Sunday, January 12, 2020

Three Days at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project

Some take-aways from my recent three-day "institute" about student book groups at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. More on some of these later...

  • Stickies are a cool presentation tool
  • Notebooks are good, and other people are amazing at making their notebook pages look great, even if I'm not
  • Reading in class is still a revolutionary act
  • We can create the culture we believe in--but it takes real planning and work
    • TCRWP believes in a culture of reading, and they have a clear plan for how to create it
  • Reading in class for extended periods is very important
    • Teachers are incredibly resistant to this practice
    • The entire TCRWP "workshop method" can be seen as a clever, round-about way to try to make teachers comfortable with just letting their students read
  • * Our culture demands that we back our claims up with "research" or "science"
  • * It's hard to come up with good questions about literature
    • The "workshop" format the TCRWP promotes seems excellent (it minimizes, and maybe sharpens, direct instruction and group discussion, while maximizing time in class to actually read), but the questions they used in their mini-lessons just weren't that great (level 1 and 2 questions, mostly, if you use the 4QM framework, and, more importantly, not phrased very crisply) 
  • * It's hard to run a good class
    • The leader of our smaller group, when she was setting up our book groups, said, "It's important not to just put the books on a table at the back of the room and say, Okay, go find a book you like and get in groups" -- but then she did exactly that. Teaching is hard!
  • The street food in Morningside Heights is way better now than when I lived there in the late 90s.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Day 2: Two high points and a low point

I had an interesting day at the institute, and then I had a cup of coffee with my aunt, Hannah, who used to be an elementary school teacher and then a math coordinator, and we had an interesting talk about the culture of education. I was saying something about the reading wars and the way The Knowledge Gap vilified Lucy Calkins, and I said, “It’s funny, all educational debates follow the same basic structure, but I’m not sure I know what that structure is, exactly.”

“I know,” Hannah said: “taking two things that are both necessary and pitting them against each other."

She’s exactly right!

That was one high point. Another was when we had twenty minutes to just sit and read quietly, and our facilitator said, “Most importantly, you’ve got to protect your reading time!”

I agree, we have to protect our reading time, so I was less happy with the amount of time we spent looking at screens, images, and video. Ugh.

I guess I should have known this was coming after Mary Ehrenworth said yesterday, about using video in your classroom (I think she called it, in a strange phrase, “digital read-alouds”): “This is a game-changer,” and added, “You should be using it in your classrooms as much as humanly possible.”


Are educational researchers more "analytical" than teachers? I doubt it.

Educational research has a lot of problems--statistical incompetence, a tendency to leap to generalizations, and the Kuhnian inability of all scientists, even when the data is decisive, to "renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis", among many others.  Why these weaknesses?  Is it because many of the people doing this research used to be teachers, and teaching makes you less "analytical"?  No! This is not the reason!  Teachers can be analytical too!

Stanford's David Labaree
David Labaree, a sociologist by training and a longtime Ed School professor, is always provocative and interesting.  I've read a number of his articles, and I like what he's written about statistics in Ed research (he suggests Educational researchers use statistics because, working in the least respected field in the academy, and perhaps the only field that is both "soft" and "applied", they're grasping for authority), and I am very interested in his work on education as a public good (he uses Hirschman's distinction between exit and voice as a helpful lens, and he makes useful distinctions among the different purposes schooling can have, from educating citizens to training workers, both clearly public goods, to allowing for individual social mobility and competitive advantage, which Labaree sees as a private good, though I think this too has a public good aspect).  I'm also interested in his writing about ed schools, but that writing seems a bit more muddled to me.  Perhaps it's the subject.

Are practical-minded teachers to blame for the problems with educational research?
Labaree suggests, in a 2003 article, that educational researchers are more "analytical" than teachers. He claims that one of the tensions in Ed schools is the cultural shift that doctoral Education students must make when they enter Ed school and have to shift from the practical exigencies of teaching to the scholarly culture of being an educational researcher.  It seems to me, however, that a more important problem is the way educational researchers shift from being analytical and scholarly in their professional papers to being polemical and unscholarly in their popular writing and their policy advocacy.

The 2003 article I'm focusing on here appeared in Educational Researcher, a publication of the American Education Research Association.  The article discusses the cultural initiation undergone by educational researchers-in-training. Labaree claims that these graduate students, who are nearly always former teachers, must make a difficult transition from the culture of the practitioner to the culture of the scholar.  According to Labaree, these students' reluctance to think in analytical, scholarly ways "leads students in education doctoral programs to shift the discourse about educational issues from what is to what should be, looking for practical solutions before explaining the problem." In other words, Labaree seems to be blaming the tendency of educational research to be always chasing after the next fad in educational practice on this cultural divide.  As Labaree puts it:

The idea is to pick an intervention that promises to improve education—a new teaching technique, curriculum approach, instructional technology, reform effort, or administrative structure—and study it in practice. The desired outcome is that the intervention works rather well, and the function of the study is to document this and suggest how the approach could be improved in the future. This often leads to an approach to scholarship (and eventually to a kind of scholarly literature) that is relentlessly, unrealistically, sometimes comically optimistic—one that suggests that there is an implementable answer to every educational problem and that help is always on the way.

