Thursday, January 3, 2019

NPR Gets It Mostly Right

In the long ago days when I first learned to teach reading phonetically, I truly did not know what to expect. I know what I hoped for, but with phonics being frowned up in favor of "whole language," I thought that maybe there was a good reason. Before that, when I first began teaching and became aware of the controversy, I naively assumed that the educational experts had the best interests of children at heart. I thought that the only reason for teaching children was because one truly wanted students to learn. I was not aware of the political and economic considerations, and over the years, I've discovered that I was wrong in my assessment. There is too much money to be made and too much political advantage to be made in educational failure. People and companies make bundles of cash on remedial education and on NEW! and IMPROVED! reading programs. Politicians and reading "experts" become heroes, riding to the school districts' rescue - again.

There isn't much money to be made with pencil and paper. There's even less to be made when students are proficient readers and don't need extra reading programs.

NPR has profiled a Bethlehem PA school district in which a school official has decided to do his own research to figure out why so many students can't read, and why the failure in reading instruction is so wide-spread. The answer has nothing to do with adding technology to the classroom, or increased use of "leveled books," or self esteem, or more student-centered learning. It's got to do with learning what sounds the letters make. In some of the new basal reading programs, a token amount of phonetic instruction has been added to the curriculum, but not enough to insure that students become proficient readers. And teachers still aren't learning the phonetic structure of English. Teacher instruction is still based on methods that have failed for generations.

This was a class on the science of reading. The Bethlehem district has invested approximately $3 million since 2015 on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught.
In the class, teachers spent a lot of time going over the sound structure of the English language.
Since the starting point for reading is sound, it's critical for teachers to have a deep understanding of this. But research shows they don't. Michelle Bosak, who teaches English as a second language in Bethlehem, said that when she was in college learning to be a teacher, she was taught almost nothing about how kids learn to read.
"It was very broad classes, vague classes and like a children's literature class," she said. "I did not feel prepared to teach children how to read."

Even though NPR doesn't use the word, perhaps fearing that it is still a word of ill repute, the teachers are learning phonics, how to teach reading phonetically, the way it should be taught if students are to learn. But, as teachers can't teach what they don't know, teachers must first learn the letter sounds. From the article, it's not clear as to whether students are explicitly and systematically taught the letter sounds and then led to practice them, but-

At the end of each school year, the Bethlehem school district gives kindergartners a test to assess early reading skills.
In 2015, before the new training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the science-based training, 84 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.
Silva says he is thrilled with the results, but cautious. He is eager to see how the kindergartners do when they get to the state reading test in third grade.
"We may have hit a home run in the first inning. But there's a lot of game left here," he says.

Since they've made such huge investments in technology, and since standardized testing is now done on computers, I fear that most districts will still cling to the vain hope that laptops, tablets, and smart boards will save the educational day.

They won't. Explicit phonics instruction will.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Single Moms

Way back in September, at Aretha Franklin's funeral (yes, I should update more often) many of the eulogists used their speaking opportunity to slam Trump. They brought politics into a forum that should have been free from politics. Funerals, which are for the living, are supposed to events that recall and honor the dead. We need that ritual in order to say goodbye to our loved ones. It is not something that should be subject to partisan politics, no matter how self-righteous the speaker may be.

In the "age of Trump" though, that admonition has gone out the window. Politics are perfectly acceptable if they are of the "Trump is a chump" variety. We saw that most recently in commentaries related to George H. W. Bush's funeral. Pundits (and Facebook and Twitter mobs) made it about Trump. This is the age of Trump in which everything is about Trump. And while this will annoy some readers (assuming there are any readers) the fault for this can be laid squarely at the feet of the Trump haters. They are the ones creating the "every story is a Trump story" atmosphere.

Even the murder of eleven Jews by a lunatic Jew hater who also hated Trump, was blamed on Trump.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

While anti-Trump speeches were found appropriate, Reverend Jasper Williams spoke the wrong politics. He condemned single mothers. Statistically, children of single mothers suffer more from pathologies of poverty, drug use, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, and criminal behavior than children of two-parent families. Anecdotally, it was part of my daily life as a teacher in a small "urban" school district. I worked with some of these children. And yes, they had issues that children from two-parent families never had to deal with.

