January 30, 2007

Myth Busting

Here are a few excerpts from Chapter Two (PDF) of The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed Kids Later. There are a few more excerpts that deserve a post of their own. Hopefully I'll get to them.

On Parental Support

Increased parental support is frequently trotted out as a cure for our education woes. My position has been "great if you can get it, but in all likelihood, you won't get it for the kids most in need of it." Here is Engelmann (p. 14):

One Piagetian-based approach was that of Ira Gordon from the University of Florida. His idea was to provide stimulation in school and use trainers to visit parents and instruct them in how to work with their children at home on the same Piagetian activities that were presented in school. I thought he was either misguided or the kids in Florida were a lot different from the ones we worked with in Urbana, California, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. Gordon’s strategy might have worked with the kids in Toronto [i.e., strong concerned parents], but not with kids who need more help. With the inner-city population, there is little likelihood of either being able to work extensively with the parents or of the parents working successfully with their kids. This is not to say Gordon's goals were ignoble, simply impractical. If it’s not taught thoroughly in school, the parents of the kids most in need are not going to be successful at augmenting the program.

Engelmann's identified two problems with trying to get increased parental support: 1. you can't get it from the parents who would most benefit from it, 2. even if you can get it, the parents will likely be capable of providing the needed instructional support, 3. even if they can, success still depends on how well the material is taught in school in the first place. And, there we are right back where we started, poor instruction in school clogging up the works. Remember, if the instruction in school were better, schools wouldn't be looking for parental support in the first place.

On Why Kozol is an Idiot

Kozol and his ilk believe that the achievement gap of poor blacks is the result of a social problem that is rooted in history and caused by discrimination against blacks. Their solution is to negate the social problem by putting poor kids into more affluent schools. This solution is based on Thomas Pettigrew's analysis of the Coleman Report data which found that "black students attending mostly white schools had achievement levels much higher than blacks in segregated schools. Also, in these schools, the white students’ performance was no worse than that of whites in segregated schools." This conclusion begot bussing. Bussing failed miserably. Engelmann explains why (p. 7)

The conclusion drawn by a thoughtful person who was not racially prejudiced would probably have been, “So what? Just as there are middleclass whites, there are middle-class blacks. Middle-class kids perform at a high level whether their neighborhood schools are segregated or integrated.”

Once more, policy makers confused correlation with causation and drew the conclusion that if black children in integrated schools performed higher, putting black children into white schools would create an integrated school, and the children in this integrated school would perform as well as the children in schools that were “naturally” integrated.

This reasoning is both romantic and cruel. Jackie and Alan couldn’t perform on fourth-grade instructional material in any school. They had learned only about two years worth of skills in four years. Putting them in a fourth-grade classroom with children who performed two years above them would constitute incredible punishment, not intelligent education that ostensibly addresses “the local needs of the children.”

Yet the meme not only persists today, it remains very popular, as do all non-educational solutions to what is in essence an instructional problem.

On the Failure of John Dewey

(p. 21)

I found the naiveté of proponents of progressive education shocking. If people knew much about John Dewey, they would have known that he and his wife operated two lab schools based on radical progressive education and both were unquestioned failures. The first was at the University of Chicago. It failed so categorically within three years that Dewey was forced to leave Chicago. He went to NYC where he and his wife founded his famous Lincoln School in Manhattan. This effort failed in two years. Yet, a hall full of grown, educated people from NYC found the slogan, “learn by doing,” something of both a battle cry and religious experience, regardless of the amount of student failure it generated.

On why you want it teach it correctly the first time

The reason why you want to teach it right the first time is because if you teach it wrong it becomes much harder to correct. (p. 46):

Our compulsion to obtain current data on the performance of every student stemmed from some facts about learning and relearning. The relationship is simple: The longer a student has misunderstood something, the longer it takes to teach the content correctly. If the teacher uses a good reading program, at-risk beginning readers will learn to discriminate the words a and the with perfect accuracy after about 40 trials. If the teacher uses a poor program and children confuse a and the, their confusion becomes solidly ingrained. When they are fourth graders, it takes about 400 trials to re-teach them so they are perfectly accurate at reading these words. If the remedy is delayed until the students are in high school, it will probably take more than 1,000 trials to induce the correct behavior.

I think it's safe to say that most teachers don't go over anything approaching forty times in the first place. And 1000 times in high school to correct something taught back in first grade? No wonder why high school teachers think it's hopeless to remediate. It is.

On cognitive ability and instructional pacing.

Charles Murray created quite the stir two weeks ago but his underlying premise is accurate--high IQ kids can learn considerably faster than low IQ kids even when the instruction is exemplary (p. 46):

Our initial plans for securing data involved both record keeping and frequent observations of teachers. We first set minimum expectations for every instructional group. Highest groups were expected to progress the fastest through the program—about 1.5 lessons a school day. The expectation for average groups was about 1 lesson a day, for low groups about 3/4-lesson per day. These projections were to be modified as we discovered more about the performance level of each child.

The high performing groups are capable of learning at twice the pace of the low performing group. (Engelmann has said elsewhere that he believes that the high performers can proceed at three to four times the lowest rate.) Today, the lowest group gets extra instructional time to make up for their slower pace.

January 29, 2007

Standards, Standards, Everywhere

Brett of Dehavilland Blog has a good post up on academic standards and why moving them from the state to the federal level isn't going to get us where we want. Brett points out that the problem isn't where the standards are enacted, but rather the contents of the standards themselves.

I'd call this the E.D. Hirsh fallacy. Just because the student should know x by grade y, doesn't mean that it's possible to teach him all of x or that he necessarily needs to know all of x in the first place.

Chapter 2 Now Up

Chapter Two (PDF) of Zig's New book has just been posted.

The primary enemy that educators had to fight then and now is evaluation, because evaluation reveals the discrepancies between the educational rhetoric and the effectiveness of the schemes based on this rhetoric.

Which is why NCLB has met with such resistance.

On bussing and the Coleman Report:

Like hermit crabs who have lost their borrowed shell, educational policy makers were denuded by the Coleman Report, and like hermit crabs, scurried to find security, regardless of how bizarre the shelter was. Their effort resulted in one of the more inhumane programs ever initiated—bussing. For educators, however, bussing was an ideal solution, because herding children into a bus did not require any kind of instructional expertise.

Because bussing was a non-instructional remedy to an instructional problem (the failure of the schools to teach children effectively), policy makers needed some compelling rhetoric to make busses symbols of progress. They fixed on history and redefined the performance problems of poverty blacks as a social problem, rooted in history and caused by discrimination against blacks. With this link established, policy makers could point to busses and declare, “There's your evidence that we are responding to the data. We are breaking down discrimination. Therefore,
we are addressing the fundamental causes of the poverty blacks’ performance problems.”

On social promotion as the inevitable result of bussing/affirmative action:

“We’re supposed to have standards here. We don’t do social promotions. So if I place black kids where they belong, more than 75 percent of them would be in special ed. If I put them in special ed, I’m a racist. If I leave them in the regular classrooms and flunk them, I’m either a racist or an ogre who doesn’t understand affirmative action. So what do I do, close my eyes, sell out our standards and socially promote them, or go to another school?”

On the origins of Constructivism:

One of the [program sponsors in Project Follow Through] was Lauren Resnick, then a behaviorist at the University of Pittsburgh, who wanted to use her site to develop an
approach to teaching classification, which she seemed to think was the end-all of instruction and would permit children to do remarkable things. We had talked with her before the meeting. Wes thought she was great. I thought she was quite smart but lacked sensitivity to the problem of providing a service for these children. She seemed far more interested in her model for teaching classification (which was neither analytically nor practically very sound) than she was in considering Follow Through children as more than subjects in her experiment. She would later become a non-behaviorist, the flag bearer of a failed approach called constructivism.

