kitchen table math, the sequel: 5/4/08 - 5/11/08

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Project Lead the Way

I'm in an uproar: massive book revisions and jury duty -- and not jury duty in White Plains, either, which would make sense. Nope, I'm summoned to jury duty in downtown Manhattan, a mere 30 miles and multiple train to subway transfers away. In my next life I'm coming back as an organized person, I swear. (Am off email for the time being, so if I haven't answered folks that's why.)

Meanwhile, I'm wondering whether anyone has experience with Project Lead the Way, which my district will be purchasing for school year 2007-2008 and beyond. The school board has sent out an email describing Project Lead the Way "a multi-year engineering program."

Project Lead the Way's mission is to entice more minorities and women into engineering programs:

We will create dynamic partnerships with our nation's schools to prepare an increasing and more diverse group of students to be successful in science, engineering, and engineering technology.

The evaluation of Project Lead the Way (pdf file) devotes many pages to counting the number of black, Hispanic, and female students enrolled in Project Lead the Way classes, as compared to the number of Asian students. Proportional representation is the goal.

Structurally, Project Lead the Way is associated with vocational education, which appears to have morphed into technology education. My guess is that voc-ed, which has been under attack and in decline, is staging a comeback by re-branding itself technology education and "a new type of career and technical program." (pdf file)

The standard glowing account in Education week available here. (pdf file)

As part of a Cleveland High PLTW engineering class, students work in teams to build cardboard boats that they’ll race in the school’s swimming pool. But first they have to calculate how many cubic feet the boat should be, how fast it will sink, and other factors on their own; the only equation they’re given is that one cubic foot of cardboard will sustain 60 pounds. “They get frustrated,” Mr. Clariday said, “but they get to know the math.”

"the top 80%"
Mr. Lowndes, the Wheaton High principal, said “the most impressive thing” about the engineering program is what it does for average students. “It’s teaching them through a cohort how to be successful in school and why it’s important to take the rigorous courses,” he said.

As Lynne M. Gilli, the program manager of the Maryland Department of Education’s career and technical education instructional branch, put it: “We are not trying to recruit the best and brightest” for PLTW pre-engineering programs. “We’re trying to recruit the top 80 percent.”

Interesting that our administration believes a "pre-engineering" program aimed at "the top 80%" is appropriate for kids here.

21st century skills

All PLTW high school courses have several underlying content areas in common. As students progress through the sequence they will become proficient in:.
  • working as a contributing member of a team
  • leading a team
  • using appropriate written and/or visual mediums to communicate with a wide variety of audiences
  • public speaking
  • listening to the needs and ideas of others
  • understanding the potential impact their ideas and products may have on society
  • thinking
  • problem solving
  • managing time, resources and projects
  • researching
  • going beyond the classroom for answers
  • data collection and analysis
  • preparing for two-and four-year college programs

PLTW's curriculum makes math and science relevant for students. By engaging in hands-on, real-world projects, students understand how the skills they are learning in the classroom can be applied in everyday life. This approach is called activities-based learning, project-based learning, and problem-based learning or APPB-learning.

The PLTW Curriculum: How and Why It Works

pop quiz

This photograph shows students enrolled in Project Lead the Way:

a) working as a contributing member of a team

b) listening to the needs and ideas of others

c) using appropriate written and/or visual mediums to communicate with a wide variety of audiences

d) following simple directions projected on their computer screens

And all of this costs no more than $100K!

calculating the costs of PTLW
2008 cost estimates (pdf file)
software program policy


Friday, May 9, 2008

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

The June edition of The Atlantic magazine came today, and I was immediately drawn to a piece called In the Basement of the Ivory Tower that had this description, “The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a “college of last resort” explains why.

Professor X teaches English 101 and English 102; classes that all students are required to pass. Here are some excerpts of what he (she?) has to say:

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity –– my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. … No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The college and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces –– social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students –– that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flow-chart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. … Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading?

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

Today's Question

NCLB is vague in its requirements with respect to measuring reading ability. NCLB is concerned with "proficiency in ... reading or language arts." That is the extent of the guidance given to us.

We know that reading is a complex skill comprising various subskills and content knowledge. But, what does it mean to be a proficient reader? What standardized test or battery of tests exist that accurately measure the "reading" ability of children and whether they are proficient?

Further, under NCLB it is the educators whose performance is being measured, even though the students are the ones taking the test. So the testing instrument must not allow educator subjectivity and must not be capable of being gamed by the educator. For example, Elizabeth's example in the post below describes a test that can be gamed by an educators since students can be taught to memorize the words appearing on the test and, thus, the test is not a true reflection of reading ability.

So, pretend you are a new superintendent of a school district who wants to accurately determine the reading ability of the children attending the schools in your district and how well they are being taught. So, for example, you want to know that your third graders are reading at a third grade level and will be capable of reading at a fourth grade level next year. You get to pick the standardized test(s) to be used. You will have non-reading-specialists monitoring the administration of the test(s). The monitors can identify outright cheating by teachers and/or students but nothing more subtle than that, i.e, they are incapable of making substantive determinations related to reading of any kind Otherwise, the administration of the tests is out of your control. Only the results of the test(s) will be reported to you.

What assessments do you select and why?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sight Words, silent reading comprehension tests, and Reading First

How easy do you think it is to guess your way through a reading comprehension test up to grade level 3 with just 220 Dolch sight words and 95 Dolch nouns?

Look over these 3rd grade Texas silent reading compehension tests and see what you think before the reading the rest of the post.

Here are the 220 Dolch Sight Words and the 95 Dolch Sight Nouns (scroll to bottom for list).

Now, here are all the words in the first paragraph of the first story that are included in these 2 lists above:

They, had, cows, horses, and pigs, a, dog, cat, bird, were, the, chickens, she, eggs, from, but, to, eggs, by, her---- [her is a sight word, actual word is herself], ?henhouse [hen and house are sight words, you may or may not be able to figure that out]

Here are all the above sight words in the answer for question #1:

where, does, live, by, a, in, the, on, farm

Coincidentially (or not?), the only answer that consists of all sight words is the correct answer.

The second story, all the connecting words are sight words, and the nouns that are sight words are: horse, dog, car. While this selection has a slightly lower percentage of sight words overall, a smart student can figure out the entire story from the picture.

The third story, the noun sight words are: kitty, dog, bird, house, box, ?parties [sight word is party, you may or may not be able to figure this out], ?sunflower [sun and flower are sight words], song, seeds, girl. There is also a picture that tells most of the story.

There are also elements of an IQ test in several of the questions.

This is why Geraldine Rodgers, in her book "The Case for the Prosecution, Charged with the Destruction of America's Schools," says,
“All those silent reading comprehension tests are a massive fraud. Back before 1911, when Binet of France originated the FIRST real intelligence tests, he used oral reading comprehension to test native intelligence, which is itself un-teachable. Binet’s reading comprehension paragraphs are STILL used to test intelligence. So reading comprehension scores are really IQ scores!”
You can read more about her book and the link between reading comprehension tests and IQ in this post.

