In the last few days, I

  • got to read the comments on my previous post about QA in education;
  • reviewed the work of a bunch of graduate students in a quantitative methods course,  in response to the assignment “for your final project, find a problem for/context in which one or another of the models we’ve encountered in the course seems to be illuminating, and exercise it”;
  • read this again (ht Linda Perlstein)
  • read the final papers by a batch of our graduate student instructors for our practicum course in teaching skills;
  • happened upon this extremely interesting radio program;
  • had lunch with one of my favorite alums, just back from her first semester in Teach For America in a tough school in the south;
  • and was pointed at this delightful Ken Robinson lecture, by another favorite alum.

I am also starting to spiff up a studio course in policy design that I haven’t offered in several years (it’s a lot like an architecture studio, but about making non-physical environments). Here are some reflections from a couple of days thinking a lot about teaching.

First, the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem. If home environment, parents, and peers matter a lot for learning (of course they do!), trying to hire and train better teachers can’t make a difference, right? Wrong.  We can do lots of useful mutually complementary things to improve student learning at all levels, and being paralyzed with doubt because we might be pushing the third most efficacious of these rather than the first is just silly.  It may be that I have to prove my idea is not only the best, but the only good, idea to win an argument, but winning an argument in a blog post or comments or over cocktails is not at all the same thing as creating value in the classroom, or anywhere else.

Here are some ideas I find persuasive.  First, let’s look hard at the differences between what we do to students in school and the environment they go into in a workplace, like the contrast between treating collaboration as cheating and as an essential for success. Should school be just like an office or a factory? Like a really successful workplace, say, Pixar or the MIT Media Lab? Of course not.  But one of the goals of education is an effective workforce, so there’s a lot to learn here. And let’s remember, what we do in firms and agencies is what we think will create the most value, often with a tough profitability ‘test’ applied by a market (or voters) we can’t order around.

For example, I don’t know any grownup workplace where pay and promotions are awarded on the basis of sit-down tests except a few government agencies, and none whatever where management does this by choice. Nor any successful one where people do well to the extent that they parrot what the boss already knows. In fact, all my best bosses have been careful to hire people who know stuff they don’t know. One of the destructive recent trends in education is the degree to which cheaply testable content has driven stuff like the arts and creative thinking and physical education out of the school day.  A lot of this content has no workplace value, and we teach it out of habit and convenience.

My favorite examples of this junk are spelling and pencil-and-paper algorithm arithmetic. These are absolutely critical for a clerk in an office of fifty years ago, but being good at them is unrelated to any real mental ability (what, for example, would a spelling bee in Chinese be?) and worthless in the world we live in now.  I say this, by the way, aware that I am the best speller that I ever met  (and a pretty good typist). But these are idiot-savant abilities, genetic oddities like being able to roll your tongue. Let’s just lose them.

Writing and mathematics, on the other hand, count for a lot. So does drawing, and so does singing, even if most current workplaces haven’t figured out how to use them. And so does recess, partly to teach teamwork and peer dispute resolution in games, and also because, as Aaron Wildavsky intuitively realized (he always began meetings with “let’s go for a walk!”), and as has been shown by real research, you think better if you use your large muscle groups. Clearing the school day of hoary memorization and drill-and-kill  junk can free up time for real teaching.

Now, how could we do better teaching real content that doesn’t just stupefy and demotivate kids?  I’m pretty sure the answer here lies in building teaching around projects, especially collaborative projects, and recognizing that students are pretty different from each other by not trying to make them all the same on every dimension on which we evaluate them. On this last point, one of my major professional failures has been to get my colleagues to view our alumni as a diverse cohort of people who will not all have learned exactly the same core curriculum “basic skills”; our curriculum discussions always go forward (actually, they stop high-centered with their wheels spinning) under a cloud of fear that someday, somewhere, one of our alums will be found not to know what the standard error of a regression measures, so the game is to claim the most possible time in the required core for your specialty (if every policy analyst doesn’t have to know what I teach, what does that make me?).

What I mean by a project is an (i) interesting, (ii) complex task (iii)  somewhat beyond the students’ abilities, (iv) for which success has no intrinsic ceiling, (v) whose outcome is not known to the teacher/coach, (vi) preferably continuing over days or weeks so the teacher can interact with the students about what they have done so far as it goes forward, (vii) that engages as many kinds of Gardner’s intelligences as possible. Though a task like this can also be as short as a good open-ended question in a discussion-based class session.

This kind of work completely upends the affective relationship of students to “the basics” that many people are absolutely sure has to be taught (= told) ‘first’:  instead of being a new problem for the student, this or that skill or fact set becomes a solution to a problem the student knows she has.  Everyone I know thinks he has enough problems already, thanks, but is happy to learn something that will help with those. In architecture school, my classmates could barely keep awake in the structural engineering course, but as soon as they needed to know how deep the floor had to be to hold up the ceiling over an auditorium, because that forced the second floor level to a point that might mean the grand staircase would have to be folded, etc. etc., they were quite interested in beam formulas; indeed, I had to ration helping them so I could get some drawing done. More and more, I’m absolutely sure that the correct sequence is challenge first, tools second, no matter how much the untidiness of the resulting learning process offends authoritarians and the insecure. The last time I taught the policy design studio, I got a comment on a course evaluation form to the effect that “with assignments like these, students reach higher than they ever thought they could.”

