August 9, 2007

Nitwit author makes nitwit observations

In USA Today, Greg Toppo interviews Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post reporter, who spent a year at Tyler Heights Elementary School, a "high poverty elementary school in Annapolis, Md" to see for herself the effects NCLB was having on failing schools.

She even wrote a book about it.

Based on this interview, Perlstein clearly didn't know the first thing about education going into the project and failed to learn anything useful during the project. Perlstein bemoans the neglect of "science experiments" in the curriculum, but it is evident that she has never learned how to conduct her own scientific experiment. Her year at Tyler Heights was one big failed experiment from the get go.

To wit: Hotshot reporter observes one failing school. Said failing school makes changes in response to NCLB's requirement to improve student achievement. Said changes fail to achieve desired improvement. Failed educators give hot shot reporter their "opinion" as to why the improvements failed to work and/or how they believe improvements can/should be made. Hot shot reporter adopts opinions uncritically thinking she's learned something.

She hasn't.

All Perlstein has learned is that she picked the wrong school. You don't learn anything from a failed experiment (except, of course, that that that's one way not to do things). There are an infinite number of responses that educators can make in an attempt to improve outcomes. The vast majority of those responses will fail to achieve improved outcomes. Existing evidence shows that only a precious few responses will achieve real gains in student achievement. Had Perlstein been fortunate enough to pick one of these successful schools, she might have learned something useful. Instead, she only learned about one way (albeit a very popular way) a school could get things wrong. And, instead of cutting her losses and writing off a wasted year, she wrote her book anyway and filled it with her own uninformed opinions and the opinions of those who have never failed to raise the achievement of students like the students found at Tyler Heights.

Let's examine what Perlstein thinks she learned from her year at Tyler Heights.

I don't have a problem with testing children. I have a problem with thinking test results tell you most of what you need to know. They simply don't — these tests are often very narrow instruments.

Clearly, Perlstein isn't a psychometrician and hasn't talked to one during her investigation. Of course, there's a lot more to education than learning how to read and do basic math. But, if a student hasn't learned how to read and do basic math, it's fair to conclude that the student is dead, educationally speaking, and that the school has failed at this first critical educational step. I've never seen a student who magically compensated for not knowing how to read and do basic math by learning an adequate amount of history, science, geography, algebra, etc. Such a beast does not exist and never has.

Where reforms have forced educators to notice children who might otherwise have been neglected, I give credit. But I wrote this book because school reforms intended to abolish a two-class system were in some ways exacerbating it. There's one world where students pass the test as a matter of course and get to write poems, and another where children write paragraphs about poems.

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a movement in American schools to educate each child as an individual. The teachers at Tyler Heights work mightily to do that, but they have to get everybody to the same place in the same amount of time, and follow daily curriculum agendas handed down from above.

You know, I just can't place my finger on the section of NCLB that requires schools to force students to "write paragraphs about poems" instead of "writ[ing] poems." That's because such a rwequirement doesn't exist.

Perlstein is failing to distinguish between a problem with NCLB and a problem that some educator has made is response to NCLB's requirement that students actually learn how to read and do basic math. Some wacky educator in Maryland decided that "writ[ing] paragraphs about poems" was a good way to become proficient at passing some portion of the reading test. As it turns out, that's not a good way to teach. Time to change to something that does. (And, let's not ignore what Perlstein has likely failed to observe since it ended before she got to Tyler: disadvantaged students "writing poems" like the advantaged kids and still failing to learn like the advantaged kids.)

Meanwhile, there's supposed to be a movement in American schools to educate each child as an individual. The teachers at Tyler Heights work mightily to do that, but they have to get everybody to the same place in the same amount of time, and follow daily curriculum agendas handed down from above.

First, teachers don't make policy decisions. Policy decisions get handed down from above. Just like the curriculum. As long as teachers do as they are told or do what they are permitted to do, there are no repercussions for them when students fail to learn. That responsibility goes to the higher-ups (who frequently try to pass the back down).

Second, the movement to "educate each child as an individual" has failed to produce demonstrable results, so that's a red herring.

Third, there is no requirement to get "everybody to the same place in the same amount of time." NCLB's requirement is to get everyone past a certain point by a maximum amount of time; for example, all students must be reading on at least a third grade level by April of third grade. Implicit in that decision is a policy choice that students can be (and should be) taught to read on what is nominally a third grade level within 3-4 years of schooling.

Tyler Heights kids in some ways are very fortunate: Even though many are poor, their well-off district provides them a safe, clean building, plenty of learning tools and a smart, hard-working staff who cares immensely about them.

Somebody call Jonathan Kozol and tell him we've found the counter example that disproves his life's work.

But those educators feel constrained because of rigid curriculum strictures, the low skills of many kids and the pressure to excel on the test.