On John Dewey:

A distinguished white-haired man on the main floor stood up and gave a long, dramatic oration. He ended by saying in rising volume, “I hear talk of skills and sub-skills and sub-skills of sub-skills, but why is there nowhere in Mr. Engelmann’s presentation one word about [pause and dramatic point toward the ceiling] learn by doing and do by doing!”

Explosion of cheers, shouts, applause, which lasted probably more than 10 seconds.

When the place calmed down, I said, “Well, I promised Bob Egbert that I wouldn’t say bullshit, but I’ll try to answer your question anyhow.” I went on to explain that not only was the originator of slogans about learning, John Dewey, dead but that there was nothing to suggest that his slogans had much relevance to the problems facing disadvantaged kids. As I talked, the man’s face became so red I thought he would explode. After the meeting, Bob Egbert looked at me with a wry smile and shook his head. I later found out that the man with the long question was the director of math instruction in NYC.

January 26, 2007

On Improving the Traditional Curriculum

(Cross posted at KTM-II)

Here's a question I've been struggling with for some time now:

Under the traditional curriculum why didn't mastery learning become the norm?

With the exception of the haphazard presentation of material is some of today's constructivist texts, traditional texts typically present a lesson, provide some practice, and then move on to the next topic in the sequence. Many students learned the material using this approach, but there was no effort to get the student to master the material and firmly place the material into the student's long term memory where it is somewhat protected against the ravages of forgetfulness. The inevitable result is that the student partially or fully forgets much of the material once the class moves on, unless the skills taught are used in subsequent lessons (like in elementary math). It was rare that we ever got a cumulative exam at the end of the year which was probably intentional because most of the students had forgotten the material taught in the first half of the year. This practice was mitigated to an extent by the fact that much of the material was retaught year after year--a precursor to today's spiral curriculum.

Nonetheless, this seems to be a horribly inefficient way of teaching to me. Yet it seems the have developed as the dominant form of (pre-constructivist) instruction by the latter half of the 20th century.

The question is why did it develop this way? Why not mastery learning?

Before you answer take a look at this blurb from Engelman's new book (pp. 30-31):

Mastery is essential for lower performers. Unless the practice children receive occurs over several lessons, lower performers will not retain information the way children from affluent backgrounds do. Prevailing misconceptions were (and are) that children benefit from instruction that exposes them to ideas without assuring that children actually learn what is being taught. If you present something new to advantaged children and they respond correctly on about 80 percent of the tasks or questions you present, their performance will almost always be above 80 percent at the beginning of the next session. In contrast, if you bring lower performers to an 80 percent level of mastery, they will almost always perform lower than 80 percent at the beginning of the next session.

The reason for this difference is that higher performers are able to remember what you told them and showed them. The material is less familiar to the lower performers, which means they can’t retain the details with the fidelity needed to successfully rehearse it. After at-risk children have had a lot of practice with the learning game, they become far more facile at remembering the details of what you showed them. When they reach this stage, they no longer need to be brought to such a rigid criterion of mastery. At first, however, their learning will be greatly retarded if they are not taught to a high level of mastery.

This trend was obvious in the teaching of formal operations. At first, the low- and high-performing groups were close in learning rate. Later, there were huge differences. Group 2 was able to learn at a much higher rate, largely because it was not necessary to bring them to a high level of mastery. On several occasions, I purposely taught the children in Group 2 to a low level of mastery (around 60 percent). I closed the work on the topic with one model of doing it the right way, and I assured the children that this was very difficult material. At the beginning of the next lesson, almost all of them had perfect mastery.

So, I think the answer to my question as to why mastery learning didn't become the norm is simply that it wasn't needed. Why go through all the effort of mastery learning when the higher-performers really didn't need it to learn? If the teacher is basing their performance on the feedback they are receiving from the successful students (only 60% mastery is needed), it's easy to see how one could reach the false conclusion that that's all the teaching a student needs to learn. And human nature being what it is, why teach more when less will do.

Nonetheless, I think we now know enough about how the brain works to know that retention of learned material is greatly enhanced when the learner engages in distributed practice after the initial mass practice. All students would benefit from distributed practice. So why haven't traditional educators changed their ways to offer more distributed practice?

I understand there is a philosophical objection to distributed practice (i.e., drill and kill)at the elementary school level. But what about at the secondary and post-secondary level where traditional education is still the norm? At this level, distributed practice just means giving a a couple of additional independent work problems that keeps previously taught material alive for the student until the material is better retained in long term memory. So why are classes at these levels still taught like the need for distributed practice doesn't exist?

Moreover, if the goal is to eradicate the worst practices of constructivist teaching, wouldn't it be beneficial to improve traditional teaching methods to incorporate techniques that will improve student performance? One of the reasons why constructivism has gained the foothold it has is due to the underperformance of the traditional curriculum, especially among lower-performers.


January 24, 2007

Empty Rhetoric

The Bereiter-Engelmann Preschool opened in the mid 1960s. There they honed many of the techniques that later found their way into Direct Instruction.

Despite the academic success of the students, the preschool was highly controversial and despised by educators of the day. It might as well have been yesterday, because the views remain the same.

Near the end of the first year, a group of child developmentalists from New York City visited the project and expressed strong disagreement with our practices. After they observed the groups being taught, one of them gave a speech on how a teacher must get on the same level as the child and share the child’s feelings and goals. She concluded by saying that we had no regard for children’s inner feelings.

Such opinions continue to be the prevailing wisdom today. It was empty rhetoric then and it's empty rhetoric today.

I told her that if she was so knowledgeable about children’s feelings, she should have no trouble identifying which of the seven children in the math group she just observed witnessed his father being shot to death on the preceding evening. Of course she couldn’t do it because all the children in the group responded with alacrity, laughed, and won all the challenges I said they couldn’t possibly win.

It doesn't get much worse than that does it? Witnessing a parent being shot and killed. Seems to be on par with the typical excuses we hear from educators excusing their lack of performance: toothaches, hunger, bad home life, poverty, etc., etc.

And yet, the child was able to do his schoolwork that day just like the other kids. His performance did not have to be excused. He was being effectively taught. And that makes all the difference in the world.

I explained that we understood how that boy must feel, and we expressed our sorrow. But then we provided the boy with relief from his anguish by putting him in a familiar routine that took his mind off his grief and gave him an opportunity to do something energetic and consuming. Rather than thinking about the horror of the preceding night, he thought about math.

Because in the end what matter most is that these children get a proper education despite the obstacles they face. I'm sure little Johnny would rather have a decent education at the end of the day rather than a litany of excuse he could recite explaining why I didn't get one. Well, son, you can't read, write, or do arithmetic very well, but that's not you're fault, you never developed properly due to your learning disability, poverty, and bad home life. The world awaits you, get to it.

Carnival of Education

The 103rd Carnival of Education is up at The Education Wonks. Lots of good stuff. Go check it out.

January 23, 2007

Chapter One

Engelmann has posted the first chapter of his yet to be published book The Outrage of Project Follow Through: 5 Million Failed Kids Later. The chapter will only be available for two weeks, so go get it now while it's still free.

It is a rare opportunity to be able to read anything from a educator who has successfully educated. Mostly we get opinions from those who have never educated anyone except those kids at the top of the distribution who seem to learn no matter how they are taught. What you mostly get from these sources is bad conclusions drawn from faulty premises.

For example, most educational programs and curricula are poorly designed. Teacher designed curricula are some of the worst offenders in this regard because teachers are novices when it comes to curricular design. They will unwittingly reveal this when they say things like the frequent canard that "not all programs work with all kids." That's unwitting code for "I don't know a thing about instructional design."

The implication is that because not all programs work with most kids, that teachers need lots of instructional programs to pick and choose from. Skilled teachers can then creatively determine which programs work with which students and then creatively design the perfect curriculum for each student using all those creative skills they learned in ed school. Test scores show us that teachers aren't doing a very good job of this. The predictable result is that teachers hate tests.