I think a model project of this kind for K-12 is theater (and/or video), and not a production of someone else’s play: something the students write, rehearse, organize, make scenery for, get and give coaching in speech and blocking, learn to wire up lights and sound, find and think about the relevant content, and deal with issues of starring roles and the differences between fame and merit, visibility and value.  My grade school graduating class always did a big project like this; ours was about Peter Zenger, and I still remember how much we learned about colonial life, freedom of the press, politics, lighting, speaking all the way to the back of a room, what to do with your hands, and more.  I was assigned to write the trial scene, and at the age of thirteen, because no-one told me I couldn’t, found my way to the New York Public Library and the actual trial transcript of hundreds of pages, and somehow extracted a playable stage trial from it. We didn’t have helicopter parents then, but we did have one parent who taught us some carpentry for scenery and another who brought in a sewing machine for costumes and showed a couple of students how to use it, and lots of others who were paying attention to what their kids were up to (without doing it for us).

Now, how does something like this figure in the kind of quality assurance I’ve been advocating, organized attention by peers and colleagues to process and discussion of alternative methods?  Two ways.  First, the students involved in a project of this kind can easily be directed to spend time talking about how they are doing what they are doing with each other.  Second, a lot of student time in a project of this kind is spent without direct teacher oversight, so teacher time is actually freed up to allow observation of each others’ work and kibitzing and coaching.  It also downplays the zero-sum competition among teachers for simpleminded test score improvement that drives out real organizational learning; how do you “grade” a performance by a whole class, that took a semester or a year of everyone doing different things, on a scale that takes off points from 100 for defects?

How could it go wrong?  The obvious way is that some or even all the students will fail to engage with some piece of the traditional curriculum, and will fall behind grade level in multiplying fractions, or not learn what happened at Fort Sumter on schedule.  Oh, my GOD; what a f..king NIGHTMARE!  The more important way is that even grade school kids are likely to bring in something they are not authorized to know yet (think Calvin and dinosaurs, or your kids and Final Cut Pro) and worse, that the teacher doesn’t know, and instead of rejoicing in having opened a door, the teacher gets all insecure and antsy.  I don’t know what to do about this except to get teachers to think carefully about the wonderful question Mark Moore asks, “What exactly entitles you to hold the chalk?”

Point the kids at real stuff; loosen up about different kids zooming ahead on different stuff; make both the traditional content (not too rigidly) and untapped creativity and imagination useful in confronting parts of a large, openended challenge, work in groups.  This is hard; actually it requires the teacher to provide more structure, and react more creatively and quickly, than traditional lecturing and quizzing. But I am coming to think its the only way; we actually can’t keep the country afloat by making clerks for Mr. Bumstead and bubble test stars.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

34 thoughts on “Education”

  1. I would have said that the most obvious way it could fail, (Speaking from distant experience.) is the horror of the nerd who finds himself academically yoked to another student who just doesn't care. In the end, after all, the students will go their individual ways, and you need to have educated them as individuals.

    This is rather less liable to happen in higher education, of course, than K-12. Some of my best learning experiences in college were indeed team efforts, even as some of my worst nightmares in high school were the same.

    That said, following our recent series of interviews for a new designer, which exposed me to one candidate after another who couldn't calculate the volume of a cylinder without looking up the formula, there's a lot to be said for rote learning. Especially in mathematics and geometry. While I did eventually profit somewhat from an early "new math" exercise in alternative bases, that profit was dwarfed by the gain I've had over my life from simply being able to do basic math in my head. Which is something no amount of theory will give you, it must be pounded in by rote.

    And, no, calculators are no substitute, until they come up with ones that directly interface with your brain…

  2. Darn, I just made a bet with myself that the first comment on this post would be something about balancing a checkbook.

    It just took me 11 seconds by stopwatch to find the formula for the volume of a cylinder. If I didn't already know it, and had to compute it more than a few times, I would know it by heart; I know the density of air is .002 slugs/ft3 still because I used it a lot thirty-five years ago. How long would I spend in class memorizing the cylinder formula back when I didn't care and it did nothing for me except get a grade? Being able to do rough calculation and estimation in one's head (which we had to do to use a slide rule) is useful, but not doing arithmetic in your head (what I think you mean; doing mathematics any old way is always good).

    My calculator directly interfaces with my brain through my eyes (output) and my fingers (input), and it makes fewer mistakes in computation than I do when I use a pencil. No, I don't think there's much to be said for rote learning, and it's really toxic to most people's attitude to real learning. There is a lot to be said for knowing a lot of facts, especially disparate and diverse facts, but it's really hard to achieve that by pushing a string; easy when it happens by itself as a result of thinking and doing.

    When the students go their separate ways as individuals, almost every one of them will have to work in groups to create any value. Including the odd jerk who just doesn't care.

  3. Go here

    Allow popups, and click on the little VoD link to the right of 1. A Private Universe

    23 Harvard graduates, alumni, and faculty all know why it's warmer in the summer than the winter. But what 21 of them know is flat wrong, even silly. What do we know about teaching and learning that is flat wrong?

  4. My parents were community-college profs in chemistry and engineering, and while they welcomed the arrival of the calculator, they deplored students' concomitant loss of mental calculating ability — because the students couldn't tell when the calculator was giving unreasonable answers, e.g. because they'd missed a parenthesis or decimal point. I still find this persuasive. We don't need the level of calculating skill that a chemist did when they were trsined, in the '40s, but it's hyperbole to say we need none.

    Also, not sure what you mean about the Chinese spelling bee — knowing how to get from the word (heard or imagined) to the strokes is still a useful skill.

  5. (O'Hare): "First, the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem."


    (O'Hare): "Clearing the school day of hoary memorization and drill-and-kill junk can free up time for real teaching."

