Friday, February 23, 2007

Dos and Don'ts according to Ed. Gurus

In a comment on my last post, KDerosa sent me this article about the educational "reforms" that have been forced upon those of us "in the trenches" over the last few decades. I thought the article was excellent, because it fit so well with my experience. I have always believed that much of what I have been fed through colleges and workshops about how I should be teaching has defied common sense. But we are always told that these ideas come from the best and the brightest and that they are research based, so how could that be? This article explains.

There was one statement in the article, however, that I thought needed to be addressed. It criticized teachers for our desire to be able to do our own thing. Here is what it said:

Some of the tactics teachers use to avoid reliance on a dysfunctional professional support system also undermine the development of a scientific professional-knowledge base about teaching. For example, an over-emphasis on individual teacher autonomy and creativity can undermine the development of a shared knowledge base. As Adam Urbanski said: "Everyone seems to think that all you need to do to be a good teacher is to love to teach. But no one thinks that all you need to do to be a good surgeon is to love to cut." Having teachers pick and choose instructional procedures according to personal preference, without any scientific information regarding the effectiveness of these procedures, is not likely to lead to significant improvements in the effectiveness of public education.

As I responded to KD, I think a lot of that desire for autonomy is a result of the "reforms" that have been thrown at us. I didn't have to be a teacher for very long in order to figure out that those "child-centered" strategies couldn't work very well. Give me a choice between winging it (trying things on a trial and error basis, going with things that work and throwing out things that don't) and going full scale with some strategy that defies common sense, and I will wing it every time. When you consider the "reform" alternatives that have been given to teachers, of course we're going to want our autonomy.

Here are some things that I've "learned" in workshops and graduate classes that I've taken during the last several years. I did not make any of these things up, and I am not exaggerating:

1. You must fully incorporate the theory of multiple intelligences into your classes. (Allow students to show their understanding of American History by making up a dance, singing a song, or doing an art project.)
2. A chemistry class can be brought to life by having one student dress up as a potato and pretend to worship another student dressed up as the sun.
3. Cooperative learning is always good.
4. Competitive learning is always bad. (You should not have your students study for a test and take it by themselves, then grade them according to who did well and who did poorly.)
5. Students should sit in circles or clusters.
6. Students should not sit in straight rows.
7. Pencil and paper tests are bad.
8. Objective tests (multiple choice, true-false) are especially bad.
9. When teaching American History, there must be as little focus as possible put on white males (who most of us have heard of), and put most of the focus on women and minorities (especially on those who no one has ever heard of).
10. Minorities and women must be taught that they have been oppressed, and they continue to be oppressed.
11. All caucasians are racist.
12. It is impossible for a minority to be racist.
13. Anorexia among women has been caused by a plot by white males to hold back the gains that women are making.
14. All history assignments should be made by using primary sources.
15. Never lecture.
16. Never make reading assignments from a textbook.
17. Deadlines are evil.
18. If a student is not ready to take a test on the day a test is scheduled to be given, that student should be able to take the test at a later date (when he or she is ready), and still be able to earn an A.
19. The disciplines should be eliminated. (There should not be English classes, math classes, history classes, etc.. Everything should be interdisciplinary.)
20. Focusing on content in a subject is bad (learning things that have happened in history, the different parts of a sentence, and some of those silly math concepts).
21. Focusing on the processes of thinking, whether or not there is any substance to that thinking, is good.

Let me make it clear that I do think there are aspects of the reforms, of which these goofy ideas are a part, that do make sense. I do believe in the theory of multiple intelligences, so I do allow my students to do art projects involving American History for extra credit. I do believe cooperative learning can be used to supplement the other things I do. I do believe that I should not rely solely on multiple choice tests to evaluate what my kids have learned. I do believe that the contributions of women and minorities in our history should be included in American History classes much more than they were when I was in school. And I do believe that having an awareness of thinking processes is a good thing.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that if I had gone lock, stock and barrel, into the things I have been told to do in workshops and in graduate classes, my students would have learned a lot less. In fact, I think my American History class would have been a joke. Like teachers around the nation, I have been forced to try to find things from those classes and workshops that might be useful, incorporate them into my own program, and throw out the garbage. In the wonderful movie, Schindler's List, there is a seen that shows a Jewish family, that is about to be taken away by the Nazis, putting jewels into bits of bread and then eating them. Later they will try to separate the jewels from feces. That is what teachers across America have been forced to do during my entire career.

