Saturday, March 31, 2007

Good Study, Poor Terminology

ScienceDaily: Kids Learn Words Best By Working Out Meaning:

During the inference trial, Brinster showed the youngsters both familiar and strange objects (for instance, a ball and a plumber's "T" connector). After saying a nonsense word ("blicket," for instance), she would ask them to either point to or grab hold of the "matching" item. Since a ball is a "ball," the children might conclude that the unfamiliar object — the "T" — was the "blicket".

In the direct instruction trial, the child was simply shown an unfamiliar item and heard the nonsense word.

A short while later, Brinster would invite the children to play with typical, familiar toys in the Lab's waiting area. During the relaxed play period, she would bring out a "blicket" or a "dax" that the children had seen during the trial, and ask the youngsters a question.

"For instance, I might say, 'I think one of these is called 'blicket,' but I can't remember which one it is. Can you help me? Do you know which one is the 'blicket?'" Brinster said. "This way, I could ascertain how well they learned the word. Once we analyzed all of our data, it was clear that inference worked best."
The article, based on a study by undergraduate researcher Meredith Brinster at the Johns Hopkins University Laboratory for Child Development, compares the effects of learning by "inference" compared to "direct instruction". I question whether the use of the term "direct instruction" is appropriate, considering that the term "direct instruction" is commonly used to refer to a specific pedagogy.

According to Zig Engelmann, who is the father of "Direct Instruction", instruction must be "logically faultless",

Faultless Communication (Faultless Instruction): A sequence of instruction, frequently involving examples and non-examples in a well-crafted order, which logically leads to an accurate communication of the concept and eliminates the possibility of confusion.

For an example of faultless communication, please see

Using the term direct instruction to describe simply giving a positive example as opposed to giving a negative example, overly simplifies the term, especially since true direct instruction would also include logical inference as described in the study.

My concern is that the work could be taken out of context to argue against a curriculum that has proven to be successful at raising the achievement of low SES students.

(I emailed the student, Meredith Brinster, mentioned in the study, to see if I could get a copy of the paper, and to express my concerns about terminology.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Common School: A Question of Scale: Class-size Reduction and America's Misplaced Priorities

The Common School: A Question of Scale: Class-size Reduction and America's Misplaced Priorities

Via Eduwonk... new blogger "Dewey", who is reputed to be a minor education wonk, makes the case that class size reduction would have a tiny effect on educational outcomes.

But the really mind-blowing results come when you start comparing a class-size reduction to giving students a teacher with a reasonably good (though not unlikely) combination of teacher credentials (estimated by adding the relevant values in the table above). Clotfelter and Ladd do their own estimates of this sort and come up with a combined effect size of 15% - 20% SD for math (and 8%-12% for reading) of a well- credentialed teacher.

The first time I read this portion of the study I said to myself, "Yeah class size is less important,” but that finding is not particularly novel to anyone who follows this sort of research. But when I decided to actually compare how much less important class size is my jaw dropped. The effect size of teacher credentials is 8 to 10 times that of a major class size reduction in math and 6 to 8 times as big in reading!!!
He figures it would take approximately 150 billion dollars in increased salary costs (if the improvement for reducing students is linear that is), for a net benefit of 1.6% to 4% SD in math instruction. He then goes on to propose several novel ideas about how that money could be better spent for a much more significant educational outcome.

My only observation:

Isn't it possible that reducing class size would actually have a negative effect, instead of a small positive one?

We already have difficulty attracting teachers into teaching, especially in math and science. Doubling the number of teachers would have to entail reducing standards and quality.

Wouldn't the net effect of the lower average teacher quality more than cancel out the small benefits of reduced class size?

Go read the full post and if your statistically savvy, analyze his data and conclusions.

Pretty damn good for his 2nd post though.

Woo hoo, I inspire debate!

Crypticlife, pointed out that my post on "I hate whole language" had inspired a pretty big reaction on the Teachers Applying Whole Language listserve.