    Not so much applause. If spelling and algebraic manipulation are really such low-level skills, why not teach them in the first two weeks of first grade and then move on to important stuff like health care policy and climate change? Perhaps teaching computation is not so easy after all.

    As ever…Why is the government in the education business at all?

    The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber). Federalism and markets institutionalize humility on the part of State actors. If a policy dispute turns on a matter of taste, numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services will allow for the satisfaction of varied tastes while the contest for control of a State-monopoly enterprise must inevitably create unhappy losers (who may constitute the vast majority; consider the outcome of a nationwide vote on the size shoes we all must wear). If a policy dispute turns on a matter of fact, where "What works?" is an empirical question, numerous local policy regimes or a competitive market in goods and services will generate more information than will a State-monopoly enterprise. A State-monopoly enterprise is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls, a retarded experimental design.

    For each minor child, somebody or some body will decide how that child spends the first 18 years of life. It is far from clear that the transfer of control over education budgets and education decision-making from individual families to State agents enhances education outcomes. The State cannot subsidize education without a definition of "education". The State cannot subsidize attendance at school without definitions of "attendance" and "school" (consider how virtual schools, apprenticeship, and homeschooling fit, or not, into compulsory education statutes).

    The case for a State role in the education industry, beyond what the State contributes to the clothing industry and the household appliance industry (an initial assignment of title and contract law) is weak, and the case for State operation of school is weaker still. The education industry does not exhibit significant economies of scale at the delivery end as it currently operates. The education industry is not a natural monopoly. Education only marginally qualifies as a public good as economists use the term and the "public goods" argument implies subsidy and regulation, at most, not State operation of school.

  6. This may be the most winning argument for rote learning I've read in the last five years:… – the multiplication table as salvation for a kid who was lost. Mike, you are breaking my heart! I won two pounds of See's chocolate as the best seventh-grade speller in Berkeley and you are telling me that's of no real value?!

    You were teaching, and I was learning, at Kennedy School at the time of the great hue and cry over Robert Klitgaard's report to President Bok. I don't know if you paid much attention to it – his report was much of the same material as was later published by Herrnstein and Murray as Bell Curve – more hue and cry! And Klitgaard left his position as a special assistant to Bok, as I remember, this was an issue Bok clearly did not want to have on any kind of front burner of his stove. Klitgaard later published some discussion, as I remember, suggesting that kids with lower test scores badly needed rote work. John McWhorter, formerly your colleague at Berkeley, has been banging the same drum:

    "..The tragedy is that the discussion about black kids in school — boys as well as girls — takes place as if there were some great mystery about how to teach children from disadvantaged homes how to read. An entire plangent and circular conversation drifts eternally over a problem that, at least in the case of reading, was solved way back during the Nixon administration.

    Back then, in the early '70s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation called Project Follow Through. It compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results among 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading — based on sounding out words rather than learning them whole (phonics), and on a tightly scripted format emphasizing repetition and student participation — was vastly more effective than any of the others. And for poor kids. Including black ones…"

    You're absolutely right that we "…can’t keep the country afloat by making clerks for Mr Bumstead and bubble test stars.." – but I think we've got to enable our Dagwood Bumsteads to do have the skills demanded by Mister Dithers as a minimum. My own kids seem to be thriving in a school system where there is a lot of flex, but they come in with a whole lot of cultural capital that some kids don't. I guess I am suggesting tracking, and a higher content of rote instruction for the kids who come in with less skills, in the grades, and probably that courses in fire science and practical nursing at community colleges call for teachers based more on the Sauron model than the Mike O'Hare model.

  7. Projects, while wonderful when they work (and every child should have opportunities to learn in this way), are a terribly inefficient way to learn basic content and skills. They're also a way that stops far short of mastery and far short of building content knowledge and skills in a way that links them in a stepwise way, which is what makes it possible to retain them. The trick is to make basic skills/content instruction engaging in and of themselves — not always an easy job. But observations and assessments of Direct Instruction classrooms noted high levels of engagement; post-assessments showed high levels of improvement in critical thinking, not just fact retention. If your architecture students refused to engage in their engineering classes until they had a need to know the content, they were being, forgive me, immature. Waiting until you need a splinter skill and then backpedaling to get it, robs you of the opportunity to learn an entire domain in a logical way. To close this disjointed post, let me point to a well-respected form of learning: building trades apprenticeships. The goal is functional carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. But there is a heavy component of classroom learning, largely rote, and totally necessary to on-the-job success.

  8. One good thing the ev psych folks have brought into the discussion is the distinction between educating with the grain of human nature and against it. Human minds are adapted to deal with certain sorts of activities and problems, and not others. Speech, storytelling and listening, performing, collaboration, finding resources, investigating how things work, building and maintaining a social network, are Type A, with-the-grain skills. Reading, calculation, logic, statistical inference, second and third languages, flying helicopters, etc. are unnnatural Type B skills our brains have to be painfully tricked into doing for us. The gradgrinds are correct that if you want (post-puberty) to speak French competently, there is no substitute for painfully committing genders and cases to memory. The same goes for the multiplication table, if you want to be able to check calculator results for input errors. But a lot of what makes life worth living is natural stuff and kids just have to be encouraged.

  9. Some skills can, indeed, only be learned by practice, and for most people, the multiplication tables, touch-typing, and punctuation are such skills. They're also the type of skills which underlie many other activities, and the greater one's fluency in them, the more easily those other activities come. Michael is certainly right that many rote skills can be supplemented by a computing device, but all the spell-checkers in the world can't keep you from typing the word "ridicules" when you mean "ridiculous", and the grammar checkers aren't good enough yet to handle that.

