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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review of Rosetta Stone

There are any number of online reviews of the popular language learning program, Rosetta Stone. Reviews are mixed. Some reviewers love the product, other loathe it. At around $500, nearly everyone complains about its high cost.

Most reviewers evaluate software as consumers, and their input is valuable. However, they generally have no linguistic training or foreign language teaching experience to inform their reviews. I would like to contribute to rectifying the lack of professional review.

Using the demo available on the Rosetta website, I evaluated the software in several second languages that I speak with varying fluency from barely familiar to highly proficient. I also tried a couple languages from scratch.

Learning through Immersion

Most reviewers really want to learn to speak a foreign language and hope that Rosetta Stone lives up to its implied promise, that you can learn a foreign language though immersion just as easily as a child learns his native language.

The company literature exploits a common popular misunderstanding of the process of second language acquisition. Babies did not learn their native language “easily.” They typically spend a whole year or more collecting linguistic data and testing hypotheses before they even venture to try single words. Eventually, they progress to two-word utterances. It takes five years to attain the child-level fluency. Most adults want to progress a whole lot faster.

The consumer should be very happy the company has no intention of recreating a “fully immersive environment” comparable to that experienced by the totally naive child. Instead, the software begins as it should, given the premise, with single nouns. Furthermore, a linguistic adult (age 10+) brings a ton of previous understandings about language and its construction. The linguistic adult knows how language works.

Elimination of Translation and Grammar Rules

In fact, many of the negative reviews hinge on the fact that Rosetta Stone purposely avoids exploiting the learner's present knowledge. The advantage adults learners possess is the ability to cut to the chase. Babies and toddlers have to encounter a bazillion instances of “add -ed to make past tense” before they can work out both the rule and the exceptions. Adults do not have the patience for a bazillion examples while they flounder.

Another major problem, once the learner proceeds beyond simple nouns to phrases and sentences is that it is not always clear what the pictures intend to convey. The sentences make sense if you already know the language. Did they say “the boy is above (or over) (or on) the airplane?” Or did they say “the boy is below (or beneath) (or under) the airplane?” In English at least, on, over, and above mean different things. Is the girl “reading” or “holding” a book? Did they say “there are three flowers (or did they mean roses)?” Or did they say “the flowers (or maybe roses) are red?”

Carefully Designed Learning Sequence

As a curriculum designer, I found serious flaws with the sequence of learning. The design is a one size fits all languages, cookie cutter model. It does not matter which language, the course presents the learner with the exact same series of pictures and sentences. An appropriate sequence in one language will very likely be inappropriate in another. Of course, the advantage of this approach is that one Rosetta Stone course can serve as an translation key for any other Rosetta Stone course. Once I had gone through the Japanese (a language I already know) demo, I “understood” the Turkish (a language I had never heard before) demo.

One thing second language learners discover quickly is that languages are equal only in the most rudimentary way. For example, the word the Japanese would use for a cookie is also applied to other treats English speakers would never call a cookie. Chinese has a word for “comfortable” but Japanese does not. What is a simple conjugation in one language may be multi-syllabic or non-existent in another. For example, did you know that Japanese conjugates its adjectives?

Another flaw with the sequence is the worthlessness of some of the sentences. The language learner who ever has a reason to say “the boy is under the airplane” would more likely be screaming and pointing, and would have forgotten that sentence entirely. Just speaking for myself, in my whole life, I have never had an occasional to say, “the woman is jumping off the ladder.”

Rosetta Stone has a terrible customer service reputation. I had originally composed this post with links and blockquotes. The reports of some of Rosetta Stone's draconian practices alarmed me. After reading their terms of agreement, I decided the terms were not reviewer friendly. I removed all links and blockquotes. I cannot recommend Rosetta Stone.

*Gratuitous disclosure: No one has paid me to review Rosetta Stone.

Friday, December 18, 2009

No Evidence for Learning Style Optimization. Educational Apocalypse?

Cognitive scientists* reviewed over a thousand studies, but first, they thought it necessary to give the reading public a primer on basic research design. In the abstract no less.

First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.

The learning style theory is so ubiquitous and so taken for granted, we sometimes forget how research is supposed to support education philosophy and practice. There is not a single education student who does not “know” they need to tailor their lessons to the particular learning styles of their students.

“Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals' learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly.

Sounds great, but now I feel empowered to confess a deep dark secret. As a classroom teacher, even now with over three decades of experience, I was never sure what learning style went with which kid. So I covered my bases. I made sure my lessons incorporated a mix of learning styles. Something for everyone.

My confession is even more damning. When I tutored one-on-one, I still could never be sure. Again, I covered my bases, going at the same material with a variety of approaches. When the light bulb snapped on, I never knew if it was because I had, at that moment, managed to match learning styles. So many variables...not enough control.

Exactly how was I supposed to determine individual learning styles. The diagnostic instruments may employ fancy verbiage, but it all boils down to one simple method: ask the student.

Assessments of learning style typically ask people to evaluate what sort of information presentation they prefer...Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.

Ask the student? Gee, to think all these years I had been racking my brain, observing students and trying to draw valid conclusions so I could teach them the way they learn best when all I had to do was ask them?

The only problem is education has put the pedagogical cart before the research horse.

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education.

Besides, it is entirely possible students do not know their learning style.

Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

Nevertheless, it is premature to abandon learning styles.

However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.

How many other “facts” of education are open to dispute? How might these unexamined “facts” be undermining true education reform?

*Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, Robert Bjork. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Volume 9, Issue 3, Pages 105-119. © 2009 Association for Psychological Science.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teachers with Masters Degrees Not Worth Their Pay?

Schools are having trouble paying the bills. The extra pay teachers get for having a Masters degree costs schools nearly $9 billion per year. One college of education, the University of Washington, has proposed a strategy: “decoupling” extra pay for teachers who earn Master's degrees. Besides, what are the schools getting for the extra pay? By all accounts, teachers with Master's degrees do not get any more academic achievement out of their students than teachers not so well endowed.

Not surprisingly, the recommendation went over like the proverbial lead balloon. In fact, the original link has disappeared.

The authors expected push back from teachers, and got it. However, it was the the reaction of their colleagues from other colleges of education that seemed to take the authors most by surprise. Think of the revenue the colleges of education would lose. If teachers do not get paid for their Masters degrees, maybe they will not bother to enroll for Masters programs.

Okay, first, I would not like to think that the colleges of education would even come close to suggesting fixing their research recommendations around self-interested revenue considerations. Nope, I would not like to think that. So I will put that thought away for the moment and press on.

The University of Washington researchers concluded that students of teachers with Masters degrees in math or science posted achievement gains. Strangely, a separate study found teachers with degrees in math or science had no advantage, at least at elementary and middle school levels. No wonder practicing teachers declare a pox on all their houses. Guidance from the ivory towers is pretty fuzzy.

The University of Washington researchers believe that part of the problem is 90% of Masters degrees are in education, and everybody knows how worthless those degrees are, including the teachers who hold those them. You can hardly spend five minutes in a teacher's lounge without hearing someone complain about what a waste of time, educationally speaking, their Masters was. But at least there is the monetary compensation.

The researchers have an answer. They suggest tying extra pay to student outcomes as if they have completely missed the merit pay debates swirling around them. The most common, yet questionable, proxy for student achievement is test scores. Teachers have no control over many of the variables that influence academic achievement. Merit pay proposals perennially fail on the question of equitably evaluating teacher efficacy. The study authors would convert Masters pay into merit pay. Furthermore, colleges of education must surely bear some responsibility for the worthlessness of their Masters degrees.

But I see the issue another way. In my experience, it is usually successful, practicing teachers who go back to school for their Master's degrees. They have already proven themselves in the classroom. So it is not surprising that research fails to correlate increased academic achievement (whatever that is) with acquisition of a Masters degree. The chronology is backwards.

I do not begrudge teachers their “masters pay bump.” When it come to education, society has arrived at very little consensus on anything, except agreement that teachers are paid too little. If schools want to save money, they might start by laying off a few overpriced and unnecessary administrators. I know of a county with population 50,000 and eleven separate one-school districts with enrollments around 150 pupils per “district.” Each “district” has four expensive administrators: superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, and vice principal. Talk about overkill.

