Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teaching the Wrong Lessons

Education Wonks has dug up another article that illustrates one of the problems we face in public education.

SOUTH BOARDMAN — A school custodian was fired "on the spot" and may face criminal assault charges after he became involved in a physical altercation with a 13-year-old male middle school student."We take the safety of our students very seriously and we will not condone or accept this type of behavior," said Forest Area Community Schools Superintendent Matt Cairy. "The physical altercation was very avoidable; this was not a case of self-defense."

The altercation took place Tuesday night as four middle school students allegedly harassed the custodian while he worked in the middle school during a basketball game in the adjoining high school gym, the Kalkaska County Sheriff's Department reported."The kids threw pop on a carpet and then they kept sneaking up and turning his vacuum off and apparently he just lost it," Kalkaska Undersheriff Bruce Gualtiere said. "He saw them hiding in the bushes and he went and got them. It looks like he punched and kicked (the student)."

The student received some scrapes, and his mother filed a complaint with the
sheriff's department.Sheriff's officials completed their investigation and will be requesting an arrest warrant for simple assault, a misdemeanor, from the prosecuting attorney's office.Cairy said the students involved were disciplined for their roles in the altercation."We have high expectations for our students, and any time there is inappropriate behavior toward faculty or staff there is discipline involved," he said. He declined to detail the discipline.

Neither the sheriff's department nor Cairy would release the names of those involved until the suspect is arraigned. Cairy said the custodian had worked for the school less than a year.

Ed Wonks says that we can't condone the response to the harassment by the custodian, and I agree. But I have worked in schools for 32 years, and I've learned a lot. I hate to think about how I might have reacted in a situation like this when I was a young teacher. Ed Wonk also suggests that the students should be suspended or expelled, and I agree again, but this points out a very real problem in public education.

If these students are suspended, it will probably be for about three days, and I'll bet that these kids will view it as a vacation. The only action that could be effective for students who would pull such a stunt would be the threat of outright expulsion. I don't think this incident, by itself, justifies expulsion, but combined with one or two other incidents, it might. But no matter what else these kids have done, that can't happen, because they have a right to an education. That, more than anything else, is damaging public education at the middle school and high school levels.

Before I go on, I should say that it's possible that this incident was not indicative of the normal behavior for these particular students. It's possible that they are usually models of good behavior, and this was just a fluke. But I doubt it. I'm guessing that this behavior was typical for these kids, because I've seen this type of thing so often before.

One of the problems with "the right to an education" is that kids like these learn to play the system so well. The worse kids behave in public schools, the more they learn the lesson that consequences aren't going to be very severe. Kids like these know that if the adult they are harassing over-reacts, he will be the one who will be in trouble. Twice, during my first two years at Warroad, I had students do something blatantly wrong, and then turn to me and say, "If you touch me, I'll sue you." It was no accident that this happened during my early years here, because I was new, and kids like these know that new teachers are the least likely to be backed by administration and the community. I doubt that it was any accident that the students involved in this incident picked a custodian who had been there for less than a year.

Although this incident did not take place in a classroom, the actions of students who do things like this usually reflect the same attitudes that they bring with them into their classrooms. Separate students like these from each other and it's possible that they won't act too badly, but put two or three of them together, and they can make it impossible for anyone to learn. The effect of truly disruptive kids on the overall behavior of a school and the learning that takes place is immeasurable.

I'm sure that many view me as a crotchety old man, and are appalled by my lack of concern for "troubled students." But look at what we are teaching these kids. We are teaching them that the consequences for bad behavior are relatively mild. We are teaching them that the system can be played like a violin, and believe me, they are learning how to play it. We are also teaching them how to play the role of victim. Are we serving them well by doing this?

I know there are teachers who are willing to be much more tolerant of disruptive students than I am because they honestly believe they can reach them, and I know there are programs to help troubled students. I have said this before, and I'll say it again: those teachers and those programs would have a greater chance of succeeding for a greater number of students if they faced a realistic possibility of getting kicked out for consistently bad behavior.

Behavior and learning in public middle schools and high schools would improve greatly if teachers were able to remove disruptive students and if principals could expel them without having to face thousands of dollars in lawyer and court costs. Although the feeling is by no means unanimous, I know that many teachers agree with me about this. But we have been much too quiet. When it comes to fighting for our rights in dealing with administrators, we have been fearless. But when it comes to this issue, which is crucial to providing a safe and positive learning environment for the students in our classrooms, we have been gutless.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Worst Is Over!