I love this focus on the way education research often puts the cart before the horse, and I think Labaree's urging of modesty on the often-hubristic educational researchers is right on.  In another article Labaree calls on education scholars to adopt the Hippocratic "First, do no harm" as a slogan, which strikes me as exactly right.  For the first few years of my teaching career, that slogan was my daily mantra.  Nevertheless, I think Labaree is putting the blame in the wrong place here.  Rather than blame first the culture of the working practitioner for the intellectual hubris of ed research, I would put most of the responsibility on the culture of the scholars and professors.

Part of the problem is one that Labaree himself has written about extensively: education research is the lowliest academic pursuit.  Because education research is marginal and low-prestige, ed school professors have chips on their shoulders, are even more susceptible to political and cultural influence than scholars in more prestigious disciplines, and are statistically incompetent. But the real problem is that this is an "applied" social science, and applied social sciences struggle mightily because they are up against an essentially impossible task. The old poem I quoted yesterday is relevant again:

No known way of human seeing
Can clearly see the human being.

If social science is a well-nigh impossible task, and if Doctoral students in Education are insecure because they see legions of doctoral students in Economics about to take their jobs, then why should they be any more scrupulous about curbing the many types of researcher bias than any other social scientist? For the truth is that social science has been for years in the throes of a crisis: a study published in Nature found that more than a third of a group of peer-reviewed social science papers published in top journals (Nature and Science) couldn't be replicated. Researchers in other social sciences are, clearly, also swayed by the hope of finding meaningful and applicable results.

On the other hand, teachers can be and are often quite analytical, and are in fact more truly scientific than many social scientists. One key element of science is maintaining an open, skeptical, humble mind, and few people are more humble in my experience than working teachers.

Two recent critiques of the education establishment, and teacher practice, are Natalie Wexler's book, The Knowledge Gap, and Emily Hanford's many radio stories, op-eds and film about the "science" of reading. Both Wexler and Hanford are reporters who base their critiques on supposed "science" that they got from academic researchers (Mark Seidenberg in Hanford's case, and Daniel Willingham (mostly) in Wexler's case); and both Wexler and Hanford cast Lucy Calkins, an ed school bigwig, as their main villain, with the teachers in the role of mostly unwitting dupes who need to be informed that they are doing everything wrong. In these feuds, it is absolutely not the ed school people (and of course it's not the teachers), who are "relentlessly, unrealistically, sometimes comically optimistic."  Instead, the people who most wildly overstate their case and pretend that "there is an implementable answer to every educational problem" are not only the journalists, no doubt incentivized by the pressure of coming up with a good story, but also the scientists themselves. After all, the hubristic subtitle of Seidenberg's book is "How We Read, Why So Many Can't, and What Can Be Done About It", and Willingham's book has a whole table of implementable solutions. In both of these cases, the problems are ones that Labaree points out, but the fault lies not in teachers, nor in ed school.

The next question, for me, is how much any of this really matters. Fortunately, none of it is probably all that significant. Even what I was worrying about today--the crazy numbers of screens we have these days in English classrooms that are supposed to be helping kids get better at reading and writing--probably doesn't matter all that much. But more on that issue later.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Two Cultures: “Science” vs. “Research” (Reflections on Day 1 of the TCRWP Institute)

I’m still curious why this is called an “Institute.” Having spent my undergraduate years at the world’s most famous “Institute,” I may be particularly sensitive to the word, but it’s also, as Stephen King knows, just objectively uncanny.

I didn’t learn anything about that word, but I did get a better picture of how people here at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project use the word “science.” The answer is: they don’t.

I didn’t hear the word “science” once all day. On the other hand, I did hear, quite often, the word “research.” Several times, presenters talked explicitly and at some length about “research”—“Reading Research” or “Non-Fiction Research” or “research on the reciprocity of writing and reading.”

Mary Ehrenworth, the lead organizer of the Institute, gave an hour-long talk over half of which was an overview of the “research” supporting her approach. Interestingly, she presented this research not as specific studies or types of inquiry or categories of interest within the field, but as individual researchers within the field. When talking about “Reading Research,” for instance, she listed six particular scholars and discussed one or more of their books. Organizing the talk this way was interesting, subtly prioritizing both the book (over the “peer-reviewed paper” that is the lodestar of the “Science” folks) and also the human. Organizing a discussion of the research by researchers is a way of valuing the human and cultural nature of educational scholarship, and, the “science” people would say, completely ignoring the “scientific” nature of it.

I remember Mark Seidenberg--a cognitive scientist who is so annoyed by the TCRWP’s insufficient embrace of the “science” supporting systematic phonics that he more or less implies that the TCRWP’s Lucy Calkins is herself the reason Americans can’t read (ironically humanizing what is after all supposed to be an objective debate)—I remember Mark Seidenberg saying that there were two distinct cultures, and that Calkins and her ilk (the whole literacy establishment, including Allington and Beers and others) were part of an “educational culture” which was distinct from the “scientific culture” to which Seidenberg belonged. In Seidenberg’s view, the reason Americans lag in reading (if they do) is that educational culture is interested in culture and socialization and wholly uninterested in science. Based on what I saw today, I think Seidenberg is half right. The people here are not really interested in science.

