kitchen table math, the sequel: 2/8/09 - 2/15/09

Saturday, February 14, 2009

two thought experiments


Suppose you simplified spelling so that written English became a perfectly transparent writing system like Spanish. It would be obvious to one and all that written English is a code, that spelling means encoding the sounds of the English language, and that reading means decoding the sounds of the English language.

Would schools use phonics to teach children how to read?


Suppose the schools were required to teach all children to read and write Morse code.

Would schools teach children the codes for individual letters and have them practice stringing them together into words and sentences?

Or would schools give students a list of sight words written in Morse to memorize and then have them "read" leveled books written in Morse Code, focusing on the meaning of the text?

update from lgm:
For #2: If it was my district, each child would initially be given his first name in Morse code and expected to memorize it use it to label his color/cut/paste projects. Then it would be sight words. Once the Morse code equivalent of Dolch sight words are mastered, the child would be given instruction in decoding. He would never encode. He would spend far more time listening than watching or doing...which is IMHO why boys get behind. Too much listening to talk about the subject, not enough thinking and practicing on one's own.

constructivism & the rise in learning disabilities

It is interesting therefore to learn that direct instruction and mastery learning are recommended methods of teaching for students with learning disabilities. (Rosenberg, et al., 2008). It is also interesting to note that over the past two decades, the number of students with learning disabilities has increased. In 2006, approximately 2.6 million students were identified with learning disabilities, more than three times as many as were identified in 1976-1977. Although one reason for this growth might be better means of diagnoses of specific disorders, there has still been growth. Between 1990 and 2004, 650,000 additional students were identified with learning disabilities, representing a 31% increase at a time when the overall student population grew by only 15%. (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

The increase in the number of students with learning disabilities raises the interesting question (if not uncomfortable for some), of whether the older way of teaching (direct instruction and mastery learning) may have had unintended benefits. According to Rosenberg, et. al. (2008), one factor associated with the identification of students with learning disabilities is the lack of access to effective instruction. Rosenberg et. al, also note that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given high-quality instruction. Is the shift toward inquiry-based teaching resulting in more students being identified with learning disabilities?Are these students who in earlier days would have swum with the rest of the pack?

To answer this question would take a good bit of solid research. I hold it out as a research project for anyone willing to take it on, perhaps as a dissertation for a PhD.It would certainly provide some research that Sherry Fraser could cite. At the very least it might even result in helping people learn.

from: It Works for Me: An Exploration of "Traditional Math" Part III
by Barry Garelick

  • In 1985, the NCTE issued its resolution urging the abolition of formal instruction in grammar. ("[T]he use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing and...that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than the improvement of writing." Jeremiah Reedy review: War Against Grammar by David Mulroy)
  • In 1989, the NCTM released its standards. ("Computational algorithms, the manipulation of expressions, and paper-and-pencil drill must no longer dominate school mathematics." -- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics, 1991 - Illinois Loop)
  • "Between 1990 and 2004, 650,000 additional students were identified with learning disabilities, representing a 31% increase at a time when the overall student population grew by only 15%. (U.S. Department of Education, 2006)."

I would love to see Caroline Hoxby conduct a natural experiment to find out whether learning disabilities increased first in schools that were eary adopters for constructivist teaching and curricula.

dyslexie, vraiment?

Paul H on the toxic stew

more tales from the font:

Constructivism, as practiced by CMP is actually an amalgam of discovery learning, clothed in multiculturalism, with a dash of politically correct, story vignettes to 'connect' the child to real world problems. It's not that these things, in and of themselves are inappropriate, it's just that the program throws so much into a one day lesson, the math gets hijacked.

It's not atypical for one of these vignettes to have a dark skinned blue eyed child, named Ming lee, sitting in a wheel chair, talking in Spanish to her friend Sascha from Russia. Put that in front of a child who is reading at a third grade level as an introduction to a seventh grade lesson on solving proportions, and you have the makings of a nightmare. It's very hard at times to get by the intro.

Then when you get into the lesson's problem sets it is very often the case that the problems serve up a hodge-podge;fill out a table, look for a pattern, find equivalent fractions, make a graph, and on and on. It makes my head explode sometimes and I've been doing math forever.

I understand the need to make connections and provide spaced repetition but it should never get in the way of base understanding in the topic at hand. When it does, and the paradigm is discovery/group learning, the results are not pretty.

The math gets lost in a blizzard of roadblocks around; the weird names, and how come we saw that guy in the wheel chair last year, and are trees really alive, and why is the Chinese guy speaking Spanish to a Russian, do I really have to make a table, and on and on.

