FRIDAY, APRIL 5TH, 2013JULIA LAWRENCEhttp://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/political-gamesmanship-buries-tennessee-voucher-bill/After threatening to bury Governor Bill Haslam’s bill that would bring vouchers to Tennessee earlier this week, its Republican sponsor Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris made good on his promise and said that the measure won’t be brought to a vote this session. Norris gave “political gamesmanship” as the reason for his actionIn a letter to the Senate Finance Committee chairwoman, Norris placed a hold on the bill and said that he did not want to see it advance out of the committee. The bill would have limited the number of vouchers available in the state to 5,000 until the year 2016, and would have increased the limit to 20,000 thereafter.
Although vouchers enjoy broad support in the state, the measure drew controversy after attempts were made by other lawmakers to amend it in order to eliminate the voucher limit entirely. Haslam along with Norris have said all along that they will resist any attempt to meddle with the proposal as written.
“There’s no more time for any more gamesmanship,” the Collierville Republican said. “The governor has said from the beginning that he isn’t about that. He designed what he thought fit with his education reforms very specifically and wanted to proceed accordingly, and not to play games with it, not to see it become a political football.”
Norris said he received several amendments to Haslam’s bill on Wednesday, but he said most of them were “more about the adults than the kids.”
“In other words, it was more about … politics than education,” he said.
According to spokeswoman for the Tennessee Federation of Children Kimberly Kump, one of the rejected amendments sought to forge a compromise by limiting the voucher program to schools in Memphis and Shelby counties. This was done in response to expert testimony that limiting voucher programs only to low-performing schools would render them ineffective.
Kemp expressed disappointment that even such minor alteration in the measure was considered a step too far and resulted in short-circuiting the bill in its entirety.
A separate bill for a more expansive voucher program was withdrawn earlier this session, though supporters have said they wanted to amend the governor’s proposal to cover more students.
Before it was withdrawn, the rival measure would have increased the income limit for eligibility from about $43,000 to $75,000 for a family of four, and would have set no limit on growth.
One of the sponsors of that bill, Sen. Dolores Gresham, told reporters after announcing Norris’ decision to the committee that she was just “fighting for children to have better educational opportunities.”
Friday, November 30th, 2012 by Julia Lawrence
http://www.educationnews.org/k-12-schools/los-angeles-now-has-its-own-rubber-room-problem/New York City isn’t the only district to employ so-called “rubber rooms.” The Los Angeles Daily News reports that nearly 300 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers now spend their days in administrative offices where they wait for outcomes of their disciplinary hearings, meanwhile doing nothing but blogging, texting or reading. These teachers can’t be returned to the classroom until their cases are settled, yet they continue to collect their paychecks from the district.
The cost to maintain these “rubber rooms” – commonly called “teacher jails” in LA – is substantial. The salary costs alone run up to $1.4 million per month, which doesn’t include the nearly $900,000 the district pays the substitutes who fill in to teach in the classrooms previously fronted by those “jailed.”
Los Angeles Unified officials insist the cost is worth it – the price the district has to pay for years of downplaying or ignoring suspected abuse. That practice exploded into a major scandal in February with revelations of longtime patterns of misconduct by teachers at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima and Miramonte Elementary in South L.A. (Read “Where the Miramonte, Telfair abuse cases stand”). Now, under a new zero-tolerance policy, scores of educators accused of misconduct have been pulled from classrooms and are facing dismissal. The number of housed teachers has more than doubled in the last 18 months.
The stricter enforcement means that until the district takes steps to decrease the time it takes to carry the disciplinary process to completion, the number of teachers who are being paid to do essentially nothing will continue to grow. And that will inevitably include a certain number of teachers who have been cleared of the charges against them, but who will not go back to teaching in a classroom because district officials think they are unfit.
The policy used by the LAUSD to resolve disciplinary matters is being analyzed by the California State Auditor’s office, which is set to release its report – compiled at the request of Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate – this week.
The audit is likely to address LAUSD’s more aggressive approach to pulling educators from the classroom – so many, in fact, that housed teachers are split into morning and afternoon shifts, with the balance of their “workday” spent at home. Teachers union leaders say they certainly want to rid their ranks of abusers, but they believe the district is overreacting to the scandal and wasting precious resources by failing to differentiate between an inadvertent touch and predatory behavior.
However, district officials resent the implication that they’re pulling the trigger too early when it comes to taking teachers out of the classroom, as current guidelines call for teachers to be removed only in the cases where “credible allegations” are lodged against them.