Where I differ from Seidenberg is that I think he vastly overestimates the extent to which the “science” of education is settled or helpful. Part of this may be that the people here are focused on all of K-12 education, while he is for various reasons more focused on the basics of learning to read. Part of this is because scholarship around education is itself anxious about its status as “science” (you can see this even in the work of a researcher cited twice today, John Hattie, whose work claims way more than it delivers). But a lot of it is that, as an old poem has it, the human and social “sciences” are still in their infancies:

     No known way of human seeing
     Can clearly see the human being.

In any case, I'm looking forward to Day 2!

Off to Anti-Science HQ...

In about five minutes I'm going to join some colleagues and walk up to an "institute" at Lucy Calkins's Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College. Calkins has been under fire more than ever recently; she seems to be the focal point around which circle the literacy pundits who harp most noisily about the importance of "science" as the foundation of all educational practice. Natalie Wexler's popular book, The Knowledge Gap, casts Calkins as its villain, and the various pro-phonics people in the reading wars--journalist Emily Hanford and cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg are the ones I've noticed most--also love to hate on Calkins. Seidenberg recently wrote a blog post with the amazing title, "This is Why We Don't Have Better Readers", as if Calkins were single-handedly holding back the nation's youth. And who knows, maybe she is.

Having never gone to Ed School, I'm curious to see what I'll find. I'll write more later...

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Why does Kim Marshall promote the idea that schools can overcome poverty?

My department chair subscribes to the Marshall Memo, and I usually read all of it. I like the way it reminds me of what's important. This week, though, Kim Marshall included a piece called "Pushing Back on Eight Outmoded Beliefs." In the piece, originally published in the official publication of the Michigan Association of School Boards and written by Marshall himself, Marshall declares that it is "outmoded" to believe that "poverty is destiny."

In some sense, okay, poverty isn't destiny and never has been. Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass and a lot of other heroes of mine have shown that some people can escape the fate that poverty usually points to. But to say that the idea is "outmoded" is pretty galling, not only because it implies that this idea is just a sort of trendy fashion, not only because there is no reason to think that poverty is any less determinative than it has ever been, but also because a more pervasive and pernicious myth is that schools CAN rectify the injustices of an increasingly unequal society.

My first impulse, on reading Kim Marshall's article, was to curse at my computer. But then I thought, well, maybe in fact progress has been made. It's been a few years since I looked into the question of whether schools can overcome poverty. Last I looked into it, I found that, No, in fact, schools cannot overcome poverty. But maybe that conclusion is "outmoded." According to Marshall, "some schools are turning this dynamic around and closing gaps; Education Trust’s website showcases a number of these beat-the-odds schools and what they are doing: .

So, okay, I went to the Education Trust's website. I was skeptical, but willing to look at it. If schools were succeeding at overcoming poverty, I wanted to see what they were doing.

Unfortunately, what I found when I looked into it was typical of what I found a few years ago, and typical of education discourse in general. It's the kind of thing that finally got me frustrated enough that I stopped paying much attention to education discourse and research: an absence of evidence that bears even the most cursory examination.

I will try to be brief. The Education Trust is an organization that seems to spend a lot of time and energy showing that schools can overcome poverty. Every year, the Education Trust gives "Dispelling the Myth" awards to schools whose "success dispels the damaging myth that schools can do very little to help students overcome the barriers of poverty and discrimination."

To be clear, this organization looks around the ENTIRE COUNTRY to find schools that overcome poverty.  So you might expect that the award-winning schools would have both high poverty, as measured in the standard way by the percentage of students whose family income qualifies them for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch, and also success, as measured by graduation rates and test scores and so on. I looked to see if this was true. But, mirabile dictu, I didn't actually ever even look to see if the award-winning schools had achieved any academic success, because as I started looking at the high schools that had won this award, I was shocked to find that the first two schools listed (there were only three overall) were serving student populations that actually had significantly LOWER POVERTY than the state or national average.

Let me say that again, because I still can't believe it myself: most of the schools that Kim Marshall and the Education Trust cites as showing that schools can overcome poverty actually have SIGNIFICANTLY LESS poverty than average to overcome.

I don't really know what to say about this, except that I hope Kim Marshall puts out a correction in his memo, and spends some time explicating the more important and very pernicious myth that schools can beat poverty. They can't. Schools can work with and nurture the students we are given, but the only real solutions to poverty lie outside the schoolhouse walls.

