Arnold Kling  

Reading Instruction

Valley Guys... MIT Guys...

From a transcript of a panel on reading instruction, here is Dr. Reid Lyon:

The biggest impediment to kids’ learning to read is not biological or genetic: it’s instructional. Instructional casualties account for the majority of that 50–60 percent of our poor kids who can’t read. It does not have to be that way. It’s as simple as that.

The whole transcript is worth reading. I tend to be pessimistic that education can make a big difference. So, although I favor vouchers, I avoid making it sound like I think they would produce miracles.

But I also know that we have never tried to take a scientific approach to determining what works and what does not work in terms of teaching. This panel gives a very optimistic view of what a scientific approach could accomplish. It's really worth looking over, whatever your point of view.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Daniel Griffin writes:

You say:

"I tend to be pessimistic that education can make a big difference. So, although I favor vouchers, I avoid making it sound like I think they would produce miracles."

Could you extrapolate on that?
Why doesn't 'education' make a big difference?

What does make a big difference?
(Disclaimer: I am a philosophy student.)
I have always thought: the 'process' OR luck/randomness OR clear thinking.

the 'process': evolution/'invisible hand'/'the dialectic' (Re: Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Smith, etc.)
I tend not to place much trust in this as a 'sufficient' condition and I want certainty (in so far as I can) in my quest to save the world.

luck/randomness: I tend not to place much trust in this...

clear thinking: this seems to produce change and can produce positive change AND relatively w/in my control AND this seems to be greatly influenced by education (though not necessarily public/formal education).

Sorry for meandering, but I guess I am asking: What's wrong with "education" (not in reference to its current state, an idea)?

jurisnaturalist writes:

I think education is great. I'm not convinced that schools are great, though. Public schools for my kids are mostly just free day care. If they are to learn anything, it is my responsibility to teach them.
Most of the time spent in school is wasted. It takes 100 hours to learn to read. It takes 4 months to learn a new language. Most education can occur quickly and easily when everyone faces the right incentives.

This is about all you need to read from the transcript:

I’m a parent of two boys who attend public school in Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax County is a very large, mostly suburban school division. It’s the twelfth-largest school division in the country, with more than 140,000 students.

It has an excellent reputation as an outstanding school system with high achievement. Children in Fairfax County are generally fairly easy to teach. The median household income in Fairfax County is about $90,000 per year.

At a school board meeting in October 2004, almost three years ago, I stood in front of the school board with this graph (see Appendix, Fig. A), which compares the level of achievement of black children in Fairfax with that of black children in Richmond, Virginia. Both school districts have about the same number of black children—between 15,000 and 20,000—although in Richmond, black children represent 90 percent of the schoolchildren in that city. In Fairfax, they represent 10 percent.

Across the chart, you’ll notice that the data are pretty consistent: reading, math, science, and social studies in third grade, and the same in fifth grade—all the standardized tests they take in Virginia.

What may surprise you, as I told the school board and the administrators at the time, is that the blue bars represent the city of Richmond, and the red bars represent Fairfax County. On every state test given to elementary school students in Virginia that spring, black children in Richmond significantly outperformed black children in Fairfax County.

....I wanted to know what it was they were doing there, so I telephoned the principal to ask him some questions. With great enthusiasm, he and several other Richmond principals talked about their successes, which, it turned out, came from the same things I would later learn are at the center of No Child Left Behind. George Mason [Elementary School] had to change, the principal explained. All the children were failing. Yet there was nothing radical in what they were doing, he told me. They were simply making every moment of the school day count by teaching in ways that were proven to get results. The hardest part, he said, was changing the mind-set of teachers and staff. But once that was done, everything else was just plain common sense.

What had to come first, he said, was that they had to stop blaming others and making excuses for failure; instead, they had to take responsibility themselves for teaching their students. He said, “We have no expectations of the home. We understand that we can’t count on anyone else to teach our children. It’s our job to do it here in the school. And it’s not easy. So every minute of our school day is precious.”

[big snip]

A comment by the head of instruction in Fairfax County to the Washington Post was quite revealing. She said that Richmond’s progress had little relevance for Fairfax County because in Fairfax County, the vast majority of students were passing. School officials, she said, didn’t want to give up the creativity that comes with current teaching methods. She feared that many in our community would say, “This is not what I want for my child.”

The majority of children in Fairfax County are wealthy and white. They can get by with poor instruction. And majority rules, I guess. The disadvantaged children in Fairfax County—well, I guess they’re simply out of luck.

Matt writes:

Parents work in education, and we all know that. It is parents, nothing much more.

Brad Hutchings writes:

This reeks of scientism and/or quality cultism. I'm not a fan of test-driven processes outside of manufacturing. When they're applied to human interactions and creative processes, they open up the possibilities of catastrophic failures occurring simultaneously with incremental measurable perfection.

Consider the latest fad in software development of test-driven programming. It tends to be great for average and below average developers by giving them discipline to complete well-defined tasks. For smart creative developers, it's stiffling. I've seen several organizations struggle with their stars moving on when they implemented these childish processes.

Now consider the child learning to read, being poked and prodded so the scientismists can drown in their precious data about progress. It seems very likely that we'll have kids who are proficient in the skills of reading but hate doing it. We ought to reserve these data intensive techniques for students who require them and not make school suck for kids who are learning just fine the unstructured way. Dog trainers get this concept. Is it too much to expect of educators?

Brent Buckner writes:

You write: But I also know that we have never tried to take a scientific approach to determining what works and what does not work in terms of teaching.

Project Follow-Through took a swing at that: link

Tracy W writes:

I second what Brent Buckner says. Look up Project Followthrough - massive multi-year evaluation of multiple different curriculum. One curriculum, Direct Instruction, brought low-income kids up to performing at the level of average kids (50th percentile, when the control group was performing at the 20th percentile).

9160 writes:

The teachers that are in public schools now are not really teaching their students. They are more like babysitting these kids until their parents come to get them later in the afternoon. Every school across the nation has a different set of reading level standards. I’ve heard that most northern states have higher standards than southern states, which means that kids in the south may not be reading at their full potential. This seems like a huge waste of time for those kids.
And not only are the reading standards a huge problem, but in a lot of places around the U.S. kids are coming in from other countries not able to speak English. This is keeping the other children, who can speak English, behind in their reading.

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