July 6, 2009

What I learned this year

Another school year down. One child completed kindergarten. One child completed third grade. A ptotracted negotiation with my school district over my third grader's GIEP. A hundred blog posts in the hopper. Innumerable education articles read. So what, if anything, did I learn this school year educationwise?

The concept of reading "comprehension" should be abandoned.

There do not seem to be any good instruments for testing reading comprehension that are valid, reliable, and objective and that actually measure how well the student is able to comprehend text.

There is insufficient content instruction in the late elementary grades. Many students are fluent decoders at this level. Too much time is wasted on learning reading strategies and reading simple fiction books instead of learning content knowledge which we know many low-SES students lack and is somewhat easy to teach.

There's a lot of fat in math curriculum from fourth grade until algebra begins (typically in eighth grade). Half the year is typically devoted to review.

Despite all this math review, many students fail to learn elementary math as demonstrated by standardized tests which by and large test nothing but elementary math.

Since when did being able to write a short essay about how you solved a math problem become the end game of elementary math. This seems to be testing the student's reading ability twice rather than the student's math ability. See Reading Comprehension, Not Knowing How to Teach above.

History, geography, science, and civics instruction continue to get short shrift.

Many schools practice education socialism in kindergarten by not formally teaching reading at least to the at-risk students in favor of not teaching anyone in the hope that the at-risk will mature and to slow down the capable.

Students are grouped instructionally for teacher convenience rather than student need. The at-risk and special education students are spread out so no teacher is over-burdened. Same deal with the more capable students.

Instructionally differentiation is largely a waste of time. The more capable students are given make-work and other sundry time-wasters too compensate for an instructional pace that is too slow for them. The less capable students get a watered down version of the curriculum. Is it any wonder why they never catch up?

School Districts don't always follow the regulations when the regulations conflict with how they want to run their school.

Education policy makers aren't too concerned with the nitty-gritty details (see above) that really determine the effectiveness of schools. There's a good argument that they are incapable of knowing the details needed to effectively regulate, so its more important for the incentives to be aligned at the school level so educators will run their schools most effectively themselves. Currently, those incentives are far from aligned.


Mindy said...

I agree. So what do we do? I'm trying to figure out how to get people to see this and to make REAL change happen in schools.

What's the best route? Any thoughts? Who to talk to? Where does it start?

Anonymous said...

It might have been nice for you to include links to your posts that relate to each lesson learned.

I think you are off base on our ability to measure reading comprehension. What post explains how you reached that conclusion?

KDeRosa said...

Mindy, that's one thing I haven't learned yet.

Anon, most of this post isn't found in last year's posts, but hopefully will be fodder for future posts.

Unknown said...

Welcome Back!

There is a mindset that as long as they use rhetoric that the curriculum is "balanced" and uses "research based instruction" that's enough. The fact that both are demonstrably false is irrelevant and insulting to their professionalism.

I think parents have to know the actual research better than educators and "afterschool" as much as possible.

With stonewalling by school and district administrators so common there may well be an increasing market for lawyers and consultants who have in fact pulled together what the law, IES practice guides, peer reviewed research, panel reports, and other literature actually say.

Kathy said...

Parents like you are the only ones who have the power to change the system. Teachers and admins don't see what you see. I taught for 32 years, not all in elementary school, but I agree 100% with everything you learned. You are right on target. I do reading tutoring as a retired teacher and have to watch my students spend most of their day drowning in the stupidity of the balanced literacy reading strategies and boring "reading" worksheets.

I failed to change to anything during my teaching days and still fail to make changes as a retired teacher. Maybe you can. Your kids are still young and so are you. Good luck and welcome back.


Libby Maxim said...

welcome to the real world of public education, brace yourself Ken or you wont make it through middle school, wait till you see that wasteland, agree about math, not rigorous enough, test prep till the kids pee themselves and review till the brightest go batty

if you have boys, wait till you see the stuff bored kids will do in middle and high school

my kids are grown and out of college, it is a long road Ken

homeschooling will start to look better all the time

Lover of Wisdom said...


I know of one really fantastic test for reading comprehension that we use in philosophy: reconstructing the argument. Someone could make a valid standardized exam that tests how well one can reconstruct the argument in a short passage.

Ralph Rhineau said...


I'm a 10+ year math & physical sciences teacher in California who's went into teaching after an Air Force career which included a tour teaching @ the USAF Academy.

Having successfully gotten my three children through college, I've experienced the classroom from both sides of the lectern.

The most significant education *I* received from my *children's* education came when my ex-wife and I were advocating for enrichment for our brilliant daughter (no exaggeration... by the time she left public HS, she spoke two languages, completed a host of AP courses, was the editor of the HS newspaper, and represented the US at an international chemistry competition). While the district was more than willing to provide her with accelerated math which included having her attend the local HS for her geometry while she was in Jr HS (because they had such a program in place) when we asked for enrichment on the language/literary side, the Jr HS counselor looked us straight in the eye and said, "Mr & Mrs Rhineau, you need to understand that public-education is *mass*-education... we don't have anything available for your daughter and that's just how things are going to be."

