Whole Leech-uage Instruction

January 14, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the past I’ve stayed out of the Reading Wars, but no longer. OCPA carries my latest, in which I compare whole language to leechcraft:

Whole language is based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of what reading is. It’s not a self-contained skill like throwing a baseball or riding a bike. I feel confident in asserting that nobody in the whole history of the world has ever read anything for any reason other than to access the content of what they’re reading. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that our children somehow manage to learn to read in spite of the methods we use to teach them.

For 17 years, since I got into the education reform business, I’ve been trying to convince people that there is no educational “one best way” that works for all children, and that goes for reading, too. But just because there is no one approach that works for everyone doesn’t mean there aren’t some approaches that don’t work at all. There’s no “one best medicine” that cures all patients, but leeches don’t work for any patients.

When it comes to getting public schools to use phonics instruction, I counsel despair:

There is nothing—I mean it, nothing—we can do to get teachers in public schools to drop whole language. They believe it works. And when the classroom door closes, they’re going to do what they believe works….

The bottom line is that teaching is not a science, it’s an art. There is such a thing as a science of education, such as when we conduct empirical studies and find out that phonics produces better results when the teachers actually do it, but that big programs designed to bribe them to do it don’t cause them to do it. However, the act of teaching itself is not something that can be engineered like a machine. Those classroom doors, which the technocratic reformers who want central control hate so much, simply have to close.

And despair leads to . . . school choice.

Use your mastery of phonics to read it and let me know what you think!

Who Governs the School System?

December 27, 2019

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The best school accountability is parental choice, of course, but reforms to the public school system’s governance structure can also help. OCPA carries my latest, in which I explain why putting mayors and governors in charge of appointing schools chiefs is modestly helpful but not the cure-all it’s usually sold as:

Jurisdictions that have experimented with letting their chief executives appoint their schools chiefs have generally not regretted doing so. New York City’s experiment with mayoral control of schools, for example, is generally viewed as a modest success.

However, even positive results can be disappointing, if they don’t live up to expectations. And that’s what we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere.

More effective alternatives are a heavy political lift, but worth the heft:

Two simple (if politically difficult) reforms would greatly strengthen the accountability of public school systems to the voters who are its ultimate boss. One is to hold educational elections at the same time as normal elections. Typically, educational elections are held in the spring and/or in odd years. This ensures that few voters participate other than those connected to educational special interests. The people who ride the school system as a gravy train show up to vote in educational elections no matter when they are; everyone else misses out, and often people aren’t even aware the election is happening…

A second reform would be to shrink school districts. A century ago, there were over 100,000 school districts in the United States. Today, there are under 15,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has exploded.

This makes a huge difference to school governance. The smaller the district, the closer the school board is to the people it’s supposed to serve. Believe it or not, people used to actually know the members of their local school board. They saw them in the supermarket. Do you think that might have contributed to better school governance?

Let me know what you think!

Pass the Clicker: College Behind Bars

December 18, 2019

If you’d like to see an inspiring example of the power and purpose of education, watch the documentary series College Behind Bars on PBS (available streaming from the PBS app).  For almost 20 years, Bard College has been running the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offering AA and BA degrees to men and women incarcerated in New York.  The program is not especially geared for prisoners, with a focus on basic and vocational skills, other than the fact that it occurs in prison.  BPI is college — real college.  From the clips we see, the content and pedagogy are more rigorous than what I’ve seen in most college classrooms.

There is much to be learned from this series, including about the nature and purpose of incarceration, the meaning of losing one’s liberty, and the social and personal forces that lead so many young men to prison.  But the most important lesson I take is about the true purpose of education, which ultimately revolves around human dignity and purpose in a civilized society.  Without meaning, dignity, and civilization, vocational skills have little benefit.

It’s strange that it requires extreme circumstances for us to grasp the core purpose of many activities.  Only when we see education in prison, do we really understand what education is.  Similarly, 60 Minutes recently aired a two-part segment on music that was written and performed in German death camps.  What is the true purpose of music and art?  We gain greater insight by seeing what art does for people in the most horrible circumstances.

Also watch this extra segment on the story of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived because she played cello in an orchestra the Nazis organized to provide them with entertainment and to calm and deceive people as they entered the camps to go to their deaths.  When Lasker-Wallfisch notes that these mass-murderers were cultured and “were not un-educated,” the interviewer asks her how she reconciles that.  She replies, “I don’t.”  Education and rational explanation can foster civilization but clearly also has its limits.

