December 14, 2007

Downes responds

Stephen Downes left the following comment to my last post. It's a good comment so I'm going to pull it up front so it'll be easier to read. It's unedited, except for a quick spell check (I know the perils of the blogger comment system):

Interesting and useful discussion. Some comments:

We need to be really careful about how we describe the contents of memory.

There is a tendency to think of mental contents as resembling objects. Things that look like sentences, say, and that can be stored and retrieved, like data in a database.

But when I say (to cite your summary) "Knowledge means having a certain organization of neural connectivity such that you can recognize certain patterns in the environment" it is important to see that the *organization* constitutes the knowledge, and there are no 'objects' that are stored or retrieved.

When we contrast that with Kirsher's view (again using your summary), "Knowing something means being able to quickly recognize and retrieve it from your long term memory in response to some stimulus," you can see that there is a significant contrast between the two positions.

This makes a significant difference in how one views instruction and learning.

Let me elaborate. You write:

"Then Downes states that learning is not having things pushed into your head but growing and developing in a certain way such that you recognize certain patterns. If by this Downes means that teachers cannot induce learning, I would disagree."

The choice of the phrase 'induce learning' is very precise and no doubt deliberate. It made me think at once of induction coils, which offers a useful analogy to illustrate my point.

For those unfamiliar with electricity, 'induction' is the generation of an electric current in a conductor by passing it through a magnetic field. Such a field can be produced by a coiled conductor. See the picture here:

Now the important thing here is that the electrons in the first coil never enter the second coil. The production of the current is entirely via the magnetic field. The first coil *induces* electrical current, but does not push electrons (or anything else) into the other wire.

Now there are obvious differences between human memory and magnetic induction, but you can see here that I can show how a teacher could 'induce' learning without actually 'pushing' facts into their memories. And, indeed, teaching is like induction.

What this illustrates is how you can't just 'produce' learning in a student, no more than you can induce conduction in a non-conductor. And learning in the student isn't something the student 'received' from the teacher, but rather, a new alignment into which the student shaped him or her self as a result of the teacher's influence.

This view is very different from what Kirshner appears to think about learning, based on his examples and phraseology. When Kirshner talks about 'search' and 'retrieval', he is very clearly employing a 'knowledge as object' perspective, one that is quite misleading.

What is also worth noting is that the 'induction' effect (to give it a hand name) is not unique to teaching. Thus, when you say "the literature is replete with experiments showing that learning can be accelerated by the use of good teaching" there is no reason to disagree - since it is obviously true - but to point out that the *explanation* of this phenomenon may be unclear.

Students learn through exposure to perceptual phenomena (there is, indeed, no other way), and teachers are but one source of perceptual phenomena. Students can learn from nature, other students, reading - a wide variety of phenomena. What is important, of course, is how the experience is shaped (much in the way the magnetic field is shaped) and what sort of influence it has - determined as much by the nature of the student. You cannot create a current in a non-conductor, for example.

So, to be precise: teachers do not implant knowledge in their students. They, a best, induce it. And this process of induction depends as much, if not more, on the nature of the student, as on the nature of the influence.

To turn to a different subject, you write, "It does not follow from Downes' definition of learning that an "authentic community of practice" is needed to form the desired neural connections."

Quite so. I would not say that an authentic learning community is necessary in all cases. Nor would I say that it is sufficient in all cases. The question is rather framed around the question of how best to create, shall we say, the most conducive (conductive?) environment.

A teacher is but one element in an environment. Like it or not, a student's peers, his or her parents and pets, the walls of the buildings, local media including Internet connections, and the rest, all form a part of that environment. If this environment is consistent and conducive to a certain type of learning, then this type of learning is more like to occur (depending, as always, on the nature of the student).

(By 'nature of the student' I am not referring to the student's innate properties, but rather, to the current constitution of the students - his or her health, thoughts, prior beliefs, and more).

You write, "I might be able to learn physics the long and hard way by conducting thousands of experiments like the great discovers did, but its much quicker and easier to learn the same things by reading a physics textbook prepared by an expert in physics."

Quite so. But could you learn to become a physicist without interacting with a community of physics?

Knowing 'physics' isn't just the accumulation of a set of facts. It is, again, to be shaped a certain way - 'knowledge', as instantiated by a series of connections, is not just the set of facts, but also the way of thinking, the way of acting, way of evaluating. It's very hard to do without relevant experience of people who think and act and value things in that way.

None of this says that someone *cannot* learn outside the community. You can get a sense by reading - much of my own background in the sciences comes from reading science fiction, and Kim Stanley Robinson's recent 'Forty Days' series illustrates the way the thought processes of the scientific mind. But, all things being equal, immersion and direct experience are more likely to induce the expected learning than reading or telling.

Finally, "All of this occurs in the first seven minutes or so."

Quite so. It is important to note that in this talk I offer only a short summary of connectivism.

Now, on to perceptions, "Downes seems to think that the connectionist theory conflicts with Kirschner and instructivist learning."

I need to be clear here, it is Kirshner who is finding the conflict. Kirshner is very clear in his paper that his theory shows that all the other theories - discovery based learning. inquiry learning, constructivism - fail (in fact, that's the *title* of his paper).

What is more important to me is showing that these theories do not fail than showing that they contradict Kirshner. But the route to this lies through kirshner, and specifically, the misunderstandings of both cognition and scientific method that his own papers presuppose.

I would point out, to change subjects, that my response to Kirshner is being mischaracterized in places. For example, you write, "For example, Downes characterizes Kirschner's position as being that non-instructivist teaching results in no learning."

I do not say this, am in fact careful to use Kirshner's own phrasing when I make the relevant statements. Kirshner argues, very clearly, that non-instructivist methods result in no better learning than direct instruction, and sometimes in *less* learning, because of the 'cognitive overhead' required in self-directed methodologies.

Kirshner's argument on this point is not based on experimental data, but rather, on his theory of cognition. Specifically, he argues that short-term memory has a limited capacity, and that if some of this capacity is not available for new facts (because it is taken up 'selecting scientific principles') then the transfer of information to the student is reduced.

I respond to this argument by showing how Kirshner's theory is false. We do not 'retrieve theories' into short term memory and then 'select' from them. That is not how thinking works; that is not ow scientific thinking works. And therefore, Kirshner's argument, on these grounds, against student-directed learning, fails.

(As an aside - I am very familiar with, and sympathetic with, Kirshner's line of reasoning. t is the sort of thing faced by students of mathematics or logic. Supposed, for example, you are posed with a statement, 'All S are P', and asked whether 'Some non-S are non-P' follows. Typical logic problems require that the student pick a theory - contraposition, obversion, etc - and work out the inference. Picking the correct theory is an annoyance. better just to see - suggests Kirshner - an instructor work through the example. The problem is, Kirshner is mischaracterizing the nature of scientific problems and how they are solved. You need to *recognize* the right sort of approach. I once created a 'categorical converter' which explicitly draws out the network structure of categorical inferences. This is what needs to be emulated - but the only way to get to it is to begin to think like a logician (or, like me, to be really persistent and to eventually draw it out for yourself)).

To continue, "The standard position is that non-instructivist teaching often results in less efficient learning, the probability is increased that incorrect learning occurs, it favors those with more background knowledge. These are the standard criticisms and Downes does nothing to refute them, choosing instead to attack a strawman."

Again, I think if you go back and look closely at my refutation of Kirshner, you will find I am very careful to avoid that straw man.

Now let's turn next to a new issue. You write, "Downes leaves out the feedback loop, testing, which is needed so that the teacher can make sure the student has actually learned from the demonstration/model presented."

This is not quite correct. I identify four types of associative learning, one of which is 'back propagation'. Back propagation is a term from connectionism, a branch of computer science. It constitutes essentially a feedback mechanism for neural networks.

But 'feedback' is, of course, very different from testing, and the purpose of feedback is not "so that the teacher can make sure the student has actually learned." Feedback is a corrective mechanism, intended to send new information back into the network, causing it to alter the nature and strength of its connections.

The question of how learning is demonstrated is a very different question. It is not directly the subject of dispute between Kirshner and myself (I don't actually know his views on testing).

My own view of testing, in brief, is that it is like using a hammer to find out if something is a nail. It sometimes works. But it can mislead, and it can produce harmful results.

