Monday, November 27, 2006

Scores and class size

The Chicago Sun-Times reports the astonishing news that some of the highest-scoring Chicago public schools also have the largest class sizes:

Small, medium or large. What class size would you choose for your child? Today, in the second of two parts -- what may seem counterintuitive: Some of the best test scores are being racked up by Chicago schools with some of the largest primary class sizes.

If you're looking for a high-scoring Chicago public school, be prepared to accept larger class sizes in the early grades, just when some experts say smaller classes count the most.

The 25 highest-scoring schools in CPS average roughly seven more kids in their primary classrooms than the 25 highest-scoring suburban schools, or about 27 kids vs. 20, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of state public school data indicates.

That's seven more kids in a CPS room just as children are learning everything from how to read to how to sit quietly at a desk and do classwork. Compared with the statewide primary average, it's roughly six more kids.

At top Chicago public schools, K-3 classrooms with at least 30 students aren't unusual. Meanwhile, many kids in top suburban schools enjoy the intimacy -- and efficiency -- of 16, 18 or 19 kids in a class.

Rising scores in some Chicago neighborhood schools -- among the system's most affluent -- have brought a rising tide of students, jamming classes to the point where some parents want relief. Even some of the city's most popular magnet schools have 30-plus classes, often because of the extra teacher bigger classes bring.

At first glance, the results at Edgebrook School, on the Far Northwest Side, seem to stand common sense on its head.

In 2004-2005, Edgebrook's sole first-grade room held a whopping 40 students. That year, the school posted the highest test score among the city's neighborhood schools, yet it had the largest primary class sizes in the six-county area. At least two of its tested grades that year -- third and eighth -- held 30 or more students.
At first glance this would seem to give ammunition to those who contend that class size doesn't matter. However, it would be a mistake to generalize from the cases reported above. The crucial element that allows large class sizes is the quality of the student body. Edgebrook School is a case in point. The school is located in an affluent area and peopled by students enjoying a high socio-economic status. This success could not be replicated in large classrooms filled with the disadvanted, many of whom suffer from behavior disorders. Such students need more intensive teacher attention.

Via Joanne Jacobs.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Reading instruction breakthrough

The Chicago Tribune has a report on innovative reading instruction methods. I expect reading scores to be boosted significantly as a result.

In Leah Coffey's kindergarten class, learning to read means breaking a sweat and getting your hands dirty.

One morning last week, Coffey put in a CD with infectious drumbeats and pupils repeated the names of different instruments. "T-T-T-Tambourine," they sang as they danced and smacked invisible tambourines.

Later, Coffey and four pupils dipped their hands into a can of clay. First, they molded the letter T. They then flattened the clay into discs.

"T-T-T-Tambourine," they said and tapped the clay tambourines against their hands.

Westcott Elementary School, 409 W. 80th St. on the South Side, has joined 17 other Chicago public schools in implementing a curriculum from Reading in Motion, a Chicago agency that uses music, drama and dance to teach reading.

Coffey is sold on the concept. "I think that every lesson should be put to music," she said.

Reading in Motion is one of several organizations supported by Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Tribune Foundation fund.
The way I learned to read way back then was so incidental that I can't even remember how it was done.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Glue guns shoot down real studying

Time-consuming and often pointless projects are not only devouring students' time but also rob parents of whatever free time they have. Acquiring substantive subject matter knowledge must inevitably take a back seat.

Ken DeRosa has found a mother's plea that calls for an end to this educationist extravaganza:

It can wreck marriages and destroy family life, and it's more burdensome than travel soccer, football practice, or the Boy Scouts: It's the school project.

Ask a bunch of mothers how they spent their week, and they will tell you that they built the Parthenon with sugar cubes, the Pyramids from milk cartons, and Mount Olympus using Cocoa Puffs.

Consider a recent Sunday evening at my house. The kids had gone to bed, and Mom and Dad were relaxing in the living room. But suddenly, a voice cried out from upstairs.

"Mom, I forgot I need to bring a hot glue gun to school tomorrow for a project. We are making African masks in social studies. And, oh yeah, Mom, I also need pipe cleaners, a box of sugar cubes, and some wooden spoons - you know, the kind they use with those little ice cream cups."

Half-dressed, I hopped into my minivan and searched for a hardware store open late on a Sunday. Thank goodness for the 24-hour Walgreens, where aisles are filled with construction paper, glue sticks, and pipe cleaners - but, alas, no hot glue guns.

