kitchen table math, the sequel: on a certain arrogance, part 2

Sunday, February 3, 2008

on a certain arrogance, part 2

A couple of years ago I posted this passage from Siegfried Engelmann's The War Against the Schools’ Academic Child Abuse summarizing Galen Alessi's classic study of school psychologists:

I didn't post the full passage, however, which I re-read last night. The full passage has to do with arrogance. Seeing as how Concerned has raised the subject, I thought I'd chime in:

Diagnosis Diagnosed: A Systemic Reaction, Professional School Psychology, 3 (2), 145-151

Galen Alessi wrote an article in 1988 in which he diagnosed diagnosis. He asked 50 school psychologists to indicate how many cases they referred during the year. The average was about 100 per psychologist; so the group provided information on about 5000 kids. Alessi next tried to determine the different causes of the kid's learning problems. How many of the kids had the learning problem because of inappropriate curriculum? How many had learning problems because of poor teaching, or because of school administration problems? How many kids had problems because of home problems, or because there was some defect in the kid?

The percentages came out something like this:

  • The curriculum caused 0% of the referred problems:
  • The teaching practices caused 0% of the referred problems;
  • The school administration caused 0% of the referred problems;
  • The home environment caused 10-20% of the referred problems;
  • The child caused 100% of the referred problems.

The results tend to leave little doubt about whether the school psychologists work for the schools or the children. It further leaves no doubt that the sorting machine is alive and well. Consider the presumed infallibility of the schools suggested by this outcome. Not one of 5000 failures is presumed to be caused by school practices.


The arrogance of many administrators is not apparent in their personality. They may appear thoughtful, concerned, and open to suggestions. Their arrogance is in their decisions and their actions. Their actions reflect a fundamental lack of important values. Galen Alessi alluded to the problem with school psychologists: “Mere logic and research data will not change the role of school psychology, because the problem is not one of science but of values.”

Source: War Against the Schools’ Academic Child Abuse by Siegfried Engelmann, page 65-6

I hadn't thought about the arrogance this betrays.

100% infallibility!

The schools involved in this study have never, in 5000 cases of school failure, been at fault. Perfection has been achieved.

Years ago, when C. was first in school, I noticed that our district never admitted error. Ever. Not admitting error was a principle.

Very often, though, when a problem was brought to someone's attention, the school would publicly deny it but then privately fix it. I always thought that was fine. The school was responsive in its way.

Today, given what we've seen in the middle school, I've changed my view. Schools need formal, public mechanisms for identifying error, admitting error, and working with parents and students to remediate errors in teaching, curriculum, and/or administration.

I think I've mentioned my friend who sends her children to a private school down south a ways. The school gives the kids standardized tests 4 times a year, then meets with parents to go over the results. If a student has fallen behind in an area the school tells his parents why they believe this has occurred.

This means telling parents whether or not other students have been having the same problem.

If a child is the only one having a problem (this will be a true statement as opposed to the non-true statement that is routinely made or implied to parents in public schools), the school says so and tells the child's parents what steps the school is taking to bring him or her back up to speed. I remember one spring my friend's older child had lagged in usage of personal pronouns. This was a bright and capable child, so the school gave the family a packet of worksheets for their child to do over the summer. They said that was all it would take, and that was all it took.

If all of the kids, or a large portion of them, have fallen off the track in a particular area the school says so and explains what they are doing to bring everyone back up to speed.

All schools should function this way.

If a student is having a problem the school should:

  • know the child is having a problem
  • remediate the problem at once
  • analyze the situation to see why the problem developed

That is not what happens in public schools.

Instead, in public schools the child develops a problem and the teacher grades his work accordingly. Parents find out when the report card comes home. If the district sends out Interim Reports parents can get the bad news sooner instead of later.

And that is that.

If the parents care to contact the teacher or the school, fine. If not, that's fine, too.

In either case, the solution will be Extra Help, which the child and/or the parent will be responsible for "seeking."

If Extra Help doesn't work, there's nothing more to say.

Galen Alessi on the odds

First, the psychologists were asked whether all agreed that each of the just-mentioned, five factors may play a primary role in a given school learning or behavior problem. They almost always agreed. Next, they were asked for the number of cases each had examined in the past year to determine the source of learning problems. The answer was usually about 120. Using 100 as a round number, multiplied by the group size of 50, yields about 5,000 cases studied by the group in the past year.

At the next step, the group was asked for the number of psychological reports written that concluded that the referred problem was due primarily to curriculum factors. The answer was usually none. All cases out of 5,000 examined confirmed that their schools somehow had been fortunate enough to have adopted only the most effective basal curricula.

When asked for the number of reports that concluded that the referred problem was due primarily to inappropriate teaching practices, the answer also was none. All cases out of 5,000 examined proved that their districts had been fortunate enough to have hired only the most skilled, dedicated, and best prepared teachers in the land.

When asked how many reports concluded that the referred problem was due primarily to school administrative factors, the answer again was none. All cases out of 5,000 examined demonstrated that their districts had hired and retained only the nation's very best and brightest school administrators.

When asked how many reports concluded that parent and home factors were primarily responsible for the referred problem, the answer ranged from 500 to 1,000 (10% to 20%). These positive findings indicated that we were finally getting close to the source of educational problems in their schools. Some children just don't have parents who are smart, competent, or properly motivated to help their children do well in school.

Finally, I asked how many reports concluded that child factors were primarily responsible for the referred problem. The answer was 100%. These 5,000 positive findings uncovered the true weak link in the educational process in these districts: the children themselves. If only these districts had better functioning children with a few more supportive parents, there would be no educational difficulties.