The best mechanism for demonstrating knowledge is not likely the production of a certain set of facts on demand. Expertise in a discipline on the part of a student is something that is typically *recognized*, not measured, by people who are already experts in the field.

But this is very much a side issue. testing is not a part of learning itself - indeed, the vast bulk of what we know is stuff we were never ever tested on. testing is an administrative process, intended to govern the allocation of resources and certification and credit.

To look at what you say is "the procedure they use for Direct Instruction," you state that the 'lead' step is optional, but in Kirshner's work, the 'lead' step is very much not optional, and is, according to him, the direct cause of the lessening of the learning.

Let me also grab a snippet, to introduce yet another matter. You say, in part, "...Direct Instruction, a pedagogy I'm sure Downes is four-square opposed to, yet which oddly enough is fully in accord with his definition of teaching and learning."

The presumption, "I'm sure Downes is four-square opposed to," may be the result of jumping to conclusions. I have never expressed opposition to direct instruction (uncapitalized) in my work. I take part in direct instruction myself, both in learning and in teaching. However, where I differ greatly from many others is that I believe that the process of direct instruction needs to be initiated by the student, and not imposed as a part of a required curriculum or instructional method.

As I said before, the ability to learn depends on the nature of the student. When the student is motivated to learn, when the student is in a specific frame of mind, when the student has the requisite background to know what (and what kind) of knowledge is needed, then direct instruction is very effective.

Simply putting a bunch of students in a room and 'direct instructing' them on mathematics will produce some results (generally, some improvement in mathematics), but is a wasteful and disempowering way to approach learning, particularly when compared to how much they could be learning in a wide range of subjects (not just mathematics) in the same time.

You state, "Learning is greatly dependent on the quality of the demonstration/model."

Yes, but in what does this quality inhere? There has been a lot of discussion about what constitutes 'quality' in teaching, but I would think that it's a mistake to look for quality only in the teacher.

The models and demonstrations in fact come from a wide variety of sources - teachers, co-students, parents, media, more. The best example in the world, the best teacher in the word, can be effectively undercut by other elements in the environment.

This isn't the place for a lengthy discussion of how best to provide 'quality' in the environment as a whole. I think it will do for now to suggest that there is such a discussion that could be had, and that 'quality' constitutes more than just 'quality performance by a teacher'.

With this in mind, let me address directly "The problem with most teacher presentations, as I pointed out here, is that they are usually fraught with ambiguities. Let's use the ambiguous glerm example. Some students will walk away from the demonstration thinking that glerm means rectangle or purple, instead of vertical, and may labor under that impression for quite some time."

It is interesting that you use this example. It seems to be drawn either from Quine's 'gavagi' (on the indeterminacy of translation) or Goodnam's 'grue' (on the indeterminacy of projection). The two are fundamentally the same.

This is one of the reasons *why* I say that knowledge is constituted of connections, rather than sentences or propositions. The 'gavagi' and 'grue' poblems are inherent in the nature of language and inference; they are the rule, not the exception.

True, insufficiently imprecise teachers are a problem - people in general are very sloppy with their language - but the problem is not simply the quality of the teacher. In the right context, there would be no issue whether the teacher meant rectangle or purple (if the child was taught, or read at home, that this is what the word means, for example). In other cases, the teacher must move slowly, with clarity and precision.

But, again, imprecision is not the sole issue. The same sort of imprecision that causes no problem at all on the playground or in the bar with your friends cannot be blamed for the failure of learning to occur.

That said this, then, creates what is in fact one of the most common arguments against associationist theories in general: "Using Downes connectionist theory we know that this student's brain is going to connect itself up so that the pattern for glerm is associated with purple or rectangle, all of which will have to be undone when the student finally learns the right meaning of glerm."

Quite so.

But my response, here (just as it is against Chomsky's prety of the stimulus argument) is that the precision presumed in the objection never existed in the first place.

This, obviously, is a discussion that could continue at some length.

But we really have to be careful.

Take this statement: "We also know that it takes many more repetitions to learn something that has been mistaught than it takes to learn something new."

Well, no. We need to say, "it takes many more repetitions to learn something that has been misLEARNED." Because there isn't a direct (deductive, simple-causal) connection between what is taught and what is learned. Something can be taught correctly and learned incorrectly; something can be taught incorrectly and learned correctly (that's how I learned grammar!).

Another matter, "the misunderstanding of instructivist teaching as comprising mostly rote learning," does not form part of my argument (nor Kirshner's) and so is a bit of a distraction from what I actually say.

The example provided of mathematical learning bears very little resemblance to what I would actually say. We could look at this in more detail, if you like. But, again, it's a common argument (based in the work of people like Chomsky, Fodor and Pylyshyn) that we must use rules to manage any rule-based domain, such as mathematics or language. My response, as before, is that the nature of a 'rule' in a network-based system is different than the nature of a 'rule' in a formal system (a difference Kripke tries to mask in his treatment of Wittgenstein on rules and private language.

As a result I think that your conclusion, "Constructivist pedagogy merely differs from the instructivist pedagogy in that the constructivists set up an environment in which it is hoped that the student discovers the general rule on his own with as little guidance by the teacher as needed," is incorrect.

As I state above, doing something like mathematics or science simply isn't a mater of 'finding' a rule.

It doesn't involve 'general rules' (properly so-called) at all.

The 'rule' that the scientist or the mathematician follows is an epiphenomenon. To take that epiphenomenon and use it to *direct* a process of reasoning is to misrepresent the manner in which the process of reasoning happened in the first place.

Think about adding two plus two. You got four, right? Did you follow a rule? Or did you just 'know'? Was it an experience more like following a map? Or more like recognizing your mother's house?

I've tried to writ about this at length elsewhere, but I'll just say for now, any account that depends on 'a student learning a rule' or the sort given in this post is missing the point of my own approach to learning (missing Wittgenstein's, too, but I digress).

Anyhow, like I said, a worthwhile discussion. I hope my comments have added to an understanding of how I think a network theory of learning differs from more traditional theories.

December 13, 2007

Downes on Kirschner

Over at his Half and Hour blog, Stephen Downes has posted a speech he gave recently criticising Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s paper entitled, Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching.

Downes begins the speech by telling us that he believes in connectionism. He describes what it is and describes how one teaches in a connectionist manner. Oddly enough, I agreed with much of what Downes was saying and thought that much of it was complementary to the theories set forth in Kirschner, rather than opposed to Kirschner as Downes seems to think.

Basically, Downes believes that knowledge and learning can be explained by using network principles, specifically by understanding how connections are formed in the brain network. Knowledge means having a certain organization of neural connectivity such that you can recognize certain patterns in the environment.

This seems to be neither controversial or in apposition to Kirschner. Knowing something means being able to quickly recognize and retrieve it from your long term memory in response to some stimulus. And pattern recognition seems to play same role here.

Then Downes states that learning is not having things pushed into your head but growing and developing in a certain way such that you recognize certain patterns. If by this Downes means that teachers cannot induce learning, I would disagree. The literature is replete with experiments showing that learning can be accelerated by the use of good teaching. See for example, the famous chicken sexing experiment in which the patterns of recognizing the sex of newborn chickens was greatly accelerated by use of summary sheet prepared by an expert chicken sexer. In this case, knowledge was certainly pushed into the student's head quicker than having the student sit in an authentic environment at the foot of the expert learning by observation.

Perhaps, Downes mispoke or I am interpreting what he said incorrectly. I just don't think this statement follows from what he stated previously or what he states afterwards.

In any event, Downes next defines learning and teaching. According to Downes, to teach is to model and to demonstrate, to present experiences so people can form these connections in their mind. To learn is to form these connections by practice and repetition and by reflecting on that practice. I agree with this, even though I disagree with Downes next statement that learning is best done by participating in an authentic community of practice. It does not follow from Downes' definition of learning that an "authentic community of practice" is needed to form the desired neural connections. I might be able to learn physics the long and hard way by conducting thousands of experiments like the great discoverers did, but it's much quicker and easier to learn the same things by reading a physics textbook prepared by an expert in physics.

All of this occurs in the first seven minutes or so. Downes spends the remaining forty minutes of his speech criticizing the Kirschner paper. Downes seems to think that the connectionist theory conflicts with Kirschner and instructivist learning. And seems to favor constructionism, problem based learning, discovery learning, and the like.

