beyond even such a preposterous document, what is the teacher expected to do? Memorise it? Or, in this fictional land of bogeymen neoconservatives, do teachers stand at the front of the classroom reading from this manifesto of perfect education? Pure nonsense. I say such a thing does not exist, and require proof of its existence before I will listen any of his objections to educational policy.

The rest of the article is just as bad, with paeans to wonderfully interactive assessment projects, where students create educational masterpieces with:

They were learning about World War I narratives, contemporary peace initiatives and more, through a critical study of picture storybooks and online texts. They eventually produced their own informed, imaginative PowerPoint presentations, which brought together historical and literary knowledge, human empathy, quirky humour and an earnest hope for a better future.

What the H*ll does this have to do with English at *year 8* level? These will be students who cannot write a grammatically correct sentence, and invariably do not know the parts of speech. At the same time as this nonsense is going on, the union of english teachers in New South Wales (ironically, one state *north* of Victoria), argues for more political indoctrination in class:

Sawyer is explicit: the purpose of English is to produce children who have the mind and ethics to vote against John Howard. His diatribe is pompous and devoid of the qualities of reflection and balance expected of an education professional. The website of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English carries a message from president Paul Sommer noting that while Sawyer's views are his own he "writes with the support of the AATE council."

(note: AATE: Australian Association for the Teaching of English)


Yet they wonder why politicians believe that they must step in and control what is happening in the classroom. Once again, I am a teacher where this hullabaloo is coming from, and I am witness to the indoctrination that goes on in class. I support more formal organisation for what is taught in the classroom, but I believe that the focus of this article is deceptive. No such "scripted lessons" exist, and I doubt that they would be implemented if they did for the reasons I have stated above.

Instructivist said...


Anonymous said...

Good, experienced teachers probably can do better than a scripted lesson but schools that have trouble filling every classroom with a good, experienced teacher will find that students learn more when mediocre and inexperienced teachers follow a well-written script.

Scripted lessons exist for beginning reading and math skills. I know of no scripts to teach history, science or other subjects. So students still could do a World War I project -- only they could read books instead of looking at pictures and write rather than assemble a PowerPoint presentation.
-- Joanne Jacobs

MassParent said...

In quality assurance, what we'd want is unit testing.

What we've got is command and control final assembly testing where the test data is a state secret until the next school year.

Unit testing integrated with curriculum and administered locally would do more for QA than any form of testing that has a four month lead time before test results are available at the assembly plant.

KDeRosa said...

Nothing in NCLB prevents schools from adopting unit test QA procedures. Any kind of formative assessment would be a good idea.

What NCLB is doing is overlaying an external QA procedure on top of what schools are doing in order to validate the school's QA programs or lack there of.

NCLB is the watchdog of last resort.

MassParent said...

Tell that to the 20 million parents of kids in good suburban schools, when the "watchdog of last resort" bar rises through high, very high, outstanding, and then off the charts, and NCLB informs the parents that most or all of the staff of their schools should be fired and control of the school should either turned over to the state or contracted out to an approved management firm.

When that happens, most of those suburban parents will only have the example of how sanctions-based reforms worked in urban schools. And there, practically none of the schools under private management will have achieved AYP, even if they have very great achievement gains.

A mighty expensive watchdog of last resort, considering that most of the information feeding the NCLB formulas is easier to predict based on baseline scores than based on change from the baseline. Using the 80/20 rule, we could have gotten roughly where we are today by issuing placebo tests and generate AYP results using baseline scores and a probability function. That's not QA; that's propaganda.

In Mass, the DOE says they have to cut short any fact-finding and go directly to sanctions to save six months. But that still leaves the five months after kids are tested before kids know how they did the previous year, and often a year later than the tested curriculum materials were taught.

If we want to expedite help to kids, that will require political leadership of a different stripe than our current batch of reformers.

Ryan said...

Reading Mastery has a component on how you should use your hands.

KDeRosa said...

That's mostly true.

Reading Mastery has suggested signals the teacher can use to get the students to respond together. It is up to the teacher to use whatever signals works for them. The important thing is that the teachers, via the use of proper signals, can receive accurate feedback on which students are answering correctly.

These signals are most pronounced at the earliest levels I and II when students are learning how to blend sounds and are faded out as unison responses are faded in the upper levels.

Such signalling and unison responses might not be necessary at all with a bunch of high performes who consistently answer correctly. However, for lower performers (such as the kids in the article) who frequently respond incorrectly, signals can be an effective means to get the entire class to get accurate feedback on student learning.

