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.


Unknown said...

A couple of my favorites:

"Near the top of a long list of allegations about our approach was the contention that the early emphasis on academics would damage the children and stunt their development. Another was that the program wasn't consistent with the natural way children learn. The recommendations were that we shouldn't try to instruct the children but use play, manipulatives, and informal situations to pique their curiosity and provide them with opportunities to discover, rather than "forcing" instruction on them." (p. 19)

"Always put reinforcing activities at the end of a sequence, never at the beginning. Something that is entertaining or interesting should never function as a seduction to the first tasks presented, but as a carrot, a reinforcer that occurs after children have successfully learned something. Seductions don't work. They may pique interest, but what follows is a huge disappointment for the children because it is not entertaining. They've already seen the best show." (p. 29)

And the transcribed conversation presented on pages 50-51 is priceless.

KDeRosa said...

You picked pretty much the same ones I did.

Equally priceless is the story of the m&m's and the misbehaving class that spans pages 39-44 and the story about the electrical engineering professor and the hearing specialists on pp. 62-66.

TurbineGuy said...

Ok... just read the whole thing.

The one thing I noted was how much problems they had training teachers to give positive reinforcement.

As a shop chief who supervises several other NCO's who inturn supervise young airman, I find that this lack of ability to give compliments/postive reinforcement is universal.

I have discovered through repeated trial and error that using a little "sugar" and praise works a lot better than threats in getting my people to perform their best.

I have to admit the story was a great read, and I was just as interested in the narrative as I was the tidbits.

Can't wait for the next installment.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and thank you for posting the link.

BTW, Ken, this may not be the place for it, but one of the things that bugs me about commentary on education is the constant and undifferentiated reference to "education" and "schools," rather than to "primary and secondary schools." Your own posts make clear how different they are, but still the reference is to "schools."

That said, thank you for your blog.

Ryan said...

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see a logical refutation of the assertion that "not all programs work with all kids." Even the gold standard, Reading Mastery, doesn't work 100% of the time. Your argument about fault curricula producing shoddy results is compelling, but to my mind you still haven't knocked down the original statement.

KDeRosa said...

Hi The Rain.

Excellent point. I'm glad you brought it up. At first I was going to explain this point in the post, but decided against it since the post was getting long. The comments are a good place to address it.

Reading Mastery is not successful with 100% of children. The range I hear is about 99%-97% with respect to fluent decoding with some slippage in the later grades duwe primarily to the background knowledge issue which goes beyond the scope of reading instruction and encompasses everything the student is learning. Most students will maintain at least an approximation of grade level reading comprehension depending upon whether the student has sufficent background knowledge and vocabulary to understand the passage being read.

So, if you're willing to accept that that the imprecise usage of "all" means substantially all, the staement is at least facially valid. However, if we want to delve a little deeper we need to look more closely at those few kids who don't learn. I believe it is a fair statement to say that these kids are not going to learn to read in a normal classroom setting and many, if not most, of them will unfortunately never learn how to read at a suficient level. It's not like we can just put them into another classroom reading program and expect that they will learn. perhaps some day we will improve the techniques for teaching these kids, but today is not that day.

Another factor to keep in mind that it's not a random assortment of kids that learn how to read with many other reading programs. It tens to be the same group of kids who fail with some movement at the amrgin depending upon instruction and whether the kid happens to muddle his way through the misrules unintentionally generated by the program. Ultimately, that's the point. Each program generates a differnt set of misrules. Modern instruction consists of exposing kids to these different sets of misrules until the kid hopefully (hopefully because educators can't predict who will learn and who won't) eventually figures it out.

Such a treatment regimentmight be acceptable when you don't know the cure. But, we seem to know a reliable cure today, yet most educators don't use the cure because the don't like the cure or don't understand the goal of education. In medicine, such actions constitute malpractice. There is no malpractice in education.

Anonymous said...

Without digging too deeply into this, a primary theme of this essay seems to be that the last people who know anything about education are educators, hence, the less input they have into their "profession," the better.

I wonder: Would the same hold true for doctors? lawyers? Plumbers? Mechanics? Engineers?

If not, perhaps you may wish to rethink what seems to be an unjustifiable attack on the intellect and abilities of teachers, or perhaps you can explain why teachers, apart from most other professions, are uniquely incapable of understanding what they are and do.

Unknown said...

If a pipe leaks the plumber is expected to fix it. If the bridge falls down the engineer probably won't be asked to design too many more bridges. Doctors are expected to heal people regardless of their physical condition or lifestyle.

But a teacher who can't teach has nothing to fear.

Since nothing is expected of teachers - if there were it'd be measured - does it really matter whether they understand their field? Does it matter if effective techniques are used or not?