Another thing the researchers do not understand is that the Masters degree can become a mill stone around the necks of teachers who change districts. It may even render them virtually unemployable. Schools routinely reject the applicants with the most education and experience. I have advised graduate students that if they get a Masters, they better plan on never leaving their district.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stand and Deliver? No, Sit Down and Shut Up

The movie, Stand and Deliver, told the inspirational story of one teacher's success in using Advanced Placement (AP) calculus with his demoralized students. The students complained, worked hard, fought back, bought in, and eventually passed the AP calculus test. Test administrators thought the students had cheated and canceled their scores. The students retook—and passed---the test. Garfield High in Los Angeles would never be the same. Or would it?

Texas hopes to replicate Jaime Escalante's resounding success. More and more schools are offering more and more AP courses to more and more students. But Texas school officials do not like the results. At least they do not like the statistics. More and more students are failing.

But the latest data show Texas high school students fail more than half of the college-level exams, and their performance trails national averages.

School officials wring their hands and wonder what could be going wrong. The students who are expected to fail are failing, and surprise, students from elite schools, the top tier, are failing in increasing numbers, too.

But high failure rates from some of the Dallas area's elite campuses raise questions about whether our most advantaged high school students are prepared for college work.

What is the problem?

For one, you can not just “helicopter-drop” AP courses into a school and expect instant education reform.

Because, two, the teachers may not be qualified to teach AP courses.

So, three, the teachers tend to fail to cover the material and properly prepare the students.

Besides, four, too many students enroll without adequate academic foundation for the courses.

The problem with looking to a movie for direction in education reform is that Garfield High's AP calculus program was just a bit little different than the movie version. Mr. Escalante spent years preparing the students, requiring them to take summer courses and come to school from 7:00 am- noon on Saturdays.

Even Garfield High did not sustain their own success. Please read that link. Mr. Escalante's experience is emblematic in terms of reform obstructionism, professional jealousy, and society's lack of respect for teachers.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Algebra in 2nd Grade?

In February, 2009 a teacher in Montana made EdWeek headlines because she was teaching algebra to second graders and had been doing so for five years. Why all the oohs and aahs?

Elementary math is supposed to prepare students for high-level math classes in middle and high school. Students should not need a dedicated pre-algebra class. When I was a kid, pre-algebra did not exist. Now it is part of every school's math course line-up.

The author of a pre-algebra text wants students to build math reasoning skills. However math reasoning often does not happen. Many teachers treat pre-algebra as a last chance for students to get those blind elementary math procedures down pat. Problem is, a student can be A+ in procedures and still not understand algebra. In fact, students competent with procedure often believe they are good at math. It is not their fault. Our education system has been telling them for years that grades equal understanding. So if they get a good grade in math, naturally they conclude they are good at math.

Math has been misnamed. What passes for math in schools is often non-math. “Carry the one” is not a mathematical explanation for what happens in addition. It is a blind procedure. Students get good grades in non-math believing it is math. No wonder algebra is such a shock. Math reasoning skills actually matter in algebra.

Still a student with a good memory can get by, at least until they meet a new math monster, calculus. However, since middle and high school math also fail to teach math reasoning, now students take pre-calculus, another relatively recent addition to course offerings. Without a major change of emphasis, pre-calculus prepares students no better for calculus than pre-algebra prepared them for algebra.

By now pre-calculus students have so internalized non-math that they complain to the instructor, “Just tell us how to get the answer. We don't want to know why.” Just give us some more blind procedures.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dissing the Gifted

For too long, the nation’s education system has neglected the needs of its high-potential students.

Ann Robinson, president of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) is right. One indication of the neglect is the lack of monetary investment.
The federal government’s investment in gifted and talented learners now stands at 2 cents of every $100 education dollars...

Another indication is the test scores of gifted students.
Over the past decade, despite impressive gains by students at the low end of the performance spectrum, the scores of students in the top 10 percent have remained largely flat.

Forget the test scores. Of course they are flat. Some of these students are already bumping their heads against the ceiling and ceilings tend to be flat. There is nowhere for their scores to go. Worse, in our society, there is no good reason for the gifted to raise their scores, and lots of reasons to at least look like they are not so smart.

America will pay the price for neglecting its gifted students.

By focusing an outsized amount of attention and resources on helping failing students attain proficiency, our nation has fostered a troublesome underinvestment in the very student population most likely to be its next generation of innovators, discoverers, and pioneers.

The reason our nation “has fostered a troublesome underinvestment” in our gifted kids is because our nation fundamentally does not value what these kids offer. Just check out the comments below the original EdWeek article to see what I mean. Society winks at the dissing of the gifted. Psychologists advise the friendless gifted that they are the ones with the social problems. Psychologists offer to “facilitate” exercises in “self discovery” designed to teach the gifted better “social skills.” I have tried to point out to some of these well-meaning professionals that the gifted are not the ones with the bad attitudes and poor coping skills. I get vacant looks.

The biggest problem our gifted students face everyday is not boring classes. The biggest problem is that our society surrounds the gifted with messages that they are somehow deficient human beings, and then wonders why the gifted have such low self-esteem even as they ace tests.

As “Anna” wrote:
A child with an IQ of 130 is as far from average as a child with an IQ of 70. They both need specialized instruction and guidance that allows them to develop to their full potential. Right now, only the child with the cognitive impairment is entitled by law to this support.

As far as the schools are concerned, no extra money, no extra support.

What about the work world? It will be different there, right? No, we have all seen or lived situations where excellence, initiative and professionalism take a back seat to mediocrity.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Don't Blame the Schools of Education.

They are just doing the best they can with what they've got, says Pedro Noguera. First he grants the schools of education deserve some criticism.

It’s true that many schools of education don’t recruit the best students into the profession... and that too often the research produced in schools of education is of little use to public schools...As is true for American universities generally, there is considerable variability in quality among the nation’s schools of education.

Many graduates of even the best schools of education lack effectiveness in the classroom.

Graduates of teacher-credential programs at my university, for example, and at Teachers College, Columbia University, are highly sought after, even at a time when teaching jobs are scarce. Does this mean that they are highly effective when they enter schools? In many cases, they are not.

The game is rigged against these promising graduates.

But this is not because they lack the intellect or dedication. Rather, it is largely because they are frequently assigned to work in the most dysfunctional schools and are expected to teach the most disadvantaged students. This is precisely what many schools and districts do to new teachers.

I completely agree that many schools essentially sabotage their new teachers.

In fact, there are schools which routinely assign the most difficult students to the most novice teachers. Older teachers believe they have paid their dues and deserve less challenging students even as their competence presumably improves with experience.

Mr. Noguera has four recommendations:

1. Give schools of education a financial reason for establishing lab schools in difficult areas.
2. Provide more debt relief for math and science majors.
3. Incentivize academia to collaborate with classroom teachers in the development arts, humanities, and science curricula.
4. Use work-study to motivate undergraduates to tutor in high-need schools.

I will add a fifth recommendation. Schools should hire the veteran math and science teachers they have pushed away for decades.
schools could also welcome veteran teachers who move into their communities as the valuable assets they are instead of viewing them as budget breakers. State credentialing commissions could remove the arbitrary obstacles that make it difficult for proven out-of-state teachers to get certified in their new state of residence.
I am not talking about alternative certification. I am talking about proven classroom veterans. I also agree with the first comment to Mr. Noguera's article.
Why not establish teacher-training programs with instructors who can show education students how to work effectively and exclusively in dysfunctional schools?
In fact, I did a small study of the curriculum vitae (resume for the uninitiated) of professors of education. The data confirms the common student perception that half of their professors of education do not have genuine teaching experience. It is difficult to find a professor of education with over ten years genuine teaching experience, and exceedingly rare to find one with more than twenty years.

Ironically, at precisely the time when a life-long teacher would be most valuable to the next generation of teachers training in our schools of education, they are at an extreme disadvantage. Anybody with a PhD goes to the head of the applicant line over dedicated teachers who were too busy actually teaching to go to graduate school. If they are hired, they will very likely be relegated to the ranks of the never-eligible-for-tenure. A little budget trouble and they are laid off on a last-in, first-out basis. Schools of education unload their most experienced teachers first. Maybe the schools of education could do with their own alternative certification program.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Selling Grades

Chocolate didn't work. Presumably gift wrap, cookie dough, flower bulbs, and toffee peanuts didn't work either. I would not be surprised. For a while there, almost every day somebody's child knocked at my door selling something. Sooner or later the neighborhood had to be saturated.