Notes about the particular schools:
The Education Trust lists only three schools. The first, Imperial High School in California, has 40% low-income students. Statewide 58% of students are low-income (meaning they qualify for Free or Reduced-Price Lunch). At the second, Jack Britt High School in North Carolina, 28% of the students are low-income. Statewide, that number is 58%. That's when I threw my hands up and started to write this blog post. But I did go back and look at the third, which though it's called "Pass Christian High School" seems to be a secular public high school in Missouri. Pass Christian actually does have more low-income students than the state average, if not by much (56% as compared to 50%). But still. If Education Trust combs the country looking foro schools that beat poverty, and this is what they come up with, I don't think we've proved that poverty can be overcome at the schoolwide level.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The best book I've read this year

The best two books I've read in the past several months were both historical fiction: first The Radetsky March, Joseph Roth's amazingly astringent 1932 novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, recommended to me by a friend who's spending the year in Vienna; and now The Lions of Little Rock, a 2013 YA novel by Kristin Levine, recommended by my 10-year-old daughter.

My daughter had been trying to get me to read this book for weeks. Yesterday's snow day gave me a chance to start it--and once I started, I couldn't stop. The Lions of Little Rock, about the school integration struggle in Little Rock in the late 1950s, is maybe even better than the Roth. I was floored by its apparently effortless depth and wisdom. It's about a 7th grader, and it's packaged like a book for tweens, but everyone should read it.  It's a more gripping book than Warriors Don't Cry, and it's both better and less morally questionable than To Kill a Mockingbird. If my ninth grade students could get over their reluctance to read books aimed at younger children, I think they'd love it.

Again I am amazed at the quality of the YA books produced in our time. We are living in a golden age of children's literature, and we should thank our lucky stars.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Informing parents about missing student work raises GPA and raises test scores for Math--but not for English

I read an interesting study yesterday. Here's my take:

The Study
A New York Times article yesterday referred to an interesting study suggesting that getting more information to parents about their kids' education is low-hanging educational fruit.

According to the study's author, Peter Bergman,  a professor at Columbia, there are three basic problems in this area:

1) parents don't have high-quality information about their kids' grades and work completion

2) parental bias means that parents think their kids are doing more homework than they really are

3) the short-term bias of children (Bergman says they have "higher discount rates") leads them to conceal poor performance and poor homework completion from their parents

The literature about parental involvement has been ambiguous, according to Bergman, because it has been difficult to distinguish between cause and effect. Studies have even found negative correlations between parental monitoring/involvement and student achievement. This could either be because parental nagging is counterproductive or because parents tend to monitor and nag kids who are underperforming. Bergman thinks it's the latter.

Bergman models the situation using some fancy-looking game theory, but his experimental design is simple: the treatment group, at a California school serving mostly poor kids, got messages about missing assignments, including specific information like the date and the page number of the textbook. The control group got the default amount of information that school and teacher provided parents: report cards four times a semester and teacher contact as the teacher chose (usually very little).

Positive Results: GPA goes up; math test scores go up
The results were positive: in the treatment group, both overall GPA and math test scores increased by about .2 standard deviations. That's a pretty big increase.

This is not surprising, but it does point to an obvious lesson: schools and teachers should move to as transparent a grading system as possible. Parents should have continuous access to their children's assignments and grades. As a teacher, this will push me to be more timely and thorough about updating my gradebook, but that's a good thing. Or--it would be a good thing if I were a math teacher.

Unfortunately--as usual--English test scores don't change
Another interesting result of the study--for me, more interesting than its headline finding--was that the English test scores of the treatment group did not go up. (Well, they went up .04 standard deviations, but that's not much).

As Bergman notes, this disparity is typical--many studies find it easier to raise math scores than English scores (2). But it is nevertheless a real puzzle, one that calls into question the effectiveness of English class.

Informing parents about missing work seems to have had some direct effects. Parents who were informed about missing assignments were in better touch with the school, and more of them attended parent-teacher conferences. Parents in the treatment group took away twice as many privileges from their children (mainly access to screens and friends). Students in the treatment group skipped class less, completed more of their assignments, and attended after-school tutoring more often.

Therefore, this experiment found that a group of students who had more engaged parents, who went to class more often, who did more of their schoolwork, and who went for help after school, nevertheless did not make any more improvement on their English test scores.

This is a striking result.  Going to math class and doing your math homework really matters. Going to English class and doing your assigned English work seems to matter much less.

Results like this should make English teachers very uncomfortable.

How might English teachers respond?
An English teacher at this school could interpret these results in three ways:

1) the purpose of English class is not really to improve reading ability, so this result is irrelevant, and I am going to keep doing what I'm doing.

2) the purpose of English class is to improve reading, but coming to class and doing the assigned work does not seem to serve that purpose, so I am going to change my practice.

3) the purpose of English class is to improve reading, and although coming to class and doing the assigned work does not seem to serve that purpose very well, changing my practice would be inconvenient, difficult, and unnatural, so I am going to keep doing what I'm doing.

I think most English teachers respond, if unconsciously, in the third way. Here's why:

Education is conceptualized in a way that fits math, not English
English teachers work within a system that is set up for teaching subjects, not for getting kids to read a lot. The other academic subjects, including math, are about teaching discrete concepts and techniques, while English is about continual gradual improvement in the exact same activity students have been practicing since they were in first grade. In English there is no proper "content," and the usual ways of thinking about education are inappropriate and inadequate for thinking about reading.