If you go to the Search the TAWL Archives page and put in "I hate whole language" into the subject search field, you get 106 responses.

I read a few, but unfortunately the listserve doesn't allow me to read all the messages and one time (and my finger got tired of clicking).

I did come across a few gems of posts though. Several teachers were asking advice on how they could improve their students decoding skills... duh!

I have been researching several scholarly articles in preparation for the upcoming debate on whole language at Edspresso, and consider myself a lot more educated on the issue. The more I read, the more certain I am that early reading instruction should stress phonetic decoding.

My original impression is that whole language puts the cart before the horse. Whole language is based on the premise that reading is natural, and tries to reverse engineer "skilled readers". This reverse engineering though, neglects to take into account the subconscious phonetic decoding that skilled readers are able to do almost instantaneously.

I actually have several articles and papers in pdf format full of markups and notes, but I am trying to decide if I want to put together a wonkish post on whole language fallacies or wait until the debate mentioned above.

Laziness and the desire to get in a "smoking gun" during the debate cause me to want to wait, but showing off my new found knowledge, kind of makes me want to attempt to look intelligent. In the end though, laziness and procrastination wins out.

The Blame Game!

Via Speed of Creativity, I came across this post at Engines for Education about the Seven Evils of Education.

According to George Schank the original six evils of education are:

Parents -- who oppose all change and want school to be like they imagine it was in their day
Publishers – who spend all that money on wrong-headed textbooks and do their best to keep new ideas away
Press – who print minute test score differences as if they are world-shaking events causing everyone to panic
Politicians – who really don’t give a hoot about education and just like to say how accountable everyone is because of their silly tests and standards
And Princeton (twice)
Princeton -- as in any top university that decides on which courses and which tests all students must pass thus making it very difficult to innovate in high school
Princeton— as in the Educational Testing Service and all the other testing companies getting rich on killing our schools
I will ignore these (for now), but even more ridiculous than the first six, is his new evil "P", professors. Yes professors, as in College Professors. You see the reason kids have to take boring unimportant classes like "math" is because Professors are lazy:
Universities dictate curricula to high schools to make professor’s lives easier. If everyone takes physics and calculus and most never use it, well, professors claim it was good for the students anyway when in fact it was only good for making sure professors don't have to teach it in college. As long as professors don’t have to teach the basics it is okay that high school students are forced to study stuff they will never use in their whole lives. We have ruined an entire generation of high school students who don’t like learning and think the subject matter is irrelevant because professors only want to teach the good stuff.

We sacrifice the joy of learning for an entire generation so professors can have an easier time teaching incoming students.
(Calm down Right Wing Prof. No one could possibly take this guy seriously or could they?)

It's the new game show called the Education Blame Game. We started out with students, and then blame the parents... now its those evil evil professors who expect their students to have basic skills when they get to college. The winner of the game is the one who can blame education failure on the most outside factors (besides for the schools of course).

Ironically, George Schank is an ex-professor.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Brief History of the Frontal Lobotomy

Update: I am pretty flattered right now, the subject of my term paper, Howard Dully himself, commented on my paper. He has a website over here, and has a book due out in September called My Lobotomy. Glance at my paper for a synopsis, it's a great story.

I have a history of publishing my term papers on my blogs. I know its not education related, but just in case you are interested. It should be noted as I did my research, that I noticed a simularity between the history of lobotomies and education. Bonus points if you accurately predict my grade (out of 100).

Rory D. Hester
Psy 201
March 26, 2007

Frontal lobotomies have achieved a unique place in the culture of the United States. The procedure is lampooned in cartoons, mentioned in popular music (Hanzlick), and the term used frequently in common conversation, often as part of a derogatory remark… i.e. “Did you have a lobotomy or what?” My stereotype image of a neurosurgeon is still that of a mad scientist hacking away parts of people’s brains, even though it has been over 40 years since Walter Freeman performed his last lobotomy. This paper will attempt to give a brief history of frontal lobotomies, including its effects on several patients, and take a look at its influence on future neurological surgeries.