According to a November 10, 2009 article in The News and Observer, one school decided to get creative.

A $20 donation to Rosewood Middle School will get a student 20 test points — 10 extra points on two tests of the student's choosing. That could raise a B to an A, or a failing grade to a D.


Shepherd, the Rosewood principal, said her school needs more technology. She said any money raised would help buy digital cameras for the school's computer lab and a high-tech blackboard.

First, it should be obvious to anyone that a grade-based fund raiser is a terrible idea. How it ever got out of committee is beyond me. Second, surely there are greater priorities than digital cameras and high-tech blackboards. How is the school fixed for music, art and PE, I wonder.

The reaction was swift and sure, coming the very next day.

However, the fundraiser came to an abrupt halt today (November 11, 2009) after a story in The News & Observer raised concerns about the practice of selling grades.

Wayne County school administrators stopped the fundraiser, issuing a statement this morning.

Yesterday afternoon, the district administration met with [Rosewood Middle School principal] Mrs. Shepherd and directed the the following actions be taken: (1) the fundraiser will be immediately stopped; (2) no extra grade credit will be issued that may have resulted from donations; and (3) beginning November 12, all donations will be returned.

One parent involved in the decision defended it as creative.

Breedlove said teachers dig into their own pockets each year to buy classroom supplies for under-funded schools. She said no one voiced any objections until Tuesday.

When teachers contribute funds from “their own pockets,” the first $250 is an “above the line” deduction on the first page of their Form 1040. The deduction of any remainder is lost unless the teacher is able to surmount two thresholds. One, the contribution, when added to other deductible expenses of being a teacher, exceeds 2% of the teacher's adjusted gross income, and two, the sum of all the itemized deductions exceeds the teacher's standard deduction. Most teachers receive no tax benefit beyond that first $250.

More important is Ms. Breedlove's claim that there were no objections until the November 10 news report. I have a hard time believing the school office received no phone calls from irate parents. On the other hand, maybe most parents simply threw the letter from the school away.

Events happened quickly. By the fourth day after the initial report, the principal had gone on leave with the intention of retiring December 1, a month earlier than she had originally planned.

One parent has a point.

Too much emphasis was put on the fundraiser rather than the reason the school has to raise its own money in the first place, said Jennifer Mercer, mother of two Rosewood students.

When it's the little education guys, heads roll. Big financial guys are “too big to fail” or even suffer consequences. As scandals go, this one is pretty small potatoes, yet generated more outrage and quick, retributive action than scandals involving millions of dollars.

And where is the shame? I do not mean the principal's shame, or the Parent Advisory Board's shame, but the national shame? Schools all over the country do not have enough money. Sure, some priorities are probably misplaced, and sure, there is probably waste everywhere to be curtailed. But when I was a kid, we did not do fund raisers.

The schools had enough money to cover their everyday waste, provide a regular program of art, music and daily physical education, PLUS pay for all kinds of great programs, from violin instruction to fun and exciting summer school offerings to free driver training to special trips to booster buses for away games, to after-school clubs and more. We kids were never burdened with the worry or responsibility of making up shortfalls.

What happened? I have heard that in California, it is all Prop 13's fault. But how does that explain the rest of the country? I really do not know. I was teaching for Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DODDS) overseas when it all gradually went to pieces. When I came back to America, I found the frogs had already been boiled. What happened, and why are we so complacent?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Confounding Teacher Recruitment by Discouraging the Best

"Good teachers matter. The data on that are clear. If we want more talented people in the classroom, a first step toward encouraging them would be to stop discouraging them."

I did not expect to see a piece about education under Yahoo Personal Finance, but there it was. What would an economist, Charles Wheelan PhD, say about education? Usually it is educators (like me) who write about education. The fact he is not an educator may be a point in his favor. At least he will not have an educator's biases. On the other hand, not being an educator, he may not understand the shortcomings of applying a business model to schools.

He implies that “alternative league” players become teachers, and because they are “alternative league” players, they naturally resist the threat that merit pay proposals represent.

The idea of some kind of merit pay has been kicking around for 20 years, if not longer. But this discussion almost always focuses on how compensation practices affect the incentives (and therefore the behavior) of existing teachers.

In fact, too many teachers chose education precisely for the cozy situation of job security with no accountability.

Economists refer to this phenomenon as adverse selection. Individuals use private information (their expected productivity in this case) to sort themselves into a job with a compensation structure that suits them best.  Public education is the equivalent of the alternative league.

His wife is about to make a mid-career change into teaching math, so very soon she will be able to enlighten him about the realities of our education system. Apparently she has already begun.

First, all prospective employees must undertake two years of full-time specialized training, at their own expense, just to be considered for a job. Study after study has shown that this training has zero connection to subsequent performance at the firm, but Company B sticks to this screening mechanism anyway.

… snip...

As you may have guessed, Company B is public education.

I do not know about you, but I can almost hear his wife talking as if I were right there sharing breakfast with them.

Prospective teachers jump through hoops because state law says they have to. If a state requires that all public school teachers take a course on the history of discrimination against left-handed children, then training programs will make a fat living offering courses on the history of discrimination against left-handed children. The state requires the course, education schools offer it, and future teachers must take it. There is nothing in that process to ensure that it actually produces better teachers. 

I agree with something Dr. Wheelan says right now.

Good teachers matter. The data on that are clear. If we want more talented people in the classroom, a first step toward encouraging them would be to stop discouraging them.

He strongly implies that merit pay will attract higher quality aspirants to teaching.

The most pernicious aspect of the public education pay structure is that it discourages motivated, productive, energetic people from entering the profession in the first place.

Between the pay structure and the certification requirements, the situation is well nigh hopeless.

We compound that problem with ridiculous teacher certification laws.  Despite a steady flow of evidence that our current teacher training requirements have essentially no correlation with performance in the classroom, most states continue to mandate that prospective teachers undertake expensive and time-consuming courses. That, too, is a huge deterrent for bright young people who might otherwise be attracted to teaching.

One day his synthesis of education and economics may produce pearls of insight. I look forward to a regular place at his breakfast table.

Readers interested in this post might also like

“Education... From Cradle Through a Career”

What does Education Reform Look Like?

Teachers Teach Too Much?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Where Professional Development IS an Inside Job

I agree wholeheartedly with Anthony Cody. Professional development should be an inside job. Within the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS)it is.

Mr. Cody details the advantages to using local teachers to conduct professional development instead of outsiders.

1.The local has credibility. The participants know the presenter has actually taught and understands the challenges they face in their local context.
2.The local is available after the presentation to be an ongoing resource.
3.The local's expertise is recognized and affirmed, as opposed to being ignored.

Outside consultants should be brought in only when their particular knowledge is essential and lacking within the system. And these consultants should seek to collaborate with local teacher leaders so they can connect with existing practices and expertise. Their goal should be to invite the growth of local knowledge and skills so that teachers can lead the work as it develops going forward.

In most cases, however, local teachers should be considered the first and best choice for professional development within a district. If they are not experienced in leading their colleagues, they should receive support and training in this arena. The assumption that “outsiders always know best” should be replaced with the assumption that our teachers are the greatest experts we have available day-in and day-out in teaching our students. Developing their leadership is our best chance to drive sustained improvement in our schools.

I will add one more advantage to using locals for professional development. They are a lot cheaper.

When I was the local presenter, I did it for free---in the sense I was already being paid for the time, just like my audience was being paid to participate.

When I was the outsider, the district paid me transportation, hotel, and presentation fee. One workshop can easily cost a district $1000.

Your district can make it an inside job too. Teachers who would like to present should submit a presentation proposal to the district office. Even better than proposals trickling in one-by-one, a group of teachers in a school could create a package proposal. The only drawback is that some districts have already signed agreements with outside contractors. At least that is how my local district responded to my insider proposal.