I have said many times that I love my teaching job, and I really do. But I hate, absolutely hate, the beginning of the school year. I always feel overwhelmed in September, and by the time I trudge home every afternoon, I'm totally exhausted.

Part of the problem is simply one of adjustment. I do work in the summers, but it's a very easy job--monitoring our weight room for five hours a day. My life is very unstructured, and it's pretty nice. I can have that second cup of coffee in the morning, I've got lots of time to do things that I want to do, and I can even go to the bathroom whenever I want. And after you turn 50, that's a biggy!

Then, September comes, and I go to a life of total structure, and it always takes me a while to get used to. Here is a typical day.

4:30 Wake-up, fire up the coffee, have a quick cup, check my blog, and see how the Twins did.
4:50-5:50 Jog, work-out, exercise
5:50-6:35 Shower, get dressed, breakfast (and read)
6:40 Out the door, walk to school.
6:50-8:00 In my classroom, get ready for my day, give make-up quizzes, tests, etc.
8:00 Out in the hallway.
8:19-9:08 A. P. American Government (seniors)
9:13-10:02 Economics (mostly seniors, a few juniors)
10:07:10:56 American History (sophomores)
11:01-11:23 Lunch in my room; correct papers
11:28-12-18 American History (sophomores)
12:23-1:12 Basic American History (sophomores who have had a difficult time in social studies)
1:17-2:06 Prep hour
2:11-3:00 American History (sophomores)
3:05-3:45 Work in room.
3:45 Walk home.
4:00-4:30 My half-hour snooze. If I don't get that, I'm worthless for the rest of the night.
4:30-6:00 Eat supper, clean up, watch Special Report With Brit Hume.
6:00 Back to school until about 7:30 (some days it's 7:00, some days it's 8:00)
7:40-9:00 Unload the dishwasher, visit with my wife, read.
9:00 Lights out.

Because our school has made cuts, and my load has been increased (my regular American History classes are the largest I've had in my career), I've had to spend most of my weekends up at the school, so far. I hope that will change as the year goes on and I get faster doing some of those things that I got rusty at over the summer.

No, I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm certainly not expecting any from KDeRosa, who is such a fan of teachers, or Rory, whose life is probably twice as structured as mine and who faces the realistic possibility of getting shot or blown up in his job. But this is a pretty full day, and it is tough to get used to every year. (It also makes it tough to keep up with the blogging world.) What makes it worse is that early in the year I don't know the kids. I hate that! Especially, those first few days when I don't even know the names, and I've got to have a seating chart in front of me whenever I call on anyone. "Hey, you!" just doesn't have a lot of charm. It also doesn't help that early in the year I have to do a lot of explaining about the way I do things (boring!), and since some kids have attention spans of about three seconds, I have to explain it over and over and over. As the year goes on, kids figure out what they need to do, our relationship develops, the chemistry of the class develops, and then it becomes fun. But that is totally lacking for those first few weeks, so everything seems like drudgery.

Another reason why the beginning of the year is so difficult for me is that, as sophomore class advisor, I am in charge of running our homecoming dance. If you knew me well, you would probably laugh hysterically at the thought of that, as many of my colleagues do. I was appointed to the position fifteen year ago, so I've been doing this ever since. Although everything has always gone smoothly, as they used to say in the late 60s and 70s, it just ain't my bag. Hiring disc jockeys, helping to organize decorations and clean-up, making sure the concessions are available, handling thousands of dollars, finding chaperones, having to act like a Nazi anytime some kid asks me to make exceptions to our rigid, but necessary, dance policies, fearing that there will be some disaster--ugh! Every year, when school begins, the responsibility of the homecoming dance looms in my mind like a dark cloud rapidly approaching from the horizon.

Well, the homecoming dance was last night. Other than one girl, who managed to capture everyone's attention with a strapless dress that refused to stay up on her chest, and some 15-year-old brat telling me to "chill out" when I told her she couldn't re-enter the building if she left, there were no disasters. In fact, the dance was actually quite successful. Today, I am done! Already the year is beginning to look a lot better. I know that the worst is over.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Teaching the Teachers: About as Fair and Balanced as Fox News

I've been interested in some posts lately that dealt with progressive vs. traditional education philosophies. California Livewire featured an article by Jeff Lantos, and then KDeRosa and Rory at Parentalcation had responses on their blogs. The debate over these two philosophies have been going on since long before I was born--and that's a long time!