Every teacher I know wants to be successful. I mean who wants to regularly go up in front of 25-30 people, even young children, and look like an idiot? Show me something that will help me do a better job, and I will grab it, and I don't know any teacher who doesn't feel the same way. The bottom line is this: colleges of education and those who put on teaching workshops have been doing a lousy job. Maybe, instead of focusing on "failing schools" and "failing teachers", Congress ought to take a look at them.


Blogger TurbineGuy said...

When I started researching education and entered the edublogging realm, I was a blank slate.
I believed in many of the standard talking points. Preschool will fix everything, all we need is more money, etc...

My thoughts and opinions evolved (and still do) as I learned more.
I am now pretty much in the "drastic reform" camp, but I don't think I have ever been a bit proponent of H.S. level reforms. I do like the idea of smaller schools, or at least schools within a school, since I think having stable relationships with teachers is a pretty good thing for students. I think there should be a bit more ability grouping, though with honors, college prep, and regular classes there is some. Having said that, I think that High Schools do a pretty decent job of teaching those who come to them on skill level. Basically for the top 50% to 95% of students, our High School program works relatively well.

It's the lower 50% that really needs educational reform, but by HS they have pretty much already been broken.

In the military we see all sorts of fads as well.

We had Total Quality Management for a while, now the latest fad is ATSO 21 (Six Sigma)... all adaptations of the latest business models out there. Like you, we as workers roll our eyes, try and take the best of the theories and await the next reform.

So I understand the resistance to school reform advocates.

I think a major problem for reform advocates has been an inability to separate the education system into component parts.

Different levels of education need different amounts and type of reform.
Perhaps it is the union mentality of teachers, where HS teachers react negatively to reform targeted at the elementary school level.

I still think there is something to the idea of enlisting HS teachers as allies in the push for K-5 reform.

Certain principles of "di" are going to be universal (the military uses a lot of elements of it teaching recruits), but its probably most critical at the early basic skills level to rely on scripted programs.

I think there probably is a critical mass point where scripted programs can give way to more flexibility in teaching freedom after kids have learned to read and compute at a certain level. It is probably at this point that kids really have been taught how to learn (such a cliche).
Certain concepts of "di" though are certainly worth incorporating into all levels of education. Things like breaking concepts down into components, ensuring mastery, reinforcement of concepts over a period of time, and ability grouping.

Secondary school teachers differ from elementary school teachers. They are usually (or should) have degrees in the content area they teach, more like college professors than elementary school teachers.

I suspect that utilizing DI and scripted programs, a school full of Junior College graduates could outperform our current elementary school programs.

2/23/2007 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

I don't always agree with Rory, but I do here. If we could "fix" k-5 education, we'd be way ahead of the game.

I'm cautiously optimistic. The "Response to Intervention" (RtI)approach mandated by IDEA is a hopeful sign.

The wide-scale success of the Lindamood Bell reading program in Colorado is another sign.

(aside: I'd describe LMB as a "di" approach)

Discouraging signs: example, Richard Allington's sleazy response to Louisa Cook Moats' Whole Language High Jinks

The continued lousy teacher preparation in the area of reading.

2/24/2007 9:44 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Allington might be one of education's greatest monsters. His main trick is to tout research comparing some whole language program to one of the bad phonics based programs out there. Both probgrams perform miserably. So, Allington disingenuously concludes that whole language works as well as all phonics programs. As if.

For a goof take down on the theory of multiple intelligences see Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom

2/24/2007 11:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've been to more than my share of teaching seminars and symposia and brownbag lunches, and listened to all sorts of similar nonsense. But the difference between the university and the primary and secondary schools is that at the university, there is no administrative pressure to adopt any of these. So while there are nutty faculty doing nutty things in class (like the "we're being balloons" incident, which I may blog about one of these days), most of us are relatively unconcerned about the latest ed fads.

2/24/2007 11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you and I had sat in on some of the same seminars... just so you know the inanity is not confined to below the 49th...

2/24/2007 4:02 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

To Liz: I've seen a lot on various blogs that the big need is to improve K-5 education. Since I'm a high school teacher, I'd like to think that's true, but I've read in a number of places that on international tests, American kids do fine through the fourth grade, and then it gets really bad after that. If someone has info to contradict that, please let me know.

To RightWingProf, despite the pressure that we sometimes feel, I think that K-12 teachers with common sense also try to stick with things that have worked for them rather than jumping into the latest fads. But you are right (no pun intended). There is pressure to go along with the latest reform, so sometimes you have to do something to at least make it look like you're going along with it.