But once those contracts expire, districts would be unlikely to renew once they realize the potential right at home, IF they have a sheaf of local proposals in hand. If just one or two teachers submit proposals, the district is likely to renew the outsider's contract. So teachers, get it together, and propose professional development truly relevant to your teaching circumstances. Go for it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Difference Between High Expectations and Harsh Mandates

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my role in raising academic achievement in one school. I had had a discouraging day and I wanted to encourage myself by reliving an accomplishment. So I was gratified to find I had prefigured Joann Yatvin's understanding of the Pygmalion effect. Well said, Ms. Yatvin.

The discrepancy between the Pygmalion researchers’ concept of high expectations and that of today’s reformers stems from the multiple meanings of the word “expectation.” To the researchers, it meant the power of belief to influence the behavior of others. To the reformers, it means the power of authority to exact compliance from underlings.

I did not announce to any of the students, “You WILL be studying algebra in the eighth grade.” Those kinds of so-called high expectations back fire.

What I did everyday is communicate to my students in a myriad of subtle ways that I believed in them, I believed in their abilities and I believed in their worthiness. My entire education philosophy could probably be summed up by a version of the Golden Rule. I thought, “If these were my kids, what would I do?” One parent reported to me that her daughter told her, “My teacher is so smart. If she thinks I'm smart, too, then I must be.”

That said, I raise a hearty amen to this comment:
As a lifelong educator, I am not so starry-eyed as to think that believing in students is all that teachers and schools have to do to enable them to succeed. Every school needs a strong curriculum, high-quality materials, well-planned instruction, extra-help options, and meaningful assessments.

Effective education is about meeting the needs of the students, not the needs of pundits, politicians or even educators.

schools must appeal to and support the strengths of students, not play on their fears and weaknesses.

Schools are meant to be wellsprings of vigor, interest, exploration, growth, and illumination. Rigor, the word so often used by reformers to describe what schools should emphasize, is more properly the companion of harshness, inflexibility, and oppression. It is time to change the current conception of high expectations back to its original meaning.

Any former student of mine who happens to read what Ms. Yatvin says about rigor will chuckle. They will remember the many times I said that rigorous does not mean studying “hard;” it means studying right.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Making Lessons Sizzle"

I usually post short essays, but today I am going to depart from the usual and post nothing but a solitary link to Elizabeth Stein's article in Teacher Magazine. I invite you to see how many of her seven tips you can incorporate into your teaching this next week.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

4 Difficult Students and How to Handle Them

Have you ever noticed that it seems the harder you push back against difficult students, the more resolute they become? As strange as it may seem, resisting difficult students strengthens their behavior. Any first year teacher knows that no amount of scolding, detentions, whatever, work. It is like these students get on a destructive path and their egos become committed to seeing it through, sometimes to the point of expulsion from school. Even then, they will say the teacher or the principal had it in for them.

They complain to family and friends that their teacher does not like them. It may even be true. I had teachers who did not like me. It did not stop me from getting a begrudging A in their class anyway. Now we all know we cannot change anybody. We can only change ourselves. We know this, but somehow it does not stop us from trying anyway.

A strange thing about human behavior is that the more we try to change a person, the more set in their ways the difficult person becomes. So give it up. Someone said the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things that never work.

At the same time, teachers cannot allow anarchy in their classrooms. Here is one approach to the dilemma. “Fighting” difficult students only makes them more difficult, so turn their behavior to a productive purpose.

1. The one who argues and loudly
After butting heads with Jeremy, a seventh grader, a few times, I realized he was simply argumentative. One day as he was warming up to another major class disruption, I took him out into the hall.

“What's up with all this argument?” I asked him.
“I not arguing,” he answered. “I'm an independent thinker. I have my own opinions about things.” (With that I knew he had come out of some of that phony critical-thinking curriculum that's out there, mixed in with some of that phony self-esteem stuff). I started with his own words.

“Okay, the whole point of education is to teach people to think, so I am really happy you value thinking and want to learn how to think. Of course, people need to develop opinions, but people also need to be able to logically defend their opinions.”

“That's what I'm doing, he rejoined. “I'm defending my opinion.”

“Well, actually what you are doing is just repeating your opinion, only more loudly. With every repeat, you get louder and louder until you are shouting.”

Jeremy nodded.

“So here's the deal. The way you defend you opinion is by showing with facts and logic why your opinion is justified. For example, if I have a silly opinion like smoking cigarettes is good for health, just because I can say that louder than you can does not make the opinion right. Being an independent thinker does not mean being able to shout everyone down.”

Jeremy nodded again.

I went on. “Next time you feel your opinion is being challenged, find one additional fact or piece of logic and share that in a voice lower than mine. That will also help your classmates learn to defend their opinions. Can we do that?”

Jeremy agreed. “We'll have a secret symbol. When you are starting to get loud, I”ll put my finger to my lips. Then you will know you are falling into your old habit, okay.”

It worked,but not instantly, and not without a little backsliding at first.

2. The one who throws your words at you.

This is the student who prefaces an objection with an accusatory “but you said...” or “you didn't say...”
Double challenge: when his buddies back him up. Sometimes the student is honestly misremembering. Sometimes the student is hoping that since teachers talk so much, day in and day out, you will not possibly remember what you said. (Interestingly, this amazing audio memory of students does not seem to help them with tests). Sometimes you really did forget what you said.

Getting into an argument about what you said or did not say is pointless. You need to know what you said. Most the of the time, the student is objecting to your enforcement of a class policy or points lost for not meeting one or more criteria of an assignment. You had already prepared by not only clearly presenting the class policies and assignments out loud, but also every student possesses the policies and assignments in writing. Calmly point out the relevant chapter and verse.

If the student is still being difficult, and especially in the company of friends, you may want to separate him from his support group before you talk to him. Or you may realize that the students are expressing a sense of powerlessness. Then discuss the objective of the policy or assignment, get agreement with the objective, and SINCERELY ask the students how they would like to go about reaching the objective. Finally, sincerely consider their views, and possibly modify the policy or assignment.

3. The one who complains all the time.

Make these students your eyes and ears in the classroom. Students observe all the time that stuff goes on right under the noses of teachers and the teachers do not do anything about it. I once had a pair of students extorting money from their classmates everyday for weeks right under my nose. I knew something was going on. I once observed one student passing money to another. The body language was off and I asked what was going on. The victim said he had borrowed money the previous week and was paying it back. Students do not understand that teachers may have suspicions, but usually they have to catch the perpetrators before they can do anything. The students almost always know about the problem for a long time.

The foregoing was just an example. Some students complain about all kinds of things, some trivial, some serious. Very often, their complaints have a measure of validity and it is very distressing to be blown off as “disgruntled.” We all have heard bosses dismiss a worker's complaint with an airy “You can't pay any attention to her. She's just a disgruntled employee.” So enlist the complainers as your confidential insiders and have them report to you directly. Take what they say seriously.

4. The one who resists authority
This student does not want to be ordered around. Truth be told, none of us wants to be ordered around. We all resent it. We especially resent orders whose only apparent reason is “because I said so.” If education is partly about passing on a democratic society and democratic values, taking an authoritarian stance creates dissonance, and sometimes even hostility. An authoritarian approach, especially if perceived as arbitrary, disrespects the students. Some of these students stereotypically see all teachers as representatives of offensive arbitrary fiats.

See point number 2. Give them autonomy. Surveys have shown that autonomy is a number one predictor of job satisfaction. When the boss says, “Here's what needs to be done. You figure out how to do it and report back to me,” employees are happy and motivated. Students enjoy the respect autonomy bestows. If you are talking, for example, about an assignment, tell them, “Here are the requirements of the assignment because here is what the assignment intends to accomplish. You are welcome to accomplish the requirements of the assignment your own way as long as you meet the following conditions...”

Sometimes, making the effort to avoid catching them doing wrong pay great dividends. In one secondary school, 85% of the students smoked. Teachers had lunch duty for the express purpose of preventing the students from smoking. Some of the teachers took great delight in catching the kids smoking.

Now, I hate cigarettes. I grew up with heavy smokers and to this day I have persistent respiratory problem I attribute to all the second-hand smoke. When I had lunch duty, I would walk around singing. Needless to say, I did not catch very many kids smoking. Students repaid the favor with their in-class behavior.