Are Test Scores as Meaningless as “Height Effects”? No, but Technocratic Misuse of Scores Is

November 25, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m already seeing this study being discussed as if it debunked all use of test scores. Four researchers used statistical methods usually associated with measuring teacher effect on year-to-year test score gains, and used them to measure teacher effect on student height. They found a substantial apparent teacher effect on year-to-year changes in height, which is obviously a false positive.

This definitely debunks one way of using test scores – the way commonly used by technocrats and central controllers of the Common Core type. If you use only one year’s worth of data (or, technically, use two years of data to track one year’s worth of change in the data) you are getting a lot of noise along with your signal. Multiple years of change must be tracked before you can sort out signal from noise to measure a teacher’s effectiveness.

But serious scholarship had already long since debunked the one-year way of using test scores. This particular way of showing that technocratic abuse of test scores is absurd gains points for cleverness. However, the finding itself isn’t new. People who really care about measuring effective teaching have been complaining for years about technocratic abuse of test score data!

The technocrats and central controllers have done a lot to make the use of test scores look worthless and even counterproductive. If they don’t want look ridiculous in the way this study makes them look ridiculous, maybe they should start listening to serious scholars about the responsible use of data. Of course, if they did, they’d have to give up being technocrats entirely because technocracy always abuses data.

My thanks to Jay for helping me think this through before posting; thoughts here are my own.

Why Ed Reform Needs Republicans

November 5, 2019

Rick Hess and I have a piece on National Review making the case, once again, that an ed reform movement that consists almost entirely of Democrats is doomed to fail and may help explain our lost decade of progress on NAEP results.

Some points to emphasize:

— We repeat our observation that the ed reform movement consists almost entirely of Democrats these days, but we note that this is dramatically different from 20 years ago. Back then, when we look at a similar sample of campaign contributions from employees at ed reform organizations, we see a partisan split that is closer to 50-50.

— We do not know and do not really care about who is to blame for this severe partisan imbalance. Our main goal in this piece is to get people to recognize how the current absence of Republicans in the movement is harming its political success.

— If you are not willing to set aside some tangential issues and compromise on others, you aren’t really seeking to advance education reform policy — you are choosing to lose politically for virtue-signaling. That’s a fine choice and some compromises may be too unpalatable to make, but be aware of what you are sacrificing when you do this.

Pass the Clicker: Joe Pera is the Greatest Thing on TV

November 3, 2019

I just discovered Joe Pera Talks With You, a series of short films appearing on Adult Swim, and I can already declare that it is the best thing currently on TV. As Joe himself says, “It’s not the Sopranos,” which I think is the whole point.  Instead, it is sweet and amazingly funny in a dry, northern Midwest style. Watching these shorts fits perfectly with our recent theme on JPGB of trying to find and emphasize the good, like Rice Krispie Treats or the publication of Blood Heir.

Since today is the Sunday after Halloween and the perfect time to go for a fall drive, I urge you to watch Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive. After extolling the virtues of his 2001 Buick Park Avenue automobile, Joe learns that you place 1/16 of your soul in a Jack-O-Lantern when you carve it. To regenerate that portion of his soul, he goes for a fall drive to give his pumpkin a proper Michigan UP final resting place. Since WordPress will not let me embed videos from Adult Swim, I urge you to click on the hyperlink above to watch the entire episode, But if you need to see a clip of it right now, here you go:

In the episode, Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements, Joe can’t help but tell his Church about the wonder of hearing The Who’s Baba O’Riley. Despite being the choir teacher at the local school, Joe heard The Who for the first time Thursday night and hasn’t slept since. If this doesn’t capture the joy of discovering and sharing a song you love, I don’t know what does.  Again, I can’t embed the whole episode, but you can see it by clicking on the link above.  And here’s a taste:

Well, we are headed off on a drive for this beautiful fall Sunday after Halloween.  Enjoy Joe Pera.  And if you have any trouble falling asleep, watch Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.

Blood Heir Triumphs

November 2, 2019

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay suggested in his Al award post we might be in need of some positive vibes. So check out this trailer for Blood Heir, which is about to be published in spite of the best efforts of Higgy winner Kosoko Jackson. (Meanwhile, no sign of Jackson’s own book, cancelled by the same kind of dishonest wokescold mob that Jackson tried to help against Blood Heir; Amazon’s review of Jackson’s book: “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.”)

It’s not as good as Autumn Thomasson’s trailer, but then again, nothing is.

So what did Jackson and his woke vigilantes accomplish in the end? They put “the most talked-about fantasy of 2019” on the front of that trailer. 

I hope the publisher makes One Billion Dollars and buys a Blood Heir billboard across the street from Jackson’s house.