And, that's the primary problem with taking advice from teachers. Even though the crave to be professionals they are naive observers when it comes to their own "profession," education. Their observation, based on hundreds of hours of classroom observation no doubt, that "not all programs work with all kids" is flatly wrong because it is based on observing only bad instructional programs. What the teachers are really saying is that bad instructional programs don't work with all kids. So, their proposed remedy is that they want the creative freedom to pick and chose among a bunch of bad instructional programs. Now you see one reason why education is in such a mess today.

So, the canard "not all programs work with all kids" is the end product of a long chain of faulty logic based on a bunch of naive observations from educators. Education policy is full of such nonsense. So how does the non-educator desiring to learn something about education separate the few grains of wheat from all that chaff?

Read Engelmann. He's not a naive observer of education. Once you understand what Engelmann is talking about, you have the antidote to all the education nonsense you'll encounter on a daily basis. If chapter one is any inducation, this book will be an easily accessible introduction for the layman. For example, Engelmann relates an amusing anecdote about the time he was teaching his four year old son how to tell time:

The program I used had the clock divided into two halves. The left half was “before the hour;” the right, “after the hour.” I presented the rule about which side shows before and which after, and I applied it to examples showing different times on the clock. Eric had consistent reversals. Finally, I said in an irritated tone, “Eric, the right side is after the hour.” On the verge of tears, he touched the left side and said, “But Dad, this is the clock’s right side.” He had applied what I taught him, but I hadn’t seen that the rule was ambiguous.

Based on observations like this Engelmann concluded:

I learned a simple test for the rules and specific examples I presented. If the rule or example is consistent with more than one possible interpretation (like the clock’s right side), some children will learn the unintended interpretation. Learning the misrule is not guaranteed because there’s another interpretation the learner might learn. Eric could have learned that the left and right referred to our left and right, rather than the clock's left and right. However, the only way to assure that there would be no mislearning was to purge the teaching presentation of any possible rules or examples that could be consistent with more than one interpretation.

That's the problem with the vast majority of instructional programs out there today. They are full of poorly designed instruction which leads many kids to draw the wrong interpretations. The inevitable result is that many kids don't learn or have their learning capacity reduced while the kids try to make sense of all the ambiguous material presented to them.

Engelmann comes to the right conclusion because he isn't afraid to question his own ability.

From an operational standpoint this orientation translated into the immediate conclusion that if children made mistakes and confused things, it was most probably the result of learning what I had unintentionally taught. Maybe I didn’t provide enough practice, or maybe what I showed and told generated the confusion, but in either case, it was probably my fault.

This is the exact opposite of the current state of education. If this were the case, we'd speak of "teaching disabilities" instead of "learning disabilities." Maybe then education would improve. But, don't count on it anytime soon. As Engelmann points out, learning the misrule is not guaranteed, some kids will draw the right conclusions even when the the instruction is poorly designed. This is why some kids successfully learn from the poor constructivist math and balanced literacy programs that are out there.

As long as you hear that "not all programs work with all kids" you know that educators are still focusing on the students who happened to have learned the right rule from the ambiguous instruction instead of the deficiencies in the instructional programs that are causing other kids to learn misrules from the same presentation.

It's not the kids that are deficient, it is the instruction. And, the fact that "not all programs work with all kids" proves it.

Engelmann goes on to describe just how difficult the task of designed unambiguous instruction really is (and likely the reason why it doesn't). Maybe some of you expert teachers can tell us why you wouldn't teach low-performing children how to count by saying “Count to three,” why you don't give problems that have the same number twice, like 2+2, or why you don't give problems that have the small number first, like 2+4. You'll find out if you read chapter one of Engelmann's book.

There are a lot of gems in these 88 pages. I'll excerpt a few more over the rest of the week, but you really should go read the whole thing for yourself.

January 22, 2007

Why National Standards Won't Work

Lately, there's been a increased call for National Standards. Sounds like a crazy idea to me. just look at the NAEP. Not exactly rigorous.

But more importantly, what makes us think that the Feds know better than the states. These are the same folks that brought us full inclusion:

Nearly three out of every 10 of Rhode Island's special education students are being educated in separate classrooms, despite research -- and a federal law -- that says the students perform better in regular classes.

This would be defense's exhibit A. We'd quickly run out of exhibit letters if we had to label all of the Fed's inanities in their brief existence.

The same stooges influence policy at the federal level as at the state level, after all.

January 20, 2007

Today's Video

Update (Feb 7th): A second math video has been released. Check it out.

January 19, 2007

More on cognitive ability

The trio of Charles Murray articles has certainly gotten the blogosphere all atwitter. I'd say that Murray's biggest misstep, among many, was his characterization of the left half of the bell curve as a bunch of dullards who are only capable of learning simple things and who are incapable of engaging in sophisticated reasoning skills.

It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity

This is the problem when you deal with IQ abstractly and make value judgments without taking into account the failings of our horrendous education system. It may be true that the typical low-IQ student with a typical K-12 education exhibits the behaviors consistent with Murray's observations. But, that is as much an indictment of how that child was educated as much as the child's diminished cognitive ability.

In Murray's view, these low-IQ kids are cognitively crippled and incapable of higher learning. This is the conventional wisdom. It is also flatly wrong.

The false belief that characterizes the conventional wisdom about teaching is that lower performers learn in generically different ways from higher performers and should be held to a lower or looser standard. Evidence of this belief is that teachers frequently have different “expectations” for higher and lower performers. They expect higher performers to learn the material; they excuse lower performers from achieving the same standard of performance. Many teachers believe that lower performers are something like crippled children. They can walk the same route that the higher performers walk, but they need more help in walking.

These teachers often drag students through the lesson and provide a lot of additional prompting. They have to drag students because the students are making a very high percentage of first-time errors. In fact, the students make so many mistakes that it is very clear that they are not placed appropriately in the sequence and could not achieve mastery on the material in a reasonable amount of time. The teachers may correct the mistakes, and may even repeat some parts that had errors; however, at the end of the exercise, the students are clearly not near 100% firm on anything. Furthermore, the teacher most probably does not provide delayed tests to assess the extent to which these students have retained what had been presented earlier.

The information these teachers receive about low performers is that they do not retain information, that they need lots and lots of practice, and that they don’t seem to have strategies for learning new material. Ironically, however, all these outcomes are predictable for students who receive the kind of instruction these students have received. High performers receiving instruction of the same relative difficulty or unfamiliarity would perform the same way. Let’s say the lower performers typically have a first-time-correct percentage of 40%. If higher performers were placed in material that resulted in a 40% first-time-correct performance, their behavior would be like that of lower performers. They would fail to retain the material, rely on the teacher for help, not exhibit self-confidence, and continue to make the same sorts of mistakes again.

The primary differences between low-IQ kids and high-IQ kids is that the high-IQ kids learn faster and need less rehearsals (practice) to master the material taught. Low-IQ kids are capable of learning the same material, they just need more time and practice to learn it. The problem is that our schools were not designed to teach low-IQ children. Rosy progressive rhetoric notwithstanding, the song remains the same today.

Murray's observations are inaccurate because he's viewing the cognitive ability of low IQ kids through a filter of poor instruction. He should know better. He should know that you shouldn't draw conclusions from a failed experiment (other than it failed), in this case the failed experiment is the education of low-IQ kids. Let's look at the behaviors exhibited by low IQ kids when they have been successfully educated.

A good example comes from educator Jerry Silbert who wrote the following in response to Murray's article:

When the authors of Reasoning and Writing C and Reasoning Writing D were trying out the programs during their development, we found something very interesting. Reasoning and Writing C is a program that focuses mainly on teaching narrative writing. Reasoning and Writing D is a program that focuses on critical thinking and writing on exercises involving critical thinking. As we looked at the try out feedback for Reasoning and Writing C with second and third grades, we saw significant differences in the paper's of students from more high income populations and those of kids from lower income populations. The differences were in the vocabulary used and sentence structures used by the kids.