On my webpage, I describe how poor sight word taught readers guess their way through texts and have more quotes from Rodgers, and explain how this is hurting vocabulary acquisition. I also link to a comparison of Romans 12 in the KJV to the vocabulary dumbed down NIV and show how it looks to a reader taught with sight words. Here is the first paragraph of each below (KJV first), black words are in the first 2,000, so could be read by most adults taught with whole word methods, red words are 2,000 - 5,000, readable for most but more difficult for someone with a poor visual memory, purple for 5,000 - 10,000, and the first and last letter only of words outside the most common 10,000 words--you would have to guess the word from the first and last letter and the context. (Those with poor visual memories would have to also guess varying portions of the red and purple words, as well.)

I b_____h you therefore, b______n, by the mercies of God, that y_ present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, a________e unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not c_______d to this world: but be y_ transformed by the renewing of your mind, that y_ may prove what is that good, and a________e, and perfect, will of God.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not c_____m any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Now, the Reading First connection.

A spelling test or a phonics skills test is a better measure of reading ability up to grade 3 (and even after, but especially up to grade 3 when it is so easy to pass a reading comprehension test by guessing.)

The Reading First Impact Study Interim Report, page 28, states,
"The RFIS had initially planned to use a battery of individually-administered tests to assess students across the specific components of reading instruction targeted by the legislation: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (No Child Left Behind Act, 2001). When the study’s design shifted to a RDD, with a quadrupled number of schools and students in the study sample, the individualized student assessment data collection was no longer practical."
For various reasons described on pages 28 - 29, they selected the SAT 10 Reading Comprehension test.

Many of the students at the schools in the Reading First study are also, unfortunately, the type of students especially vulnerable to doing poorly on a test that includes IQ as an element of the test. These are also the students that benefit the most from explicit, systematic phonics.

Guess what grade levels were testing with these silent reading comprehension tests for the Reading First study?

Grades 1 - 3.

Teaching Phonics is NOT Rocket Science

When I worked in the Air Force as a scientist and a statistician, I met plenty of very smart rocket scientists, and they made me feel stupid in comparison.

A recent informative post about Reading First stated "Louisa Moats' comment that "Teaching Reading is Rocket Science" is not to be ignored."

Having met actual rocket scientists and seen what actual rocket scientists really do, I can tell you that teaching reading with phonics is definitely NOT rocket science. I have also tutored students in Algebra and Trig, and tutoring with phonics is easier!

However, it is hard for teachers who have not learned about the phonetic structure of the English language and have only been taught whole language and sight words techniques which not only contradict basic phonics principles, I believe they make it harder for the brain to learn phonics because of sight word picture overshadowing.

I have posted before, here and here, about sight words and guessing. You really have to see the guessing to believe it for yourself. Without nonsense words and teaching words in isolation, it is hard to break the habit. In Rudolf Flesch's 1955 (and republished in 1985!) "Why Johnny Can't Read," he has an entire chapter titled "Word Guessing--its Cause and Cure." He states on page 114 of this chapter,
"To begin with, let's try to isolate Johnny from his word-guessing environment....Let him stop all reading--all attempts to read. Explain to him that now he is going to learn how to read, and that for the time being, books are out. All he'll get for several months are lessons in phonics."
(There are easy to use phonics lessons in the back of this book.) One warning about Flesch--he is very sarcastic, he fought unsuccessfully for years with schools and teachers and it shows in his writing.

Guessing and its cure is discussed in this RRF thread.

Now, this might seem to make it sound like teaching phonics is a hard thing, as well as facts like "There are 166 letter-sound correspondences, which are too many to learn." promoted in whole-word oriented linguistics texts.

However, it really is not, if you start with an open mind, have no whole word teaching practices to overcome, and use a good phonics book that is designed to take the rocket science out of teaching reading.

I can't find the quote, but either Adams or Chall in their review of different reading methods found that when teachers made the switch from phonics to whole word or vice versa, they retained much of their old teaching methods. This seems to be happening in many Reading First classrooms.

Toe-by-Toe, a good remedial phonics program used in the UK that uses syllable division and nonsense words (but too many sight words, they need to read my sight word page to find out how to teach them phonetically!) has this tidbit:

Q: Is this book solely for the use of teachers or other professionals?
A: No! Teachers are often restricted by classroom procedures. Parents have no such procedures to inhibit them; they start with a 'clean slate'.

With my first student, I made several mistakes and taught her some sounds incorrectly at first, but she still made amazing progress--just learning that all the letters had sounds and that all words could be sounded out if broken up into syllables was a revelation and a motivation for her, she learned rapidly despite my initial errors--in fact, she was relieved that I made mistakes--it actually gave her more confidence that she could learn to read.

I had started with whole word teaching for a month, and was very excited about it after hearing its praises sung by the literacy organization I was tutoring with. However, she only learned 3 words in the 3 months I worked with her using whole word methods. In her first phonics lesson, she learned to sound out around 30 words she had never seen before, including three 3-syllable words.

When teachers used phonics in one room schoolhouses, there were not many problems learning to read, and the teachers were often girls as young as 16 (Laura Ingalls Wilder was 15, but she's obviously an exceptional person) and they taught everyone the 3R's while keeping order with boys often bigger and older than them in the classrooms.

In 2003 and 2004, I visited a nursing home with my daughter and met a then 94-year-old woman who had taught for a while (11 years?) in a one-room-schoolhouse in Texas. She said she used phonics and ALL of her students learned to read. She also said she never had any discipline problems. (She was a small lady, too!) She didn't think it was any big deal what she did, and changed the subject rapidly when I tried to get her to go into more detail. Two of her 4 brothers died fighting for our country, and all 4 went to war. She didn't think she had done much in comparison, and thought nothing of the fact that all her students learned to read.

I'll post later about the nuts and bolts about teaching phonics and how easy it actually is if you do it right and have the proper tools. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can find good resources for that here:
My free online spelling lessons (2 hours total, teaches all the phonics you need to teach someone to read.)

Don Potter's Education Page (lots of free good phonics programs and instructions on how to teach phonics--including Remedial Reading Drills, the method used to teach Flesch's Johnny how to read.)

My list of good phonics and spelling books

How to teach with Webster's Speller (syllables!)

How to teach a remedial reading student
How to teach a beginning reading student

UK version of reading first, UK reading links

I have recently joined the UK Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) discussion forum. You may see some names you recognize there! One of their commentors also has a very interesting dylsexia website that I like. ("School-Proof your child.")

There is a ton of good information on the RRF website, especially this list of links; however, they don't think you should teach the alphabet first, only letter sounds. I happen to be a firm believer in both the alphabet names and sounds, and also syllables, which have not been popular since 1826. (Although syllables are currently taught in some French and Spanish phonetic reading programs, but syllables in words, not taught first in an isolated syllabary.) A
ccording to many researchers, "knowing the letter names is the best predictor of beginning reading achievement." (Marilyn Adams, 1990, Beginning to Read, Thinking and Learning about Print.)

The Brits evidently have their own Reading First type of program which is also meeting resistance, "
The details above reveal nothing less than slight-of-hand by government ministers and the Reading Recovery people. "

You can also find some good comments about our Reading First program on their forum.

not to worry

Weapons of Math Destruction

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

l squared on great principals

If you've ever seen a school with a really great principal, you would be totally amazed. Living in a happy, moderately well off, more-or-less suburban city, there are a lot of good principals. They keep everything running smoothly; they support good ideas that don't cost them money (and a few good ideas that do); and they're nice.


