Monthly Archive for March, 2009

Gates: Focus on improving teacher effectiveness

According to Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for the Washington Post, Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to refocus the Gates Foundation’s educational efforts on successful charter schools and improving teacher effectiveness. Good news, at least on the latter matter.

As I developed in an earlier post, the Gates Foundation could do a lot of good by systematically picking off critical subject areas in education (I suggested algebra as a good starter) and upgrading instruction in that area by spreading the use of evidence-based teaching procedures.

Mr. Hiatt’s column does not explicate the details of the Gates Foundation’s plans, but it is encouraging that there is a focus on improving teacher effectiveness.

Read Mr. Hiatt’s column.

Hirsch on reading tests

E. D. Hirsch, author of several books worthy of mention, provided a column for the page opposite the editorial page of the New York Times on 22 March to which I’d like to call attention. Under the headline “Reading Test Dummies,” Professor Hirsch argues that the problem with contemporary, high-stakes tests isn’t that they test knowledge, but that they test the wrong knowledge.

Professor Hirsch leads by quoting President B. Obama’s expression of concern for developing assessments that “don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on on test.” Then he suggests that instead of discarding the tests, we should change their content.

These much maligned, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available. The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.

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Corporal punishment needs to be beaten

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a policy paper examining a report the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU about corporal punishment in US schools. It provides a clear and powerful indictment of what amounts to a state-sanctioned assault on children.

A Violent Education
Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools

Every year in the United States at least 220,000 children in public schools are subjected to corporal punishment, or “paddling.” Permitted in 21 states, the practice leaves many children injured and disengaged from the process of learning. African-American students and students with mental or physical disabilities receive corporal punishment at disproportionately high rates, creating a hostile school environment in which these students may struggle to succeed.

This practice should stop. I hope readers will review A Violent Education and advocate an end to corporal punishment.

Download the executive summary here and review an earlier post on TE about corporal punishment.

Fast ForWord doesn’t

Geoffrey Borman and colleagues conducted an evaluation of the popular Fast ForWord™ program, and they reported that, “The Fast ForWord Language program did not, in general, help students in these eight schools improve their language and reading comprehension outcomes.”

This is a well-conceived and conducted evaluation. There are multiple schools with many children at different age levels, and the researchers used sophisticated methods. Still, the results must be discouraging to many folks.

From the beginning, the implementation of the program and the level of support from within the school system and from the program developers, Scientific Learning Corporation, were exemplary. Site visits, observations of the training, communications with the Scientific Learning Corporation, and communications with the teachers and principals implementing Fast ForWord revealed a consistent level of commitment and support across district leadership, school-level leaders, the schools’ teaching staffs, and representatives from Scientific Learning Corporation. Nevertheless, impact analyses of assignment to the Fast ForWord program revealed few encouraging signs of academic benefits approaching those claimed by the program’s developers. In this way, the results raise several questions regarding the potential and the appropriateness of Fast ForWord for improving reading and language outcomes for nonclinical “at-risk” student populations served in school-based settings.

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Keep or sweep?

In “Schools to Retain Controversial Math Curriculum” Michael Birmbaum reported that a local education agency has elected to continue teaching arithmetic using a curriculum that has minimal evidence of effectiveness. Mr. Birmbaum, who works for the Washington (DC, US) Post, wrote about the decision by the school system of a county that is in neighboring northern Virginia (it’s, in fact, where I attended first through third grades).

Prince William County elementary schools will continue to teach mathematics with a textbook series that has drawn parent criticism and national scrutiny, despite deep divisions in the community over whether students should be given other options.

The curriculum from Pearson Education, “Investigations in Number, Data, and Space,” which is used in thousands of classrooms nationwide, has been debated virtually since Prince William began using it three years ago under the administration of Superintendent Steven L. Walts. Critics say it fails to help students learn basic skills and facts.

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tiee org

For those readers who do not know about The Institute for Effective Education (TIEE), here is an illustration of why I like what the folks there recommend. I created the accompanying graphic from the mission and philosophy page of the Web site for TIEE. It lists some concepts that I think are at the core of teaching effectively. There is not one statement among those on this list with which I disagree.

These should be foundational concepts for teachers, whether they are practicing teachers or preparing to teach. If schools made their teaching adhere to these features, I predict that those schools’ students would be less likely to fail, would have fewer behavior problems, and would have higher levels of high achievement than the garden variety of schools.
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National standards would help US education become more effective

David J. Hoff of Ed Week posted an article reporting that there appears to be increasing support among US government officials for a common set of standards for academic outcomes. For those of us who are concerned about effective instruction, this is very welcome news. To be sure, national standards would have to be conceptualized very carefully, ensuring that they describe important competencies (not recitation of bits). Given the way that states have manipulated local standards, it is important to identify those core areas where we want educated students to be capable of demonstrating facility.

Absent agreed-upon foci for teaching, American education is likely to continue to meander, wander, and be subjected to fads and whims. Agreement about common goals and specification of widely accepted indicators of those goals would go a long way to providing a measuring stick against which educational methods could be compared. Then, it would easier to determine what methods are relatively more effective.

Anyway, here’s Mr. Hoff’s lead:
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