This is known as the vocabulary deficit. Low IQ kids know less vocabulary and background knowledge because they learn slower. To compound the problem, these kids typically get far less exposure to language at home (low IQ parents) so it is a bit of a double whammy for them. A deadly combination of both a nature (genetic) and a nurture shortcoming. Ultimately, this vocabulary and background deficit will result in diminished reading comprehension which will do these kids in in the later grades. It's not that these kids are incapable of learning vocabulary and the underlying concepts; it's that such learning is not easily accelerated. And, slow learners need to have their learning accelerated to keep pace with the higher-IQ kids.

Silbert's observations were predictable. The higher IQ kids had picked up significantly more background knowledge, vocabulary, and language familiarity in the five years before they started formal education and the four years of formal education. It was these skills that were being relied upon in the narrative writing exercises. Predictably, they performed better.

But let's see what happened when the playing field was leveled and skills were taught that were new to both the high IQ kids and the low IQ kids.

When we did the try outs of the Reasoning and Writing D programs we saw much less difference between the performance of the kids.

The more advantaged kids initially had a good deal of difficulty writing about the problems involving faulty arguments, misleading statements and advertisements, contradictions and directions that were too general or inaccurate. The kids from more advantaged homes and less-advantaged homes both had little idea of how to clearly express themselves when it came to critical thinking. When we looked at the kids' papers from the tryout, kids from lower income schools learned the content as quickly as kids from higher income schools.

The most important factor seemed to be the quality of teaching. The point here is that though some kids come into school with much more vocabulary and background knowledge than other kids, that good instruction can bring most of the kids who come in behind to high levels of performance on important skills. In the Reasoning and Writing C program, we also saw great and rapid growth of narrative writing skills in low-income schools when the teaching was solid.

I am familiar with level D of Reasoning and Writing. It teaches difficult reasoning and argument making skills that are rarely taught at the undergraduate level, much less at that K-12 level. Certainly, these skills are not taught to young children in the homes of the affluent. So, for these skills, the playing field was leveled and both the low and high IQ kids were capable of learning at a sufficient pace with good instruction. Which is not to say that the performance of the high-IQ kids couldn't have been further accelerated. It most likely could have, but now we are talking at a faster than grade level pace which is outside the bounds of Murray's argument.

Low-IQ kids are not cognitively crippled. They just learn at a slower pace. They are capable of learning sophisticated, complex material at a grade level pace given adequate instruction. At least up to the K-12 level. But the fact of the matter is that these kids aren't getting anything close to adequate instruction at the K-12 level. This instructional inadequacy taints Murray's underlying premise and renders his conclusion spurious.

Had Murray qualified his argument by stating "It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity given the typically crappy instruction present in most schools," he'd be much closer to the truth. But, then it would be obvious that the defect lies as much in the schools as it does with the cognitive ability of the students. Thus exposing the flaws in Murray's conclusions.

January 18, 2007

And now for something completely controversial

I'm not going to let Charles Murray have all the fun this week. He may be a lot smarter than me, but I know better than to take a saw with me when I go out on a limb. Advantage me.

Now that everyone is talking about IQ and cognitive ability, let's take a look at what the composition of an elite college like Harvard might look like if admission were based solely on cognitive ability. This means we'll ignore the distortion effects caused by affirmative action and legacy admissions.

La Griffe has already done the heavy computational lifting here, so I'll just steal his analysis:

Harvard reports 6704 undergraduate degree students for Fall 1998. Of these 472 (about 7 percent) were international students, leaving 6232 Americans. We estimated the number of freshman seats open to Americans as 1/4 this number or 1558. (The precise number is not essential.) Filling these slots in rank order of cognitive ability from the pool of all American 18-year-olds, we calculated Harvard's ethnic percentages based on merit alone.The percentages are shown in Table 4, from which we note immediately that the predicted Asian and Jewish enrollment is remarkably close to that reported by Unz and Buchanan.
African American 0.07 %
Hispanic 0.4 %
Asian/Pacific Islander 17.0 %
Jewish 27.9 %
non-Jewish, non-Hispanic white 54.6 %
Subtotal of all non-Hispanic whites 82.5 %
Table 4. Harvard undergraduate enrollment percentages, by ethnicity, resulting from a meritocratic admissions policy.

This means that in each freshman class only one black and six Hispanic students would get in Harvard based on cognitive ability alone. The result is the perceived need for affirmative action set-asides. Harvard sets aside about 16% of its freshman slots (and additional 242 seats) for black and Hispanic students.

The question is: is this a good thing?

Bearing in mind that these 242 students, due to their lesser cognitive ability and fierce competition, will likely find themselves at the bottom of the graduating class, assuming they graduate at all.

Also bear in mind that these aren't dumb kids all of them have the cognitive ability to succeed in college though perhaps not at a Harvard. Does it do them a disservice to send them to a college where they will likely perform poorly as opposed to a lesser college where they would likely thrive?

How about the seven kids who got there based on cognitive ability and now have their achievement tainted? They certainly can't be happy.

Lastly, bear in mind that today's college freshman were all born in the late 80s, not exactly a time of Jim Crow-like discrimination.

So, notwithstanding the yet to be proven benefits of "diversity," where is the compelling reason to admit cognitively unqualified students to elite universities? (It's not a questions of getting them into any college; you only need a pulse to get into most colleges.)


January 16, 2007

Free Stuff

Everyone loves free stuff so mark January 22 on your calendars, kids. That's the day Zig Engelmann will start giving us material from his latest book: The Outrage of Project Follow Through, 5 million failed kids later.

We'll be getting one chapter a week, each week, until we have all seven chapters. Here's the schedule for release:

Chapter 1: Before Project Follow Through (Jan 22)
Chapter 2. Project Follow Through Begins (Jan 29)
Chapter 3. Follow Through continues (Feb 5)
Chapter 4. During Follow Through (Feb 12)
Chapter 5. Follow Through Evaluation (Feb 19)
Chapter 6: Follow Through Aftermath (Feb 26)
Chapter 7. The New Millennium (Mar 5)

Each chapter will be available for two weeks and then the fat cats in Washington will be taking it away, which means you'll have to buy it.

You might think that a thirty year old educational study doesn't have much to teach us. You'd be wrong. Most of the failed education fads that were tested in Project Follow Through, and failed miserably, are in use in thousands of classrooms across the country, often in renamed form.

The list of educational writers that know what they're talking about and are worth your time reading is short indeed. Zig is on that short list. Don't miss this opportunity.

Charles Murray is not on a roll

Charles Murray has another education-related OpEd in the WSJ. He whiffs this one too. This time he doesn't get past the subhead:

Intelligence in the Classroom
Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them.

Murray's problem is that he underestimates exactly how much can be done with the lower half. He made this same mistake in his last OpEd, as did John Derbyshire in his last article.

Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings.

It is a matter of ceilings, but that ceiling isn't reached until after the K-12 level. We can get most kids, regardless of their IQ, up to a basic 8th grade literacy and numeracy level, which is about the level that is tested on the 11th grade NAEP. You have to dig pretty deep in the education literature to get to this point, but if you're going to be writing OpEds for the WSJ you need to do your research.

This is an unfortunate misstep because Murray's (and Derbyshire's) premise is fundamentally sound. IQ plays a big part in how much a student is capable of learning. There will always be an achievement gap between the smart and the dull. And, to the extent that some groups are smarter than other groups means that there will always be educational achievement gaps between groups just like there are athletic achievement gaps between these same groups.

We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.