A while back, I lived in a big city, and in this city was a magnet school that emphasized academics. Its goal as a magnet school, was to attract kids that were not ESL, who were not starting from behind, and were not likely to move in the middle of the school year (it had a yearly turnover of 50% of the students, most of whom were ESL--I met a student teacher who was talking about how hard it was to deal with 30% turnover: this was 50%).

That principal was amazing. She had the teachers, the students and the parents all on her bandwagon. So far as I could tell, no one came out of a year at that school without being able to read (OK, I was just a parent, I'm pretty sure they didn't succeed with everyone, but it sure wasn't for lack of trying, or good programs, or reaching out to parents and anyone else who could help).

In this school, there was always full time devoted to reading and writing and math and science. The assemblies were honoring kids for doing well in academics, or improving in academics, or to get parents on board for helping their children succeed in academics. There was a science fair, and the fourth graders performed MacBeth. There was an amazing amount of energy for learning.

I'm afraid I was thoroughly spoiled. If that school, with its challenges, could do so well, why aren't the rich schools doing better? I know it's possible to run a school with dedication and vision and a premium on academics because I've seen it, but it requires energy, and vision on the part of administrators, and that seems to be awfully rare.

in another ice cream shop

I've got exactly 5 seconds to sit down at the kitchen table - dang!* (have been in a lather -- book revisions,** Reading First obsession, trouble with proofs, all the usual ... plus, a revelation: now that ktm really is a group effort, I can get behind on reading my own blog! Who knew?)

I have a big stack of cool stuff to post, all of which will have to wait except for this one: another memo from inside the ice cream shop. Not just any old ice cream shop ---- the Reading First ice cream shop.

It's always worse than you think.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that when looking at the entire RF project, there were no gains across country. Bob Dixon predicted this at the start of the project in his article "Sometimes Phonics Sucks," when he wrote about what happens when substandard "phonics" is taught which then triggers the sight word folks to say, "Look it doesn't work," and the pendulum completely turns away from the beginning phonics inroads.
What we need to analyze now is where those gains in RF schools did occur and what were those schools/states with the gains doing to have increased success. The medical community would never abandon or "diss" a drug that had been given at too low of a dosage. They would use their data to see with whom the drug was effective and how much of an increase was needed to get results. What can we learn from the effective schools and there were effective schools where RF made a huge difference. With the exception of the better RF schools, in most places schools are still in the midst of the sight word approaches to reading they started using 20 years ago. The college students who went through that dreadful instruction are now the most illiterate generation in remembrance, and colleges across the country are having to increase dramatically the number of remedial reading courses they hold. Viewing the "Children of the Code" web site is a chilling reminder of the legacy sight word approaches have left. I urge Mr. Bracey to watch the interviews at that web site with the cognitive psychologists, neurologist, ophthalmologists, and high level education researchers whose body of work remains largely ignored to this day.

Given that for the past 20 years whole language aka "balanced literacy," was the predominate teaching method in most states, RF represented baby steps in trying to swing the pendulum back to phonics approaches. More than 90% of universities still do not train teachers to teach systematic and explicit phonics and these skills take a long time developing. Just relearning what myths they learned in education classes is challenging for teachers and only happens when training in the district addresses these "hot button" issues (ex. teaching with the 3 cueing system which in essence is teaching children to use the word reading strategies that persons with Dyslexia use is a difficult habit to break). Too often these issues were typically ignored in many states' RF training. Louisa Moats' comment that "Teaching Reading is Rocket Science" is not to be ignored. In too many RF schools, I have observed most of the sight word based teaching practices she describes in her article "Whole Language Hi Jinks." These practices are so ingrained that after a three day workshop on systematic and explicit phonics, we found out to our horror, that almost all teachers were still having children listen to the stories that they were supposed to read; sometimes listening several times to the CDs that the big 3 reading curricula provide. The teachers were astonished that we were telling them to have the children do "cold reads." A few even became angry. "How will the children ever develop fluency if the don't first hear the story read by someone who is fluent reading it?" is what I heard.

In the RF classes that I saw or talked to administrators about (in Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, and Florida) these are variables that contributed to a lack of results.

1. In order to gain larger market share, the major phonics publishers (Open Court, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin) wrote their curricula to be taught either with a phonics emphasis or a sight word based one. I've watched the same Open Court series taught as both. Many RF schools bought the Big 3 Phonics curricula and continued to teach them with a sight word based approach which takes much less planning time for the teachers. The guided reading books on their shelves remained the major curriculum. Many schools never used the decodable books that are purchased separately with the Big 3 phonics curricula or teachers never copied the decodable books (contained in a "sent home to parents" extra workbook). Each of those curricula has guided reading books that go with each unit and it was these that were purchased for the teachers or that the teachers decided to use. Omitting the decodable books so that students do not get the necessary practice reading the newly learned words (remember the repetition research recently discussed on this group), removes a key element from a phonics program. When teachers use Open Court, etc. and do not have students practice saying the new sounds, then practice reading the new words, and then practice reading the decodable text with the new sounds, and instead focus on the guided reading books, they are simply not teaching systematic and explicit phonics. I saw a lot of this. Sometimes I would have to show teachers (who had been using the curriculum for two years) where to find the decodable books that they needed to print out.

2. Although the RF training was wonderful and teachers who went through it were steps ahead of teachers who didn't, because most of this generation of teachers has had no effective phonics instruction back in college, they don't know how to say sounds without schwas, they don't know how to show children how to blend sounds into words, they don't know how to divide words into chunks that children can then read. And a few RF workshops could compensate for this lack. Typically, the level of state RF instruction never became this explicit.

3. Fidelity was low or lacking, especially in states where the state education bureaucracy personnel did not support Reading First. In all of our systematic and explicit phonics multi-tier programs, after a state visit from the RF "experts," teachers would run to us or email us to let us know what things we had trained them to do were unacceptable to the RF experts. In Illinois, it was not enough guided reading even thought the children had not yet developed alphabetic principle); in Georgia it was a distaste for large group (homogeneous) oral reading -- even with all of the differences, the "experts" couldn't see how our SAFER reading (conducted like DI large group reading) differed from the more ineffective Round Robin reading. Some of the experts wanted "small groups" at all times. Explanations about how in a typical class that meant that students would be sitting for long extended periods doing center activities and not receiving direct teacher instruction, fell on deaf ears.

4. Some states like Ohio, simply never implemented a phonics based approach in most RF schools-- they probably increased their use of phonics by a few minutes each week. I saw a lot of this in two large Michigan cities also. Whether it was Dayton or Columbus or Springfield, the district personnel would unabashedly tell you that "yes," they were using "Houghton Mifflin," but they were also continuing their use of 4 Block or Literacy Collaborative. Yes, they were still using the 3 cueing system, and yes, they focused on the guided reading books, and yes, they gave the DIBELS, but because results were so low, they still spend hours and hours away from instruction each semester giving the non valid DRA assessments that accompanied whatever guided reading approach they were using. They didn't like the DIBELS because it didn't show them the gains that their students were making, but the invalid DRA's did.

5. In Jacksonville and Michigan, I observed a number of RF classrooms where the only reading was either silent or whisper reading and I don't think that the phonics curricula ever came off of the shelves. In the Ohio as well as the Jacksonville classrooms, parents and community groups were tracking the DIBELS because they knew how poor the reading instruction was and they were disappointed that the sight word approaches were continuing in the schools after they were designated RF. Despite coming to their school administrators with that information, nothing changed. The administrators circled their wagons and continued on as before. In districts, typically the persons most responsible for sabotaging a move to systematic and explicit phonics is the district literacy coordinator. All of their graduate work has been in sight word based approaches making their resistance much higher. Back when we were one of the first 4 OSEP multi-tier programs, we were the only one that wasn't stopped in its track from establishing systematic and explicit phonics because of district literacy coordinators. It takes a combination of outwitting, orneriness, and going to higher administrative levels to defuse the influence these people have.