The history of the frontal lobotomy can be traced back to a German scientist, Friederich Golz, who performed experiments that involved the removal of the neocortex of dogs in 1890 to calm them down (Sabattini). This inspired at least one physician to experiment with a similar procedure on six schizophrenic patients, but the procedure was criticized by medical authorities.

In 1935, Carlyle Jacobsen and Dr. John Fulton performed similar experiments on chimpanzees, which got the attention of a Portuguese neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Antônio Egas Moniz, at the University of Lisbon Medical School. Moniz, started experimenting with a procedure called a leucotomy, which involved cutting the nerves that connected the prefrontal and the frontal cortex to the thalamus. His results were mixed however and he strongly advocated that the procedure should only be used on completely hopeless patients.

Moniz’s work inspired a young ambitious neurologist, Walter Freeman, to take up where he had left off. Eventually he developed and perfected a procedure called the "ice-pick lobotomy". This procedure was so quick and easy, that it was able to be done on an outpatient basis. Frontal lobotomies could now be performed on a wide scale basis, and public opinion supported it. Over 18,000 frontal lobotomies were performed in this country, with tens of thousands performed overseas between 1939 and 1951.

Unlike other physicians in the past, Freeman was able to convince both the press and his colleges that the new procedure would revolutionize the treatment of mentally ill patients. A study of popular press articles on frontal lobotomies showed the positive effects of lobotomies were mentioned more than possible negative consequences until the mid 1950’s (Diefenbach). They also noted that Freeman’s enthusiasm for the procedure predated studies on the long term effects of the operation. This surely contributed to the sheer volume of procedures performed.

While today, we look back at this period with a sense of embarrassment, it should be remembered that at the time the procedure was accepted by much of the medical establishment. According to a review of the scientific journals of the day, “The neurosurgeons who performed the operations, and the scientists who justified it, all came from the highest ranks” (Pressman 4). The culmination of neurosurgeons seeking legitimization, the simplicity of the procedure, and a large number of state psychiatric hospitals all created the perfect conditions for a culture of “lobotomy” to take over the psychiatric field. Not only did lobotomies have the potential to cure people they were also “aesthetically pleasing and financially rewarding” (Pressman, 194).

In the 1950’s though, the climate began to change. A large scale study, called the Columbia-Greystone project, failed to provide evidence of positive benefits of the procedure. Then in the 1950’s a new class of drugs began to be developed that enabled psychiatrists to manage many of the symptoms that lobotomies had been used to cure (Vertosick). A national debate began to take place about the morality of damaging healthy tissue of vulnerable patients. Lobotomy started to loose its luster, and gradually faded out from the mainstream of neurosurgery, but not before it was performed on a young boy named Howard Dully.

In 1960, Rodney and Lou Dully, Howard’s stepmother, went to see Walter Freedman about their 12 year old son. According to Dr. Freedman’s notes, Lou Dully was at her wits end with Howard, even though other doctors had told her that he was a normal 12 year old boy. With Freedman’s encouragement, Howard’s parents agreed to have him lobotomized in December of 1960. Howard had no memory of the operation, and after he was told of the operation “he took it without a quiver. He sits quietly, grinning most of the time and offering nothing” (My Lobotomy). Apparently though, the operation was not successful enough for his parents and shortly thereafter he was shipped off into mental institution.

Even though you would never notice anything peculiar about Howard Dully, except of course for his size, he always felt that something was missing inside of him. After an exhaustive two year investigation of his procedure, he was finally able to confront his father about the operation. He was also able to meet some other victims of lobotomies, and come to terms with the procedure. As he notes in the All Things Considered story, "I know my lobotomy didn't touch my soul. For the first time I feel no shame. I am, at last, at peace." He was one of the lucky ones though, the procedure did much more damage to many people, including Rose Marie Kennedy, a relative of President John F. Kennedy, who after having the operation at the age of 23 for mood swings and mile mental retardation, was reduced to an infantile state according to her biography at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

In February 1967, Walter Freeman performed his last lobotomy on Helen Mortenson. She died of a brain hemorrhage, and ended the chapter of Freeman’s lobotomies on demand, though the procedures still has effects on medical ethics and modern neuroscience. A new generation of neurosurgeons is wrestling with the same issues. Today, Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, perform a procedure called a cingulotomy, which consists of burning dime size holes in the frontal cortex of patients (Eskandar). Even the perception of neurosurgery is that of extreme precision, but the reality is that the brain is an extremely complex organ, and operating on it is similar to repairing a watch with a monkey wrench.