Nonsense. There is no doubt that reading comprehension depends on background knowledge. It is this lack of background knowledge that is the constraining factor not the underlying cognitive ability (though certainly a student's cognitive ability plays a large role in acquiring this background knowledge in the first place). When students have the background knowledge assumed by a passage, they do just fine comprehending it:

For example, in one study (Recht and Leslie, 1988), the researchers tested junior high school students who were either good or poor readers (as measured by a standard reading test) and who were also knowledgeable or not about the game of baseball (as measured by a test created for the study by three semi-professional baseball players). The children read a passage written at an early 5th-grade reading level that described a half inning of a baseball game. The passage was divided into five parts, and after each part the student was asked to use a replica of a baseball field and players to reenact and describe what they read. The researchers found that baseball knowledge had a big impact on performance: Poor readers with a high knowledge of baseball displayed better comprehension than good readers with a low knowledge of baseball.

Murray may know a lot about IQ, but he doesn't seem to know much about how the brain works. Here's how a real cognitive scientist explains what's going on when children read the passage:

[T]he students with a lot of knowledge of baseball were able to read a series of actions and chunk them. (For example, if some of the text described the shortstop throwing the ball to the second baseman and the second baseman throwing the ball to the first baseman resulting in two runners being out, the students with baseball knowledge would chunk those actions by recognizing them as a double play--but the students without baseball knowledge would have to try to remember the whole series of actions.) Second, because they were able to chunk, the students with baseball knowledge had free space in their working memory that they could devote to using the replica to reenact the play as well as providing a coherent verbal explanation. Without being able to chunk, the students with little baseball knowledge simply didn't have enough free space in their working memory to simultaneously remember all of the actions, keep track of their order, do the reenactment, and describe the reenactment.

Murray also doesn't seem to know much about the current state of education reform.

The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind. We have never known how to educate everyone. The widely held image of a golden age of American education when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three Rs is a myth. If we confine the discussion to children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution (education of the gifted is another story), the overall trend of the 20th century was one of slow, hard-won improvement. A detailed review of this evidence, never challenged with data, was also part of "The Bell Curve."

This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved. Many of them, especially in large cities, are dreadful. But even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.

Murray doesn't seem to be aware that the largest educational experiment in American history flatly contradicts his assertion that "[w]e have never known how to educate everyone." Project Follow Through showed us that not only can we get low IQ kids to learn, we can get them to learn at a pace that teaches them a year's worth of material in a year's worth of time. Here's some of the Project Follow Through data broken down by IQ:

Notice how the low performers are keeping pace with the smart kids and how by third grade all the groups, even the ones with IQs below 70, are performing above the median.

While it's true that smart kids can learn significantly faster than this pace, this pace is sufficient to get kids up to the point where they can pass the NAEP exams and the much easier state exams, which is all that our current law requires.

This is going to be a three part series for Murray. Let's hope parts two and three are better than part one.

Interview with Willingham

EdNews has a good interview with Daniel Willingham posted today on "reading comprehension:

6) What are your three main factors that you see as important in reading comprehension?

Decoding, fluency, and background knowledge. Obviously, if you can't decode, it's pretty much "game over." And if you don't have some degree of fluency, you're so occupied with decoding, that you can't pay attention to the meaning of the text. Finally, if you don't have some background knowledge to which you can relate the text, you may comprehend it, but your understanding will be pretty shallow—it will be closely tied to the text itself, and you won't be able to generalize the message of the text.

There you go: decoding, fluency, and background knowledge. Three things that don't get systematicallt taught in your typical balanced literacy classroom.

Here's a question: "To what extent have educators and policy-makes recognized the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension?" My answer would be "not enough!" I'm specifically concerned about the role of the National Reading Panel report. That Report is becoming crystallized in state and federal legislation as the final word on reading, and the report is great. . . but it's incomplete because it doesn't say anything about the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. If we're concerned about having students who are good readers we have to recognize that reading is an interaction between the words on the page and the knowledge in the reader's head. Without background knowledge, you can't comprehend a text to a level we would call "understanding." We need to pay attention to developing background knowledge in students from the first day that they are in school, and encouraging parents to do so even before then. It's not a trivial matter to decide what that content should be and how to deliver it. But if we want all children to be excellent readers it has to be done.

Background knowledge: the untaught subject. Read the whole thing.

January 15, 2007

What causes "dyslexia"

Good article in the Telegraph 0n Dyslexia:

Scientists have long asked why some otherwise normal children have difficulty in learning to read, but 650 research studies, which have converged on an intriguing and unexpected answer, have all but solved the puzzle. Most children who find learning to read difficult cannot distinguish the smallest sounds in words. They can hear these sounds but not separate them, which makes it difficult to link them to the letters by which they are represented. The ability to do this – which develops at about the age of five – is called phonological awareness. We are born with varying potential to develop this skill, which has nothing to do with intelligence.

The poorer the skill children inherit, the greater the problem in processing speech sounds and remembering them. Scientists recently discovered that our genes only start the story. What happens after birth is critical; it can cancel out a problem or make it worse: furthermore, it can cause the same neurological weaknesses that other children have inherited. Good parenting and good schooling will, therefore, reduce reading problems.

I'm not so sure that phonological awareness has "nothing to do with intelligence." Lack of PA skills correlates highly with low IQ. In any event, PA skills can be taught, but they are unfortunately not often taught well in most schools.

January 11, 2007

Posting at KTM II

I've been posting some math related articles over at KTM II that you math lovers should check out. Just keep scrolling and reading. And, while you're there check out all the other great posts.

Homeschool regulation: The revenge of the failures

In their never-ending effort to "help" homeschoolers, public school bureaucrats periodically try to increase homeschooling regulations. This makes K-12 education perhaps a unique endeavor: it's a field in which the failures regularly, and astonishingly, insist that they should be able to regulate the successful.

- Bruce N. Shortt

January 10, 2007

Teachers say they cannot cope with needs of dyslexic children

(Cross-posted at KTMII)

As reported in the Independent:

The majority of state school teachers lack confidence in educating dyslexic pupils, a survey for Britain's biggest teaching union shows.

Fewer than one in 14 say they would be "very confident" in identifying a child with dyslexia while only 9 per cent say they would be "very confident" in teaching such a pupil. The survey, by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), reveals the vast majority believe they do not have enough training to deal with special needs children. (emphasis mine

My how quickly they give it. (And, by the way, that is a very unfortunate acronym.)

I'm not convinced that dyslexia is a legitimate disease or handicap or whatever the en vogue euphenism is today. I view dyslexia like the other bogus ailment "specific leearning disability"-- an educator created problem designed to excuse ineffective teaching ability.

I'll give you two good reasons:

1. The MRI evidence they're using to base the dyslexia theory on is bunk (pdf):

[T]he MRI scientists’ interpretation of brain-function data is what is logically referred to as a false dilemma or an argument from ignorance. The scientists observe a correlation between brain patterns and not learning to read.

The possibilities are:
  1. The brain pattern caused the nonlearning.
  2. The nonlearning caused the brain pattern.
  3. The interaction of a third variable caused both the nonreading and the brain pattern.
These scientists apparently don’t consider possibilities 2 or 3, but proclaim that the brain pattern causes the nonlearning. There is no question that there are individual differences in reading performance; however, if the kid can find his way into the right classroom and follow simple directions, he can be taught to read in a timely manner.

2. When kids are taught effectively, the incidence of "dyslexia" drops dramatically:

If it’s true that students in places like the worst slums in Baltimore and rural Mississippi taught with DI have 100% of the children reading—not guessing or memorizing—by the end of kindergarten, something is seriously wrong with the portrait of dyslexia. After all, these students exhibit all of the “warning signs” referred to in the analysis. When they come into kindergarten, they can’t rhyme, they can’t alliterate, they can’t blend orally presented words, and they have lots of problems figuring out unique sound patterns (such as repeating something like 4, 4, 4, 4 and yet are able to repeat four or more random digits). So they should all be dyslexic, and indeed historical performance records show that virtually all of them had been greatly retarded in reading, with the average fifth grader stumbling about on a weak second-grade level. Some of the schools that currently have no nonreaders coming out of K historically had end-of-first-graders scoring at the 6–9th percentile on standardized achievement tests. Yet, the new science tells us that we can expect 1/5 of the population to have dyslexia. That’s a 20% failure rate to teach reading in a fat-cat suburb where parents care about and influence the schools, and where they are lavishly funded with aides, material, and whatever.

