October 17, 2007

My how the times have changed

From the Boston Globe:

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

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

Update: Fixed blockquote formatting problem.

October 16, 2007

Schools Were Broken Long Before NCLB

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

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

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

Exactly. When was this golden age of education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCLB is a warning, educators should take heed.

Russo not feeling linky love

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

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

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

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

October 11, 2007

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

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

Let's begin at the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about kids who are not eager to learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 10, 2007

No Complaint Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's the MSPAP scores for Crofton in 2006.

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

Here are the MSPAP scores for Tyler in 2006.

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

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2007

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom IV

(Continued from Part III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Influences and Closing Comments

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

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

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

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

Unclean hands

Sometimes I wish journalists followed the same ethical rules as lawyers. We'd get a lot less stories like this NC Times' article Educators say No Child goals 'impossible' to reach.

The article gets a bunch of educators together to make the familiar argument that NCLB's 100% proficiency target is impossible.

"Within two to three years, our school district will be in the headlines for failing," said Kelli Moors, president of the board of Carlsbad Unified School District -- that, with San Dieguito Union High School District and Poway Unified School District, are among the highest performing in the county.

All three say that they have so far met the requirements of federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, but won't for long.

Under the law, every student in every classroom in every state must read and do math at grade level by 2014 as measured by a battery of state tests given each spring to students in grades two through 11.

As Congress considers reauthorizing the landmark legislation, designed to improve teaching and learning across the nation, educators and policymakers across the state say the law should stay -- but it must be revised to make it work.

"There's not a school in our district that will meet that test -- not a school in the nation," said Don Phillips, superintendent of Poway Unified School District.

These educators are trying to get excused from the law, excused from meeting NCLB's 100% proficiency requirement. In the law, we call this kind of argument an appeal to equity.

Basically, these educators want to supplement the strict rules of the NCLB law because its application would operate harshly on them. For example, schools operating at high levels of efficiency, say 90+%, might try to get excused from the 100% requirement because its application would be unduly harsh, i.e., high-performing schools would be labeled as failing schools and would be subject to harsh reforms. These educators what equitable relief from the draconian effect of NCLB. But wait ...

Courts, however, have developed rules as to when a party can argue for equitable relief. One doctrine is the doctrine of unclean hands by which a party asking for equity must come to the court with clean hands, i.e., in good faith and without any wrong doing on their part.

In this case, the educators do not have clean hands. As we find out a few paragraphs later:

To reach that 100 percent target in California, state lawmakers set annual goals for improvement. In 2006-07, one in four students was required to earn a "proficient" score, which means that a student has learned the facts and skills that state officials have set for that grade and age.

But starting in 2008, the annual requirement for improvement will rise 11 percent per year.

"We're hopeful that we'll get over that bar next year, but the year after, I suspect we'll have some schools falling behind." Phillips said. "To have that kind of change in that short of a window is not realistic."

In North Carolina, The current proficiency requirement is 25%. Next year it'll rise to 35%. And, the year after that it'll rise to %45. So, this educator is running a school district that, by his own admission, likely won't be able to exceed a proficiency target between 35% and 45%. That's pathetic.

And, he's moaning about the 100% proficiency target. While, he's missing that target by over 50% and doesn't expect to improve. That strikes me as being somewhat odious.

Update: Eduwonk points out some of the numerous errors in this article. I was originally going to make this a lengthier post and point out some of those errors, but decided on a shorter post instead to highlight this particular sleight of hand. In any event, Eduwonk has the skinny.

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom III

(Continued from Part II)

In this post teacher palisadesk continues to describe some of the postive reinforcement techniques she's used to successfully manage her classrooms under a variety of conditions.