You mix this altogether and it's a toxic stew for behavior because each child is hung up on a different facet of the jewel. If you can't put all these fires out fast, really fast, the third of your class that is ADHD gets going with the third of the class that is laughing at the goofy names, while the last third passes notes about the day's scoop.

The math is lost. Instead of providing a structure to hang the practice and spaced reps upon, CMP rips the structure into tiny little pieces in the arcane hope that the kids will put it all together again.

C. and I used to laugh about the many and multi-splendored names of the children populating Saxon's word problems. The one I remember best was: Monifa.


Who in the world is named Monifa? (Apart from a pygmy hippo in Australia, that is.)

Of course today I wonder whether the choice of "Monifa" was John Saxon's little in-joke on multi-culturalism in math books.

group home

We just left Jimmy at the group home he may be moving to.

When I left, he gave me his sweetest smile.

I wish I had a picture.

education & mortality (& being the parent of an autistic child)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Andrew persists

Andrew's still on about the Caterpillar CEOs.

Ed's refusing to buy it.

"It's forty dollars."

"He's not going to watch it."

"It's forty dollars."

In fact, it's $29.95. But I'm staying out of it.

Andrew Googles Caterpillar
Andrew persists
Andrew negotiates

hold your horses

Just stumbled across this abstract in an NBER Reporter I downloaded while searching for something else altogether:

Putting Computerized Instruction to the Test: A Randomized Evaluation of a "Scientifically-based" Reading Program

Although schools across the country are investing heavily in computers in the classroom, there is surprisingly little evidence that they actually improve student achievement. In this paper we present results from a randomized study of a well-defined use of computers in schools: a popular instructional computer program, known as Fast ForWord, which is designed to improve language and reading skills. We assess the impact of the program using four different measures of language and reading ability. Our estimates suggest that while use of the computer program may improve some aspects of students' language skills, it does not appear that these gains translate into a broader measure of language acquisition or into actual reading skills.

Working Paper 10315
(pdf file)
NBER Working Paper Series
Cecilia Rouse
Alan B. Krueger
with Lisa Markman

It's not too often you read a peer-reviewed abstract whose tone could be described as droll.

I like droll.

Here's the intro:
According to the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37 percent of 4th graders in the U.S. read below a basic level and an additional 31 percent read at a basic level, as determined by the National Assessment Governing Board (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Currie and Thomas (2001) find that scores on a reading test taken at age 7 by participants in the British National Child Development Study are positively correlated with their earnings and likelihood of employment at age 33. Furthermore, adults who score higher on the literacy test in the Adult Literacy Survey have a greater probability of working and higher earnings if they do work (see, e.g., Sum, 1999). While the interpretation of the correlation between literacy and employment outcomes is unclear, it is very likely that improving literacy skills for troubled readers would generate important economic and social benefits.

When we all finally get tired advocating for edu-reform (or edu-revolution, as the case may be), we can take up the cause of simplified spelling.

I certainly intend to.

Mark Twain on simplified spelling
more from Twain
Diane McGuinness on the trouble with English spelling
H.L. Mencken on simplified spelling
Theodore Roosevelt's List of Simplified Spellings
Simplified Spelling Society

Niki Hayes on classroom discipline

I sent the Mary Damer/Elaine McEwan passage to Niki Hayes -----

Research supports the underlying thesis of our problem-solving process: the heart of successful behavior management is good instruction. Effective teaching becomes an even more essential variable for managing student behavior when one or more of the following conditions is present: (a) a student has a particularly chaotic home environment, (b) a student’s learning problems are extensive and complex, or (c) a student’s behavior is especially impulsive.

Here's Niki:
Yep. In one of the few prof development sessions that I attended that was worth my time, the speaker asked, "Which comes first, behavior or academics?" We all said, of course, "behavior."

"Wrong," she said. "If you want to change student behavior, change the academics. Academics drive student behavior." What she meant was, primarily, the curriculum and, secondarily, the pedagogy. She was a special ed trainer.

Speaking of good curricula, Niki is writing a book about John Saxon!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

are we having fun yet? discipline in a constructivist classroom

Mary Damer & Elaine McEwan on the other problem with constructivism:
Research supports the underlying thesis of our problem-solving process: the heart of successful behavior management is good instruction. Effective teaching becomes an even more essential variable for managing student behavior when one or more of the following conditions is present: (a) a student has a particularly chaotic home environment, (b) a student’s learning problems are extensive and complex, or (c) a student’s behavior is especially impulsive.

If Carla, the fourth grader who was constantly in your office last year poses no problem in fifth grade, chances are that her teacher this year is more skillful. If you observe Carla, you are likely to see her current teacher employing teaching methods that reflect the most valid research practices. Whenever you have a teacher on your staff who is complaining that a student who posed no problems last year is now a noncompliant rule-breaker, take a close look at that teacher’s instructional methods. You may find important clues to the student’s sudden misbehavior in the quality of the teacher’s instruction.