You might want to take a look at this article (pdf) as well.

While normal children look at a capital letter R and see R, dyslexic kids are purported to see (backwards R). Normal children see receive; dyslexic children see recieve. Very little of this screwed up perception would actually manifest itself very directly in reading. If a reader actually sees (backwards R)ed, for instance, that child is most likely to say /rred/. If the child “sees” (backwards R) and thinks it’s R that’s not going to cause a decoding problem. If a child sees (backwards R)eb, that could cause a decoding problem, but most letters, written backward, are just backward letters.

Similarly, if the only problem is that a reader looks at receive and “sees” recieve that alone isn’t going to cause any reading difficulty. Look at all the people who write recieve but who think they’ve spelled the word right, and can certainly read what they wrote.

Meet Standardized Testing's Poster Boy

Meet Jordan Davis. He's just failed the Washington state exam (WASL) and can't graduate until he passes. Nothing special about that; half the kids in Washington failed the exam. Here's what caught my eye:

He sat for the WASL math test last spring and failed by two points. He retook it in August and failed by 12. This is a kid who has never gotten below a B in math.

And, that, friends, is the reason why we have NCLB. Quality control.

"I've always been good at math. I always liked math. I totally expected to pass the math WASL," he said in a school hallway last month, exasperated.

Poor kid. You don't know what you don't know.

"We're like guinea pigs in an experiment going wrong," said Caroline Stedman, another Mountlake Terrace High School junior taking a third year of high-school math and a WASL-support class. "It's really ridiculous."

Poor Caroline doesn't realize just how right she is. Her entire educational experience has been one big failed experiment. She's been taught under an educational philosophy that's mostly wrong and has been shown to be ineffective with many students like Caroline.

Falck said it's hard to see her students struggling. "Fifty percent of the kids couldn't pass math with their graduation depending on it. It must be something with the test or something going on in the classroom. It's not the kids' motivation."

So, you're telling me it's not their motivation? That eliminates educator excuse number one. Must be educator excuse number two then -- their parents don't love them. Or could it be educator excuse number three -- we don't have enough money. There is no educator excuse number four.

Here's another poster child:

Stedman defies the stereotype of those who failed the math WASL. Like Davis, she loves math and has always gotten As and Bs. In the past, a learning disability meant she struggled with reading and writing and had to have an Individual Educational Plan — specialized instruction and materials to address her problems in processing words.

When educators finally admit that it's not a "learning disability" but a "teaching disability" we might start making some progress.


Rory from Parentalcation has a lot of good posts up that you should check out.

I have a similar, but slightly different take, on the affirmative action issue that Rory blogged that I've been meaning to get to. Maybe, tomorrow I will.

January 9, 2007

Strict reading program puts Butte schools in spotlight

I came across this story from the Montana Standard about how the Butte school district abandoned their whole-language reading program (aka balanced literacy) for the DI program Reading Mastery. The results were predictable.

(The story does not appear to be available online so I'm going to throw caution to the wind and post the whole thing and let the copyright lawyers come after me. My comments are in blue.)

Strict reading program puts Butte schools in spotlight
Montana Standard

BUTTE - It was around the year 2000 that the Butte school district found itself in trouble.

Reading scores - as measured by mandatory standardized tests - were slipping in some elementary schools.

"We were consistently in the 80th percentile and suddenly we were in the 60th percentile," said Judy Jonart, the district's curriculum director. The statistics showed many of Butte's students were struggling with reading, a building block for all other subjects.

So began a dramatic shift in the way the district's nearly 4,600 students attacked reading: They hired an outside consultant, used a different curriculum and added reading coaches in every school. More time was devoted to the subject: teachers and students spent at least two hours of every school day learning and practicing reading.

The changes are working.

Two of the district's elementary schools recently placed in the top 15 percent in reading of 300 schools designated as Reading First. Those schools are targeted for special help - and dollars - from the federal government because of low scores.

Just three years ago, those schools scored only in the 40s in measuring students' reading proficiency, but last spring's measurements put those them above 80 percent at what is termed "benchmark," or meeting reading goals for that grade level.

[To put this in perspective, 75% of 4th grade students passed the Montana state exam in 2005. That means that these schools are now performing above the Montana average. WHo said there was no such thing as Lake Woebegone]

But the change wasn't easy because it required a shift in educational philosophy.

[Odd that. Most professionals don't like failing, but for some reason educators are the exception to the rule. Seems they'd rather stick to a failed philosophy than change.]

And it hasn't been cheap, with nearly $1.8 million spent to implement,teach and measure student progress. That money came from general fund dollars and grants.

[Another perspective factoid: This amounts to about $400 per student. Around here are per pupil spending goes up by at least that amount every single year with little to show for it.]

"They are in the top 15 percent in the country, not just the state of Montana. It is phenomenal," said Molly Blakely, the Missoula reading consultant who works with the district and visits each school once or twice a year.

The success has attracted attention with Butte regularly fielding interest from other districts and educators trying to turn their own programs around.

New system

Just a few years ago, the buzz word in reading was the "whole language" method. Whole language devotees believe all children can learn to read naturally, encouraged by immersion in good books and literature that will make them lifelong and eager readers.

[That is, if they would only learn how to read proficiently, which they weren't. Keep this in mind.]

"You couldn't find anything that wasn't whole language," Jonart said of the materials available to districts.

But Butte statistics showed whole language wasn't working and parents complained the system did not emphasize phonics and "drill and kill" methods with which they learned to read.

[I have a hard time believing that parents would be asking for more "drill and killing" using those exact words. "Oh please, would you drill and kill my kids. It's for their own good."]

In 2001, the district started a pilot program in five classrooms using a program called Reading Mastery, which emphasized phonetic awareness - especially in the younger grades - and fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and other skills.

Developed by a scientist, Reading Mastery was resisted by teachers who weren't sold on the new curriculum.

[Here's where that "philosophy" business rears its ugly head.]

"It's scripted and it's very strict," Jonart said.

The system provides a script from which teachers read and lessons are plotted, leaving some teachers feeling robbed of creativity and spontaneity. The program also requires total devotion or "fidelity," meaning teachers must not stray from the boundaries.

[Let's weigh the pros and cons. Con: teachers feeling robbed of creativity. Pro: kids learning how to read. Yeah, that's a tough winner to pick. Creativity to do what? Misteach kids how to read? isn't that waht it boils down to when you look at the statistics? Such calls for "creativity" really ought to be made in front of a greek chorus of students "reading" from a grade-level book.]

"People I have great respect for didn't agree with me," Jonart said. But the results from five pilot classrooms convinced the district that Reading Mastery was the best route.

"They were way ahead of everyone else," Jonart said.

[Again, this is the predictable result. On average there should be about a standard deviation increase in effect size.]

Although it seems having a scripted program would result in less work for teachers and administrators, it's not the case. In fact, Jonart said the program requires more of teachers. The program is targeted toward children's abilities, which are categorized as intensive, for readers most in need of help, and strategic, for children on their way toward meeting benchmark goals for their age groups.

"These teachers are totally awesome," said Kathy Weeres, a reading coach at Kennedy Elementary, a school where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. "We wouldn't be here without them."

Weeres started at Kennedy about two years ago, after the school charted its first dismal reading scores, and she has seen the progress brought about by hard-working educators and students. Seeing low scores reported in the newspaper each year was difficult, Weeres said, and was especially disenchanting for students and teachers.

Reading earlier, faster

But the latest batch of numbers offered encouragement.

Not only are kids reading earlier, they are advancing faster. By fourth grade, some students have tackled high school material from 20 years ago with Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

[Both of these stories are found in the the fourth and fifth grade lessons of Reading Mastery. As is the Wizard of Oz to name another well-known children's story off the top of my head. So let's put that lie to rest that in DI reading programs it's all phonics instruction all day long and that there is no literature readings.]