Not all classroom activities involve so much teacher-student interaction, however. I'm often in the position of teaching classes in their (not my) room, and don't have a lot of "stuff" handy, nor can I manipulate the environment as much as I would like. If I can't usefully use the Teacher-Kid game, or some other interactive techniques like response cards or individual whiteboards, I usually do something that is a variant on a point system. I'll tell the students that I will perambulate the room and do random work checks every X minutes, and every time I observe (I name specific criteria), the class will get so many points. A certain total -- for the day, or possibly the week, will earn the class some time doing something fun, such as a team Jeopardy game (using information from the subject they're learning -- call me Machiavelli), a high-interest video (always related to the curricular goals), extra time in the computer lab, or whatever might be appropriate.

Points earned by students meeting expectations are never taken away, and when it is a group exercise the class will usually put peer pressure on the show-offs or layabouts to do at least the minimum needed to earn group points.

Random "jackpots" are also good motivators. When I am teaching a class where I'm not the homeroom teacher, and leave the students with an assignment to complete (which I have no power to enforce their doing), I return next time, have a student collect the completed work and shuffle the papers. I'll randomly draw 5, verify that the students completed the work (never mind if it's correct -- a different objective) and give a simple prize (erasers or pencils for elementary kids, cookies in middle school -- those kids are always hungry) along with much fanfare and praise of the student's initiative and discipline.

I also make a point of walking around while kids are working, noticing especially students who are often off-task or even actively disruptive, and making some very public positive comment about some specific aspect of their work (example, "Listen, everybody. I see that Tyler here makes particularly good use of varied opening sentences in his paragraphs. Tyler, may I read this to the class? I want everyone to hear this..".) If you practice this, you can get good at spotting something worth praising in almost every student's work. Even kids who did close to nothing all year would make some token efforts that I could comment on.

I was pleased with how well a fairly large and boisterous class of middle grade students last year did when I taught them a twice-weekly class on reading strategies. There were several kids who were really too low in skills to benefit from the curriculum and who were routinely booted out --to the hall, or the office -- by other teachers. I managed to get them on task most of the time and they actually did complete some of the work and demonstrate some learning. I was careful with those three to use NO negative strategies.

You can impose a consequence without being punitive. For example, with a kid who is talking out and bothering others, you can draw attention to his misbehavior, reprimand him and send him out of the room (I started out doing that, I would guess that is a common strategy). That gets him out from underfoot for the moment, but does not change his behavior, nor does it improve his learning outcomes.

You can (this takes practice) take a slightly different tack. You approach the disruptive student and say, " Casey, I think it's really important for you to complete this assignment. You're getting distracted here, so I want you to sit there (point to seat away from peers) until you finish." The Student will nearly always argue, but I merely stick to the topic and repeat my concern for the student and his learning and remind the group that we need X number of points to do whatever, and could we all help Casey complete his work? It's a different approach. Nothing works 100% but over time you get much more compliance and most important, much more learning and engagement, with positive methods than punitive ones.

Another habit I have incorporated into my repertoire -- and I don't know who I learned this from -- it to mark only those parts of the student's assignment that are correct. I never mark the incorrects. If something isn't checked, the kid learns it needs to be changed. When he is finished, he has a paper with all check marks and no X's. I get a much higher completion of corrected work this way, and students keep their work to show their parents instead of tossing it in the trash. If I need to indicate what kind of correction to make, I write very lightly in pencil so that it can be erased when the work is completed correctly.

Continue to part IV.

October 8, 2007

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom II

(Contined from part I)

In my current location I am most often in the position of teaching a group or class for only a period at a time, and wanting to get as much instructional mileage as possible out of every minute. A good strategy I use a lot is one I learned from the DI folks called the "Teacher-Kid Game." It's also called the "You-Me Game" and there is some information on p. 15 of this document.

Basically, the teacher gets points when the students forget the rules (talk out, leave seat, etc) and students get points for raising hands, answering on cue, following directions, handing in work or whatever you set as the parameters. You *must* set it up so the students win, or it will not be motivating to them. If you ham it up -- act incredulous that they could be doing so well, express certainty that someone will mess up any minute and give you teacher points -- it gets them even more engaged. You can have some kind of handicap system -- they have to beat you by a certain margin to get the payoff. I can't describe it very well, but kids love this game. And to win, they have to do what you want them to do -- listen, participate and learn! How diabolical!