KDerosa, although it has often felt like you are a thorn in my side, you amaze me. Where do you come up with all this stuff? I'd swear that you must have a staff working for you.

And to Ian H, I am not surprised. I have learned to have great faith in the "inanity" spreaders ability to get around.

2/25/2007 3:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

"despite the pressure that we sometimes feel, I think that K-12 teachers with common sense also try to stick with things that have worked for them rather than jumping into the latest fads"

Certainly. My point was that we get no pressure to adopt fads. Autonomy is something universities take very seriously -- perhaps too seriously in some instances.

2/25/2007 7:25 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, 4th grade testing is problematic. Kids have barely learned how to read by 4th grade and are just starting to get out of controlled readers. Being able to do math and reading at this level apparently does not necessarily translate into success in the eighth grade. I'd venture to guess that only a superficial knowledge is required at the 4th grade to answer the 4th grade questions and that those skills are never taught to mastery so performance soon begins to drop once higher level skills requiring mastery of these skills starts to be tested.

2/25/2007 10:27 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, I'm pretty sure you're familiar with E. D. Hirsch's argument, but I'll repeat it here anyway. He believes that we focus too much on de-coding at the youngest levels, and not enough on content. He argues that as kids move past fourth grade, the curriculum and reading tests are based more and more on content, and as a result our kids fall farther and farther behind. If you don't have enough background knowledge about what you're reading, your comprehension is going to be poor. I think Hirsch is onto something, but I don't think that's the major problem.

Now, I'll repeat what I said over at Rory's site, and I don't expect you to agree with it. I think the drop after fourth grade is caused more than anything by our toleration of kids who won't try and won't behave. I say that because it's at the middle school and high school years when peers begin to have an increasing effect on each other. I doubt very much that teachers in other nations are forced to tolerate what American teachers are, because I don't think any other nation has or treats the concepts of "right to an education" and "due process" like we do. And I think we are paying a very high price for them while receiving few if any benefits. As I've said before, I think our courts' interpretation of "right to an education" has effectively destroyed that right for a frightening number of kids in our country who really wanted one.

I will add that I think you have a point when you say that kids who haven't mastered the basic early are going to be the ones who cause many of the problems. And from what I've read and heard about DI, it sound like using that or other programs like that could really help. But I really do believe that that is only part of the problem.

Hey, by the way, since I've got a theory, that should be able to qualify as Level I Research, shouldn't it?

2/25/2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams here.

My particular area of interest is in reading disabilities.

Kids with reading disabilities who also have intellectual abilities 1+ standard deviation above the mean, often can memorize a sufficient number of words to perform well in k-4 testing, while having substandard (to non-existent) decoding skills.

It's when the vocabulary starts mounting in 4-8th grade that they tank.

Why? They can't decode. A simplistic example: They have memorized the shape of "biology" but can't make the jump to "biological".

The residual effects of whole-language ideology in the k-3 classrooms means that their teachers were oblivious to these children's reading difficulties.

2/25/2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

As Liz points out, decoding remains a major problem and there really is no excuse for it since we know how to teach decoding such that almost all students can learn decoding skills in a timely manner.

Teaching vocabulary and background knowledge does remain problematic for low performers and those coming from low language households (often one in the same). It is difficult to accelerate the learning of background knowledge, so when low performers enter school far behind, it is almost a certainty that they will never be able to fully catch up.

Engelmann shoots quite a few holes in Hirsch's theory about teaching vocabulary in this article.

I'll concede that even with best efforts we will lose some students to apathy oe whatever. But, today's levels are unconscionably high. Let me give you one data point. They tracked the DI follow through kids through high school:
A total of 65.8% of the Group 1 Follow Through students graduated on time in contrast to 44.8% of the comparison group (a statistically significant difference - p .001).

That's four years of DI then back to the normal crap for five more years. Even with this, the graduation rate goes up 20 percentile points.

The DI people say that student enagment is not an issue for them in elementary school. Only a few percent will present behavioral problems. Yes, that number will go up in middle school and high school, but I'm willing to bet that the number is far less than you're imagining. Teach thme well and most will stay engaged.

2/25/2007 9:00 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I'd point out in regards to 4th grade education, if you compare the US to Asian countries, consider that most of them have objectively much more difficult writing systems. The Chinese have to learn 5000 characters, the Japanese have to learn 3 (2 of 56 characters each, and about 2000 daily use characters borrowed from the Chinese) alphabets and several different readings for different characters.