The usual way of thinking about education is that the teacher teaches a skill or concept, and then students practice or conceptualize on their own and get feedback from the teacher about their performance. For me, this model was most vividly represented by the Australian researcher John Hattie, who in his book Visible Learning says that the "heart of the model of successful teaching and learning" is like rappelling in that "the goals are challenging, specific and visible," the skill being taught does not come naturally, the experience of learning is "exhilarating," and "it is abundantly clear what the success criteria are". This may be a good model for learning a single skill like rappelling off the top of a building, and it may work to some extent for subjects like math, science, history or foreign languages, in which there is "material" to be learned or "skills" to be mastered, but it is not a good model for improving your performance in an activity, like reading, that you have been doing over and over for many years.

The best way for students to get better at reading is probably to spend a lot of time reading interesting material, and to spend some time discussing the meaning of interesting or difficult texts. Unfortunately, neither the reading or the discussing fits easily into education's standard conceptual framework. So instead English teachers often assign work and plan classroom activities that are neither actual reading of texts nor discussion of texts, and it doesn't really matter if our students do the work or take part in the activities.

Bergman's study shows that we should be more transparent about missing student work, but it also shows that we English teachers should be rethinking our practice.

"Parent-Child Information Frictions and Human Capital Investment:
Evidence from a Field Experiment" by Peter Bergman

(2) This phenomenon is discussed somewhat in Bergman's paper, and in more detail in a 2010 paper by Eric Bettinger. It's also touched on in a 1996 meta-analysis of summer learning loss by Cooper et al. The paper about summer learning loss is interesting, since it finds that although on average the summer learning loss is greater in math, for poor kids it is greater in reading. Food for thought.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The new Common Sense Media report on reading

(I have been taking a year off from blogging while I think things through on (maybe) a deeper level, but I wanted to record a quick take on a new paper on reading that's been in the news.)

A new report by Common Sense Media reviewing the data on how much kids read has been getting some press recently. In the Times, Frank Bruni used it as the jumping off point for a column celebrating reading. My department chair sent us a link to the report, and asked what we thought. Here are my quick thoughts.

The standard takeaway from the report seems to be that kids are reading less now than they were 20 years ago. My department chair used the phrase "hell in a handbasket," and Bruni calls the change "marked and depressing." I'm not sure it's as bad as all that. But if the data the report discusses is somewhat open to interpretation, it does seem clear that our society can do better at helping our schoolchildren read. Because reading seems clearly to be the most important academic skill, this matters a lot.

The report's first two "key findings" are what have gotten the most attention, and they also seem most important to me. The report's other key findings are either of less general interest (gender gaps, racial/ethnic gaps, impact of e-readers, etc.) or kind of obvious (kids whose parents read aloud to them and have books in the house are better readers). The first two key findings are:

1) all kids, but especially older kids, are reading less for fun than they used to;

2) while reading comprehension scores for elementary-age kids are higher than they used to be, reading comprehension scores for older kids have not improved.

What's interesting about these two findings, if they're accurate, is that there are two apparent contradictions: kids in the younger grades are better at reading than they used to be, but kids in the older grades are not; and the reduction in pleasure reading is not translating to a decrease in reading scores.

Two possible (but I think unlikely) interpretations:

One way to interpret these findings is to think that reading for pleasure doesn't matter much. That's possible, but unlikely, given the high correlation between pleasure reading and reading scores.

Another possibility is that the findings are not accurate, that older kids are reading just about as much as they used to, but that some of their reading is not showing up in the data. As far as I can tell, there is some possibility that some of what teenagers are doing on their screens is not being counted as reading, even though it is practically the same as stuff that in the past, when it wasn't done via a screen, used to be counted as reading. A lot of what my son does on his iPod touch is reading about professional tennis and rock climbing. When I was his age, I spent hours every week reading bicycling magazines. Reading an online article or blog post and reading an article in a print magazine are basically the same activity, but I looked like I was reading, and he looks like he's on facebook.

My take:

While these studies may not be catching all the reading that's really happening, I think they're probably mostly accurate. Older kids probably are reading less. Some of this may be due to the improvement of competing non-reading activities like youtube, instagram and facebook (technologies that can be seen as improved versions of the telephone and the television). But this wouldn't explain why younger kids are getting higher reading scores now, so I think there is something else going on, too.

What I think has happened is that we have put a lot of energy into trying to teach, through direct instruction, the "skills" and "strategies" of reading. There has been a huge push, at all levels, to turn reading instruction into a mechanical process that can be broken down and implemented piece by piece. What there has not been is a huge push to encourage reading as a pleasurable and valuable activity that people might want to engage in on their own, either for entertainment or (like my son's reading about tennis and rock climbing) for information about the world.

The increase in direct instruction in skills and strategies may have boosted reading scores on the NAEP in the elementary school years, but they have not made 17 year olds better readers. We seem to be having short term success, but the short term success is not translating into long term success.  This is a pattern that I noticed last year in data about the reading scores of students in Waldorf schools. Waldorf education doesn't teach reading at all until kids are 7 or 8. As you might expect, Waldorf students score poorly on reading tests in early elementary school. By eighth grade, however, they have caught up. By the end of high school, they may be pulling ahead.