Having not become a public school teacher yet, I/we were pissed: my ex and I continued monitoring what the teachers were up to and providing enrichment from the home.

When I became a HS math/chem/physics teacher, I came to fully understand/appreciate what the counselor had told me and I appreciated just how directly he'd communicated the realities of the "Uhmurikin" education system.

A more student-centric way to state the same reality is that my daughter was *special*, just as every other student in her class was *special*, and there's only so much teacher to go around a single classroom.

While my daughter was brilliant and would've benefited from additional attention from her teacher, every other of the 34 students in the class, while not necessarily "brilliant", would none the less have benefited from the same sort of additional attention we desired for our daughter. Only problem was, the only source for this additional attention was a decent, typically gifted teacher who was working to get the whole gaggle of 35 students educated in whatever subject the teacher was teaching.

I agree, it is a crime that gifted students are throttled down by giving them "extra" projects (aka busy-work), and weaker students don't truly get what they need... but as long as we insist on expecting a single teacher to work with ~35 students per class (or ~165 students/day), what do we expect?

(end part 1 of 2)

Ralph Rhineau said...

(continued from part 1 of 2)

As a teacher, I've really tried to jump through the hoops the district's have set in front of me, especially with respect to Differentiated Instruction (DI) because I was a new teacher who was being told that DI was the latest thinking in how to serve *all* my students, and because I have a habit of trying to do what my employer reasonably asks of me.

In all my time as a teacher, I have yet to have one of these DI consultants/"experts" point to "Mr/Ms X's" class as an example of where DI really works, even though I asked repeatedly.

DI makes logical sense, as long as one doesn't look too close at its execution. Yes, do create different modes of communication/ ways of visualizing the material... *all* of the students benefit from the effort. However, at the end of the day, you still end up with a diverse group of students who will range in abilities...

And there's a dirty little secret about DI in the classroom... while the "rising tide" of DI will help the weaker students do better than they would have, guess what, it also helps the abler student also do even better too, which just goes to reënforce the divergence of the abilities of the students.

Don't get me wrong, I believe most of the folks who advocate DI are sincerely motivated, though I think a lot of them aren't real honest about how they can truly meet the needs of all their students.

I think the administrators who champion it are less sincere in their motivations... having a DI program allows them to fend off irate parents (from either end of ability) by being able to tell the parents how *all* the students are being "valued/honored* by having instruction tailored to their student's unique gifts/needs. Who could argue against *that*?

The bottom line is we want Champagne Teaching on Beer Budgets. Unless we're willing to significantly reduce class sizes down to 15 - 20:1, we're going to continue to neglect the needs of both ends of the spectrum (and yes, there *is* research that shows the beneficial effect of smaller class size on effectiveness). My hunch is that while the upper and middle classes might desire better schooling for *their* child, their unwilling to pay the higher taxes necessary for all children to have better education, and that in lieu of paying higher taxes for everyone, the middle and upper classes will pay for tutors/programs to make up for the deficiencies of the current system vis-à-vis all students.

«Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.»
– Alphonse Karr

Ralph T. W. Rhineau
Credentialed Teacher

Brian Rude said...

About reading comprehension, I can understand that it is very hard to accurately measure, probably impossible, but that does not mean it is not useful as a concept. Could we find a way to precisely measure democracy, deferred gratification, team player, or a zillion other concepts we deal with everyday? Is there any great advantage in doing so?

Many concepts are valuable if we are simply aware of them. And I think we very much ought to be aware of reading comprehension, or its lack. My favorite example along this line occurred many years ago when helping a fifth grader. She read aloud a sentence about the Revolutionary War. I don't remember the exact words of course, but it was something like, "Washington's army fought well, but victory was not possible and he had to yield." A little questioning gave me very good reason to believe that this particular student had little or no meaning for the words, "victory", "yield" and some other key word that I forgot. She could decode pretty well, but her comprehension was just about zero.

Thinking about this led me to believe that the key idea we should be concerned with in this example is what I would call "mental habits". I believe in her previous schooling she had fallen in the habit of simply not paying attention to meanings of words. If she could decode and pronounce the reasonably fluently, I suppose her teachers were happy, at least to some extent.

In this example reading comprehension is very important, but it is not important that we precisely quantify it. If I am right that she had fallen into a bad mental habit of ignoring meaning, then it is very important that the teacher recognize that. Only then would a teacher be in a position to ameliorate that bad habit. And again, it is the awareness of the concept that is important, not that it be quantified.

Brian Rude said...