Anonymous said...

"... when the "watchdog of last resort" bar rises through high, very high, outstanding, and then off the charts, and NCLB informs the parents that most or all of the staff of their schools should be fired ..."

You keep coming back with the same stuff over and over. When you get challenged or asked for details, you disappear.

If you think the NCLB bar is anything but incredibly low (we've been through this before), then I'm sure there are many parents in your town who would like eliminate your ideological fixations from limiting their children. You worry about the federal government, but many parents worry about local governments backed by people like you.

MassParent said...

By definition, the Mass bar, at 80.5, is currently at moderate for English Language Arts. This isn't my definition; it is the state's own definition; you can see cycle three results including these declarations here: .

Mass accountability targets hit 85 in 2008, and 90.2 in 2010. 85 is declared "high", and 90 "very high"; as shown here:

In 2012, the bar hits 95.1; where about 2% of subgroups statewide currently would hit the target for ELA.

Other states have similar score distributions as Mass and similarly rising bars. Just because the state targets are only now into "moderate" territory, and in some cases, much lower than that by NAEP metrics, doesn't mean the bar won't exceed what some of the best schools in many states score in a couple or three cycles.

And for many schools, the mandate that they should have risen from abysmal scores up to "moderate" in the past four years labels schools that have made historically high performance gains as failing.

Just because a lot of think tanks say otherwise, and they've convinced many people that is the case, doesn't make it so. Thus, I repeat.

Sorry for the repetition, but I assume there are some mathematically savvy people reading this stuff who will bother to study the numbers and also arrive at the same conclusion.

KDeRosa said...

Massparent, you're confusing cut-score setpoints with difficulty levels. You're also assuming a static model for student achievement. If you read my "education research" post, you'll see that student acievement can be reliably increased at least at the elementary level by at least a standard deviation.

Anonymous said...

"Sorry for the repetition, but I assume there are some mathematically savvy people reading this stuff who will bother to study the numbers and also arrive at the same conclusion."

It appears that you aren't one of the mathematically savvy. You need to go back to all of the other threads where you failed to answer specific questions and disappeared. Your ideology appears to get in the way of understanding some basic facts. We've been through this before.

Like Ken says:
"... you're confusing cut-score setpoints with difficulty levels."

As I have said before, you need to get some sample tests, determine exactly what the proficiency cutoff point is, then get in front of a group of parents and tell them that it is unreasonable to expect schools to get kids over this minimum cutoff level.

There are lots of reasons to dislike NCLB, but complaining about the minimal level of expectation (that is set by the state - not NCLB) is not one of them. In fact, the biggest problems are that NCLB allows this level to be so low and says nothing about the quality of education for the rest of the kids. Our public schools meet these minimal cutoff levels (are "high performing"), but still fail to provide a proper education for the rest of the kids. Institutionalized low cutoff expectations masquerading as quality education.

You complain about the ideology of the federal government. I complain about the ideology of local schools backed by people like you. You always complain about "them". But, you are "them"; just at the local level.

MassParent said...

I'm not confusing cutpoints with difficulty.

Steve has asserted Mass does not have a difficult test. Every study done concludes Mass has as good a curriculum and testing program as anyone, and NAEP scores as high as anyone. If you disagree, go argue with Fordham Foundation, etc.

I agree that my evaluation used static scores, from 2005, to determine that 98% of school-subgroups fail the ultimate mandated score.

A study that assumes Mass will continue to make nation-leading progress on standardized test scores concludes that only three in four schools will fail AYP.

That conclusion includes this disclaimer: "Ed Moscovitch, President of Cape Ann
Economics, said his were “optimistic” projections since they presume that MCAS scores will continue to rise for the next decade, although historically achievement test scores rise more rapidly in the early years after a new test is administered before reaching a plateau."

More info here:

Anonymous said...

"I'm not confusing cutpoints with difficulty."

Are you are saying that low cutpoints define a good education?

"Every study done concludes Mass has as good a curriculum and testing program as anyone, and NAEP scores as high as anyone."

I guess you are, but NCLB is based on minimal cutpoints, not on the average scores that you mention for NAEP.

However, the NAEP test is incredibly easy. The scores on the test are incredibly bad. All parents I know are astounded when they look at the questions and results. Getting good (?) results on exams like these says nothing about the quality of education for the majority of the kids.

Do you really believe that the NAEP test defines a good education? Does the Fordham Foundation say that the NAEP test defines a good education?

That is the best case for full school choice.