6. The wimpy Tier 3 instruction done in so many schools could not be expected to catch those students up to grade level. If there is anything I've learned these past 8 years, it's that Jerry Silbert is right on target when he talks about 90 minutes of intensive DI reading instruction being needed to catch students up to grade level. Look at Haskin Lab's brain research and recognize that the children whose brain function normalized as they acquired reading skills were receiving 2 hours a day of 1-1 systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Most Tier 3 programs are tutorial. The Big 3 phonics intensive intervention programs used in places like Dayton are worse than useless. Not only are they not systematic, they don't even coordinate with classroom instruction and thus wouldn't be effective even for Tier 2 instruction.

It's time to roll up sleeves and find the individual schools in districts where gains have occurred. My hypothesis would be that these are the schools that have embraced systematic and explicit phonics and abandoned more ineffective practices for their below grade level students, but a closer look is needed. Every RF school I've observed where there are no results has continued to do balanced literacy with the scale tipping way over to a sight word approach.

Reading First has been responsible for explicit, systematic phonics starting to re-emerge after 20 years. We have to remember and remind others that it's only the first step down a long path. How anyone can look at the brain research and continue to promote sight word methods seems like a decision out of the Dark Ages. To see how systematic and explicit phonics when taught with fidelity and intensity can actually change what happens in the brain when someone a struggling reader with what the researchers term a "Dyslexic brain" not only will learn to read but will have profound changes in both hemispheres of the brain during reading tasks and to ignore this knowledge is simply unfathomable.

OK, I'm off.

I've got homework to do.

from the ice cream shop
control theory in a failing district
the phonics page

* I wonder if Wikipedia has anything to say about the concept of "crashing a book"...
** I have permission to post.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Constructivist Education, Ridiculed by Sport

The comment stream on this post that segued into a discussion of sports coaching reminded me of the original Golf, the Whole Language Way (first seen at Instructivist) and now Balanced Golf Instruction.

I'll give you the first few paragraphs:

Well, folks, here we are at the Supremely Balanced School of Golf. What can the advocates tell us about this method of teaching beginning golfers?

"Our approach to golf development was formerly based upon the wildly successful, but now sadly and unfairly pilloried educational model known as Whole Language. It seems that the right wing fundamentalist fascists have defamed our model so successfully that publishers and speaking circuit organizers are no longer feting those of us who selflessly worked for the social good of the nation. So we've moved on, chameleon-like, and now we have distilled the essence of these in-favour approaches into our old model. We've called it Balanced Instruction because who could criticize such a name? In our publicity blurb we indicate that we have deconstructed the structures and features of golf. (Just between you and me, it was pretty easy to morph the old with the current system - the Whole Language stuff still sits in there - just like a hidden file in a Windows folder.)

We know intuitively that golf is an irreducibly holistic experience best learned by authentic experiences. We enter all our novices in the US Open because that's authentic golf. The teacher's role is that of motivator/facilitator - we empower our students to grow in golf while experiencing a sense of enchantment . We do not teach skills, of course, even though some emerging golfers may naively request help with their swing. We explain that swing is only a sub-skill of golf, and to emphasise it out of the context of authentic golf is time-wasting, or even developmentally inappropriate. Students may choose to practise their invented swing during the Open itself, of course. The principles of the conventional swing are eventually induced by the learner who is highly motivated during an Open, but probably bored to tears and disheartened by artificially timetabled swing practice on a lonely practice range. We know that the swing will evolve naturally, and that feedback is pointless - even damaging to the self-esteem that learners need if they are to take risks with their golf. Admittedly, some teachers initially struggle with this radical non-interventionist aspect.

Because golf is such a natural, holistic pursuit, there is no need to demonstrate grip, stance, or even which end of the club is best to hold. Gradually, through playing in authentic tournaments, the golf game of the novice will more and more closely approximate that of Tiger Woods. If for any reason development is slow, probably caused by earlier misguided attempts at skill instruction, we provide entry into even more golfing majors, such as Augusta, or St Andrews - additional immersion in real golf is the only answer. Golf improvement depends largely on the learner's establishment of a self-regulating and self-improving system, not on anything an instructor might provide.

It goes on. You should read the whole thing. It applies directly to discovery learning of math:

How much success on scores are we having with our balanced, golfer-centred philosophy? Unfortunately that question is very revealing of a failure to keep up with modern conceptions. You are still dominated by out-dated reductionist models of golf. One cannot validly and reliably keep scores without debasing the golfing process. Scores do not reflect all that is entailed by golf - they fail to capture more than the most minuscule element of the whole game.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Math Camp, and the value of learning discipline

So let's say you've got a "natural" in math. What then? You know your school isn't challenging your child, and unless you're already a math prof, you don't know where to find that challenge (and if you were a math prof, you wouldn't need KTM, would you?) So where do you go from here?

There are some incredible opportunities out there for kids with natural math talent. These are the kinds of things that the guidance counselors at Thomas Jefferson in VA or Bronx Science know, but the guidance counselors in your normal, well funded college prep school do not.

They are known informally as "math camp". There are quite a few now, and not all are created equal, but the top math camps have created material to take bright kids who have nothing past 9th grade algebra and teach them math that is typically reserved for undergraduate math majors. Usually, the material is number theory or discrete math (meaning subjects like combinatorics, graph theory, etc.)

But the most important feature of math camp is that it introduces your child to the notion that they are other bright, smart, talented kids out there--and some of them ARE A HECK OF A LOT BRIGHTER AND OTHERS WORK A HECK OF A LOT HARDER THAN HE DOES.

This, not to mention the happiness that a nerd might find at actually being surrounded by peers, is the real value of the place: weeks of people who think it's FUN to work hard on a math problem, and an environment where you are SUPPOSED TO WORK for HOURS A DAY on math problems--maybe even JUST ONE math problem in all that time!

This is one of the few places where your kid will actually be able to see that hard work matters, and to learn it before college. Because if they do want to go to Harvard math, they will meet all of these kids there, and they will already know all of this background. Their mastery and readiness for new intellectual ideas will be zooming past your child, who will probably not find that a pleasant challenge to live up to, but a demoralizing one.

Googling will get you a list such as this one from the American Mathematical Society, but that's not enough to see which ones are really rigorous. Some of these are more "let's have seminars for a week", and that's nice, but that doesn't really hit the mark. That's the kind of thing that was invented to "introduce" math topics to women or minorities, but if you want to challenge your kids, you want them to go to camp for 6-8 weeks and learn a subject, surrounded by kids who have come from the top magnet schools, or internationally, etc. This is an introduction to what Mathematicians Actually Do not by sitting in a seminar hearing about it, but by doing it themselves. And this is why you should be careful of sending your child to summer "opportunities" that are of the "let's have seminars" type, because you want to unlock doors in a way that builds up their skills, not just flits by from topic to topic, yet again denying them any chance at mastery.