2/26/2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Here's an example from chapter six of Engelmann's new book, discussing the chicago school system:

The most inhumane requirement the district installed was that all instruction on a particular grade would use only “grade-level” programs. If children were in the third grade, they were to be taught exclusively with grade level material and only with this material. The paradox was that third-grade incoming students were never tested to determine which grade level was appropriate or whether they could perform on grade level material. Rather, the procedure was simply to dump them in the third grade and then to systematically punish them. The chances of these students being able to perform in a “grade level textbook” approximated zero.

The Chicago board, which installed grade-level instruction, apparently didn’t know that if children are performing far below grade level, immersing them in third grade material won’t increase their skills. It will simply present them with an uninterrupted series of tasks they can’t handle. This practice provides children with evidence that they are failures, induces low self-images, and greatly increases the likelihood that they will reject the institution that issues this punishment.

I do not understand why teachers never consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching.

Ms. Teacher has a good post up about her sixth grade REACH lessons. Reading through it I could easily see that most of what she's teaching is normally taught in the K or 1st grade DI reading program. My son in first grade is actually about at least half a year past the level Ms. Teacher is doing with her remedial kids. Quite frankly I think it's a miracle that any of those kids are engaged at school at all considering the amount of failure they've experienced. It seems that many of her students are having success today and I see no reason why they couldn't have learned this material five years ago.

2/26/2007 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

kderosa, good points. I think some of these policies are implemented at the school board level, and individual teachers have little or no say over them in their own classroom. The board holds the purse strings, and if teachers want to buy resources for their classroom, they have to follow board-approved guidelines.

As a teacher of a second language, I have often found that what school boards and curriculum developers consider grade-appropriate reading is disconnected from the reality of what students are capable of. I find with many of my French students that the "approved" manuals are written at a level that native French speakers would understand at the equivalent grade, but second-language learners often have difficulty with the language used to express complex concepts.

2/26/2007 11:51 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Ian, I didn't mean to suggest that teachers had the power to make such decisions. They typically don't. But, what I do hear from teachers frequently is the "student's choice" meme when I think the evidence shows that often the student's do not in fact have a choice when instruction fails them.

2/26/2007 12:58 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Regarding KDeRosa's comment on the Chicago school system:

First of all, no doubt about it, it sounds bad. And it might very well be as bad as it sounds, but I'm going to avoid making any comments about it for two reasons: I'm not an elementary school teacher, and I just don't know enough about the specifics of what they are doing. I always feel like an idiot when I blast somebody and find out that I really didn't know what I was talking about. (Not that that always stops me.)

I have to take issue with this statement by KD, however: "I do not understand why teachers never consider the possibility that maybe the problems they see in their low performing students could actually be caused by their own teaching."

I honestly don't know if I can think of any teachers who don't consider that. Heck, it's just human nature to do that. You teach something, some kids don't respond, and one of your first thoughts is, "What am I doing wrong?" I will say this, any teacher who doesn't take that into consideration and try to make adjustments should get out of the business.

I might not be the most talented teacher in the world, but you'd have to look pretty far to find anyone who's worked harder than I have to make it possible for every kid in his classes to be successful. If I wasn't as secure as I am in that area, I wouldn't pop off about the lack of effort of low-performing kids nearly as often as I do.

I understand that kids who have lacked success get turned off and become less likely to try even when it is possible to succeed. But even taking that into consideration, I have seen way too much lack of effort from kids who know they can do it, but just decide not to. And I doubt that I'm alone in that.

2/26/2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...


I was one of those kids...

I would get so bored listening to the lectures in classes that I would sit there and read my text book. I would usually finish it cover to cover within the first two or three weeks of school.

Truthfully, I doubt there was anything that could of been done to engage me. All I wanted to do was take the tests, prove I knew it and move on to the next subject.

Math was the exception.

2/26/2007 4:50 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, you read the textbook and it sounds like you passed. That being the case, you were definitely NOT one of the kids I'm writing about.

2/27/2007 2:43 AM  
Blogger M said...

While the high school teachers talk about fixing the problems created in primary school (honestly, how patronising) - the universities are similarly talking about how high school ultimately fails teens for university study and then Managing Directors complain that university in no way shape or form prepares adults for real work and real life.

I mean comeon. I'm all for education reform but let's get a little serious here - what we need is societal reform. If you look at the top countries in terms of education systems that actually WORK then you'll see that their way of life is completely different to say how Americans live - not only that the way they regard their educators is different too. They're not playing the blame game in the same way..

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