To be sure, in Shannon Tregidga's class on a recent day, about 20 students sat in front of a board filled with small words as Tregidga - who had perfect command over squirming bodies - practiced each word, taken from their reading, in rapid-fire fashion.

[Read that again: "perfect command over squirming bodies." Then go read some of the teacher blogs and the horror stories that they can't control their students.]

Weeres encourages teachers to put their mark on the system, even though it is scripted, paced and repetitive. "I say you can't take anything away, but you can add (to the lesson)," she said.

[Oh, so you mean that you can deviate from the script? Gee, I wonder why that factoid isn't mentioned by the critics. With higher performing students, you could deviate quite a bit from teh scripts without adverse results. But, you better be very careful when deviating from the script with lower performers.]

That is because the system requires constant testing, monitoring and repetition. But it also allows the school to know exactly where a child is and how they are progressing. It also provides ways for advanced children to excel, reaching into upper level lessons.

[The rest of the world calls this "feedback"which is essential to getting things working right]

[Here's another little mentioned factoid: "It also provides ways for advanced children to excel, reaching into upper level lessons" Clear instruction helps accelerate the performance of higher performers too. The biggest complaint you heare from higher peformers is that they are bored silly in the conventional classroom. Such would not be the case if the teaacher were covering moving at twice the normal rate and covering twice as many lessons.]

"We really ask a lot of teachers and students," said Margie Willhite, a reading coach at Whittier Elementary. But Willhite likes the program because it keeps kids involved in the lesson and also helps zap errors as soon as they are made, she said. The program also lays bare strengths and weaknesses of each individual reader.

[And of the teacher as well. If the same exact lessons are working for all the other teachers and aren't for you. It's likely that you're doing something wrong which will be readily ascertainable within a few days do to the constant monitoring.]

By example, whole language depends on an entire class reading aloud. So, some kids with reading deficiencies are hidden by those who are advanced.

[I don't think this is an accurate statement about whole language.]

Blakely touts Reading Mastery's ability to catch children earlier - they are tested three times a year outside of standardized tests. "You don't want to find out they need help in June," Blakely said.

[Which is the typical scenario. Kids can go the entire year in kindergarten without making adequate progress and it isn't picked up until June -- of third grade.]

Whittier Principal Christy Johnson said the success is the result of many things: a good program, outside help, teachers' commitment and students' work. And she admits it hasn't been easy with more hours needed and devoted to reading. "It's been stressful," she said.

But both she and Willhite say the effort has been worth it: At the end of last year, 98 percent of Whittier's kindergartners reached benchmark.

[That would be a good thing.]

"Kids really want success," Willhite said.

Blakely also applauds the district for spending the money to put reading coaches - which she considers crucial to success - in all of its six elementary schools, not just the ones that were under-performing. "They made it available to all students and
teachers," she said.

"Now I'm not going to say Reading Mastery is the end-all," Jonart said, adding that there are other programs. "But our kids are performing.

On teaching misrules

Here's a good example of how teachers sometimes inintentionally teach misrules:

A teacher wants students to learn the concept "red." She puts three red triangles on the felt board. Here are the possible interpretations: red is red; red is triangles; red is only red triangles (not squares); red is triangles on the feltboard; red is anything on the felt board. Without further examples of what red is and is not, many students would—quite reasonably—pick up a wrong interpretation.

What they learn is entirely consistent with what you teach. It's not that they have funny heads. It's that you're a funny teacher.

Meet the New Boss

... Same as the old boss:

Democratic Congressional leaders on Monday called President Bush’s signature education law too punitive in its sanctions on public schools and pledged to increase educational spending, signaling the stance they will take this year in negotiations over the law’s renewal.

The problem with throwing out the old bums (and bums they were) is that you get the new bums who've been out of power (for good reason) for twelve years and, apparently, learned nothing from their time in the woods.

So what's their signature education reform going to be: more money and watered down standards. Yeah, that's the ticket. Might as well legislate rainbows and lollipops as your education reform initiative.

While the tenets of the law enjoy strong bipartisan support, No Child Left Behind has also become a partisan battleground, with Democrats accusing Republicans of underfinancing it by $56 billion.

Which is the only thing they really can complain about since they were the ones who, you know, wrote the law. And, nevermind, that Federal funding for education is at its highest level ever. We need more, more, more, more, more. It is the politically tone-deaf cries like this that do more than anything else to get public support behind privatization of education.

“The No Child Left Behind Act has brought important changes to our public education system, for example, by shining a spotlight on the persistent achievement gap that exists among different groups of students in our country,” Mr. Miller said. “But if we are going to fulfill our original commitment to children and parents, then the law, its implementation and its funding must be improved.”

Let's not let those messy thing like details get in the way of a good sound bite.

January 8, 2007

P.J. O'Rourke

Here's a good quote from P.J. O'Rourke in Saturday's WSJ:

People want the government to do everything for them, then when they see that it sucks, they want the government to let them take charge, and when that doesn't work, they want the government to come back and fix all the problems that they themselves caused when they took charge.

I see a parallel to public education in there somewhere, but I'm not sure which stage we're presently in.

NCLB's Five Year Old Birthday Party

Lots of articles are rearing their ugly head today to commemorate NCLB's five year anniversary. Rather than go through each and every half-baked article, I'm going to analyze Greg Toppo's somewhat comprehensive article since he hits most of the big topics. Toppo identifies "five big ways it's changing schools":

  1. It's driving teachers crazy
  2. It's narrowing what many schools teach
  3. 'Invisible' students get attention
  4. It's making the school day longer
  5. It's changing how reading is taught

Let's hit each in turn.

It's driving teachers crazy

This one's my favorite. It may be driving teachers crazy, but that's only because they want to keep doing what they've always done despite the fact that many students weren't learning. People don't like change. Here's a good example:

Carmen Meléndez quit her job as a bilingual language arts teacher at an elementary school last spring in Orange County, Fla., after the law prompted her principal to institute 90-minute reading blocks and a scripted curriculum — in the process making individualized instruction impossible. Meléndez also found that she couldn't teach poetry anymore.

Oh, the poor dear, not being able to teach poetry to a bunch of struggling readers. Boo frickin' Hoo. I'm teaching an early elementary school aged student how to read, and I feel no compunction whatsoever to teach poetry at this early stage before he's mastering decoding.

Oddly enough, the principal seems to be doing all the right things in response to NCLB, namely, increasing the amount of time devoted to reading instruction and adopting a curriculum (i.e., a scripted one) that probably has some indicia of success with lower performers.

What drives me especially nuts with these education articles is that you rarely get the the flip side of the story. Left unsaid was that this school probably had a large percentage of students who weren't learning how to read under Ms. Meléndez and her poetry or that many, if not most, teachers do not have the skills necessary to teach low performers in the absence of a script. For example:

There are many at-risk children who are not likely to succeed when placed in widely distributed core reading programs. The problems stem from the programs not being designed with the degree of explicitness needed by the at-risk child. The programs often have serious instructional design flaws. Among these problems are (a) teacher explanations that include words the child does not know and that use sentence structures that are confusing for students with limited knowledge of language, (b) the rate of introduction of new skills is too fast, and (c) sequences that can cause confusion. For example, one program introduced letter–sound correspondences in alphabetical order, resulting in the letters b and d, and m and n being introduced in near consecutive order, and (d) too little practice and review.

That would have been a good rebuttal to the teacher's opinion.

Then we get a little teacher-pomorphism, teacher's ascribing their views to their students:

"It was insane," she says. "The kids were all jaded. They were tired — they hated school."

"They're 8 years old, and they're so worried about a passing score," Meléndez says. "I think that's inhumane."

Puh-lease. School is all about testing. How else are you going to get reliable feedback that what the teacher actually taught was actually learned by the students? Most kids who know the material will not find the tests stressful. However, the kids who don't know the material have good reason to be stressed.