Please, oh please, dear curriculum developers, give us parents a break: Ban all make-work projects. Parents have jobs, too, you know. We do our children's homework. We serve on school boards, coach basketball, and volunteer with the Boy Scouts. Now you want us to be creative?!
The project method was widely acclaimed by progressive educationists upon its publication by William H. Kilpatrick in 1918. It has become a mainstay in education thanks to a convergence of educationist fads, tenets and theories. Illinoisloop has one of the best explanations of this mania that I have ever seen:

• Constructivism:
The pervasive education religion of "constructivism" holds that a child learns best through active "doing". To some extent, this is of course true. However, the Achilles heel of constructivism is that this is a painfully plodding and tedious way of learning, while forcing a drastic reduction (dumbing down) of the content of a course. While an active project may often be a good technique for making a difficult concept clear, it is often used when a simple direct method would be just as effective and far more efficient.

• Groups:
The pressure for "collaborative learning" or "cooperative learning" is frequently met with more projects and activities.

• Interdisciplinary curriculum:
Teachers are under pressure to find "thematic" or "interdisciplinary" links between subjects. There is nothing inherently wrong with that -- the Core Knowledge Sequence used in the Core Knowledge schools is carefully constructed to encourage learning in this way. But without a rigorous, well-reasoned curriculum like the CK Sequence, the result too often is time-wasting art or writing projects linking vague language arts goals with minimal content points.

• Multiple Intelligences:
The fevered success of another fad, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (click for much more info on that), pressures teachers into coming up with separate projects for each of this theory's supposed categories. So, we have one project to appeal to "kinesthetic" children, another project for the "intrapersonal" learners, we sing a song for the "musical" learners, and so on. Of course, since the MI mindset offers no method to identify or quantify these supposed differences, the bottom line is lots and lots of projects for all the children in the class.

• Anti-Fact Mentality:
Starting in ed school and throughout their careers in most schools, teachers are subjected to a barrage of rhetoric about the dangers of teaching facts. They are told not to teach "mere facts" to be "regurgitated." Learning of specific content knowledge is called "low level" and nothing more than "memorization." What used to be called "learning" is now disparaged as "brain-stuffing". A teacher is to be "a guide on the side" rather than "a sage on the stage." This drumbeat from the ed schools and education orthodoxy is pervasive and relentless, and teachers are drilled incessantly (ironic, isn't it?) that direct teaching is to be avoided. So, if the teacher isn't teaching, what are the kids likely to be doing? Yup, more projects.

• Anti-Fact Assessments:
If facts are bad, then testing whether children know facts is even worse -- or so teachers are told. Thus, chapter tests and other quantitative measures of learning are deemphasized in favor of so-called "authentic" assessment, in which we look at a whole "portfolio" of a child's "work" which largely consists of (ta da!) projects.

• "Authentic" Skills:
If the purpose of a school is not to build knowledge, then what is a school for? The progressivists have a ready answer for that: to learn supposed "skills." They argue that since knowledge is always increasing, it is hopeless to try to teach very much at all (using a twisted logic that defies comprehension). What kids need, they say, is to learn how to look things up. Well, guess what? Projects give them an "opportunity" to look things up instead of being taught.

• Innovation:
School administrators suppose themselves to be seen as "creative" or "innovative." We often read of a school calling itself "innovative" or a teacher said to be "creative" ort "imaginative." Those are fine attributes, but not when they take the place of words like "effective" or "knowledgeable." One teacher might be extraordinarily effective and captivating in teaching children a rich, detailed and memorable introduction to American history, while another teacher gains more recognition from parents and maybe the local newspaper not by teaching much of anything but by staging a marathon dress-up pageant, puppet show or enormous craft project.

• Finding a Use for Computers:
Projects provide a convenient raison d'etre for the expensive computers that schools have been buying in bulk.

• Smaller Class Sizes:
For all of the above reasons, the teaching industry is obsessive about urging more dubious classroom projects. But when class sizes are large, it's extremely difficult to manage the hubbub of activity and to try to keep a semblance or order. But as class sizes shrink, it becomes ever more practical for a teacher to assign more and more projects.

On that same page, Illinoisloop has many links to important articles dealing with this project mania.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Memorization need not be rote

One of the most puzzling elements of the progressive/constructivist ed creed is its hostility to knowledge. One would assume that the acquisition of knowledge should be a major component of the educational enterprise. How can one explain such a hostility to knowledge by people who purport to be "educators"?