Finally, look for opportunities to catch your students doing right, and compliment them PRIVATELY. Do not imperil their street cred or expose them to accusation of being “teacher's pet.”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Closing the Achievement Gap: One Modest Story

If you are an American overseas with a family, apart from homeschooling, there are generally three ways you can see to your kids' education. One, The Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS) on a military base, but maybe you are not active-duty military and you cannot afford the $17,000 (last I heard) annual tuition. Two, the local schools which may or may not be free, but your kids likely do not speak the local language. Three, an English-language international school. The tuition will be much more reasonable than DODDS, but the quality varies widely.

I was once a DODDS teacher, but I left when I found out that even though I was a teacher, I would be required to pay the exorbitant tuition. I left DODDS and went to work for a local international school for less pay, but then again, since tuition for faculty children was free, I had more take-home pay than with DODDS. Problem was the school had a reputation for being a low achieving school. When I left DODDS, my principal berated me for going to work for that “rinky-dinky school.”

Teachers and students alike muffled their answer when asked what school they taught at/went to. There was a serious achievement gap between DODDS students/local students and the students of this K-8 international school. When I came aboard, they were thrilled to get what they considered a real live genuine DODDS teacher. I taught middle school math and science, and that first year I was given the seventh grade homeroom.

Within two years, I closed the three-decades-old achievement gap. I did not set out to raise achievement. I do not tell this story to brag. My only intention was to do the best I could for the students I had. How did it happen? First, I'll tell you what I did not do.

1.I did not lay on the mandates. I did not tell them, for example, that they would be required to take algebra in the eighth grade. Right now some states have decided that they can raise math achievement by requiring algebra in the eighth grade. It is a laudable goal, but a requirement is the wrong way to go about it.
2.I did not lay on a high-stakes test for the students to pass or else. 'Nuff said.
3.I did not ask for more funding.

Most students want to achieve unless the goal seems unreachable. My students complained that they could never be, in their words, as good as DODDS students. I told them that there was nothing wrong with them. If they followed my guidance, they would be able to stand head and shoulders with DODDS students. They believed me, or at least, they were willing to give me a chance.

So here's what I did.

First, I decided to teach math individually. Individualized lessons are really hard work. I mean really hard work, often too hard to sustain for any length of time. I went a whole year. To start, I needed to find out where they were. I paid a visit to each of the lower grade teachers and got a copy of the textbook publisher's year-end test. I gave everyone the sixth grade test. I did not tell them, but in my own mind, they had to score 70% or better for me to consider them ready for seventh grade math. I did tell them I would be giving tests until I found their level. The nice thing about the tests is there is no obvious grade level designation. You have to know the code. To those that “failed,” I gave the fifth grade test, and so on until I had found the level of each student, and then that is where I began them. One student did not get 70% right until she took the second grade test.

On the first day of school, the parents of two students came to see me after school. They said their daughters, each other's "bestest" friend, were ready for algebra right now and would I teach them algebra while the rest of the class did the regular seventh grade math.

I said, “Sure, here's the seventh grade book. On the last day of my placement testing, I'll give the girls the seventh grade end-of-year test. If they score better than 80%, I will put them straight into algebra. Here, take the books. They are welcome to review all week, during math period and at home. On Friday, I'll test them.” Both girls did very poorly on the test.

On the following Monday, I laid the ground rules. I would teach each lesson individually. Students were responsible for the homework on the lesson. Only the “seventh graders' had textbooks. Everyone else studied from material I gave them. If they had a textbook, the homework was in the book. Otherwise I provided the homework. Students studying at third through sixth grade levels were not burdened with carrying around materials that obviously identified them at the lower levels.

I had found three extra spiral-bound seventh grade teachers books in the book room. I set up a table in the back of the classroom with three chairs. Students were responsible for checking their own homework. They were amazed and thrilled with the trust and responsibility. If they got an answer wrong, they were to rework the problem themselves. If they still could not get the answer, they should ask a classmate who got it right to show them. If they still did not understand, they asked me. Sometimes so many students needed my help at once (and this was a big disadvantage with individualized instruction) it was like, take a number. When they thought they were ready, they could ask me for the test on whatever chapter they were working on. If they got 80% or better, they went on to the next chapter. Otherwise, I would spend more time with them and give them more work until they could get 80% or better.

I discovered the students at so-called lower levels were plagued with early math misconceptions that no one had ever cleared up for them. Partly it was because they had been unable to verbalize their questions, so the questions went unanswered and interfered with later learning. As we dealt with these lingering misconceptions, the students began accelerating through their materials. Soon they had all caught up to the on-level classmates. Because the only acceptable grades were 80%+, every student had As and Bs on their report cards. By the end of the academic year, all but two students had mastered the entire seventh grade textbook.

Shortly after summer vacation began, those two students visited me at home. “Will we have to finish the seventh grade book next year, before you teach us algebra?” they asked. “Of course,” I answered. “We thought so. Can we study with you during the summer so we can start algebra with the rest of our class?” I was delighted. What teacher in their right mind would say no to motivated students like that? It only took a couple of weeks and they were done. The principal said he had his own version of “Stand and Deliver.” I was just happy I would not need to individualize instruction anymore.

The following year I was thrilled to keep this group as their eighth grade homeroom teacher. It was the only time in my career I ever had the same homeroom a second year. Based on my experience with the benefits of continuity, I recommend keeping homerooms together throughout middle school and perhaps high school. As I said earlier, I was also their science teacher. When they were seventh graders, I spent extra time on the foundational basics of scientific thinking until they mastered it. Therefore I could skip this part when they were eighth graders. We ended up finishing the eighth grade science book early and spent the last weeks of school doing all kinds of independent inquiry.

While they were still seventh graders, I had the whole middle school do an in-school science fair, the first ever for this school. The following year, per teacher requests, I oversaw a school-wide science fair for all the grades. Grades K-2 did class projects. Grades 3-8 did individual projects. I trained their teachers to help their own students. Later I trained parents to be judges. I got permission to enter four of the projects in the regional DODDS science fair. At the DODDS science fair, all students were required to stand next to their projects during judging, take questions and defend their projects. All four projects took ribbons and I do not mean participation ribbons.

When they came back to school, they said, “We remember you promised we would stand head and shoulders with DODDS students and we did.” I reminded them that they did the work. Nothing would have happened if they had been unwilling to try.

At the same time all this was going on, I designed an ESL program for a group of non-English speaking middle schoolers from the local schools. Their parents had suddenly withdrawn their students from their own schools and enrolled them in our school. Within a year, all were successfully mainstreamed into the regular program. Right away I put them into PE, art and music. Second quarter they picked up math and science (with me). I had them sit in on history fourth quarter. They had a full regular schedule, including English, the next school year. I was grateful the school gave me a native-speaking teacher's aide for this ad hoc ESL program.

I cannot say I had any particular expertise or philosophy or reform ideology or anything of that sort going in. I was merely bumbling along, just trying to meet the needs in front of me. Looking back, I think I may have discovered some secrets to closing the achievement gap. These are also areas where many modern reform efforts fall short.

1.Meet the students where they are.
2.Design a program to meet their needs, and no one else's.
3.Make the program one that does not imply blame on the students.
4.Believe in the students.
5.Find ways to add continuity to students' lives.
6.Give them a reasonable goal to shoot for. For math, it was to qualify for algebra. For science, it was to do a science fair project. The DODDS science fair was a bonus. For the ESL group, it was to work me out of a job as their program director.
7.Aim for mastery of instruction.
8.Do it on a localized basis. Do not expect to scale it up because students in other schools have different problems, needs and resources.

After those two years, students and teachers no longer muffled their answers when asked about their school, but proudly announced their affiliation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

5 Reasons Why Education Reforms Fail

Veteran teachers have been there, done that, seen multiple attempts at educational reform turn out to be just another failed fad. Worse, superintendents and principals sometimes order teachers around as if teachers were incapable of independent analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These administrators even have the nerve to order highly successful teachers to replace a Best Practice with something else. Any teacher with the temerity to disobey orders and continue doing what works risks termination, or at least a bad performance evaluation for insubordination.