I love the words Perlstein has chosen to obfuscate the issue. Instead of saying "pressure to excel on the test" she could have more accurately said "pressure to teach students so that they learn what they are expect to learn and which will be confirmed by their ability to pass a simple multiple choice test." But I suspect that isn't anti-test enough for her agenda.

I also like the conceit that educators are "constrained" and that if they weren't so "constrained," by NCLB of course, they would do wonderful things and perform miracles with these children. Problem is that making collages in ed school and learning wacky educational "theories" doesn't adequately prepare teachers to actually induce learning in students who won't learn on their own. When most teachers are given the freedom to innovate instruction, we still get just as much failure as we do when they are constrained. The only difference is that we get different kinds of failure. That is the sad reality. There are a very few exceptions to this rule and it has nothing to do with whether teachers are constrained or not. It only matters that they teach in a way that works, which few of them know how to do on their own.

So a teacher suspects her third-graders might be asked on the test to write a paragraph enumerating the elements of a poem. The kids can't get it right. Does she have them write that paragraph over and over until they do, or does she let them actually write poems? The latter would be more engaging and, in the long run, instructive, but the school might calculate that drilling is the more direct, reliable line between two points.

Here we go again with the poem writing, like that's the only problem these kids have. Many of these kids can't read anything approaching their grade level, let along a poem. And don't ask them to spell, write a coherent paragraph, analyze what they've read, subtract multi-digit numbers, or calculate the area or triangle, to name but a tiny fraction (and don't ask them to manipulate fractions either) of their deficiencies.

And, what's up with "The kids can't get it right"? Isn't it more accurate to say "The kids can't get it right after the teacher has tried to teach them." This phrasing implies a solution that the original does not, i.e., teach better.

Or what about this false dilemma: "Does she have them write that paragraph over and over until they do, or does she let them actually write poems?" Because there is not third alternative. A third alternative would be very helpful in this situation since alternatives one and two don't seem to work very well. But, Perlstein doesn't realize that a third alternative exists because she never observed a school that successfully employed an alternative.

And, I'm wondering how Perlstein knows that "writing poems" is "more engaging and, in the long run, instructive" for these kids since there is no evidence, except Perlstein's conclusory opinion that it is. Perhaps for advantaged kids it is. But, that doesn't mean that you can extrapolate that solution to disadvantaged kids since these kids apparently have unremedied deficits that preclude them from performing at this high level.

Or that science experiments, since they won't be on the test, aren't the best use of a too-short school day. These aren't choices I agree with, but I understand why they're made. The schools with rich curricula exist here and there, most likely with daring staffs and flexible school districts that give
educators plenty of room to innovate.

Why do we care what choices Perlstein "agrees with"? It's not like she's successfully taught disadvantaged kids or has talked to anyone that has (there don't appear to be any at Tyler Heights).

And who is to say that a so-called "rich curricula" (whatever that is) is the right answer? I suspect she thinks that a rich curricula is what rich kids, like her, received at their fancy suburban school. If it worked with her, it must also work for the poor kids. Right? See: busing, failure thereof.

Then Perlstein gives us the example of a teacher trying to teach to the Nonsense Word Fluency Test by directly teaching nonsense words.

The teacher wanted her kindergartners to be prepared for their assessment, which makes sense. Kids should learn to sound out letter combinations whether or not they make actual words. But she would have preferred to use that time teaching her kids real vocabulary.

Clearly, the teacher was trying to cheat by coaching the kids on the nonsense words that would be on the test. That kinda defeats the purpose of the test which is trying to see if students have adequately learned phonics skills (which even the whole language nutters now think is important) for words they've never seen before and which can only be read if you know phonics.

The problem here is that the teacher isn't able to get the kids to learn how to read with any degree of proficiency. So, the next best thing is that they pass the assessment. And the easiest way to do that, at least in the short run, is to try to game the test. That's the problem: the inability to teach, not the assessment. The assessment merely shows that learning has not occurred and that the teaching has failed.

After I left Tyler Heights, the principal eased up a bit on her "laser-sharp focus." Activities were spread more evenly throughout the year, third-graders wrote poems, there were more attempts at critical thinking. Compared to the previous year, the percentage of kids passing the state test decreased in more categories than it increased. But I don't think the teachers would tell you the students learned any less.

That's the beauty of NCLB. Here we have a failing school that changed how it taught, but did so in way that wasn't effective. Hopefully, next year it will change to something different (and that probably won't work either).

Without NCLB, we wouldn't know these failings of Tyler Heights and schools like it. Now we do. And, that's a good thing. One could argue that if the tests were low stakes, we'd still know about the failings of Tyler Heights. This is true. But the difference is that if the tests were low stakes, Tyler Heights wouldn't care and wouldn't be trying to change its failing ways. Now they are. And that also is a good thing, even though it might be a long time before it stumbles upon the right solution. That's another problem; Tyler Height's educators learn about as slowly as their students. Too bad Perlstein was paying the educators undeserved deference too see this for herself.


