kitchen table math, the sequel: 12/30/07 - 1/6/08

Saturday, January 5, 2008

how to fix a learning problem, calculus edition

another palisadesk resource:

Tool skills are the most basic elements of more complex skills. For example, in order to build fluency in oral reading, one must be able to say sounds and words quickly. In order to build fluency in composition, one must be able to copy letters and words quickly. Although early studies in perceptual-motor learning demonstrated that fluency in task parts makes fluency on complex tasks that contain these parts easier to achieve (e.g., Gagne & Foster, 1949), it was not until the late 1960s that Eric Haughton studied such relations in education. Haughton (personal communication, August 1978) found that college students having trouble in calculus could improve their performance by building fluency on very basic elements, such as saying and writing numbers and math facts. Haughton (1971, 1972, 1980) reported that a program of tool skill building improved underachieving students' math performance to the level of their competent peers, whereas an arbitrary reward system, increasing the potency of consequences, and extensive practice in math at the students' grade levels all failed to improve their performance. Again, the presenting problem is not always the problem to solve.

Breaking the Structuralist Barrier
Literacy and Numeracy With Fluency
Kent R. Johnson
T. V. Joe Layng
American Psychologist 1992 47(11) pp. 1475-1490

the presenting problem is not always the problem to solve

off the Titanic

from Palisadesk:

A friend whose child attends a "good" (high-scoring, upper-SES, non-diverse) school had a chid who, in middle second grade, was still a total non-reader. School did not find this a problem. Child and parent did not agree.

I tested him myself: no phonological issues, extremely high verbal aptitude, outstanding vocabulary. Parent read to him, took him to library, bought him books.


Just wait, school says. He will read when he is ready.

Ever my cheerful self, I suggested maybe this mystical readiness might materialize around the time Medicaid kicked in. Meanwhile, perhaps we should give "development" just the teeniest push? After all, we don't see many teenagers in diapers, do we? They would probably "naturally" develop continence. Doesn't stop us from toilet-training toddlers.

Following a curriculum wasn't something the mother was confident with. So I suggested the online instructional program Headsprout Early Reading. Kid started it in January. He was at a Kindergarten level. He learned quickly. I told mom, you watch, no one in school will notice. And when they finally do, they will NOT want to know what you are doing. They will take all the credit!

Sure enough, in March he had come up 20 levels on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and was at grade level. Mom tried to tell the school about Headsprout (developed on DI and PT principles). Of course, no one was interested -- they said, "Oh, it just finally all 'clicked'." Oh sure. But I felt a warm glow (the more so since I didn't do any of the work!!)

I did do some of the work on a kid at school. I first noticed her when I was on recess supervision duty. She was young for first grade, only five, and unprepossessing in appearance -- Coke-bottle glasses, somewhat clumsy where gross motor movement was concerned, often solitary and engrossed in her own interests. I went up to her on one occasion as she was scrutinizing the ground and putting sticks carefully in some sort of order. "What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm testing my hypothesis," came the reply. Whoa! I thought. She was in fact putting obstacles in the way of ants and predicting what they would do. But her language got my attention. This is a largely ESL school where "He gots mines" is the normal level of oral expression at age 5. I started to pay attention to this child, who had intriguing ideas, loved to play with words and concepts, socialized well and had lots of friends but happily went her own way as needed. Teachers liked her, but no one thought she was bright. She was on an IEP in third grade -- could not read or write. I was L.A resource teacher that year and manipulated things so she got into my sub rosa Reading Mastery group. Zoom! By Christmas she was in RM V (fourth grade level). The following year, we were pressured to nominate some kids for screening for the Gifted program. Of course teachers insisted we had no gifted students. I nominated Miss Hypothesis Testing. Big flurry -- "You can't nominate her! She had an IEP! She must be LD!"

Nonsense, I said. She is not LD. She is gifted. Wanna put some money on the line? How about $500?

I had no takers. But I did get her tested. Later in the day, I saw the psychologist in the hall. She wore a peculiar expression.

"I've been testing a lot of kids, because there's a push on to find kids in these low-performing schools who qualify for the gifted program (have to be 99th percentile on the WISC). But, the kids nominated at these schools are nowhere even close. Until today -- your little M. is off the charts! Wow! How did you know??"

I had a wicked thought and just said, "It takes one to know one," and sauntered on. But I had that warm glow again -- reactivated recently, when I found out that that same child is now in the first cohort at our new high school gifted program. Later, I did pump the psychologist for information. Would M have qualified for the gifted program if she still had reading and writing skills at a K level in 4th grade?

No, the psych said. She would qualify for an LD class.

I felt like I had just pulled somebody off the Titanic. It's a great feeling, I'll bet waaay more so when it's your own child. These truly are life-changing milestones.

Friday, January 4, 2008


C. arrived home in high spirits this afternoon.

"I'm not the dumb kid in math any more," he said.

And he's not. "Mr. P. gave us a really hard problem and I knew how to do it. And I could explain it."