All that happened to a first-grade teacher I knew in California. She refused an order to cease teaching phonics and start teaching whole language exclusively. She never stopped teaching phonics, and each year every child went from her class to the second grade a capable reader. She could not be fired, but the superintendent rated her “unsatisfactory performance due to insubordination” several years running. When reading tests placed California first graders 49th in the nation, shocked administrators ordered teachers to resume teaching phonics. Her superintendent did the same.

But did her superintendent revise her evaluations? No, because, (so the logic went), she had been insubordinate at that time. So much for the value of critical thinking in our schools.

Whole language, properly implemented in conjunction with phonics, is actually quite effective. How did this promising reform turn into yet another failed fad?

To begin with, hardly any teachers got accurate professional development training in whole language. Here is a typical professional development sequence using whole language as the example: (1) First, at the very beginning, just a few teachers either read the original research or learn about it from the original researchers in a seminar where we could ask clarifying questions. I was a member of the second group.

(2)Then, education writers (like me) start writing about whole language. (3)Other education writers (citing me and others) continue writing about whole language. (4)The process goes on for a while, gradually “simplifying,” that is to say, diluting the concept with each iteration. (5)At some point, school districts begin commissioning professional development for their teachers. In other words, school districts hire outsiders to come into the district and teach the teachers how to do a diluted version of whole language.

These school districts often contact universities. I was part of a university professional development provider team. The school district would call my director and place an order. “I'd like five workshop presenters delivered in two weeks. And make it fun and interactive.” No, seriously. My director would call five of us and say, “Go online, look up whole language, and prepare a 90-minute presentation.” We five would carpool to wherever, deliver our presentations at five different schools in the same 90-minute period. We would take questions as if we really knew anything. After our respective presentations, we would meet up for lunch somewhere. If teachers did their own on-line research it would not count, while our expensive second-hand version was worth PD credit.

To be fair, my director tried to match expertise somewhat. My areas were literacy, math, science and foreign language instruction. She never asked me to deliver, for example, a social studies or special education workshop. (But the chair of the department of education once asked me to teach the social studies methods course. I demurred, “I've never even taught social studies.” “That's okay. Just read up on it at the library.” I refused the course, a dangerous thing for an adjunct professor to do).

What happened to whole language in California was that there was a professional development blitz, presenting a diluted version by people who may or may not know what they are talking about. No wonder whole language was poorly implemented.

1. The first reason (classroom-based) education reform efforts fail is that those tasked with implementing the reform are often implementing something else under the reform's name. After that, Jeanne Century's comments come into play.

I have told the story of a failed reform effort. Ms. Century is talking about successful efforts that fail anyway.

Unfortunately for education, the interest in getting improvements to spread has been accompanied by a failure to give warranted attention to a second question: How do we get improvements to last? The phrase “scale up and sustain” is also part of our vernacular, but the “sustain” part often gets short shrift. While it is important to understand spread, it is endurance that separates the tipping of fads from meaningful change. Unless the investments we make in innovations have lasting impact, in the end, we have wasted our time and resources and, most importantly, squandered students’ opportunities to learn.

Her reasons for fad failure:

2.False view of sustainability.

Our research suggests that individuals think about sustainability in one of two ways—as establishing practices and programs that last and stay the same, or as establishing practices and programs that last and change. While it is a seeming contradiction, the second perspective should frame our efforts if we want to bring about improvements that endure. In order to last, innovations must themselves adapt and evolve. Thus, in addition to identifying strategies that work now, we need to invest in mechanisms for improving and adapting those strategies so that they will work in the future.

3.False view of fidelity.

Reformers often choose interventions because they have been proved to be effective, which is good. But then they make two false assumptions. First, they assume that because reforms have been shown to work, people will actually use them; and second, they believe that when people do use them, maintaining fidelity to the original idea is of the utmost importance. The literature suggests otherwise.

While fidelity of implementation has its place and time, many make the case that adaptation doesn’t reduce effectiveness, but rather increases it...Effectiveness is important, but adaptability is key.

4.False view of future usability.

Just as market conditions always shift, so do the circumstances surrounding educational change. This assures that a program put in place today will not likely meet our students’ needs 10 years from now.

5.False view of tolerability of change.

The challenge, then, is finding the “sweet spot” of change, where the new practice or program doesn’t challenge risk tolerance too much, yet is sufficiently different from current practice to move the change trajectory in a positive direction.

It might be fun for the teachers (or even nonteachers) among us to analyze past educational fads in terms of the extent to which each fad possessed the characteristics of accurate training, fidelity, sustainability, future usability and tolerability. We need to raise the bar of expectations for classroom reforms.

Then we will leave the educators of the future with more than a collection of “best practices”; we will also leave them with the knowledge of how to make those practices work for the students of the future.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

“Learning Science vs. Doing Science”

In March 2009 Texas adopted new standards for science education. High school students are expected to

In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

So far, so good. The statement includes all the necessary buzz-words, so no problem, right? Wait, hold the phone, not so fast, says Jonathan Osborne, the chair of science education at Stanford University in this commentary on EdWeek.

As I read what Mr Osborne had to say, I kept getting distracted. Every so often I found myself checking to see if I had not experienced a serious transporter malfunction. Like when I read this statement:

Science education seeks to offer students an understanding and vision of a body of knowledge that is beyond question.

Really? "A body of knowledge that is beyond question"? How did I get from EDWeek to the Onion? But no, I am still on EdWeek. Then I read this:

After all, the stock in trade of the school classroom is knowledge that has been placed beyond doubt.

Huh. I stopped reading and started scrolling. Surely there has to be a snark tag somewhere. No snark tag? This is a serious commentary? So I found my place again and continued reading. Oh, now I get it. He thinks science learning is distinct from science doing. It turns out that Dr. Osborne considers the seemingly innocuous statement "critique scientific explanations" to be code.

Let's look at the statement again.

In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations (my bold) by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

According to Dr. Osborne, the phrase “scientific explanations” is code for “evolution.”

The political intent is evident. There is only one theory that the supporters of this view wish to see analyzed and critiqued

Is he sure the writers of the standards really have only one theory in mind? Perhaps we can draw some conclusions from definitions of terms repeated throughout the Texas standards document. First, science.

(2) Nature of science. Science, as defined by the National Academy of Sciences, is the "use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process." This vast body of changing and increasing knowledge is described by physical, mathematical, and conceptual models. Students should know that some questions are outside the realm of science because they deal with phenomena that are not scientifically testable.

Seems to me there might be some code in there. If “scientific explanations” means evolution, wouldn't “questions outside the realm of science” mean creation?

Next term, scientific theory.

(C) know that scientific theories are based on natural and physical phenomena and are capable of being tested by multiple independent researchers. Unlike hypotheses, scientific theories are well-established and highly-reliable explanations, but may be subject to change as new areas of science and new technologies are developed

Then I looked at the context of the “code” statement. How exactly did the Texas educators hope students would apply the critical thinking skills developed by examining all sides of scientific evidence? The section containing the “code” statement starts out

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom.

Since students are expected to spend 40% of their instructional within the science classroom actually doing science, they are going to have to learn to make some decisions. Those decision-making skills, it is hoped, will serve the students well outside the classroom.

Section 3 then starts with Dr. Osborne's code statement.

A. In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations (my bold) by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

So first comes the acquisition of scientific skills and next comes the application.

(B) communicate and apply scientific information extracted from various sources such as current events, news reports, published journal articles, and marketing materials [written text] ;
(C) draw inferences based on data related to promotional materials for products and services

The standards repeat the same definitions and expectations within each of the major subject headings, even to the extent that, for example, Section 3A under Aquatic Science is the same Section 3A under Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Space Science, Environmental Systems, Integrated Physics and Chemistry, and Physics—word for word eight times.

Finally, Dr. Osborne defends the inclusion of Darwinian evolution in the curriculum.

Darwin’s place on the school science curriculum is justified because it meets two fundamental criteria.

I presume that he would agree the inclusion of any other topic in the science curriculum also meet both “fundamental criteria.”

First, it is a “big idea”—one that dominates and frames the discipline. For the life sciences, anyone who does not understand its major principles and tenets would be as illiterate as someone studying English who has never heard of Shakespeare.