Joanne Jacobs said...

Actually, Tyler Heights Elementary was very successful at boosting math and reading scores. For two years in a row, the school was one of the best in the state compared to schools with similar demographics. In the year Perlstein followed the school, 90 percent of third graders scored "proficient" in reading and math on the state exam. (The exam's bar for proficient may not be very high but it's a measure these students weren't meeting before teachers changed their teaching.) In the third year, teachers tried to broaden the curriculum -- social studies and science had been squeezed out -- and improve teaching. Scores remain high except for third grade math, which fell to 57 percent proficiency. It's a small school so it's possible this is an anomaly.

Perlstein is no nitwit.

BTW, I think you've misunderstood the section on nonsense words. The issue is that good readers tend to do poorly on the nonsense word test because they keep trying to make the words make sense. The teacher is reminding them to read phonetically and not expect to see real words. You can't teach kids to memorize nonsense words. It's not like there's an official list of non-words.

mdmarkus66 said...

Nitwit blogger throws nitwit brickbats.

anayeli said...

Geez, is that thee Joanne Jacobs? Defending this writer? Sorry Joanne, he's right. Without reading and mathematics, they're not going to learn much (there did seem to be some kind of poem vs. paragraph obsession going on). I use nonsense words for kinder and first grade assessments and simply tell the students they're "funny words". They love it and those who have learned their letter sounds do well.

Libby Maxim said...


let's rephrase your comment
"They love it and those who have learned their letter sounds do well.

to "those that have been taught well, do well,

don't blame the kid for lousy teaching

KDeRosa said...

Hi Joanne

Had I checked the school's actual test scores instead of relying on Perlstein's misleading rhetoric, I would have toned down part of the post. Based on the MD test, Tyler did improve somewhat over the artificially inflated test scores over the past few years. And, these were the years in which the curriculum was tightened. Then they sank back down (especially in math) when they broadened the curriculum. So, if anything, Perlstein's conclusions are even more spurious based on the data she should have observed. Let's not let the facts get in the way of a predetermined storyline. (Actually, the best conclusion is that the data isn't reliable enough to support any conclusion at this point.)

With respect to Nonsense word test, you don't necessarily need to memorize the nonsense words. Repeated exposure and practice with the small set of nonsense words that will be tested is enough to artificially inflate testresults.

KDeRosa said...

mdmarkus66, what about nitwit commentors that leave nitwit comments without providing support or forwarding the discussion at all?

Anonymous said...

DeRosa states:

"Had Perlstein been fortunate enough to pick one of these successful schools, she might have learned something useful."

I would love to learn something useful. Could you please name one of these successful schools for us. What criteria do you use to judge a school as successful? I would be most interested in knowing what reading curriculum they are using that is producing readers?


KDeRosa said...

Kathy, you should explore the archives.

I am partial to Reading Mastery/Language for Learning since it has the best research base and consistently gets the best results from kids who will otherwise be incapable of reaching proficiency.

Currently, it is implemented districtwide in the Guam school district and in a few schools in the Milwaukee school district to name but a few.

anayeli said...

Libby, Ok, I teach well and students learn....feel better? BTW, I never 'teach' nonsense words, only used in assessments. They are useful because as kids are exposed to lots of text simple words become 'sight' words. Using nonsense words assures they are able to blend.

Anonymous said...

Is this a review by someone who hasn't read the book?

Of the responders, has anyone read the book?

I haven't read it, and as a result, don't have an opinion about it. I sure would like to hear from someone with some knowledge about the actual work.

Anonymous said...

So maybe this is a complete breaking of the blogging rules, in which case I imagine this comment will be removed, but for those readers interested in a book that demonstrates how successful high-poverty and high-minority schools operate, I would suggest they read my book, It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.

The criteria I used to select schools to visit are fairly clear--the schools had to have substantial populations of students of color or students of poverty or both, and high achievement scores or rapid improvement trajectories. (The criteria are laid out in more detail in chapter one.)

For the most part, these schools did not spend endless amounts of time having students writing paragraphs about poems nor writing endless numbers of poems, but rather taught them some poetry, along with lots of other literature, science, history, and other stuff. In other words, they honest-to-goodness taught their students.

The book was published by Harvard Education Press. Learn more about it at

I realize this is a shameless plug, but it seems appropriate to the discussion.

Karin Chenoweth

KDeRosa said...

Mike, I don't see anywhere in the post where I indicated or implied that I was reviewing Perlstein's book. I was merely commenting on opinions she expressed during a brief interview with Greg Toppo of USA Today.