It cannot be denied that these children have a much harder time of it. Although, Nancy Kaffer, in a Detroit Free Press editorial does try to deny it. The problem is that she has no facts to prove Rev. Williams wrong.

It's actually a rather confused (or maybe just confusing to me) piece that tries to make the case that single parenthood is not as bad as we're led to believe.

That's not a problem with the Census; its purpose is to quantify. The problem lies with folks who use a simple measure of marital status and primary custody to draw sweeping conclusions about family relationships, the people in them, and what it all means — and who prescribe solutions for a social problem diagnosed using the wrong tools. 
While half of such children living in single-parent households don't live in poverty, half do — a much higher rate than the children of married parents. 
And that's the problem that misconceptions about single moms fuels: attacking single moms, or single parents of any gender, looks past the real problems parents face — and that means solutions to those problems will continue to elude us.
The problem is that when you bring in actual statistics on the effects of growing up in a single parent household, those statistics show that there are problems that come with growing up minus a father.

Was Moynihan right in suggesting that children whose parents divorce or never marry have more than their share of problems? This question has been hotly debated ever since the publication of Moynihan’s report. On the one hand, growing up without both biological parents is clearly associated with worse average outcomes for children than growing up with them. Specifically, children growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, they have more behavior problems, and they are less likely to finish high school or attend college than children raised by both of their parents. On the other hand, these differences in children’s behavior and success might well be traceable to differences that would exist even if the biological father were present.

In recent years, researchers have begun to use what they call “quasi-experimental” approaches to estimate the causal impact of growing up apart from one’s biological father. Some studies compare the outcomes of children living in states with liberal versus restrictive divorce laws. Others compare siblings who were different ages in the year when their father moved out. Still others compare the same child before and after the father left the child’s household. One important limitation of these studies is that while they all focus on children who are not living with both of their biological parents, they differ with respect to their comparison group, whether it is children raised by their mother alone, by their mother and a new spouse, or by their mother and a new partner to whom she is not married. Nonetheless, when taken together these studies are beginning to tell a consistent story. A recent review of 45 studies using quasi-experimental methods concluded that growing up apart from one’s father does reduce a child’s life chances in many domains.

The review’s authors examined the effects of a father’s absence on outcomes in four domains: educational attainment, mental health, labor market performance, and family formation. Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, which is similar to the effect of having a mother who did not finish high school rather than one who did. The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores, however.  The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect. Most studies find larger effects on boys than on girls.

There are other places to find these same facts. Ann Coulter has written a lot about single mothers based on the same government statistics mentioned above. A blogger has reposted some of her columns and a chapter from one of her books here. I understand that the name "Ann Coulter" is as big a turn off to some people as the name "Donald Trump," but if you are one of those people, be brave. Don't be afraid to read ideas you disagree with, or are automatically prejudiced against based on the writer.

Like it or not, a child's life is more difficult when there is no father at home.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

What other countries can learn from Singapore’s schools

The island-state has much to teach the world. But other countries are reluctant pupils. One reason is that Singapore favours traditional pedagogy, with teachers leading the class. That contrasts with many reformers’ preference for looser, more “progressive” teaching intended to encourage children to learn for themselves. Although international studies suggest that direct instruction is indeed a good way of conveying knowledge, critics contend that Singapore has a “drill and kill” model that produces uncreative, miserable maths whizzes. Parents worry about the stress the system puts on their children (and on them, even as they ferry kids to extra classes).
 Yet Singapore shows that academic brilliance need not come at the expense of personal skills. In 2015 Singaporean students also came first in a new PISA ranking designed to look at collaborative problem-solving, scoring even better than they did in reading and science. They also reported themselves to be happy—more so than children in Finland, for instance, a country that educationalists regard as an example of how to achieve exceptional results with cuddlier methods of teaching. Not content with its achievements, Singapore is now introducing reforms to improve creativity and reduce stress (see article). This is not a sign of failure, but rather of a gradual, evidence-led approach to education reform—the first of three lessons that Singapore offers the rest of the world.