While I support the need for scientists to conduct research and experiments with brain surgery, history tells us that we must be careful. The history of brain research and psychiatry has been riddled with fads, including Freud’s psychotherapy, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies. We have to be careful, that our curiosity about the way the mind works does not blind us into leaping on a large scale onto the next medical fad. The popularity of the Freeman’s lobotomy would be harder to duplicate into days world. The general public is more skeptical of scientists, and the media is much quicker to investigate potential problems with procedures. Though we shake our heads today at what Freeman did in the past, in fifty years, I can’t help but get the feeling that doctors will consider some of our methods almost as crazy. Medicine is best served by the scientific method, but we must remember that unlike other scientific fields, fellow human beings are the guinea pigs.


Biography of Rosemary Kennedy. Retrieved March 22, 2007 from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website:

Boeree, C. (2001). A Brief History of the Lobotomy. Retrieved March 22, 2007 from Shippenburg University, George Boeree’s web site:

Diefenbach, G., Diefenbach D., Baumeister, A., West, M. (1999). Portrayal of Lobotomy in the Popular Press: 1935-1960*. Retrieved March 25, 2007 from University of North Carolina at Asheville. Department of Psychology website:

Eskandar, E., Cosgrove, G. (2001). Psychiatric Neurosurgery Overview. Retrieved March 22, 2007 from Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Neurosurgery website:

Hanzlick, R. (1983). I’d rather have a bottle in front of me (Than a frontal lobotomy). Lyrics retrieved March 22, 2007 from

Pressman, J. (1998). Last Resort, Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine [Electronic version]. Cambridge University Press. New York.

My Lobotomy: Howard Dully’s Journey. (2005). Retrieved March 19, 2007 from National Public Radio website:

Sabbatini, R. (1997). The History of Psychosurgery [Electronic version]. Brain and Mind. Retrieved March 22, 2007 from

Whitaker, R. (2002). Mad In America, Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill [Electronic Version]. Perseus Publishing. Cambridge, Ma.

Vertosick, F. (1997). Lobotomy's back - controversial procedure is making a comeback [electronic version]. Discover Magazine. Retrieved March, 23 2007 from

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I want my Mommy by Imagination Movers

I love this song... move over Wiggles.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Superintendent God

I guess the NY Times article wasn't enough. Now the Fayetteville Observer is in the act of promoting the miraculous school district of Madison, Wisconsin.

Superintendent Art Rainwater, or God as I call him, has eliminated the achievement gap. No really, it must be true... it was published in a newspaper and everything.

Today, Rainwater said, no statistical achievement gap exists between the 25,000 white and minority students in Madison’s schools.
Of course, God works in mysterious ways. God in his infinite wisdom refuses to tell the secrets of his success, unless of course everyone confesses their sins.

But he won’t consult with educators from other communities until they are ready to confront the issue head on.

“I’m willing to talk,” Rainwater tells people seeking his advice, “when you are willing to stand up and admit the problem, to say our minority children do not perform as well as our white students.”

Only then will Rainwater reveal the methods Madison used to level the academic playing field for minority students.
God did make one mistake. He forgot to have the Wisconsin Department of Education update its data.


Of course perhaps I am looking at the wrong achievement gap. God is much wiser than I am.
Update: Corrected the link to the story.
Update #2: Right Wing Professor had a look and came to the same conclusion.

Hard Work and School Choice

I am blushing... first Edspresso and then Sara over at The Quick and the Ed linked to my post on choosing a school for my upcoming move to Anchorage.