    The keys to good teaching, it seems to me, are minimizing the boredom of practice, usually by embedding the practice in some more interesting activity, and showing how the base skills can be applied to more interesting activities. Michael is also certainly right that real projects make for more successful learning.

    (The more I type "activity" the more quickly it becomes meaningless, but it's a good generic term to encompass everything from "writing a novel" to "playing blackjack".)

    Of course, where education really falls down–and I don't think this is just an American problem–is on teaching skills like "critical thinking" and "study habits". In the US, it's like we hand students all the pieces of those skills and then hope they'll miraculously deduce how to assemble them.

  10. "the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem. If home environment, parents, and peers matter a lot for learning (of course they do!), trying to hire and train better teachers can’t make a difference, right? Wrong. We can do lots of useful mutually complementary things to improve student learning at all levels, and being paralyzed with doubt because we might be pushing the third most efficacious of these rather than the first is just silly. "

    This is a good point on its own. But policy is political, and some ideas are going to be pushed more than others. I'd say the emphasis on good vs. bad teaching right now is about 90% of the debate. That is, it is assumed that we can close the achievement gap through figuring out how to get better teaching. Just look at the Obama administration's policy agenda: charters, accountability, standards, pay for performance – *all* focused on the teacher.

    In my view, the problem is much greater, and involves the larger and much more intractable problem of poverty and disadvantaged parents unable to properly support their children at home. If you look at schools where kids are getting good support at home, "bad teaching" simply isn't an issue. But we don't talk about this anymore. The left and right have converged around the idea that the standard model is fine, and all we need to do is tweak the teaching.

    Here's a metaphor: a two mountain climbing guides each have a group of hikers he needs to get to the top of the mountain. One group is properly trained, has the right gear, is well-nourished and excited to work hard. The other group is poorly trained, has broken gear, malnourished, depressed and uninterested in climbing at all. Should we give each guide the same resources, and expect them to take their hikers the same distance each day? No, that would be silly. If we were smart we would would still expect both to do their job (obviously), but we should find ways of supporting them and their hikers so that they had a chance in hell of actually making it to the top of the mountain.

    We mention pre-K in passing, and it is on the table. But it is kind of the beginning and the end of the acknowledgment that SES plays a role in the achievement gap (pre-K is essentially intervention for the poor). But the extra support ends when they enter kindergarten. Suddenly it is is entirely up to the classroom teacher, with no extra resources, to take each severely disadvantaged kid and make adequate progress.

    What if we treated SES the way we treat special education? What if we did an initial assessment, then targeted students for support services as a part of a legal mandate to take their disadvantage seriously? This could mean anything from after-school tutoring to a one-on-one aid, to a social worker who acts as a liaison between the school and home, to home-health visits and parenting classes? All of this of course backed up with extra funding. We do it with reduced-price/free lunches. We acknowledge an SES nutrition gap.

    But proper nutrition is just the tip of the iceberg. What other risk-factors exist that affect academic performance? There are many. It's all in the literature. But the problem is in assessment. How do you determine the level of cognitive stimulus a child receives at home? Or stress levels? There are broad predictors such as parent education. But how do you get at specific, targeted needs? There are a variety of ways you can go – maybe routine home visits, maybe starting from birth, maybe a centralized system of sharing between case-workers, teaching staff, counselors and health workers. The goal would be to treat the whole child and develop protocols for intervention that provide *support* for classroom instruction.

    Due to cost, and – probably subsequent – philosophical intransigence, there just haven't been that many large studies of this sort of comprehensive approach to what I'd call "Student Capital Intervention". There have been many small programs which provide rudimentary evidence for this type of thing being successful. I think it is well supported in theory – we know that great gaps exist in family/neighborhood impact on development. But we need more studies that tie specific treatment programs to academic success. But these kinds of longitudinal studies involving multifaceted care are very difficult.

    But ultimately, if we remember just what it is we are facing (large-scale poverty and social dysfunction), and what kinds of results we are expecting (equity in achievement by graduation), we will inevitably faced with the fact that any serious reform will require a massive and radical reformation of what public education looks like. The good news is that we are wasting countless hours and dollars on efforts that will produce marginal results. So if we were somehow able to shift all that effort into the kind of meaningful reform I've discussed, much of the cost will be offset.

    More money could also be found in a reworking of the tradition model of resource allocation. So for instance, my daughter's school is largely a high human and social capital demographic. Educated parents, intact families, reasonably affluent – all providing invaluable resources to the student population. Not only is parent volunteerism high, but fund-raising routinely brings in roughly 30X that of a low-SES school. So if we moved toward a more means-tested model, we could save considerably. (Of course, there might be considerable political push-back here.)

    I'm not naive in thinking that this has a chance of happening any time soon. But I do think it is inevitable as long as we are reasonably interested in closing the achievement gap. Presently, it isn't even really on the radar. But I think there is a great deal of "invisible support" for something like it, both from teachers as well as from researchers across the nation.

    Interestingly, it's a vaguely acknowledged piece of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, which spends around 3x per pupil. Yet even there, he's managed to thread an interesting political needle between the teacher-reform crusaders and the human/social capital intervention models that target what research has found to be the primary driver of the achievement gap. As it stands, indications are that the HCZ's success has had more to do with student selection than its smattering of support programs, which are far from the comprehensive regime I've argued for (most recipients of HCZ support programs aren't actually educated in its schools and who's academic outcomes are not being tracked in any kind of substantial way).