For those who don't know, progressives in education promote things like cooperative learning (kids working on tasks in groups), teaching methods designed to work for varous learning styles, multiple intelligences, learning by doing projects, assessing students by observation and other ways that don't involve pencil and paper tests, and they emphasize the processes of learning, higher order thinking, and self-esteem. They favor throwing out the textbook and using other resources for students. In social studies, they are very big on having kids seek out primary sources. They encourage setting up a classroom with desks in groups or circles or anything other than straight rows. And finally, they favor multiculturalism.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, promote teaching methods that are, well, traditional. The teacher is in front of the class instructing the students. There is lecture, reading assignments, and pencil and paper tests. They believe that learning facts is crucial for students, and memorization is often necessary, because without those facts, higher order thinking is impossible. Direct Instruction, which KDeRosa so strongly promotes, would fall into the traditional mode, and so would cultural literacy (or core knowledge), which is advocated by E. D. Hirsch.

I have always been a traditionalist at heart, but I have tried to be open-minded about progressive ideas. That's a good thing, because otherwise I'd have probably gone crazy. Almost all of the classes I've taken and workshops I've attended since I became a teacher have been in the progressive mode. In fact, if a teacher isn't a true believer in the progressive philosophy, teacher education programs are designed to make him feel like an educational Neanderthal. I don't think that I have been well served by this, I don't think other teachers have been well served by this, and most important, I don't think our students have been well served by this.

Some time before I started pursuing a Masters degree, I had heard of E. D. Hirsch's book, Cultural Literacy. The little I knew about it I found interesting, and I assumed I would learn more about it when I started taking classes. But I never even heard his name, and I never even heard the term. I had classes like Conflict Resolution, Learning is Inquiry, Teaching in the Diverse Classroom, and Seminar on Reflective Practice. Some of my textbooks were Making Choices for Multicultural Education, How Schools Shortchange Girls, Beyond the Textbook, Handbook of Individual Differences, Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered, and Envisioning Process as Content: Toward a Renaissance Curriculum. These classes and books are representative of the classes I took, and I would guess that they are representative of Masters programs around the nation. My question is this: Why does every class and every text have to push progressive educational ideas? Wouldn't it be reasonable to include a couple of classes and textbooks that advocate traditional ideas and methods? Why won't colleges, which are supposed to be the epitome of open-mindedness and inquiry, allow teachers to see both sides, and let them choose the philosophy and methods that make the most sense to them?

I'm glad I got my Masters. I was fortunate because a number of the professors I had were public school teachers who were working toward Ph. Ds, and they were sympathetic when I argued against some of the things the textbooks were promoting. And even though I disagreed with the true believers, I was able to put things that I learned to use. I use cooperative learning in my classes once or twice a week, but I'm not about to use it exclusively and throw out all lecture and reading assignments. I think the theory of multiple intelligences make sense, so I try to incorporate that in exta credit projects I allow my students to do. But when I read in a textbook that a chemistry teacher can make her class come alive by having one student dress up like a potato who is worshiping another student who is dressed up like the sun, I could only roll my eyes and sigh. I am all for fair treatment of women and minorities in schools, but when I read that anorexia is the result of a plot by males to slow down the gains being made by women, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Maybe it's because I teach at the high school level, but I've found very few teachers who are true believers in the progressive philosophy. Those wonderful theories from the ivory towers just don't fit with our experience. Nevertheless, that is what we continue to have thrust upon us. Why can't we ever hear a little bit about core knowledge and cultural literacy? Why can't we ever hear about Direct Instruction? If the results for Direct Instruction in Project Follow Through were so impressive, why would colleges and the presenters who are responsible for teacher education never tell us about it? The only justification I can think of for this is if they know for a fact that progressive methods are superior, and traditional methods don't work. For some reason, I don't think that's the case.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Law That Is Long Overdue

California Live Wire has informed us about this soon-to-become law in the Golden State. Teachers, like me, who favor this law, are in the minority, but that minority might be a lot larger than a lot of people realize.