The United States certainly isn't interested. The fact that traditional pedagogy works at teaching children and progressive education doesn't is something the American educational establishment does not want to hear. So what if their kids are academically advanced and American students struggle to read? Progressive education means never having to face the facts.

I don't mean to rant, but when the proof is in front of your face and you refuse to see it, the problem is with you. And by "you" I mean all of the educrats (as Michelle Malkin refers to them) Columbia Teachers College, school administrators, politicians, and everyone else who insists that progressive education, which has been a monumental failure for generations, is still the way to go.

Read the whole thing. It's short.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Hard Stuff, by Wayne Kramer

I wrote a book review. Yes, I'm an MC5 fan from way back. But too, this is a really good book. Wayne Kramer is an excellent writer, and he's led quite a life, not one for the week or squeamish. There is a language warning for both the book and the review. This is to be expected when discussing the MC5.
While the MC5 was doomed to a short but intense life, they, and Kramer, had a tremendous effect on what would become 1970s punk rock, originally a small movement, but one that opened the door to metal and new wave, which led to alternative, grunge, hardcore, indie, regional punk movements, and other mini and micro musical genres. Their reckless stage and record energy helped create both the punk and metal templates. They were heralded by later bands like The Clash and the Damned. Nick Lowe told Kramer, “I stole everything from you, Wayne.”
As Kramer writes about the MC5’s second album, “Back in the USA”, which was released in 1970, “This record was exactly what the punks were looking for; it was sharp and to the point, with short songs and a sarcastic perspective. The record was a rejection of the grandiose, overindulgent, superstar rock culture of the sixties.” Why didn’t the punks pick up on their first record? According to Kramer, it came out too early (in 1969), and the record company never promoted it. Of course, use of the word, “motherfucker” on that first record did not endear them to the record company, department store executives, or parents.
The MC5 went the way of many other high energy, high debauchery bands. They were only able to put out three records before self-destructing. Some bands that embraced the same ethos were able to rise out of the ashes. There is a learning curve that they were able to intuit and follow in order to survive. Not so, the MC5.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Whose Truth?

It's obvious that when it comes to Brett Kavanaugh and the charges leveled against him by Christine Blasey-Ford, that most of us believe one or the other based on our politics, whether we are a Trump supporter or a Trump hater. And minds were made up as to whether or not Kavanaugh is fit to sit on the Supreme Court even before these charges were leveled, again, based on politics.

But that's not what I want to talk about. Rather Detroit Free Press columnist, Nancy Kaffer, in her piece on this fiasco, says:

It's not OK to demean, degrade and dismiss an intelligent, accomplished woman as she tells her truth to the nation's most powerful legislative body. 
Tells "her truth?"

But if Blasey-Ford is telling her truth, and Kavanaugh is telling his truth, does that mean they're both telling the truth? If so, is is a case of Schrodinger's Grope? And if we accept that they each have their own truth, doesn't that mean that there is no objective truth? They must both be believed? And if we're all entitled to our own truths, how do journalists, like Nancy Kaffer arrive at the truth? Because I was under the apparently mistaken impression that one of the objects of journalism was to dig for and present the objective truth.

If we all have our own truths, what does that say about our news sources who claim to be truthful? Are they telling THE truth or their truth? Kaffer and the Free Press are anti-Trump and are constantly calling him out, as many news sources are, on his lies. But are they really lies or are they Trump's truths? If we all have our own truths rather than sharing a truth, we will share increased confusion.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Classroom Technology Will Not Fix Our Schools

Here is an article I wrote. We're looking for public education to improve in America. But currently, there is a lot more money to be made off of educational failure than there is from educational success. So which way will that steer things?