It's all been worth it.

Every single minute.


Does anybody have a current subscription to City Journal? I stupidly let mine lapse (again), and the homepage keeps taunting me with the promise of a forthcoming Sol Stern piece entitled, "School Choice Isn't Enough: Instructional Reform Is The Key To Better Schools."

Of course, not reading TFA has never stopped me from opining before, so allow me just add that while I agree in theory, but in practice, instructional reform is likely impossible without choice.*

* This is the classic argumentation template for students who skipped the reading. "While I agree in theory, I think actual implementation would be rather difficult." The funny part is this was usually my conclusion after I eventually did the reading, which is probably why it worked.

"the secret to raising smart kids"

I can't even keep up with all the links and book recommendations palisdesk & Liz Ditz have left! (Am currently searching for their posts on motivation. How is it that I have distinct memories of having recorded the URLs in my Scrivener program -- not only of recording the URLs, but of checking repeatedly to make sure I had recorded the URLs? If there's the faintest chance that my Scrivener program has gone buggy on me, that could be a very bad thing.)

When he was not quite into his teens, John Mighton Vic 7T8 read his older sister’s psychology textbook on gifted children and came to a crushing conclusion: his chances of being a genius were slim to none. He just didn’t have the spontaneous brilliance and long list of natural abilities apparently required of whiz kids. He was a child who read widely, voraciously and beyond his age range. He had believed that one day he would travel in time and write great literature. Yet this harsh encounter with the prevailing authorities on intelligence changed him, and it was years before he fully regained his confidence as a student. Fortunately, in the last two decades the playwright, mathematician, educator, social activist and philosopher has more than made up for any lost time.

Mighton says he was an “erratic student” right into his early undergraduate years at Vic. “I think I was subconsciously afraid of meeting my limitations, so sometimes I wouldn’t work very hard or would give up on things. I thought if you ever had to struggle at something you just didn’t have it in you.” His intellectual interests always ran deep and wide, however, covering everything from drama to science fiction. Studying philosophy at Vic seemed like the best choice, he says, because it allowed him to explore fundamental questions that sprung up in all his pursuits. Even so, he only began to get serious about his studies towards the end of his degree, thanks to what he calls “phenomenal professors” who engaged and challenged him.

While completing an MA in philosophy at McMaster University, Mighton read another book that changed his life – this time for the better. It was the collected letters of Sylvia Plath to her mother. “After reading her letters I realized that she taught herself to be a writer by sheer determination,” he says. “Nobody had ever told me that you could actually learn a craft, so it came as a real revelation.”


But it wasn’t until after he had succeeded in playwriting that he felt ready to pursue his lifelong fascination with mathematics. His first step into the discipline was answering an ad seeking math tutors. He landed the job and was soon teaching himself long-forgotten math concepts the night before he had to teach them to his students. Many of the kids he tutored were far behind grade level and barely understood basic concepts when they arrived, but his careful instruction and consistent encouragement produced dramatic changes in their performance. He saw it as further proof that, instead of being innate and unchangeable, intelligence and ability are quite plastic.

The excitement of this discovery led Mighton to establish a not-for-profit organization called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) in 1998.


At its core, JUMP is about demystifying math and rebuilding confidence in kids. Mighton says the majority of JUMP students have been told, explicitly or implicitly, that they will never be good at math, and they have come to believe it. This, he says, is the dangerous power of the Myth of Ability. “JUMP starts by breaking down very basic concepts and giving kids lots of praise for the simplest accomplishments, because many of them have had their spirits broken by the system and need a sustained period of success. Children are naturally passionate about learning if you don’t make them feel awful and if they think they are meeting challenges.” Many JUMP students move up into academic streams at school and several have gone on to graduate studies. One even did a doctoral degree in math.

I have his book, but haven't read it (may have to move it up to the top of the heap). What I loved about Mighton, back when I first heard about him on the old site, is that he starts with fractions.

I like a math tutor with chops (homage to Carolyn).

and.... an aside: reading your big sister's psych textbook and concluding you're not a genius and can't be a writer strikes me as just the kind of boneheaded thing a gifted kid would do.

I say that with affection.

Carole Dweck on raising smart kids

I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.


Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.


How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

My neighbor says psychologists used to believe that the most functional worldview was for a person to blame his failures on factors outside his control while taking credit for success. I'd forgotten that, but now that she's reminded me I believe I do recall Martin Seligman making this argument.

Given that context, Dweck's research is quite radical. She's saying it's just as bad to attribute your successes to innate ability as it is to blame your failures to lack of innate ability. You don't want to go around thinking you're smarter than everyone else.

I believe this absolutely. I was raised on a Midwest farmer ethic of hard work and no bragging; it was so out of bounds to be special in any way that we kids were directly told we weren't special on more than one occasion. We were expected to be hardworking, fun-loving, and uncomplaining.