These programs have entrance exams, and I guess parents might game them now, but largely, if your kid doesn't like the test, they aren't going to like math camp.

The most famous camps are Ross at Ohio State, Hampshire College Summer Studies in Math, and PROMYS at Boston University.

They are NOT cheap. We're talking a couple thousand dollars or more for a month or two, but perhaps that's on par with any other summer camp these days, I don't know.

Update: the most famous camps listed above are also the most rigorous and well respected in academia. Others may definitely be on the rise, but those are the oldest and have maintained their excellence. Also, all of these camps have financial aid applications, though I know nothing about how generous or available it is.

The best way to evaluate the rigor is to evaluate their web sites for a "typical" day, and look at how much of the day is spent in lecture and "doing homework", literally. There should be plenty of time for working with other kids. This is different than attending a talk or playing ultimate--there's ample time for that, too, but you'd much rather you could see a syllabus than just see a list of available talks.

Practical Answers: what background do kids need to compete in technical subjects in college?

Mark's question on this thread was: A practical question for you. What does a child need to have learned by 12th grade to compete in the
technical fields at a top-notch school?
I don't think that the kids in other countries are inherently smarter than our kids -- or at least
not enough to matter.

The question is important, and I don't claim to know the whole answer. But I think it's a big enough discussion that it warrants its own post, and my answer was too big to really be a comment. My answer is in two parts, the first part a practical answer, and the second part the anecdotal experiences I've had that explain why I've come to the conclusions I did in the first part. But first, You're right. They aren't smarter. What they are is well educated in the basics.

I haven't read the other comments in detail, but I don't agree that the kids need to know calc and Differential Equations before college. But practically speaking, what entering college freshmen need is an understanding of algebra, geometry, trig, algebraic geometry, that is proper, thorough, and deep--deep enough that they understand (even if they cannot prove) why you can add polynomials, for example, and they could understand a proof by induction. Basically, they need mastery.

So, specifically to the practical question:

I've just begun reading a set of textbooks that Prof. Wu recommended to me. (I literally out of the blue emailed him and asked what to do for this startup high school I'm involved with, and he answered--right when he was working on the big NMAP paper, too! What a generous man.) They are Japanese texts for 7th- 9th grade, translated, and available from U Chicago (don't let that dissuade you!). They are written by a mathematician Kodaira. They are thin, and not appropriate to non-higher-math-literate teachers. That is, they need some real fleshing out to create lecture notes from, probably, even for a homeschooler.

They are terrific. A child, or a class of children that really had mastery (Singapore Math as background) could handle it, and they'd learn a great deal. The 7th grade book has 7 chapters. That's it: 7 chapters. They are: integers, positive and negative numbers, "letters" and expressions--i.e. variables, equations, functions, plane geometry, and solid geometry.

The chapter on integers begins with prime numbers and factoring, common divisors and multiples. It introduces exponents. The second chapter moves on to how to handle positive and negative signs, and how to understand the rule (for example, for multiplication of positives and negatives, they go through some really nice examples of water entering a cistern, and flowing out at a different rate, etc.)

The book goes on to simple algebra--how to use "letters" and quantities. It teaches how to write expressions, how to simplify them, how to turn sentences into expression. Moving on, they learn substitution, linear expression, and then solving linear equations. They on to functions. Then plane figures and geometric solids.

But everything presented is sophisticated in that everything goes through great length to teach the rule and *why* the rule is true--with excellent examples, but the examples are very sparse, and there are not enough problems presented for a student to gain mastery. A teacher needs to add to this skeleton, but the skeleton is terrific. Why? Because everything it does prepares for a deeper understanding later. Every word is chosen carefully to make sure that the right lesson is being taught. Their explanations of equality, for example, are based on a balance or scale, rather than immediately on "solve for X". They make explicit the following rules: if A = B then A + C = B + C; if A = B then A/C = B/C. This makes it easier to learn more sophisticated math later because the scaffolding is correct.

The Japanese kids don't seem to learn calc before 11th at the very earliest, and certainly some learn it later than 12th. They appear to take various electives in senior year: discrete math, statistics, number theory. It will not be the last time they take those courses.

This leads to the next issue: never teach your child to test out of any course. Teach your child to retake the "basics" at every possible chance. If your kids learn calc in high school, convince them to take the Honors Calc sequence as freshman in college, or if they've still got time, do it their senior year from the local college. Take the same "syllabus" worth of material in more rigorous forms over and over again, rather than skip ahead. Building mastery is so incredibly important that it just makes everything easier later.

And this leads to the last problem: not only do your kids need grounding, they need to learn how to WORK HARD. This is difficult if they are naturals. The most important way for them to learn this is to see that other kids are brighter/faster/better than they are at something, but then learn that hard work matters more in the end.

So find a way to make sure they aren't the best kid in the room. Send them to math camp, physics camp, or music camp. Before they are 15, send them somewhere where they are merely average, but the structure and discipline of learning to work hard brings them above average. I think 15 is the last time they can really learn to catch up on the discipline, esp, if they are far ahead of the typical student. They need a couple years of knowing about discipline before college strats.

Our naturals have never been challenged in grammar or high school. Even if they are gifted enough to ace college, to get into grad school they are competing against kids who took a national test against 100 million other kids, and ranked in the top 20. Not 200, 20. The idea that they will suddenly know how to work hard enough in college to compete with kids who have been working hard for years is unreasonable. It simply takes too long to acquire the skill of learning how to work a problem, how to have discipline, focus, etc.

On to the anecdote, now.

20 years ago now, I took Calc BC in my junior year of high school, and I was 14 at the time (I was 15 by the end of that school year). My senior year of high school, at 15 and 16, I went to UC San Diego and took 1 quarter of multivariable calc, one quarter of linear algebra, and one quarter of Differential Equations. I got As in all the courses.

I didn't understand anything about Linear Algebra or Differential Equations. wrt Differential equations, that's pretty normal, because the courses are almost always taught poorly, without any overarching coherence to the material. But wrt linear algebra, I managed to get the highest score on the final and I never grokked the concept of the "span" of the space. It was bewildering to me. I could do the methods they asked, and the course was simple enough that I never had to guess what method to ask, so I could still ace it. But I understood nothing.

This is not surprising--I'd never seen this stuff before, and intellectually, the leaps I was asked to make were huge. I wasn't going to get it in one quarter, period, even if I was a "natural". But the issue was my lack of preparation: in all of my math schooling, I'd never really been given a basic understanding of what a system of linear equations MEANT, even though I must have seen them in (Dolciani's) Algebra 2. Now I was being asked to make that leap, and it was too much.

Then I got to MIT. I was a "natural" but I wasn't any math prodigy there--I was well more advanced in coursework than most freshmen--nearly everyone there HAD to take calc (even if they'd passed AP Calc AB), and had never seen differential eqs or linear algebra, but I was probably as good at math as the average physics major (my original major) and better than the average engineer, and I was definitely completely outclassed by the math majors.

The dept gave me credit for all of the calculus, including multivariable, and for differential equations, but not linear algebra. I took it again, and I barely got a C, for one main reason: I still didn't get it, but I had never had to STUDY before, so i didn't know how, and my trivial knowledge tricked me into thinking I did get it, and I didn't really understand how far I was from knowing what I didn't know. So I didn't really get the span on the 2nd time around either. Again--not that surprising for an entirely new concept. But how come I'd made it this far before seeing this concept?