Here's a good description of the "You-me" game that I found from Your Child Can Succeed. The anecdote describes how a teacher named Patricia used the game quite effectively to "fool" the students into learning.

After Patricia had been using reinforcement for several years she developed an individual style. Once she was assigned to work with a group of seven-year-old "emotionally disturbed" children who supposedly had attention spans of less than ten seconds. Because of the their serious attention problems, these children had not begun formal instruction. When Patricia walked in and sat down, the children were seated in a semicircle in front of the blackboard, talking busily among themselves. Patricia didn't pay any attention to them. She didn't even look at them. Instead she wrote the number 4 on the board, saying "Four" rather loudly. She then smiled and made a mark on the board. One child watched her. "That's a point for me, " Patricia said. "I'm really good at this game. I'm probably the smartest person you'll ever see." She then erased the 4 and wrote a 2 on the board. "Two," she said. "Oh, Patricia," she continued, "you are so smart." She gave herself another point.

By now most of the children were watching her. She wrote the numeral 7 on the board. "Seven!" two of the children yelled. Patricia looked at them, somewhat startled. "Nobody said you could play the game," she said.

The children laughed and nudged each other.

"You think you're smart?" Patricia asked. "Tell you what" we'll have a little race. The one who names the numeral first gets a point. I'll put my points up there and your points over here. I'm warning you, though, nobody can beat me at this game.

When the game began, all the children responded. Every time they beat Patricia, they smiled and clapped. As soon as the children had more points than Patricia, she played the game of a poor loser. "Look at that big bug on the ceiling!" She pointed. When all the children looked up, she wrote a 5 on the board and said, "Five! I won." She gave herself a point.

The children started to object, but Patricia quickly wrote 2 on the board and said, "Two," and gave herself a point. "Oh, I'm just too tricky for you. I'm way ahead. You'll never catch me now."

Within another minute the children's eyes were magnetized on Patricia. She pointed to one boy's shoes. "Why are your shoes untied?" she asked. "Don't look! Don't look!" three or four of the children chorused. Not one of those children with the short attention spans looked.

Each ploy Patricia tried was met with the the chant "Don't look! Don't Look!" Finally she wrote a numeral on the board. "Nine!" The children yelled. They were now ahead of the game. They cheered. Patricia said, "Let's not finish the game. I'm tired and I've got a headache. An this game isn't much fun, anyhow." "We want to play," the children said.

As the game continued, Patricia found that the children had trouble with 13. She smiled. "I know how to get you now." Every time I want a point, I'll just write 'thirteen' on the board." Patricia got exactly two points by using 13. After that, the children identified it every time.

After fifteen minutes of "drill" the children were way ahead. Grudgingly, Patricia said, "Well, you won today, but you were just lucky. I'll get you next time."

No, you won't," they said. "We'll get you next time."

If you observed the children near the end of their session with Patricia, you probably wouldn't have been convinced that they were emotionally disturbed or that their attention mechanism was faulty. Patricia used simple reinforcement techniques to give them a reason for attending. She challenged them by advertising herself as being very smart, setting the children up to feel even smarter if they beat her. And when they did beat her she saw that they received a payoff for performing well, for staying on task, and for having "long attention spans."

Continued in Part III.

How to Effectively Manage a Classroom

I have a special treat for my loyal readers today--an interview with a practicing teacher currently teaches in a large, low-SES, high-diversity urban K-8 school. She wishes to remain anonymous but you might recognize her by her blogger id--palisadesk.