That upbringing has stood me in good stead for lo these many years.

bonus points

homework and intelligence at 11D (thank you to Amy Pruss)


Practice Makes Perfect on the Blackboard (pdf file)

Regina's precision teaching site

precision teaching wiki

mark this down!

Steve H on collective homeschooling

If the money followed the child, many more local schools would pop up. Some would evolve from home schoolers, and some would evolve from groups of willing parents. After a period of rapid growth and change, I would expect a certain amount of consolidation so that buildings could be bought and economies of scale could be achieved.

I've talked with other parents about doing what amounts to a collective homeschool (even without money from the town or state). Each parent would contribute money, teaching, and/or effort in some way or other. When I talk with other parents about this idea, you can see the wheels turning. Some of them are sending their kids to private K-8 schools costing $15,000 - $20,000 and the schools expect more money and effort from them.

Just imagine if the KTM parents lived near each other. Imagine 10 kids (for example), a budget of $150,000 per year, and complete control over the curriculum. You could probably finish all of the direct instruction by noon. Homework would be completed after lunch. Imagine the possibilities. Invest in a small bus. Think of the field trips.

I've had some variant of this thought many times. My only caution is that I would want to keep things as informal as possible, which means I would want to avoid forming an actual school at least to start.

I say this because of our experience sending Jimmy and Andrew to a charter school founded by a group of dedicated, highly educated parents who knew exactly what they wanted (in their case a state of the art behavioral program for autistic kids). The whole enterprise turned acrimonious. Extremely so. Basically a founder syndrome issue.

That's not to say that charter schools aren't a good thing, or that charter schools started by parents who know what they're doing are doomed to open warfare. Not at all.

It is to say that if I had the good fortune to be teamed up with a group of like-minded parents I personally would be happiest starting with limited commitments and going from there.

Steve's right: we'd get through the curriculum fast -- and we could have great field trips in the afternoon!

Ed, a couple of months ago, decided that we need an "afterschool cooperative" that would recruit parents to tutor, reteach, preteach, etc. as needed. I think such a thing is highly feasible although I don't believe it would make up for simply having a great school dedicated to teaching the liberal arts disciplines to mastery to begin with.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

more from teacher burn-out comments


Retired now, I taught in high school, in university, in medical school; and eventually, directed biotech research. By far and away, my brief career teaching high school biology was the most difficult and the least rewarding. Admittedly, high school students span a much greater range of ability and motivation, but I found students the least of the problem.

I taught in a public high school and in a large, very sophisticated private high school. The latter more nearly resembled university teaching. The public high school hovered on disaster every day. In retrospect, I cannot imagine anyone enjoying a rewarding career at such a place. Those who coped best were, in my observation, the least stimulating teachers and the least committed to student growth.

Unintentionally, we have made our public schools into service institutions for the poor, for the disadvantaged, for the disabled, and for the unruly. In the name of “Égalité”, we have driven into private schools the serious and capable students whose parents can afford it. We have made social development more important than learning. We have made teachers responsible for the financial and career success of our children, while demanding they also instruct in manners and keep order. We have created an educational system that produces students inferior in attainment to those from almost every other developed country, as measured by every method.

Here is the best measure of our failure: When I was a PhD student in the 1960s, foreign students in graduate science departments across the country numbered less than 20-percent. Most of that minority of foreign students remained after graduation, making their skills available to the United States. Today more than 60-percent of science graduate students are foreign students, and a diminishing number remain after graduation. My colleagues still teaching complain they cannot find enough qualified American students.

I should note that when I directed biotech research most of my senior scientists came from England, Poland, Israel, and Germany; my junior scientists were most frequently former high school science teachers who were “burnt out” or who simply could not afford to continue teaching.

We cannot change the disaster of our public schools until we decide the very most important goal of school is education; until we devote our greatest resources to our best students; and, until we reward our best teachers with the same salaries and respect we accord to lawyers, stock brokers, and sales people.

— Posted by Wayne Lanier, PhD

He's right about graduate students.

Ed says that the Physics graduate program at NYU has under 10% enrollment U.S. students.

from the TIMES

Love this comment on the TIMES article about parents causing teacher burnout:

What this article is NOT saying is that students are not being prepared to go into college courses. I graduated at the top of my high school class in 2003 and had to take 2 remedial math courses before I was able to get up to college level algebra. What were my teachers teaching me that I couldn’t place into college level math? They were teaching me the bare minimum. Don’t get me wrong, teachers have the hardest jobs of all, but when they become cynical because of criticism, then they need to get out of the business. I paid for my remedial courses, how about my high school teachers reimburse me for it? Parents should be involved, my parents assumed that I was getting a good education at a good high school, they were wrong. Parents need to start attending school board meetings, addressing the issues that need to be addressed. If teachers don’t want to deal with parents, then get a new job, because kids and just that, they are kids, and they need their parents to speak up for them.

Unfortunately, attending school board meetings & addressing issues that need to be addressed does not result in one's school taking responsibility for teaching math.

"gadget of the week"

Barron's has an online review of the StressEraser.