In my opinion, much of this time is spent parsing Kirschner's language, erecting a few strawmen (which he curiously doesn't knoock down), and manufacturing a conflict with Kirschner when in fact his theory is complementary with Kirschner's. For example, Downes characterizes Kirschner's position as being that non-instructivist teaching results in no learning. This is a strawman. The standard position is that non-instructivist teaching often results in less efficient learning, the probability is increased that incorrect learning occurs, and it favors those with more background knowledge. These are the standard criticisms and Downes does nothing to refute them, choosing instead to attack a strawman.

Let's examine some of these issues using Downes' definition of teaching and learning.

Downes defines teaching and learning as modeling/demonstrating coupled with doing/practice so that proper connections can form in the student's brain. Downes leaves out the feedback loop, testing, which is needed so that the teacher can make sure the student has actually learned correctly from the demonstration/model presented. Let's add it back in. The full blown schematic goes something like this: model, (lead), do, test, practice, delayed test. The lead step is optional and depends on the amount of guidance needed by the student. The delayed test is for determining if the learning has made it to long term memory. Oddly enough, this is the procedure they use for Direct Instruction, a pedagogy I'm sure Downes is four-square opposed to, yet which oddly enough is fully in accord with his definition of teaching and learning.

Looked at this way, learning comprises a presentation of a demonstration/model, the student attempts to replicate the model/demonstrate with or without a teacher's leading, the teacher tests to see if the student can successfully perform and has understood the presentation, the student then practices the demonstration, after a period of time the teacher again tests the student to see if the student can perform what was taught.

Learning is greatly dependent on the quality of the demonstration/model. The problem with most teacher presentations, as I pointed out here, is that they are usually fraught with ambiguities. Let's use the ambiguous glerm example. Some students will walk away from the demonstration thinking that glerm means rectangle or purple, instead of vertical, and may labor under that impression for quite some time. Using Downes connectionist theory we know that this student's brain is going to connect itself up so that the pattern for glerm is associated with purple or rectangle, all of which will have to be undone when the student finally learns that glerm means vertical. We also know that it takes many more repetitions to learn something that has been mistaught than it takes to learn something new.

Another problem is the misunderstanding of instructivist teaching as comprising mostly rote learning, learning devoid of understanding. Almost no one teaches anything by rote. The reason is that rote teaching is inefficient because rote learning doesn't generalize well. For example, one can teach addition by rote by asking the student to memorize all the addition facts, such as 1+ 1 = 2, 1+2 = 3, 1+3 = 4, ad infinitum. Using Downes' lingo, in order to learn these addition facts by rote, the student learns to recognize that the pattern 1+1 is 2 and that the pattern 1+ 2 is 3. This is inefficient because unless the student has been taught the pattern 1+3 he does not necessarily know that the pattern matches with 4. In contrast, it is more efficient to teach addition by teaching the general rule that to perform addition you need to start with the first number and count up by the second number. This is not rote learning and it is much more efficient. The student seeing the pattern 1+2 will connect it to the more general pattern number + number means perform the addition procedure. This is more efficient because the teacher does not have to teach every addition fact because the student has a basis for recognizing a pattern which leads to a generalized rule that works with all problems in the form number + number.

Constructivist pedagogy merely differs from the instructivist pedagogy in that the constructivists set up an environment in which it is hoped that the student discovers the general rule on his own with as little guidance by the teacher as needed. So, the teacher might show the student that 1+1 =2, 2+1=3, 3+1=4 in the hope that the student recognizes that adding one to a number means to count to the next higher number and eventually that adding any number to a number means starting from the first number and counting by the second number, which is the general rule. The theory is that the student, having discovered the rule for himself, will understand the rule better and be able to remember the rule better which means in Downes' terminology that he will be able to recognize the pattern better. There is some support in the literature for this effect. And, if all students always learned exactly what we wanted them the first time, this might be a more effective teaching technique.

But it's not. And the reason why it is not is because many students will not learn or discover the first time around as they try to discover the right pattern. What the students do is experiment by testing their known patterns to see if they fit. And, unfortunately, the students tend to learn these wrong solutions about as well as the right ones until the right solution acquires some dominance acquired through practice. And there's less time for practice what with all this discovery going on. Then there is the risk that the student hasn't learned the most efficient pattern, but one that happens to work with the environment at hand.

There is also the issue of the feedback loop, i.e., how does the teacher correct student errors when they fail to learn. This is also a pattern recognition problem; however, this time it is the teacher who needs to recognize the right pattern so the right remedy can be employed. This is difficult enough when the teacher has directly taught the rule to the student and there is some basis for knowing what the student has failed to grasp. But, imagine the difficulties for the teacher when the learning is occurring in a more information rich environment in which there are more variables to attend to.

I could go on, but this post is getting way too long. My point is that learning and teaching is a complex endeavor that isn't fully explained by Kirschner's or Downes' theories and that the theories are, my opinion, are more complementary than in conflict as Downes attempts to paint in his speech. For example, Downes ridicules Kirschner's brain model as being a flat store of data and procedures which gets searched sequentially. And offers, that the brain is more a neural network that searches for patterns, more of a relational database, if you will. More likely, the brain is more a network/schemata arranged according to patterns and containing lots of facts and procedures, and other knowledge that make up those patterns.

Lastly, even if we are to accep Downes' model, I still do not think that the model favors a constructivist/discovery learning paradigm as opposed to a instructivist paradigm. This confuses a theory of knowing for a theory of learning that I do not think is supported by the available evidence and ignores many real problems typically encounter in the learning process, some of which I've listed above.

Nonetheless, I think Downes's speech contributes to the discussion. I certainly learned something or at least it's lead to a better understanding. But, I'm not exactly an novice in this area.

December 11, 2007

Er, I think you're forgetting something

In this Providence Journal article, Julia Steiny goes to great pains to describe the historic flaws in our secondary schools. The problem is that she leaves out the most important part. See if you can spot it.

At the dawn of the 20th century, educators were faced with a huge influx of children from foreign-immigrant families and families coming to the cities from farmlands. Educators turned to America’s signature dynamo at the time, the factory, after which they modeled America’s comprehensive secondary schools.

Got it? I'll give you a hint. Educators didn't model schools after the factory, at least not directly.

Educators turned to the government to run the schools and then these government-run schools turned to the factory model. And, therein lies the rub.

Steiny goes on to set-up an extended metaphor that completely misses the mark due to this omission.

As it turned out, the problem wasn't with the new immigrants--they eventually performed as well as other Americans who came from Europe. The problem was that no one had ever figured out how to educate the unwashed masses-- the lower 75% of society. So when we turned the enterprise over to the government, the government had no successful model to emulate, so the "factories" they set-up were all defective. In a properly-operating free-market, the market would work behind the scenes to divert resources from the failed models to the more successful models. Deprived of resources, the underperforming schools would close down and the successful schools would be emulated. But with government in the act, the free market is pushed to the side. Resources are determined by politics. With no incentive to improve, schools don't try. No failing school gets closed. The result is, well, the system we have today. Today, schools are only capable of educating the same kinds of kids the were capable of educating back in the early 20th century. The unwashed masses don't get educated.

You can always spot an unreformed lefty by this large intellectual blindspot. This blindspot marred the otherwise well-written book by Sherman Dorn, Accountability Frankenstein. Dorn takes pains to describe the forces that affected and shaped the American education system but inexplicably fails to mention the one, most likely the largest and most influential factor. That's too bad, especially since Dorn tries so hard to be evenhanded.

December 10, 2007

The Not-So-Suprising Conclusion of Once Upon a Time in Kansas City

(Continued from Part One)

The wizard Clark waited for his creation to cook.

He waited.

And, he waited.

He waited for five long years--the amount of time his grand vizier told him it would take for the plan to work.

The grand vizier told the wizard to have patience.

So, the wizard waited some more. Patiently.

The wizard waited seven more years. And his patience began to wear thin.

The wizard had followed the grand vizier's plan to the letter. The wizard had spent more gold on the school district of Kansas City than any city had spent before. He had improved the buildings, provided lavish educational resources, bussed in magic aura kids and harnessed their power, provided full day kingergarten, provided day care and before and after school activities. He had increased teacher salaries by 40% across the board, reduced teaching loads, implemented Montessori-like elementary schools, and reduced class sizes to lower than they had ever been.

