Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Learning Algebra From a DVD

Every time I hear about the I CAN Learn program, the story just gets uglier and uglier.

I CAN Learn is a dvd-based program to teach math. Students sit at computer, put on headphones, pop in the appropriate dvd, and watch an instructor on video teach math. They are then quizzed on the material and based on the results of that quiz either repeat the lesson or move on.

In February 2005, the Fort Worth Weekly published an article about that company called I CAN Earn. I'll summarize: kids aren't showing improvement, and there are suspicions that bribery has been involved in getting school districts to adopt the program.

I'm not surprised. I worked in a school district that forced that program on its teachers against the advice of the math department chair of every school in the district. I know this to be true--I was the district's math chair, and I was the person getting the recommendations from each school. We all agreed that the program itself might have some value in certain circumstances, but it could not be the primary method of pedagogy for teaching Algebra 1.

I won't go into further detail--the post would be exceedingly long--but here's the condensed version. In addition to the program itself each school had to buy all the computer hardware to run the software. Additionally, furniture was needed--our district chose glass-topped desks with the monitor under the glass, so the students were always looking down. But the glass reflected the overhead lights, so the curtains had to be closed and the lights covered. Teaching in those circumstances was like being in the Bat-cave. Teachers no longer taught; they were reduced to being "the answer guy" and the classroom IT specialist (someone had to keep that network of computers running). It was while several of us were undergoing training in the first Bat-cave that the superintendent said that he was imposing this program because "every superintendent has a pet project, and this is mine."

Oh, and the guy was a crook, and I'm absolutely convinced he received kickbacks. I ended up leaving that old district, partly because I couldn't accept that computer program. When the Fort Worth Weekly reporter later contacted me about I CAN Learn, and told me her suspicions and where the evidence led her, I could only nod in agreement based on the limited experience I had in my own district.

A couple years later, that district dropped the program because students weren't performing any better. "It no longer fits our needs", said the district spokesman.

If you read the entire Fort Worth Weekly article, you might recognize two names--one of them is Mike Huckabee, and the other? Guess.

So why do I dredge up this story from seven years ago? Because I CAN Learn is in the news again.

Mose Jefferson, the eldest brother and chief political strategist of embattled U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that he bribed Ellenese Brooks-Simms, the former president of the Orleans Parish School Board, to ensure her support for a computer-based algebra curriculum he was selling.

Two of the seven felony counts faced by Mose Jefferson, 65, stem from what federal prosecutors describe as two attempts to cover up the bribes by meeting with Brooks-Simms and trying to persuade her to give the feds a bogus explanation for the $140,000 she accepted from him.

Unbeknownst to Jefferson, Brooks-Simms had already cut a deal with the government. At both meetings, she wore a wire to record her conversations with Jefferson, according to a source close to the case.

The Congressman keeps $90,000 in cash stashed in his freezer, and his brother bribes school district officials to buy the I CAN Learn program. Nice family.

The charges against Mose Jefferson have no direct bearing on William Jefferson, who is awaiting trial in Virginia on 16 unrelated corruption charges.

But the case does have close links to the congressman. John Lee, the founder of JRL Enterprises (the company that sells I CAN Learn), has held fundraisers for him. William Jefferson has been a big supporter of "I CAN Learn," arranging for at least some of the $45 million in congressional earmarks the company has received.

The exact amount of money the congressman set aside for the company is unclear, because until recently bills containing earmarks passed by Congress did not identify which member inserted the request.

Lee said JRL Enterprises did nothing inappropriate.

In a previous interview, Lee described the commissions paid to Mose Jefferson as the going rate for "introductions to the decision-makers." Lee has said he does not know which members of Congress arranged for JRL's earmarks; regardless of who inserted them, the company's hiring of Mose Jefferson was unrelated, he said.

I hope they're able to pin some of this on Lee. Too much taxpayer money in too many states has gone to this man--who's crooked, in my opinion--and it's got to stop.


Donalbain said...

Random question: Have you come across Brain Gym(tm)?

Darren said...

I've heard of it, don't know anything about it.

Ellen K said...

My main problem with TAKS is that we are teaching the test. There are countless training programs, DVD's, promotional materials, remedial materials and so on being generated to support this test. And someone is making MILLIONS on it. I would like to know who because it surely is not me. Our district, along with countless other Texas public school districts, spend an inordinate amount of time drilling test taking skills and last minute tidbits of knowledge into kids. And while we can knock ourselves out producing material, we have entire departments that are offering tutoring EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL DAY-on their own time. The district committed time and money to buy Plato programs to bring students up to speed. Do you know how many students show up for tutoring on a daily basis out of a high school of nearly 3000? About 45. All parents care about it that their kids are promoted or graduated. They don't care if they learn ANYTHING just so long as they pass the test. And once the tests are over, many, too many of these same kids simply forget everything they have learned. I have had to show seniors how to find names in an Index of a reference book. I have had to show students how to organize a five paragraph essay---I teach ART for God's sake. I don't mind linking into the core curriculum, but my question is how can we continue to think that NCLB is meaningful, when the only people being punished are the schools? This year, our boundaries were changed to take in a group of poor kids from a trailer park. We have only had them for eight months, but if due to their poor testing our various levels drop, we could lose money, jobs and administrators. Does this make any sense to anyone?

Darren said...

Ellen, there are two things I don't understand. In one sentence you said that the kids don't remember (ie, learn) anything, but shortly thereafter you say that they're the only ones punished under NCLB. Actually, I don't see the *kids* being punished at all, only the schools.

Also, it's your *district* that shafted you by moving poor-performing students to your school, not NCLB--although NCLB *does* allow students to go to better schools if their own school underperforms.

The thing is, though, that there are plenty of schools out there that are successful at teaching so-called at-risk kids. We just have to start doing what they do. I don't understand why we buy all this software and implement unproven programs when successful schools are already doing what the rest of the schools should be doing.

Ellen K said...

Here's the problem and I am sure you have witnessed it as well. Administrators go to seminars that tout this system, that software, the other technique and without any research, simply dive into the programs. I can cite Whole Language as a good example of this. The kids don't retain information because they don't really see the point. Other than passing the test, nothing else matters. The kids aren't really punished or held back if they fail the test, they simply retake it or move to another district where the cycle happens again. But our state, in its dubious wisdom, has us testing kids that in most states would not be tested in this fashion. I am speaking of kids that have low IQ's and that are three or more years below grade level. Many of these students will never progress beyond fifth or sixth grade. Yet we give them the same test the rest of their grade level gets, minus the field test questions. This isn't testing what they know, it's rubbing their noses in what they don't know. And I understand that there are schools that succeed with at-risk kids. We have done that as well, but how can we do that when parents write excuses every other day or when assignments, rules or goals are treated as jokes? It's true, our district did us no favors. In a way, our rating was high enough to possibly withstand the influx of a couple of hundred kids working below grade level. But I have seen what has happened across our state with schools that receive an unexpected drop in scores. It isn't pretty. And it isn't accurate. The media loves these stories as examples of "teachers not doing their jobs", but what about the many times we offer opportunities and are ignored? NCLB might not be bad as a goal, but the application in our state has been heavy handed and unbalanced.