The focus of the interview will be on classroom management and student motivation which is by far the biggest challenge facing many schools today thanks to NCLB which has placed enormous pressure on schools to teach students that were "getting left behind." This meant that teachers would have to teach students they had been unable to teach in the past. And, in order to accomplish this, they would first have to get their classrooms under control and establish an atmosphere conducive to learning. Many teachers, especially those teaching in low-SES schools, would find out that this would be a challenge of first magnitude. Teachers would be forced to confront the fact that they lacked the critical classroom management skills needed to control an unruly classroom.

This dysfunctional state of affairs in our education system can be concisely summarized in two sentences:

Our observations of many failed schools would ... disclose that most teachers either completely fail to manage children or rule through intimidation (yelling at children, issuing demeaning comments, but rarely praising children). The instruction that we see is technically unsound according to all the evidence on how to communicate effectively, how to achieve mastery, and how to reinforce and manage children effectively.

Generally, new teachers are thrown to the wolves, so to speak, when they get their first teaching assignments and are expected to teach with little or no training in classroom management techniques. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers also have received little practical training in effective instructional techniques, making classroom management all the more difficult:

Teachers lecture for long periods of time. What “tasks” the teacher presents occur at a very low rate. There are no systematic correction procedures, no attempts to repeat parts that are difficult for the children, and no serious concern with whether children master the material. The pacing of the presentation is laborious. The material the teacher uses is far too difficult for the skill level of the children. Most of the students’ time is often spent on pointless “worksheet” activities. The students don’t like reading, math, or any other academic activity.

Most teachers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to classroom management and because education is filled with unreliable and unscientific nonsense they have no way to sort the good techniques from the bad ones. The result is that many teachers settle on the old parental stand-by of "negative reinforcement," punishing children when they misbehave, to deal with behavior problems in the classroom.

I could go on at length on why negative reinforcement is a less than optimal technique for classroom management and why other techniques, like positive reinforcement, are much more effective. But, I thought it would be better for teachers to hear it from an actual teacher who has been successful using these techniques. So, I'll start the interview off by having Palisadesk explain why negative reinforcement is not effective and give us a few examples of classroom management techniques she has successfully employed:

Negative reinforcement almost never changes peoples' behavior. That's virtually an axiom. If you want to change behavior, you have to organize the environment so that you can reinforce (reward) the behavior you want. The behavior you notice, pay attention to and reward is what you will get more of; positive methods are far more powerful than negative ones. I think every teacher (and even more critically, every administrator) should be required to read Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training.(It's about people, not dogs) That's the book that changed my life, so to speak.

There are many ways you can implement positive behavior management and the exact strategies you use depend in part on what situation you are in. If you teach a different class every period, that's quite a different environment than if you have a self-contained class most of the day. The age of the students matters, too.

For example, one year I was assigned to a new school and an extremely difficult group of fifth and sixth graders, all with both learning and behavior problems, and most seriously delayed academically. Some had intimidating discipline records; at least one was probably clinically psychotic. They were oppositional, violent (towards each other), screamed and yelled and threw things, or were passive-aggressive, and generally did nothing of what you assigned them to do. I was desperate -- every day I went home feeling like I was escaping a war zone -- and so I set up a classroom economy, a variant of what the behaviorists call "token reinforcement." I printed up bills for $1,$5,$10 etc., as in "real" money, set up bank accounts, wage and price schedules, the works. Everything students might want to do cost something, whether it was visiting the restroom between recesses, computer time or using art materials. In turn, they could earn money in a variety of ways.

This takes a lot of time-consuming preparation at the front end -- getting the "money" ready, having a schedule of available things to purchase, and scheduling in time to keep the records, exchange and deposit money and so on. I hated the complexities involved, but I did like the results -- I saw a turnaround almost immediately.

Initially, requirements were quite easily met to earn classroom dollars -- so many minutes on task, so many items completed, homework handed in etc. Every week the prices changes (not unlike the real world), and the most valued reinforcers, like computer time, went up in price while less popular ones (like using the library) went down. A by-product of this system is that students got fairly proficient at operations with decimals and real-word money skills as well as understanding some basic economic principles around supply and demand. It was possible for every kid to earn enough to get something s/he wanted, and over the course of the year all of them developed reasonably good work habits.

