Monday, May 31, 2010


by Beverly K. Eakman
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 07:12

Several states have begun exercising their prerogatives lately in a decision to face up, finally, to K-12 education failures. For example, according to a report by Deborah Simmons in the May 24th issue of the Washington Times, DC school Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is working to do away with seniority-based lay-off methods and has begun tying both teacher retention and tenure to pupil performance. So are a number of other states — among them, New York, Colorado, Connecticut and Arizona.
“Part of the impetus for this change,” writes Simmons, “is the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which promises billions in federal funds to school systems that institute a wide range of reforms, including improved classroom instruction and tougher teacher evaluations.” In some cases, schools are making use of “longitudinal studies,” in which teachers’ names can be linked to pupils over the entire course of a student’s K-12 class records.
Longitudinal measures of that sort come with a significant downside — tidbits of psychological information divulged by clueless children, who are subsequently incorporated into standardized “tests” and surveys. These morsels range from the seemingly benign to the blatantly political, including personal family data — all of which becomes the domain of behavioral analysts (individuals with dual advanced degrees in behavioral science and statistics). These “experts” come to conclusions about the pupil, some of which are way off base, yet never completely disappear from the computer system.
On the plus side, the various attempts to link teachers to student performance (dare we call it “merit”?), and to base teacher tenure and layoff policies on something besides being their students’ best buddies represent a welcome rejection of policies all-but-codified by the two teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Their seniority-based rationale, originally, was that it was wrong to throw out experienced educators with advanced degrees for cheaper new, college grads — a justifiable position.
The problem is, merely linking meritorious teaching to student knowledge levels doesn’t mean improved standards overall, especially given the number of decades student knowledge has been allowed to fall.
There are only nine reasons why a child doesn’t learn: visual and auditory memory, visual identification, spatial and abstract reasoning, mental stamina (i.e., concentration), perceptual speed, hand-eye coordination, and thought-expression synchronization. But how many education majors specialize in any of these?
None — except for graduate-level educators, who are siphoned off for high-priced learning centers and elite private schools, which gratefully make use of legitimate scientific research, recognizing that before their staffs can remediate anything, they have to diagnose the child’s real weaknesses — not just buy into a bunch of psychobabble. That’s how these centers and schools stay in business.
What is interesting is that nearly all of us are weak in at least one of the nine areas listed above. Yet, all nine are correctible — without drugs. The earlier, the better, of course.
For example: If a child thinks ¼ is bigger than ½ based on the logic that 4 is bigger than 2, then he probably has an abstract reasoning and/or a spatial reasoning weakness. The pupil will try to memorize his or her way through math. By fifth grade, the student will crash. As an adult, the same graduate will struggle with tax and budget issues and never even look into the complexities of global warming theory. This is because memory, no matter how spectacular, can take a person only so far.
Another example combines reading and spelling. Suppose a child has a significant deficiency in auditory memory? The pupils can’t seem to recall sound combinations and transfer these to unfamiliar words. Systematic, intensive phonics is the correct remedy for such a child, as only 15 percent of English words are truly non-phonetic.
So what is the average public (and even most private) school’s response? First, they are busy trying to diagnose non-germane, psychological phenomena instead of any of the above; secondly they are applying an eclectic mix of phonics and “whole language” (a.k.a. “look-say”) to the task of reading, technically called “psycholinguistics,” which only the brightest children can surmount. The idea behind psycholinguistics is that context clues are the keys to a full-functioning reading capability, but that is not true for young children who don’t yet comprehend many double meanings — for example, the difference between “deer,” the animal and “dear,” the fond greeting.
So, the young pupil guesses at words — and is encouraged by teachers to do so. Here’s what comes of such foolishness:
Instead of (taken from an actual textbook):
As the Spirit of St. Louis touched down on the turf, the crowds surged toward it.
The student will read the sentence like this:
As the Sprite of St. Louis turned down the surf, the cowards splurged toward it.