Part of the answer can be found in these observations by Claudia Winkler in a piece called The Difference Between Thinking and Knowing. It's a confusion that equates committing knowledge to memory with rote memorization. Since mindless memorization is bad, and apparently educationists preclude the possibility of thoughtful memorization, nothing should be committed to memory. The result, in Winkler's felicitous phrase, is that ignorance is dressed up as superior thoughtfulness:

But not all memorization is learning by rote. To commit something to memory isn't necessarily to learn it "without understanding or thought." As anyone knows who's tried it, retaining facts is much easier when you see how they fit into a larger picture that makes sense.

Yet in a subtle bit of linguistic sleight of hand, the pejorative term "rote memorization" is commonly used as synonymous with memorization tout court. It's almost always contrasted with comprehension and critical thinking--as if knowing things and thinking about things were mutually exclusive.

Thus, to cite an altogether commonplace example, an article praising a new schoolbook on local history, in the Queens edition of Newsday, notes, "Activities in the booklet draw on an array of skills, stressing thinking and analysis over rote memorization of facts."

One can't help wondering what it is the children are to analyze--what exactly they are to think about--if their starting point is not to be a command of the specifics recounted in the book.

This conflation of mindless, blab-school, learning-by-rote with the necessary, if sometimes painful, committing of information to memory has a sordid effect: to dress up ignorance as superior thoughtfulness. Implicitly, it disparages the intake of knowledge--once the very essence of classroom learning--as an activity fit only for drones.
Memory is a precious gift. The educationist war against memory seems utterly perverse.

Hat tip: Illinoisloop

Great comment added by Quincy:

Winkler is right, but I wish she had pressed further along her line of thought. What needs to be broken is the concept that for the recall of information to be thoughtful, it must be effortful. When constructivist educators look at kids who have cold mastery of their math facts, they assume the quick, easy response must be some sort of Pavlovian conditioning, not "genuine" learning. In fact, it is learning of the most important kind--that which, through its thoroughness, frees up the mind to think about more advanced things.

I attribute this flaw in constructivist thinking to their continual focus on external process. If the kids LOOK like they're being thoughtful, then they're being thoughtful. More often than not, though, the kids look thoughtful because they're trying hard to understand something they weren't sufficiently taught.

In maintaining this illusion of thoughtfulness, the constructivists are actually denying kids the wonderfully frenetic rush that comes when ideas that have been percolating through the layers of accumulated knowledge come to the surface. In doing so, they deny the fact that each of us, because of our own life experiences, our own personalities, our own desires, will spin the same piece of information different ways in this process.

In sticking to the idea that memorization is bad, the constructivists are denying their students the chance to create, the chance to innovate, and the chance to contribute their thoughts to the wealth of human knowledge. Remember, these are the same people who crow oh so often about diversity. Yet they, with their backwards mentality towards learning, are destroying the most important type of diversity for the human race to achieve--diversity of thought. Whether this is intentional or simple carelessness I do not know, but it is damning for them none the less.

This WSJ item on the blessings and curse of memory caught my eye:


A Nobel-winning neurologist's favorite books on memory.

BY ERIC KANDEL Saturday, April 7, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

1. "Ficciones" by Jorge Luis Borges (Grove, 1962).
Memory is the scaffold that holds our mental life together. One of its most remarkable characteristics is that it has no restraints on time and place. Memory allows you to sit in your living room while your mind wanders back to childhood, recalling a special event that pleased or pained you. This time-travel ability, often sparked by a sensory experience that opens the floodgates of memory, is central to much great fiction. It is described in the most detail in Marcel Proust's million-word classic, "Remembrance of Things Past," in which a madeleine dipped in tea famously prompts an onrush of images from the protagonist's childhood. But one of the most fascinating descriptions of memory in fiction can be found in Jorge Luis Borges's seminal short-story collection, "Ficciones," first published in 1945 in Spanish. Borges, who knew for much of his life that he was slowly going blind from a hereditary disease, had a deep sense of the central and sometimes paradoxical role of memory in human existence. This sense informs much of "Ficciones" but particularly the story "Funes, the Memorious," which concerns a man who suffers a modest head injury after falling off a horse and, as a result, cannot forget anything he has ever experienced, waking or dreaming. But his brain is filled only with detail, crowding out universal principles. He can't create because his head is filled with garbage! We know that an excessively weak memory is a handicap, but, as Borges shows, having too good a memory can be a handicap as well--the capacity to forget is a blessing.