So there I was, completely new to learning how to learn something I didn't know, not knowing what I didn't know, and with no way to bridge the gap. The successful kids who hadn't had those courses were far better offthan I was, because they were forced to study and learn the material well. But some of them realized quickly that they too didn't know how to do that. The kids who succeeded weren't the ones who were far ahead on material; they were ones who had been so grounded that these concepts were not intellectually new to them. This was true in physics as well. The successful students hadn't done AP physics in high school with calculus, but they knew how to draw a free-body diagram, which is a way of writing down all the forces on a system. They KNEW what forces to write down. They weren't sophisticated mathematically, but they were well grounded.

The foreign students, and the well educated math students HAD seen these concepts before they reached linear algebra. They still hadn't taken the course, officially, the way I had, yet they knew more of the material. They'd seen them in high school--they'd been given enough mastery of algebra that they really did have some intuitive sense of what a system of linear equations meant. They'd been given enough mastery in calculus (something AP classes simply DO NOT give)so that they understood functions better than I did, and that meant that when they went to linear algebra, they understood how linear operators work as functions. Over and over again, they'd been prepared for this material since junior high.

The only place where I ever caught up to my counterparts in my physics major was in statistical mechanics--because it was the first course where NOE ONE (except the Russians) had taken the material before, no one had seen it before. I was on even footing. (The Russians had done every problem we did as lower division undergrads in high school. All of them. Apparently, though, they never had any labs. This is part of the reason they were phenomenal: they were required to build their intuition from SOLVING problems and DISSECTING what the answers meant. No "hands on" manipulatives for them!)

For the folks who don't know what I'm talking about in the specific math stuff, here's the analogy: if you want to be an American history major, you take history in high school, American history as a lower division undergrad, and you take it again as an upper division undergrad. Each time, you're supposed to be getting a better understanding of how various factors, events, etc. influenced each other. You know more so you can make more intellectual leaps.

But if you never actually learned any history in high school, and you don't have the faintest idea what the main wars are, who the presidents were, when American industrialization began, then the undergrad course is way over your head. You barely can keep track of what happens in any century, and any lecture that assumes you know the value of the Missouri compromise and what impact it had on the Civil War and how slavery was the crux of that, you can't possibly hold these new ideas in your head. So even if you're a natural for reading and grokking what you've read about history, it doesn't matter--because you're so far behind compared to those who DID learn all of those facts and figures, and now can recall them at will to use as evidence. And that's where most of our students are, mathematically. They have no mastery.

The honest-to-goodness math prodigies were a different bunch entirely. I thought I was one (given I was taking calc bc at 14) until I met them. Maybe I could have been one, but I'd missed the window. They were kids who'd all been to math camp before junior year of high school. And of them, they broke down into who was a "natural" and who wasn't--nearly all of them decided they weren't really naturals after all. I'll write about that in another post, but basically, they'd been exposed to more number theory in high school summer camp than I would learn at MIT by graduation day with a bachelor's in math.

But that was 15-20 years ago. What's changed now? The answer is that the naturals are MUCH WORSE OFF now than I EVER was. I know this from being a grad student at UC Berkeley 5-10 years ago, and TAing CS courses. The entering freshmen/sophs there use the same text I used 15 years earlier, and I remember which parts were intellectually too big for me to jump. But that's not their problem: their problem is the trigonometry and the algebra II. They can't learn the hard parts, because they can't do the simple problem set problems that require them to know some basic high school math. They are so muddled they can't write down an algorithm to do something because they can't even compute the angle of something given some other related angles. They don't know how to divide fractions. They don't know how to compute sines and cosines. They don't know how to solve a geometry problem that requires a proof. They have no idea what a system of linear equations means. They don't understand what functions are, or what composition of functions means. Because of this, they can't dive in and learn the material asked of them, because they don't understand what the homework problem is asking for, and they don't know what they don't know. Their foreign and well taught counterparts do know, and are moving forward every day.

Up the administration

I’m new here as a writer (though I’m a longtime reader), and would like to thank Catherine for allowing me to post anonymously when I feel I have something to say. I work in the education industry, and blogging under cover gives me an opportunity to share thoughts and observations that I otherwise could not share.

I’d like to start my blogging career here by pointing to an issue that doesn’t seem to get much play. And that’s the role of school leadership in the problems we see today.

Teachers, and policies related to teaching, seem to get all the attention. There’s a lot of talk about teaching methods, certification, retention, unions, class sizes, and more. And certainly those are important issues: I’m we’ll aware of the research showing what effect a good teacher can have on the life of a child (or on the flip side, the effect a bad teacher can have).

But in all this talk about what happens in the classrooms, it really seems as if school leadership gets to cop a walk. We’re all talking about the crisis in teaching and learning, but no one’s talking about the crisis in leadership, which could absolutely have an impact on teaching practices and on many other factors involved in good schooling.

Principals have the authority to direct resources (staff, funds, and other resources) as they see fit. They set expectations and lay out the ways in which teachers will operate. If there are problems in education today, I believe that school leadership is just as responsible for them as are teachers, and I’d personally say that the school leaders are more responsible for any other group.

Do school leaders share this point of view? Oh lord no.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for the state chapter of a national school leadership association. Despite all the problems the rest of us see in public education, this group of school and district leaders clearly felt that they had the bull by the horns: they were the solution, not the problem, and they were doing a pretty darn good job of things in their own eyes. And things would be just perfect if just a few things would happen, like eliminating NCLB or giving them a “better” (assumedly richer) group of students to work with.

It’s frightening to hear the leader of any organization saying that things are actually really good in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, and also believing that anything that’s not good is out of their hands. To see that this thinking isn’t isolated, but is instead the norm, is alarming indeed.

I did some checking after the conference to follow up on what I heard, and came across a fascinating survey report by Public Agenda titled “The Insiders: How Principals and Superintendents See Public Education Today.” Here’s the blurb from the site:

The fourth in a series of Reality Check reports finds that most public school superintendents -– and principals to a lesser extent -– think local schools are already in pretty good shape. In fact, more than half of the nation's superintendents consider local schools to be "excellent." Most superintendents (77%) and principals (79%) say low academic standards are not a serious problem where they work. Superintendents are substantially less likely than classroom teachers to believe that too many students get passed through the system without learning. While 62 percent of teachers say this is a "very" or "somewhat serious" problem in local schools, just 27 percent of superintendents say the same.

So yes, I think it’s worth talking about effective teaching methods and materials, and also talking about how we can get individual teachers to change their ways for the better. But until we address the leadership issue, from which many of these problems originate, we’re going to be treating the symptoms and not the real problem.

John Dewey and Progressivism

Excerpts from The Great Reading Disaster by Mona McNee (2007).

