Monday, January 21, 2008

Gates wrecking ball

Propelled by Gates millions, Chicago's high schools are being transformed to conform to progressive/constructivist visions to save the disadvantaged. The transformation is a fantasy that will not save the disadvantaged. It will make them even more disadvantaged. The visions being implemented on a wholesale basis rest on misdiagnoses of the reasons for academic failings. The seeds for failure are planted in elementary and middle schools. What is needed is quality education and rigor in the grades preceding high school.

With respect to science education, Catherine Johnson of KTM observed: "I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math." I am reproducing my response here:

The situation in science is indeed dismal. Here in Chicago, constructivist ways in science called inquiry (FOSS, STC, IES, SALI, IEY) are largely the norm up to eighth grade, especially in failing schools (most of them). The educationist motto seems to be: If poison makes them sick, give them more poison.

You can also tell something is fishy when acronyms proliferate (alphabet soup proliferation). For example, science for 8th grade is IEY which stands for Issues, Evidence and You.

The HUGE SCANDAL in my view is that most high schools here in Chicago are being converted to constructivism (inquiry). It's a Gates idea called high school transformation. Gates dangled millions in front of the mayor and board who immediately jumped. A Gates agent was made executive director of the transformation project. That means academic textbooks go in the garbage and community projects are the new forms of learning science.

This scandal is taking place unnoticed by the local media. It raises the question whether one wealthy individual should be allowed to implement his fantasy and wreck high schools which after all are public entities. Resistance from school administrators and teachers is ignored. The transformation is imposed from above by fiat.

Schools can select from two or three virtually identical inquiry programs the way the politburo used to put up two or three apparatchiks as the only choice in an election. Even that pseudo choice is constrained in some cases. Now I hear that the board abolished earth science as a graduation requirement to accomodate the Gates fantasy. Two of the three pseudo choices don't even have earth science.

I wrote a comment I posted on the district299 blog that deals with Chicago ed issues. I reproduce it here (note what is in store for high school math):

The whole high-school transformation project looks like a stealth operation, really a coup. There is no HST website, no transparency. The HST office is unable to provide information on newly targeted high schools. The only (spotty) information is through the grapevine.

The project pretends to be democratic, but it is a sham. Schools can volunteer the way the Chinese Communists can produce "volunteers" en masse. It's also unclear what the total number of targeted HS is. A CPS document I have talks about three waves of 14, 15 and 20 schools respectively, making it a total of 49 HS. Other sources put the number higher.

Then there is the question of effectiveness. Will the new nostrums really improve academic achievement? Alexander Russo asks the perfect question: "Are things any better at the schools that started doing HST a couple of years ago?" There should already be evidence showing whether the nostrums are working. Why is that evidence or lack of evidence not discussed? It would have been prudent to run pilots before embarking on wholesale, highly questionable transformation. I can only conclude it wasn't done because it would interfere with putting this fantasy in place. Hence the pseudo-democratic stealth operation.

Targeted schools get to choose one of two or three IDSs. IDS stands for Instructional Development System and incorporates six "change levers" (note the nebulous, new-age lingo). IDSs are the heart of the nostrum and are described as the pillars of the core instructional strategy. The actual IDSs are simply progressive/constructivist, mainly NSF-supported, tracts that are trying to do to HS what's been done to elementary and middle schools with disastrous results.

The IDS choices in math are Agile Mind and Cognitive Tutor. In science there are three pseudo-choices: Inquiry to Build Content, Content to Build Inquiry and Meaningful Science through Inquiry. These are vastly stripped of content but they say they make up for this lack of content by motivating students to go deep. The motivation is said to come from touching the lives of students.

Content can take a back seat since according to the "Foundational principles for IDS instruction" the goal is inquiry and engaged learning. Here the "principle" says: "Focus is on problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking. Students seek their own knowledge, formulate arguments. Activities should maximize connection to student lives." How much critical thinking can go on without much to think about is anybody's guess.

My view is that the HST project is another instance of barking up the wrong tree. A lot of the disadvantaged coming from the elementary and middle grades are disastrously ill-prepared for HS. As a middle grades teacher I see these horrific deficiencies all the time. Those concerned with the success of the disadvantaged need to focus on what comes before high school.


Andrew Ordover said...

As with most things, a balanced approach can draw upon the best of both worlds and minimize some of the negatives. There is a lot to be said for building a classroom around inquiry--if only to engage and motivate students. But the idea that nothing needs to be taught is, of course, absurd. Some of the IDSs in Chicago have tried to use a "Guided Inquiry" model, to frame instruction around essential questions and tie instruction to interesting work of immediate concern to students...while still teaching important skills and concepts as part of a rigorous and planned curriculum.

Barry Garelick said...

If by "balanced approach" you mean guided inquiry that relies upon appropriate scaffolding, employing Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development then we are talking about what used to be the model for education in schools in the 40's and 50's. It has fallen out of fashion with the tendency being to provide less guidance and scaffolding. "Balanced approach" now usually means the teacher spends perhaps one day going over some practice skills and the next day back to an inquiry-based lesson with hands-on activity. It is justified by saying that teachers are constantly assessing their students learning, giving hints and prompts as they visit the inevitable "small groups" into which the teacher has divided the class. This method is pointed to as successful because kids are supposedly engaged (i.e., they didn't burn the building down or throw chairs at the teacher) and exposed to key ideas. Exposure and mastery are two different things, however. This difference continues to elude the zealots and followers of inquiry-based programs. No matter how many papers are written by respected cognitive scientists on the subject, showing that such technique is not effective, the zealots point to such papers in the same way as the die-hard red-baiters of the 50's used to claim that anything bad was a Communist plot.

Unknown said...

I guess I got out just in time. I really couldn't deal with classrooms full of idiots. A handful at a time is about all I can do.