Imagine a company president being ordered by the board of directors to hire
any misfit who knocks on the door. It's a crazy scenario -- but it's
exactly the way many California school districts operate when an unsuccessful
teacher is quietly edged out of a school. As long as the teacher agrees to leave
voluntarily, union rules require the principal of any other school in the
district with an opening to hire that teacher.

The practice, common in large and mid-size urban districts, is so reviled
by principals that they've given it a derogatory name. "It's called the Dance of
the Lemons," said state Sen. Jack Scott, a Pasadena Democrat who wrote a bill to
ban the practice in low-scoring schools and to limit it in others...

The bill was approved 33-1 by the Senate in May and 59-12 by the Assembly
last month. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the
bill. If the governor signs it as expected, California will become the
first state in the nation to rein in the practice.

It is no surprise that opposition to this bill is led by the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, called the bill
"insulting to teachers," because it implies that every teacher who voluntarily
leaves a school is a poor one. Some teachers leave a school for reasons
unrelated to performance, such as a personality clash with a principal.

This concern is understandable. Nobody wants to see good teachers lose their jobs because of personality conflicts with principals, but it doesn't sound like that is the usual reason that "lemons" are leaving schools in these districts. This excuse shouldn't be used to protect teachers who do a poor job with kids and give the rest of us a bad name. A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a former teacher, who became the chairman of a school board of a district in the Twin Cities area. He told me, "As long as teachers have the tenure and seniority systems, the profession will never get the respect it deserves." I agree with him.

Disapproval from the teachers unions often can kill a bill. But their opposition
was counterbalanced this time by a constituency that proved just as persuasive:
advocates for poor and minority students, who most often attend the schools
where the lemons land. "Right now, poor kids and kids of color don't have their
fair share of the state's experienced, credentialed teachers," said Russlynn
Ali, executive director of the Oakland advocacy group Education Trust-West. "By
giving a principal in a high-poverty, high-minority school some power to recruit
those teachers, we can finally make headway on closing that teacher-quality

The special concern for poor and minority students makes sense, but the problem doesn't stop there. It seems to me that the issue of hiring and firing is much more important than merit pay, about which we hear so much discussion. After all, if you don't have a job, it's tough to get any merit pay. During my career in Minnesota, the great majority of teachers I've known have been competent and hard working. Nevertheless, I have seen too many good, and even great, young teachers lose their jobs when cuts had to be made simply because they didn't have enough seniority, and I've seen too many veteran teachers fail to be as good as they could be because they felt too secure.

Principals in all schools should be given the power to keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones. Many teachers might think this would give principals too much power, but that's why we need good principals. We may need some mechanism to prevent an unscrupulous principal from misusing this power, but I don't know how we can do worse than the system we're using now. I said this in the book that I wrote, and for people who think that public schools are loaded with mediocre and incompetent teachers who depend on the tenure and seniority systems to protect them, I want them to know that my biggest surprise after my book was published was how few teachers told me that they disagreed with that, and how many said that they agreed.

As Principal Patricia Gray of Balboa High in San Francisco said, "I believe in the teachers union, but some things protect ineffective employees. We've got to put children first."

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Response to Comments on My Rosy Rhetoric

There were a lot of comments on my last post, and I apologize for not responding to them earlier. But I've been very busy lately--it's the beginning of a new school year, so I think that any teachers can probably understand my tardiness. Also, I've learned that when you have people like KDeRosa lurking in the blogging woods, you'd better think before you write. I did want to respond to some of the comments that were made on my last post, and I wanted the original commentators to see that response, but I know how I am--when I make comments, I'll check for responses for a couple of days, and then I move on. I thought the best way to handle this was to make my response on a new post.

First of all to JettyBetty: Your comment was the most positive of the bunch, and I appreciate your appreciation. I really do mean that.

Next, to my great admirer, KDeRosa. You say that I should put a warning label on my posts: "Infested with strawmen." Quite frankly, I would have hoped that labeling the post, "Rosy Rhetoric" might have been enough for you. You are truly a harsh taskmaster!

On a more serious note, you closed your comment by saying that I am making way "too many excuses." I re-read the post, and I can't find the excuses that you're talking about. Saying that I think we're doing a much better job than you do, and giving examples in an attempt to support my point aren't excuses. They are arguments. I am very impressed with your knowledge of research and numbers and teaching methods. You are obviously an intelligent man and a very articulate opponent of public education as it is today. But I will say this again: your portrayal of public schools simply does not square with my thirty two years of experience. When I was taking classes to earn my Masters, and we would have some of those progressive teaching philosophies pushed on us that you disdain, I would would make it clear to my professors that those ideas did not square with my experience. I am making that same statement to you again here.