Did it, or didn't it?

The media keeps reporting that NCTM saw the light and now wants real math to be taught, and NCTM keeps denying it. The latest instance is this NYT report:

Across the nation, the reconsideration of what should be taught and how has been accelerated by a report in September by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation’s leading group of math teachers.

It was a report from this same group in 1989 that influenced a generation of teachers to let children explore their own solutions to problems, write and draw pictures about math, and use tools like the calculator at the same time they learn algorithms.

But this fall, the group changed course, recommending a tighter focus on basic math skills and an end to “mile wide, inch deep” state standards that force schools to teach dozens of math topics in each grade. In fourth grade, for example, the report recommends that the curriculum should center on the “quick recall” of multiplication and division, the area of two-dimensional shapes and an understanding of decimals.
Maybe if told for the umpteenth time that it did, NCTM will come to believe that it did.

For those interested in a lot of conceptual math there is a series of teacher training videos funded by the Annenberg project. (Simple registration required). You won't get computational fluency and procedural knowledge out of them but they can certainly stretch your mind. Nevertheless, these conceptual exercises ultimately meant for pupils shouldn't displace computational fluency and procedural knowledge. They also can make simple procedures extraordinarily complicated. This is the impression I got when watching Video 8. Rational Numbers and Proportional Reasoning in which operations with fractions are modeled with Cuisenaire rods. It left me confused. If I were a child, I would conclude that operations with fractions are enormously complicated and intimidating. I would develop a phobia toward fractions and wait for the spiral to come around in a year or two.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

MI circus

Recently, I had occasion to watch Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory in action. The theory took the form of a questionnaire to be given to students. Instruction is to be geared to the "intelligences" of each student as uncovered by the questionnaire. The questions were culled from a book called So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences.

According to the latest count there are eight intelligences, though more are rumored to come. I was most curious about the bodily-kinesthetic and naturalist "intelligences". What questions would be asked to determine if a student fits these categories? Now I know the asnwer. A student has a naturalist intelligence if he gives a high rating to the following questions (a sample only):

I like being outside whenever possible. [Who woldn't prefer the outdoors to a stuffy classroom?]

I am good at forecasting changes in natural phenomena (e.g. rain and the coming of seasons). [Gee, I can predict the seasons. Less so snow and rain]

I like hiking and camping. [Don't most kids?]

I feel comfortable and confident outdoors. [So do I, but not when grizzly bears or rattlesnakes are around]

Here are a few bodily-kinesthetic questions:

I often talk with my hands. [In some countries like Italy and Argentina it's part of the culture]

If I can't move around, I get bored. [Who wants to sit around all day?]

I need to manipulate things with my hands to know how they work. [Who doesn't?]

Now I am waiting for the results to come in and for the instructional implications that will flow from them. Classes might have to be held in the wild. Wouldn't that be something.

As Gardner ponders new intelligences, it might serve the learning enterprise much better to adopt the intelligences discovered by Will Fitzhugh and posted at Right on the Left Coast:

In keeping with that view, I offer the following suggestions of Alternative Multiple Intelligences whose development should be most likely to contribute to the education of the majority of our students. Perhaps the most important is Paying Attention Intelligence. Without paying attention, it is truly astounding how much instruction even the average student is capable of ignoring on any given day, and as the word suggests, ignoring is the primrose path to Ignorance. Memorization Intelligence is seen as old fashioned, except when it applies to the names of music groups, sports or movie stars, and clothing or soft drink brands. Nevertheless, if students don’t remember anything, that is pretty close to the same thing as their not knowing anything. If a student is asked for the dates of the United States Civil War or the name of the first female Secretary of Labor, and she says, “I don’t remember,” that is the functional equivalent, for all practical purposes, of admitting, “I don’t know.”

Of course there is a storm of debate among professional educators, or rather between professional educators and the rest of the country, over the importance of knowledge as such, with the educators coming down on the side of correct sentiment fueled by general ignorance and propaganda, but let us put that aside for the moment. If one can accept, at least provisionally, that some knowledge may be useful for some purpose as an outcome of education, then Recognition Intelligence and Recall Intelligence, so useful on tests of knowledge, become central as well. When it comes to writing, I would argue, in the face of the united opposition from the National Council of Teachers of American English, that Punctuation Intelligence and Spelling Intelligence are also essential.