Yet this doesn’t seem to be the impression formed in the minds of those who are sentenced to teacher jails. An overwhelming majority of those interviewed believed that the system is set up to deny them due process and keep them out of the classroom for an extended period of time.
Employees complain that they have to sign in and out, even to use the restroom, and that they’re not allowed to visit with their fellow teachers in adjoining cubicles. While the district policy says teachers should be required to perform “duties within their job classification,” housed teachers say there’s no real work for them to do, so they spend their time reading, blogging or talking.
Of all places, I just read this on yahoo.com... and it is far too interesting not to share.by Suzi Parker, Takepart.com – 19 hrs ago
The rise of technology could mean the downfall of cursive writing in schools.
On Tuesday, the Kansas State Board of Education will ponder the future of cursive writing and its possible elimination from the curriculum. In its place, school districts could place more emphasis on typing.
All across the country, the elaborate curls on the letter “Q” and the elegance of a scripted “Z” are vanishing into the annals of history.School districts in Hawaii, Indiana, and Florida have already said goodbye to cursive. Last week, a North Carolina school district did the same. Pitt County North Carolina schools will teach students how to print until the third grade, when typing will be taught instead of cursive.
The Common Core State Standards for English do not require cursive. Some schools are electing to find a place for cursive in the curriculum, but administrators in many districts say that teachers don’t have time to teach writing along with everything else that is required.
Although typing skills are a must in a technological future, a legible signature is also still needed for daily life, say experts. Others argue that if students don’t learn cursive, how will they read historical documents? And what about the sheer personalization of writing?
Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre in Norway has extensively researched the importance of writing with a pen. According to Mangen, writing by hand gives the brain feedback for motor skills. The touching of a pencil and paper ignites the senses. Mangen, along with a neurologist in France, found that different parts of the brain are activated when children read letters learned by handwriting.
Numerous studies show that daily handwriting lessons in schools have decreased from an average of 30 minutes to 15. Now they are on the verge of disappearing completely.
A 2010 study by the Carnegie Corporation of New York reported that students’ reading skills can improve if they write what they are reading in addition to them learning writing skills and increasing how much they write.
Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham, a leading researcher in this area, said in an interview last year with NPR that the brain lights up less with typing, a simple motor skill, than writing, a more complex one. But it’s not cursive writing, Graham argues, but simply handwriting. He also notes that cursive script could be taught in kindergarten or first grade instead of third grade because it’s not as elaborate as it once was.
“I would make the case that we want kids to either be really fluent and legible in either manuscript and cursive or both, but also in keyboarding, and the issue is that’s three versus teaching two, you know, there’s a real push on time in schools,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education recommends in its "Tips for Parents on National Writing Day" to teach children to print before attempting cursive.
But some school systems are bucking the trend of abandoning cursive. In Wisconsin’s Eau Claire School District, students are now learning cursive in second grade instead of third in order for them to perform better on standardized tests. Studies show that students who know cursive often excel on tests because they can write their thoughts down faster using cursive.
The debate on cursive is likely to continue as schools eliminate—and then reintroduce—penmanship to the curriculum.Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books.@SuziParker | TakePart.com
by Julia SteinyTHURSDAY, OCTOBER 18TH, 2012http://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/julia-steiny-dreary-american-education-goals-yield-dreary-results/
Today we’ll compare and contrast. We’ll compare the Australian Education Ministers’ goals for “Young Australians” with the U.S. Department of Education’s goals.
Goals are statements of what we want. As such, they drive our efforts and are responsible for producing the desired outcomes. Or not. Often we reach for goals and miss; that’s life. At other times the goals themselves are not well thought-out and lead us astray.
A nation’s educational goals say a great deal about that country’s cultural relationship to their kids.
First, why pick Australia? We could look at Finland, whose kids are at the tippy top of the international achievement rankings. But Finland is so unlike the U.S., they don’t even have national or state assessment programs. They don’t obsess about accountability at all, never mind to the extremes we do. They’re content to spend their resources directly on teachers, kids, and families, and to roll the dice on their kids’ performance in the eyes of the international community.
That’s so not us.
Australia, on the other hand, has 6 states, like our 50, each of which has its own testing program and a state Ministry to run the program. The independent Ministries have collective goals, but carry them out in their own manner, similar to the U.S.. Australian students aren’t at the very top of the international rankings, but close enough.