To both KDeRosa and Rory regarding the students coming out of our high schools that need to take remedial classes, I have this to say. In an earlier comment, I had said to KDeRosa that I was not aware of any of our high school's students who had to take remedial classes when they went to college. I was wrong. I talked to our math people, and they told me that we have had a number of kids who had to take remedial math classes when they went to college. The reason for this was that the kids quit taking math classes at our high school by their junior or senior years. That's partially their fault for their selection of classes, but it is also OUR FAULT for not requiring more math. We have now changed that so that kids can no longer graduate without at least three years of math. KDeRosa, I recognize that this is anecdotal evidence. I have no idea what percentage of the remediation in colleges is the result of this type of problem, but I would guess that we are not the only high school for whom this is the case.

To Steven, I want you to know that I completely disagree with you. But I also want you to know that I respect your honesty. Many supporters of public education complain that critics of public education and supporters of vouchers actually want to destroy public education entirely. You certainly are not guilty of pretending that you don't. You are saying exactly what you think. We all know where you stand, and I look forward to arguing with you in the future.

I do want to point out to you that most critics of public education take the opposite argument of the one that you are making. Prominent critics like E. D. Hirsch argue that we should have a national curriculum. Whatever is being taught in Los Angeles, California, is the same thing that should be taught at the same time in Boston, Massachusetts. They say that local control of schools is the problem. You are arguing that there should be no government control at all.

To Laura and Elementary History Teacher. Your two voices of reason and sanity in the blogosphere are like cool breezes on a hot sunny day. I wish I could be more like you.

And finally to TMAO. When I read your second comment, I literally felt sick to my stomach. I remember saying that someone was either "stupid or ignorant" in one of my comments on somebody's blog, but it was a while back, and I have no recollection what it was about. It is so easy to make statements like that when you have no idea who you are talking about. Obviously, I disagreed with something you said or did, but I wish I would have put it differently. Laura is right. Avoiding the harsh attacks and name-calling is a very good idea. I don't know if you'll accept it, but you have my apology.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Rosy Rhetoric From a Pro-Public Ed. Person

Our adversary is at it again. KDeRosa had this post over at D-ed Reckoning in which he relays an account of a teacher about where the seventh graders he will be working with are at educationally. Among other things, the teacher says this about his students:

1. 20% of my students earned a zero percent on my parts of speech diagnostic
(Ex: write the definition of a noun; which of the following is a verb, etc.)
100% failed.
2. 35% of students earned below ten percent on a writing
diagnostic assessing specific writing skills that, according to a Board of
Trustees presentation I recently attended, are being taught in classrooms across
the District. 100% earned a D or below.
3. The average independent reading
level is 2.5 -- that's second grade, fifth month, for those scoring at home.

I could go on, but it doesn't get any better.

KDeRosa responded by saying this:
"My understanding is that many of these kids have been in the public school
system since K. Let's see six years of elementary school--years when these
kids were easily controlled and could be motivated to learn if properly
taught.In 2006, there is absolutely no reason for kids to know so little after
seven years of schooling. All of you pro-public education people need to
reconcile this abysmal performance with your rosy rhetoric before I can take you

I would guess that one of those pro-public education people that KDeRosa was referring to was me, so here is a little rosy rhetoric.

First of all, although KDeRosa does provide a link to the post he's talking about, he doesn't point out in his own post that this teacher works with special education and ELL students. That being said, I have to admit that this all sounds pretty bad. It's possible that the people who have worked with these kids can defend what has happened, but I can't.

We all know that there are some bad public schools. KDeRosa insists that schools are bad because of their teaching methods, but I don't claim to know the reason. Maybe he's right. But then again, maybe it's because of the neighborhoods they're in, or maybe it's some other reason. Regardless of why, when a school really is bad, I cannot argue against doing whatever is necessary to give parents who want their kids to get a good education the means to do just that. If that means vouchers in those areas, so be it.

My disagreement with KDeRosa is about the state of public education overall. He thinks it's terrible. I think most public schools do a good job. He bases his assertion on test scores. I base mine on the people that we are producing. While I want to improve those test scores that he is so concerned about, our primary purpose is not to beat the scores of students foreign countries; it is to help students to grow up to become productive citizens. There are thousands of public schools around the nation that are doing that.