Over the years, I debated my school’s Title I teacher on the effectiveness of phonetic reading instruction. He favored the previously mentioned “workshop” model. His standard argument was always, “the data show . . .” But he was never able to produce any data.
I however, do have the data. I have a copy of the Report of the National Reading Panel, which was released in 2000. The section on phonics instruction begins on page 89 of Chapter 2. Here is a summary of the executive summary: systematic phonics instruction works.
Of all the reasons for not adopting a low-tech phonics programs, the main reason just might be the lack of financial incentive. There are minimal profits in pencils and paper. Rather than putting out real cash on the latest in expensive technology and child-calming medication, a few boxes of sturdy writing implements, some lined paper, and vast amounts of challenging literature (not the usual trivial fare fed to kids who are struggling because they haven’t been taught correctly) is all that students need to learn to read, write, and spell.
If public-school officials decided to stop spending money on failure, I’m confident that American entrepreneurs would be able to develop ways to make money creating and promoting educational success. Changes would have to be made, but if someone is clever enough, there is always a way.
Until the decision is made to stop subsidizing failure, the cost of that failure will continue to rise.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Discipline or Not?

If students from certain racial/ethnic/religious/gender/other groups are on the receiving end of disciplinary action more that students from other groups, is it evidence of racism? Or are they, for whatever reason, acting out more than other students so that they deserve that disciplinary action?

According to rules passed under the Obama administration, there was disparate impact, which equals racism because students from some ethnicities got in trouble more than students from other ethnicities.

Attorney Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, tells Breitbart News the Obama policy is “horribly flawed” and should be ended “without delay.”
“The Obama school discipline policy is based on a number of false assumptions, including the premise that racial disparities in disciplinary rates are due to racial discrimination as opposed to disparities in rates of offense,” asserts Kirsanow, who also chairs the board of directors of the Center for New Black Leadership.
“The consequences of keeping the policy in place are staggering,” he continues. “A number of schools have experienced serious spikes in violence. Classrooms are being disrupted by students who know they’ll suffer no real consequences.”
Katherine Kersten recently described at the Star Tribune the effects of the disparate impact policy in St. Paul, Minnesota:
In St. Paul schools — as virtually everywhere in the country — black students, as a group, are referred for discipline at higher rates than other students. Starting around 2012, the district’s leaders tried to narrow this gap by lowering behavior expectations and removing meaningful penalties for student misconduct. For example, they spent millions of dollars on “white privilege” training for teachers, and dropped “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense.
Violence and disorder quickly escalated. In some schools, anarchic conditions made learning difficult, if not impossible, according to teachers.

According to its proponents, it doesn't matter what real world effects the Obama policy has, disparate impact must be investigated and schools must waste time, effort, and money in defending themselves against charges of racism. And the increased disorder, which robbed good students of parts of the education they were trying to get - who cares?

That's why I found this article by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Fatima Gross Graves so interesting. They would like the Obama era rules to remain in place.

Both of us are black women in leadership positions: one a congresswoman, the other the president of a national non-profit organization. We are path breakers, and in our roles we successfully manage large staffs and fight for policies that will help others. We are smart, assertive and confident, and use those traits regularly to support others and guide decision-making. We speak up and expect others to listen. These are undisputed and highly prized qualities of a leader.
But when we were black girls in school, these same leadership qualities were rarely rewarded. Our assertiveness and confidence were labeled disruptive and rude. We were told to smile more, and our “aggressiveness” was noted. In our youth, teachers and administrators questioned the same strengths and skills that make us leaders today.
These "leadership qualities" they speak of, their "strengths and skills"; did they include crawling on the floor to sneak over to a friend's desk, screaming insults and threats at other students, physically attacking classmates, running out of the room slamming the door behind them, throwing pencils at others, stealing classmates' lunches, or indulging in temper tantrums?

I'm curious, because these are things that happened in my classroom over the years, and yes these episodes led to students going through our discipline process. I was more interested in my students, especially those who weren't bouncing off the wall, being able to get the education they were there for, than whether or not there was bias exhibited based on these students getting in trouble for their disruptive action.

Just for fun, here is a Thomas Sowell article, "The 'Disparate Impact' Racket."