For the record, I don't agree with the guy. Ed doesn't have a Blackberry (neither do I) & the StressEraser works for him; in fact our kids' doctor, Eric Hollander, recommended it for sleep. Ed and I both find the reviewer's recommended alternative, a glass of wine, to be far less effective for sleep than the Stress Eraser.

I should add that I'm not sure the Stress Eraser is all that great for stress per se. Ed uses it for sleep, which is what I've used it for a couple of times. Once or twice I tried using it for stress but while I felt zoned out and calmly vague as I was using the thing I didn't feel particularly zoned out or calmly vague once I turned it off and got back to work (or back to avoiding work, whichever).

What the Stress Eraser is really good for is training. I can see physicians and health clubs using the thing to teach people how to breathe themselves to sleep at night. Once you learn you can do it without the feedback; the reviewer is right about that.

you heard it here first (possibly)
StressEraser on YouTube
a possible case of buyer's remorse

gadget of the week

Teacher Burnout: Blame the Parents

From the New York Times Wellness Channel:

Teacher Burnout

While the data come from German schools, the researchers note that many of the demands of teaching, including disruptive students, high expectations from school officials and close scrutiny from parents, are universal.

The issue of teacher burnout is important because American schools today are experiencing high levels of teacher turnover as baby boomers retire and new teachers leave the field. According to the most recent Department of Education statistics available, about 269,000 of the nation’s 3.2 million public school teachers, or 8.4 percent, quit the field in the 2003-2004 school year. Thirty percent of them retired, and 56 percent said they left to pursue another career or because they were dissatisfied. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has calculated that nearly a third of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone.

Here are some sample quotes, but you should go read the whole shebang (128 at last count)

  • Parents with complaints should be restricted to the principal’s office, and not allowed to barge into classrooms. A parent who interferes with classroom teaching should be required by law to spend 5 days in jail. Taken to jail from the classroom in handcuffs by police.
  • I have been far more affected by administrators who leave the teaching ranks after a couple of years without ever realizing what becoming a teacher requires or who fail to work with and inspire teachers.
  • Quite often parents come to school to fight, not for their children, but to win the battles they lost when they were young. The sense of entitlement, joined with self-righteous anger and administrators who fear nothing more than a phone call to their boss leave teachers with little choice but to “try to make overly demanding parents happy.”
  • In our neck of the woods, the most difficult part of teaching in dealing with indulgent parents who don’t necessarily want to put in the time to actually be involved with their kids’ education, but, blame the teacher when the kid fails to perform.
  • Parents are just as bewildered and concerned as teachers as to how to deal with the maelstrom into which their children have been dumped, and the disappearing resources.
  • I often would say that if the children boarded at the school Monday through Friday, what a difference we would see in attitude AND results.
  • What about parent burn-out caused by non-responsive and arbitrary teachers and administrators? This works both ways!
  • If parents get involved, it’s their fault teachers are burned out. But if they’re not involved, it’s their fault the teachers can’t teach their students to read. No matter what happens, it’s always the parents’ fault - apparently expecting teachers to teach kids is an unreasonable expectation; it is up to the parents to make the teachers’ classrooms run well.
  • In my 36 years teaching elementary grades, demanding parents have rarely been a problem. In fact, I’ve enlisted parents as classroom helpers and am extremely grateful for the time and support they have contributed. The BIG problem has been and continues to be the idiocy of state and district bureaucracies, whose infinite wisdom declares that even schools with good test scores enter “Program Improvement” status so we can boost the numbers.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

down the rabbit hole

A friend of mine reports that one of the K-5 teachers explained to parents why they give kids math homework they don't know how to do.

When the kids try to do the problems and fail they come to school the next day really wanting to find out how to do them.

Of course, I have a different theory as to why kids in a "high-performing" district would be routinely given assignments that are over their heads.

Sigh. Misunderstanding Scripted Learning [whiny voice] AGAIN!

One of the most important things I gathered from the Direct Instruction literature is that is isn't scripted lessons, it is a script for lessons that have been tried, tested, debugged, tested again, further debugged, [repeat ad nauseum until you have a program that has a X% rate of success upon delivery] plus effective training of teachers in script delivery plus constant, rapid testing and feedback to students that make a scripted program effectove

[sidebar: Ken deRosa had an excellent summary, from Engelmann's The Outrage of Project Follow Through: how this works in practice"]

These quality-control features are what is missing from the conversation about "scripted lessons", which are often depicted as "teacher proof".

Sheesh. Would any theater-goer think of a play (which after all, is a script) as "actor-proof"? Haven't they ever been to a wooden production?

It is the "phonics vs. whole language" argument, all over again. Frankly, if I had a child in k-3, I'd prefer a semi-competent whole-language teacher, who was at least reading good stories, over a lousy phonics means workbooks and illogical teaching and drill teacher. At least I could supplement my kid's reading mastery with good phonemic extra-curricular teaching, rather than trying to erase the wrong approach and start over.

