Monday, April 02, 2012

Whole Language and Fuzzy Math Are Back In The News

I just cannot understand why schools of education want to foist upon students programs that clearly don't work:
Imagine a physics program that won’t teach the theory of relativity. Or an English department that shuns Shakespeare. That would be equivalent to how U.S. schools of education treat the most effective method for teaching beginning reading.

That method is called decoding, the shorthand word for the scientifically tested techniques for teaching children the relationships between symbols and sounds, often just called phonics. Reformers have fought for generations to have decoding skills taught systematically and directly, but schools of education will have none of it.

Instead, the education establishment prefers to teach beginning readers to guess at the identification of a written word using its context -- the so-called whole-language approach. The people who run education schools hate the “code” because they say it requires a repetition of boring exercises -- “drill and kill” -- turning children off and discouraging them from “reading with meaning.” There has never been evidence for this view, however.

The whole-language advocates pitch their approach as being on the side of “meaning,” not the “code.” Similarly, math educators have long used the goal of “deep conceptual understanding” to justify requiring children to invent their own methods for performing basic arithmetical operations instead of teaching them to understand and use the standard algorithms, which mathematicians note are more efficient, effective and general.
You know what else, besides "drill and kill", turns kids off from reading? Not being able to read.

That's why "drill and kill" is actually "drill and skill"--in reading, in math, and in just about every other subject.


allen (in Michigan) said...

You can't understand why schools of education want to foist upon students programs that clearly don't work? Well, assuming schools of education aren't in the grip of a nation-wide delusional state the only reasonable conclusion is that they're acting rationally.

So, to reformulate your question:

I just cannot understand what rational motivations cause schools of education want to foist upon students programs that clearly don't work.

The answer's really implicit in the question. Clearly, what schools of education have on offer is valued by those who hold the fate of schools of education in their hands. And that would be, of course, the people who hire teachers.

A school of education that produces unemployable teachers is a school of education that's destined for a serious overhaul or the scrap heap. Therefor it's the hiring entity that decides whether schools of education succeed or fail.

So what's important to the hiring entity?

The question might be best approached by observing what isn't important.

Clearly, teaching skill isn't valued. Otherwise graduates who've had zero, or effectively zero, training in the various skills necessary to being a good teacher wouldn't be employable. Subject knowledge is also of little importance in the hiring decision. Otherwise it wouldn't require statutes to force school districts to hire teacher's who've had specific training for dealing with special education kids. So if teaching skill and subject knowledge aren't important in the hiring decision then what is?

It may just be, in the absence of an emphasis on quantities/qualities relevant to the job, that teachers are hired, effectively, at random. On any given day one prospective teacher's just as likely to be hired as any other with little to sway the decision. If you don't care whether the teacher can teach or knows their subject then whether the people making the decision are just getting tired of looking assumes greater importance.

But just because the teachers emerging from the schools of education have no means to distinguish themselves, and no reason to do so, doesn't mean that the schools of education, and their employees, don't have reasons to try to distinguish themselves and don't have people to whom those schools of education want to distinguish themselves. They do but those people are faced with the same problem of education being an unimportant within the context of the public education system.

If a school board member or administration employee wants to put on display their skills and accomplishments education can't be among them because, until recently, whether and how much the kids learned was irrelevant to everyone but the parents of the kids. Denied that outlet for distinguishing themselves school board members and administrators are attracted to "cargo cult" education ideas - ideas that have the appearance of value without the reality.

So, the advantage of whole-language lies not its utility in the teaching of reading but in the illusion of efficacy and humanness that it allows its supporters to claim. Schools of education gain from the promotion of whole-language, and the entire range of edu-crap, by conferring academic respectability and the public education officials return the favor by hiring the graduates of favored schools and/or arranging for expensive in-service training of their previously-hired teachers who benefit by getting continuing education credits which may help towards a salary level bump.

By the way, whole language has been around since, at least, the 1920's. Any competing hypothesis would have to explain not just the phenomena of preferring educationally-irrelevant fads over more substantive ideas but also have to explain why that preference has existed for as long as it has.

mmazenko said...

I'm saddened ... but not surprised. And this is why I still struggle defending my profession against charges of bias, self-interest, and just idiocy.

Ellen K said...

Whole language was an abject failure. How do I know? My youngest son is a victim. Before kindergarten, he knew his letters, was beginning to write and recognize words. Then the teachers got hold of him and soon he tried to decode words by shape rather than phonics. The result was that unlike his older sibs, who were more conventionally taught, he struggled throughout school. And he was not alone. During the time he was in elementary, the ranks of special education students or 504 students grew exponentially as parents grasped for any and all methods of getting their kids some help. I hate Whole Language almost as much as I hated New Math as a kid. The result was that I have never been confident in math despite the fact I can do my own taxes and other such accounting functions. The worst words any teacher ever hears is "the administrators have gone to a seminar." Just wait until "Bring Your Own Technology" hits YOUR campus. It sounds good, but it's not. It's distraction and inattention to the n-th power. And it's going to show up big time in testing results.

EdD said...

I suppose schools of education have to do something to attempt to justify their continued existence regardless of how idiotic it might be. Thomas Sowell has the best solution; close them all.