An important difference, that relates to our goals and where we’d like to be, is that Australia has a robust economy. Their public was appalled to hear of a recent rise in unemployment to 5.4 percent. We should be so lucky. Judging from the rhetoric pouring from the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Americans are most concerned with improving the economy, and that includes improving the workforce.
So here’s how Australian leaders are thinking about their students:
In 2008, the 6 Aussie Ministries and their staff got together and hammered out the “Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.” As with every other nation, Australia is in a froth of school reform because technology is forcing educators everywhere to re-think how they do business. But that Declaration is still the foundation of their current efforts, which are articulated this way:
“Improving educational outcomes for all young Australians is central to the nation’s social and economic prosperity and will position young people to live fulfilling, productive and responsible lives. Young Australians are therefore placed at the centre of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals.
Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence
All young Australians become:
– successful learners
– confident and creative individuals
– active and informed citizens
Achieving these educational goals is the collective responsibility of governments, school sectors and individual schools as well as parents and carers, young Australians, families, other education and training providers, business and the broader community.”
In other words, to become an educated person, the Australian education Ministries ask that schools consider the development of the whole little human being. Students can’t segment themselves and become academic performers without also building character, confidence, and their responsibility to the community as a whole. The Australian education leaders clearly state that their schools should be keeping the long view in mind because the point of education is that kids have “fulfilling lives.”
The Declaration is short. I recommend reading the whole of it.
And frankly, I wish Americans could just be humble, adopt it for our own schools, and say thank you.
Because below are our ambitions for children and youth as set forth by the U.S. Department of Education. They are expressed as “priority performance goals.” And no other mission statement or document of theirs mentions anything other than performance goals. Which are:
* Improve outcomes for all children from birth through third grade.
* Improve learning by ensuring that more students have an effective teacher.
* Demonstrate progress in turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools.
* Make informed decisions and improve instruction through the use of data.
* Prepare all students for college and career.
* Improve students’ ability to afford and complete college.
Huh? Did you see any kids in all that? Humans? It’s not clear what they mean by “outcomes” in the first goal — perhaps health indicators or reading readiness. But the explanation that accompanies that goal refers only to collecting and reporting disaggregated data on the status of kids entering kindergarten. On behalf of the youngest children and their well-being, we’re shooting for good data.
We’re not aiming for pink-cheeked, insatiable little learners who know how to play nicely in the sandbox. We’re not supporting the innate curiosity, creativity and love of learning that will produce the innovators our economists and parents say we need.
Be careful what you ask for because you might get it. We are asking for “priority performance” data hoping that it will take us to the promised land of hitting the international test scores — yet more data — out of the park.
I’m a good American. I want us to be the best, the winners, the ones to show up fusty old Finland. But we’ll never get there if we continue to narrow our dreams and goals for kids to their ability to perform for us academically.
Bloodless goals naturally produce anemic results. Our bad.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears atGoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 28TH, 2012 , by Julia Lawrencehttp://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/wont-back-down-film-renews-parent-trigger-debates/
So-called Parent Trigger Laws, which under certain circumstances allow parents to ‘take over’ a failing public school and determine its new path, are about to get more attention due to the nationwide opening of Won’t Back Down, a story of a parent whose daughter is continuously failed by the school system teaming with a teacher to bring change to their public school.
At the moment the story told in the movie is fiction in at least one important way. There hasn’t yet been a successful attempt by parents to take over a public school — but there might be soon. There is an ongoing attempt by a group of parents to make use of California’s parent trigger law to take control of an elementary school, and just like in the movie, the full might of the local education establishment has now arrayed against them.
Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, which parents want to convert to a charter in time for the next school year, is playing out scenes in real-time. The school board has repeatedly tried to quash the attempt, and it looks increasingly likely that the courts who will have the final say on this issue.
California is one of seven states with laws that give parents the power to intervene in the running of a public school if it fails to measure up to their standards. According to the U.S News & World Report, as many as twenty other states are considering similar legislation. Although details of the laws differ from state to state, many share several common characteristics:
• The school must be identified by the state as low-performing, often for consecutive years.
• There must be a majority buy-in by parents of students either attending the school, or with students in lower grade levels who would likely attend the school in the future. This is typically in the form of a petition.
• A handful of intervention options are typically available, including charter school conversion, forcing the school to replace the administrators and majority of teachers, or shutting the school down completely.