But wait. I got away from the point of this post.

The point of Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching is that both approaches are continually refined, based upon accurate* assessment. I can sit at home all I want, and come up with a clever, creative lesson plan (which might well be wonderful based on thought experiments) but until I use the lesson plan, and then test what of the concepts in the plan the students have mastered, on actual is just pie in the sky.

NYC Educator has some doozies from classroom teachers on script-hating.

*another time we will talk about how malformed multiple choice questions have nothing very little to do with getting an accurate picture of what your students have or have not mastered.

The future of education

This post summarizes a more detailed series of posts at my blog – go here to see the first of five on this subject.

It’s the start of a new year, a time for considering the future and making plans accordingly. For those of us who work with the public education system in one way or another, it might be helpful to reflect on how the system might change over the next several years so we’re ready for it.

Consider how the following major trends are going to shape public education in the future:

More kids, different kids
  • According to NCES, “school enrollment is projected to set new records every year from 2006 until at least 2014, the last year for which NCES has projected school enrollment.” We’re currently at 55.1 million, and will creep up to a projected 56.7 million in 2014.
  • In the year 2000, whites made up 69.9% of the total US population, with all other groups comprising 30.1%. We are on a track towards an even split by the year 2050, with whites comprising 50.1% of the population, and all other groups making up 49.9% (see here). Due to fertility rates, diversification is happening more quickly in the schools: by 2020 approximately 40% of school-aged children will be from minority groups, and by 2025 we can expect to see that the child population will comprise 15.8% blacks, 23.6% Hispanics, 1.1% American Indian/Native Alaskans, 6.9% Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 52.6% whites.
  • In addition to racial/ethnic diversity, it is reasonable to assume that the special education population will continue to grow, given that it has seen steady growth from 8.3% in 1976/77 to today’s 13.7% (see here).

  • While the particulars of No Child Left Behind may change somewhat during the reauthorization process, the fundamental concepts on which it is built – equity (educating every child) and accountability – are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Advancing these two concepts in tandem, by requiring that achievement reports include disaggregated data (so we can track the performance of each subgroup), means that we can’t mask or hide our progress.
  • It’s a major change because, while we’ve always talked about the importance of educating every child, we haven’t really done it. The gap between different student groups has been with us for decades, and has not changed significantly for quite some time. Another indication of our lip service in this area is the difference in dropout rates by race/ethnicity, with recent calculations indicating that 75% of white students graduate high school, but only 50% of African-American and 53% of Hispanic students do so.

School Finance
  • Average per-student expenditures have increased dramatically in the past 40 years, from $3400 in 1965 to $8745 in 2001 (in constant dollars). This almost certainly cannot continue.
  • In the short term, revenues will be pressed by the subprime mortgage crisis: state and local education funding is fueled in part by property taxes, and some experts predict a 15% peak-to-trough adjustment in home prices in the near term. Twenty states are already having to revise their 2008 budgets as a result.
  • In the long term, we’re about to see a record number of people moving into retirement age: in 2000, we had 35.1 million people ages 65+, or 12.4% of the population; in 2050, we’ll have 86.7 million in that age group, or 20.6% of the population. These are people who were formerly paying into the system (income taxes), and are now going to be pulling out (in services). And this powerful voting group is less likely to support education funding.
  • The rise in retirement will fuel an increase in the costs of Medicaid to the states, which shoulder approximately 43% of the cost of this program. Medicaid currently accounts for 22% of state spending (up from 8% in 1985), and recently surpassed K-12 education as the most expensive item on state ledgers. And it’s growing at 6% annually, twice the rate of inflation.
  • While revenues are about to be pressed, expenditures are set to grow significantly. Education is a manpower-intensive business, with 6 million employees currently in the system. First, consider that states have not set aside enough money to cover the retirement benefits of employees (current retirement programs are underfunded by $731 billion). Then consider the rising cost of health insurance, coupled by the fact that many teachers receive full coverage not only for themselves, but for spouses and children as well. As one administrator said, the rising cost of health insurance “is the single most important issue facing districts nationwide."

What does all this mean? It means we’re going to have more kids than we’ve ever had before, and that the population will increasingly be made up of the kids we haven’t done a great job with in the past. We’re making a commitment to teach them all, and have a system in place to see whether we’re actually doing that, so it’s going to be a lot tougher to gloss over any shortcomings. And this is all happening at a time when budgets will either stagnate or even shrink due to major economic forces.


the misbehavior of organisms

Do yourself a favor and start your year by reading Keller & Marian Breland's The Misbehavior of Organisms.

There seems to be a continuing realization by psychologists that perhaps the white rat cannot reveal everything there is to know about behavior... However, psychologists as a whole do not seem to be heeding these admonitions....