    Yet there is research that has supported the efficacy of similar types of programs, although much more work needs to be done. Given that we are probably at least a decade a way from the realization that our current trajectory is destined for general failure, we'll certainly have time to lay more of the groundwork. Interestingly, a few court cases have moved in the direction of finding constitutional support for the idea that students have a right to a proper education – leaving of course the proper policy path up to debate. But a legal grounding will come in handy when we realize that more investment will be needed if we are to engage the larger and more difficult problem of SES and education.

  11. I commented about this at Matt Yglesias' place (who linked here), but I should mention this here.

    Team-oriented classwork is already a major part of engineering education at the university level; I myself teach several such classes. Certainly anyone who is going to work at a place like Pixar (which is cited in this article) will have exposure to multiple such classes before graduation. Assessing these types of classes is tricky; how do you make sure that individual students are assessed adequately when all assignments are turned in as a group? Instructors have some rule-of-thumb methods, but there has not been any serious research in this area.

    I understand that this post is in the context of K-12 education, and not university education. You do see these types of classes working their way into magnet schools and high end public schools, particularly any that have an engineering focus. It would be good for it to be wider-spread, however.

    The debate about arithmetic vs. mathematics, on the other hand, is a very old and acrimonious one. The wounds of New Math are still raw after all these years, and a major change like this is going to be extremely difficult. Plus, it is not clear that it is well-founded. You have to have some basic understanding of the algorithms of arithmetic to give you some intuition for understanding higher order mathematical concepts.

    The bigger problem with mathematics education is the decline of proof education. You cannot standardize test proofs well, and they have been heavily de-emphasized. In fact, a misreading of the NCTSM guidelines back at the start of last decade caused serious damage in this area. The guidelines recommended that schools de-emphasize "two-column proof", with the intent of switching to a more prose-style approach to proof; however, many schools read this as instruction to disregard proofs entirely. As a result, universities have had to develop bridging courses to teach this material post-Calculus (which is mighty late).

  12. If it makes you feel any better Michael, our friends at DARPA are already working hard to make you

    obsolete. Perhaps we should encourage Commander Cohn and his shipmates to sink, burn or capture the

    K-12 system first. :o)

    LCDR Cohn spoke on the Education Dominance program at DARPA. This program

    is based on the knowledge that one-on-one instruction provides a superior learning experience and

    results, as compared to traditional classroom instruction. It is also based on the fact that

    computer-based training is significantly less costly than instructor-based training.

    Education dominance will deliver a digital tutor, combining the benefit of one-on-one instruction

    and the cost benefit of computer-based training. The plan is to demonstrate that education

    dominance can deliver a fully capable, trained sailor in 11 weeks, as compared to 36 weeks using

    the traditional training model. In a pilot study, students educated one-on-one (in IT) performed

    better than Navy ITs with an average of seven years of experience. Next, DARPA will build a

    complete digital tutor over the next year and a half. The goal is that 2011 classes will be 100%

    digital tutor trained. If 2,000 students can be trained in 16 weeks (as compared to seven years) for

    10 years, about $800 million could be saved.(P. 4)

  13. Chinese spelling bees:

    "Nonalphabetic languages have their own competitions. Chinese kids join dictionary contests, where they look up words as fast as they can."

    "In Japan, where Chinese characters known as kanji are part of the language, you might see entire families entering the Kanji proficiency exam, known as the Kanken."

  14. Eli, when you state that the goal is "equity in achievement by graduation," it sounds as if you mean that achievement distributions would be the same for all economic groups — a very tall order compared to what we expected only a few years ago (constant improvement in the achievement of lower-income kids with all achieving at a level that leads to a secure life).

    And, your description of what it would take to get to that point paints the picture of a very intrusive set of interventions. Well-meaning and perhaps not individually burdensome, but still intrusive. I have family members who would no doubt qualify for these interventions, and have to say that some of them sound as if you want to take my relatives and turn them into your idea of acceptable parents.

  15. Sorry but the goal of education is not to develop a learned workforce. It is to develop young people.

  16. Sorry, but if education doesn't produce a learned workforce, we're all in deep, deep trouble. Anything more it does has to be viewed as a bonus. Which is not to say that we shouldn't strive for more, but a learned workforce IS the least we should settle for.

    And "equity in achievement"? People DO differ in potential, the only way to achieve this sort of equity is to deliberately fail those who could do better than what the less gifted can achieve. Our goal, (After a learned workforce, of course.) should be to enable each individual student to achieve their own potential, even if it means they leave somebody else in the dust.

  17. Brett and Eli, here is a quote from the blog Rants&Raves on the question of the limits to what you can do with a really swell education:

    "Back when I was studying physical anthropology I once said in class we should all be grateful to Prince Charles for his contribution to the nature versus nurture debate about intelligence, and the effect of increased spending on education.

    Consider, HRH Charles Windsor has without doubt been given the most expensive education of any human being in history. He’s had the highest-level personal tutors in any given subject. (A friend of my father’s who had one of the more extensive private microscope collections in the UK taught him how to use them.) He’s had capital ships of the Royal Navy and multi-engine military aircraft as educational toys. He’s had extensive foreign travel.

    And all of it has made him no more than a reasonably well-educated intellectual lightweight. If intelligence was totally the result of nurture, he should be the greatest genius alive"

  18. Brett, by "equity in achievement" I don't mean that every single child performs exactly the same. I mean that SES is limited in it's impact on educational outcomes, such that each individual student really does have an opportunity to achieve their own potential. As it stands now, academic performance is strongly tied to SES. But this has nothing to do with the individual student, and everything to do with the social capital they receive at home (educated parents, intact families, less stress, etc.).

    So EB, believe me, I would like as little government intervention as possible. As you'll note though, a more means-tested system would allow for *less* government in many neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is smarter government, so that we can get the kids the targeted services they need, when they need them, and not when they don't.