In short, he had done it all--everything the high priest of Kozol had recommended, nay, had assured him would work.

And, yet test scores remained were they had been for so many years--below state norms. Finally, the wizard order a full accounting from his advisor. The verdict: The wizard's plan hadn't "changed any of the measurable outcomes."

The wizard looked upon the grand vizier with disgust. The grand vizier smiled meekly and began to suggest something he called Universal PreSkool that he assured the wizard ....

A bolt of lightning shot from the wizard's wand and the high priest was reduced to a small pile of chalk dust.

The wizard was now enraged.

Twelve years, two billion dollars, and nothing to show for it. The wizard prepared to cast an even more powerful spell of taxation when nine even more powerful wizards from the court of Rehnquist appeared to put and end to the wizard's nonsense. The nine smote the wizard Clark who was forced to flee Kansas City and lifted the wizard's spell of taxation.

But the wizard fled, he took revenge on all the people of the Kingdom by placing a curse which made them forget the lessons of Kansas City and doomed them to repeat the mistakes over and over in perpetuity.

The wizard, however, saved his best curse for the high priest of Kozol--the NCLB curse--which eventually drove the high priest mad, whereupon the priest lived his remaining days in a state of of partial fast subsisting entirely on a diet of vanilla lattes.

There was no happy ending. For anyone.

Tomorrow the moral of thes tory.

Winerip Gets Snookered by Smallest School Study

The NY Times needs to hold a seminar on introductory statistics for its reporters, especially its education reporters, so they stop turning in articles like this one one by Michael Winerip which seriously confuses correlation with causation.

It is ETS that deserves the real blame, however, for taking advantage of the statistically gullible, i.e., Winerip. The reason they deserve the blame is because they were peddling their statistical survey "study" as implying causation: From the report Highlights, paragraph one:

The family and the home are both critical education institutions where children begin learning long before they start school, and where they spend much of their time after they start school. So it stands to reason that improving a child’s home environment to make it more conducive to learning is critical if we are to improve the educational achievement of the nation’s students and close the achievement gaps. To do this, we need to develop cooperative partnerships in which families are allies in the efforts of teachers and schools. The kinds of family and home conditions that research has found to make a difference in children’s cognitive development and school achievement include those
highlighted below. (emphasis mine)

The highlighted sentence is the one that lets Winerip plead incompetence, when he gets accused of having a political agenda. Here's what happened.

ETS collects a lot of student data. Once in a while they sift through the data to find the typical unsurprising correlations.

  • students from single parent families on average tend to underperform academically.

  • students from poor (resource deprived) families on average tend to underperform academically.

  • students from language-deprived families on average tend to underperform academically.
To name but a few.

The problem is that ETS is trying to ascribe causation to these various correlations without going through the effort of proving causation. The problem is compounded when ETS peddles their causation theories as fact in, say, a Highlights report designed for statistically-illiterate journalists, i.e., Winerip.

For example, the fact that students from single parent families underperform academically could mean at least three things.

1. the single parent family environment causes lower student achievement;
2. lower student achievement causes more single parent families;

3. some third variable causes both more single parent families and lower student achievement. (One plausible variable is low IQ.)

ETS is suggesting that it knows that the right causation is number one. And, goes on to suggest that improving the familial conditions it has highlighted will lead to increased student performance. (Winerip merely parroted ETS's suggestions and added a shriller tone.)

These are the things bad governmental policy is made of. It all starts with shoddy "research."

Here's a picture of one of the co-authors of the ETS study who's hoping his countenance of fatherly concern will convince you to swallow his dubious "research." Think of the children.

December 7, 2007

Once Upon a Time in Kansas City

The second most important experiment in k-12 education took place in Kansas City during the years 1985 and 1997. Most education pundits have apparently never heard of what went on in Kansas City, for if they did, embarrassment and shame would prevent them from continuing to recommend the education policies they so frequently suggest.

My understanding is that humans learn best from stories, so I've cast the travails of Kansas City into a story. So gather 'round kiddies and prepare to be amazed at the wondrous tales I will tell. I've reserved the front row for the edubloggers. It's a long and winding story with many whiles and wends...

Once upon a time ...

... there was a great and prosperous kingdom known as America. Nearly all the subjects were wealthier than the people of the surrounding kingdoms, yet things were not perfect. One day a mighty dragon, known as LBJ, flew into the kingdom and decided to make the kingdom of America into a greater society, if you will. LBJ was a well-meaning dragon who toiled tirelessly to transform the great cities of the kingdom into paradises; however, unbeknownst to the dragon, he had been cursed by Merton, the god of Unintended Consequences, such that all the good the dragon did would turn out bad. And, so it did.

The dragon flew from city to city casting powerful magical spells which terrified the city folk of America and wreaked havoc on the cities. As a result, those that could flee the cities, fled the cities to hide from the spells cast by cursed dragon which were bringing terrible storms to all the great cities. Only those that could not afford to move from the cities stayed in the ruined and once great cities. When the great dragon LBJ saw the consequences he had wrought, he promptly flew to the closest volcano and cast himself into its bowels, never to be seen again.

Tthe great cities of America never recovered from the unintended wrath of the dragon. All the great cities were now impoverished and destitute. All the capable citizens had fled the cities, leaving only the incapable to fend for themselves. The incapable, being incapable, once again proved their incapability by failing to provide for themselves. The great cities of the kingdom reverted to poverty like almost all the cities that comprise the lands outside of the kingdom. Much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands ensued trying to rectify the conditions in the now impoverished cities--especially when it was learned that most of the people who remained in the cities were disproportionately the black and brown people who lived in the kingdom. The debate rages as to why this is so. No one knows for sure, but no one seems to be satisfied with the outcome.

One day a mighty elf-wizard named Clark visited the Kingdom. The wizard had been appointed by the once mighty king Carter, whose reign was thankfully brief. The wizard Clark was a very special wizard who did not abide by the wizard handbook that bound the wizards and prevented them from engaging in the black arts and doing much mischief. The wizard Clark, however, thought the Wizard handbook was merely a guideline, and not rules, per se, which he needed to follow so long as he was trying to do good. Clark was a very foolish wizard, but a very powerful wizard, as you will soon learn.

Upon seeing the turmoil that plagued the kingdom, the wizard Clark tossed out his wizard handbook and teleported to the closest city-the once great city of Kansas City to do some good.

Upon reaching the city, Clark sought the advice of a well-respected vizier who thought himself very wise. Unbenownst to the wizard Clark, the vizier was a charlatan who practiced the dark arts of Edukashun-- a discredited school of magic that was shunned by the other schools of magic because they failed to abide by the rules of magical inquiry. Its practitioners spouted all manner of nonsense in reckless disregard for the truth and never thought it necessary to substantiate their magical opinions. This was a very unfortunate development for the thick-skulled wizard Clark who had sought the counsel of the grand vizier, thinking him to be very wise.

The grand vizier was a very confident and convincing vizier in all matters of Edukashun. The vizier promised the gullible wizard Clark that by using the powers of Edukashun he would be able to restore the vitality of the once great Kansas City to its former splendor in five short years. The wizard Clark inquired as to the parameters of the Grand Vizier's plan. The canny vizier told the wizard that he could not provide specifics until he made a pilgrimage to the high holy land of Kozol in a distant kingdom, but that he was quite certain that the plan would require much gold to implement properly and that the wizard should start collecting as much gold as possible with all due haste. The wizard Clark bade the grand vizier farewell and set out on his quest to obtain the precious gold.

The wizard Clark may have been a mutton head, but he was still a very powerful wizard. He surveyed the lands surrounding the city of Kansas City and saw that the lands were full of hard-working, capable people and great wealth. He immediately realized he had found his pigeon and cast a mighty spell of taxation on the surrounding lands. The incantation enslaved these rich and greedy people and forced them to pay yearly tribute to the wizard. For the next twelve years the wizard Clark ruled like an emperor of yore over the people and managed to extract 2 billion dollars in gold from them and sent it to Kansas City to enact the Grand Vizier's plan.

The gold began flowing into the Kansas City coffers in the year 1985, the year the grand vizier returned from his pilgrimage to Kozol. The wizard, pleased with his spell of taxation and the riches that were flowing into the imperial coffers, summoned the grand vizier to outline his plan of Edukashun.