It also strikes me that the direct instruction that may produce higher scores in elementary school could be having a counterproductive effect in the long term. It's very possible that the way reading is now taught discourages reading for pleasure.

So if it were up to me, I would try to spend more energy on encouraging pleasure reading, especially at the high school level, when pleasure reading drops off precipitously.

The report:

The Times column:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fancy math in educational research

I was reading an economics blogger who sometimes writes about inequality, and a post of his ( me to a paper by an economics grad student at MIT about charter schools. The paper ( seemed competent--the author is handier with his math than I am--but basically just marginal embroidery. The paper is another angle on the inadequacy of educational research. Basically, the lesson I take away is that fancy math doesn't matter--what you need is more and better data.  

First, I haven't read that many papers about education that attempt such elaborate mathematical modeling as this one.  Here is a screen shot of one of the pages:

Second, it  was remarkable that such elaborate modeling allowed the author to achieve virtually no new insight. The paper begins by acknowledging that there are two ways to understand the success of Boston charter schools: either the success is due to the non-union faculty and "No Excuses" practices of Boston charters, or the success is due to the self-selected student population. Yes, true--and the author's extremely elaborate model only allows him to conclude that if charter schools make a big difference in the achievement of poorer students, then it will be important to figure out how to get more poor students into charters.

This is an entirely obvious conclusion that you might have reached without doing any of the fancy modeling and without spending years in graduate school at MIT. The key issue here is whether it is the schools or the non-school factors that lead to the higher test scores, and this paper sheds no light on that issue.

Economists often write about education, because of the apparent strengths of both the economists (they're arguably better at math than ed school Ph.D.s) and the education data (it's arguably more abundant and rich than economics data). But this paper shows the limitations of both of these apparent strengths: the economist's fancy math is deployed to no effective purpose; and the education data is clearly inadequate.

If we want to know whether the Boston charter schools are markedly more effective than the rest of the Boston system, we would probably have to conduct an actual scientific experiment: randomly assign a large number of students, not allow the charters to drop their lower-performing students, and see what happened. Until then, I will continue to assume what I have never seen disproven, that schools alone cannot overcome achievement gaps, and that the higher test scores of students in Boston charters does not mean that eliminating teachers' unions and adopting "No Excuses" policies would help poor kids learn more.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Death of Theory in Education?

In literary studies, the age of "theory" was coming to its end when I was in college, twenty-some years ago.  I took a class or two in which we read Terry Eagleton's little primer on literary theory and sampled work by a various people who'd been read a lot in the seventies and eighties (Derrida, etc.), but as I recall, my friends and I thought the more theoretical stuff was pretty much a joke. Today I read a piece by an economist making the case that the decline of theory has been a trend in economics, too, and indeed across all the disciplines.  Physicists have hit a theory wall; empirical sciences like biology are ascendant; published economics papers are down from over 50% theoretical in the 60s, 70s and 80s to less than 20% theoretical in 2011; and math is increasingly reliant on proving things by means of brute computing force rather than theoretical deduction.

Why has theory declined?
That last example points to one obvious reason for the shift from a theoretical approach to an empirical approach. Computers allow for data-crunching and simulation-testing that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. But computers are only one possible factor. The economist whose post I read suggests that the waning of theory might be due not only to competition from the now-stronger alternative of empiricism, but because theory itself has been played out (he expresses it in econ terms: "Maybe we've temporarily exhausted the surplus gains available from ramping up our investment in theory.")

As I see it, computing is certainly a huge part of the decline of theory, and the endogenous "exhaustion" of theory itself may be another. I wonder if another factor could be the fall of the Soviet Union. For over a hundred years before the time I was in college, the world had a very vigorous non-stop debate over how to see the world. Then, with the rise of the USSR, competition between the two hegemonic political systems fueled theoretical debates even in fields very far removed from politics (literary studies, for one). When I was in college, the global political competition abruptly ended, and the theoretical debates started to taper off as well. The decline was particularly steep in economics, but it happened in lots of other fields, too.

Connection to Education?
Is this related to education?  I think so.  It's certainly true that theory is less important in education than it used to be. This is true in the literature, but we can see it all around us. When I taught in Harlem in the mid-nineties, the headmaster of my school was an old poet who talked about Paulo Freire all the time. By the time I left, a few years later, he'd been forced out by his board and been replaced by a young corporate executive. Twenty-five years ago, Peter McClaren came out with Life in Schools, my copy of which cites the author's "cutting-edge theoretical work"; last year, when I first read something McClaren had written, my first instinct was to make fun, not only of his rock-star style choices, but also of his Marxism.