    But you make an interesting point, and something I struggle with as a teacher in these populations. It is an empirical fact that SES is tied to parenting. This is not simply my idea of what is acceptable. There are activities that you do with your child that produce better developmental outcomes. Studies have been done in granular detail, looking at everything from environmental toxins to vocabulary to cognition to family structure. Believe me, I've sat across from many parents who I knew were not providing their children the best home environment. And as a white guy from a middle class background (both parents attended college, and statistically most teachers are from similar backgrounds), there's a definite sense of invasiveness to the class dynamic. Who am I to be telling them how to raise their kids when I haven't had the struggles they've had? (Short answer: I'm a teacher!)

    But you know what – it all comes out in the wash. Poor parents have every reason to parent exactly the way they do (statistically!). They are doing the best they can – so what if it isn't the best? This is what society is all about – helping each other out. Every parent I've ever had cared deeply about their child. They just may have lacked the proper skills (or circumstances) to offer them what they needed. They didn't read to them at night, they never learned English, they never took them to the library, they scolded more than praised, they didn't engage in extended conversation – not because they didn't love their kids, but because they simply weren't aware of the effects this would have on their child's development.

    But the reality is that we're just not going to be able to "retrain" parents. And there are many areas of their lives that are beyond anyone's ability to reform. For instance, if they are working two crappy jobs to pay the rent and are stressed because the boss is a prick, and can't spend enough time with their child as they'd like because Dad is either gone or in prison. Or there's drugs. Or abuse. Etc. But there are interventions that can help ease their burden, and in turn the burden on their child. And there are specific interventions we can do to provide support directly to the child, whether for special field trips on weekends, after-school tutoring/camp, psychological services, radically smaller class sizes – 10:1 ratio, personal aids, etc. Those are all things that parents don't have to worry about at all and honestly, most parents would welcome.

    And at the end of the day it is all about outcomes. An assessment regime would be tricky. But as the child improves, the services would dial back accordingly, with the ultimate goal of removing the supports entirely. This is generally the model for special education and english-language-learners. The interesting thing is those "disabilities" appear values neutral, as they are not the "fault" of anyone. But I would argue that no one's parenting style is the "fault" of anyone either. We all have a set of skills from which we operate. Those skills involve cognition, emotion, communication, knowledge of self, stress management, etc.

    Obviously this is the black box of the mind and things get messy real quick. But the central dogma is that we are developed creatures, and operate from learned behavior. Depending on a mix of genes and environment, we apply what we know to the world. This is why a poor 16 year old girl is likely to be a lousy mother. It isn't her fault – she just doesn't have the proper skills. I think most of us take all of this for granted and we buy into the mythology that every individual possesses the same abilities.

    I think much of this comes out of a tension between those who, like Brett*, might emphasize innate differences to explain behavioral outcomes, leaving "free will" to explain the rest (interestingly, the philosophical description of this is "metaphysical libertarianism" – the political philosophy seems largely to follow), while others emphasize the environment and learning. The former view seems entirely commonsensical – I choose to get to work on time, I choose to take a bath. Yet so does the latter – I've learned to manage my time, I've learned that proper hygiene is important. The compatibilist (I believe) seeks to reconcile these two as: I've learned to do these things and so I am able to choose them.

    To me, this provides for the most powerfully compassionate response to poverty. Being neither condescending nor punitive, it simply acknowledges empirical fact, and supports our human desire to uphold our values of liberty and equality of opportunity. How exactly we get there is certainly unclear. But the moral directive is strong, and there are many promising avenues available.

    *I apologize if I've miscategorized your views!

  19. Thanks for your extended explanation of your earlier points, Eli. I guess I'm just skeptical that the intense level of interventions you mention could be delivered without unintended outcomes. One would be that other than the very, extremely poor (and maybe that's who you're talking about?), there are opportunity costs for kids who participate in all of this "stuff." My instinct is to go for broke on early language development (which has the strongest research base indicating long-term outcomes, as far as I know) and basic nutrition/health. Lots and lots of kids from poverty backgrounds have, after all, made it out of poverty without special interventions. Even today, only 30% of kids born into the lowest income quintile, stay there as adults. That looks to me as if they're finding ways to become educated.

  20. A retired teacher friend who dissipated her retirement funds on a bookstore venture and I used to chat for hours about the ideal high school. My theory is that we must first recognize that schooling is essentially where we warehouse kids so their parents can be subjected to the boss's whims, which is why, when you pull the string on why districts refuse to address the solid, replicated research on anything, but especially on really simple things like starting school much later for teens, you soon learn that schools are run for the benefit of the administration first, then the bus drivers union, then the facilities manager, then the district's liability lawyers, then, maybe for the teachers. Never for the students though.

    Despairing of this, I came to a question I continue to ask every when posturing about education, which is almost anyone writing about it and absolutely everyone in official education bureaucracies: if the law is that all kids with diagnosed learning disabilities are entitled to an individual education plan that must be designed to maximize their educational attainments, why are not all kids entitled to the same?

    In my ideal school, parents contract with the district each year to help the kid meet the goals of the iep, and which MAY include classroom instruction, but only with the affirmative consent of the parents and, after age 12, the student. Out of seats activities would include options for kids to acquire a whole range of certificates and skills, from a menu offered by the district and written into the contract by the parents and the kid and the district. That would give meaning to assessments each year, because the better the kid learns one year, the more the district will contract for with her the next. Scuba, cooking, apprentice carpentry, glassblowing, artist, filmmaker, master gardener, animal husbandry,flying, master bike mechanic … In nearly every field of human effort there is a recognized corpus of essential knowledge and skill, and kids ought to be able to acquire them through this institution we force them to endure. Kids who want to learn to design and build things soon nned theory, and suddenly book learning makes sense.