It’s easy to see why parent trigger laws have found particular favor with many education reformers. After all, it gives parents not just a voice in how their schools are run, but a means do actually affect change. In addition, knowing that parents can step in if the school is failing provides additional incentive for administrators and teachers in ensuring that it succeeds.
Still, the support for those types of laws is by no means unanimous. Criticisms range from implications that there’s a lack of transparency in the takeover process and that parental interference could cause more harm than good.
There’s also a concern that for-profit charter operators could leverage parent trigger laws to bring their own charters into the school district.
“It’s an illusion that sounds good on paper, even if it was created in sincerity,” Caroline Grannan, a public school parent in San Francisco, told USA Today. Grannan is one of the founders of Parents Across America, a nonprofit group backed by teachers unions that works to connect parents and activists across the country.
Is this old news? Ok, maybe, but we just heard about it. Just unreal....
From Take Part website, By Jenny Inglee
, May 29, 2012http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/05/29/teen-punished-stopping-bullies-harassing-special-needs-girl
A Florida high school student made a stand against bullying and is now in the hot seat with school officials. For months, 18-year-old Stormy Rich witnessed a girl with special needs being bullied by her peers on the way to school. "They would be mean to her, tell her she couldn't sit on certain spots on the bus...just because she doesn't understand doesn't mean that should be happening to her," Rich told WOFL-TV.
Rich says she reported the incidents to the bus driver and school officials. When they didn't take action, she stepped in and confronted the bullies; but instead of being praised for her efforts, Rich ended up being labeled as a bully, and her bus-riding privileges were revoked. A spokesperson for the school district said, "Two wrongs don't make a right" and that the girl with special needs never complained about being bullied.
Stormy's mother, Brenda, told The Daily Commercial, "My daughter was punished incorrectly. Stormy was standing up for a child with emotionally challenged disabilities that should not have been bullied. The district's policy clearly states that anybody in good faith files a report on bullying will not face any repercussions and she is."
What exactly was said on the bus is unclear; however, if a student says bullies are harassing another child, why does it take so long for schools to take action? We live in a country where 13 million kids are bullied each year and more often than not, the behavior occurs on the bus.This is far from the first report of a teacher or bus driver turning a blind eye to bullying. ABC reports, "In one taped incident, two girls took turns punching another girl in the head and pulling out clumps of her hair. The driver, the only adult on the bus, continued driving the vehicle during the attack."
The bottom line is something more needs to be done to combat bullying in our schools. Three million students will be absent from school this month because of the emotional and physical toll of bullying, and according to the organization Ability Path, children with disabilities are significantly more likely than their peers to be the victims of this mistreatment.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 14TH, 2012 by JULIA LAWRENCE
Kim Dancy of The Georgetown Public Policy Review looks at the problems inherent in a system that uses standardized test results to make high-stakes decisions such as how schools are funded and whether teachers qualify for tenure. When the difference between good test results and bad could mean losing one’s job, a workplace transfer or even school closure, it is almost inevitable that the motivation to raise the scores via artificial means – cheating – becomes too tempting for some administrators and instructors to resist.
And so it proved. The first major standardized-test related cheating scandal concerned a round of testing in Atlanta public schools in 2009. Similar allegations about several other districts, from Los Angeles to Brooklyn rapidly surfaced. In some cases, it wasn’t even the cheating that made headlines, but the horrible pressure applied to those who refused to go along. As lurid as these stories are, they point to a pervasive problem that is growing and spreading in K-12 education.
Among numerous problems in standardized testing, oversight remains a serious issue. The decentralized nature of the education system and the lack of manpower at the federal level make it inappropriate, if not impossible, for the Department of Education to take on monitoring responsibilities. And while many State Educational Agencies do conduct on site audits of test administration, they often lack the necessary resources to do so in every individual school district.
According to Dancy, this places the oversight firmly in the hands of the local officials and district administrators — in other words, the very people who are most at risk of the test scores fall below expectation. Furthermore, not all districts place the same amount of focus on testing integrity, which means that depending on under whose auspices a particular school might fall could determine how “trustworthy” their test results are. Such variability makes statewide, much less nationwide, comparisons a farce.
Even in the cases where oversight is sufficient, determining when an incident of cheating has occurred is challenging.