I could have phased out most of the system -- in fact I did "fade out" many of the specific rewards -- but the students enjoyed being little capitalists so much I couldn't shut it down completely. An unexpected result, which I have never had a behaviorist explain convincingly to me, was that the kids were so thrilled with the secondary reinforcer (classroom paper money) that they stopped trading it in for rewards (the real reinforcer, supposedly). They sat there at their seats like youthful Scrooges gleefully counting their piles of bills! It was a riot. But it was a lot of work to set up and administer. I had the help of a bossy but well-organized girl in the class, whom I appointed banker, and a teaching assistant part time who helped with keeping the paperwork and money supply straightened out.

In any system that uses concrete reinforcers, you have to keep raising the ante, so to speak, and demanding more for the same payout. That year was the only time I did the full classroom economy deal, but it saved the day. An important point: we did not have fines. It wasn't necessary. If kids didn't do what they were supposed to do, they didn't earn the $$ they needed for whatever. The rules stayed flexible so that I was in the position of controlling the environment, not the kids -- I wanted the kids to learn to control themselves.

Once the system was up and running, I had no further serious compliance problems, and could get on with actually teaching them with good curricula (including DI). In the second half of the year we did some cross-curricular project work on ancient civilizations, forensic science and other interesting topics that we could not have considered doing with the mayhem at the outset. This was before the internet was a valuable resource, and I had only books to go by, but I think there are web resources about classroom/token economies now. It is a lifesaver in seriously disruptive classes, but it is imperative that the teacher understand something about the process of "shaping" - getting incrementally closer to the behavior you want. Karen Pryor's book is a good introduction; it's well-written, very funny and easy for a non-behaviorist person to understand.

We'll pick up the interview in the next post, with a discussion of another effective classroom management technique--the "You-me" game.

Continue to Part II.

October 5, 2007

The Achievement Gap and 100% Proficiency

Many in the edusphere have been saying that NCLB's 100% proficiency target is unrealistic and should, therefore, be lowered.

Sounds good in theory. But, I don't think these edu-pundits have thought through the ramifications of lowering the bar. Because when you lower the bar by an amount that seems reasonable, say to 85%, you wind up with a whopper of a problem. By lowering the bar you essentially foil the primary purpose of NCLB which is to "clos[e] the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers."

White students tend to outperform black students by about a standard deviation. But because these two populations are distributed normally, the percentile achievement gap between the two groups differs depending upon the difficulty of the testing instrument. Here is what the achievement gap looks like plotted against white pass rate.

As you can see, if we make the test sufficiently difficult such that no white students pass the exam, then we see that no black students will pass the exam either and the white/black gap is zero. We can achieve the same thing by making the exam so easy that all students pass it. This is shown at the white passing rate of 100%.

Setting the pass rate at zero would be political suicide. Setting the pass rate at 100% is NCLB--if all students pass the test the achievement gap is zero. (Of course, we'd like to see student achievement actually rise to the 100% level as opposed to merely decreasing the difficulty or cut score of the test, but I suppose in the real world we're going to get a little of both.)

Let's simply the issue and stipulate that it is politically feasible to set the the white pass rate at 50% or higher.

Looking at the graph, you quickly see that we have a big problem in that the achievement gap stays at a high level until we reach a 95% white pass rate, and even then the achievement gap is still likely to be at a politically unacceptable level.

Let's say we exclude all students in special education, about 13%, and require all non-special education students to pass the test. You can see from the graph that we're are still going to wind up with about a 25% gap which isn't exactly an improvement over the status quo.