No argument there. I would add, perhaps provocatively, that the study of English literature should likewise include the many literary allusions from the Bible.

Second, within the scientific community it is not up for discussion. And, as it lies beyond criticism, it is hard to see what value any attempt to evaluate critically the evidence and logical reasoning on which it rests would serve.

Well, scientifically speaking, pretty much everything is always up for discussion. Nothing within science is beyond criticism.

Creationists may argue that the biggest idea is God, and a God such as they postulate would certainly be above criticism. The pot does not complain to the potter. But that is precise why creationism is not science. “It does not matter how big the idea, if it is not falsifiable, it is not science,” so said a scientist (personal communication), not a science educator.

Whatever modifications scientists may make to Darwinian evolution in the future, Charles Darwin's place in the science curriculum forever is assured. If it should happen that Darwinian evolution should find its way to the scientific waste bin as a scientific theory, it will always be around as scientific history.

The Texas standards specifically address evolution thusly:

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:
(A) analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies, including anatomical, molecular, and developmental;
(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;
[(B) analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;]
(C) analyze and evaluate how natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals;
(D) analyze and evaluate how the elements of natural selection, including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources, result in differential reproductive success;
(E) analyze and evaluate the relationship of natural selection to adaptation and to the development of diversity in and among species; [and]
(F) analyze and evaluate the effects of other evolutionary mechanisms, including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination ; and [.]
(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

$133/Month Health Insurance Premiums?

The Truth-O-Meter found that Keith Olbermann had told a “half-truth.”

Olbermann said that for middle-class families, the Baucus plan would mean that "13 percent of what they make could be deducted directly from their paychecks and mainlined to insurance companies, the so-called 'Max Tax.'"

He's right that for people who are uninsured now, the upper limit would be 13 percent, and that money would go to insurance companies. But it's to pay for coverage they don't have now — not a tax — and some people would pay less. And all of the plans under consideration in Congress require people to pay something for coverage. So we rate Olbermann's statement Half True.

The last time I had health insurance, the premiums were 6.9% of my salary. According to Ezra Klein, I had a pretty good deal.
The average health-care coverage for the average family now costs $13,375, according to Kaiser.

In my community, the median income is $42,000. $13,375 out of $42,000 comes to nearly 32% making my 6.9% look wonderful.

And that sums up the problem with health insurance reform. For all the whining and moaning, most people are not feeling much pain. It is like college students complaining about the increase in tuition when what they (some of them, anyway) really mean is that they will not be able to afford as much beer.

Imagine if people who touched a hot stove felt only a small fraction of the pain from the burn. That is pretty much what is happening in our health-care system. It hurts enough that we would prefer it to stop, but without any sense of urgency.

Washington wonks trying to fix this mess face a dilemma: They look at the numbers and see health-care costs crushing our economy, overwhelming our government, swallowing our wages. But the public is not feeling the pain. Virtually no one writes a $13,375 check to pay for their own health care. Most pay 27 percent of it, or even less. The surest way to cut health-care spending would be to make people shoulder more of the burden directly, as opposed to hiding it in taxes and lost wages.

The surest way to cut health-care spending would be to make people shoulder more of the burden directly, as opposed to hiding it in taxes and lost wages.

So things were going okay for me. I thought my premiums were too expensive, sure, but I was managing. Then I got laid off. That is when the premiums became unaffordable, but not simply because I was laid off. After all, the unemployment check came every week like clockwork.

Getting laid off meant I qualified for COBRA. Going on COBRA meant I would have to start paying the both my half and the half the employer had been paying, thus doubling the out-of-pocket percentage to 13.8%. Worse, I would have to pay the premiums out of unemployment benefits, making the percentage a whopping 43.3%. Naturally I declined and joined the ranks of the uninsured. The purpose of COBRA is to help the recently unemployed avoid the sudden loss of health insurance, but unaffordable COBRA is no help at all. I wound up shouldering not just more of the burden, but all of the burden, and I could not do it.

Compared to the 32% I cited earlier, the 13% in the Baucus plan sounds like a good deal. Whether the 13% is taken out of my pay automatically or I write the check to the insurance company myself makes no real difference to my bottom line. If Keith Olbermann wants to call it a “tax,” whatever. But when I consider the Japanese health insurance tax/premium, 13% looks pretty awful.

The average consumer is not feeling enough pain, and powerful stakeholders do not want change.

Of course, providers don't much like the sound of (the public option) because they would see 20 to 30 percent less revenue. And insurers don't much like the sound of that because they could not compete with that sort of buying power. Republicans and centrist Democrats have banded together to weaken the public plan and maybe even remove it altogether. President Obama now promises that the public plan would be open only to the uninsured and wouldn't offer any advantages over private insurers. It won't, in other words, be allowed to save people money.

So if you take sweeping transformative change off the table, you are left with finding a multitude of little tweaks. All these little tweaks together require 1000 pages of legislation.

Added up, they equaled a startling $2 trillion over 10 years. That's a lot of money for policies that have received virtually no attention in the debate.
And yet, this is the quiet promise of health-care reform. The grand theories might fail. They often do. But making the system a bit better, a bit quicker and a bit more agile -- we can do that. And until the stove gets hot enough, it may be all we can do.

But let's get back to the Japanese health care system. I lived there for nearly twenty years. Japanese people have choices. They can self pay (as I did at first), get private insurance (the next thing I did), or participate in one of the two public options (which I did as soon as I qualified). My premiums were about 4% of my salary.

According to the Washington Post, premiums are still about 4% of wages.
Workers at major corporations pay about 4 percent of their salary to a company-based insurance provider. These premiums are limited to $6,000 a year, but the average salary worker pays $1,931, the government says. Job-based insurance in the United States costs the typical employee $3,354 a year, according to the U.S.-based National Coalition on Health Care.

In Japan, employers pay premiums that match each employee's contribution. In the United States, where health insurance is far more expensive, employers pay private insurers three or four times the amount contributed by each employee.

The self-employed and the unemployed in Japan must pay about $1,600 a year for insurance coverage.

Wouldn't you like to pay $133/month for health insurance? NPR reported on April 14, 2008 that average Japanese family paid $280 per month. The insurance covers 70% of the bill; the patient pays 30% out of pocket. Although a 30/70 sounds heavier than the 20/80 split common in American policies, patients happily pay 30% of a far smaller total bill. In the case of childbirth, the local city hall reimburses families that 30%.

The total rate for Japanese income tax is less than 20% (about 15% for the sum of national, prefectural, and municipal taxes plus the 4% for health insurance) which compares favorably to American tax rates. Think of it. For approximately the same tax burden Americans bear without health care premiums, the Japanese have their health care premiums included.

The government of Japan does not stand between the doctor and the patient in any way. In fact, there is no feeling of government presence at all. Patients go to the doctor, the doctor orders treatment, patients pay their 30%, and go home all done with it. The closest thing to government intrusion is the government's requirement that doctors and dentists participate in the government preventative health program by conducting free physical and dental screenings once a year in every elementary school, kindergarten and preschool. The government also sends new parents reminder notices for free well-baby clinics. That is the extent of government “interference.” The government never contradicts the doctor's order or refuses to pay its portion for services or prescriptions like so many American private insurers do.

Although most Japanese health care facilities are privately owned, there are some public facilities. Doctors usually do not work for the government. They may be sole proprietors of their own hospital which may be quite small, sometimes with as few as four beds. My maternity doctor had one of those little four-bed hospitals, several nurses and a cook. His patients gave birth in the same familiar environment where they received prenatal care.

While many of the large hospitals offer comprehensive care, some hospitals are specialized. For example, a patient with heart disease may go to cardiac hospital. I saw no dedicated out-patient facilities; every facility had the ability to take admissions (except optometrists and dentists). Wait times for service are about the same as in America. Doctors may also work for large hospitals. Patients may go to any doctor or specialist they choose anywhere in the country. A patient's own residence is of no consequence. There is no such thing as a preferred provider network. Thus there is far more consumer choice in Japan than with America's HMOs and PPOs.