Some practices are clear-cut: changing student answers is undeniably dishonest no matter what the circumstance. Still, gray areas persist. Is it cheating to provide definitions of a word like “denominator” during a math exam? To allow a student a few extra minutes at the end of the testing period? To tailor this year’s instruction to last year’s exams? These answers depend to a large degree on the policies set forth by a particular jurisdiction regarding appropriate testing behaviors, but consistency within a state or locality is crucial. Ambiguities such as these diminish the comparability of scores across students, classrooms, and districts—in this way, seemingly harmless behavior may undermine the reliability of test results.
Even if the issues of oversight are solved, says Dancy, and a consistent policy on what constitutes cheating is developed and implemented, as long as the system with the perverse incentives remains in place, cheating will continue to be a major issue. As long as high-stakes decisions will rely on test scores, instructors will either find a way to cheat or will be pressured to cheat by their superiors.
What do you think? We'd like to hear your comments on this issue. For myself, I do think that this is a serious issue, but I also think that to make a blanket statement like the one at the end of this article is folly. It assumes that everyone in education is tempted to cheat, or that every superior in the field of education is tempted to do so, just to maintain their jobs. While I am not a fan of public education in this day and time, I also do not believe that everyone from superintendents down to teachers would violate their own code of ethics to boost numbers. There are plenty of great teachers that instruct children, and I personally know several - both private and public - that do just fine without cheating.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4TH, 2012, S.D. LAWRENCE http://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/nea-pays-100k-receives-favorable-media-coverage/
Mallory Factor’s book ‘Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind’ published earlier this month first documented a $100,000 payment to Media Matters for America from the National Education Association — a payment that seems to have resulted in the NEA gaining increased favorable media coverage, though the donation was billed as a standard administrative expense.
“[T]o ensure that NEA’s agenda makes its way in the media,” Factor wrote, “NEA has given $100,000 to Media Matters, the George Soros-funded liberal ‘charitable organization’ dedicated to targeting mythical right-wing media bias.”
David Martosko, executive editor of the Daily Caller, reports that the Daily Caller has verified Factor’s claim with an electronic document on the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Managements Standards website. This document classified the $100,000 donation as a ‘union administration’ cost.
Following the hefty donation, Media Matters began to push the NEA’s agenda into the media. The liberal messaging charity has since posted 41 articles online referring to the NEA and other teaching unions, with each taking a position that is sympathetic to organized labor and attacking any media outlet, such as Fox News, that is critical of the unions.
As Media Matters is clearly a political organization there has been some concern over the NEA’s classification of the payment as a ‘union administration’ cost rather than political expenditure. NEA spokesman Steve Grant has denied that the decision was made so that they could pass the cost onto agency fee payers: non-members covered by the collective bargaining agreement. This rebuttal won’t be verifiable until the 2012-13 year when the legally required statement of expenses for the 2010-11 school year is due.
Grant told TheDC via email that “the National Education Association (NEA) supports Media Matters for America and its work to monitor, analyze, and correct misinformation and misleading coverage of public education and other issues important to NEA members.”
He did not answer when asked if any other nonprofit organizations provide his union with public relations services in exchange for financial support. He also declined to state what specific services Media Matters has provided to the NEA in exchange for the $100,000 first disclosed in “Shadowbosses.”
Some parties have been arguing for a long time that the NEA is effectively a political body, and it is hard to deny this when looking at the mix of evidence. Aside from paying organizations such as Media Matters to handle public relations, the NEA has made more than $55.8 million in political contributions.
Robert Chanin, who was NEA general counsel until his retirement in 2009, said that the union’s organizing mission was inseparable from politics:
“So you tell me how I can possibly separate NEA’s collective bargaining efforts from politics,” Chanin said. “You just can’t. It’s all politics.”
The NEA isn’t the only union to report in 2011 that they had made contributions to Media Matters. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gave $5,000 and the AFL-CIO gave $10,000.
Anu Partanen | Dec 29, 2011 from the Atlantic MobileEveryone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.
The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life --Newsweek ranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world...http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews
By Barry Garelick, from educationnews.orghttp://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/barry-garelick-math-education-being-outwitted-by-stupidity/
In a well-publicized paper that addressed why some students were not learning to read, Reid Lyon (2001) concluded that children from disadvantaged backgrounds whereearly childhood education was not available failed to read because they did not receive effective instruction in the early grades. Many of these children then requiredspecial education services to make up for this early failure in reading instruction, which were by and large instruction in phonics as the means of decoding. Some of these students had no specific learning disability other than lack of access to effective instruction. These findings are significant because a similar dynamic is at play in math education: the effective treatment for many students who would otherwise be labeled learning disabled is also the effective preventative measure.