As an addendum, I offered informal data collected in local Individual Educational Planning Committee (IEPC) meetings that suggest that family factors are invoked most often when the parent does not attend the meeting or if the parent is involved in a way deemed inappropriate by the school staff. Otherwise, child factors alone seem to carry the explanatory burden for school learning and behavior problems.

One does not need complex statistical analyses to know that these results are significant beyond the .0000001 level. The set of all cases studied by these school psychologists comprises a needs assessment for their districts. And, the results indicate clearly no need to improve curricula, teaching practices, nor school administrative practices and management. The only needs involve somehow improving the stock of children enrolled in the system, and some of their parents. But, it is equally unclear how school psychologists can help resolve this kind of problem. School psychologists seem to define school problems in ways that cannot be resolved.


I know the answer to that!

Extra Help.


Until schools agree to connect teaching with achievement -- inputs with outputs -- and to do so publicly, matters will not improve.


Liz Ditz said...

Other voices on the Alessi study:

Pam Wright, How Principals View Learning Problems, which also reports on

ERIC #: EJ552140
Title: How Administrators Understand Learning Difficulties: A Qualitative Analysis.
Authors: Allinton, Richard L.; McGill-Franzen, Anne; Schick, Ruth

Source: Remedial and Special Education, v18 n4 p223-32 Jul-Aug 1997

Abstract: Interviews were conducted with school administrators in six school districts identified as having increasing rates of retention in grade, transitional-grade placements, and identification of students as having disabilities. Virtually all explanations offered by the administrators placed the school outside the central sphere of influence and offered few ideas for altering general education to better meet needs of at-risk children.

and Pam Wright, The Blame Game! Are School Problems the Kids' Fault?

This article focuses on the Alessi article from the the point of view of SpEd parents, and so does not advice fighting over curriculum or teachers, but negotiating for what the child needs.

I'm not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, it is just the point of view of the article.

PaulaV said...

Tomorrow my fourth grader is undergoing psychoeducational testing at a private agency. After much deliberation and sleepless nights, my husband and I agreed it was time. We do not believe our son is deficient, but HE does. The smart, fun, little guy who began his journey in kindergarten at the neighborhood elementary school, is now an anxiety ridden 9 1/2 year old.

This past week solidified my decision to seek alternative schooling for both my children. I could deal with the fuzzy curriculum, but what happened this week to my family is beyond words.

Anonymous said...

Johnny was one of my first 5 students. He was a 5th grader who was reading at the 3rd grade level. I worked with him for eight 45-minute lessons. Then, he was retested by his school and found to be reading at the 6th grade level. However, his school STILL would not consider switching to phonics for beginning reading or providing remedial phonics instruction to other struggling students even after documenting his progress with phonics using their own tests. His father moved out of this large city to a smaller rural town (adding 30 minutes to his commute) after talking with the schools there--they were more responsive to parents and used phonics and other direct instruction methods.

So, while his original school was on the 0%/ 100% plan, his new school had a bit better ratio and actually talked to parents and believed that methods were important.

You can see what I taught him in the Journal I kept here, it was an early version of my lessons that are now online:

Johnny's Journal

Anonymous said...

It was this "Johnny" who convinced me to homeschool...that was 1995, almost a decade before we had any actual children. I didn't see any reason to send a child to school when I could teach "johnny" more in 6 hours than he had learned in 6 years.

Anonymous said...

Have u try the MATH online bookstore Cocomartini

I get all my textbooks for this semester from this bookstore. All are brand new textbooks and half price discount textbooks.

Good luck and wish some help.

hehe ^_^

Catherine Johnson said...

I heard from a parent today that all but two kids in one of the middle school math classes failed a test and the teacher told the kids it was their fault.

Catherine Johnson said...

The smart, fun, little guy who began his journey in kindergarten at the neighborhood elementary school, is now an anxiety ridden 9 1/2 year old.

This past week solidified my decision to seek alternative schooling for both my children. I could deal with the fuzzy curriculum, but what happened this week to my family is beyond words.

Can you tell us more?

I see the same thing here.

In our case the district's chronic obsessing over "critical thinking" and, now, "writing across the curriculum," is deadly. Grading is harsh and opaque; kids (and parents) feel no confidence anything they do will meet with approval. No one knows "what the teacher wants."

I'm watching kids succumb to anxiety, discouragement, and defeat in slow motion.

Constructivism is going to produce a huge amount of school failure. Enormous.

When kids were supposed to memorize a certain amount of material you could objectively assess whether they had or had not succeeded in that task.

Now that memorization isn't good enough it's not possible for students or parents to know what the teacher is actually assessing or why a student got the grade he got.

Combine that with grade deflation and you're going to knock a lot of kids flat on their backs.

A lot of parents here are trying to get their kids out.

The problem is that we don't have alternatives. Private schools cost $30K a year & there aren't enough of them to go around in any case.

Catherine Johnson said...

Paula - I just tried to email & discovered I don't have an address for you.

My email is

Catherine Johnson said...

Elizabeth - do you have thoughts on which kinds of public schools might be less doctrinaire and destructive?

I've been thinking the Midwest and the South will have some.

Karen H's schools strike me as either quite good OR, at a minimum, not destructive.

My sister-in-law's school sounds nothing like ours here.

Anonymous said...


I emailed you with my story!


Anonymous said...

I meant to say I emailed you my story. Geez!