Both make the excellent point that getting information on schools is difficult even for tuned in, education savvy, web literate parents like myself.

My research had me downloading data from three different websites, making two excel charts, and at one point comparing six adobe acrobat files side by side.

I had to figure out what a "scale score" is, research Alaska standards, make several phone calls to the schools and one to the math curriculum coordinator at the district, and then sort through all the data.

Even after all this, truthfully I would be hard pressed to tell you which of the six schools I considered was the "best". For every plus I found, there was a negative. Nothing was explained clearly. In the end, I am almost sorry to say that it came down to convenience.

The base schools are walking distance from base housing.

At first I felt a little guilty for choosing the schools on base, but then I realized that choice isn't an end... its a means. Just because it's there, doesn't mean I have to choose it. It serves its purpose right now. Some parents decided that the charter schools were the best option for their kids. Perhaps they lived in wrong neighborhood, perhaps the schools were closer, perhaps their philosophical differences with the neighborhood schools was just to great.

I may of chose neighborhood schools right now, but it's nice to know that the option is open for me if I need it in the future.

For now, public schools were the right choice, but it's nice to know that the charter school option is open for me if I need it at some point in the future.

Now if someone could just come up with an easier way to compare the schools, life would be grand.

Update: I am hiring Lynn Truss as my official blog editor. She rightly points out that I should watch my grammar. Of course she is right, though I suppose I could just blame the education system :)

Whole Language Responses

I have had several responses to my "I hate whole language" post, and I figured that I would respond in a post instead of in the comments.

It is probably no secret that I am a "DI" and phonics advocate, and have a huge small prejudice against whole language based upon my experiences with my four school age kids.

I am sure that D-EdReckoning and Nancy Creech will cover the issue much more in depth when they debate the issue on Edspresso next month, but I did want to address some of the points made by my commenter's.

I suppose one of biggest issues with whole language, is that no one seems to be able to articulate it with any great precision. As near as I can figure out, the one common theme among "whole language" advocates is that whole language teachers play an active part in tailoring their techniques to individual children. They use their expertise and experience to identify and address weaknesses. Many might use phonics as a teaching tool, but its only one of many tools to help the child learn how to read.

Mobility61 asks me this:

What kind of teacher would you want for your child? Would you prefer one who is a critical thinker, with a vast store of knowledge of literacy learning and an ability to use any available resource, who is also a learner that is constantly researching and updating her repertoire; or a teacher who follows a teacher's manual and puts children through a series of lessons prescribed by some publishing company far away? To me that seems like a no-brainer.
Rhetorical questions are often a great way to make a point, but occasionally it backfires. D-Edreckonings post on Zig Englemanns unpublished book on Project Follow Through has a great passage that answers this question.
The senior reading teacher and guru in one of our schools instigated an argument with me about reading—what it was, and how best to teach it. In the best cocktail-party style, we were polite, and the small group surrounding us was intent. The teacher’s premise was that the creativeness of teachers should not be trammeled by a lockstep program, like DI. She was well read, and quoted the literature with flourish. After the discussion went on for possibly ten minutes, one of our first-year teachers from the same school interrupted and ended the argument.

She said, “Angie, you know more about reading than I’ll ever know. You know linguistics, and all those theories I don’t understand. All I know how to do is follow the program. I do what it tells me to do in black type, and I say what it tells me to say in red type. But Angie, my kids read better than your kids, and you know it.
And I guess this sums up my greatest problem with whole language. It relies on teacher expertise, and I quite frankly am skeptical about the expertise of teachers.

Meanwhile, eceteacher comments:
It is the enemies of WL, and some poor teachers who call themselves WL, who've made up all this business about not teaching phonics... now think about it; leaving out phonics would make it Part Language, wouldn't it????