Perhaps this reluctance is due in part to some dark precognition of what they might find in such investigations, for the ethologists Lorenz (1950, p. 233) and Tinbergen (1951, p. 6) have warned that if psychologists are to understand and predict the behavior of organisms, it is essential that they become thoroughly familiar with the instinctive behavior patterns of each new species they essay to study. Of course, the Watsonian or neobehavioristically oriented experimenter is apt to consider "instinct" an ugly word. He tends to class it with Hebb's (1960) other "seditious notions" which were discarded in the behavioristic revolution, and he may have some premonition that he will encounter this bete noir in extending the range of species and situations studied.

We can assure him that his apprehensions are well grounded.

What I need now are Marian Breland Bailey's thoughts on the instinctive behavior patterns of 13-year old boys.

academic motivation

Good observations and resources from Liz & palisdesk in the comments thread.

I'm thinking about motivation this year for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with my determination to:

a) commit every last word of Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog to memory


b) apply it


c) do same with David L. Watson's Self-Directed Behavior.

Looks like I'll also have to spend time slogging through the 2nd edition of John Cooper's Applied Behavior Analysis thanks to last week's Barnes and Noble Promotional Gift Card snafu.*

My second reason has to do with the question: how does one convince a teenager that staying in school is a good idea?

I don't know the answer to that. I don't even know where to begin.


* sauve qui peut alert: B&N Promotional Gift Cards do not cover textbooks, & customer service reps are apparently unable to cancel as yet unplaced orders for textbooks. Promotional Christmas Gift Cards are a risky proposition, I conclude. On the other hand, my efforts to spend this season's $50 Garnet Hill Promotional Gift Card without purchasing a $100-item at full price sans Promotional Discount seem to have met with success. So that's something.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

An ode to progressive education.

Who can compete with all that fun as educators prepare the young for their world? See the kiddies happily dancing into the world of tomorrow.

Meet Kilpatrick, Bagley (a critic of progressive education) and Dewey himself. I think this video is from the 40s.

1 is the loneliest number

Just got this from Liz Ditz:

How parents with issues are viewed by schools

1 parent with an issue = A nutjob
2 parents with the same issue = A nutjob and a friend
3 parents with the same issue = A trio of troublemakers
5 parents with the same issue = “Let’s have a meeting”
10 parents with the same issue = “We’d better listen”
25 parents with the same issue = “Our dear friends”
50 parents with the same issue = A powerful organization

Based in personal experience I agree with this list up to the number 5. After that my modification would run something like:

10 parents with the same issue = “Let's have another meeting”
25 parents with the same issue = “Let's take a survey
50 parents with the same issue = "Let's have a Community Conversation"

ktm1 - wit and wisdom

instructivist just reminded me of the old Wit and Wisdom page.

It's great.

bigger & better

Lots of cool brain stuff at New Scientist.

Maybe I'll just forget the Book Club and spend my time hanging out on the web doing exercises intended to increase my working memory. (Sorry - I didn't write down the source that put me onto those two sites, but I remember it being serious.)

UNTIL recently, a person's IQ - a measure of all kinds of mental problem-solving abilities, including spatial skills, memory and verbal reasoning - was thought to be a fixed commodity largely determined by genetics. But recent hints suggest that a very basic brain function called working memory might underlie our general intelligence, opening up the intriguing possibility that if you improve your working memory, you could boost your IQ too.
Working memory is the brain's short-term information storage system. It's a workbench for solving mental problems. For example if you calculate 73 - 6 + 7, your working memory will store the intermediate steps necessary to work out the answer. And the amount of information that the working memory can hold is strongly related to general intelligence.
A team led by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has found signs that the neural systems that underlie working memory may grow in response to training. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans, they measured the brain activity of adults before and after a working-memory training programme, which involved tasks such as memorising the positions of a series of dots on a grid. After five weeks of training, their brain activity had increased in the regions associated with this type of memory (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 75).
Perhaps more significantly, when the group studied children who had completed these types of mental workouts, they saw improvement in a range of cognitive abilities not related to the training, and a leap in IQ test scores of 8 per cent (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol 44, p 177). It's early days yet, but Klingberg thinks working-memory training could be a key to unlocking brain power. "Genetics determines a lot and so does the early gestation period," he says. "On top of that, there is a few per cent - we don't know how much - that can be improved by training."

As far as I can tell, the idea that working memory is highly related to IQ is solid and not likely to be significantly revised any time soon. I have the impression that, for awhile there, neuroscientists were thinking that IQ might actually be working memory, but that hypothesis seems to have been abandoned.

a heroine I didn't know I had

Marian Breland Bailey: many lives

Many of you here will recall Marian as the alert, white-haired lady who was a fixture in the audience of SQAB talks. She was still at it last year, sitting near the front and listening intently to the speaker, with none of the zoning out or dozing off that characterizes many academics over 50. At the end of a talk, she frequently raised her hand, and proceeded to ask a question or share a bit of information. The questions were always relevant, never creampuffs, and the information mostly “dead on,” obviously drawn from a lifetime of working with animals. If the speaker was fortunate, she offered both questions and information.