    Also … The natural human limit on seat time is somewhere between four and six times the young person's age, as a percentage of time. Anyone who forces kids to sit in chairs quietly for any more than that limit, especially for boys, should be brought up on charges of child abuse and banned from having anything to do with kids.

  21. As a mom of a special needs child, would that IEPs (individual education plan)"be designed to MAXIMIZE…educational attainments"! The special ed law, IDEA, only stipulates that children with disabilities recieve "a free and appropriate public education."

    What does "appropriate" mean? The courts have gone round and round and the upshot is, as long as the child is making adequate progress, i.e, attaining a C level grade. The adage is, your child is entitled to a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac. Those of us in this "biz" know that even in the best school districts, even at that, one often has to fight to get the Chevrolet's bald tires replaced.

    The reason there is a special ed law at all is that in the 1970s, it was finally recognized that children with disabilities have the same civil right to an education as their typically-developing peers — if the law requires children to go to school, it must treat children with disabilites equally. Before this, in many places children with disabilities were not allowed to go to school. One of the things that frightens me about the movement to privatize public schools is that it may very well lead to the erosion/removal of this right.

    All that said, it would indeed be wonderful if all children had their own IEP, and if the upper grades went back to including more vocational options. First though, we have to get rid of the high-stakes tests that force everyone into the same mold.

  22. On another note, Sid, who writes above, "Sorry but the goal of education is not to develop a learned workforce. It is to develop young people," is almost right.

    The purpose of public education is to develop the citizenry, that is, informed citizens who can think critically and analytical about the issues of the day and are thereby enabled to participate productively in our democracy.

    Thirty years of Reganism/Thatcherism and it's hard to remember to include the commons in any discussion.

  23. EB, I'm skeptical of that number. My experience with poor communities is that there is an enormous amount of generational poverty going on. As for actual data, I'm not sure how political the consensus is. But the following graph seems to show your figure as about half what it needs to be, putting 60% of the bottom quintile staying poor.

    An additional point: just because a child make his way out of poverty, it doesn't mean he has been given anything like an equal opportunity for success. So, a high-school drop out could end up finding decent work, but not work he was able to freely choose. And to what extent does his lack of human capital pose a risk for a generational return to poverty? So for instance, what percentage of those in the fourth quintile who ended up in poverty were the children of the poor themselves? My guess is that their cognitive, vocabulary, etc. deficits are going to be passed on to their children, setting them up for the cycle to repeat itself in school.

    I'm also curious – what kinds of unintended consequences would you foresee, and how would they make the sacrifice not worthwhile?

  24. Having not set foot in a classroom in 20 years, I have no idea what's actually getting taught these days. That said, a few reactions to reactions:

    I'm a great speller. That's not because of early rote memorization; it's because I read a lot and I write a lot, and I know how much misspellings dilute the impact of otherwise good writing. I don't spell well because I care about spelling. I spell well because I don't want to look like an ass, and because I want to get my point across.

    If you make students spend a lot of time in rote activities with no personal motivation, then whatever else they learn, they learn to do stuff they don't care about or understand, just because an authority figure says so. That's not a bad skill to have, of course. But if that's the norm, I suspect you've made them more suited for the classroom while impairing their ability to be life-long learners. I think that's idiocy.

    When I hire people, the number one thing I look for is the kind of self-starting, self-educating attitude that O'Hare describes here. It is impossible that they can arrive knowing everything they need to know. Some of it wasn't known when they were in school, and some of it isn't known when I hire them. I don't have the time to spoon-feed them, either; if I did, I wouldn't be looking for help.

    I need them to be able to find out what they need to know and then go learn it, or discover it. I need them to know how to work in a team context to achieve shared goals. I need them to care deeply about the success of the projects they're involved in, and the success of their colleagues. And when a project or a colleague is in trouble, I need them to know how to fix that.

    I think it's fine if people know what happened at Fort Sumter. But that's not core. Knowing how to collaborate, to get things done, to learn things on their own? That's core. Rote work is being automated where possible and outsourced where we can't. If you're breaking students to harness for a future without harnesses, then you're just breaking them.

  25. Malcolm Kirkpatrick: "Why is the government in the education business at all? … The case for a State role in the education industry, beyond what the State contributes to the clothing industry and the household appliance industry (an initial assignment of title and contract law) is weak, and the case for State operation of school is weaker still."

    Only if you consider theoretical arguments to the complete exclusion of real-world experience. Search the world for countries whose governments do not operate schools, and countries whose governments do operate schools. Compare the results.

    It seems like whenever I read people talking about public education, they alwaysfocus solely on top students and competition with other countries's top students. But educating the non-glamorous students who score below the ninetieth percentile on academic tests is also important. Let's briefly consider percentiles one through twenty – that's an entire fifth of the population, after all. Would you, would anyone want to live in a country – no, not an abstract "country," but this United States of America right here – where ten or twenty million young people could not read or add at all? I'm not talking about high literary skills of award-winning mathematical genius, I mean tens of millions of people who have never been taught to count change or read a stop sign. Now if, as you suggest, all education decisions are transferred to individual families and governments cease to interfere, how do you propose to avoid this outcome?

  26. Eli, that's an interesting chart but what it shows is about 52% of FAMILIES moving out of the bottom fifth over a ten-year span. It does not show where children born into the lowest fifth end up as adults (say, at the age of 35).