Certainly not to the organization whose funding is entirely independent of results. If it's not important to the organization whether teachers do a good job, and why should it be, then why should it be important to teachers? Why should teachers want to ruthlessly reject half-baked edu-crap if it doesn't matter how much or well the kids learn?

The only reason I can think of is pride. That can carry you a long way but if the organization is indifferent to results then pride had better sustain you because there won't be anything else.

Mike wrote:

perhaps you can explain why teachers, apart from most other professions, are uniquely incapable of understanding what they are and do.

Because teachers are unique in that their competence, skill and knowledge is irrelevant to the organization that employs them. What meaningful organizational rewards exist for excellent teachers? None and that's viewed as a good thing.

I'd be interested if you could name another profession in which the worst performers and the best performers earn identical wages.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. A few anti-education stereotypes and misconceptions here.

Teachers who cannot teach do indeed have something to fear. Despite what some might have you believe, bad teachers are fired across the United States each and every day. While there may be a few places (mostly confined to big cities) with irrational union contracts, let's remember two things: Those contracts were negotiated and approved by educrats elected by the public, not imposed and irrevocable for all time, and most teachers are not covered by such union contracts. If a principal or superintendent is whining about being unable to fire bad teachers you may be hearing a bad administrator. Good principals can fire bad teachers while simultaneously upholding the due process rights and integrity of all involved. If a teacher is truly incompetent, the evidence will be manifold and manifest and a competent principal can find and catalog it.

We must also remember that schools are not businesses and cannot be run or thought of that way. Businesses exist to make a profit. In the pursuit of that profit, they produce, market and sell a product. Whether that product is a service, a toaster, or the electricity required to run that toaster, the simple fundamental fact that business exists to make a profit remains.

While one can argue that the students are the product, this is a tortured analogy. If forced to operate within purely market forces, no school could long keep its doors open. In fact, private schools tend to be able to survive only in a niche market, and primarily because their support comes at least in part from an organized religion.

Remember, I'm not arguing against merit pay, but against irrational, business-based schemes for its distribution. One of the ultimate problems with trying to apply a business model to the schools is that not only does the teacher have no control over the quality and quantity of the raw materials with which they construct their "product," but the product can, at any time, choose to toss a monkey wrench into the factory gears, or simply jump off the assembly line and refuse to be assembled.

When I'm repairing an engine, I have no problem whatsoever being judged on the efficacy of my repairs, which are easily quantifiable. Because education deals with thousands of individuals and thousands of variables that are often beyond the control of the teacher/mechanics, it is not nearly so easy to judge their work and hand out monetary awards.

Until those who criticize educators are willing and able to acknowledge the role and significant responsibility of parents and students in education, their complaints have little substance or meaning and help solve whatever problems exist not at all.

Anonymous said...

"If not, perhaps you may wish to rethink what seems to be an unjustifiable attack on the intellect and abilities of teachers, or perhaps you can explain why teachers, apart from most other professions, are uniquely incapable of understanding what they are and do."

"understanding"? That's an interesting word. Do they "understand" that many people have a very different idea of education? Do they understand that they have no professional way to judge whether their curricula and teaching methods work? If you think this is questioning the profession as a whole, it is. It's questioning their philosophy, assumptions, and competence.

There are two aspects to the problem. Educational philosophy and competence. It's difficult to argue about competence if the problem is a difference in philosophy. But you also can't argue about competence if schools have only very basic goals for reading, writing, and arithmetic? Then, if you wait long enough, all problems look external. The problem is that the philosophy-driven educational expectations of K-6 education are low and not well-defined. It's difficult or impossible to tell whether success is achieved. These expectations were so low that it spawned NCLB. There had to be some minimal level of accountability. All problems are not external.

Some might think that an educational philosophy that places the onus for success on the kids and parents is proper, but it won't help those who need the most help. I have heard too many teachers tell me that they can bring the horse to water, but they can't make it drink. This assumes that they have a way to know whether schools have done all they could. Some teachers feel quite put upon when they see the abilities of the kids who walk into their classroom. I can't blame them. Of course, they see the problem of education only as their own personal problem, not as a problem of the system.

"Because education deals with thousands of individuals and thousands of variables that are often beyond the control of the teacher/mechanics, it is not nearly so easy to judge their work and hand out monetary awards."

"...often beyond the control of the teacher..."


If the teacher/school is not successful, then it must, by definition, be one of the "often" cases?

Thus, we have a profession that can't or won't find any quantifiable way to define success. If kids do well, then it must be because of the school. If the kids do poorly, then it must be external causes. Our K-8 public schools say that our kids "hold their own" in high school. That's not a very professional definition of success. There are no international comparisons. Just comparisons with other schools in our area. They don't even want to know how much outside tutoring is being done. That is not very professional. My son is successful because I do so much more than just check his homework and make sure that he goes to school. I teach and reteach many things that the school should be doing. The school looks at his grades and thinks they are doing a good job.