Hospital are generally full service, at least from the patient's point of view. Patients do not go to a separate facility for labs or x-rays. If a doctor sent, for example, a biopsy sample to a pathology lab, the patient would never know it. There is no subcontracting of health services generating bills from all sorts of random providers. In the example of the pathology sample, the pathology lab bills the doctor directly who bills the patient. In the case of x-rays, there is no bill for taking the x-ray separate from a bill for reading the x-ray. If a hospital wants a second party to read an x-ray, the hospital pays for it, not the patient. It is crazy that an American hospital signs a contract with an outside radiologist committing a third party, the patient, to paying the contract. If a patient goes to a Japanese emergency room, the patient pays one bill, not multiple bills. Ditto for surgeries.

What is Japan's secret? According to Naoki Ikegami, probably Japan's top health economist, at least one secret is that Japan does not have a single payer system. It has a single payment system.

And the way the government controls the flow of money is that we have multiple payers and multiple providers, but there's a single-payment system -- not a single payer but a single-payment system -- so that all payers must abide by the payment system, and all providers must be paid by the system.

The rest of the interview is quite instructive.

For a pretty comprehensive set of viewpoints see this article and the several pages of comments.

It is strange that Americans are not as knowledgeable about the Japanese system as we think we are about the Canadian system. We should be seeing information about the Japanese health care system everywhere. We should be rejecting American exceptionalism and seriously considering how to incorporate the best features of the Japanese system while rejecting the worst aspects.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What's an Argument? Bring Back Debate Club

When I was in high school, there was an active debate club that competed with all the area high schools. If successful, our team could compete at regional, state and even national events. At the time, it was one of many extracurricular opportunities whose presence I took for granted. Now the arts are gone, recess is replaced by test prep drills, and most extracurricular activities vanish if candy bar or gift wrap sales disappoint. Debate club was one of the first to go by the wayside.

So it is no wonder that recent research on the place of argument in the school curriculum shows that students cannot even define the term, much less formulate an opinion about it. A whole generation of students has grown up thinking “argument” means nothing more than a verbal quarrel, either to be avoided or won, usually by voice volume rather than persuasive points.

Not only are the students clueless, but according to Gerald Graff, so are their teachers.

Graff: I think cluelessness in academia is a major threat to democracy, especially at a moment when talk-back radio, Cable TV talk shows, the Internet, and the reliance of politicians on opinion-polling have made a certain kind of public debate—even if it’s debate within narrowly constrained parameters—more immediately important in American and global politics. In these conditions, one needs not only an ‘informed’ citizenry, but a citizenry that’s sophisticated enough in weighing arguments to spot logical contradictions and non-sequiturs, not to mention outright lies.

Students are not getting an education in argument, and do not miss what they never had. Schools have abandoned critical thinking while the proliferation of so-called critical thinking materials notwithstanding.

Graff: You’re right that many students don’t miss an initiation into the intellectual world of whose very existence they never even learn. No, I don’t see as much concern within academia over this problem as I think there should be. I think we’ve gotten accustomed to a system in which the very few excel in school (and reap the rewards in the vocational world beyond) and the many stumble along and more or less get by, or get through, or fail.

Graff's reason for the apathy is a classic example of the sort of educational obstructionism that pervades our society. We only need a few well-educated elites. There are not enough slots for everyone else.

In some ways such a system suits us academics—it’s not our fault if the majority stumble or fail, we can easily say, that’s just the way it is; only an elite in any society is going to ‘get’ the intellectual club, etc.

Who does Graff blame? Not the parents. The popular weasel strategy of blaming the parents conveniently forgets the fact that parents have to be educated first.
Insofar as this is a common academic attitude, I blame academics more than parents, whom it’s also our job to educate, after all.

Somehow most of our college students are missing out on what should be the goal of their education—becoming a well-informed, thinking citizenry. best I was reaching 15-20 percent of the students in an average undergraduate class and that the remaining 80-85 percent were in some other country or time-zone. Comparing notes with colleagues over the years led me to conclude that most felt the same way. Some unashamedly said they teach to that top 15-20 percent and figure there’s no point worrying about the others.

I have had the same experience. Whereas I was able to persuade just about every member of my junior high and high school classes to buy into my program and reach previously unattainable levels of achievement, I found my college classes to be far more resistant. Some of my college students said straight out, “We don't want to know how or why the math works. Just tell us how to get the answer.” Combine the students' attitude with the new consumer, so-called student-centered approach to education, and there we have a recipe for a generation of ill-educated college graduates.

Professors who refuse to bow to student demands and try to educate the unwilling regardless of their resistance risk unfavorable student evaluations. Professors who respond to market conditions fare much better, and thereby effectively “purchase” great student evaluations. Twenty years down the road, I wonder how many students of the first professor will be grateful for the gift and sorry for their evaluations, and how many students of the second professor will feel they have been royally gypped.

There is a reason, grasshoppers, why I have the big desk and you have the little ones.

Can you imagine a college class where thew books of Ann Coulter Michael Moore are required reading? Dr. Graff can.

I can imagine a good course in which students would read Coulter and Moore for starters and then move on to more nuanced and complicated texts on the same set of issues.

Graff would like a chance to test his ideas.

Take five sections of freshman composition at a university and teach them using the ‘argument templates’ discussed extensively in Clueless and other methods for demystifying academic culture. Closely monitor the writing done by the students over the course of the semester or year, and compare their work with that produced by a randomly-chosen control group of a different five sections of the same course. I like to think the results would dramatically bear out my claims. If they didn’t it would be back to the drawing-board for me.

Yet he observes sadly that universities seem unconcerned about product beyond job training.
But it’s symptomatic of the incuriosity of higher education about what students actually get out of college that one never hears about such experiments even being tried.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

All Politics---and Education—is Local. Well, Maybe

According to a commentary in the September 10, 2009 online issue of EdWeek, U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, the public outcry over the President's speech to students was not about indoctrinating our children with socialist philosophy. Mr. Kline believes a more fundamental issue was at stake. More fundamental than socialism? What the president learned this week was that all education, just like all politics, is local.

President Obama delivered a positive, uplifting message to students this week. The fact that many Americans were rubbed the wrong way by what amounted to a federal recommendation about what to teach, and how to teach it, is a signal that no matter how well-intentioned, education reforms simply cannot be dictated from Washington

In Japan, where the national Ministry of Education dictates all sorts of education policies, even in Japan, the nagging and unspoken noise that education is primarily a local issue constantly plays in the background. It is all too true that if the Ministry of Education is for it, then the Japanese teachers union is against it. Japanese teachers spend enormous amounts of time discussing, demonstrating and otherwise agitating against Ministry of Education policies.

If socialist-leaning, group-oriented Japan with its highly centralized education system where every class in the country in any given grade is on the same page of the textbook on any given day finds centrally-dictated policy so onerous, of course, those highly individualistic Americans would be in near revolt over the prospect of education reform dictated from on high.

Mr. Kline suggests the response to the president's speech was symbolic of growing powerless frustration.
...many local communities are growing frustrated as they perceive a more active, intrusive federal government making more and more decisions about how their children are taught.

Maybe you were thinking No Child Left Behind is Exhibit A of an “active, intrusive federal government.” For Mr. Kline, Exhibit A would be the lesson plans the White House provided as a supplement to the speech.

...the nagging fact remains that the federal government—not local teachers or school boards—developed a very specific lesson plan for implementation in classrooms all across the country.

Except... The federal government, as well as many other governmental bodies, have been providing lesson plans for years and years without public protest. One comment to the citation lists a few:
A short list of federal government developed lesson plans:

The National Archives Lesson Plans

National Institute of Health Curriculum Supplements

U.S. Department of Agriculture Lesson Plans

National Park Service Lesson Plans

U.S. Department of Energy Lesson Plans

U.S. Department of State Lesson Plans

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Teacher Lesson Plans

NASA for Educators

FBI for Kindergarten - 5th Grade

CIA for Parents and Teachers

All kinds of entities provide optional lesson plans. It might be as laudable as a public utility promoting energy conservation. It might be construed as inappropriate commercialism exploiting impressionable (and captive) children. All of these publicly available lesson plans are optional. I agree with Mr. Kline that “something else is at play.” However, that something else is not fear of indoctrination, and it is not the optional lesson plans.

Related Post at School Crossing,When a President Speaks:6 Reasons to Object to Objectors.