Then we get this unfortunate comment by Philadelphia Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas:

Philadelphia Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas jokes that to really improve scores in his city, he could make classes smaller and modernize buildings. "Or we can give everyone the Illinois test," he says.

It's unfortunate because Vallas picked a bad state to compare Pennsylvania to, as is clearly shown in the sidebar. The Illinois test appears to be about as difficult as the Pennsylvania test. The Illinois test has about the same spread between its test and the Fed's test (NAEP), 31 points, as does Pennsylvania, 28 points. Vallas should have picked Mississippi, whose spread is a whopping 71 points. In Mississippi, only 18% of students passed the Fed's NAEP test while 89% passed Mississippi's own test. Talk about gaming the system.

It's narrowing what many schools teach

File this one under bad responses to NCLB. Since only reading and math (and soon science) are currently tested, some schools are responding, inappropriately I'd say, by narrowing their curriculum to focus on the tested subjects to the detriment of the other non-tested subjects. The obvious solution to this conundrum is to test all the subjects.

"What we're getting under (the law) is a very strong emphasis on building skills at the expense of history and literature and science," says researcher Thomas Toch of the Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

That's a shortsighted response. Today's instruction in history, literature, and science will form the vocabulary and background knowledge that will be tested in tomorrow's reading comprehension tests. In the fifth to eighth grades, testing in reading becomes mostly a test of comprehension skills, not decoding skills.

Then we get this little amusing bit of edu-babble:

Other critics say the law has created a "complexity gap." Children in lower grades have made improvements — some impressive — in basic skills, but the improvements vanish in middle school and beyond, when kids are tested on more complex conceptual thinking.
First of all, all the skills in the K-12 level are basic skills. There's nothing inherently wrong with the higher order thinking skills of lower performing children, other than them learning at a slower rate and needing clearer instruction. They are capable of performing many "higher order think skills" tasks just fine when information is presented to them orally about a subject they are familiar with, rather than when they have to read that same passage. That's a basic skills deficit. What these kids mostly suffer from is lack of background knowledge and vocabulary and an accumulation of non-mastered basic skills material. This is what presents problems in later years.

'Invisible' students get attention

Most agree that this is a good thing.

Even opponents of No Child Left Behind grudgingly concede that, five years out, the law has revolutionized how schools look at poor, minority and disabled children in big cities, who often find themselves struggling academically. It forces schools to look at test score data in a whole new light, breaking out the scores into 35 or more "subgroups."


A few observers, such as Mike Petrilli, a former top Bush administration official, say the law has been felt most keenly by suburban school districts, where for years low achievers weren't a priority because high-achieving kids could bring up the district average.

Only a few loons balk at this.

"It really has brought the Hounds of Hell down on the schools of Prince William County," says Betsie Fobes, a recently retired eighth-grade algebra and pre-algebra teacher at Parkside Middle School in Manassas, Va. "This AYP business is just killing us — absolutely killing us."

It's not the AYP that's killing you; it's your inability to teach.

It's making the school day longer

NCLB mandates free tutoring for kids who haven't reached proficiency. Again, this is a good thing.

It's changing how reading is taught

Another good thing, especially considering how poorly reading has been taught in the recent passage.

The only problem I see with this part of the article is giving nutter Susan Ohanian an opportunity to voice her crazy opinions instead of a less crazy advocate and/or the opinion from the other side of the debate.

"I don't dispute that it's quick and easy and it's a tool — and if you just used it that way, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it," Ohanian says. But she adds: "They're using DIBELS to hold kids back in kindergarten. And that's where it becomes really evil. Some kids are just not ready for that skills stuff."
Another, more accurate, way of saying that "skills stuff" is "those first grade skills." Bear in mind, that the primary reason many of them aren't ready for that "skills stuff" in first grade is because they haven't been adequately taught in kindergarten. It's not like they have a whole lot of time to catch. Guess what happens if they are still struggling with that "skills stuff" at the end of first grade.

Performing at grade level by the end of first grade is critically important
for the at-risk child. A study by Juel (1988) showed that the probability that
a child who was a poor reader in first grade would be a poor reader in the
fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88.

That means they're pretty much academically dead by fourth grade which is something that NCLB is seeking to avoid by getting away from the Ohanian school of thinking. Which has given us nothing but failure.

Another NCLB article

This time from the CSM:

Just 41 percent of all white fourth graders meet the standard in reading, for instance. For both reading and math, only 13 percent of all black fourth graders are "proficient." Teachers complain of the stigma of being a failing school, and principals worry about the myriad ways they could end up on a watch list.

But there's only one main way: not teaching effectively.

I bet the average Joe has no idea just how low these proficiency rates really are. I don't think many people realize that only one out of eight black fourth graders can read a fourth grade passage and answer simple comprehension questions.

Take a look at this stunning growth in 8th grade reading levels:

Yet, despite such dismal results, we still have the usual collection of dimwits who think everything is just peachy (except funding levels of course):

A coalition called the Forum on Educational Accountability now has more than 100 groups - including the NAACP and the National Education Association - which have signed a list of 14 requested changes to the law. They include lowering the current proficiency targets, providing more assistance to failing schools, getting rid of sanctions with less record of improvement, and encouraging testing designed to measure higher thinking skills and performance throughout the year. (emphasis mine)

I'm always amused the most by the calls for "testing designed to measure higher thinking skills and performance." The current tests clearly show students aren't learning basic skills, what makes them think they've learned higher level skills?

"We'd be better off putting money into the teachers, teaching them how to be better assessors, and building in methods for spot checking and getting feedback," Mr. Neill [FairTest director and loon] says.

a) why do teachers need more training and money to perform such a core teaching function and b) why not do both.

So what's the main problem with NCLB. Fordham's Mike Petrelli nails it:

"What we've learned more than anything else is that the federal government isn't well-equipped to force school districts to do things they don't want to do," Mr. Petrilli says.

Educators just don't want to change what they're doing despite the fact that it's causing mass educational failure, especially among the poor and historically underperforming minority groups.

January 7, 2007

Another data point

Add another data point to the tally. NCLB is starting to have a positive effect:

So the Dallas Independent School District is re-engineering the principal's job. Gone is the focus on campus operations and administration. Student learning is now the chief concern.

Principals are to be curriculum hawks and instructional coaches, responsible for identifying their schools' academic shortcomings and devising ways for teachers to address them.

The bureaucratic tasks and paper-pushing requirements of running a school are being delegated to assistants and office staff.

"The job description has really changed," said Jennifer Parvin, principal at Arturo Salazar Elementary School. "It's my job to go into classrooms and make judgments on how we can improve."

It may sound like common sense: making principals accountable for the instruction on campus. But those who study education say that's often not the case, and that's a problem.

"In urban districts, principals have typically been building managers," said Dan Katzir, who heads up programs for the recruitment and training of principals for the Broad Foundation, a California philanthropy with a prominent voice in urban school reform.

That's called taking your eye off the ball. And, that's exactly what our educators did. Took their eye off the ball. For about three decades. Tthe education of the students needs to be the principal's number one priority.

January 5, 2007

Another Myth Shattered

As it turns out, Eskimos don't have more words for "snow" that English speakers:

The idea that Eskimos have many more words for snow than English speakers is a myth. All eight Eskimo languages have extraordinarily rich possibilities for deriving new words on the fly from established bases. So where English uses separate words to make up descriptive phrases like "early snow falling in autumn" or "snow with a herring-scale pattern etched into it by rainfall", Eskimo languages have an astonishing propensity for being able to express such concepts (about anything, not just snow) with a single derived word. To the extent that counting basic snow words makes any real sense (it is often difficult to decide whether a word really names a snow phenomenon), Eskimo languages do not appear to have more than English has (think of snow, slush, sleet, blizzard, drift, white-out, flurry, powder, dusting, and so on).