Many subjects are difficult to quantify. Math is not one of them. But then again, the education profession seems bound and determined to define math in very fuzzy terms, such as critical thinking and understanding. These ideas (as a profession) spawned many K-8 math curricula that focus on superficial understanding, less mastery of basic skills, and lower expectations. The profession eschews input from mathemeticians, engineers, and scientists. They feel that they are uniquely capable of defining both how something is taught, and WHAT is taught. They then expect K-6 teachers, many of whom hate math, to carefully ensure that their students master required skills year by year. This is not very professional. Schools assume little or no responsibility for success.

"Until those who criticize educators are willing and able to acknowledge the role and significant responsibility of parents and students in education, their complaints have little substance or meaning and help solve whatever problems exist not at all."


"significant responsibility"

Preconditions for education, or is this just a precondition for discussing the problems?

The poor will stay poor. Perhaps you can define EXACTLY what the duties of parents should be before schools will accept any responsibility for education. What, outside of making sure their kids go to school, do their homework, and go to 15 minute parent-teacher conferences, do you require? If some urban parents meet all of your preconditions, then what? They get to talk? Is this an individual expectation, or do you expect external forces (like poverty) to be solved first? This is an important point. Is the education profession willing and able to separate those who can and will from those who can't or won't? Do you expect external "significant responsibility" from individuals or from all as your precondition? Precondition for what? Talk?

All of this is somewhat meaningless if K-8 schools can't seem to quantify what they are doing. K-8 schools can't judge success and student failure in high school is all external. The damage has already been done.

bronxteach said...

I am a new teacher in NYC. I teach second grade to English Langauge Learners in the Bronx. I have 22 students and I am responsible for all of their subjects (reading, writing, science, social studies, math). I strongly believe that my students need structured phonics instruction. The majority of them cannot read, or at least cannot read close to grade level. But we don't have access to any phonics programs. It's all "Balanced Literacy" without any clear guidelines or goals. I was thrown into a classroom at the beginning of the year without any support or curriculum. I have had to find materials and ideas on the internet and I have been spending a large amount of my salary on printer ink and books and other supplies. I started using a phonics program that I found on the internet. I'm not sure how good it is, but it's better than nothing. I've also stopped using that terrible "Everyday Math" program and I bought Singapore Math and have been making copies like crazy. Of course, if I get caught, I will have a lot of explaining to do. The Math Coach tells us that we have to play games every day and have the students reflect about math in their math journals. Repetition of a newly learned skill is considered inhumane. And anyway, the students aren't supposed to be "learning" anything from the teacher. After all, they're in second grade and they're capable of constructing their own knowledge. Blah, blah, blah.

But my point in writing this is that, under these conditions, is it my fault as a teacher if my children don't learn as much as they should? I want to be a good teacher. I am extremely dedicated, to the point of volunteering about 10 hours a week to tutor my students privately or in small groups. I am also a single mother with 2 children so it's not like I have lots of free time. But I feel responsible for these children. I am driving myself crazy trying to find the best way to teach them. (I will look into that Reading Mastery program I saw mentioned.) But don't you think that more of the blame falls on administrators? Yes, there are incompetent teachers. But isn't it the supervisors' job to provide clear objectives, concrete ways to meet these objectives, and the resources with which to do so? I have never had anyone even tell me what the kids are supposed to be learning in second grade for reading and writing! We're supposed to figure it out for ourselves by asking the other teachers. I don't know if my school is more poorly run than the majority of city schools or if it's the norm. But I've been shocked at the absolute lack of a curriculum. They tell us that there is a curriculum, but it's so vague that I have no idea how to teach it the way they want us to. The only subjects that are clear are math (clear, but horrendous) and science (clear with a good textbook and workbook). There is a social studies curriculum, but no textbook, no workbook, no map skills book or anything like that. It's up to us to find our own materials.

The only time administrators say anything to me is to criticize. For example, the other day the principal stopped me and asked me why I wasn't doing more differentiated instruction. That being an ESL teacher I should be an expert on differentiated instruction. My AP stopped by during a lesson and asked me where was my word list of vocabulary for the lesson. Maybe those are valid points, but I'm so overwhelmed by just trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing - with absolutely no help from them. I am not going to even start talking about the behavior problems at my school and the complete lack of consequences for out-of-control behavior. So if my students are learning less than students at a well-run Upper East Side school, for example, should I make less money than the Upper East Side teacher? I would bet that my job is much more difficult.