Your comments about elementary math brings up another thought. I teach college freshman math, and in the last year or so have become aware that in our lower level algebra course there is practically nothing that is new to the students. They've had every concept, and lots of the details, in high school, if not before. Thinking about this has led me to the concept of what I call the "stagnant spiral syndrome". The spiral here is the idea that we often return to a topic a number of times, but "cut" deeper into the topic on each return.

Some spiraling makes sense in a lot of subjects. I remember in elementary school I was irritated that every year in English we would learn nouns and verbs and adjectives, but we didn't progress. I did not use the term, stagnant spiral, then, but it applies. A review of grammar certainly makes some sense in each grade, but it seemed to me that we did not progress. Such a situation can take a toll on motivation. It can be destructive. It makes students feel they are just doing busy work. It doesn't feel productive. Is this happening in middle school math?

How do we get out of a stagnant spiral? I don't know. But my eighth grade English teacher apparently knew. Before the end of the eighth grade I realized that this year we learned a lot more than nouns and verbs and adjectives. We learned gerunds, participles, infinitives, split and otherwise, clauses of several varieties, and we diagrammed sentences, and a lot more that I've long forgotten. I suppose we spiraled, meaning we started with a review of the simple stuff, but somehow we managed to cut deep on that loop of the spiral. It was not busywork this year. It felt productive. It felt good. Grammar was interesting that year (though I would probably not admit it at the time.)

There is a logic to a stagnant spiral. The teacher says we have to cover the basics again this year because the students apparently don't know them. But maybe the students don't know the basics because the expectation has set in that it doesn't matter. We'll have to do all the same thing again next year.

Is this what is happening in elementary math? I don't know, but I think we ought to consider it.

Dick Schutz said...

If and when others look at the "black box" of el-hi instruction, they'll draw the same conclusions you've drawn, Ken.

The thing is,some kids learn academic rudiments without formal instruction. Others learn despite mis-instruction. Instructionally insensitive standardized achievement tests credit these instructional accomplishments. The remaining "failures" are attributed to the kids, their parents, or "society."

The interests and individuals responsible for the condition of the enterprise are the "unaccountables" above teachers who evade responsibility by agreeing "the teacher is the most important variable."

The methodology for implementing transparent instructional accountabilty is simple, but the unaccountables resist change.

KDeRosa said...

Good to see the old gang is still in the house.

Former NYC Math Teacher said...

Since when did being able to write a short essay about how you solved a math problem become the end game of elementary math.

This is what is taught in the ed schools. If only the kiddies could just write about and explain what they did, then they would understand THE CONCEPT. I taught a anumber of kids who were very poor readers (thus relegating them to cruddy classes) but who were excellent math students. That they may have had trouble writing about what they did was immaterial to me (though I had to prepare them some for the NYS math test, which requires some writing).

Jo Anne C said...

"homeschooling will start to look better all the time"

I have to agree with Libby.

After 5 years of banging my head against the brick wall of public and private school administration, and not getting what we wanted, we decided to call it quits.

We home schooled this year with K-12's online curriculum. We were very pleased to have a curriculum which focused on Core Knowledge content.

The program is written to appeal to both traditionalist and constructivist. There is an overabundance of material, so as the instructor, I decided which assignments to complete and which to ignore.

My son says that he liked this school program because he "didn't have to wait for anybody else."

We had been paying $10,000 per year for private school(grades 1-4), so I was a bit shocked to learn he had been so unchallenged.

One extraordinary benefit of K-12 is a feedback button where they collect input from all the parents using their system, and use this to improve their product.

Wow! A school that actually listens to parents.

K-12 will beta test a new release of the online system this year, so I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Jo Anne C said...

"This is what is taught in the ed schools. If only the kiddies could just write about and explain what they did, then they would understand THE CONCEPT."

Former NYC Math Teacher is right.

I know a very young and bright math major that dropped out of ed school once she encountered ed classes which required her to create language arts lessons for her math classes.

When I tried to attach an education term to this type of instruction she corrected me and said, "No, it's called B.S."

So now she's working in the private sector instead of teaching high school math.

Catherine Johnson said...

The less capable students get a watered down version of the curriculum.

details, please!

(I agree - but I can't argue the point.)

Anonymous said...

I think that class size is less of an issue in homogeneous classes. Heterogeneous grouping, especially with lots of mainstreaming, means that most of the class is "working independently/in groups" most of the time; a recipe for disruption if I've ever heard one. The bottom segment of the class is totally lost and the top segment is totally bored. I can't see how that approach meets anyone's needs, except the need of the administration to embrace "diversity" and pretend that "all" are learning/proficient.

Anonymous said...

If the standards for adequate, proficient, advanced etc. have any real significance, then the curriculum will have to be adjusted downwards in both pace and depth for those who are below average and upwards in both pace and depth for those who are above average. Doing anything else means writing off both ends of the spectrum.