Statement on ed-tech

Statement on ed-tech

I’ve been stunned by the reaction my previous post, “Unbalanced Literacy,” has generated (a couple of people have informed that I’m all over Twitter, a platform from which I remain willfully absent—let’s just say that pithy isn’t really my thing); had I known that the debate over phonics was still capable of generating such passion, I would have written something about it a long time ago! The piece took me hours and hours to write, and I’m gratified that it’s gotten such a great response.

That said, in light of some of the queries/interview requests I’ve received, I’d like to follow up on one of the points I made in the original piece, namely the fact that some teachers are suspicious of the push for increased phonics because they believe it represents an attempt by the ed-tech industry to exploit students for financial gain—essentially, that phonics will be marketed as the One Great Solution to magically boost reading scores, and that it will be used as an excuse to create all sorts of highly profitable apps and programs that can be marketed to school districts. (more…)

Unbalanced literacy

Unbalanced literacy

Over the last year or so, an education reporter named Emily Hanford has published a series of exceedingly important articles about the state of phonics instruction (or rather the lack thereof) in American schools. The most in-depth piece appeared on the American Public Media project website, but what are effectively condensed versions of it have also run on NPR and the NY Times op-ed page.

If you have any interest in how reading gets taught, I highly recommend taking the time for the full-length piece in APM: it’s eye-opening and fairly disquieting. While it reiterates a number of important findings regarding the importance of phonics, its originality lies in the fact that Hanford takes on the uneasy truce between phonics and whole language that supposedly put an end to the reading wars of the 1980s and ‘90s, and points out that so-called “balanced literacy” programs often exist in name only.

In principle, this approach recognizes that both development of sound-letter relationships and consistent exposure to high-quality literature are necessary ingredients in helping students become proficient readers. What Hanford does, however, is expose just how vast a chasm exists between theory and reality. In many schools, phonics is largely neglected, or even ignored entirely, while discredited and ineffective whole-language approaches continue to dominate. (more…)

The death of the lecture and the decline of reading scores

The death of the lecture and the decline of reading scores

When it comes to talking about improving students’ reading, one of the factors that makes having a coherent conversation so challenging is that the word “reading” itself has two meanings: it can refer to decoding—that is, the literal process of matching squiggles on a page to their corresponding sounds in the English language—or it can refer to the much more sophisticated process of comprehension, which is also dependent on things like vocabulary, ability to navigate various types of syntax, and background knowledge. Although the same word is used to describe both of these abilities, the first meaning does not necessarily imply the second.

And as if that weren’t already complicated enough, there’s yet another factor that is often overlooked: listening. (more…)

The College Board is making it easier to get extra time (but who will really benefit?)

The College Board is making it easier to get extra time (but who will really benefit?)

The College Board has announced that beginning January 1, 2017, students who receive accommodations in school will automatically receive equivalent accommodations for all College Board exams (PSAT, SAT, SAT II, AP). 

According to the Washington Post

Early this year, as more states began to adopt the SAT or the ACT as a required test for high school students to take, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began to look into complaints that the testing organizations were too stingy with accommodations to eligible students, Education Week reported.

In a new statement, David Coleman, president and chief executive of the College Board, said: “Educators, students, and families have asked us to simplify our process, and we’ve listened. The school staff knows their students best, and we want to cut down on the time and paperwork needed to submit a testing accommodations request.”

While this will obviously eliminate a major headache for many families, it probably isn’t overly cynical to assume that the College Board is making this move out of self-interest as well. 

Which of course brings us to the ACT. 

Now, the ACT is notoriously stingy about accommodations. I have had multiple students who were turned down after the initial request. Some appealed successfully; others did not. Even the successful appeals sometimes took months, and the extra time was only granted after a student had taken the ACT multiple times. 

In contrast, most of my students who required extra time were able to obtain it for the SAT easily, the first time the request was made. 

So while acquiring accommodations will undoubtedly become easier, it is questionable just how much of a broad-scale difference the change will make. It could very well make a huge difference, but I’d be hesitant to assume as much.

Given that the College Board is determined to wrest every inch of market share possible back from the ACT, it seems reasonable to assume that this announcement is in part a ploy to induce students who are on the fence between the SAT and the ACT, and who require accommodations, to opt for the former. 

So the question, now, is whether the ACT will come on board and relax restrictions on extra time as well.  

In addition, the effect of the change on student equity is questionable as well. In my (anecdotal, non-statistically backed-up experience), the students who receive accommodations in school tend to be those with the savviest, most persistent parents. Not coincidentally, those parents tend to be well-off and well-educated.

Some of their children have genuine learning disabilities — and I in no way intend to minimize the struggles of anyone in that category. For them, the College Board’s new policy will undoubtedly be a boon. 

That said, there is another category of students who do not truly have learning disabilities, but who have been enabled (by technology, by ineffective pedagogy, by an incoherent curriculum, by parents, by tutors, and even by therapists) to the point where their ability to complete work on their own, under standard conditions, is severely compromised.

In some cases, mild to moderate difficulties that nevertheless fall within the range of normal are overblown and pathologized by well-meaning adults, with the result that the line between a learning disability and the belief in a learning disability becomes blurred.

It’s not that the student doesn’t genuinely struggle. It’s that the student, given a different set of pedagogical approaches and adult attitudes, would not struggle in the same way, or even at all. 

I have witnessed this phenomenon many times, and it disturbs me more than I can say. Not only will the College Board’s new policy do nothing to deter it, but it will most likely encourage it further. 

Conversely, the children of less-educated parents, or those who lack knowledge of how the system functions as well as how to work it effectively (and the time work it), are less likely to receive accommodations in the first place. As a result, they are no more likely to receive accommodations under the new system than they are under the old. 

Why students need experienced teachers

Why students need experienced teachers

As a tutor, I observed a striking phenomenon: despite the pressure to boost students’ confidence levels, I noticed that the amount of confidence my students exhibited often had an inverse relationship to their amount of knowledge.

My highest scorers were moderately confident but also very aware of their weaknesses, whereas my persistently low scorers tended to overestimate their abilities, sometimes dramatically so. (True story: the only student who ever told me he was going to answer every question right on the SAT was scoring in the high 300s-400s.)

As for students who started off lower and raised their scores significantly, they almost always experienced a watershed moment in which they realized that the test was actually hard and that they were going to have to put more in to get the results they wanted. As their knowledge increased and they were able to more effectively self-assess – that is, to more accurately recognize what they didn’t know – their confidence was shaken. But notably, their performance continued to improve.  

It turns out that all this is actually an established phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; and as I’ve come to realize, it applies to teaching as well. Regardless of how well novice teachers know their subject, they don’t know what they don’t know about teaching.


Progressive education goes to college

Progressive education goes to college

While looking for models for the little sendup of progressive education that I posted recently, I came across a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages.” As the title and tag line (“Our kids don’t need to be taught in order to learn”) suggest, the piece is a pitch-perfect paean to the progressive ethos, touting the benefits of allowing preschoolers to learn “naturally,” through imitation.

While preschoolers can of course acquire many important skills this way, my immediate response to the article was to wonder how quickly Gopnik’s assertions about the benefits of natural learning for four year-olds would be misappropriated as an endorsement for treating higher levels of education this way.

As it turned out, I got my answer pretty quickly. (more…)