Instructional practices derived from specific curriculum designs can also directly affect student behavior. Many of the constructivist curricular innovations of the past 10 years that were created to develop hands-on cooperative learning, and student-centered environments often produced unintended results for children who are distractible, impulsive, or less motivated toward school.

Consider the following observation notes based on a classroom observation of two sixth graders in a math class. [NOTE: the two 6th graders she mentions here are the two children having behavior problems, and for whom the behaviorists have been called in]

The students are seated five to a table. They are manipulating small blocks into patterns in order to invent a method of multiplying fractions. Only two students in the class appear to have understood the concept. Other students in the class seem confused and frustrated. The teacher is unable to assist the students who are having difficulty and still monitor the other students. The instant she pauses to provide assistance to one table of students, a craps game begins on the other side of the room with several students exchanging pennies for the blocks they are now flicking across a finish line. One of the two referred students is walking around the classroom, seemingly to avoid the assigned task; the other unmanageable student has lined up his blocks like a train.

The frustration and lack of structure engendered by this activity have created multiple, predictable triggers to unmanageable behavior. No behavior intervention plan will succeed in a classroom where the assigned task is as frustrating as this one is, and the activities are as unstructured as these activities are.

Managing Unmanageable Students: Practical Solutions for Administrators
by Elaine K. McEwan & Mary Damer
p 13-14

note: "the last 10 years"

The book was published in 2000.

Twenty years of hands-on collaborative group learning.

A friend of mine was saying the other day that the hottest major in the college where she teaches is Communications.

I wonder if those two facts are related in any way.

CNN: 10 most popular majors
Niki Hayes on classroom discipline

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Andrew Googles Caterpillar CEO

CAT CEO talks earnings

Apparently Andrew is concerned about the economy.


nope, wrong again.

Found an email from his teacher:
Finally figured it out thanks to Mrs. B. The Caterpillar Leadership Series is a CD of interviews with 4 CEO’s of the company. This company makes large tractor trucks. [as a person who grew up on a farm in central IL, I knew that] It has been a company that has become one of the most successful companies in the world. The CD’s are just interviews of these 4 men talking. A paper describing the series will be in his backpack. He’s holding on tight to it! Hope this helps you at home! Talk to you soon!
His teacher said he was on eBay today trying to buy the CDs. "You know he goes on eBay, right?"

Andrew Googles Caterpillar
Andrew persists
Andrew negotiates

Monday, February 9, 2009

Different Standards

Well, my son's 2nd quarter report card came home today along with the results of the state tests he took in the Fall. I can't even begin to express my feelings.

The report card is split into two parts; one based on tests (1 - 5 rubric), and one based on everything else, I guess, (6-10 rubric). Nobody can figure it out. The published honor roll is based on the 6-10 scale I think to allow for what I might call full-inclusion on the honor roll. Few in town really know that the honor role doesn't include tests. There are three honor levels and about half of the students get on one honor roll or another. That half is very close to all girls. My son is the only boy at the top honor level. (I guess that full-inclusion doesn't apply to most boys.) I should be happy, right? His testing grades (1-5 rubric) are all very high. No problems. There are no problems in math, otherwise, I would have to blame myself.

The problem comes with the state testing results (for NCLB). Let me just say that our state tests might be a little on the fuzzy side, but they are selected and calibrated by teachers from our state, not some politicians in Washington DC. You can go out and look at the sample test questions. There is nothing unusual about the questions. They are easy. In Math, there is a correlation between his school grades and the state testing results. However, this has never been the case for reading, vocabulary, and comprehension. My top rubric level 5 son only gets a raw score of 71% on the simple state testing. This is nothing new. I saw this non-correlation with school grade back when he was in fifth grade, and it has only gotten worse. Considering the work I see coming home from his Language Arts and Reading classes, it appears that the school just does not believe in teaching reading comprehension. I think their philosophy is that a lot of reading solves everything.

Has anyone else seen this effect? I taught an after-school SSAT prep class last year and it seemed like everyone had trouble with reading comprehension. I've been waiting for the school to get serious about reading comprehension and writing and it just hasn't come. Just read, read, read. I did talk to the Language Arts teacher about reading comprehension at the beginning of the year and she talked a good talk about comprehension and expository writing, but I haven't seen anything.

Apparently there is a difference of opinion between our teachers and the ones who created the test. Maybe our teachers think that their indirect approach (read, read, read) will get the job done. Heaven forbid if they tackle comprehension by direct practicing. I think they have even given up on spelling and vocabulary. It's all about reading, and I'm not impressed by what my son reads.