The enemy here is undereducated teachers, ones who don't use all their skills but instead grab hold of one technique (phonics could be the one) and think that will work for everyone. As someone who has taught hundreds of children to read, let me assure you that phonics alone will not bring about literacy, and, worse, it will not help children to love to read.
As I have already mentioned, whole language advocates can't even agree among themselves about what whole language really is. It seems to me that any pedagogy that can't even accurately define itself is by definition already doomed to failure.

It seems a little unfair to us as parents to accept the premise that we should entrust ourselves to teachers who can't even articulate a standard method to teaching. Our schools then become nothing more than a crap-shoot... maybe your kid will end up with a good teacher, maybe they won't. Truth be told, this is exactly the same situation we are in now.

At least the "DI" school can define standards and accurately evaluate their teachers. It may be ugly, but I prefer ugly and effective to beautiful and failing.

I will leave with one final word, if whole language is the answer then "show me the numbers".

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I don't get innovation

Article after article, blog after blog says that all we need to do is to hire competent principals and give them the freedom to be innovative. If we just allow innovation, our schools will magically close the achievement gap, raise performance, and send every kid to college.

I don't buy it. After 100 odd years of our current education system, shouldn't we have figured out what works by now? Is some principal going to magically discover that if you paint all the walls "blue" student achievement will increase?

Perhaps I am naive, but just about every education reform that can be imagined has been tried at some point in the past. Whole language, parental classes, tough standards, smaller classes, larger classes, inquiry learning, explicit instruction, longer class days, constructivism, small schools, large schools, unschooling, charter schools, private schools, etc...

What's left to try? What possible innovation is a principal going to come up with?

How about this for an innovative idea... lets discard all our prejudices, preconceived notions, and figure out what works in a conclusive scientific manner.

We could take all the various school models and pedagogy's, randomly assign them to various schools. Enforce their implementation (if you don't fully cooperate, you are fired), measure the results, and implement the winning model.

Once we had established a benchmark, we could establish experimental schools to test further innovations. If the innovation managed to improve on the benchmark, then test the innovation in another school. If the innovation was validated, then it could be methodically implemented, while simultaneously monitoring its effect.

Our country has some of the most productive data driven companies in the world. Our businesses routinely use similar methods to improve their customer service and products. Why can't we use data driven decisions and the scientific method to determine how best to educate our most precious commodities... our children.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I hate whole language

Today, one of my 1st graders homework assignments was to write her spelling words four times each.

Before she writes them, I insist that she reads them to me first, so I know that she can read them, and isn't just memorizing letter combinations.

I point to the first word [say].

"say", she repeats back to me

Great, I think. She has it.

I point to the next word [pay], thinking it should be easy as well.

"near" she says.

I realize that she is going from memory by now, since the word "near" is word number 3 on her list.

"near??? try again" I say, "sound it out this time."

"pppppppp ...... aaaaaaaaa ....... yyyyyyyy(not the vowel sound)... near."

"Skye, the word is not near... sound it out again, and this time put the sounds together"

"OK, daddy. ppppppppp... aaaaaaaaaa... yyyyyyyyyy........ ppppp... aaaaaa... yyyyy... pair."

After a few seconds of this, I start to feel sorry for her, as well as feel a little frustrated, so I decide to help her out a bit.

"'ay', makes an "ay" sound... like in the word 'say'. What sound does an 'a' 'y' make?"

"ay" she yells.


I point to the "p" while covering up the "ay".

"pppppp" she says hesitantly.

I point to the "ay"

"ay" she says.

"OK, put them together this time."

She tries again... "pppppp ay... p ay... pay"

"Awesome!" I exclaim, "lets do another one."

I decide to skip the word [near] and point to word #4 [May].

"Number three is near" she says with confidence and a big smile on her cute little face.

Did I mention how much I hate whole language?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

This Article is the Schnizzell

D-Ed Reckoning: Schemo gets pwned

D-Ed, performs a smackdown on a NYT article about Madison, Wi schools.

To complicated to explain, except it involves deception, statistics, nation standards, more deception, lying, and deception.

Curious aren't you?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

School Choice is Hard Work

I recently got an assignment to Elmendorf AFB, AK in Anchorage. Of course I have already wasted hours researching school choices. Here is what I have come up with so far.