So the decline of theory in education does seem related to the triumph of capitalism. Recently I've been thinking about how education is both a public good and a private good. Over the past twenty-five years, the standard view of education has moved away from seeing it as a public good and has come to see it more and more in individualistic terms. There has also, of course, been a push for a more "free-market" system in education.  Both of these shifts, I think, would have been very different if the USSR were still around--not because the USSR was doing education in particular so differently, nor because Diane Ravitch or whoever would be at all sympathetic to the communist system, but because theoretical debate in general would be so much more vigorous. As it is now, we find it difficult to believe in theory at all anymore.  I remember reading Flatland in high school and being really struck by the idea that in a two-dimensional world you just can't imagine a third dimension.

What will happen? 
We will eventually rebuild our theoretical discourses. But it might take a while. In the meantime, while we are stuck with capitalism and with appeals to "evidence-based" approaches, we need to be wary of going with the flow.

What should we do?
I like liberation theology's idea that we should have a "preferential option for the poor"; in the current era, maybe we should have a preferential option for theory and against the rich and powerful. That is, maybe we should:

  1. Look very critically at the evidence, and remember (recalling the Foucault we read lo those many years ago) that when we claim our approach is based on evidence it is probably based on assumptions that have nothing to do with evidence, and 
  2. Look very critically at anything that is supported by rich people or would serve to benefit rich people.
Other ideas?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ETS calls for Graduate Schools of Educational Public Health and more attention to poverty

ETS (!) has sponsored an excellent report on poverty and education.  Written by Richard Coley of ETS and Bruce Baker of Rutgers (and schoolfinance101), the report says what should be obvious to any observer and what many other excellent reports have said over the past forty years: that poverty is a problem for education, but education alone is not a solution to poverty.  Most of the report does the noble work of making (again) a detailed case that there is way too much poverty in the US, that we don't do enough about it, and that this poverty has serious negative educational consequences. The whole report is worthy, but I noticed a couple of things in particular:

A call for a focus on educational public health
The report's executive summary contains a wonderful sentence expressing a sentiment I wish we saw more often:

Given the strong connection between educational success and economic disadvantage, we might
expect education policy to focus on ways to overcome the effects of poverty on children.

In other words, they want schools of Educational Public Health!

What to do
Despite the report's clear implication that fixing poverty would be a good way to improve educational outcomes, the authors unfortunately choose, apparently from modesty, not to recommend any non-educational measures: "There are other strategies that fall outside of the education arena — tax policy, job creation, minimum wage policy, etc. — that also are outside of the purview of this report." The report does, however, make seven specific suggestions for actions within the "education arena", all of which ought to be common sense:

Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences. Child poverty costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Current poverty levels, combined with the growingwealth gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and limit the upward mobility of children of future generations.
Equitably and adequately funding our schools. The economic downturn has taken a toll on state school funding and on targeted programs like preschool that can help disadvantaged children. There is a need for better coordination of federal and state education programs targeted at poverty.
Broadening access to high-quality preschool education. High-quality early childhood education programs improve the educational outcomes of all children, but particularly for low-income children. The administration’s proposed major expansion of preschool programs across the country should be supported.
Reducing segregation and isolation. Many of the nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by race/ethnicity and income. Each student should have the opportunity to attend schools with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
Adopting effective school practices. School policies that have been documented by research and practice to be effective should be broadly adopted. Examples include class size reduction, longer school days and years, and tutoring.
Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce. Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms should be of the utmost priority and may require special incentives. 
Improving the measurement of poverty. The poverty rate is an important social and economic indicator that is used to allocate resources for scores of federal, state, and local programs. Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.

These aren't new ideas, but as the poet says, it is necessary to write about the same old things
in the same way, repeating the same things over and over. And who knows, maybe this report will get a lot of attention, and we'll stop spending so much time designing ways for schools to compete for the richer students (in Hirschman's terms, we need a system where change is based on voice, not exit).  And, yes, we need a lot less poverty.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Atul Gawande's recent article is relevant to education, too!

There is an excellent Atul Gawande piece in the New Yorker this week about improving medical practice.  There are two main ideas in the article, both of which apply beautifully to education:

1) consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas is more important than fancy new technology
2) to achieve consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas we should use one-to-one coaching--in Gawande's words, "people talking to people."

Every teacher and education wonk in the country should read Gawande's whole article, which is, like his other work (checklists! standardizing good practices!), clever, important, and very readable.

Consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas
A lot of us teachers--me included--worry a lot about what the right curriculum is, think a lot about the big picture of lesson planning, argue about, say, whether kids should be assigned reading or should pick it themselves, and spend hours and hours on new technologies.  These are important things to worry about, and we should certainly be figuring out what matters for our students' learning, but what is probably much more important is our consistent and effective execution of what we already know matters.