I experienced Marian’s audience input first hand at a talk about misbehavior in the late 1970s. After reviewing examples (most drawn from the American Psychologist article by Marian and Keller Breland), I suggested that misbehavior consisted of preorganized species-typical foraging responses triggered by a cue with niche-related characteristics that predicted a delayed reward. Ten minutes from the end of the talk, I was supporting this view by pointing out that misbehavior typically involved appetitive rather than consummatory responses when, suddenly, Marian stood up and politely took charge. “I’m Marian Breland Bailey,” she said. “I like what you are saying, but we (she gestured toward Bob Bailey seated beside her) have to go to another talk. I want you to know, though, that consummatory responses show misbehavior. Animals often eat props paired with food. I’ve seen a dolphin swallow an inner tube, and turkeys eat the quarters we trained them to deposit. After they died you could find the coins ground smooth in their gizzards.” With that, she and Bob exited, leaving me to finish the talk on my own.

Later that day at a social hour, Marian introduced me to Bob, and suggested that I look at the book on Animal Behavior she and Keller had written in the early 1960s. I checked it out when I got home, and like everything else Marian was involved with, the book proved to be both groundbreaking and informative. I’d like to share two quotes from it here, saving a few others for later.

The first is a Konrad Lorenz like comment on the behavior of ducks and chickens, expressed in plain-spoken American:

Young ducks and chickens ... do not care to be handled, and will get away if they can. In their society, friends are not grabbers. (Animal Behavior, p. 64)

The second is a warning about the pitfalls of focusing on methodology:

The psychologist who thinks that psychology has reached the end point of its development and that all there is left now is to work out the details with the endless proliferation of experiments under different schedules of reinforcement, schedules of deprivation, and the like, will miss the diversity and richness of animal and human behavior. (Animal Behavior, p. 116)


Marian Kruse, as she was known in 1938, began her career in behavior working with B.F. Skinner shortly after he joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota.


In his experimental work at Harvard, Dr. Skinner focused on constructing and tuning apparatus and procedures to facilitate the emergence and control of the operant lever press. He continued this apparatus-based approach at Minnesota, but, at the same time, he began to attend to developing various operants in less constrained circumstances. One resultant change was an emerging recognition of the possibilities of shaping—the rewarding of successively closer approximations to a target operant. The concept of shaping was the topic of a photographic essay in Life magazine... In the apartment of a friend, Skinner demonstrated the shaping of an operant by rewarding the dog accompanying the photographer for successively higher leaps against a wall. The wall was marked with horizontal lines at increasing heights to make the changing response criteria clear. Given successively more challenging heights to obtain food, the dog rapidly went from not jumping at all to leaping high against the wall.

The emphasis on shaping was accompanied by a second development, the use of an easily controlled secondary reinforcing signal to reward each successive approximation to the operant. A secondary reinforcer (eventually often a hand-held “clicker”) was established by pairing it with food; then it was used to shape the animal’s behavior by presenting it after an appropriate response. The clicker had advantages over presenting a food hopper in that it was portable (no electrical power or relay racks needed), and it could be applied without interrupting responding by the delivery of food.


Marian and Keller Breland soon saw that the implementation of shaping using bridging (as they called the use of clickers) could be used to train animals for many purposes, including commercial ones. In 1943, against the advice of many friends and colleagues (including Dr. Skinner who argued reasonably that they should stay in school and finish their degrees) they left Skinner’s lab for a small farm in Mound, Minnesota. Founding a two-person company called ABE, they began to explore the possibilities of shaping and bridging using a variety of rewards and species. Not only were they successful at developing new behavior, they set a precedent for their enterprise by investing in research before trying to sell a product. Their favorite species, because of availability, tractability, and potential immediate payoff; was chickens, but they were never shy about trying other animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle, horses, geese, swans, rabbits, ducks, etc., over 140 species in all.

Like most beginning business, the critical goal of ABE was to put food on the table; so after being satisfied with the success of their techniques, Keller began selling corporations the idea of using trained animals in advertisements, especially in the form of a traveling animal show advertising a company’s products. By 1951 they had written a general training manual for working with animals, formed multiple touring shows, officially launched the area of Applied Animal Psychology in an article in the American Psychologist, and moved to larger and warmer quarters in Hot Springs Arkansas.

Regrettably, Keller died in 1965, but ABE continued to prosper under Marian’s direction, accumulating a group of talented people interested in commercial applications, ranging from Grant Evans to Kent Burgess and Robert Bailey, eventually a staff of 43. Marian and Bob Bailey consolidated the enterprise by marrying in 1976. ABE branched out to television commercials in 1954 and began providing small theme parks with prepackaged animal shows. For example, they had a stable of raccoons that played basketball and pianos, and hunted for eggs or crawfish. They also influenced the development of large-scale popular shows using subjects from marine mammals to parrots, and spent considerable time doing government funded research on potential applications of behavioral control. They advised public figures and groups ranging from Marlon Perkins to Walt Disney. Though persistence was their trademark, they finally gave up trying to encourage zoos to use training techniques to facilitate husbandry in captive animals. Their ideas in this case were nearly half a century too early.