Public School Choices:

There are three elementary schools serving the base: Aurora, Orion and Mt Spurr

Demographically all the schools are about the same. Test scores don't vary much, with Mt Spurr and Aurora having a slight edge, mainly in math. This could be caused by demographics on base. Officers who are college educated live in certain housing areas which are in the Mt Spurr and Aurora areas.

I worry about average growth in scale scores. The same set of students tested in 3rd grade in 2005 and 4th grade in 2006 had a negative 39.4 growth in math at Aurora. I attribute this to their use of "Everyday Math". All three schools had pretty poor scale score growth in for all grade cohorts for reading, writing and math.

You can see their disaggregated numbers here: Aurora, Mt. Spurr, and Orion.

The most positive things about the schools are that they are all within walking distance of the base housing, and because they are on base, we can be assured that they will be responsive to parents and provide a safe environment.

Charter School Options:

There are actually two possible charter school options that we have identified.

Eagle Academy Charter School, which is a really structured school that uses "direct teaching". They use Saxon math which is a big plus, and the Core Knowledge for Social Studies. In ELA they use the Spalding Curriculum. I don't know a lot about the Spalding Curriculum, but from what I can gather they use a scripted curriculum and seem to have similar techniques as Direct Instruction.

I do like that the school uses ability grouping and that students will be instructed in math and reading based on what level they are on, not what grade they are in.

The school is 10 minutes north of base, which isn't to far but does present some problems. There are no buses for charter schools, so we would have to provide our own transportation. This is a big problem since my hours are pretty much set in stone. It would also be somewhat of a logistical nightmare for my fiance Shannon, since she will be a nurse, and probably end up working downtown at one of the two hospitals.

Demographically, Eagle Academy is overwhelmingly white. Their scale score growth is moderately greater than the base schools. The number of students scoring advanced on the reading, writing and math tests are way above the district and state average. I am a little cautious about interpreting this, because the charter school is an upscale suburb and they have only been open since 2005, and the available scores were for that first year. You can see their numbers here. I am also value the diversity that is found in on base public schools.

The other charter school I am looking at is Aquarian Charter school. According to its website it is a "stress-free environment filled with joy, music, theatre, and art to enhance the educational program and boost achievement." I know, it sounds like the typical constructivist pedagogy that public schools try and push, but I decided to check it out anyway. In scale score growth between students, it was the only school I saw that had positive gains for all subjects and all grade cohorts. Now there gains were all tiny, and in absolute scores their proficiency level was about the same as the three base schools.

It also suffers from some of the same transportation issues as Eagle Academy, but it is at least in the same general direction as the hospitals.

Except for possibly Eagle Charter, I really have a tough time seeing the advantages of the charter schools. I also wonder if the small advantage that the schools can provide over the base schools counters the benefits of having a local school in which to easily pop over to, plus local schools will allow my kids to walk home and finish their homework. This will give us a lot less stress in the evenings, and allow us to take advantage of the great skiing and snowboarding that the Anchorage area has to offer.

I suppose my biggest gripe over my experience with charter schools, is how much trouble it is to easily find out how they perform academically. I think the two charter schools are probably great options for some of the students in the really low performing schools (yes Anchorage has ghettos). For the parents who live on Elmendorf AFB, it doesn't seem to make much sense.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Highland Tech High - Anchorage School District Charter School

Highland Tech High - Anchorage School District Charter School

As you might know, I have a fetish for the School of the Future, a Microsoft sponsored school based on project learning. You might also suspect that I am a bit sceptical of its curriculum, but we have to wait on the test scores to see.

But... while researching Anchorage schools, I came across the School of the Future's Alaskan clone. It's called Highland Tech.

Highland Tech, according to the website is an alternate charter school that utilizes project based learning, comprehensive assessments and community immersion. It invites local business leaders to evaluate students work. Computers and technology are heavily integrated into subjects. Student also move through the courses at their own pace, and can only move on once they have demonstrated mastered a course. They don't have grades, they have proficiency levels. Conceivably, a student could whiz through the curriculum and graduate in 3 years.