Another often neglected but vital talent for students is Hard Work Intelligence or Diligence Intelligence. We have so often in recent decades taught students that creativity is far more important than work, and that if they are not the smartest student in the class they should give up trying to do their academic work and fall back on their innate creativity and capacity for having fun instead...

There are many other neglected Intelligences not supported by Professor Gardner, such as Courtesy Intelligence, Time Management Intelligence, Turning in Homework Intelligence, Papers in on Time Intelligence, Seeking Extra Help Intelligence, Taking Personal Responsibility Intelligence, Asking Questions Intelligence, etc. In these cases, at least, it seems Tradition still Knows Best...
Daniel T. Willingham critically analyses MI claims here:

What would you think if your child came home from school and reported that the language-arts lesson of the day included using twigs and leaves to spell words? The typical parent might react with curiosity tinged with suspicion: Is working with twigs and leaves supposed to help my child learn to spell? Yes, according to Thomas Armstrong, author of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, especially if your child is high in “naturalist” intelligence—one of eight distinct intelligences that Harvard University scholar Howard Gardner claims to have identified. However, if your child possesses a high degree of what Gardner terms “bodily-kinesthetic” intelligence, Armstrong suggests associating movement with spelling. For example, a teacher might try to connect sitting with consonants and standing with vowels.
It's astonishing how semantic legerdemain can whip educationists into a frenzy. Hardly anyone would have noticed if Gardner had described preferences, abilities, aptitudes and talents instead of labeling these characteristics "intelligences". Much nonsense would have been avoided.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Nasal intelligence

Nasal learners fight for their rights.

COLUMBUS, OH--Backed by olfactory-education experts, parents of nasal learners are demanding that U.S. public schools provide odor-based curricula for their academically struggling children.

"Despite the proliferation of countless scholastic tests intended to identify children with special needs, the challenges facing nasal learners continue to be ignored," said Delia Weber, president of Parents Of Nasal Learners, at the group's annual conference. "Every day, I witness firsthand my son Austin's struggle to succeed in a school environment that recognizes the needs of visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic learners but not him."

Weber said she was at her "wit's end" trying to understand why her son was floundering in school when, in May 1997, another parent referred her to the Nasal Learning Research Institute in Columbus. Tested for odor-based information-acquisition aptitude, Austin scored in the 99th percentile.

A nasal learner struggles with an odorless textbook.

[From The Onion]

Monday, November 06, 2006

More "tutoring"

More fun and games masquerading as "tutoring":

Do you like working with kids? Do you want to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged students in Chicago?

Come be a tutor for Brain Hurricane! We will train you this week, and you will start tutoring next week!

Brain Hurricane uses fun, hands-on activities to teach reading and math skills. We provide free hands-on tutoring to poor students in failing schools. Our mission is to make learning fun, and extend these opportunities to students who do not normally receive them.

Our tutoring program uses fun and engaging hands-on learning activities. Students enjoy working with their hands, interacting with teammates, and learning important math and reading skills in a way that is very different from the normal school day.
I am afraid the best way to improve reading skills is to acquire decoding skills and to actually read, and then to read some more. If a tutor is there to guide and correct, so much the better. The same goes for practicing math.

Rearranging deck chairs

Will it make a difference?

Merit pay experiment

Chicago's schools will start experimenting with merit pay thanks to a generous federal grant:

That's just what the school system plans to do with a $27.5 million federal grant, which will make Chicago the largest district in the country to experiment with merit pay for teachers. Under the plan, 40 struggling schools with high teacher turnover would hire "master teachers" who would receive an extra $15,000 annually and "mentor teachers" who would make an extra $7,000. They would train staff and help evaluate teachers for bonuses of up to $9,000 a year.
While I am not opposed to the idea of merit pay in principle, I think it is tinkering around the edges when it comes to schools with a high concentration of the disadvantaged. The academic underperformance at these schools is so severe that even "master teachers" (whatever that is) are unlikely to make much of a dent. At such schools the whole-class approach does not work. Students lack a minimal academic background, have dismal study habits and the highly behaviorally disordered form a critical mass that effectively shuts down instruction. What is needed is a type of Marshall Plan of small-group instruction that allows a more intense academic involvement under more manageable conditions.