“Dewey was an adherent of the school of thought known as Pragmatism, which asserted that no object, idea or knowledge had any value apart from its practical consequences. From this he developed the idea that education must be relevant, later a Progressivist watchword. Child-centered education meant the pupils should not have to learn anything unless they could immediately understand its relevance, and this principle swept away what was regarded as the dead hand of pre-existing knowledge and culture. There was no need to burden children with a mass of facts that they could not perceive as related to their own experience and, more particularly, were not interested in.
Relevance would help children work things out for themselves – the discovery method. This would seem to mean that vast numbers of pupils should be endlessly re-inventing many varieties of the wheel in the absence of established information, but in practice it produced nothing so useful, nor was it intended to. The value was perceived to lie in their efforts, regardless of whether their actual findings were right or wrong. For these little research workers, from the age of three onward, the important thing was the process not the product. No-one seemed to feel that deliberately leaving children ignorant in this way was a dumbing down that could damage them in adulthood, and no-one seemed to recall that useful findings have often emerged from apparently irrelevant aspects of learning.
But children have short attention spans. The cannot work in blind faith and need to know that their efforts are achieving something; otherwise they are discouraged. So if they achieve only errors, that implants a sense of failure. To overcome this, Progressivism urged teachers to give constant praise, regardless of whether the products were true or false. No-one must feel inferior; “all must have prizes.””

“Concern for process not product led to the slogan that children were being trained to think for themselves. Combined with the emphasis of caring praise, rather than concern for truth, it led on to hostility to testing. Process would be very difficult, if not impossible, to test while product, which would lend itself to testing, was considered unimportant. Moreover, test-marking would involve differentiation and that would undo all the solicitous work of awarding equal praise. Thus, in spite of his pragmatic emphasis, Dewey deprived himself of the test scores that would have provided feedback on the practical consequences of his methods.”
“Inevitably, Dewey’s child-centered discovery method necessitated smaller classes, which entailed greater expense. His Progressivist school in Chicago gradually reduced the pupil-teacher ratio to about four children to each teacher or aide, and it was the resulting high cost that led the University to ask him to leave. Insistence upon small classes became a general feature of Progressivism.”

“Dewey’s discovery method, based on relevant experiences in small classes, was set in the context of Hegel’s philosophy of the connectedness of all things: nature, society, and the individual. He regarded all kinds of boundaries as artificial divisions in what should be a continuous whole, and therefore urged the abolition of traditional school subjects in favour of cross-curricular projects that would demonstrate the interlocking nature of reality.
In pursuit of connectedness, Dewey felt that the individual mind should not be differentiated from the social group. He abominated the development of a separate inner personality, which he took as a sign of social divisiveness.
What is called inner is simply that which does not connect with others – which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as thing that a man might have internally – and therefore exclusively. (1916)

Thus he wrote off all unusual mental talent and distinctive genius, believing that the only worthwhile culture was that which could be shared with the greatest number of others – a lowest common denominator. He called for education to be organized as group work, with constant dialogue with the group, to develop co-operative problem-solving and decision-making in a common mode. Ideally, groups should also relate to other groups to promote collective similarity. This was another reason for rejecting tests. They would distinguish an elite and he preferred to blur distinctions and embrace multiculturalism.
Deweyism is inherently self-contradictory. For all his talk of child-centeredness, he really aimed to sacrifice children’s individuality to the group – social engineering related to Hegelism and also to his own leftist political stance, which stressed equality, often a means of leveling down. While he derided the traditional authority he wanted to replace, he did not hesitate to incorporate a more intense authority of his own. He extended the concept of a democratic community from the political arena to the classroom, demoting the teacher from being an older, wiser expert on the curriculum to being a mere facilitator to arrange the learning that the child democracy decided. He asserted that children derive most benefit from programs that they themselves have discussed and negotiated. This did not encourage genuine thinking for oneself, as the individual had to bend to the ideas of the majority, and the majority might also have been bent to the will of the dominant child, not necessarily the brightest or the wisest.”

“Dewey also bequeathed another legacy; the role of the educational guru. Teachers who had worked diligently for years to turn out large numbers of literate pupils became as nothing in comparison with Progressivist ideologues, who became world figures. Guru status was enviable and the respect it accrued from pontification became an end in itself. These powerful people had a vested interest in supporting the Progressivism that exalted them.”

3rd Try: Linguist Textbook on Phonics Teaching

I am currently enrolled in the Department of Education at my local university to get my Reading Endorsement and Master's Degree in Reading. I'm pretty much taking only one class a term and this term's class is Linguistics.

The book we are using for linguistics was written by two teachers. I'd be much happier if my textbook on linguistics had been written by linguists or cognitive psychologists. Either the authors of this book are trying to intentionally misinstruct teachers in raining, or they know just enough to be dangerous.

Actually, the chapter on orthography wasn't too bad, with an emphasis on spelling rules and why it's good to teach them. But then, amazingly, the authors throw that orientation out the window and go Ken Goodman all the way in the chapter titled, "A Linguistic Perspective on Phonics." If they are going to look at phonics from a linguistic perspective, maybe they could have talked to a linguist or two first, instead of using Ken Goodman as their linguistics expert. If you don't know Ken Goodman, he's the father of whole language and the one who called reading a psycholinguistic guessing game. Martin Kozloff has a good write up on Ken Goodman and whole language.

When I read the chapter on phonics in the textbook I was amazed, appalled, and disheartened. It's hard to think that in 2008, eight years after the National Reading Panel Report on teaching reading, this kind of claptrap is still being taught in university classes.

Here's a list of various reasons why, according to the textbook, teaching phonics doesn't work, with my responses.

There are 166 letter-sound correspondences, which are too many to learn.
My comment: 166 is a lot, I agree, but it's far, far less than the 10,00 or so words that make up normal discourse, and that children learning by whole language are expected to learn one by one.

Every phonics rule has exceptions.
Rules that don't work 100% of the time are useless to teach.
My comment: While it's true that there are exceptions to phonics rules, it's also true that the more rules you teach, the fewer exceptions there are. For example, the word "water" is not an exception to the rule that short 'a' sounds as in 'cat.' It's an example of the rule that when 'a' follows 'w' it often makes a short 'o' sound as in 'dot.' This comes back to the issue of how many rules there are to teach. While it's true it takes a student two or three years to learn most of the phonics rules, it takes a lifetime (if it happens at all) to learn to read one word at a time.

Basal readers introduce correspondences in different sequences, therefore phonics teaching is not systematic.
My comment: Saying that teaching phonics is not a reasonable thing to do because it isn't systematic, and it isn't systematic because it's taught in different sequences in different basal programs is just silly. Systematic, as used in the National Reading Panel Report means that the program has a plan, a scope and sequence, to insure coverage of the letter-sound correspondences and the rules of reading and spelling. It doesn't mean every program has to use the same sequence. That's like saying that every baseball, soccer, or swim coach has to teach the same skills in the same order.

Eye movement studies show readers only fixate of 60% to 80% of words proving reader sample text and guess what it says.
My comment: I don't know if it's true that we only fixate on 60% to 80% of words on a page, but I can easily see how this could be so. When I read, I don't stare at the word "the" every time I come to it. I see it with peripheral vision when I'm looking a word or two to either side of it. Because it is so short and so common, it takes almost no cognitive power for me to recognize it and I can spend my time fixating on words like "onomatopoeia" instead.

One teacher commented that she was struggling to get her 2nd graders to read for meaning and she was sorry she'd taught them phonics in kindergarten and 1st grades (she looped with them).
My comment: This one teacher's comments were taken as proof that phonics skills shouldn't be taught. The linguistics textbook never questions how she taught the students phonics, why she didn't talk about what happened in stories with them from the start, or how she is trying to teach to "read for meaning" now.

Students can read words in context that they can't read in isolation.
My comment: Context can help, but it can also cause problems. This is where students read "pony" for "horse." Of course, that doesn't bother whole language people at all. But what if a student reads "hope" for "hopeless"? It would change the whole meaning of the sentence and maybe the paragraph and story. Quite honestly, I want the pilot of an plane I'm on to be able to tell "altitude" from "attitude" and not just randomly guess because there is no context.