The grand vizier unraveled the large scroll full of the ideas he had obtained from the high priests of Kozol. Being a vain man, as so many of the practitioners of Edukashun are, the grand vizier selected a few of the most fashionable and faddish ideas from the scroll, read them to the wizard, and assured the wizard that these ideas would work miracles in short order. The wizard laughed a mighty laugh and showed the grand vizier the mountain of gold that lay in the wizard's treasure room. The wizard then informed the grand vizier that they had sufficient gold to implement all of the ideas on the scroll, and should proceed to due so with all due haste in order to restore the city of Kansas City to its former glory. And, that is exactly what happened.

In short order the school district of Kansas City was transformed into the most lavish school district in all the Kingdom. 15 new state-of-the-art schools were built and 54 existing schools were renovated in Kansas City. The schools contained such amenities an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room; a robotics lab; professional quality recording, television, and animation studios; theaters; a planetarium; an arboretum, a zoo, and a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary; a two-floor library, art gallery, and film studio; a mock court with a judge's chamber and jury deliberation room; and a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability. The Kansas City School District was spending nearly $12,000 per pupil, more than any other school district in any of the great cities of the Kingdom.

According to the grand vizier's plan, these new facilities would magically make it possible for the students to learn, which they were prevented from doing in their old decrepit schools. Once the school facilities were fixed, the grand vizier began the most ingenious part of the plan. A million dollar advertising campaign was started to attract students from the surrounding lands. These were good students who had learned much using the primitive techniques that failed with the children of Kansas City. The priests of Kozol believed that these children possessed magical auras that would charm the less-able students sitting next to them, so the idea was to lure these magic children to Kansas City through the fancy new schools so that the magic of their auras could be harnessed to further the grand vizier's plan.

The magic aura students were offered a free bus ride to and from Kansas City every single day to attend the schools and lend the children of Kansas City the power of their auras. If the child didn't live on a bus route, the King's personal taxi would be sent to transport these wondrous children. Once the magic aura students got to Kansas City, they could take courses in garment design, ceramics, and Suzuki violin. The computer lodestone school at Central High had 900 interconnected computers, one for every student in the school. In the performing arts school, students studied ballet, drama, and theater production. They absorbed their physics from Russian-born teachers, and elementary grade students learned French from native speakers recruited from Quebec, Belgium, and Cameroon. For students in the classical Greek athletic program, there were weight rooms, racquetball courts, and a six-lane indoor running track better than those found in many colleges. The high school fencing team, coached by the former Soviet Olympic fencing coach, took field trips to Senegal and Mexico. It was truly a magical time in Kansas City.

But the grand vizier's plan took no chances, for some of the high priests of Kozol thought that more was needed than the auras of the magic aura students to help the less-able students of Kansas City. So, the ratio of students to instructional staff was lowered at great expense to about 12 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the Kingdom.

The queen's royal necklace, worth $25,000, was exchanged for a pile of beads, blocks, cubes, weights, balls, flags, and other manipulatives to stock all the new Montessori-style elementary school classrooms in the district. In these classrooms, younger children took midday naps listening to everything from chamber music to "Songs of the Humpback Whale."

A bag of magic beans was also acquired so that all the working parents the district could be provided with all-day kindergarten for youngsters and before- and after-school programs for older students. No expense was spared.

In fact, so much gold was consumed in Kansas City that the school district was overwhelmed. Mismanagement and waste were rampant, but there was so much gold in the treasury due to the wizard's taxation spell that the grand vizier got everything he wanted. Yet, he was still not satisfied.

The surrounding lands were placed in much turmoil due to the heavy taxation they were forced to endure. The wizard was much despised, but he was far too powerful to be overthrown. The taxation persisted and the people of the surrounding lands were forced to tighten their belts, forcing the cancellation of field trips and extracurricular activities, the deferral of maintenance, the firing of teachers, and freezing of salaries. The decline in state revenue cost the neighboring Springfield school district $4 million, the hometown of the wizard Clark,--4 percent of its entire budget. As there was no slack in the budget, Springfield had to fire 19 employees; defer grouting the mortar on 100-year-old brick buildings; cancel public speaking classes; dispense with water safety courses; and beg for money to send students to the Civil War battlefield at Wilson's Creek, an annual trip that had been made for decades. The wizard Clark was not dissuaded from his plan with these tales of woe and instructed the grand vizier to continue on.

The high priest of Kozol had long believed that class sizes had to be reduced for performance to improve. To that end, the official class size in Kansas City was reduced to 22 per room in kindergarten and 25 in high school, though so many students cut classes in high school that the effective class size was often closer to 15. The high priest also believed that teachers needed their workload reduced. In some schools like Central High, teachers taught only three classes per day. Finally, the wizard raised increased teacher pay a total of 40 percent to an average of about $37,000 (maximum was $49,008 per year for Ph.D.s with 20 years experience). To put this in perspective, at the time, parochial school teachers were earning an average of $24,423.

All of the grand vizier's plans had been faithfully implemented. The wizard ruled over the transformed school district, running interference for anyone who would try to prevent his plan from being brought fruition. The high priests of Kozol smiled upon their creation with the smug countenance that only they can achieve. They predicted a very happy ending for Kansas City. All that was needed was enough time for the creation to finish cooking. It cooked for twelve long years. The wizard remained steadfast the entire time.

But you'll have to wait until Monday to read the conclusion to the story. Think you can guess the ending?

(Go to the Conclusion.)

December 6, 2007

Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System

Last January Zig Engelmann made available on his website his unpublished book--The Outrage of Project Follow Through, Five Million Failed Kids Later. If you missed it back then, you are in luck, because the book has now been published by ADI as Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backward System. It is available at Amazon, but if you order directly from ADI you can get an autographed copy and a $7 discount if you don't factor in Amazon's free shipping. Zig has made the forward and table of contents available (pdf).

It is an important book.

It looks just like the plethora of other education books out there. But it is different. Unlike other education books, it was written by someone who has actually successfully educated many schools full of low performing students. This is something the likes of Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, Gerald Bracey, et al. have never done. That's why no one has ever been able to take the wisdom of Kozol, Kohn, or Bracey and improve the academic performance of a school full of low performing children. In contrast, Zig's theories have been used many time over the last 42 years to transform failed schools into successful schools. And yet, as Zig points out in the forward:

We showed what could be done, but our work failed to convince even one major school district to do it, even though it would be far less expensive than what they are doing now.

That is the big question. Why hasn't even one of the schools than Zig turned around stayed with Zig's program as soon as the next administrator rolled into town? It's as though someone handed a failed school district a big pot of gold and told them to fix their woes by lowering class size, paying teachers better, and instituting all the things the Kozol gang thinks failed schools need. Imagine if we gave a school district unlimited funding and then the school district screwed it up.

If you think that no school district could ever be that incompetent, then you've never heard about what happened in Kansas City.

I'm going to post about the travails of Kansas City in the near future because it represents, in my opinion, one of the most important lessons in education. In the meantime, go read Zig's book. Then read the whole story about Kansas City. The you will have a much better understanding why k-12 education is so screwed up and why the typical bromids don't work and why the effective remedies have little chance of being implemented in most school districts and are likely to be implemented incorrectly in those that try.

December 5, 2007

I'm Back

Sorry for the lack of posting, kids. Real life sometimes interferes with hobbies. I've been busy with my real job, the holidays, and most recently a trip to Disney World, leaving little time for blogging. But, I have been keeping up somewhat with the goings on in the edusphere, so I'm ready to jump back in with some new posts. As soon as I write them, that is.

October 17, 2007

My how the times have changed

From the Boston Globe:

FREEDOM of education, being an essential of civil and religious liberty . . . must not be interfered with under any pretext whatever," the party's national platform declared. "We are opposed to state interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children as an infringement of the fundamental . . . doctrine that the largest individual liberty consistent with the rights of others insures the highest type of American citizenship and the best government.

That ringing endorsement of parental supremacy in education was adopted by the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1892, which just goes to show what was possible before the Democratic Party was taken hostage by the teachers unions.

Update: Fixed blockquote formatting problem.