The point of all this is that we have almost no room to play with NCLB's 100% pass rate before we negate the reason why we allow the feds any role in education in the first place--to address civil rights issues. Once we lower the pass rate a hair, the achievement gap will skyrocket which is an outcome the edupundits don't seem to appreciate.

Update: Here's another graph to help you visualize the achievement gap.

The top distribution is white distribution, while the bottom distribution is black distribution. You can picture how the gap increases as you hit the fat part of each distribution.

October 3, 2007

In the Classroom, Blazing a Path From Fidgeting to Focus

You can always count on the New York Times' Education section to dispense bad teaching advice. Today's article by psychology professor Susan Engel is no exception. Engel tries to tackle the problem of "hyperactive" kids:

THE PROBLEM Every year, Roberta Valentine, an elementary school teacher in New York City, encounters a few students who cannot concentrate for more than a few moments. As a girl from her class once said, “Sometimes if I have to sit still for one more minute, I just can’t stand it.” The child who is distracted cannot learn and may distract others, said Ms. Valentine, who has taught first to fifth grade for 20 years.

Before we get into Engel's "solution" let's look at "hyperactivity." In Applied Pyschology for Teachers (a tome that has been shamefully ignored by the education cognoscenti) Wes Becker describes the problem:

Hyperactivity is a fancy label for a child or adolescent who is always on the go or who does not stay on task very long. Hyperactive-behavior patterns are sometimes found in children who show evidence of neurological impairment, but this isn't always so; the presence of hyperactivity is not a reliable basis for inferring brain dysfunction... A large proportion of the students I have worked with who were called hyperactive have simply not been taught to stay with a task long enough to be successful, and many "hyperactive" children are fully capable of quietly watching TV all Saturday morning.

Zig Engelmann describes how he and Becker were able to teach children to stay on task and significantly decrease hyperactive behavior in Your Child Can Succeed:

A child who is told to do his arithmetic worksheet has choices. He can either do the worksheet, look out the window, draw a picture, or belt the little girl next to him. Operant Psychology would hold that if you want the child to choose one of these actions over the others, you have to make that one more rewarding (or less punishing) than the others. The value in making the desired activity rewarding (rather than less punishing) is that if the child learns that working arithmetic problems is "rewarding" he will tend to work on arithmetic problems even when he is not rewarded. If he is taught that every time he doesn't do his arithmetic problems he gets clobbered, he will learn a great deal about what happens when he doesn't do arithmetic, but very little about the rewards that may be associated with doing arithmetic.

Give the kid a reason for doing what you want him to do. Set up a contingency so that if he performs he receives something that he wants. The only way he can get the payoff is to do what you want him to do.

Some children do not work for the joy of doing arithmetic. By using payoffs to get them started, the teacher can systematically build up "motivation." At first the child is interested only in the specific payoff--the candy or the extra recess. As he learns, he receives other payoffs, such as praise for good work. After a while he learns to treat the payoff more as a symbol of his competence than as an end in itself. And he learns that the work itself was perhaps less than fun but certainly not punishment. Finally the child will be willing to work for nothing more than the praise and sense of achievement associated with performing well.

Bascially, what Engelmann and Becker are saying is that in most cases of hyperactivity, the problem is not caused by some disorder in the child, but rather the child has simply not been taught how to stay on task. This behavior can be easily taught by using well-known behavioral reinforcement techniques. One technique that is particularly effective with most young children is to set up the learning environment in which the child can experience real academic success if he works at it and with the teacher praising good/on-task behavior and ignoring bad/off-task behavior. There is a lot of experimental data showing this technique to be effective.

Let's see what Engel recommends as the solution:

THE SOLUTION For years, Ms. Valentine did what many other skilled teachers do. She determined which children had serious problems, like attention deficit disorder, and referred them to specialists. She often found herself reminding the others, repeatedly, not to fidget, jump out of their seats or make noise.