The linguistics book talks about miscue analysis and Stanovich's research as if they were equally valid.
Stonovich says struggling readers are the ones that rely heavily on context, not good readers.
Miscue analysis says struggling readers rely too heavily on phonics, and need to rely more on syntactic (part of speech) and semantic (does it make sense) clues.
My comment: Keith Stanovich is a well known and well respected researcher on the process of reading. One of his best known works is the book "Progress in Understanding Reading." To compare his scientific research with the pseudoscience of miscue analysis is to compare apples and oranges. They are not in the same league at all.

There is no standard for what constitutes a decodable book.
My comment: Decodable is operationally defined as a book that contains code the students ahs already learned, with very few, or preferably no, words the student doesn't yet know how to sound out. De-code-able. De - indicates reversal or removal. Code - the symbols that stand for sounds. Able - can be done. The definition is in the word itself.

The last point isn't given as a reason not to use phonics, but it's interesting, nonetheless.
When 277 readers (unknown age) were asked what they do when they come to an unknown word, 41% said "sound it out," (this was made to sound like a bad thing in the textbook), and an additional 62% (sic) would ask the teacher.
My comment: The textbook also states that 16% would look at pictures, go back and reread, or read on. Apparently simple math skills are not required for advocates of whole language (41%+ 62% = 103% add in the other 16%, assuming they don't overlap, and you get 119%)

Linguists Textbook on Teaching Phonics

I see my post in the preview mode.  I hope it comes through this time.

Sunday Distraction: The World Is Just Awesome

This is unrelated to math, but I just saw this for the first time and couldn't keep it to myself.

Now this stupid song is going to be stuck in all of your heads, too...

Linguistics Textbook on Teaching Phonics

Interim Report: "Reading First Ineffective" -- But Hold Your Horses

cross-posted at I Speak of Dreams (slightly different version)

On Monday, April 28, 2008, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) released a study, the Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report. I haven't yet studied in depth the full copy of the study (it will be available for order from Recently Added Publications -- Publication ID: ED004243P. (Reading First is hereafter abbreviated RF). Links to the report can be found at the IES site:

A few preliminary comments: I see the "map territory" problem here.

The headline (in various iterations) is: Study: Bush administration's reading program hasn't helped.

For those new to the story, some background: Reading First:
Reading First provides assistance to States and districts to establish research-based reading programs for students in kindergarten through grade three. Reading First also provides funds to train teachers, including special education teachers, in the essential components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension) and to select and administer assessments to identify those children who may be at risk of reading failure.

In other words, state educational units (SEAs) applied for grants, and then local education agencies (LEAs) applied for subgrants. The whole kit and caboodle is known as "Reading First". Note that RF was a funding program with limits, not a prescription for actual classroom teaching.

The study referenced above looked at a sample of LEAs executing programs funded by RF.

Mike Petrelli, at the Fordham Institute's , cautions: Read the Report First.
First, none of the states that won the first Reading First grants could participate in the study because their programs got started in advance of the evaluation. These states were the ones most enthusiastic about the program–and most prepared to implement it well. It’s quite likely that Reading First schools in these states are having a major impact.

Second, the schools selected for study were the ones that just barely won grants under the program, which were compared to schools that just barely missed funding. (Schools are ranked according to various criteria, such as poverty, need, etc. Let’s say there was enough money in a given district to fund 10 schools; then the study compared the 10th-ranked school, which got money under the program, to the 11th-ranked school, which did not.) But here’s the rub: the schools where you would expect the greatest impacts from Reading First are the poorest ones, enrolling students who are further behind in reading–schools that would have been ranked at the top of the priority list. Simply put, these schools weren’t included in the study.

The bottom line is that evaluators looked for schools that met their study design conditions, not schools that were nationally representative of the program. So we can’t say anything definitive about the effectiveness of Reading First–all we know is about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a handful of Reading First schools.

Jay P. Greene, in the comments:
The thing that strikes me most about this study is that the time spent on phonics increased only marginally when schools adopted Reading First (see p. 44, where the increase is described as an extra 2-5 minutes per day). Perhaps the increase was so small because the implementation was poor, which would be consistent with Mike’s explanation. Or perhaps it was because Reading First is not a well-designed phonics program — so this would be an evaluation of Reading First, not the concept of phonics. Or perhaps the increase in time spent on phonics was small because the emphasis on phonics has already become pretty wide-spread, even in non-Reading First schools. If this last option is the case, then whetever benefit we can get from shifting to more phonics has already largely been achieved.

What I want to know, which the study may or may not answer:
  1. Have any schools/districts using RF experienced comprehension gains?
  2. If yes, what are the differences between schools/districts using RF successfully and those districts who did not see gains? Non-exhaustive list of differences:
    1. in demographics (especially student transiency)
    2. in teacher preparation and support (hours of teacher training in phonics and phonics instruction, for example)
    3. in duration and intensity of instruction)

  3. I want to see a fine-grained analysis of "fidelity", for example: : were the teachers, schools and districts really teaching systematic and explicit phonics with adequate follow-on practice with reading materials repeating the graphophonemic elements just taught? Or was it a case of buying the materials and not using them?

This District Has Found RF Works

In an article published in Broome County (NY) found that RF had a positive effect:
Locally, the program has provided money for teacher training and additional instructional time and intervention for students below grade level, they said. Early results show some improvement in students' basic skills, although the longer-term impact on reading comprehension remains to be seen.

"My immediate reaction is that we're extremely grateful for the opportunities Reading First has afforded us," said Suzanne McLeod, assistant superintendent for business and elementary education in the Union-Endicott Central School District

USA Today story as illustrative of the "RF doesn't work" in the national media

Reading First has had a complicated history. A good summary of the back story was written by Sol Sternberg at the Thomas F. Fordham Institute: Too Good to Last: The True Story of Reading First

Sample comments from those opposed to Reading First:

Nick Burubles, Education Policy Blog:
I think everyone here knows that the “Reading First” program is just another Bush patronage scam, using NCLB rules to funnel money to campaign supporters and loyalists. Now the Institute of Education Sciences – the unit that says all policy must be based on rigorous scientific evidence – concludes that Reading First is a lousy program. Okay, now there’s scientific evidence: so what’s the response?
Jackie Bennett, Edwize:
So, surprise, surprise: more and more time for reading skills, and no significant results. I don’t know if future studies will bear out these findings, but if they do, isn’t this exactly what many of us have suspected all along? Better reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Kids need a diverse curriculum that will give them background knowledge, and any gains from skill drills could be irrelevant after the early grades. As a teacher said to me earlier this week, the teaching of discreet reading skills is “more gimmick than education and more test prep than reading.” Some skill work may have its place in reading instruction, but across the country it has come to replace the instruction kids really need, such as instruction about history and the world around them, and about science and the arts.
Sometimes I get really discouraged. On another discussion list I'm on (sorry, not public) one parent finally succeeded in getting a specific reading remediation program listed in her child's IEP, with a prescription for 90 minutes a week (the recommended minimum, at 3 times a week for 30 minutes). She has since found out that her child is engaged in the reading remediation program once a week for 30 minutes, and that "it isn't working" and "should be discontinued".