Although many people believe that the scores of American students have been dropping and continue to do so, even Jay P. Greene argues that that is a myth. They have held constant and even increased slightly since the late 1960s. During the last fifty years, we've heard over and over again that our education system is in crisis and that it is putting our nation in danger. After Sputnik was launched in 1957, experts made it clear that our education system was inferior to that of the Soviet Union's, and this would cause us to lose the space race and the Cold War. After all, their test scores were higher than ours. But we put a man on the moon twelve years later, the Soviets never made it, and by 1991, their empire had collapsed. Then in the early 1990s the experts made it clear that our education system was inferior to that of the Japanese, and that they were about to take over our country economically. After all, their test scores were higher than ours. But their economy collapsed, and our economy became the envy of the world for the rest of the decade. I think just about everyone would agree that our nation has consistently produced amazing entrepreneurs, and our work force is now viewed as the most productive in the world. All of this has happened over the last fifty years with a population made up largely of people who attended our public schools--schools that were supposedly constantly in crisis.

Minnesota has a better than average reputation when it comes to education, but within the state, my school--at least according to test scores (please pause while I genuflect)--is probably about average. We are a working class community, and a majority of our parents work in the plants at Marvin Windows in Warroad, or Polaris in Roseau. We are definitely not the picture of suburbia. Yet, year after year I see the kids who want to go to college graduating from our school and going to colleges and being successful there. I see the kids who want to go to vo-techs going to them and being successful. I have three sons who have graduated from college, and two of them definitely did not resemble rocket scientists while they were in high school. These were average kids from an average public school, just like many of their friends who have done just as well as they have. Two of my sons are now in technical fields, and they are making much more money than I am. KDeRosa has criticized me in the past for using anecdotes like these, but THIS IS MY EXPERIENCE. And I write about this because the picture he paints of public schools does not come anywhere near fitting with my experience in the two school districts I've taught in during the last thirty-two years.

I agree with KDeRosa that public schools must find ways to improve. I have made proposals for that purpose, and I even promoted one of his ideas in my last post. I also agree that there are horror stories involving public education--too many of them. But there are horror stories in every profession, and there are horror stories in every area of American life. KDeRosa has provided a dandy horror story in his post, and he presents this as the norm for public education. I firmly believe that my "anecdotes" are much better representations of the job that public schools have been doing and continue to do.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Direct Instruction: Is It the Key to Improving Education?

In the blogging world, KDeRosa is to public education as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to Israel. He has absolutely nothing good to say about public schools and he has no sympathy for those of us who work in them. He is definitely no fan of this post and me. After one post that I wrote defending public schools, he wrote that I would make a good "useful idiot" in a communist state. Ouch!

KDeRosa's tirades against public schools are based on his contention that we are using faulty teaching methods, and he makes constant references to something called "Project Follow Through." At first, I didn't know what he was talking about. Maybe some of you are as ignorant as I was about this, so I'll give a quick summary from a link that I was directed to by reading California Live Wire.

Project Follow Through was established under President Johnson to examine various teaching methods to see which were the most effective. According the sources I've seen, Direct Instruction was clearly shown to be a superior method, while other teaching methods seemed to be ineffective. However, a report that was issued on the project basically said that all the teaching methods were fine, and that there really wasn't any difference between them when it came to effectiveness. This happened--if I understand correctly--due to pressure by university types because Direct Instruction did not fit the "progressive" theories being taught by their education schools. As a result, we all went our merry way. Colleges of education continued to teach the same methods they had been teaching, and those of us in K-12 education went on without any knowledge that there was a teaching method out there that just might be able to help us to our jobs much more effectively.

I am reluctant to jump to conclusions based on a couple of articles I've read, because maybe there's another side to this story that I'm unaware of. If there is, I honestly hope someone will enlighten me. But on the face of it, it is an understatement to call this an outrage. I think of the last twenty years in Minnesota and what the people who make educational policy here have put us through. We were given workshop after workshop on outcome-based-education, which was supposed to be the "wave of the future" in education, and then all of a sudden that movement collapsed. Then we went through our Profiles of Learning phase, with its emphasis on projects. We were all supposed to change the way we did just about everything in our classes, and then that movement collapsed. I spent about three years taking classes to earn a Masters, and I heard lots about cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and all that other progressive stuff. During all of that I never even heard Direct Instruction mentioned. (Neither was the name, E. D. Hirsch, or the term, cultural literacy.) If the articles I've read on Project Follow Through are at all true, and Direct Instruction performed that much better than the other methods, how in the world could this have happened?