October 16, 2007

Schools Were Broken Long Before NCLB

Karin Chenoweth turns in a good Op-ed in the WaPo:

A very odd notion is circulating these days that the No Child Left Behind law has forced schools to become boring, dull places where children do endless worksheets and are discouraged from thinking for themselves. This argument holds that under "No Child," students are forced to simply regurgitate what teachers tell them, which -- because of flawed standardized tests -- is often confusing and sometimes demonstrably false. Get rid of the tests, or at least pay less attention to their results, critics say, and schools can return to their pre-NCLB excellence.

I keep wondering: Don't the people making this and similar arguments know that long before No Child Left Behind, far too many classrooms were boring, dull places where children were forced to do endless worksheets, discouraged from independent thinking and subjected to teachers providing confusing and sometimes demonstrably false information?

Exactly. When was this golden age of education?

We had standardized tests long before NCLB. While rummaging through some old boxes recently I found this:

The scores from the standardized test I took in the beginning of ninth grade -- 27 years ago. I remember taking a test like this almost every year I was in school starting in third grade. For me, NCLB would have been business as usual. If anything, NCLB would have offered a reprieve from the science and social studies portion of the exam.

Notice how the science and social studies scores are the lowest scores. Perhaps they were narrowing the curriculum even back then. My recollection is that those subjects were taught poorly. It wasn't until late in high school and college that those subjects were taught properly.

If I had to pick one word to describe my K-8 experience it would be: bored. If I had two words, I'd pick: bored silly. NCLB didn't cause boredom, schools were already boring. They weren't boring because of dull teacher presentations; they were boring because not much was being taught and not much was expected of us. Chenoweth experienced the same thing:

My elementary school teachers had been able to control their classrooms, but they didn't teach a whole lot of history, science, art or music. In introducing a unit on batteries, for instance, my fifth-grade teacher said: "I don't like science either, but we are supposed to cover this." She never bothered finding out whether we learned anything about batteries -- tedious "covering" was enough.

NCLB didn't cause these problems. Schools were already doing all the stuff that the NLCB critics are blaming on NCLB today. History and Geography had already been replaced with the banal social studies. Science had already degenerated into a series of scripted hands on experiments tied together by a parade of disjointed terminology that failed to build on previously taught material that would lie inert soon after it was taught. NCLB merely called attention to the problem. That's a good thing.

I don't think that NCLB is going to cause most schools to improve. Being labeled a failure may sting a bit, but solace can always be found in blaming the students and their parents for the failure. The meme nowadays seems to be blame everything but the schools: dumb kids, uncaring parents, helicopter parents, not enough funding, too many tests, blah, blah, blah.

Schools have had nearly seven years to clean up their act. Seven years is sufficient time for even the worst elementary schools to clean up their act. Elementary schools are the easiest to clean up. There are lots of intervention programs out there with a good research base and evidence of success. Yet, NAEP results show little improvement, except at the very bottom. What's the hold up? If you can't do it in seven years, you're not going to be able to do it in twenty either. And, until the elementary schools improve, the middle and high schools are going to continue to be remediation mills. How can you teach a kid eighth grade content when he hasn't learned fourth grade content yet?

Pity. I think that NCLB is the public education system's last hope to maintain their monopoly on education. In 2014, when most schools have failed to improve even when we've lowered the standards considerably, parents and taxpayers are going to grow increasingly reluctant to continue funding such a failed enterprise. people are going to be looking for ways out of the system as they realize that the public funding of education doesn't have to be done through failed 19th century institutions.

NCLB is a warning, educators should take heed.

Russo not feeling linky love

This Week in Education's Alexander Russo isn't feeling any linky love from his fellow edubloggers.

Last week, pretty much the only blog that linked to me was the union critic Mike Antonucci (aka EIA). This week so far, it's the pro-union Dr. Homselisce (Teach For America). Pathetic, I know. But readers keep finding me even without the links, and I'll take a link whether it agrees with me or not.

That's the spirit. There is no such thing as bad press.

I suggest that all twelve of my loyal readers go visit Russo before he does something drastic.

October 11, 2007

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Linda Perlstein has an Op-Ed in today's WaPo, so I'm not going to miss this opportunity to take another whack at the pinata.

Let's begin at the beginning.

While at an elementary school doing research for a book about the impact of standards and testing on American education, I spent a lot of time watching a girl I called Whitney. Among other disabilities, Whitney had mild mental retardation. Although she was in fourth grade, she could sound out words only on the level of a first-grader, and her ability to comprehend what she read and heard seemed no more advanced.

It was bad enough that Perlstein wrote an entire book condemning NCLB based on her observation of a single school (n=1). Now she's going to repeat compound that error by condemning NCLB based on a single student.

Right off the bat we learn, that something has gone seriously wrong with Whitney's education. She's in fourth grade performing at a kindergarten level (sounding out is really a kindergarten skill). She can't read yet. Mild mental retardation notwithstanding, it should have taken the school one year to teach Whitney to read. The school has had four years and failed to teach a year's worth of material. The school has most likely done something wrong if Perlstein has given us an accurate description of Whitney.

How do I know this? I know this because there is at least one instructional program out there, DI, that has been used to teach thousands of children, including many in the "mildly retarded" range, how to read in one school year such that the creator of the program has confidently stated many times that:

[We have] consistently demonstrated that if a reading sequence is properly implemented in kindergarten, virtually all at-risk students with the exception of the profoundly retarded and the very frequently absent will read by the end of the year. No program that purports to be a model of reform should have a standard less demanding than “Read by Grade 1.”

Whitney is not profoundly retarded and there is no indication that she was frequently absent from school. She should have learned how to read by first grade. This is a critical point which undermines most of Perlstein's conclusions in this Op-Ed.

I once saw a teacher spend 15 minutes, as the rest of the class worked independently, trying to explain to Whitney that when you sell something you get money for it, a concept crucial to understanding the story at hand. Teaching homonyms was exhausting, if not futile, because at least one word of every pair (dew, grate) was something Whitney had never heard before and could not grasp once she did. When a special education teacher told Whitney that synonyms have the same meaning, she asked, inexplicably, "Like a science experiment? Like a dinosaur?"

Perlstein's implicit message in this paragraph is that Whitney is somehow defective and this defect is the reason why she isn't learning. Wrong. It is the teaching presentation that is defective. The concepts of homonyms and synonyms are taught in the second grade in DI. In fact the word "dew" is explicitly taught early on in second grade. It is not easy to teach "mildly retarded" kids these concepts, but it can be done in a carefully designed sequence that is competently taught.

In fact, low-performers like Whitney can be mainstreamed if they are are given some extra time before a lesson in which the material is pretaught to them. In this way, these lower-performing students can keep up in a regular classroom while learning the material and experiencing a great deal of academic success which will be highly reinforcing to their motivation.

Here's the kind of performance gains we'd expect to see if the students were competently taught. The data comes from the thousands of students that went through Project Follow through.

Notice how the low IQ kids are keeping pace with the high IQ kids and that by the third grade, the first time they are tested under NCLB, the average student with an IQ below 71 should be approximating grade level performance.

But a large problem remains: Under the versions of the law under discussion, Whitney will still be given the fifth-grade test in fifth grade, the sixth-grade test in sixth grade and so on. She will probably fail these tests -- no surprise to her teachers -- and whatever progress she makes, unless it is so miraculous as to wipe away her deficiencies altogether, will go uncredited. Worse, her time and her teachers' time will be badly misused.

Whitney will likely fail these tests because she has been not properly taught. This is the condition that NCLB is trying to eliminate. As the Follow Through data shows, we should expect to see plenty of Whitneys who are able to pass grade-level tests. This is the counterexample that proves Perlstein wrong.

Perlstein has written off all the Whitneys based on the limited observations of one Whitney at one school which probably has never successfully taught a student like Whitney. Perlstein's understanding is that Whitney has learned as much as she can learn. So, when she agitates for a growth-based measures in NCLB 2.0 you can bet the amount of growth that she believes is appropriate for a child like Whitney is the kind that permits a student to be a non-reader in fourth grade. Whitney's time has been badly misused and if we follow Perlstein's advice you can bet that condition won't change.

It's not just that Whitney's progress can't be properly measured by a test that's way above her head.

The question is why is the test way above Whitney's head in the first place. The answer to which Perlstein has not adequately researched. If the answer is that the teaching that Whitney has received has been inadequate, then the problem is with the teaching and not NCLB's requirements. I've shown above how there exists some good evidence where one could conclude that this may be the case for many, though not necessarily all, kids like Whitney.