In 2010 approximately 2.4 million students were identified with learning disabilities — about three times as many as were identified in 1976-1977(See http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/xls/tabn045.xls andhttp://www.ideadata.org/arc_toc12.asp#partbEX). This increase raises the question of whether the shift in instructional emphasis over the past several decades has increased the number of low achieving children because of poor or ineffective instruction who would have swum with the rest of the pack when traditional math teaching prevailed. I believe that what is offered as treatment for math learning disabilities is what we could have done—and need to be doing—in the first place. While there has been a good amount of research and effort into early interventions in reading and decoding instruction, extremely little research of equivalent quality on the learning of mathematics exists. Given the education establishment’s resistance to the idea that traditional math teaching methods are effective, this research is very much needed to draw such a definitive conclusion about the effect of instruction on the diagnosis of learning disabilities.1
Over the past several decades, math education in the United States has shifted from the traditional model of math instruction to “reform math”. The traditional model has been criticized for relying on rote memorization rather than conceptual understanding. Calling the traditional approach “skills based”, math reformers deride it and claim that it teaches students only how to follow the teacher’s direction in solving routine problems, but does not teach students how to think critically or to solve non-routine problems. Traditional/skills-based teaching, the argument goes, doesn’t meet the demands of our 21st century world.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the criticism of traditional math teaching is based largely on a mischaracterization of how it is/has been taught, and misrepresented as having failed thousands of students in math education despite evidence of its effectiveness in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Reacting to this characterization of the traditional model, math reformers promote a teaching approach in which understanding and process dominate over content. In lower grades, mental math and number sense are emphasized before students are fluent with procedures and number facts. Procedural fluency is seldom achieved. In lieu of the standard methods for adding/subtracting, multiplying and dividing, in some programs students are taught strategies and alternative methods. Whole class and teacher-led explicit instruction (and even teacher-led discovery) has given way to what the education establishment believes is superior: students working in groups in a collaborative learning environment. Classrooms have become student-centered and inquiry-based. The grouping of students by ability has almost entirely disappeared in the lower grades—full inclusion has become the norm. Reformers dismiss the possibility that understanding and discovery can be achieved by students working on sets of math problems individually and that procedural fluency is a prerequisite to understanding. Much of the education establishment now believes it is the other way around; if students have the understanding, then the need to work many problems (which they term “drill and kill”) can be avoided.
The de-emphasis on mastery of basic facts, skills and procedures has met with growing opposition, not only from parents but also from university mathematicians. At a recent conference on math education held in Winnipeg, math professor Stephen Wilson from Johns Hopkins University said, much to the consternation of the educationists on the panel, that “the way mathematicians learn is to learn how to do it first and then figure out how it works later.” This sentiment was also echoed in an article written by Keith Devlin (2006). Such opposition has had limited success, however, in turning the tide away from reform approaches.
The Growth of Learning Disabilities
Students struggling in math may not have an actual learning disability but may be in the category termed “low achieving” (LA). Recent studies have begun to distinguish between students who are LA and those who have mathematical learning disabilities (MLD). Geary (2004) states that LA students don’t have any serious cognitive deficits that would prevent them from learning math with appropriate instruction. Students with MLD, however, (about 5-6% of students) do appear to have both general (working memory) and specific (fact retrieval) deficits that result in a real learning disability. Among other reasons, ineffective instruction, may account for the subset of LA students struggling in mathematics.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) initially established the criteria by which students are designated as “learning disabled”. IDEA was reauthorized in 2004 and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). The reauthorized act changed the criteria by which learning disabilities are defined and removed the requirements of the “significant discrepancy” formula. That formula identified students as learning disabled if they performed significantly worse in school than indicated by their cognitive potential as measured by IQ. IDEIA required instead that states must permit districts to adopt alternative models including the “Response to Intervention” (RtI) model in which struggling students are pulled out of class and given alternative instruction.
What type of alternative instruction is effective? A popular textbook on special education (Rosenberg, et. al, 2008), notes that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given explicit instruction. This idea is echoed by others and has become the mainstay of RtI. What Works Clearinghouse finds strong evidence that explicit instruction is an effective intervention, stating: “Instruction during the intervention should be explicit and systematic. This includes providing models of proficient problem solving, verbalization of thought processes, guided practice, corrective feedback, and frequent cumulative review”. Also, the final report of the President’s National Math Advisory Panel states: “Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation. Results are consistent for students with learning disabilities, as well as other students who perform in the lowest third of a typical class.” (p. xxiii). The treatment for low achieving, learning disabled and otherwise struggling students in math thus includes some of the traditional methods for teaching math that have been decried by reformers as having failed millions of students.