    You're right that lack of social capital makes it likelier that people will find it hard to maintain increased income for themselves and their children. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't do anything to help lower-income children get a great education. It's the assumption that society should try to "fix" children by, in some senses, making their entire lives look like middle class children's lives that strikes me as problematic. I repeat, everything we can do that improves language skills is a good idea. But it's a fool's errand to try to create for each child the things that you noted above that impact on academic achievement: "educated parents, intact families, less stress . . ."

    Your comment that, even if a child graduates from high school, s/he doesn't necessarily have an "equal opportunity for success," is telling. It is not possible, in this world, to give all children equal opportunity for success if by that you mean an equal likelihood of ending up in each of the five quintiles. I think we should aim for what's possible, rather than what we would like to think is possible.

  27. Well, that's completely fair. But I would say what we are doing now is not working and will only marginally improve outcomes, while there are things that we could be doing that wouldn't be too expensive, but would be structurally transformative enough to really move things much further. It's a moral as well as economic imperative.

  28. Eli, I don't think much separates us in terms of aspirations. But what you see as "things we could be doing that wouldn't be too expensive, but would be stucturally transformative enough to really move things much further" don't look as clear to me. In fact, the only intervention (other than hearing and vision testing) that is shown to make a real difference in poor children's later academic success, is actually a pedagogical program (Direct Instruction), rather than a social service intervention. I'm all for the social services as long as they're chosen by the recipients rather than imposed. I'm all for a much stronger economic safety net — partly because there will always be people who struggle with generating enough income for themselves, including quite a number who start out in the upper half of the income distribution, as it happens. By definition, one fifth of all people will always be in the bottom fifth academically or economically; I think we should put more effort into making sure that that bottom fifth isn't a horrible place to be, because life is not just about academic and economic competition.

  29. The video demonstrates one of the linguistic traps in teaching. As a photographer and as a physicist, the words "indirect light" implies light that has bounced off of some object (an umbrella when taking a photograph, for instance). The idea that the light falling on the surface of the earth becomes "indirect" because the surface is tilted does great violence to the underlying meaning of the word. How is that light any less direct than the light in the summer – yes it is striking at an angle and thus a unit of flux is spread across a larger area (not mentioned in the video, but hopefully the teacher made that point), but it is still direct. The student (Heather) is struggling with a very correct understanding of a word and her teachers butchering of the language. Tell Heather to forget "direct" vs. "indirect" and tell her that a given ray of light is spread across a greater area and I suspect that she would have less trouble.

    There are all kinds of things "wrong" with kids – lack of motivation, no parental involvement, too much TV – but there is still a fundamental flaw in that we no longer teach teachers to use the basic language, that they presumably share with their students, correctly. Yes, Heather came in with some pretty bad misconceptions, and she was left with a misconception based on her teachers failure to communicate accurately.

  30. “Back when I was studying physical anthropology I once said in class we should all be grateful to Prince Charles for his contribution to the nature versus nurture debate about intelligence, and the effect of increased spending on education.

    Note one thing he didn't do: go to a proper university course where he would have to jump into the game with other scholars. Disputatio sounds like a lot of old bollocks, but you can see it where it ain't. Another lesson from the life of Charles W. The result: a dilettante without sceptical thinking. The establishment at least learned enough from that to send William to St. Andrews. He seems like a bright-ish junior RAF officer and an entirely competent Sea King pilot, which is just what he is. Charles seems like a creature from the planet Counter-Enlightenment, if not Counter-Reformation.

    Also, Charlie destroyed a perfectly good aeroplane and the careers of two promising RAF officers out of his own arrogance (having qualified on the same type some years before, he wanted to land it at Benbecula, a tricky airfield on a Scottish island, the commander let him, and he ran it off the runway. the aircraft captain was very rightly punished for the abdication of responsibility but the prince should have been court-martialled) and I really don't see William doing that.

  31. EB, Direct instruction isn't the only program that shows academic success. There are plenty of small scale studies that have been done on targeted interventions that show good success. One of the problems with these kinds of studies though is that longitudinal data is expensive and difficult. Yet even without the data, there are obvious things that we can do to at least improve childrens' lives, even if it isn't backed up with data right now. For instance, providing more safe places to go after school won't necessarily mean after-school success, but isn't it a moral good that society owes kids? How about enrichment programs like music and the arts, or field trips? Would it be so terrible to offer parents free English or parenting classes? None of this would be mandatory. Here's an example:

    DI has actually been incorporated into much of the curriculum being used in American schools today. I've used it. But the reality is that there is no single classroom curriculum that is going to be able to target the neediest kids where they need it most. DI does not provide classroom aides, it does not provide after school instruction. It does not provide counseling services. It does not make home visits to follow-through when a child has been struggling or facing difficult life circumstances. It does not address environmental toxins that have been shown to lead to developmental delays. It doesn't even meet the child at all before they enter kindergarten, when by which time the poorest children can lack up to a third of the vocabulary of middle class peers, not to mention behavioral, cognitive and emotional delays.

    The idea that the only way we can improve academic readiness is by one particular pedagogical approach, with one teacher in a single classroom, seems frankly ludicrous. The number of promising avenues out there is almost endless. We'll just keep working until we find a way. But that goes back to what I think is a more fundamental roadblock: the political and moral intransigence rooted in a conservative philosophy of individualism and well, Darwinian tolerance for suffering.

    I think there's just too much evidence of largely untried possibilities for improvement (see the Neuman link above for a start). And I'm not satisfied that we are doing all we can do to improve academic performance outside the classroom, but I wholeheartedly embrace your conception of at least easing some of the burdens of the poor better while they struggle.

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