Marian integrated teaching with family life in Hot Springs Arkansas, serving as a Girl Scout Leader for 9 years and President of the local PTA. She gave her time to many organizations and committees concerned with mental retardation and autism. In the early 1960s Marian wrote one of the earliest manuals instructing ward attendants how to teach the developmentally disabled. She continued as president of ABE and lead scientist on many government projects, and, as though that weren’t enough, she returned to graduate school, earning her Ph.D. in 1978. She soon began teaching at Henderson State College, rising to full professor before retiring at the age of 78, some 20 years later. In 1996 Marian began a new teaching career with Bob Bailey offering small classes in animal training to professional trainers. They got their show on the road, pulling a trailer loaded with equipment and chickens across large portions of the United States and into Canada. the word out by taking their show on the road, pulling a trailer loaded with equipment and chickens across large portions of the United States and into Canada.


Marian Breland Bailey was a wonderful combination of vision, perseverance, caring, independence, innovation, and brains; a leading scientist and practitioner, a mother, trainer, teacher, administrator, and a community and business leader. I see her philosophical stance as a positive and pragmatic iconoclast. She saw what was missing and proceeded to do something about it. She was not deterred by much of anything, except the possibility that people might give her more credit than she felt she deserved.

In speaking of her work with Keller Breland, she mentioned:

I would ... like to emphasize that Mr. Breland was always the principal author; his were the ideas, the creative spark, and the bulk of the substantive portion of the writing. I have been the journalist, organizer, rewrite editor, and author of narration and expository prose. Another way of putting it might be to say that he was the architect of the dreams and I the engineer. (Animal Behavior, p. ix)

She was one of the pioneers and until two months ago I had never heard of her.

I'm filing this under "Book Club."

The Misbehavior of Organisms
Marian Breland Bailey: many lives (pdf file)
book club
a heroine I didn't know I had

Monday, December 31, 2007

extra help

C. has completed all but one of his make-up math homework assignments & was in the midst of doing the "POW" (From 1994 through 1997, the cost per mile of owning and operating a car increased by 2.2 cents per year, etc.) when a kid in his class called for help.

A gratifying moment. Possibly a milestone!

I could hear the boy on the other end jabbering away, firing off one question after another. Chris' answers were precise and correct. (I think.)

The other boy didn't sound convinced.

"Are you sure that's right?"

"Yeah, that's the answer."

"Are you sure that's right?"

"That's the answer I got."

"Are you sure that's right?" The kid seemed to be needing a lot of reassurance.

Finally C. said, "It's right, my mom checked it," and I thought yikes. The blind leading the blind.

When he hung up, C. said "That was fun, getting called for help with math." I agreed that it was, and after we'd basked in glory for a bit I said, "Why did he call you?"

"He said he tried everyone else and no one was answering their phone."

Happy New Year!

time travel

I have spent most of today thinking tomorrow was New Year's Eve.

It's not.

New Year's Eve is today.

Which means the brisket should have gone into the oven quite some time ago.

Maybe we'll just skip the food and go straight to the champagne.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

white paper lollapalooza

For awhile there, after it became impossible for C. to share a room with Andrew, C. was sleeping on the floor of my office.i, ii This arrangement led to a new bedtime ritual: each night, after Ed read C. a story, the two of them would make a bet on how many files would be open on my (Mac) Desktop. I think the count once topped out in the 50s.

(Opening up way too many files is one of the behaviors I may be attempting to correct in the New Year. see: Book Club)

My point is: I am supposed to be writing a chapter on pigs.

Which means my Next Action is finding all my stuff about pigs, and that means my First Next Action is drilling down through the open documents on my computer screen to find all my stuff on pigs.

That's what I was doing when I found this passage in a 2006 Brookings report:

Although the 2006 edition of the CWI [Child and Youth Well-Being Index] indicates that overall well-being increased somewhat in 2005, once again children’s performance in the education domain was flat. This outcome for 2005 continues a trend that has now lasted for three decades. The lack of significant improvement in educational achievement is especially remarkable because national, state, and local policy has focused on improved educational performance almost continuously since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The nation has been alerted to achievement problems by a host of national reports, and per-pupil spending has more than doubled since 1970. Moreover, schools have undergone wave after wave of educational reform. Yet the student achievement flatline persists. To make matters worse, the gap in performance between poor and minority students on the one hand and middle class students on the other, has narrowed only slightly and is still very large.

Sauve qui peut.

i He was sleeping on the floor because the room was too small to hold a desk and a bed at the same time.

ii An example of the difficulty of "breaking set." It took months for us to figure out that C. should keep the large-ish bedroom the two of them had shared, Andrew should move into my tiny office (I think -- don't know -- autistic kids sometimes fair better in smaller spaces), and I should set up shop downstairs in the dining room. Of course once we'd made the cognitive shift from "dining room" to "home office," the solution seemed obvious.