It sounds pretty cutting edge. Obviously it is a model school... right?

Not so fast there. Lets check out there test scores.

82.4%, 84.6%, and 80.4% of their students were proficient in reading, writing, and math respectively. This is roughly comparable to the school district which has proficiency levels of 76.4%, 90.8%, and 79.9%. It appears that Highland Tech is no better than the local school district at improving proficiency.

Of course proficiency scores often hide real performance, since proficiency is just an arbitrary line drawn to say that the kids are at least above some certain level. If we look at the breakdown of the scores, we can see a lot more.

Perhaps the best indicator of the quality of education a school provides is its average scale score growth between two consecutive grades in a cohort of students. Luckily, Anchorage's profile of performance gives us these numbers.

Here are the score differences between the same group of students tested in one grade in 2005 and the next grade in 2006.

6th to 7th grades
Reading -11.5
Writing -.08
Math -26.7

7th to 8th grades
Reading +4.2
Writing +4.5
Math +0.5

8th to 9th
Reading -11.5
Writing -0.8
Math -19.8

9th to 10th
Reading -0.7
Writing +9.5
Math -2.0

It is sort of hard to interpret scale score growth, but I am not impressed. The school seems to struggle particularly in math instruction.

Perhaps we should check out proficiency levels compared to the district instead.

Advanced 26.7% to 35.6% in the district
Proficient 54% to 46.7% in the district

Advanced 3.9% to 9.6% in the district
Proficient 68.5% to 67.7% in the district

Advanced 12.4% to 27.5% in the district
Proficient 42.4% to 38.5% in the district

Just in case you were wondering, demographically the school pretty much mirrors the local school district.

It appears that the advanced students suffer the most, especially in math.

Now, some of you will be saying that these test scores could be affected by lots of other factors skewing the results. If the school does a great job of keeping their low performing students in school, wouldn't that affect their overall average? Well of course it would, so let's take a look at their graduation and dropout rates.

School Dropout Rate: 13.6% District: 6.28%
School Graduation Rate: 43.2% District: 63.9%

Damn... that sucks.

I think from the numbers that I have shown, we can conclude that the whole project based learning deal isn't all that its cracked up to be.

Have a great day!

Code Words

Hard recovery for failed US schools

The Christian Science monitor has an article up on schools that have to go under administration for failing AYP. One of the examples they use is Sobrante Park Elementary School in Oakland Unified School District. The conclusion is that one reform doesn't work. Successfully transformation of schools has to include several reforms including changing the staff, revamping the curriculum, and other revisions.

They cited Sobrante Park as one school that was able to completely transform itself. Of course in the article, they never do tell us exactly how they managed to make the transformation, but they did give one hint.

The teachers adopted a more scripted and uniform curriculum, making it easier for them to collaborate and for the principal to evaluate them.

Sounds suspiciously like they adopted direct instruction.

The results: The school kicked ass in almost every grade, scoring above average compared to the state scores, despite being predominantly poor and minority.

You think all these media organizations would start to notice the trend.

Code Words

Hard recovery for failed US schools

The Christian Science monitor has an article up on schools that have to go under administration for failing AYP. One of the examples they use is Sobrante Park Elementary School in Oakland Unified School District. The conclusion is that one reform doesn't work. Successfully transformation of schools has to include several reforms including changing the staff, revamping the curriculum, and other revisions.

They cited Sobrante Park as one school that was able to completely transform itself. Of course in the article, they never do tell us exactly how they managed to make the transformation, but they did give one hint.

The teachers adopted a more scripted and uniform curriculum, making it easier for them to collaborate and for the principal to evaluate them.

Sounds suspiciously like they adopted direct instruction.

The results: The school kicked ass in almost every grade, scoring above average compared to the state scores, despite being predominantly poor and minority.

You think all these media organizations would start to notice the trend.