Becker and Engelmann have shown that "reminding the [children], repeatedly, not to fidget, jump out of their seats or make noise" is a particularly ineffective technique for controlling behavior. Often, this kind of nagging behavior results in increased levels of bad-behavior. This isn't what skilled teachers do, it's what unskilled teachers do-- teachers who have never been taught or who have been mis-taught the skills of effective classroom management.

Over the years in her work at the East Village Community School, on 12th Street in Manhattan, she has tested various tactics: setting a timer for 10 minutes to help children break up their work time into manageable chunks; giving a child a stuffed animal to hold during group discussions (a common strategy for cutting down on fidgeting); and even enlisting other students to help daydreamers stay focused. Still, every year, she felt these efforts were not good enough.

Do any of these tricks reinforce students for staying on task? No they don't.

A few years ago, Ms. Valentine read a book by Mel Levine, an expert on learning disabilities, about schoolchildren who have trouble focusing, and came across his term “mind trips” to describe such moments of distraction. She felt that it offered a clue about how to proceed.

Meanwhile, like many teachers in the last decade, Ms. Valentine decided to update her use of technology in the classroom by learning how to make PowerPoint presentations, and teaching the children to do them as well. It occurred to her that she might have stumbled upon a way to help children tell others something interesting about their distractibility, rather than simply trying to hide or suppress it. And so she would help some of the children make PowerPoints about their “mind trips.”

Once again the solution is Powerpoint. Is there nothing Powerpoint can't do? The children should learn how to use Powerpoint so they can describe their “mind trips.” In other words, there's something wrong with the children. They have some kind of brain damage.

Ms. Valentine asked six children to describe what they thought about when their minds were wandering, and wrote down everything they said. Then, each child illustrated their sentences. Finally, Ms. Valentine recorded the children saying the sentences.

Together she and the children put the written and spoken sentences onto PowerPoint, along with the illustrations. Each child’s work became a multimedia slide show about his or her daydreaming.

One child said: “My problem is concentrating. I think about my dad. I think about Titanic. I think about G. I. Joes. Sometimes my mind tells me to stop thinking about things on my own. Sometimes people in my class tell me stop thinking about things, and that helps me.”

Another wrote: “I am a slow writer. It takes me a long time to write. Sometimes I think about watching TV. I don’t like the way I hold my pencil, it feels funny. My teacher says, take a break. When I tell my mind to focus I write more.”

Another wrote: “Sometimes I can’t sit in my chair. My teacher says, ‘Angela, sit in your chair.’ Sometimes I fall off my chair and sometimes I even lay down. Sometimes I walk around the classroom. I say to myself, ‘Angela, you have to stop.’ The kids in my class say ‘Angela, sit down, please,’ and that helps me. If you have this problem you could ask your teacher or the kids in your class to help you, like I did.”

What have the children learned? They've learned that there is something intrinsicially wrong with them. Nevermind, that the children have never been taught how to focus and pay attention to their school work.

Here's the best part.

“It doesn’t solve the problem entirely,” said Ms. Valentine, who has used these presentations for two years. “Kids whose minds wander become adults whose minds wander.”

But by describing their daydreams, she said, children are “able to figure out not only what went wrong, but what kinds of thoughts and tricks could help them concentrate.”

It doesn't even work!

So why are reading about a failed technique in the Times and why is it being touted as a "solution"?

This is the part where you learn a lot about our education system.

Education isn't about competently teaching children. It is about finding new ways to excuse the teacher's failure to teach and to help students find ways to cope with this failure. In this respect, the Powerpoint technique is a stunning success. It was inevitable that these distracted children would grow up to be distracted adults. At least now the kids know where they went wrong.

October 1, 2007

Unspinning the SAT

Frequent commentor Cal has a good article on the Geiser/Studley study of the SAT which purportedly showed that the SAT is not a good predictor of college grades. Such a claim is, of course, facially ridiculous, but Cal has taken the time to analyze the study and determine its flaws.

Go Read it because the anti-test nutters are already spinning the study wildly.