The Stealth Growth of Effective Instruction
Although the number of students classified as learning disabled has grown since 1976, the number of students classified as LD since the passage of IDEIA has decreased (see Figure 1). Why the decrease has occurred is not clear. A number of factors may be at play. One may be a provision of No Child Left Behind that allows schools with low numbers of special-education students to avoid reporting the academic progress of those students. Other factors include more charter schools, expanded access to preschools, improved technologies, and greater understanding of which students need specialized services. Last but not least, the decrease may also be due to targeted RtI programs that have reduced the identification of struggling and/or low achieving students as learning disabled. .
Having seen the results of ineffective math curricula and pedagogy as well as having worked with the casualties of such educational experiments, I have no difficulty assuming that RtI plays a significant role in reducing the identification of students with learning disabilities. In my opinion it is only a matter of time before high-quality research and the best professional judgment and experience of accomplished classroom teachers verify it. Such research should include 1) the effect of collaborative/group work compared to individual work, including the effect of grouping on students who may have difficulty socially; 2) the degree to which students on the autistic spectrum (as well as those with other learning disabilities) may depend on direct, structured, systematic instruction; 3) the effect of explicit and systematic instruction of procedures, skills and problem solving, compared with inquiry-based approaches; 4) the effect of sequential and logical presentation of topics that require mastery of specific skills, compared with a spiral approaches to topics that do not lead to closure and 5) Identifying which conditions result in student-led/teacher-facilitated discovery, inquiry-based, and problem-based learning having a positive effect, compared with teacher-led discovery, inquiry-based and problem-based learning. Would such research show that the use of RtI is higher in schools that rely on programs that are low on skills and content but high on trendy unproven techniques and which promise to build critical thinking and higher order thinking skills? If so, shouldn’t we be doing more of the RtI style of teaching in the first place instead of waiting to heal reform math’s casualties?
Until any such research is in, the educational establishment will continue to resist recognizing the merits of traditional math teaching. One education professor with whom I spoke stated that the RtI model fits mathematics for the 1960s, when “skills throughout the K-8 spectrum were the main focus of instruction and is seriously out of date.” Another reformer argued that reform curricula require a good deal of conceptual understanding and that students have to do more than solve word problems. These confident statements assume that traditional methods—and the methods used in RtI—do not provide this understanding. In their view, students who respond to more explicit instruction constitute a group who may simply learn better on a superficial level. Based on these views, I fear that RtI will incorporate the pedagogical features of reform math that has resulted in the use of RtI in the first place.
While the criticism of traditional methods may have merit for those occasions when it has been taught poorly, the fact that traditional math has been taught badly doesn’t mean we should give up on teaching it properly. Without sufficient skills, critical thinking doesn’t amount to much more than a sound bite. If in fact there is an increasing trend toward effective math instruction, it will have to be stealth enough to fly underneath the radar of the dominant edu-reformers. Unless and until this happens, the thoughtworld of the well-intentioned educational establishment will prevail. Parents and professionals who benefitted from traditional teaching techniques and environments will remain on the outside — and the public will continue to be outwitted by stupidity.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2011). Digest of Education Statistics, 2010 (NCES 2011-015), Chapter 2.
Barry Garelick has written extensively about math education in various publications including Education Next, Educational Leadership, and Education News. He recently retired from the federal government and has completed his requirements for a credential to teach math (middle school/high school) in California.
1This article focuses on math teaching and learning, but the same pedagogical issues arise in history, science, and English Language Arts (ELA), including grammar, spelling, composition, reading comprehension and literature.
Devlin, Keith. (2006). Math back in forefront, but debate lingers on how to teach it. San Jose Mercury News. Feb. 19.
Geary, David. (2004). Mathematics and learning disabilities. J Learn Disabil 2004; 37; 4
Lyon, Reid (2001), in “Rethinking special education for a new century” (Chapter 12) by Chester Finn, et al., Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; Progressive Policy Inst., Washington, DC.
Available via http://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED454636.pdf
Rosenberg, Michael S., Westling, D.L., McLeskey, J. 2008. Special Education for Today’s Teachers: An Introduction. Columbus: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.