November 13, 2008

Today's Quote

It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: it's more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

-Al Shanker, President AFT

November 12, 2008

Efficiency and Spelling

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of constructivist and child-centered teaching practices.

One of the main reasons why I don't like these practices is that they are even less efficient than traditional teaching practices. And traditional practices aren't very efficient either. In fact they are downright primitive compared to what we know about how children learn.

Let's take the teaching of spelling as one of the worst offenders.

Spelling continues to be taught, when it is taught at all, as it has been for decades. Students are given a list of words (10-15) on Monday and then tested on Friday to see if the words were learned. Then a new list of words is given and the process repeats. What happens to the old list of words? They disappear forever.

More formally, a week of massed practice is followed up with zero distributed practice. Not unpredictably, the students quickly forget what they've learned. All that effort is wasted. Retention is left to happenstance. Maybe the student will use the word in his writing before the spelling is forgotten. Maybe he won't. Maybe she'll read the word in her reading and think about the spelling, maybe she won't.

This is not an efficient way to learn spelling. It is a waste of time. Unless the student happens to be one of those smart kids that learns easily, reads voraciously, writes prolifically, and has exceptional retention. Inefficient teaching methods handicap those that aren't smart.

Further, it seems that the preferred way to teach spelling is through brute memorization. Often, the word lists do not capitalize on phonetic or morphographic efficiencies. Rote memorization appears to be the rule for learning spelling.

Then we have some of the inane exercises used to teach spelling. My favorite is "write a sentence for each spelling word." This often requires that the student is familiar with the meaning of word, familiar enough to use it coherently in a sentence. If the student doesn't know the word, it must be looked up in a dictionary. The hope is that the words used by the dictionary to define the word are understood by the student. Often they are not. This leads to more looking up until a definition the child understands has been found. At this point the child can formulate an understandable definition of the original word assuming all of this can be juggled in short term memory. Now the child is ready to make-up a sentence which requires creativity and knowing the rules of grammar, among other things. It's quite a lot for the student to attend to. We know that students remember what they think about, so you can bet that spelling only plays a minor role in this difficult exercise.

Who wants to defend the traditional way to teach spelling?

And who has a better way to teach spelling that addresses the problems I've discussed above?

November 10, 2008

Whose National Standards

Diane Ravitch is touting National Standards again. So is KIPP's Michael Feinberg.

I don't understand the love for standards, especially the national variety.

Imagine your ideological enemies being the ones in power drafting the standards. Now imagine that they, as they are wont to do, draft standards that not only favor their ideological brethren, but also might preclude you from practicing your favored ideological method. You can be certain they won't disfavor or handicap themselves.

Spend five minutes thinking about what you think are the best education outcomes and methods. Now spend another five minutes devising ways to disfavor those outcomes and methods. It's alarmingly easy to do.

Now tell me that you're still for a national standard that will apply to each and every state. They'll be no escape, unless you move to Canada. Or Mexico.

We need a diet

I'm a big plan of efficiency. So instead of analyzing all the bad education plans out there, I'm going to point out the shortcomings of the best -- Andy Rotherham's and Sara Mead's policy paper Changing The Game: The Federal Role in Supporting 21st Century Educational Innovation.

Here's the short version for the lazy:

Bad federal governmental intervention is the cause of much of our education woes, so we propose more federal intervention, but the good kind, i.e., the kind we like.

Now I like Andy and Sara. They are smart commentators on education policy. I am at least sympathetic, and often agree, with many of the views on education policy. But this time around Andy and Sara think that they can foster educational innovation and free-market-like solutions by putting the federal government's thumb on the scale and ignoring the reason why the free-market works in the first place.

Andy and Sara think they'll do a better job guiding the thumb than their equally smart predecessors. What they don't realize is that the thumb is the problem in the first place. This is a mistake that smart people tend to make. They think that they are smarter than the accumulated wisdom of the market. History shows they are not.

People, even smart people, are bad at making accurate predictions with respect to which innovations will succeed and which will fail. The recently deceased Michael Crichton makes a similar point with respect to finding solutions to the pollution problems facing people a hundred years ago.

Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit? Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?

But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport. And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS… None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn't know what you are talking about.

Now. You tell me you can predict the world of 2100. Tell me it's even worth thinking about. Our models just carry the present into the future. They're bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment's thought knows it.

So where does the free market come in? I'll let P. J. O'Rouke explain:

What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That's not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. "Jeeze, 230 pounds!" But you can't pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. And voters--all the voters, right up to the tippy-top corner office of Goldman Sachs--think so too.

With NCLB we finally bought the scale and made sure everyone weighed themselves. Many in education think that was a mistake and want us to throw out the scale. That's silly: how are we to know the diet works without a scale.

Others don't mind keeping the scale provided they can erase the objective markings and replace them with their own subjective ones. That's equally silly: you don't let the purveyors of the diet regime determine how to measure their own success.

And still others thought that merely weighing everyone and reporting their weights once a year would be sufficient to drop all those pounds. You still need a sensible diet in place for that to work. We didn't get many sensible diets. We got lots of excuses and test-prep diets: the kind of temporary diets that boxers do right before the weigh-in before a big fight.

What Andy and Sara want to do is legislate. i.e., fund, the "innovative" diets they think work best. That's only a small part of the problem. The bigger problem is getting the failed diets off the government teat and, unfortunately, that will include many of the diets Andy and Sara like. Andy and Sara's pseudo-free-market approach doesn't provide such a mechanism. And that is its fatal flaw. A real properly-functioning free-market works by ruthlessly eliminating the losers which involves a lot of short term pain, just like a real diet. That's the part that Andy and Sara leave out. Government won't defund, or starve, its losers voluntarily. That's not the nature of politics. And that's why political solutions, like Andy and Sara's, won't work.

November 7, 2008


I've come back from my unannounced hiatus to discover that we have a brand new president.

A president that is for change. And, apparently, hope as well.

I "hope" that none of you wasted any time reading either candidate's platform. What politicians say they are going to do is very different from what they actually do once you've given them power. But you can rest assured that once elected their actions they will be consistent with them accruing power and ensuring that they retain power by getting re-elected. Keep that in mind because what you've just been promised (by both candidates) is inconsistent with their desire for power. Suffice it to say that you will be disappointed, and you would have been disappointed regardless of who was elected. That is the nature of politics.

Here is my prediction for education:

There will be change. That change will be superficial with respect to improving academic performance. It is extremely difficult to improve academic performance. The odds of academic performance improving in the next eight years in an educationally significant way are virtually nil.

It is easier to reduce academic performance by unwittingly changing things for the worse. This is because educating children is a difficult orchestration of detail that is difficult to get right and easy to screw-up. This remains true even though our current system remains horridly inefficient with much of the orchestration being badly out of tune.

Nonetheless the most likely scenario is that the change will produce no significant effect on outcomes. That is the history of education reform.

I wish my new president well but I don't have much hope that he is capable of improving education. He doesn't know how. And, as a result, he has no basis for selecting an education secretary that knows any better. Even an ideologically blind random selection is unlikely to produce better results because the field is replete with charlatans. Even if he were lucky enough to pick a winner, it is unlikely that that person could overcome the obstacles and vested interests in place that are anathema to improving academic performance.

We're going to get change. We always do. NCLB was change. But change doesn't guarantee improvement. Did you jump to that conclusion? I hope not. What you will get is something different, but that difference will likely not be an improvement.

There will be no shortage of wishful thinking and opinions of advisors. But since those opinions are almost certainly based on faulty science and informed by political correctness you should not necessarily expect beneficial results. Unless you're counting on luck. That's always a possibility. Even broken clocks are correct twice a day. Though, unfortunately, a clock that is five minutes slow is never correct.

That's what you're going to get -- an education secretary that is slow, broken, or both. Kind of like the current one.

So here's my prediction: the change you get in education will be different but not an improvement.

Let's hope that I am wrong. But don't count on it.