It's that by taking to heart the law's mandate of every student in a grade working toward the same target, administrators are making bad instructional decisions that permeate classrooms nationwide. Teachers follow pacing guides that tell them what to teach each day, no matter where their students are. Students take benchmark exams each quarter and unit tests each week that correspond to how much time has passed, not what those particular children need to learn.

Administrators are making bad instructional decisions because they don't know how to reliably teach kids like Whitney. That's the fundamental problem. Pacing guidelines merely tell teacher's what ought to be taught by what time. The problem is that teachers don't know how to teach the Whitneys in a way that the Whitneys keep up with the pace. As I've shown above, many Whitneys should be able to keep up with the pace if they are competently taught.

You can blame No Child Left Behind, the climate it's induced or the questionable choices people make in its name. Whichever way, as long as students are judged only on grade-level tests, no matter their needs, and as long as the education they get the rest of the year hews to that goal, they will lose out.

Students also lose out if they are capable of performing at grade level if taught properly but never receive adequate instruction. If, as Perlstein suggests, we loosen the NCLB standards what incentives to improve will exist then?

The only time I saw Whitney make progress was the hour she spent each day with a specialist who guided her in blending letters to make sounds -- hardly a skill in the fourth-grade curriculum. Is it too much to ask that children such as Whitney be taught what they need to learn in order to make their own adequate yearly progress?

The question remains though why wasn't Whitney taught this first grade skill in first grade? Was it because Whitney was incapable of learning the skill in first grade or was it because she didn't receive adequate instruction? Perlstein completely fails to obtain an answer to this question. How does she even know the amount of progress that a kid like Whitney is capable of given adequate instruction? These are the hard questions that Perlstein should have asked and found answers to before penning the Op-Ed.

Update: Keven Carey, Erin Dillon and Aftie Michele weigh in.

What about kids who are not eager to learn

In response to Palisadesk's post on positive behavior techniques, NYMath Teacher offered the following comment:

I have a deep philosophical problem with rewarding kids for something that they are supposed to do as a matter of course. Perhaps I am just being stubborn in the face of the evidence supporting positive reinforcement, but why should I offer up rewards to my (non-emotionally disturbed 6th grade) charges just for remaining quiet and on task? Doesn't that send a poor message to the kids -- that normal behavior must be remunerated? Doesn't that show them how low our expectations for them have sunk? I have children of my own and I would never, for example, offer to pay them for doing everyday household chores; they are to do that because that is their responsibility as members of my family. Am I off base here?

For most people, this is a common view. parents for get the years spent shaping the behavior of their children such that they know how to act like responsible children. They know how to act and what is expected of them. They do not need elaborate behavior modification techniques and token reinforcements. Usually, some social praise for good behavior and gentle reprimands for bad behavior is sufficient.

However, some children have not been taught how to act and do not find academic work reinforcing to them. What is the teacher to do in this situation? Engelmann has observed:

The traditional educator often does not accept the possibility that a child may not come to the classroom with wide-eyed eagerness to learn. The reason may be that the educator doesn't view the "indifferent" or lazy child as his responsibility. For this child the school often becomes punishing. The child's initial indifference to academic learning becomes active resistance, and the child is labeled.

There is ample research showing (which Palisadesk alluded to) that it is difficult to teach a new behavior to a child through negative reinforcement techniques. A child can be reprimanded for bad behavior, but that won't necessarily teach the child the right behavior. Positive reinforcement is much more effective in changing behavior to a desired behavior.

What the teacher wants to do is shape the desired behavior by offering the minimum reinforcer that will elicit a change in behavior and then gradually fade the reinforcer as the desired behavior is achieved. Eventually the bad behavior will be extinguished and the good behavior will continue without a minimal reinforcer, such as verbal praise.

(Bear in mind that these techniques are effective with "non-emotionally disturbed" kids as well. It is thought that most emotionally disturbed kids are that way due to years of enduring a punishing environment.)

October 10, 2007

No Complaint Left Behind

Kevin Carey, of The Quick and the Ed fame, reviews Linda Perlstein's Tested in the Washington Monthly.

I've been down this road already and was not impressed with Perlstein's thinly veiled agenda and shoddy scholarship.

As Carey points out, Perlstein went to Maryland's Tyler Heights Elementary School, a school "built near the low-income housing projects of Annapolis," to take an in-depth look at the school that

more than doubled its pass rates on state reading and math tests in just three years, moving off the list of schools tagged as low-performing by the No Child Left Behind Act. Politicians, school officials, and newspapers like the Washington Post held up the school as a "crown jewel"—an example of how NCLB can help even the most disadvantaged children learn.

When she got to Tyler, Perlstein didn't like what she saw:

The teachers are required to use a highly structured, sometimes scripted curriculum. Science, art, and social studies are often ignored in favor of the tested subjects, reading and math. And the test prep is relentless—over and over, students practice writing the "brief constructed responses" (short written paragraphs interpreting a text) that feature prominently on the state exam.

She contrasts this "rudimentary education" to the superior education that she believes is being offered at the Crofton Elementary School "located in a wealthy planned community just fourteen miles away [from Tyler]."

Crofton students spend their days writing in journals, making crafts, studying science and history, and so on. There's little test prep, but nearly every child passes the exam. The contrast is a gross injustice, Perlstein believes.

In one sense, I agree with Perlstein that the massive test prep that's being done at Tyler is counterproductive. However, unlike Perlstein, I do not believe that "writing in journals, making crafts, studying science and history, and so on" represents a superior education over the "highly structured, sometimes scripted curriculum" being offered at Tyler.

As Kevin Carey points out, the need for scripting and structure depends on the needs of the students, not on Perslstein's personal biases. In order to teach the kind of low-performing students that go to Tyler, a school needs to get all its ducks lined up perfectly. Often it is only possible to do this in a highly structured and scripted environment because most teachers simply do not have the skills needed to educate these kids when left to their own primitive devices. It is extremely difficult to get these kids to learn a year's worth of material in a year's time using every available instruction minute, let alone when significant instructional time is wasted on the low-value fluff that Perlstein and Crofton favor. Upper-middle class kids can afford to waste some instructional time, lower and lower-middle class kids do not have such a luxury.

This is the great conceit in education. People like Perlstein and the Crofton educators think they know the first thing about educating lower performing students. They don't. All they know is folklore, opinion, and anecdotes from their own education. The disaggregated data tells a different story because unbeknownst to Perlstein schools like Crofton have a couple of poor and minority kids. Let's see how well the rainbow and lollipop curriculum at Crofton has served these kids.

Here's the MSPAP scores for Crofton in 2006.

CroftonReading Math
White96.7 97.0
Black 83.3 72.2
Hispanic 100.0 100.0
Poor 80.0 70.0

Here are the MSPAP scores for Tyler in 2006.

TylerReading Math
White100.0 100.0
Black 86.8 82.4
Hispanic 90.9 87.0
Poor 87.9 82.1

With the exception of Hispanics, Tyler outperformed Crofton, often substantially, in both math and reading. And, bear in mind that the blacks and poor students in Crofton are far more likely to be middle class than the ones coming from the projects surrounding Tyler. This masks a large structural advantage that favors Crofton considerably. Yet, Crofton squanders this advantage.

If this were a football game, Tyler would be getting a large point spread. Crofton has not only failed to cover the spread, Tyler has won outright.

If the Crofton education is so superior to the rigid scripted curricular offerings at Tyler, than why can't the Crofton kids demonstrate their superior ability on a simple test of basic skills?

Perlstein is merely perpetuating the big lie in education started by people like Kopzol and Rothstein. The lie that affluent schools know how to educate lower performing students. They don't. And, time and again, the disaggregated data coming from NCLB shows that they don't. Yet, people like Perlstein, Kozol, and Rothstein are unable to provide an explanation for this discrepancy. Their idea of reform is to get rid of NCLB. In other words they want to get rid of the inconvenient data that shows they don't know what they are talking about.

October 9, 2007

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom IV

(Continued from Part III)

Of the students who present behavioral problems in middle school, what would you estimate is the percentage of students who would be motivatable if they had experienced some academic success?

About 5% of severe behavior problems are such that they cannot be usefully addressed in a regular school setting. I'm thinking of cases like the student who suffered from diabetes, seizures, and a severe mood disorder that had him alternating between frantic hyperactive states and near-catatonic ones. This student's medical needs were complex and behavior management needed to be co-ordinated with successful medical treatments of underlying conditions. We have several students in any given year who need to be referred to treatment centers, residential programs or other specialized services for complex problems.