This doesn't mean that I think that I've changed my belief that most of us "in the trenches" are doing a good job. I think, overall, we've been doing the best we can with what we've been given. In fact, when you consider some of the idiotic policies that have been thrust upon us, one could argue that we've done an outstanding job.) As I've said before, the kids I've seen who have come to school with a desire to get an education have consistently been successful. But if there's a teaching method out there that can help us be more effective for more kids--possibly much more effective--why aren't policy-makers and education schools telling us about it?

Once again, for those who are as ignorant as I was about this, I'll provide a little more information about Direct Instruction from this source that I was also directed to by California Live Wire.

The following techniques apply, whether teaching kindergarten or a corporate training session:
-Teachers must make clear, specific and measurable decisions about what they really want their students to learn. They must decide how learning is gong to be tested.
-There can be no instruction without cooperation. The only behavior you present to a disorderly class is: Show you are ready: "Voices off, eyes on me.". Reward those who are silent and attentive.
-Break down what you want students to learn into its component parts and teach the parts to mastery.
-Provide the answer before you ask the question. "Here is the answer. Now I'm going to ask the question. On signal, tell me the answer."
-Practice active group response at all times. Do not allow coasting or skating on other students' responses.
-Repeat Repeat Repeat. Restate Restate Restate. Retell Retell Retell.
-Have students answer verbally on your signal, and then on paper.
-Ask for full responses on tests: avoiding multiple choice and fill in the blank.
-Use examples and non-examples.
-Insist on correct spelling, neatness and consistent formatting.
-If it's worth teaching, teach to mastery.
-Firm and repeat answers until all students can actively answer without hesitation.
-Catch students doing the right thing and reward immediately. Always maintain a minimum 3:1 ratio of positive reinforcement to correction and punishment.
-Move quickly (slowing down does not help).
-Signal for answers clearly and consistently.
-Provide a specific time for questions. Do not allow "helpful questions" to take everyone else off task.
-Emphasize study skills, such as assignment calendars and writing down all assignments.
-To get more, or less, of what you want, count, graph and report your findings.
-Test understanding by asking specific questions of students you identify. "What year did Columbus discover America, Jack?" Don't ask generalized questions such as, "Do you understand?" or "Does everyone understand?"

All: Teacher and students touch the answer to be learned.
Teacher: "The answer to this question is, 1492."
Teacher: "When I signal I want you to answer, 1492."
Teacher: "The answer is 1492."
Teacher: "What year did Columbus discover America?"
Teacher: "Get ready." Watch the students to make sure all participate.
Teacher: Signal by pointing or snapping fingers.
All: "1492."
Teacher: "That's right, Columbus discovered America in 1492."
Teacher: Reward. "Good job saying 1492." Make eye contact with individuals. Smile.
Teacher: Next answer, or repeat until everyone is participating and firm.

I do have some questions of my own about this technique. If anyone has answers to them, please fire away in the comment section.

For starters, even though proponents claim that Direct Instruction can be used even in corporate training sessions, I have trouble seeing myself following a script like this for a high school class. It seems like it would be most appropriate for the lowest grades.

Also, another set of guidelines that I read said that Direct Instruction calls for kids to be tracked. Yet, everything I've read about tracking says that kids at the lowest track end up falling farther and farther behind.

Finally, that same set of guidelines said that disruptive behavior is not tolerated in Direct Instruction. In public schools, where kids have a right to an education, I think this would be easier said than done.

KDeRosa argues that Direct Instruction would increase test scores by thirty percent and SAT scores by 200 points. I am skeptical about that. Although he would view this statement as a cop-out, I don't think he fully appreciates the factors involved in education that teachers can't control--the influences of family, neighborhood, and friends, and the motivation of the student. Nevertheless, his lambasting of public schools has led me to learn about something that I didn't know much about before. Although I don't think any teaching method will make as big a difference as he believes, I'll take any improvement we can get. I think a lot of us should be taking a very good look at Direct Instruction.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Crackpots Are Still Hard At It

One of my first posts was Crackpots Against Public Education which responded to an article by Dr. Bruce Shortt, who is a leader of a group called "Exodus Mandate" that encourages parents to pull their kids out of public schools. Well, they are still at it. Yesterday, USA Today ran an article about that organization and the movement they are pushing.

