Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

John McWorter’s Focus on Phonics Overlooks Biggest Problems Facing Reading Instruction: Failed Funding

September 4, 2021 Leave a comment

I recently subscribed to education columns written by NYTimes columnist John McWorter and received his first op ed piece yesterday. Here’s what I wrote in response to his column, which exhumed the zombie arguments of phonics-versus-whole-language:

Your recent article on reading instruction was a sad reminder of past experiences I had as a graduate student and school administrator.

As a graduate student at Penn in the early 1970s I encountered an example of how the left ignored evidence for irrational reasons. I had done research on the effectiveness of Head Start as part of a course on public policy and gave a presentation that presented evidence that the Bereiter-Englemann preschool DISTAR program was effective, particularly when combined with explicit instruction on how to meet the expectations of classroom conduct. Some members of my class were appalled at my willingness to support an educational approach based on behaviorism (e.g. one woman cited the “fact” that B.F. Skinnner used Skinner boxes to educate his own children as evidence that ANY methods he advocated were untrustworthy). Others in the class were upset because I was advocating an approach that supported the educational status quo as opposed to many of the new progressive approaches that were emerging at the time. Others saw DISTAR’s emphasis on behavioral expectations as reinforcing the current White culture as opposed to the African-American culture…. and no one was pleased that my findings included a reference to the Moynihan Report in describing the various factors that contributed to poverty, a report I mistakenly thought was universally accepted.

As a school superintendent in the 1990s our district became embroiled in the “Reading Wars” which pitted phonics against whole language. We had some board members who believed phonics was the “one true way” to teach reading while others saw that approach as stifling. My attitude (and that of the 24 elementary Principals and the reading specialist in our district) was that one-size-does-not-fit-all: different children needed different approaches to reading instruction. We expected teachers to adjust their approach based on those unique needs.

Dogma in reading approaches, like dogma in any area, leads to “war” and the time and energy spent fighting those wars too often becomes a means for political leaders to avoid facing to the real underlying problems facing public education: a lack of resources. Until all schools have the same resources as the most affluent school districts any debates on instructional approaches are immaterial. As of two years ago, 12 states had active suits against the funding formulas and several others (including NH where I live) have legislatures who LOST suits but failed to provide the funds needed to fully implement the agreed upon settlemnets. In my state, mandating phonics would provide no help to districts who could not afford the reading materials needed to implement the program… and it is no surpris that those districts are the ones with the lowest reading scores. THAT is scandalous and needs to be fixed first.

Rutgers Prof Ross Baker Advocates “Joe Friday” Approach to Teaching About Race

July 13, 2021 Comments off

In a USA Today op ed Rutgers professor Ross Baker dismisses the need for K-12 teachers to mention Critical Race Theory at all in their classroom, implicitly scoffing at the notion that it is taught anywhere. His practice and his recommendation is to present only the facts about history and let students draw their own conclusions. The language of the Constitution DOES codify the diminishment of Blacks and court decisions, institutional practices, laws and actions by police speak for themselves. Instead of basing teaching about race on CRT, which Baker asserts is rooted in Marxist theory, teachers should follow the advice of TV’s iconic detective Joe Friday and offer just the facts. I am hoping the facts WILL set our country on the right course… but if climate change is any indication we face an uphill battle.

Derailing De-Tracking and Progressive and Experiential Learning by Emphasizing Race, Zero-Sum Thinking

June 10, 2021 Comments off

The preposterousness of tracking in mathematics became evident to me early in my career as a student. As noted in earlier blog posts, when I moved from the (then) small college town of West Chester, PA to Tulsa OK when I entered fourth grade and back again three years later when I entered 7th grade I witnessed how tracking “works”.  Tulsa’s fourth grade mathematics curriculum was identical to West Chester’s third grade curriculum. Consequently, I did extraordinarily well in math and because of that I was identified as “gifted and talented” and put into an accelerated program when I entered sixth grade. Upon moving back to West Chester, though, I was placed in the second “tier” of classes for mathematics and everything else. There was not only a marked difference in the level of instruction I received, but an even more marked difference in the expectations for our class as a whole. As “gifted and talented” sixth graders in Oklahoma, my classmates and I were inculcated with the idea that our nation’s future was in our hands: we had an obligation to learn as much as possible to compete with the Russians who had launched Sputnik. As a second tier 7th grade student in Pennsylvania, though, the emphasis was on working hard to get a high school degree and doing our assignments neatly, orderly, and on time. Because I liked math and did well in it, I eventually qualified for the first calculus class offered in our high school despite my placement in the second tier in middle school. But in retrospect I did so because my parents assured me I wasn’t a “second tier” student and I had an excellent high school math teacher who was able to find “first tier” students in the “second tier” classrooms. 

The intractability of tracking became evident to me as I worked in and led schools and eventually school districts. In the junior high school where I taught in Philadelphia the students were grouped homogeneously in sections from 8-1 (the “highest” group) to 8-37. In both high schools where I worked as an administrator students were grouped into “College Prep” and “Vocational” sections, a grouping that was presumably based on the choices made by parents and students but reflected the homogeneous grouping in the preceding grades. When I became Superintendent, I worked with Middle Schools in two of the districts I led to abandon homogeneous grouping in Middle Schools. Doing so was a political struggle because both teachers and parents had deeply ingrained notions that it was impossible to change: notions that “ability” was predetermined and immutable and when “high ability” children were mixed with “low ability children” both groups suffered. 

The latest manifestation of that intractability was described in Laura Meckler’s Washington Post article “Can Honors and Regular Students Learn Math Together? A New Approach Argues Yes“. Unlike the debates I had in districts that were almost all White, the latest debates in California have added race to the debate and, in so doing, are engaging voices from the Trump wing of the GOP, voices that add a toxicity to an already contentious debate. Here is Ms. Meckler’s description of the issue:

The California Department of Education is considering a new framework that could affect how millions of students there learn math.

There are two approaches to de-tracking: One advances all students in an “honors-for-all” approach; the other slows the curriculum down for all, arguing this will benefit advanced students by helping them to truly absorb math concepts and build a stronger foundation for advanced work later.

The California framework uses the second approach, but amid intense opposition the recommendations are being revised and softened, recognizing that the tracking is likely to persist.

As is, the framework recommends that all students be mixed into classes together through 10th grade, and that everyone wait until ninth grade to take Algebra 1. Today many advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade or even seventh grade. If adopted, it would be a recommendation, not a mandate. But past recommendations have proved influential.

I would quibble with the idea that having everyone wait to take Algebra 1 until ninth grade is “slowing down” the curriculum for everyone (another long post would be required to explain the rationale for that assertion), particularly since students would have the chance to take advanced mathematics courses in high school if they so desire as Ms. Meckler notes later in her column. I am not at all surprised to read about the pushback the California DOE is getting and how the debate is inevitably entangled with race. 

For me, the notions of “ahead” and “behind” are mental constructs the same way that race is a mental construct. As studies in brain growth are illustrating, neuroplasticity makes it possible for people to change their thinking about deeply ingrained ideas… but only if one is open to new ideas and new possibilities. Studies like those referenced in Ms. Meckler’s article, are only persuasive to those who are willing to believe them.  Old notions, like old paradigms, can only be changed through direct experience and direct experiences like those I had in my formative years as a learner, are hard to replicate at scale.