I would not want to agree with a statement that behavior was intractable, period -- just that some cases require medical or psychiatric assistance before school placement is appropriate.

Of the rest of the "behavior problem" students, I think most would be "motivatable" with a combination of success experiences and probably some behavioral or mentoring strategies as well. However, with many it is not a quick fix. Relapses can be expected and need to be anticipated.

What is the skill level of the typical "unmotivated" students you see in the middle school level who presumably will go on to be unmotivated high school students?

Most people think (and I suppose I did too, before I knew better) that motivation is what leads to achievement. Students who are motivated work hard and do well. In fact the causal sequence is the reverse: success breeds motivation.

By way of counter-illustration, consider the well-known phenomenon of "learned helplessness" (easily illustrated in laboratory animals, also sadly observable in humans in a variety of situations). If an organism repeatedly tries to do something, and experiences failure, it will eventually abandon the effort and lapse into apathy. Children who experience repeated failure in the early grades occasionally go so far as to refuse to do anything, but this is rare. More often, they simply become cagey and cover their areas of incompetence with a patina of braggadocio, avoidance behaviors, defiance, passive aggression, or whatever.

Few children fail at everything, and many students who fail to master basic skills are quite competent cognitively, occasionally performing selective tasks at a high level; they have simply not received instruction that enabled them to experience success and achieve at a normal rate. Because they are orally competent and have some skills in place, teachers very often greatly overestimate their actual skill level. Holistic "performance assessments" and the like often fail to demonstrate how weak these students' actual functional level is, and teachers who work in low-performing schools may easily lose perspective on what "normal" achievement looks like.

We have had discussions about grade inflation in my school for years, and the fact that the high-performing kids will get As and Bs even if in fact they are performing several years below real grade level expectations. Teachers often fail to see this. One year, the administration decided to get some hard data. First we screened our intake -- students new to sixth grade, from our feeder schools. Every student took a standardized test in word attack skills, word recognition, spelling, and math computation (we already had a holistic reading comprehension test, but it did not identify subskill areas), as well as a mastery-type assessment of paragraph writing. Although I was always hearing teachers maintain that they had students who were "great decoders" but "couldn't comprehend what they read" our data showed the opposite. We had many students -- a majority -- whose decoding skills were two or more years below their grade placement, and a core group -- about 15% -- who were virtual non-readers (second grade level or lower).

More than half the students were just as delayed in math, about 75% were seriously delayed in spelling and more so in paragraph writing. We then evaluated our other two middle school grades and found similar patterns. In the paragraph writing exercise, of about 375 student responses, fewer than 10 were passable and only two were outstanding.

In virtually every case, when we looked at individual student performance, a critical lack of basic skills -- math facts, algorithms, decoding skills, writing conventions -- was glaringly obvious. We were sending on to high school eighth graders with A and B averages whose reading, written language and math skills were at a fourth or fifth grade level. And those were our good students! Feedback from our nearest high school (where the majority of our students go) is that more than half of our graduates fail ninth grade.

I am sure many of these students present as unmotivated. They are not stupid, they can discuss various topics intelligently, can probably "fake" many classroom tasks for short periods of time, but lack the needed proficiency to persist in reading, problem solving or sustaining any academic focus for long. Their lack of consolidated skills makes the experience too punishing.

I don't know if the drive to learn and achieve mastery is hard-wired into the brain, but it is certainly there in every child to start with. Success breeds motivation. Eventually, with the basic skills reaching a level of automaticity, the students can enjoy intellectual challenge, develop subject mastery and focus on a variety of personal goals. Lacking that critical foundation, they are stuck. "Behavior problems" are one consequence that we have to deal with.

I think the lack of mastery not only of reading and content knowledge, but of other important foundation skills as well, underlies the disengagement and lack of motivation seen by high school teachers (and university faculty now -- see Ivory Tower Blues on this point). On the importance of mastery and automaticity, see
here and here.

Sometimes we think kids "choose" not to do things but in fact their ability to perform is so fragile that it's not much of a choice. For instance, in written assignments of any sort, some kids just write nearly nothing. They are oppositional, may put the date on the page, and nothing more. Teacher says, He knows the work -- he can do it. He just won't. I have investigated cases like this and observed some interesting things. In one case, the student had no encoding ability whatever. That is, she could not write any words that she had not memorized. She had not learned that letters of the alphabet represent sounds, so she could not even write such phonic approximations as "sed" and "uv." She expressed herself well orally and did know the content but could not write any words. This was an eighth grade student of average ability.

Another, who was considered a behavior problem, was also verbally proficient and reasonably bright, but wrote next to nothing. It turned out he was able to print or write only about 8 words per minute (most people can do 25-35), thus his ability to get his ideas on paper was so impaired that he gave up in anger and frustration. Working on writing speed substantially improved his output -- and his behavior. Often it is necessary to think in terms of component skills that need to be addressed in order to remove the triggering event for the poor behavior or lack of motivation.

There are also very bright student who are quite competent and bored to death -- they too can exhibit poor motivation and behavior problems, but I see this less often. I think that academic failure and poor motivation/behaviour are synergistic factors, rather than a chicken-egg sequence. Academic problems reduce motivation, lack of success leads students to develop counterproductive behaviors (avoidance, passivity, acting out, defiance, disengagement, etc., which in turn reduces academic success and leads to even less motivation -- and so on, in a downward spiral. Students who have a long history of failure can become remarkably motivated very quickly when they start to achieve success, but this doesn't necessarily carry over into other classes or activities, especially at first. School culture is part of the problem here.

Which has a greater effect on behavioral problems: Peer effect or prolonged academic failure? And, can the peer effect be minimized?

You raise the issue of peer influence, which is a very potent factor, probably even more so in high school. In spite of everything, we have some very strong students (actually our achievement is about average for our demographics, it is considered a reasonably decent school) but these students tend to select better high schools than the local one to attend, so the less motivated or proficient students are more likely to be in classes where other students are similar to themselves in these respects.

There are few positive models. Changing a school culture is very difficult. My impression of the KIPP schools is that this is probably one of their strengths, but how one could replicate this kind of everyone-singing-from-the-same-songsheet in a "regular" public educational setting is hard to imagine.

You can change your own classroom culture, though. In any school, however low-achieving, you are likely to find several classrooms with a strongly positive, achievement-oriented class culture. (in the
Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris gives an example of this as an explanation for the powerful effects a particular first grade teacher had on her students. Fred Jones in particular has powerful insights into making the peer group support learning, and these strategies are especially effective with middle and high school students. Individual teachers have more influence than they may perceive, even if it doesn't generalize much to other parts of the students' school day.

Influences and Closing Comments

The people I have learned the most from, in terms of managing behavior to facilitate learning, are Engelmann and Becker (via their books), Fred Jones (his books and a summer 5-day course I took from him -- well worth it), Harry Wong especially for his tips on establishing routines and "bell work," Karen Pryor, for teaching me to think in a different way, and my extracurricular hobby, dog agility training. You can't bully a dog into doing weave poles or a teeter-totter. You shape the behavior using positive reinforcement. Once I understood how to do this with an animal, the light went on so to speak. I could see much better ways of getting children (or adults) to do what they needed to do and in ways that were pleasanter for us all.. It takes a lot of energy, good observational skills and plenty of practice to do it well.

I consider myself only a novice, but wouldn't go back to my pre-positive-teaching days for any consideration. I just wish more of this was widely known and implemented. I don't work in a system that is at all positive, whether for students or teachers. There is little positive feedback, negative consequences predominate, and many students (and some staff) have a rather surly attitude and try to get away with whatever they can. A better understanding of the science of learning and behavior could change so much of this.

Unfortunately, one person can't change the system. But you can change your own classroom and interactions with students, and see a big difference. I find that worth doing.

I wish to thank Palisadesk for taking the time to answer all my questions and for providing such descriptive examples of how to use positive reinforcement techniques for classroom management. Many of these techniques have been known in the literature since at least the 1960's, but you rarely read about their use outside of specialty programs like DI. That's why I thought it was important to read about these techniques being successfully used by an actual teacher in a typical classroom setting.