Gawande's article begins by contrasting the immediate adoption of anaesthetic use during surgery with the many decades it took for antiseptic measures to take hold, even though the antiseptic measures were known to be hugely important and could have saved many, many lives.  One reason for the quicker adoption of anaesthetics is obvious: anaesthetic, unlike antiseptic measures, has very immediate and direct benefits that are obvious during surgery.  Surgery is painful and difficult without anaesthetics, and it's pretty easy with them.  Easy, but not necessarily effective.  To be effective, the surgery has to be antiseptic--the doctor has to wash his hands and instruments, has to wear freshly cleaned/sterilized clothing and mask, and has to soak up the blood and fluids with fresh gauze instead of the sea sponges that doctors used to use over and over, never sterilizing them. According to Gawande, these antispetic measures didn't catch on not only because they didn't have immediately observable benefits in combatting a visible and obvious problem, but because while anaesthesia made life a lot easier for doctors (imagine cutting into someone who's screaming and writhing in pain), the antiseptic measures actually made life considerably harder for them (Gawande describes early aseptic surgery as requiring surgeons "to work in a shower of carbolic acid").

This distinction between what is easy for the patient and what is easy for the doctor has its analogy in education.  Often, what is good for the student is not particularly easy for the teacher.  And often what comes naturally to the teacher is not what is best for the student.  It's hard for teachers to see this, and we need people to help us.  And even when we know what's important, we don't always manage to do it.  Again, we need people to help us. But what we need is not what we get.

One-to-one Coaching, not evaluation
If we know what teachers must do, but they (we!) don't always do it, how can we help them (us!) improve? In education, too often the only feedback teachers get is through an annual evaluation by a supervisor. These evaluations can be helpful, but we need much, much more.

I have a really great department chair.  She is thoughtful, hard-working, funny and wise, and she has gotten better and better at her job over the past eight years. I always learn a lot from my biannual evaluation.  But it is not nearly enough. I was evaluated this year, and Mary came to my class three times for a total of about an hour.  An hour every two years is just not enough observation. It's great, but it's not enough.

The other problem with our current scheme is that it combines coaching with evaluation. Having any observer in the room will probably change your teaching in some way, but having an observer who is going to be writing a report that goes into your personnel file and could theoretically be used to fire you is definitely going to change the teacher's practice--and the conversations afterward cannot possibly be as free and open with a supervisor as they might be with someone who was only a personal coach. The obvious answer is to have peer coaches who would not judge or evaluate, but only help.  This is essentially what Gawande describes in his article, and it is the obvious way forward for improving teaching--a much more humane and effective alternative to the methods pushed by ed reformers.

This is what teachers' unions should be working on. Instead of abolishing teacher tenure, peer coaching. Instead of a revamped evaluation system, peer coaching. Instead of VAM evaluations, peer coaching. Unions should be leading the way in designing non-punitive teacher-improvement programs.   Of course this is happening to some extent (for instance, one of the wise consultants Leafstrewn has had helping with its work on reading in the content areas is, I think, an expert in peer coaching), but we need much, much more of it. 

How it would work
A peer coaching system would take time. I've done some observing of other teachers, and I've been observed by my colleagues, and the problems have always been twofold: (1) the observations aren't targeted enough; (2) the observations and conversations haven't continued long enough for a comfortable working relationship to develop and for problems to surface, be discussed, and be worked out. Gawande's article addresses both of these problems.

Gawande describes programs that are aimed at specific issues: teaching cholera patientsto treat   themselves with a simple rehydrating solution (a treatment that is actually more effective than the intravenous rehydration that, though the high-tech standard, is impracticable in many places); and teaching obstetric nurses to make sure to execute the couple of dozen practices most important for the health of the mother and child (washing hands, encouraging skin-to-skin contact, monitoring the baby's temperature, etc.), practices that if followed could save millions of lives each year. These programs are staffed by coaches who, though trained, are neither powerful nor very experienced, and the coaching is not compulsory (the nurses don't have to take the advice if they don't think it's helpful). The key is the personal relationship and trust that develops over time.

Gawande describes a young nurse who observes and coaches an older, more experienced obstetric nurse.  After many visits, the older nurse started to change her practice. Gawande asks the older nurse why she listened to the younger, less experienced one; in the beginning, the older nurse said, she didn't.

"The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing." From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.
    "Why," I asked.
     All the nurse ccould think to say was "She was nice."
     "She was nice?"
     "She smiled a lot."
     "That was it?"
     "It wasn't like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes," she said. "It was like talking to a friend."

We need to observe each other more, and not just for one or two times, but repeatedly over long periods, and like these nurses, we need to focus on the basics. I don't think teaching is quite as amenable as doctoring to standardization (for schools to use The Cheesecake Factory as a model, as Gawande wants hospitals to do, would be a mistake), but some questions are relevant for all English classrooms: what is the ratio of teacher talk to student talk? how much are the students reading? who is paying attention and who is not? where are the questions and ideas coming from? are our instructions clear? how much time are we spending/wasting on transitions and instructions? 

Teachers can certainly work on these basic issues on their own, and some of these questions are amenable to checklists or in-class assessments, but the same is true of the fundamentals of obstetric nursing. As Gawande's article shows, and as I know from long experience, just because we know what we should do doesn't mean that we actually do it. To learn to break our bad habits we need lots of sympathetic, non-judgmental help--and not just in the office around lesson-planning, but in the classroom, around execution. So when the current wave off top-down, authoritarian ed reform finally subsides, I hope we will see a boom in peer-to-peer coaching.

In any case, I recommend the whole Gawande article.