Public schools take a lot of criticism, but a growing, loosely organized
movement is now moving from harsh words to action — with parents taking their
own children out of public schools and exhorting other families to do the
same. Led mainly by evangelical Christians, the movement depicts public
education as hostile to religious faith and claims to be behind a surge in the
number of students being schooled at home.

"The courts say no creationism, no prayer in public schools," said Roger
Moran, a Winfield, Mo., businessman and member of the Southern Baptist
Convention executive committee. "Humanism and evolution can be taught, but
everything I believe is disallowed."
The father of nine homeschooled children, Moran co-sponsored a resolution at the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in June that urged the denomination to endorse a public school pullout. It failed, as did a similar proposal before the conservative Presbyterian Church in America for members to shift their children into homeschooling or private Christian schools. Still, the movement is very much alive, led by such groups as Exodus Mandate and the Alliance for Separation of School and State.

Another leader of this movement, Rev. James D. Kennedy had this to say:
"The infusion of an atheistic, amoral, evolutionary, socialistic,
one-world, anti-American system of education in our public schools has indeed
become such that if it had been done by an enemy, it would be considered an act
of war."

Kennedy and his followers believe that God is not allowed in public school, and I find no anti-public education position more offensive than that one. I dealt with that in an earlier post, so I won't beat that dead horse again here.

The USA article indicated that the views of this group are a tad extreme, but they didn't make it clear just how extreme they really are. In Dr. Bruce Shortt's article, he says that public education is actually part of a plot to indoctrinate children to communism. If that's what we've been trying to do, then people like KDeRosa are right--we really are doing a poor job.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Great News for Public Schools

Two weeks ago there was some very good news for public schools as the results of the 38th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward Public Schools were released. Here are ten conclusions of the poll:

Conclusion I. The public's strong preference is to seek improvement through the existing public schools. Policies shaped with this fact in mind are most likely to gain public approval.

Conclusion II. Public ratings of the local schools are near the top of their 38-year range.

Conclusion III. The closer people get to the schools in the community, the higher the grades they give them.

Conclusion IV. Policies at the state and federal levels that build on the assumption that local schools have a high approval rating are likely to gain public support.

Conclusion V. Gaining public support for school improvement will be more likely if proposals are based on the schools in the community and not on the nation's schools.

Conclusion VI. There has been no decline in public support for public schools. Approval ratings remain high and remarkably stable.

Conclusion VII. Support for vouchers is declining and stands in the mid-30% range.

Conclusion VIII. Those who would implement the charter school concept should ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the nature of such schools.

Conclusion IX. There is near-consensus support for the belief that the problems the public schools face result from societal issues and not from the quality of schooling.

Conclusion X. The public is aware of the link between adequate funding and effective schooling and understands that current funding levels are a challenge for schools.

To me, the results of this poll were very encouraging, but to be honest, I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn't have been. I think our school is fairly typical, and most people in our community seem to think we do a good job. Oh, we have our share of malcontents, and a lot of people have complaints about individual policies or teachers, but all in all, most people are supportive of what we do. People who want their kids to be able to go to college almost always get their wish, and the same is true for those who simply want their kids to be able to enter the working world with a high school diploma. If people in the community get upset about something our schools are doing, we almost always try to respond to that. I think it's fair to say that the people of Warroad have got something pretty close to the schools they want, and I would guess the same is true in communities across the nation.

So why was I surprised by the results of this poll? Never in my lifetime can I recall an effort by so many people and groups to belittle public schools and undercut what we are trying to do.
Book after book gets published blasting public education and blogs are started that do the same thing; the television networks run programs with titles like "Stupid America: How We Are Cheating Our Kids;" groups like the Exodus Mandate publicly set a goal of getting one million parents to take their kids out of public schools; and last, but not least, we have a national educational reform program which features "failing schools" and is titled No Child Left Behind. In other words, when kids don't perform, it's because those uncaring people in the schools are just leaving them behind.

Thankfully, many people aren't buying the crap that has been thrown at them over the past several years by public school haters. And I have to admit that this is not the first time that the public has shown that it is a lot smarter than I've given them credit for.