Couple this to the fact that youngsters are no longer taught proper enunciation, out of some misguided notion that doing so somehow demeans certain cultural populations —such as southerners (i.e., the Texas “drawl”); blacks (“ebonics” or “black English”); or northeastern accents (the famous Brooklyn, Jewish and Yankee cadences). All of this is nonsense, as proved by the New York Conservatory for the Dramatic Arts, whose students and graduates are prominently shown in televised performances ranging from the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade to Broadway. None of the kids, black, white or polka-dot has accents unless they are supposed to in a particular role.
Maybe a student’s problem is that eye movements are slow, left-to-right, thereby impairing the visual speed needed to read easily and fluently. Some students may even skip to another line right in the middle of a sentence, through no fault their own, owing to what is called a “lazy-eye syndrome,” which is easily corrected either using prisms in a set of eyeglasses and/or a thin colored plastic sheaf over the page that causes the background color to appear in something other than the usual black-on-white. A machine then can literally train the eye to move increasingly faster in small increments so that the student eventually performs the task smoothly.
Another possibility, currently being researched, involves the early overuse of computerized lessons. Colette Silvestri, a former early-childhood computer enthusiast, earned great respect for her groundbreaking efforts with gifted children via her self-styled WIREWorks program in Enola and Hershey, Pennsylvania. In an interview she indicated that such immersion into the automated, programmed world may be “closing a window” on brain functions that cannot be recaptured after the primary-school years. This affects things like creativity and the kind of meticulous, hand-eye coordination necessary for penmanship and playing exacting musical instruments, such as a violin. Some of her European counterparts seem to have come to a similar conclusion — that an elementary-school brain on computer-generated overdrive, is actually developing differently than it would have otherwise, and not all for the better.
Whatever the final assessment of the computer’s usefulness in elementary education, the key to educational success remains to locate every first-grader’s “weakest link.” By the end of the second week of the first year, every child should be matched with a teacher (maybe two) whose methodology incorporates one of the nine elements on the list of possible weaknesses. Between mere months and two years, a child matched in this calculated setting will rarely demonstrate the weakness(es) in question. As a bonus, neither the student nor his classmates will know why Johnny or Susie spent a year with a particular instructor, unless some idiot counselor tells him. Thus, no stigma.
Moreover, the way to reform education and improve standards lies in large part with the colleges and universities that train prospective educators. As it is, most university-level education courses revolve around psychology: “child psychology,” “educational psychology,” “adolescent psychology,” etc. No wonder, then, that “history” has been replaced with “social studies,” spelling with “psycholinguistics,” and “health” with sex education. These, and other, courses are fueled by psychology, not scholarship or academics, much less excellence. In fact, “excellence” as an educational ideal was traded for “functional literacy” in a 1981 paper published by the National Institute of Education (then an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Education).
This move proved highly “dysfunctional” as a federal education policy. But it satisfied the teachers unions, especially the NEA, whose annual Legislative Agenda over the past 20 years has focused mainly on political, not academic, concerns.
“Competition” (except in sports) was deemed damaging to a student’s self-esteem, as was any sort of criticism. Yet, “gotcha” offenses, like “sexual harassment” for a 6-year-old caught pecking a little girl on the cheek, or “terrorist” levied at a little boy aiming a half-eaten chicken wing at a classmate in jest across a cafeteria table, sent mixed messages that were very damaging to self-esteem. The ridiculous fabrications became replacements for what today’s grandparent generation remembers as discipline, such as dress codes and polite language. Misbehavior now is confined to the fickle dictates of political correctness — which, again, are rooted in psychology: “psychopolitics,” in this instance — turning the schools into the epitomes of a “hostile environment.”
That many school systems, and even state policies, are at long last rebuffing both the teachers unions and federal carrots for ill-conceived education policies is a positive sign, if late in the game. But it is clear that even earnest reformers have no handle on how to strengthen their schools or improve performance. They should ask: Performance at what, exactly? Then they would be on the right track.
Beverly K. Eakman is a former educator and retired federal employee who served as speechwriter for the heads of three government agencies as well as editor-in-chief of NASA’s newspaper (Johnson Space Center). Today, she is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and columnist, the author of five books, and a frequent keynote speaker on the lecture circuit. Her most recent book is Walking Targets: How Our Psychologized Classrooms Are Producing a Nation of Sitting Ducks (Midnight Whistler Publishers).